Sunday, February 18, 2007

Attention, scientist type persons!

My uncles would like to have a word with your sorry, liberal, treehugging asses. You see, it seems you haven't been doing your jobs properly. Sure, you may have gotten the liberal media all atwitter with your carefully executed global warming conspiracy. They like being atwitter. Sells papers. But when you're trying to use your scientific credentials to force our country to turn its legislative authority over to the U.N., you have to expect that somebody is going to see through your little shell game.

See, Mister and Miss Climatological Expert, in your calculations and pontifications, in your rush to pin this so-called "global warming" on this so-called "carbon dioxide", you forgot to take into account this thing called The Sun. It sits up in the sky, where everybody and their dogs can see it, and if you're looking for something that warms the globe, you need look no further. Honestly, we expect a bit better from our best and brightest than to overlook something like this. We thought you lived in ivory towers, not dank, unlighted ivory cellars.

So, yeah, we're all kind of snickering at you. What do you have to say for yourself?

[...] researchers at the MPS have shown that the Sun can be responsible for, at most, only a small part of the warming over the last 20-30 years. [...] Although the changes in [global temperature and solar output] tend to follow each other for roughly the first 120 years, the Earth's temperature has risen dramatically in the last 30 years while the solar brightness has not appreciably increased in this time. [source]

Is that all?

All reconstructions indicate that the direct effect of variations in solar forcing over the 20th century was about 20 to 25% of the change in forcing due to increases in the well-mixed greenhouse gases. [source]

Gee, that sounds really science-y. And it's got the word "solar" in it. What else have you got?

In summary, although solar forcing is real, the implications of that are often rather overstated. Since there has been a clear history of people fooling themselves about the importance of solar-climate links, any new studies in the field need to be considered very carefully before conclusions are drawn, especially with respect the warming over recent decades, which despite all of this discussion about solar activity, is almost all related to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. [source]

But the sun is as hot as it's ever been, just in time to explain the current string of record-breaking years, right?

According to PMOD at the World Radiation Center there has been no increase in solar irradiance since at least 1978, when satellite observations began. This means that for the last thirty years, while the temperature has been rising fastest, the sun has not changed. [source]

I notice that the URL for that page contains a 666. Is that meaningful?

No. [source]

Sorry to have bothered you. I'll let you get back to your... beakers? Microscopes? Mass spectrometers? Whatever the hell you people use.

As the most leftist person in my family and an intolerant political nutjob, I often get tempted to lock horns with relatives, especially the most outspoken, political ones. The aforementioned uncles, for example. Last night, at a family gathering, I kept hearing the words "carbon dioxide" coming from the dining room. It seemed a rather unlikely molecule for dinner conversation, so I wandered out to see what was up. Deep down, I already knew; surrounded by a good portion of my extended family, my uncles were engaged in the standard right-wing denunciation of global warming, firing off fact after error-laden fact.

Global warming is a myth.

The scientific consensus about global warming is a myth.

Solar output is the primary driver of climate change, both
historically and today.

Out-of-touch Hollywood liberals rigged the Oscars; "An Inconvenient Truth"
isn't even a documentary.

All this within the space of one minute. I had to retreat back to my fortress of solitude, because I knew what would happen if I tried to engage them. I'd end up losing my temper, saying something to indicate that I was the only sane person in the room, and storming off leaving the family even more convinced that Al Gore is using the effete Hollywood liberals and the New York Times and Al Franken to turn our government into a subsidiary of the U.N., in a diabolical
plan to turn our children gay and corrupt the vitality of their precious bodily fluids.

Or something like that. I haven't listened to Rush Limbaugh for years, so the details of the Evil Liberal Conspiracy are getting a bit fuzzy in my mind.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. The fortress of solitude.

As much as I would have loved to stand up and say, "Silence, ye fiends of the eternal pit!"[1] and deliver a stirring rebuke to the entire right-wing disinformation apparatus, I knew what would happen if I tried. I'd get beaten back with a litany of "facts" that sounded just barely plausible enough that it would be bad form to dismiss them outright. It doesn't help that I don't trust my own brain, to the point that I almost never quote a fact or statistic without checking with my emergency backup brain (henceforth referred to by its more common name, "Google").

I'm not used to boisterous, freewheeling debate on verbal timescales. Sometimes I enjoy it, but mostly it feels like I've just popped a near-lethal dose of caffeine. It's heart pounding, head swimming vertigo, occasionally mixed with moments of blind outrage. So it's not a good forum for getting out a single coherent thought, much less winning over hearts and minds.

I'm pretty much your standard, shy-yet-excitable computer geek who longs for love and respect and is terror-stricken by the idea of interpersonal conflict. Sitting here behind my computer, with time to sift the contents of my own brains, able to formulate, refine, revise and discard an idea without committing it to public record, is much more relaxing. Sure, I can still get worked up, but I know I can vent my spleen for a half hour, then go clear my head and return to rewrite, "You're a pathetic, ill-informed moron," into "With all due respect, you're a pathetic, ill-informed moron." Even when my head is clear, it's not exactly a happy place to live.

Here is how I would have liked to reframe the debate:

It is untenable to claim that fossil fuel use isn't changing our climate. Such a conclusion flies in the face of basic science. We've known about the heat-trapping properties of greenhouse gases for over a hundred fifty years, and we've known that atmospheric CO2 has been on the rise for decades (even before the media-driven "global cooling" hype). We currently pump about seven billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, which raises atmospheric CO2 by about 2PPM/year. We know that CO2 concentrations are higher than they have been in the last 650,000 years. You can't say that carbon dioxide doesn't trap heat, or that we're not producing sizeable amounts of it.

It also flies in the face of a broad scientific consensus among researchers. Certainly there is "controversy" of the boring, "this historical reconstruction is more accurate than that one" and "exactly how much warming should we expect" variety. However, there is little disagreement over the broad picture of rising temperatures and increasingly fragile ecosystems, with human activity being the driving force behind it.

The perception of controversy in the mind of the public is encouraged by a small network of outspoken conservative think tanks, dozens of which receive substantial funding by Exxon-Mobil (by far the most recalcitrant of the major oil companies). The current situation--with a large body of scientific research being opposed by a small, insistent disinformation campaign--bears an eerie resemblance to the fight over the science behind tobacco use.

Even if this non-controversy did have merit, there is no excuse for inaction. Many of the suggested initial steps for combatting climate change would be good ideas even if global warming was a "hoax" as Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) suggests. Using CFL lightbulbs, putting more research into LED lighting, increasing fuel economy standards, and more energy efficient building codes are simple, sensible steps that would increase our energy security, save consumers money, and wouldn't harm the economy a whit. Reforestation efforts would not only sequester carbon, but also improve the scenery and increase our overall supply of lumber and paper products. Solar and wind power are far less polluting than fossil fuel alternatives, they're plummeting in cost, and they provide energy independence at all scales.[2] Electric cars could make much of our transportation requirements both more efficient and agnostic as to the source of the energy. In fact, most of the options on the table have incredible environmental benefits.

So stop whining about how the only good regulation is a dead regulation, and let's start building a world that will actually be able to support your vast army of offspring.

See, that's why I shouldn't actually instigate family arguments. Even on quiet reflection, with ample opportunity to decide if I really want to say something, I can still be a judgmental bastard. Trust me, nothing loses the good will of a conservative than pointing to their children and saying, "Too many. Pick the two you love the most, because the rest have to go." It's not an easy thing to reconcile my love for my nieces and nephews (both actual and expected) with my outrage that we're dropping more and more people onto this planet with no consideration given to our ability to provide for their health and comfort.

We have huge, almost insurmountable responsibilities towards the future. Too many people are arguing that we should ignore those responsibilities until they become easier and more convenient to tackle. But most frustrating are the vast majority of people, too caught up in their own troubles and pursuits to recognize the responsibilities, or understand their own potential as agents of a better world.

I guess that's why I've started this blog. Sometimes it feels like, without an outlet for my frustration and anguish towards the whole world, I'd just pop open, the anger spilling out like toxic sludge, requiring the evacuation of a three block radius and an expensive HAZMAT team. I can't let that happen. For one thing, there is absolutely nothing you can do to get anger goop out of the carpets.

[1] Mormon in-joke. Don't worry about it.
[2] By that, I mean that solar panels can be deployed by a nation to break their dependence on foreign energy, by a municipality to break their dependence on an outside provider, or by an individual or small group, to make them more self-sufficient. Unless you have your own backyard coal mine, alternatives aren't nearly as liberating.