Having little or no expertise in weather or climate studies, most of us cannot speak from a vantage point of hard scientific knowledge. However, this article does touch the surface of why so many of us have the raised eyebrows of skepticism when it comes to this subject.
While I wouldn't be so brash as to completely discount the notion of global warming or more specifically man-made global warming, I remain solidly in the skeptic camp for several reasons.
First, it does seem curious that the believers and non-believers are often split so conveniently along other ideological lines. For example, why does a belief in global warming seem to be generally associated with the politically left while most of the skeptics are on the politically right. Further, why are all the so-called solutions to global warming so conveniently politically left solutions and so conveniently similar to the solutions which might have been proposed back in the '70's when gobal cooling was a discussed.
The second extraneous reason for skepticism has to do with research funding. If the idea of global warming were to suddently disappear, it might be safe to assume that a number of those involved in scientific research of the issue would lose funding.
The third reason for skepticism is a simple look at the historical climate record. Since historical records give clear indications of past climate change, it seem presumptuous to think that present day climate should be rock-steady from here on out.
Finally, there is skepticism because of the number of factors involved. Anyone who has performed design of experiments on complex processes knows that it is often difficult to correctly identify all the factors and interactions which affect the result being measured. Unlike a scientific experiment which we might duplicate in the lab, climate can really only be observed and we cannot readily play with the knobs to adjust the factors while observing the results minutes later. Regardless of the supercomputers working on this problem, it seems a stretch to say that we've largely pinned down the cause for climate change in this entire complex process to one factor -CO2 from the evil fossil fuel and it's carbon emissions.
Good point Evo1. From a completely non-science observation, weather is certainly odd in recent years, with each of the last three decades getting warmer. Just in the last two years, we experienced record-breaking drought, fires, cold temps, hot, temps, floods, and tornados. Time after time, we see some extreme in terms of "hottest in 150 years," or "coldest on record," or "widest tornado ever recorded."
Well, you have to dig a little deeper into the editorial and its authors to really see what's going on. First, while they all have superficially impressive credentials, most of them also have fairly close associations with the petroleum industry. And 3/4 of them have little or no expertise in climatology or any closely related field. Not all scientists are really qualified to speak on climate change, so while they may be leading scientists and engineers, that doesn't automatically mean that they know anything substantive about the topic at hand. That's not to say that we should discount everything they say. Certainly we should question whether all the claims about predicted climate change are accurate, especially if they don't match up with known data.
But at the same time, some of their statements are pretty stupid. To claim that CO2 is automatically not a pollutant simply because it is a naturally occurring, and even important part of the atmosphere is not only grossly over simplistic, but incorrect. Just because iron is a necessary nutrient for forming hemoglobin doesn't mean that it can't also be a poison. Like CO2, it is necessary in extremely small trace amounts, but at higher levels it is in fact extremely toxic and does lead to several deaths every year, particularly in children. Excess CO2 is a pollutant, and can be damaging to the environment in a number of ways, of which elevated temperatures due to increased greenhouse effect is just one.
So when looking at the "95%" figure on scientists who support the claims that global warming is a significant problem, the question isn't so much whether the number is correct as it is "who are the remaining X%, and why don't they agree?"
This is interesting, Chuck. For years I assumed the skeptics were shills for the extractive industries who didn't want to see public opinion go against their goods (oil, gas, coal). You article points out there are legitimate scientists who have a different point of view.
For all I know, Rob, that 95% figure may be correct. But I guess that's the point. No One knows for sure. And I suspect that the number of scientists who don't believe is bigger than we are led to believe.
Your article is really quite surprising, Chuck. For years we've listened to the claim that 95 percent of scientists agree global warming is real and that it is man-made. This certainly changes the perception that the science is done on this subject.
I really do like your level-headed approaches to this sometimes overly reactive debate. It doesn't sound like the debate is about whether there is global warming, so much as, the root causes, rates, and impact. Naturally all these models go out the window if we have one major volcano or large asteroid hit dumping mega-doses of warming CO2 and sulfur, follwed by mega-doses of shadowing/cooling dust globally throwing us into a period of perpetual winter.
Thinking in risk probablility terms it seems prudent and responsible for us to minimize our environmental impact. This puts CO2 generation, recycling, waste minimizing, raw material conservation, and energy conservation (among others) all under consideration. We should not take radical steps to minimize one, at the expense of ignoring resultant abuse of another cause for concern. Naturally, balance is much harder to promote than a radical single pronged campaign.
Concurrently, it never hurts to plant some grass and some trees (as long as we don't dry-up our western aquafers to do it). Green plants work well as God engineered them. These will generate CO2 and O2 in balance, scrub some pollutants, and moderate temperatures. They warm-up the winters and cool the heat in the summer. It's always interesting to experience this first-hand during a motorcycle ride in the country. (e.g. - On a hot day, it is almost always more comfortable, perhaps 5-15 degrees cooler, to ride under shady trees than around concrete buildings. During a cool, clear evening, it is 5-15 degrees warmer when you pass under the canopy of trees than on the open road.) Perhaps that is food for thought.
@Beth: That's a really good point. Environmental sustainability is a complex subject. Reducing it to carbon footprint can be extremely misleading. That kind of thinking allows you to justify all kinds of wasteful and inefficient practices provided that you plant some trees somewhere.
I think the evidence for global warming is compelling, and as evo1 points out, so do the scientists who signed the editorial. Their argument is that the extent of global warming is less than some models have predicted, and the consequences may not be as dire.
(Their argument is also that those who disagree with them are like Stalinists and that they are motivated by greed and selfishness, so clearly there's more than enough demonization on both sides).
But eliminating waste and increasing efficiency are things which I think everyone can agree about. These things make sense economically, not just environmentally. And conservation of natural resources for future generations is something which has wide support across the political spectrum. Angry rhetoric sometimes distracts us from just how much common ground there really is.
I share your feeling about this, Tim. I was educated as an ME, too, and don't feel I'm in a position to know the answers to the mysteries of global warming. If I were forced to bet on it in Las Vegas, I'd probably go with the majority, which means I would bet that global warming is a problem. But by no means do I feel this is a closed discussion. And I'm offended by the demonization of those who don't agree with the majority. Those of us who haven't cemented a belief on one side or the other shouldn't be lumped in labeled categories such as "deniers" or "flat earthers." I dare say that many of the engineers who are still forming opinions on this subject have more scientific background than the people who are applying these labels. As I mentioned in the blog, I believe in the laws and principles of science that were taught to all engineers in school. AGW doesn't fall in that category.
Tim's point about demonization is one reason I've always been, quite frankly, scared to engage on global warming and to some extent on the biz regulation issues vis-a-vis our U.S. manufacturing debate earlier this week. These are highly charged subjects where political beliefs tend to make data-driven, objective discussions difficult. I am actually heartened by the mostly sober comments here and on the manufacturing thread (here). Maybe this means engineers, being engineers, can have more mature debates and discussions than some other groups.
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