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May 21, 2006

Blogging Science Without a License

Reader lucinda questions my authority to write that junk science is being practiced with regard to global warming.  Questioning authority is good.  Here’s what she says in her comment:

i will never understand the willingness of really smart people, like tom, to trust their own judgement in an area where they're ameteurs rather than trust unbiased experts. in this case, we have a brilliant and successful serial technology ceo who thinks he knows more than the 100+ globally leading scientists entrusted by the u.n. to study the issue with scientific detachment. tom, i doubt you'd give much weight to a climitologist's recommentations on how to grow a tech start-up, even if they have read a few books and articles and all the vc blogs.

“jeez, guys, we're in trouble. we're contributing to our own demise. let's stop. mudying the waters with the maybe-we-are, maybe-we-aren't argument keeps people from acting.”

She’s right that I wouldn’t give much weight to a climatologist’s opinion on entrepreneurship (unless she were also an entrepreneur); so where do I get off having an opinion on the climate?

Fact is I have to have an opinion on the climate.  So do you.  So does lucinda.  Why?  Because some huge decisions affecting not only the climate but also the economy and possibly public safety and maybe even war and peace need to be made which depend on our having an opinion about the climate.  These decisions should be made by informed citizens.  Leaving the decision to politicians (or business people) is also a decision – and probably not a very good one.

I don’t trust the scientific objectivity or any other kind of objectivity of the UN.  I’m not about to outsource my thinking to Kofi Annan or Al Gore or George Bush.  They aren’t scientists any more than I am.  We can’t get our science through sound bites.  We have to parse what we hear on TV and read in the newspapers and surf through on line for logic good and bad.  That’s what I try to do since I’m NOT equipped to do to primary research on climate change.

We have to try to sort out causes and effects.  That’s tough.  We know the earth is getting warmer.  We know that carbon dioxide levels are at what appear to be all time highs.  We can postulate a mechanism by which rising carbon dioxide levels cause warming.  We know that a lot of the things we do as a species (including breathing, of course) add to the atmospheric supply of carbon dioxide.  Warming has accelerated recently.  Many (but not all) glaciers are retreating.  All of these are facts for which we have multiple sources.

Here are some other facts that need to be thrown into the mix before jumping to conclusions.  The earth has been warming for the last twelve thousand or so years. Glaciers used to cover much more of it than they do now.  Where I am sitting in Vermont was under a mile of ice when the glaciers of the last ice age were at their greatest depth.  Recently discovered is the fact that warming has not occurred evenly but actually in very short spurts – some of them less than a human life time.  Last time that happened was twelve thousand years ago so not the fault of the Bush administration, capitalism, communism, or any other human activity.  Warming releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

So is the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today a cause or a result of warming?  Note that it can be both which leads to a dangerous feed back loop which may have occurred many times before. Are we observing a short-term spurt in warming to be followed by a return to the statistical norm of slow warming during the last twelve thousand years or even some cooling or another ice age?  Or is warming going to accelerate?  Did we as a species cause the current warming?  Even more important, can we stop it?

lucinda is afraid that asking all these questions will lead to doing nothing when something ought to be done.  In fact I agree that we can’t be paralyzed by unknowns. Doing nothing is a decision – and quite possibly the wrong one. 

Since its seems likely (but not certain) that carbon dioxide levels contribute to global warming whether the warming or rising carbon dioxide percentages came first and since fast global warming would be catastrophic for a civilization built with the seas at their current levels and the climate as it is, we ought to take steps which reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.  These steps include renewed construction of nuclear power plants in the US, carbon sequestration, fuel cell usage for transportation using off peak electrical power to recharge cells, mass transit, increased use of some ethanol, deciding that windmills are sightly, solar power where appropriate and any number of other things including conservation.

We do have to sort out which projects limited resources can go to and where we’ll get the best return.  And we have to realize that, even if everybody in the US switches from an SUV to the smallest hybrid, that switch will be more than counterbalanced by people in India and China raising their standards of living as they are certainly entitled to do.  Lots of good reasons to conserve oil including the global balance of power but the world population as a whole is going to consume more energy in the future than it does today.

But, even while we do these things, it’s important to remember that we DON’T know for sure what is causing global warming.  We could be very wrong.  If we are, we want to find out as quickly as possible because maybe we ought to be taking other steps. We don’t want to take warming for granted because there are other scenarios where changes in the atmosphere can lead to cooling.  Or other climate problems.  We can act on circumstantial evidence.  I think we should.  But we MUST remain open to the possibility that we are wrong.

Informed citizens need to understand what the scientific evidence is or isn’t. These decisions will be made by public opinion, not by a scientific oligarchy.  Where bloggers can add to the discussion, they should.  Comments like lucinda’s are helpful and always welcome.

I do give sources for my assertions about past climate changes here.

lucinda’s comment is here.

I’ve posted on nuclear energy, fuel cells, carbon sequestration, the energy cost of driving fast, and solar energy.

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