It’s official: climate cynicism is the new global warming. That’s right folks, you heard it here first. We are witnessing the biggest cultural shift since Jake Gyllenhaal made the cowboy hat queer.
What is climate cynicism, you ask? Well, like political cynicism, it involves rejecting any facts, data or expert opinions on an important issue facing our global society, and attributing all debate to partisan bickering. It’s a lot like the healthcare debate, only replace “evil money grubbing HMOs” with “Carbon Dioxide,” and “pinko-commie liberal congressman” with “Nobel laureates.”
Science, like economics, is a matter of opinion and thus best left to all those senators who don’t run around Ivy League Universities flaunting their PhDs.
This, essentially, was the point of John Tierney’s latest column in New York Times Science. Obama’s science team, whose notable members include physicists Steven Chu and John Holdren, must stop touting their credentials and claiming that their data trumps any dissenting opinions, financial constraints or conflicting political agendas. Tierney cited a book by a Colorado University professor of environmental studies, who in essence said researchers and science advisors fail to realize their perspective is one of many valid opinions that must be weighed by elected officials when drafting policy. Scientists don’t run the country — politicians do.
In the case of global warming, Tierney pointed out that little is currently known for sure about the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He mocks the “Malthusian” perspective of Holdren, who acknowledged the possibility that climate change could leave a billion dead by the year 2020.
Why is it suddenly in vogue to call attention to the highly rumored black market of scientific data claiming Global Warming is a farce? I thought climate concern was cool again after Al Gore’s trendy Global Warming PowerPoint, rife with stylish graphics, stored on his shiny MacBook Pro. I was there in the Art House Theater, eating salt-less popcorn covered in curry right next to you people! We laughed, we cried, we cracked Bush jokes! What happened?
One factor raising skepticism is that, actually, this year has been colder than average. And sometimes it’s just hard to listen to crap about “warming” when an arctic blast invades from Canada like a Celine Dion single, chilling us to the bone as we inch our way up Ho Plaza each morning.
Part of the problem is that people think that even if the Thomas Malthus’ among us are right about global warming, the U.S. is pretty well off. The Dutch can worry about rising oceans and the Africans can deal with all that rapid desertification. We have irrigation and high, dry land for at least another century, right?
Well no, not really. Or at least no real scientist would rule out the possibility of disaster. It turns out there are certain nuances to this whole debate that have been lost in the political banter.
I’d like to start by proposing a ban on the words “global warming.” It’s the most over-simplified way to describe this whole issue. Tierney’s right when he says we don’t know many of the effects of so much carbon dioxide. A better name for this phenomenon is the “global heat trap,” because there’s one thing we know for certain, and that’s that more energy is being trapped on Planet Earth than any other time in recent history.
The Earth receives tons of incoming energy from the Sun, but also loses tons of energy to the ridiculously freezing surrounding space (like -454 degrees Fahrenheit freezing). This looks basically identically to a steam engine, or a nuclear plant, or any other system where there’s a heat flow in, a heat flow out, and stuff happening in the middle.
The “stuff happening” is our climate, and it’s been running pretty well for millions of years. But now, the same amount of energy is arriving on the planet, but not as much is leaving. If this build up of extra energy were to happen to a steam engine on a boat chugging up the Mississippi River, I might recommend jumping overboard before something explodes.
Okay, so Mother Nature is slightly more forgiving than a Fulton Steamer, but all that extra energy means that some of the rules of the game are about to change, and when it comes to a “highly non-linear” system like the climate, literally anything goes. It might not mean warming at all, but it certainly means change. Climate trends don’t work like a well-behaved demand curve in economics. If I measure price and quantity and plot the result, I can fit an equation to it, and extrapolate, in some cases, with a degree of confidence. But our planet’s climate doesn’t follow any nice functional form. Extrapolating is risky business because you never know when you’ll hit some sort of critical point where the rules change.
For instance, what if glacial runoff lowered the Atlantic’s salt content to such an extent that the Atlantic current that brings Caribbean warmth to Europe no longer felt inclined to flow? Suddenly Rome is taking winter fashion cues from Boston (they’re at roughly the same latitude).
For a simple counterproof of the “slow change” argument, think about a block of ice. I can plot its density versus temperature all the way from -273 degrees Celsius to zero, and nothing spectacular happens (it grows a bit, and when it passes through its ninth solid phase, Kurt Vonnegut comes to life … but nothing major). And then at zero degrees, the block of ices gives way to a puddle of water. If you hadn’t known that already, spotting it coming would have been trickier than spotting a sub-prime crisis.
But it gets even more interesting! Weather is a chaotic system. That means even if I took precise measurements of every meteorological indicator over every square inch of the planet, and ran the data through some sort of giant army of tricked-out supercomputers, I could probably only predict the weather with impressive precision for the next week or two — it just depends too much on exact details to pin things down for very long. And you actually listen to the Weather Channel.
So what’s a concerned world citizen to do? Well, listen to those Malthusian paranoids for once and realize that this climate change business is some serious shit. And please, try to heed the scientists among us. I’ve been crushed by them on so many devilish prelims that I know they’re a smart bunch.