Saturday, May 24, 2014

Should You Be Afraid of Global Warming?

Global warming is again in the news.   Should you be scared?  Fear is never an emotion to be trusted.

One of my clients is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  It is interesting to talk with these scientists, who are very smart people who have spent their lives devoted to studying our environment and figuring it out it works.

Sadly, many on the political Right have accused these scientists of having a political agenda, which is, of course, utter nonsense.   As an atmospheric scientist, you have nothing to gain (and everything to lose) by making false claims about the environment.   It is not like these guys are shorting stock in Exxon or something.   They have no dog in the fight, other than the one we all have - that is, living on Planet Earth.

That the impact of billions of human beings on the environment could have some negative consequences seems axiomatic.   If you've ever flown in an airplane, you've seen, firsthand, how huge swaths of the Earth's surface are now under cultivation or have been developed by human beings.  If you've every flown at night, you've seen how the entire landscape is illuminated by Man's creations.  And if you've ever spent the summer in the city, you know that canyons of asphalt and concrete are usually at least 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside.

And if you've ever lived in Los Angeles, well, you know what Smog is.   The idea that our activities don't impact the environment is a ludicrous proposition.  Yet, some "Conservatives" actually take that position.  They believe the Earth is so big, and we are so small, that it makes no difference what we do, there is always more water to drink, air to breathe, and of course oil to pump out of the ground.   Such is not the case.

Of course, there are many kinds of pollution.  With regard to air pollution, we've made great strides in reducing emissions from automobiles and power plants.  We can take out un-burned hydrocarbons with a pretty high level of efficiency.  We can remove oxides of nitrogen as well.  But in any hydrocarbon combustion process, there is one reaction that cannot be reduced through pollution controls, and that is the production of Carbon Dioxide.   Simply stated, when you burn carbon, you get carbon dioxide - it is as simple as that.  You can't get around it, as it is this combining of Carbon and Oxygen that produces energy - and separating them again would require just as much energy as you generated by combining them.

At one time, our Earth had an atmosphere that was mostly carbon dioxide.   Thanks to plants, trees, and algae, that CO2 was removed from the atmosphere and replaced with oxygen - which allowed animal life to develop on the planet.  That CO2 was then stored in plant life, and much of that is now sealed in the Earth's crust, after millions of years, as coal and oil - fossil fuels. When we burn these fuels, we release all that stored carbon.

Oh, right, I forgot.  God designed the animals and put them on the Earth, which was created 6,000 years ago.   You see how the debate on Global Warming is going.  Science is regressing, not progressing, and people believe whatever makes them comfortable, and as a result, refuse to confront harsh realities in their lives.

I guess it is human nature.  In 1938, people though that "this Hitler thing" would blow over, "once the German people came to their senses."   And those Japanese?   Not a threat, right?  It took Pearl Harbor to force people to confront reality.

But I digress......

The problem with the carbon cycle is that we are taking an awful lot of stored carbon from the crust of the Earth and combusting it.  Oil, natural gas, and coal, are all derived from dead plant life stored deep in the soils.   We release this stored carbon into the atmosphere, and it raises the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Again, this seems pretty axiomatic, but there are a lot of people on the Right who think our atmosphere is huge and can accommodate all this CO2.  But the reality of our atmosphere is this:  It is a thin layer of gases barely clinging to the surface of our planet.   Our planet is huge, but our atmosphere is just a thin film on the surface.  From the bottom of the deepest ocean to the top of the stratosphere, is little more than a thin film of scum on the round ball of planet Earth - that could blow off in a solar wind if not for our magnetic field.  And let's just hope a solar flare doesn't just boil it all off at once!

If you've ever seen pictures from space, you realize this. Our ecosystem is pretty fragile, and it is amazing we have lasted this long.  But not a lot of people realize this.  Remember those movies back in the 1930's where they would show the planet Earth with clouds floating around it, halfway out into space?  Well, that's how conservatives view our atmosphere - as immense and extending halfway to the moon.

The problem, of course, with the carbon-cycle is that breaking free of it is very expensive and difficult to do.  And all our best options are shouted down by the very same environmentalists who decry global warming.

Wind power, we are told, is an eyesore and will kill bats and birds. Even in places like politically-correct Ithaca, New York, wind farms are shouted down, not by right-wingers who are against tax subsidies, but by lefties who are duped by the coal industry.  Ithaca, despite being politically correct, is a coal-powered town, and the coal trains drive through town about once a day (blocking all traffic).  You'd think the irony factor would set in, but people on the far Left are as crazy as those on the far Right. (UPDATE: They finally switched to Natural Gas, it seems - the costs were less).

Nuclear Energy is completely Carbon-Free and produces no air pollution, unless of course the reactor is breached or vents radioactive gases.  The far-Left environmentalists are against nuclear energy, of course, so that option is out - or is it?   One problem with older generation nuclear reactors is that they were built next to rivers, the ocean, or on fault lines.  Primitive control systems and poor personnel management lead to avoidable accidents, such as 3-mile-island or Chernobyl. The meltdowns in Fukushima were perfectly preventable, but for some reason, no one thought about how a tsunami would affect a nuclear power plant (in a country beset regularly by tsunamis).   No one even thought to shut the reactors down when the tsunami was predicted (and our friends at NOAA have developed an excellent tsunami warning system and offered it free of charge to the world!).

Hydropower, we are told, kills the little fishes, and many dams have been taken down in recent years, to restore fish breeding grounds.

Solar Power is expensive to build, and of course is the subject of a number of recent scandals (or so-called scandals) like the ill-fated and ill-conceived Solyndra project.

So carbon-free alternatives have their problems and detractors.  But they are not impossible solutions, and given the environmental and economic costs of fossil fuels, the problems with these alternative energy solutions are not that much worse or insurmountable.

Sadly, however, we cannot have a rational debate about energy or the environment in this country without being whip-sawed between the extreme position of the far Right (who claim global warming is a hoax) and the far Left (who claim your house will be underwater by next year).

A recent report on CNN is case in point of the latter.  With ominous music, we are told that Antarctica is going to thaw, and sea levels will rise by "as much as 12 feet" which would put the ocean at my doorstep.   What is not said is that such rises might not occur for hundreds of years and that sea level rises in the next 100 years will be measured in inches, not feet.

This does not stop the media from reporting otherwise.  We are told that a South Pacific nation is going to be underwater within months, and the whole country must relocate.  We are told that polar bears are drowning as all the ice is gone, and for some reason, they did not head toward dry land.  We are told a lot of alarming stories by the media that are used to sell newspapers, or more correctly, to generate click-though revenue.

Why is this?   Because people on both sides of this debate will click on such stories.  The Lefties want to say, "See, I told you so!" and the Righties want to say, "It's all a bunch of bullshit!"

The truth, of course, is somewhere in-between, and sadly, the truth is a regular victim of muggings these days, from both radical extremes.

Should you be afraid of global warming?   Short answer, No.   If you are reading this now, chances are global warming will not significantly impact you, in your lifetime.   You beach house is not going to be underwater, unless it gets smacked by a hurricane.  And whether or not hurricanes are more prevalent or stronger than in the past is still not clear (Hurricanes cause more damage today, because people build mini-mansions on the beach, instead of beach shacks.  And since nearly every square mile of land near the coast is now developed, hurricanes cause more economic damage than in the past).

However, your children's lives may be affected, and certainly their children's. And therein lies the problem.  Since the immediate danger is not apparent, no one wants to do anything about it, particularly things that cost money and create inconvenience.  No one wants to pay now for benefits that might not be seen for 100 years.   And that is the problem with our species - and perhaps its inevitable downfall.

It is like the antibiotics debate.   If you over-use antibiotics, you benefit from the use personally, but hurt society at large.  Microbes become resistant to antibiotics, and eventually, antibiotics will be ineffective.   However, if you don't take the antibiotic, you might die from an infection, so you take it, even if it means personal gain to you while a detriment to society at large.  It is akin to the prisoner's dilemma.

The same is true with the pollution problem.   It is good for society at large to pollute less.   But pollution controls cost money and alternative energy sources are expensive and often require tax subsidies.   It is profitable for you, personally, to burn cheap hydrocarbons, even as it is unprofitable for the rest of the planet.

And it is unprofitable for us, as a country, to try to reduce carbon emissions, while the rest of the planet (China in particular) goes on a carbon-burning spree.

Will the problem ever be solved?  Perhaps, but I am skeptical.  People value self-interest over community interest.  And it seems lately that self-interest ("I've got mine jack, you get yours) is dominating our global society.    

I have written before how things like casinos, lotteries, payday loans, title pawn loans, and other raw deals are screwing the poor and eroding our society at its base.   Even "legitimate" institutions like banks are discovering that there is more profit to be made in ruining a person than in doing business with them.   Loan someone more money than they can ever possibly pay back, and then "take them down" after they have struggled for years trying to pay your interest rates.

It is a cancer on society as a whole, but it profits the individual company immensely.   And the bank that doesn't participate in Credit Card Bear Trap watches its earnings go into the toilet, as its competitors rake in 25-30% interest from hapless debtors.   It becomes a race to the bottom, in short order.

It will take an economic Pearl Harbor to change things - and many folks thought that the economic meltdown of 2009 was that Pearl Harbor.   Sadly, five years later, not much has changed, other than the most egregious loan practices seem to have attenuated - somewhat.   The payday loan places with their 300% interest, however, are still going strong.

And perhaps it will take a medical Pearl Harbor before we address the antibiotics issue.  And an environmental one before people will stop arguing whether global warming is real or not.

But as atmospheric scientists point out, if we have to wait for such a watershed event, chances are, it will be too late to change things.  When your home is permanently ankle-deep in water, it is too late to say, "Um, maybe we should embrace nuclear power or solar panels!"

The ultimate problem, of course is just too many damn people on the planet.   And maybe that is where the antibiotics Pearl Harbor will solve the problem.   A huge, worldwide epidemic that wipes out half the population of the Earth would be horrific.   But it likely would solve our environmental problem in short order.

And as sad as that sounds, it is likely what will happen, if anything does, to alter the course of our future.  And once that does happen, well, things will pretty much go back to the way they were, until the next chaotic crises event occurs.

And there ain't much you can do about that, other than to hope you are safely in the grave before it happens.  And sadly, that is the plan, for most Americans alive today.