Now that Al Gore has won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, I will declare that global warming hysteria has reached its peak. Just the weekend before, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle showed a map of the Bay Area showing us how our region would look when all the glaciers melt, as they inevitably will due to global warming. Even for a nature freak like me, it’s beginning to get shrill, and not in small part because the hype is groundless, and the science behind global warming is a straight extrapolation graph ignoring biological adaptation and blaming it on only politically-fashionable causes.
I’m old enough to remember the global cooling hysteria in the 1970s, so I’m naturally a skeptic about endless drumbeat on global warming these days. Nontheless, I am open to listening to a real scientist about what it’s all based on. I recently watched the Teaching Company‘s Physics in Your Life lectures. I recommend the lectures, by the way, because you never know when you might be able to impress someone by being able to explain Blu-Ray disks or where electricty comes from. As it so happened, one of the lectures was on global warming, or more specifically, greenhouse gases and how they affect our atmosphere.
So, the science behind global warming goes something like this: Scientists have been able to been able to extrapolate global temperature fluctuations as well as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from geologic and glacial records. Both have fluctuated, but they correlate closely. When it’s hotter, carbon dioxide levels also happen to be higher. Today, we drive cars, fly planes, and generate power, primarily with carbon dioxide producing methods, and our carbon dioxide production has been growing at an exponential rate. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, records show a correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide levels, so ergo, we are in for a huge meltdown any minute now.
But not so fast. The physics lecturer, the elucidating Professor Wolfson from Middlebury College, certainly believes in global warming. But he also pointed out that melting glaciers would not change our shorelines. At the beginning of the lecture, he put a glass with a few ice cubes in it on his desk. The water was high enough to reach the brim of the glass. At the end of the lecture, the ice had nearly melted, but the water level remained the same, because of the nature of ice and mass. Go ahead, try it for yourself the next time someone’s trying to convince you your Nob Hill condo is going to be beach front property next year.
I have also learned to distrust straight extrapolations, as well. They never work out that way. The global warming scenario Wolfson put up imagines everyone with a driver’s license idling SUVs in a permanent gridlock. Before it ever gets that extreme, people change their habits, with or without governmental interferance. Before it gets that bad, more people will have switched to public transportation, alternatives like bicycles and mopeds, or telecommuting. There’s already an active interest in gasoline alternatives, driven by more than environmental concerns.
It’s also unfair to pin the blame of global warming solely on the American individual. Airplanes, such as the one Al Gore and UN officials jet around in to pick up awards and pat themselves on the back publicly, spew out a lot more carbon dioxide than a fleet of Hummers would. I agree it would be unfair to make Gore languish on trains, biodiesel-fueled buses, and passenger ships, in accord with his self-righteousness, since we can all agree train travel isn’t the same as plane travel. Yet the moral tone of the global warming machine implies we should be exercising a lower standard of living. So I should either live in an unheated, electricity-less hut, like the Unabomber did, or pay a fine which will theoretically go to my environmental betters, like an impoverished Tanzanian shorecropper. Meanwhile, coal-burning Chinese factories get a pass, because communists shouldn’t be held accountable for damaging the environment.
Recently, the scientists have backed away from the “global warming” label per se, and have started calling it “climate change” instead. Yeah, duh, the weather changes. Last year, we had a very hot summer, and right now we’re having a very cold winter. A few years ago, when the newspapers wanted to sell copies, they’d write long articles about “El Nino,” and illustrate it with photographs of sandbagged riverfront houses. Now they call it “global warming” and top it off with a cartoon of drowning polar bears. When, as the cycle always continues, this is followed in a year or two with a mild summer and a mild winter, Al Gore is going to have to find a new soapbox to stand on.
But if I’m annoyed already, there’s a lot more people who care less about clean air and even less about being preached to. So in its erstwhile undertone to get us to do our thing and push just a little less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the furor about global warming may just serve to turn people off from environmentalism altogether.