Sunday, July 16, 2006

More on Global Warming

In my last post on this topic, which as I said was less a well thought out essay than a series of comments strung together, I mentioned that all the scientists in the world can shout down people like Michael Crichton. Well, of course, not all of them do. Still many more scientists hold to the climate change models than don't. Those models suggest global warming is occurring now and will get worse, even if we stop pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere right now.

Michael Crichton, in the article I linked to, argues that environmentalism is a fundamentalist religion. He claims that adherents cannot be persuaded to see the "truth" about climate change because their beliefs are irrational and faith-based, not fact-based.

Crichton says:

There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of Faith.
The problem with this argument is that, while it sounds convincing, it lacks any substantiation. Show me a large percentage of scientists among those who believe that climate change is occuring due to man-made problems and who also subscribe to some variation of the Eden myth of human and global history. I suspect it is not possible because they do not exist. We're talking about climatologists here, not neo-romanticist New Agers.

Few, if any, of the scientists who hold that our planet is getting unnaturally warmer as a result of greenhouse gases would blame science and progress for the problems, as Crichton suggests. We simply could not have known 150, 100, or even 50 years ago what impact our actions would have on the planet. Even now, there is a serious variance in predictive models as a result of the fact that we still do not fully understand how our atmosphere works.

Crichton cites that variance as proof that his model may be just as accurate as all those that point to a frightening outcome (in the author's message at the end of State of Fear). I have not read the book, so I can't argue against his claims. But some climate scientists have read the book and they have posted an argument that is fairly sympathetic to his claims, while at the same time correcting some of his mistaken logic. I'll defer to them.

There is also an article by Chris Mooney of the Boston Globe that takes a closer look at Crichton's supposed scientific footnotes in support of his claims.

Seeking to debunk the notion that human-caused global warming should worry us, Crichton allows his hero, Richard John Kenner--an MIT professor of geoenvironmental engineering who battles the eco-terrorists across the globe--to instruct various less-informed personages in the basics of climate science. During these conversations, Crichton provides actual scientific citations to back up Kenner's contrarian arguments. As he intones in his epigraph, ''Footnotes are real.''

But are they? Certainly Crichton's numerous citations refer to actual scientific publications. But in many cases, they also reference the work of scientists who accept the mainstream scientific view that human greenhouse gas emissions fuel global climate change.

''It's such a transparent literary device that Crichton uses,'' says Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who's cited in the book. ''He makes the enviros out to be dummies.'' And Wigley isn't the only one surprised by the nature of his cameo.

Seems that maybe Crichton is not so above board about his use of "facts."

Anyway, Crichton's Eden myth might hold true for some of the sensitive tree-hugging environmentalists and actors he derides, but there are many of us who have our heart in that sensitive, tree-hugging love of nature and still have no illusions about human beings ever living in any kind of Eden.

Crichton argues:
There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?
Nice speech, but it's a red herring. Science is good, disease is bad. Yes, we know that. None of us would go back to a time when we died so young and suffered so much from disease. That is not the question.

However, there was a time when the human footprint on the planet was not so destructive, that it did not clear-cut entire forests, kill entire rivers and lakes with pollution, or result in the extinction of at least three species every day. We can see now the damage we are causing and we can choose to stop it. Or can we? It's a problem of development.

Yes, we hunted species into extinction as our populations grew, and we killed each other for land, for religion, or for the hell of it. We had to grow through several stages in which we weren't much fun to be around.

We also had to grow through stages in which we did not have the vision to anticipate outcomes to our actions, nor did we have the knowledge to even understand the possible outcomes to our actions. We can no longer make that claim. So how do we rectify the disparity between who we have been and who we can be? How do we use our newfound altitude, as Ken Wilber likes to call it these days, with the reality around us?

How we answer these questions may determine the outcome of the climate change issue.

A personal response to Crichton's claims that environmentalists are religious fundamentalists:

I am an environmentalist. I grew up in a rural town, in farm country. I backpacked in the mountains and fished in the streams. I lived for days at a time on what I could catch in the creeks or forage in the forests. Yet I have no illusions about wanting to do away with the conveniences of modern life. There is no way to recharge my laptop in the midst of the Cascade Mountains. I am an environmentalist, but I do not hold to any Edenic myth of a better time before disease prevention, indoor plumbing, or the internet.

With that awareness of my place in the world and how fortunate I am also comes a responsibility to make concessions that will ensure that future generations get to enjoy the same luxuries. I do not need to drive a car that gets 15-20 miles to the gallon. My little Honda gets 40 mpg. I do not need to own a 5,000 square foot home that wastes resources and energy. My 560 square foot apartment is all the space I need. I do not need or want to buy processed foods. My body and my soul prefers that I eat healthy and organic as much as possible.

I could go on and on.

There are many who argue against global warming based solely on economic concerns. They think that following Kyoto would be catastrophic to our economy. A recent Washington Post column argues that we will end up spending more on the Iraq war than it would have cost us to implement the Kyoto protocols.

But not all administration officials, nor business leaders, agree that Kyoto is too costly. This is from Think Progress:
Treasury Secretary, Goldman Sachs Chairman Henry M. Paulson Jr., not only endorses the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse emissions, but argues that the United States’ failure to enact Kyoto undermines the competitiveness of U.S. companies. Here’s a statement from the Nature Conservancy, where Paulson serves as chairman of the board:

The Kyoto Protocol is a key first step to help slow the onslaught of global warming and benefit conservation efforts…Until the United States passes its own limits on global warming emissions, innovative companies based here will lose out on opportunities to sell reduced emission credits to companies complying with the Kyoto Protocol overseas. Additionally, without enacting our own emission limits, U.S. companies will lose ground to their competitors in Europe, Canada, Japan, and other countries participating in the Protocol who are developing clean technologies.
Goldman Sachs, under Paulson’s leadership, argued that the danger from global warming is imminent and requires “urgent” action by government to reduce emissions:

[C]limate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges of the 21st century and is linked to other important issues such as economic growth and development… Goldman Sachs is very concerned by the threat to our natural environment, to humans and to the economy presented by climate change and believes that it requires the urgent attention of and action by governments, business, consumers and civil society to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, Paulson’s nomination is strongly opposed by a coalition right-wing groups seeking to cast doubt on climate science, such as the National Center for Public Policy Research, describing Paulson as “diametrically opposed to the positions of [the Bush] Administration.”
Clealry, there are many even in the business world who can take a long-term view on this issue and advocate for responsible choices. We cannot simply blame technology, business, science, or anything or anyone else.

There is not one quadrant (in the AQAL model) that we can blame for this problem, assuming it exists. But if it does exist, we need all of the quadrants to solve the problem. Again, this is not an issue of blaming business (altough I have done that in the past), nor is it an issue of progress (although many blame modern life for these problems).

What we really have is a crisis of development -- human development. Our technology has exceeded our conscience in many ways. For the same reasons that we fear WMDs in the hands of fundamentalist extremists, we should understand that, until recently, our technological ability to manipulate the enviroment has exceeded our ability to predict the consequences and be responsible for our choices.

In psychology there is a belief that the psyche will not give us greater problems than we can handle. I have to believe that our development would not totally eclipse our ability to solve these problems.

Crichton argues in his book that "because we don't know everything, we actually know nothing. This is the kind of head-in-the-sand thinking that generates these kinds of problems in the first place. We know enough to be concerned. We know that at the present rate of glacial melt, Greenland could possibly be glacier free in slightly over 100 years.

See this site for more on glacier melt around the globe. I could provide link after link after link showing the effects of our warming atmosphere, and it would not be enough to convince the skeptics. Perhaps it is they who hold the fundamentalist beliefs.

There is more than enough evidence to be alarmed, whether you believe all the doomsday predictions or not. With that knowledge, it is simply irresponsible to ignore the situation or claim that it is the product of mythic thinking. To continue to do so is folly.

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Steve said...

Bill, outstanding post that addresses the global warming issue in an uncommonly eloquent, balanced, realistic, and passionately wise way. I hope many people read it.


Unknown said...


I am going to retool my Thoughts Chase Thoughts blog as a group integral politics essay blog.

You might be interested in joining once you see how it looks. I already have a lasso around nagarjuna/steve.

An interesting aid in this Global Warming discussion may be a pdf file Justin of American Buddhist Perspectives links to in his latest post, "The Death of Environmentalism."

I will be pouring over your post here, and your links in your post, to better understand the issue as I tackle Global Warming in a post for the new, upcoming TCT.

Anonymous said...

There is some useful information on this energy conservation for apartment tenants page.