Globalchange Science And Politics

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The future global warming will be large, but will it be bad or good? In terms of its effects on people, it depends. It depends on such things as who you are, where you live, what you do for a living, your ethical and aesthetic values, and your financial and economic status. Because these considerations lead to different value judgments, this question has no single answer.

Most climate scientists, aware of the limits of scientific knowledge and wary of complex value judgments, attempt to balance the facts and form their own conclusions. But these scientists are not the people the public usually hears from in media coverage of global climate change, precisely because of their "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" way of trying to balance complex issues. The media tend to prefer clever, crisply phrased sound bytes.

The public hears mainly from people toward the extremes of the global-warming issue, people who function as spokespersons for interest groups. These spokespersons cite results from scientific research, but they do so in a highly selective way, omitting the caveats that are part of a full scientific assessment, failing to place the results they quote in a larger context, and ignoring contradictory information that would frame a larger view. It is not particularly difficult to extract isolated scientific findings and string them together so as to support only one side or the other of a complex issue. The two extreme advocacy groups on the global warming issue can be called "environmental" and "industrial," even though these labels are obviously simplistic.

On the environmental side, the spokespersons are often heads of environmental groups. Day-to-day fund raising requires raising public concerns about the environmental degradation caused by human activities, and many groups do this in a responsible way. As scientists became aware of the likelihood of future global warming during the 1980s, the environmental movement added it to their list of concerns. But some extremists oversimplified the complexities of the global-warming issue and put out alarmist half-truths that the public heard or read out of context.

Extremists on the industrial side of the issue use the same technique. While many industries are run by people who are open-minded about environmental problems, some are not. In response to alarmist statements from the environmental extreme, industry supporters have in the last decade launched a counteroffensive that often errs in the opposite direction. They portray Earth as resilient to the puny impacts of humans and reject the growing body of evidence that global warming has begun and will be large in size.

The media seeking to inform the public on this complex issue often have to turn to spokespersons on the extremes. To claim "balanced coverage" and avoid charges of bias, the media tend to frame the debate by giving voice to both extremes, but the accusations from the two extremes do not add up to a coherent view of the issue. The public is understandably confused.

I offer two examples of the kinds of complexities and imbalances common in these exchanges. The first example is the sea-level rise that is occurring now and will occur in the future as mountain glaciers and other ice melts, and as warming ocean waters expand. A sea-level rise of about one-half meter is likely to occur within the next century, and perhaps a meter or more in the century after that. Advocates toward the environmental extreme, with help from the media, at times exaggerate this threat. In recent years, single blocks of ice equal in area to Rhode Island have broken away from the ice shelves on the margins of Antarctica. The media quote environmental spokespersons who interpret these events as signaling the impending destruction of the Antarctic ice sheet. Accompanying maps show that most of Florida would be underwater if all of the ice on Antarctica melted.

The truth is much less exciting. For one thing, those large ice shelves float in the ocean, and anything that floats in the ocean has already displaced water and raised the level of the ocean. So whether the ice shelf is still attached to Antarctica or has broken away to melt in warmer ocean waters to the north is irrelevant to sea level. The only way to make sea level rise is to melt the ice stored back up on the continent.

The fact that a huge chunk of ice has broken off also sounds ominous but is not. The ice shelves around Antarctica are continually being replenished by ice flowing outward from the interior of the continent, and that ice in turn is continually being replenished by snowfall. In other words, ice is moving through the system all the time without necessarily causing any change in the size of the ice sheet. So the fact that huge chunks of ice break off from time to time is a normal part of a system that in a long-term sense is stable. Only if most of the ice shelves around Antarctic were found to be steadily disintegrating in a way that had not occurred in previous centuries would we have reason to infer a trend driven by a greenhouse warming caused by humans. From what we know now, such a trend is not occurring. For now, the ice on Antarctica appears to be stable.

Still, with sea level now slowly rising, environmental spokespersons warn about its effect on highly populated coastal cities like Miami Beach, where sea walls already protect high-rise structures along the ocean. As global sea level continues to rise, they predict that disasters will be inevitable when new hurricanes strike. In response, global-warming skeptics acknowledge that future hurricanes may bring disasters, but they point out that sea-level rise will not be the main culprit. The next large hurricane to hit a highly developed area will bring a storm surge of perhaps 5—6 meters (15—20 feet), along with strong and destructive winds. This entirely natural phenomenon will cause far more destruction than the few tens of centimeters of sea-level rise caused by global warming. The real problem will be that far too many people have been allowed to build too close to the coast. Most of the disaster will result from the convergence of a natural phenomenon and ill-advised building codes.

The sea-level rise caused by global warming is a more serious concern for some less-affluent countries. For the small populations now living on low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, and for the much larger populations living just above sea level in Bangladesh and other Asian river deltas, the greatest disasters of the future will again be those of natural origin (typhoons) as they impact vulnerable areas where populations have increased. But in these cases, the modest rise in sea level caused by global warming will also impact these areas in a direct way. In both regions, a half-meter rise of sea level will flood a large amount of the available living area, forcing people to move.

A second example of the underlying complexity of the global-warming debate is circum-Arctic climate change. Large changes have occurred in recent decades in the Arctic, including the gradual retreat and thinning of sea ice and seasonal snow cover, and the melting of permafrost (chapter 16). If this trend continues as climate warms, the Arctic will be transformed in major ways.

The implicit industry view is that the polar regions are a small part of Earth's surface and that few people live there. This view also emphasizes the likely beneficial impacts from polar warming, including fewer severely cold air masses in winter, and consequently fewer outbreaks of polar air into middle latitudes, thus permitting longer growing seasons in regions like Alaska and Siberia. Another benefit is the likely opening of Arctic ports and trade routes as the sea ice retreats.

Environmental advocates point out that future warming in the Arctic is projected to be much larger than for the planet as a whole, and that people who live in these environments will be heavily impacted. Ecosystems adapted to the retreating sea ice will be vulnerable. In Arctic lands, the permafrost underfoot will increasingly be half-melted slush and mush.

Both viewpoints have validity, and weighing all of the pros and cons is difficult. The main problem is that each extreme fails to mention the other side of the issue in pushing its own agenda. In my opinion, the harm we may do to Arctic ecosystems (and the people who depend on them) seems of greater importance than the economic benefits from growing extra food in midlatitude regions that for the most part already have large food surpluses. Arctic ecosystems have had over 3 million years to adjust to the presence of sea ice along the coastlines in the winter. When and if sea ice no longer reaches the coastlines in winter, and when and if it largely disappears from most of the central Arctic in summer, disruptions to these ecosystems (and the cultures that depend on them) are likely to be severe. Denial on the part of industry extremists is not a sufficient response.

For the public at large, opinions about global warming will likely reflect the value systems that individual people bring to this issue. Which of the possible concerns looms as more important—the impact of future changes on people and their environments, or the cost of preemptive actions to counter these impacts? For two very different views on global warming, read Laboratory Earth by Steve Schneider and The Satanic Gases by Pat Michaels and Robert Balling.

The global-warming debate came to a head with the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, which committed the industrialized nations of the world to reduce their rising CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2010. The proposed reductions would have come mainly by cutting CO2 emissions from coal burned in factories and power plants, by reducing gasoline consumption in cars and trucks, and by reducing consumption of oil and natural gas in homes. Among the few nations refusing to ratify this treaty was the United States, the largest single source of CO2 emissions in the world. This failure enraged environmentalists, who saw it as a sign of selfishness, arrogance, and insensitivity to the environment and to the people whose lives would be changed by global warming.

The probusiness side countered that the reductions in CO2 emission would lead to higher prices for home-heating fuel, gasoline for cars, and other day-to-day expenses but would have a very small effect on Earth's future temperature. The projected reduction in CO2 (relative to the otherwise-projected increase) would avoid (or delay) a warming of about 0.1° to 0.2°C late in the current century. That amount is only 5 to 10 percent of the increase in global temperature predicted to occur by that time. It is also just a small fraction of the 0.7°C increase in global temperature during the last century and a quarter. Another problem with the treaty was that several less-industrialized nations were exempted from the Kyoto requirements, including China, then just beginning to emerge as an industrial power.

As a result, the U.S. Senate voted 95—0 in favor of a motion against signing any treaty that would commit the United States to environmental actions unless all the nations of the world shared in the burden. Politicians generally vote for policies their constituents want. Since most polls suggest that Americans favor action to protect the environment from the threat of global warming, why has the government avoided signing the Kyoto Treaty?

One explanation is that the benefit from the Kyoto reductions would occur decades in the future and even then would be undetectably small in people's lives, but the costs would be felt right away in higher prices in our daily lives. Politicians tend to favor actions that work the other way: benefits that are immediate and costs that lie far off in the future. A second plausible explanation is that politicians realize that the public support for proactive environmental policies is broad but not necessarily deep. Many of us favor doing something about global warming as long as the degree of sacrifice is acceptably small. But if sacrifice means trading in a big SUV for a small economy car, taking public transportation, or turning our thermostats down a little in winter or up a bit in summer, support for proactive policies begins to fade in the polls.

I think that this same line of reasoning leads to an unspoken truth about global warming that for some reason politicians of both parties ignore. To reduce current and future greenhouse-gas emissions to levels that would avoid most of the projected future warming, draconian economic sacrifices would have to be enacted that almost everyone would find intolerable: much more expensive fuel for travel and heating, much lower/higher thermostat settings in houses and workplaces, and extremely costly upgrades (or total replacements) of power plants. The drag on the economy and on quality of life from such efforts would be enormous, and few citizens would stand for it. At this time, with current technologies, we simply cannot afford the effort that would be required to mitigate the main impact of global warming. While not an excuse for doing nothing, this underlying reality should put the current debate in a clearer perspective.

It is even fair to ask whether most people would really prefer to avoid global warming. Most people complain about the onset of winter but greet the start of summer. Those living in snow-free sun-belt areas feel relief watching news coverage of snow and ice storms afflicting the Midwest or New England. Millions of people move south when they retire; few go north. If residents of our colder states were offered a simple up-or-down choice at the voting booth between (1) raising taxes to keep climate as cold as it is today, and (2) keeping taxes at current levels but allowing future Marchs to become more like Aprils and Novembers more like Octobers, which way would they vote? I doubt it would be to pay more to keep it colder. Any large-scale program to attack global warming would eventually run into underlying attitudes like these.

I think the single most effective thing that can be done about global warming is to invest in technologies that will reduce carbon emissions, especially those that will come from the 200-year supply of coal we will eventually burn. As standards of living in regions like Southeast Asia rise toward Western levels, all of the available fossil carbon will be burned within just a few centuries. The clearest way to maintain socially acceptable standards of living but still permit this development will come from technological breakthroughs that allow us to use fossil fuels but emit less CO2 while doing so. Although I am optimistic that we will discover new technologies, I am pessimistic that they will be able to dispose of the billions of tons of CO2 in a cost-efficient way. Investments in alternative energy sources also make good sense, but such sources seem likely only to delay the burning of our fossil fuels by a few decades, rather than replace them entirely.

This issue is both complex and unpredictable. Perhaps delaying some of the future warming will give us more time to find a technological fix. And if the warming arrives more slowly, maybe it will not reach quite as high a peak a few centuries from now. But just now, real solutions seem to be either expensive or just optimistic dreams for the future.

In the meantime, in the arena of public debate about global change, advocates on both sides of the issue are doing what they so loudly do. Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac that "Every profession keeps a small herd of epithets and needs a pasture where they may run at large." For the global-warming issue, those epithets are now running wild in the public domain.

Environmental extremists claim that the hands of industry spokespersons are soiled by financial support from coal utilities and oil companies driven by greed. Yet they refuse to acknowledge that the more aggressive actions implicit in their own position would have major (and probably unacceptable) costs to the public. Advocates for the environment often frame their positions with high-minded, preachy appeals to Jean Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage," the concept of a primitive but wise people who once lived lightly on the land and in complete harmony with the environment. They contrast this supposedly once-pristine world with the evils of heavy industrial development during the last two centuries. They portray industrial development as the first, and only, real human assault on nature.

This book has shown that the concept of a pristine natural world is a myth: preindustrial cultures had long had a major impact on the environment. First came the improved hunting skills that drove most large mammals and marsupials to extinction on several continents (chapter 6). A few millennia later came the pervasive impacts that grew directly out of the discovery of agriculture. Land-use changes resulting from widespread deforestation and irrigation eroded and degraded soils (chapter 7). Agricultural practices millennia ago led to large releases of greenhouse gases (chapters 8 and 9) and changes in global climate (chapter 10). Early technologies were relatively primitive, and human populations numbered in the hundreds of millions rather than in the billions, but our preindus-trial ancestors had a large environmental and climatic impact on this planet.

Indeed, a good case can be made that people in the Iron Age and even the late Stone Age had a much greater per-capita impact on Earth's landscape than the average modern-day person. Most people born 2,000 years ago had no choice but to make a living by farming, and farming in most regions meant clearing forests.

Estimates are that the average person cleared several dozen acres of wooded land over a lifetime. How many people reading this book have been personally responsible for clearing dozens of acres of forest?

I have, of course, simplified matters to make a point. Our modern use of fossil fuels represents a large addition to our individual (per-capita) carbon emissions. The real problem lies in our aggregate impact—so many people now live on Earth that the total emissions from all of our billions of "capitas" have grown much larger than the total impact of all of the Iron Age people.

On the other side of the debate, many industry extremists seem convinced that nature is so inherently capable of self-healing that it can take care of any supposedly "trivial" wound we inflict on it. This view ignores a vast body of evidence showing that humans have become a major force in altering Earth's environment at a large scale. Human impacts began millennia ago, grew sizable long before the industrial era, and have since become the largest single environmental and climatic force on Earth. Nature occasionally reminds us of its power with a drought, a flood, a freeze, or a heat wave, but year after year, human activities remain the larger force.

Until the past year or two, I kept a wary eye on both sides of the global-warming debate. I discredited the disinformation coming from both extremes of the issue and tried to weigh the solid evidence and form my own opinions. Very recently, however, I have become aware that this dispassionate detachment may be too idealistic. The debate has taken a surprisingly ugly turn.

My introduction to this problem was accidental. After my hypothesis was first published, science journalists asked whether my results were relevant to the policy debate over global warming. I told them that the global-warming issue was a hornet's nest, and I didn't intend to stick my hand into such a nasty mess. I also said that I was willing to predict how people at or near the two extremes of the global-warming issue would probably react. I said the industry side might claim that my results showed that "greenhouse gases are our friend" because they had apparently stopped a glaciation. And I said that the environmental side could counter that if a relatively small population of farmers had managed to produce a greenhouse-gas increase large enough to stop a glaciation, then where are we headed in the future as the much faster greenhouse-gas increase carries gas concentrations well outside their natural range of variation? Within months, both of these predictions came true: reports on my hypothesis appeared in both industrial and environmental newsletters, each making use of it for their own ends.

Because of the wide coverage of the hypothesis, my name had somehow been added as a recipient of several newsletters that take skeptical or contrarian (in effect, proindustry) positions on global change. These newsletters opened a window on a different side of science, a parallel universe of which I had been only partly aware. The content of these newsletters purports to be scientific but actually has more in common with hardball politics.

One technique is instant commentaries against any new scientific results that appear to bolster the case for global warming. Within days of publication of peer-reviewed scientific articles, opinion pieces appear debunking these contributions, in some cases impugning the objectivity of the (well-respected) journals in which they are published. The authors of these opinion pieces are often well-known climate-science contrarians or others in related fields such as economics. Most of these articles come from contrarian web sites that receive large amounts of financial support from industry sources. In many cases, the authors are paid directly by industry for the articles they write. Even though many of these attacks amount to pin pricks that leave the basic conclusions of the criticized paper intact, the commentaries state or imply that the original results have been completely invalidated. In politics, this kind of counteroffensive is called "oppo research." A related technique is to cite published papers that address the same subject but come to conclusions more favorable to the industry view. In the cases where I know the science reasonably well, these papers do not match the rigor of the originals.

This alternative universe is really quite amazing. In it, you can "learn" that CO2 does not cause any climatic warming at all. You can find out that the world has not become warmer in the last century, or that any warming that has occurred results from the Sun having grown stronger, and not from rising levels of greenhouse gases. One way or another, most of the basic findings of mainstream science are rejected or ignored.

In my opinion, some climate contrarians once served a useful purpose by pointing out alarmist exaggerations from environmental extremists. But this alternative universe is new and worrisome; in the name of uncovering the truth, it delivers an endless stream of one-sided propaganda.

Why would scientists devote time and energy to doing this kind of thing? One obvious possibility is money. Some industries pay scientists to write opinionated commentaries and give opinionated talks. Some environmental groups do the same thing. Financial support does not in and of itself prove bias, but it hardly suggests intellectual independence, especially in the case of individuals who earn large portions of their income from such sources.

Another potential motivation is thwarted ego. Some spokespersons are scientists whose reputations in the scientific mainstream never amounted to much, or whose early career successes faded away. Disappointed by the lack of recognition, they may have chosen to make a new "mark" by taking a different, far more publicly visible, path. Resentment over lack of mainstream success may also help to explain why these commentaries so often have a strident tone that mocks those with different views in a way that has no resemblance to the style of legitimate science.

Still another motivation may be the "white knight" or "hero" syndrome—the conviction that only heroic action in uncovering the "real truth" will save humanity from oncoming disaster or folly. Many contrarians appear to see mainstream scientists as dull-witted sheep following piles of federal grant money doled out by obliging federal program managers. In this view, only those who toe the party line that the global-warming problem is real, large, and threatening will get their hands on federal money. And of course only the lone visionary with clear vision can save the day.

This picture is a gross misrepresentation of science and scientists. Scientists are generally independent-minded individualists who think for themselves and instinctively resist the herd mentality. We do research for several reasons: mostly out of simple enjoyment, but also in the hope of being the first to discover something new and important. Much of our day-to-day progress comes in small incremental steps that produce new information used to test whether current ideas are valid or should be rejected. Occasionally we make breakthroughs by coming up with new ideas that replace old ones. In rare cases, a contribution may be so large and original that our names go down in the history of our field of science as a form of scientific immortality.

As a group, we are also notoriously unobsessed with personal wealth. I have often heard fellow scientists express delight that they are paid to do something they love so much, but no one I know makes a personal fortune competing for federal money to do basic research on climate. Many of us make a decent living, but we earn far less than we might in other careers. At most universities, even the top scientists earn salaries that are tiny fractions of the amounts paid to football coaches.

Scientists face stiff competition in obtaining grant money to support students and staff, to run labs and field programs, and for summer salary. At the National Science Foundation, success rates on proposals average less than one in five. I compare the competitive process of basic research to the challenges faced by people who run small businesses: we have to be better than the competition to succeed. This tough winnowing process leaves no room for the dull-witted sheep portrayed by the contrarian view.

Fortunately, most of the respected media outlets in this country seem to be ignoring the tidal wave of disinformation coming from the extremes of the global-warming argument. Apparently, the legitimate media recognize that these groups are lobbying on one side of a complex issue. Still, in a world where more and more people, especially the younger generation, get most of their news from the web,

I am concerned about the stealth impact of this lobbying effort. People exposed to an endless drumbeat coming only from one direction of an issue can be influenced.

The obvious question is whether anything can be done to provide more balance in this debate. Both First Amendment considerations and the protections of academic freedom argue against any top-down attempt to regulate such views, no matter how biased or one-sided. One recourse is to challenge the authors of these opinionated commentaries to be open with their audience. Have they been paid by an industrial or environmental group to write this particular article? More generally, what fraction of their grant income or salary over preceding years has come from industrial or environmental sources, as opposed to money won competitively from the government? This suggestion will likely be met with scorn by those who earn large portions of their salaries from interest groups, but at least their refusal to respond will serve as another warning sign of bias.

A big problem with this approach is that interest-group money is used to create or support innocuous-sounding citizen-action committees, with names along the line of "Geezers Concerned about the Environment." With these intermediary groups as cover, scientists can deny that they receive money from interest groups, even when interest-group money actually is the ultimate source. One way to uncover such evasions is to use the Freedom-of-Information Act to trace the flow of such money into "front groups." Recently, groups on the environmental side have begun doing just that, and the amount of money from industry sources appears to be in the millions of dollars every year, all with the apparent purpose of influencing the outcome of a supposedly scientific debate.

Probes by environmental groups into industry behavior are hardly an example of objectivity. Far preferable would be an open-ended investigation by well-respected journalists or other media into both industry and environmental meddling in this debate. My impression is that industry spends by far the largest amount of money for this purpose, but an aggressive and objective investigation into the facts would reveal the facts, and perhaps even shame the offenders.

The only other recourse available to those confused by the flood of opinions and counteropinions on this issue is simple common sense. If a person who is advocating a particular position is someone who always argues the same side of the issue and never balances the complex pros and cons, you can view what that person has to say with a very healthy dose of skepticism. And if a person repeatedly communicates these opinions through newsletters and web sites funded by industry or environmental interest groups, then again you can be skeptical. But if a person has a dual history of taking a persistently one-sided view and simultaneously receiving large amounts of income from only one of the interest-group extremes, then skepticism is too mild an attitude. People who fit this profile may or may not have been trained as scientists, but they are effectively functioning as lobbyists (paid propagandists) for one side of the global-change argument.

As should be clear from my personal experience (see chapter 11), I view challenges to new findings and new ideas as a normal part of the process of science. Still, I know of no precedent in science for the kind of day-to-day onslaughts and perversions of basic science now occurring in newsletters and web sites from interest groups. These attacks have more in common with the seamier aspects of politics than with the normal methods of science. Both the environmental and (especially) the industry extremists should leave the scientific process alone.

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