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GP15Dec04: Ninety Degrees of Uncertainty

Flat-Earth Society.  Last week we said in our “Authentic Conversations” that engineer and one-time professor John Maulbetsch of California thought that the connection between mankind’s outpourings of CO2 and global warming was far from proven.  In the eyes of  Knight-Ridder’s flagship newspaper, the San Jose Mercury, that would make him akin to a Flat Earther.  Well, a very talented, strongly opinionated creative writing professor from Kerryland has since written us to say we, too, are Flat Earthers for even raising any doubts about mainstream global warming theory and its numerous corollaries.   

Now that we are pigeonholed and flatfooted, we are looking into FE membership, though we have not been able to track down any group with a real pedigree.  We have found some manifestos from various Flat Earth knockoffs in California, the land of fruits and nuts (see www.flat-earth.org, www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flatearth.html, and www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/fe-scidi.htm).  However, we are after some old-time group more medieval in character with less of a New Age ring to it where we can proudly celebrate our outré status. 

Ice Age?  In fact, we have all sorts of doubts about all the accepted global warming truisms but are quite enthused about several of the prohibitions in the Kyoto Protocol.  Just because we find global warming potentates to be foggy, hazy, and murky in their thinking—not  unlike most establishment businesses, foundations, and other sheepherding organizations—we find the case for cutting pollution and, above all, for energy conservation outrageously compelling. 

However, a whole other apocalypse scenario lies just offstage.  We refer you, for instance, to Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Ice Memory,” The New Yorker, January 7, 2002, which takes a hard look at the glaciers in Greenland.  Donald Freytag, a one-time chief executive in the Midwest who likes to think about such things, just sent her piece along to us.  She took a trip there to work with teams that were drilling deep ice cores to understand climatic change, past and future.  As she says, “it is still possible to imagine that the Earth will slowly heat up, and that the landscape and the weather will gradually evolve in response.  But it is also possible that the change will come, as it has in the past, in the form of something much worse.” 

The course of global history would not suggest that we are headed for a warm spell.  “For at least half a million years, and probably a lot longer, warm periods and ice ages have alternated according to a fairly regular, if punishing, pattern: ten thousand years of warmth, followed by ninety thousand years of cold.  The current warm period, the Holocene, is now ten thousand years old, and, all other things beings equal—which is to say had we not interfered with the pattern by burning fossil fuels—we should now be heading towards another ice age.” 

“How is it that we happen to live in this, chronologically speaking, best of all possible times?  On statistical grounds, it certainly seems improbable that the only period in the climate record as stable as our own is our own.”  It seems that we are living in a period of exceptional weather stability, but that we are about to revert to tumultuous times, and cold ones at that.  We can no longer usefully pray—“bon temps rouler.” 

Pathetic Fallacy.  In literature, we say the “pathetic fallacy” has come into play when the heavens mirror the emotional climate surrounding one or more of our central characters.  Thomas Hardy, for instance, was wont to provide us with stormy weather and moody landscapes when Tess and all his other heroines were exhibiting their most frenetic palpitations. 

The links we find between the climate and human conduct are pathetic, both because they speak to many terrifying truths, but also because they are as often riddled with error.  We know that the seas are driving people away from our eroding coastline, that more frequent eruptions from volcanoes are poisoning the air above distant cities, and that all sorts of difficulties in the water supply on every continent will create economic and health costs throughout this century.  (Incidentally, arsenic contamination of water supplies is a problem in over half of America and in many countries around the world.  One possible tool to deal with it is reviewed on Best of Triangle this week.)  Poor Afghanistan is still in the midst of a seven year drought, the worst anyone can remember. (See The Financial Times, December 12, 2004, p. YT12.)   

So we know changing climatic conditions are giving us a pounding.  But we understand much less about man’s impact on the weather and on long-term climatic trends, pseudo-science to the contrary.  We have this week received frequent communiqués about the contradictions between what we think we know about the climate and what is actually happening. 

Heat Even Without a Fire. Gavin Graham, a global portfolio manager up in chilly Canada just on the edge of many Artic Fronts, remarks that we earthlings have gotten in a sweat several times in the past though no hot coals were around to account for the elevated Fahrenheit readings: 

Your note on the possibility that global warming and rising CO2 may not be connected to man-made pollution would, of course, be enough to include you amongst the ranks of the flatearthers that the San Jose Mercury mentions.  In fact, as numerous scientists and climatologists have pointed out, there have been periods of global warming in recorded history when mankind was not pumping pollutants into the atmosphere.  The Viking settlements in North America and Greenland occurred during the Early medieval period, when Vinland (Newfoundland) might actually have been warm enough to grow vines on, followed by a Little Ice Age in the thirteenth and fourteenth century which may have contributed to the Black Death and falling population by falling temperatures and an extensive period of bad weather.  In the late 1600s, the Thames in London would freeze over and enormous Ice Fairs were held over the New Year on the river ice. 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside.  We think this old chestnut is always sung by show business types who hang out in the sun at  Palm Springs, Palm Beach, and other places where tropical breezes are wafting.  Nonetheless, Dr. Bill B. May, a Silicon Valley technologist and a former, highly effective chief executive, reminds us that it is probably a lot colder in the great out there than we are led to believe: 

A 2000-Year History of Climate Change in Alaska, which concludes that today's climate is not very different from extremes of the last 2000 years (www.co2science.org/edit/v7/v7n49edit.htm). 

I also note that when I visited Alaska a couple summers ago, we were told that the glaciers started receding around the 1850s or before.  And most of the recession was before 1950.  Hmmm.  Not much CO2 then. 

Bill’s website, www.newsbalance.com, is devoted to correcting what he takes to be misbegotten ideas about many topics of current interest, and we would say it provides conservative redress to perceived liberal bias in the mainstream press.  On a minor note, we can testify that Alaska, at least, remains plenty cold enough.  In the middle of summer a few years back we paddled around Glacier Bay in kayaks.  Needless to say, we were not tempted to go for a swim.  See “Really Getting Away from It All,” August 28, 2000. 

A Bad Time for the Environment.  In case you hadn’t noticed, this has been a bad time for the environment and for environmental causes.  In part this stems from the fact that more and more people everywhere are flocking to urban areas and, as a consequence, lack any passionate, organic connection with nature.  The National Audubon Society, for one, is trying to rectify this by bringing nature to city and suburban dwellers. (Read about Audubon in our Global Province Network.) 

As well there is an explosion of good and bad arising from unfettered laissez-faire capitalism throughout the world.  China’s economy is bursting, but its pollution is beyond belief and only threatens to get worse, at much cost to the health of its citizens.  If you have looked down your cul de sacs lately, you will notice that developers no longer are leaving native trees standing, since they can build faster when they don’t have to protect the woods.  Their buyers don’t much care about the landscape anyway.  In fact, more houses are now designed with less landscape to maintain, with plants that do not require much tending.  The birds, the bees, and the trees don’t do very well, when such ravenous development is afoot. 

The current Administration is probably the first in a century that does not even make a pretence of caring for the environment.  The President’s grandfather, as was the custom among Republican leaders back when, did exhibit greater passion for the land. This turnabout in sentiment today is rather ironic, since Teddy Roosevelt, the Great Republican, virtually invented twentieth-century conservation politics.  But the environment is simply not on the government’s front burner in 2004, and, in this respect, the government is in tune with our populace which is out of touch with the Great Outdoors.  Nonetheless, conservatives have made themselves politically vulnerable since they are no longer the real champions of conservation. 

But, we suspect, sundry environmentalists are responsible as well for the browning of our world.  Many of them cite as scientific certainties ideas that are merely theories, undermining their credibility.  They have not pulled together behind a few doable, durable plans that reach people where they live.  They have not thoroughly connected the whole array of pollutants, wasteful energy practices, and sterile planning with the runaway healthcare bill that is the nation’s number one problem.  Pollution and ecological turmoil have more to do with bad health than we acknowledge.  For more on this same subject, see our “Turkey Restoration; Green Renewal,” December 3, 2003. 

P.S.  Here and there, the good guys are winning a few.  Read in Big Ideas this week about the increasing use of manure (a pollutant) as fuel. 

P.P.S.  Man is very ingenious at producing new forms of pollution, including a whole array of  horrible sounds that we can do without.  Your meal has already been interrupted by cell phones in several restaurants.  And then there are the many loud TVs parked in public spaces such as bars, baggage terminals, airline clubs, etc.  You will want to read about TV-B-Gone on Wit and Wisdom this week.  

P.P.P.S.  For a lighter take on global warming, please see “The Big Surf” on Scenes from the Global Province.

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