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Global Warming Considerations

Posted in Climate

(Originally Published 9/16/2009)

Thank God for global warming! Without it, we would be still locked in an ice age and the famous “finger lakes” of upstate New York would still be glaciers and there would be no vineyards or orchards in New York or probably even in Georgia and South Carolina. Of course nobody wants change in the climate except those who are living in places that are “too cold” and places that are “too warm.” If we had a thermostat to set the earth’s average temperature, at what level would we set the temperature and how would we decide? I suspect it would be like the thermostat in the gym in the complex I live in: Some would argue to jack up the temperature a bit, some would want to lower it, and some would just adjust to it. The folks who have the best personal case for resisting climate change are those who live along the coasts and fear rising waters. Of course falling waters resulting from global cooling would be bad for them as well because that would result in fools rushing in and building high rises between them and the water or, at best, in longer walks to the beach.

We can agree on at least three things. 1. The concentration of atmospheric CO2, generally recognized as one of many “greenhouse gases,” has increased. 2. Increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, other things being equal, tend to increase the temperature of earth’s atmosphere. 3. The earth is warmer than it used to be. So, the overly simplistic and logically incorrect conclusion is that future temperatures will rise in proportion to the increase in CO2 concentrations.

That is analogous to saying that butter is fattening and that therefore anyone who increases their intake of butter will gain weight. Well, maybe and maybe not. It depends on how much butter they were eating before the increase and on how much they increase it and on what else they are eating besides butter and whether and how much that changes and on how many calories they are burning due to physical activity and whether and how much that changes. If 0.1% of their caloric intake before the doubling was butter, doubling that amount from one pat to two pats per day will have no measurable impact on their weight. If 25% of their caloric intake before the doubling was butter, doubling that amount without other simultaneous changes will probably cause a significant and serious change in weight. It is quite possible to lose weight while eating more butter or to see lower global temperatures as CO2 rises. So, my questions are:

  1. What are all the greenhouse gases and what are the impacts of each and the concentrations of each?
  2. How are those concentrations changing over time and why are they changing?
  3. What are the other drivers of earth’s temperature such as solar activity, volcanic activity, particulate matter in the atmosphere, and underground thermal activity and how are they changing?
  4. What are the impacts on global temperatures of those other drivers relative to the impacts of greenhouse gases?
  5. In other words, can we write a differential equation describing the change in earth’s temperature with respect to time as a function of all the known variables and put reasonable confidence limits on it?
  6. And by the way, do we really even know what the exact average temperature of the earth is let alone what it was 100 years ago?

I think the answers I would receive to those questions would be a boring recitation of a version of the mantra at the beginning of the second paragraph above: “We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that concentrations of it are increasing. Therefore, we know that the temperature of the earth will rise. Therefore, we must stop the increase of CO2 concentrations at any cost. To do anything less would be irresponsible and very dangerous and scary.” In other words, the logical and reasonable questions would be ignored in favor of maintaining a popular and politically correct position which serves the interests of powerful people wanting to exert additional control over the populace and extract additional wealth from them. What a shame! But there is hope. Arguments that the cooling trend of the past several years is consistent with global warming will only carry so far before getting laughs, boos, and hisses.

In the meantime, let’s try to focus attention on the many known economically justifiable improvements to the environment rather than creating fictitious scenarios to drive economically destructive changes.