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Global warming

                         –  What's up?  –

March 2005

The global atmosphere is warming, and Nero is fiddling. What is it Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush again have not understood?
There are four fundamental facts that are important for an understanding of the "global warming" issue:
  1. Meteorological records show that the Earth's climate has warmed over the past 200 years.
  2. Paleontological evidence shows that the Earth's climate has fluctuated irregularly between warm and cold periods for a billion years or more.
  3. Calculations and models by atmospheric scientists show that human atmospheric discharges can,  and probably have,  and probably still do contribute significantly to warming of the Earth's climate.
  4. Relatively small changes in the global climate could today have disastrous effects on many human populations in various parts of the Earth.
The public issue is about the relationships among these facts.

There is so much we don't know about this issue that we cannot avoid making vital decisions about emission control – which will have serious economic consequences – without having all the desired facts in hand. This is nothing new in the field of environmental regulation, where the conservative principle "when in doubt, favor environmental protection" has developed over the last three decades, and is now universally applied in advanced societies. When the United States adopted the world's first comprehensive environmental protection laws – the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act – in the early 1970s, precious little was known about just what measures would be required to return the nation's air and water to acceptable levels of purity and healthfulness, considering the needs of human, plant, and animal populations. In the Congressional adoption hearings for these landmark laws, opponents argued strongly against implementing expensive operational controls and discharge limitations on businesses, because – they argued – we didn't have enough facts about the impacts of industrial emissions on the environment. More study was needed, they said. It's to the great credit of the Congress and President Nixon that the wisdom of the principle "when in doubt, favor environmental protection" was recognized and adopted. These grand laws have improved, restored, and protected the quality of the environment in the US for over thirty years, and have become models for environmental protection around the world. While these laws naturally have not been perfect, the point is that forward-looking lawmakers took a chance;  they declared that the environmental problems were serious, that without action they could become critical, and therefore they acted on the best information they had, understanding that their data were less than complete.  (And perhaps understanding that data can never be complete, and that this same argument against environmental regulation can always be made and is always trivial.)

We're now in a similar situation with regards to global climate effects. Science has not yet provided a dependable theory for the causes of natural global climate changes. Therefore, no one knows how much of the observed warming trend may be due to natural causes, and how much may be due to man's activities. But we do know that our activities – our emissions of "greenhouse" gases, the gases  (such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane)  that reduce infrared re-radiation through our atmosphere into space, thereby trapping heat within the atmosphere – are such that they may be responsible – or partly responsible – for the observed increase in global temperatures. The issue now revolves around evaluating the risk of the consequence of a major warming pattern against the likelihood that man's activities are contributing to this.

Some of the consequences of continued global heating are frighteningly clear. An average annual global temperature increase of just a few degrees would result in a gradual melting of the Earth's great ice fields, which, together with the thermal expansion of the warmer ocean, would result in a rise in sea levels that would be catastrophic for all the world's great coastal cities as well as other coastal lowlands. In addition, the great "heat engine" of the Earth's oceans – the major warm and cold water currents that stabilize and moderate climates – would be disrupted, with vast climatic consequences for the Earth. If the warming trend of the past two hundred years continues for another few decades, such results are likely in our future. Perhaps in the near future.

So ... whether to act or not?  The situation is this:  If the warming trend is largely natural, our action in attempting to reduce our offensive emissions may be like hunting elephants with a flyswatter.  It would have minimal effect;  the warming and its consequences would occur in any case.  In other words, the greatest natural disaster in the history of recorded civilizations would occur, and economic conditions around the world would be in chaos.  If, on the other hand, it turns out that the warming trend is in large part the result of man's activities, our action in reducing our emissions may be successful in slowing or even reversing this trend.  Our failure to do so would in this case result in catastrophe for our civilization.  Given these choices – despite opponents' familiar arguments that we don't have all the facts, and that further study is needed – can there be any doubt among prudent and thoughtful citizens that the course we need to adopt is to reduce our emission of "greenhouse gases" to levels that will not contribute to trapping of heat in the atmosphere and result in further human aggravation of the global warming trend.  The alternative is to play roulette with our very existence as a species.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

(Parenthetically, there's the "Kyoto Protocol" which then-Vice President Al Gore signed in Kyoto on behalf of the U.S. in 1997.  This clumsy and nearly unreadable treaty is parenthetical because it's unrealistic and unrealizeable.  As President Clinton knew when he sent Mr.Gore to sign the document, it could not be approved by the U.S. Senate, which had voted 95-0, ahead of the signing, to not approve any such treaty that was not world-wide in its scope.  The Kyoto treaty is definitely not world-wide in scope, and seemed almost to carry a racial bias:  In addition to Japan, the treaty covered only Europe, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.  No limits on China, India, Mexico, Egypt, Korea, Argentina, or any other industrial non-European nation.  The limits set in the treaty were also unrealistic; hardly anyone now thinks that the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent worldwide from 1990 to 2008 is reachable, and the European Union has in fact renegotiated the goal to a decrease of 2 percent.  While President Clinton knew the treaty couldn't work and wouldn't be approved by the Senate, he avoided discussing it or bringing it to the Senate for ratification, and it was left to President Bush to quite honestly state the fact that the U.S. was not supporting it, and take the political hits.)

© 2005 H. Paul Lillebo

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