“Global Warming”

Part II: Toward a New Moral Equivalent of War

“Global warming” is in quotation marks not because I am a “denier” but, rather, because the term itself is unfortunate—and I can offer no suitable substitute. (“Global atmospheric temporal changes” might be more accurate, but is too much of a mouthful!) What makes the term “unfortunate” is that the atmospheric phenomena associated with the term include not only a trend in increase (not a continuous increase, note) in the global mean temperature, but also (a) an increased number of storms, (b) an increase in their severity, and (c) increased variability in atmospheric conditions—for a given area over time, and geographically. Indeed, there may be other phenomena of importance that are missing from this list.

Some distinguish between “global warming” and “climate change,”1 but I do not—and also have problems with “climate change.” For given that, by definition, the “climate” of a place is the temporal pattern of atmospheric phenomena (e.g., temperature, precipitation) from an annual standpoint, if no such pattern exists, the place cannot be said to have a climate! That is, given that the sequence of atmospheric “events” for one year must be highly similar to that sequence for any other year for a place to have a “climate,” increasing annual variability in atmospheric events for a given place means that the very concept of “climate” becomes increasingly meaningless for that place.

When Wladimir Köppen introduced his classification of climate types in 1884, what enabled him to do so is that the temporal patterning referred to above existed. Increasingly, however, an expectation of “climate scientists” is that this patterning will be becoming less and less pronounced—to the point that “climate” will no longer have a referent (thereby being equivalent to “unicorn”!). The word will continue to exist, of course, but increasingly it will point to a “thing” that is fading away, perhaps to the point of non-existence. Put another way, global warming does not involve a change from one climate type to another; rather, it involves change from a climate type toward a non-climate sort of situation.

I use the term “global warming” here simply because it is in common usage, meaning by that term the array of atmospheric phenomena (at minimum) identified above.

“Climate deniers” in our midst represent an important obstacle to addressing the problem of global warming. Although some individuals are likely deniers because they (understandably) have difficulty in relating what they observe, day by day, to claims by scientists who have been researching the matter for many years, a much lesser degree of innocence is associated with many others in this group. Corporations involved in industries contributing to global warming have an economic incentive to continue their activities, for their orientation tends to be only to the short-run—making profits in the short-run, so that those who have invested in their business can make a good return on their investments. What many such corporations have done, therefore, is hire “scientists” not expert in “climate science,” and/or scientists willing to work for corporations to provide “proof” that global warming is a hoax. If one goes to Google Books and enters “global warming,” one will find that many hits are of books by such individuals—giving the impression, to the non-specialist, that the deniers have a solid basis for their position.2

In our legal system, defense lawyers are expected to develop a case for their client (e.g., Casey Anthony—who was recently acquitted in her trial), even if they are convinced that that individual is guilty—and no one regards this as unethical: they are just doing what our legal system expects of them. But scientists should not think of themselves as lawyers (God forbid!); rather, they should think of themselves as truth-seekers, whose ethics do not permit them to be “bought off.” But one suspects that at least some of the scientists who are engaged in global warming denial have compromised their ethics. Which is not to say that climate scientists do not have disagreements one with another, however.

For example, a posting by Dr. Gavin A. Schmidt3 is followed by 727 comments (!) at last count by others (mainly other scientists, I assume). But that fact of having divergent views is not a peculiarity but, rather, a common phenomenon in the sciences. Scientists who have not “sold out” are, on the one hand, not afraid of expressing their views to other scientists, with the full expectation that other scientists may find flaws in their thinking. In learning of the reactions of other scientists, they then modify their views, for their ultimate interest is in arriving at objective truth (i.e., statements agreed to by most other specialists in the same area). But scientists are human beings just like the rest of us, so that they are not always able, as a group, to achieve universal agreement. And given that in the case of climate science there is but limited opportunity for experimentation, and projections into the future (which are inherently “non-factual” in that they pertain to the “not yet”) are an integral part of the science, it is by no means surprising that there is perhaps less agreement among climate scientists than most other scientists.

From the fact that universal agreement is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in climate science, it does not follow that scientists should abandon their research in that area, for their research has tremendous relevance for the human future. Nor is it sensible for us lay people to deny the reality of global warming: The hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires (resulting from drought) that have occurred in this country so far this year may not have been demonstrably caused by global warming; these events have, however, been entirely consistent with global warming—and that fact should give one pause.

If some of the deniers have been publishing misinformation, and thereby convincing some and confusing others, another unfortunate fact regarding global warming is that so many in our society are simply clueless about it. As one talks with others, reads the newspaper, watches television, etc., one rarely encounters others who seem even somewhat informed about the topic, or concerned about the implications that may be associated with global warming. One would think that Hurricane Katrina would have been a “wake up” call for many in our society, but it appears not to have been. An example: On July 10, 60 Minutes had a segment on deriving natural gas from shale rock. Neither the interviewer (Lesley Stahl) nor anyone interviewed evinced any concern for global warming. Someone mentioned that natural gas is less polluting than other fossil fuels—which is true—but failed to note that its burning still results in the emission of carbon dioxide.

In discussing global warming, a useful beginning point is simply to note that the earth4 has an atmosphere, and this atmosphere not only enables life on earth (through its heat retention—i.e., “greenhouse effect”—and the particular gases present), but protects life. I should add that the atmosphere itself is almost entirely a product of the activities of living organisms at the earth’s surface.

Oxygen (essential for human life) constitutes about 21 % (by volume) of our atmosphere, and carbon dioxide (essential for plant life—and thereby indirectly essential for human life as well) about 0.04 %. Although carbon dioxide (CO2) constitutes but a small portion of atmospheric gases, it is important not only for plant life, but important as a “greenhouse gas.” That is, (a) solar radiation striking earth (and absorbed by land, buildings, water, etc.) is short-wave, (b) heat energy emitted by earth in turn is long-wave, and (c) thereby absorbed by certain gases, such as carbon dioxide. Such gases are referred to as “greenhouse gases” because, in playing a role similar to that of greenhouse glass, they are involved in heating the atmosphere. Thus, carbon dioxide is not only essential for plant life (and thereby indirectly essential for human life); its role in heating the atmosphere is of direct importance for human existence.

English scientist James Lovelock has concluded, as a result of his research and reasoning, that (a) earth’s atmosphere has evolved over time, at some point acquiring characteristics that enabled it to support species such as the human species.5) In addition, (b) he has concluded that earth behaves as if it were itself a living entity, for earth seems to be somehow equipped (like a human body) with (1) negative feedback mechanisms that “work” to keep it on an “even keel,” and (2) positive feedback mechanisms that behave in a self-destructive manner if and when the system is stressed beyond some “tipping point.” This led Lovelock—at the suggestion of a neighbor (William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies)—to refer to earth as Gaia) the goddess of earth, although Lovelock was not, of course, suggesting that earth was literally a living being.

If earth is able to regulate itself, and thereby incidentally enable life to exist on earth (unlike our near neighbors in the universe, Mercury and Mars), it does not follow from that fact that that ability is absolute. If its system is “shocked” sufficiently (e.g., as a result of volcanic eruptions), it will be “thrown out of kilter,” but may be able to return to “normal” after a certain period of time. There remains the possibility, however, that a “shock” received by earth would be so severe that Gaia would, in effect, “die”—in the sense of changing so drastically as to be no longer able to support life. Such a “shock” could come from various sources, but the most important one for us (from a human control standpoint) is human activities (including breathing!6 ) which result in the addition of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere. In fact, the “global warming” that has been occurring appears to be largely a consequence of human activities.

I’ll comment further on that matter shortly, but first would like briefly to discuss a few historical developments relative to global warming research, beginning with Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier [1768-1830] Fourier can be said to have been the discoverer of the greenhouse effect, because he (a mathematician and physicist) calculated that given earth’s size and distance from the sun, it should be much colder than it is. Fourier guessed that various factors might be responsible for this fact, including the possibility that earth’s atmosphere was somehow acting as an insulator. Fourier was not, however, able to provide a definitive answer as to why earth was warmer than it “should be.”

To Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius [1859-1927] must be given credit for providing basic understanding of the “greenhouse effect.” In attempting to learn why ice ages had occurred, Arrhenius speculated that there had been changes in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content over time, and that this variation is what caused variations in earth’s temperature. In formulating this hypothesis, he had drawn upon previous work by other scientists, Josef Stefan [1835-1893] and Stefan’s student Ludwig Boltzmann [1844-1906] in particular. Arrhenius did not, however, make note of a change occurring in earth’s temperature during his lifetime—in part (I would assume) because his interests lay elsewhere, in part because such a change was not notable then.

The concept of “global warming” did not arise until after Charles David Keeling [1928-2005] began measuring carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, using an instrument that he had himself developed while at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. The measurements that he made while in California indicated an increase in CO2 level over time, and as Keeling saw significance in that fact he decided—with the help and encouragement of Roger Revelle, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—to establish a recording station on Mauna Loa, Hawaii (a location chosen for its relative isolation from nearby sources of carbon dioxide emissions). A graph of recordings at that site indicates a definite trend in CO2 increase since Keeling began recording values in 1958. (Of interest is the May 2011 reading of CO2 was 394.16 and the June reading slightly less, 393.69. Also of interest here is historical data.)

The data collected at this station in Hawaii indicated that whereas the CO2 level in 1958 had been 315 parts per million (ppm), by 2005 it had climbed to 380 ppm. Keeling noted that this rise was correlated with fossil fuel emissions, so given the fact that those emissions could basically be attributable to the burning of fossil fuels by humans (as opposed to other possible sources). This conclusion has enabled scientists—in noting that the earth’s mean temperature has also been rising—to reach the very reasonable conclusion that that heating has principally resulted as a consequence of human use of fossil fuels. That is, the global warming that is occurring—and there’s no question that it has been—is largely “anthropogenic.”)

Climate science research subsequent to Keeling’s empirical findings falls into several categories, and I will give attention to five of them here. First, scientists have determined that in addition to CO2 such gases as water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone are greenhouse gases (Indeed, it has been determined that methane is an especially effective greenhouse gas, being about 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide.

Second, the modeling of climate change data has occupied the attention of a number of researchers over the past few years. The following site (of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA) presents a number of projections for the period between now and 2100 CE, and it can be noted here that there are (regarding “emission scenarios”) lines for constant CO2, low growth, moderate growth, and high growth. The reason for the multiple lines is that even if one has a model that predicts past changes in temperature accurately, it does not follow that one can use that model to predict future changes—for the simple reason that the future values that one “plugs” into one’s model as explanatory (i.e., X) variables will, of necessity, be guesses, not facts; they are not facts because, in pertaining to the “not yet,” they cannot be. The EPA states (on the above site) that (using the period 1980-1990 as the reference point) it’s possible that the temperature increase to 2100 CE will be from 2 to 11°F., with the most likely increase being between 3.2 and 7.2°F. Models created by other agencies or individuals would be expected to produce different results, of course.

The web site established by Robert A. Rohle (a Ph. D. student, in Physics, at the University of California-Berkeley) is extremely useful in that it provides numerous graphs, charts, and links. For example, he presents the following chart, with information derived from eight different climate science groups:

(Two of the above groups here are: CCSR/NIES is for Center for Climate System Research/Nationl Institute for Environmental Studies, in Japan; NCAR CSM is for National Center for Atmospheric Research Climate System Model (United States).

Notice, with these different models, that the variation in land temperature varies from 2.7 to 7.0°C, the variation in ocean temperature from 2.0 to 3.8°C, with the total variation varying between 2.2 and 4.7°C. Some might be tempted to interpret this variation as proof that climate scientists don’t know what they are doing—and there is some merit in such a conclusion, in the sense that climate science is a maturing, not a mature, science at present. Apart from that fact, however, there is the fact that making projections regarding future situations/events is inherently difficult, given that projections are, of necessity, always based on some unknowns.

It would seem that the sensible way of perceiving these variations is to recognize that although they differ one from another, they all project an increase in mean temperature; none predicts either no change or decrease. Second, although a 2.2°C change, e.g., between 2000 and 2100 may seem like a small change, in fact it represents a huge amount of heat energy. When most of us think of such a change, we are thinking of the change at our particular location on a particular day—in which case the amount of change is only detectable with a thermometer. When the entire earth is the object of measurement, however, the meaning of a 2.2°C change is entirely different—a matter that I comment on shortly.

Before doing so, however, I would like to note that James Lovelock, as a result of some experimentation, determined that “suddenly, between 400 and 500 ppm of carbon dioxide, a small increase of heat or carbon dioxide causes a sudden nine-degree rise of temperature.” Lovelock went on to note: “The Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse is now well above 400 ppm (carbon dioxide is near 390 ppm but methane, nitrous oxide and the CFCs lift the total effect to nearer that of 430 ppm carbon dioxide).”7 (Lovelock’s reference here is to what climate scientists refer to as the “carbon dioxide equivalent”.)

In discussing models I should note that James Lovelock has been critical of many of the modeling efforts to date, on the basis that they “are limited by a climate theory based almost wholly on atmospheric physics, and even this is far from complete.”8 As a consequence of their deficiencies in assumptions, Lovelock notes that “as I write this in 2008, more than one thousand of the world’s best climate scientists have worked for seventeen years to forecast future climates and have failed to predict the climate of today”9 —a serious deficiency, indeed!

Given that the concepts of negative and positive feedback are key ones in Lovelock’s thinking about earth, he has advocated for their inclusion in climate models. Associated with the concepts of negative and positive feedback is the concept of non-linearity—the idea that (in this case) rather than temperature increasing at a steady (in trend terms) rate over time, it is likely to increase at an accelerating rate—if a certain mean temperature for earth is reached. Put another way, there is the possibility of a “tipping point” which, if reached, will be followed by a period of rapid increase. Uncontrollable rapid increase (very possibly), in fact.10 Thus, it is incumbent on us humans to do what we can to prevent that from happening.

Which leads, third, to an interesting question: If humans were, beginning tomorrow, to cease emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, what would happen? I posed this question to Goddard Institute for Space Studies scientist Gavin A. Schmidt, and here’s what he emailed back to me: “There is no ‘immediate’ effect of ceasing CO2 emissions on temperature.” However, if one considers not only CO2 emissions but other ones as well, “the immediate effect of ceasing all emissions (including CH4, NOx, VOCs, SO2, etc.) would have an impact—but that would be one of warming! (because the short-lived species have a net cooling effect).” Lovelock explains this by noting that “atmospheric aerosol … reflects sunlight back to space and makes global warming less severe than it might otherwise be.” And adds that IPCC contributors Peter Cox and Meinrat Andreae, in a Nature paper, “warned that if the haze disappeared, global heating would intensify, and dangerous change could be the consequence.”11

The latter conclusion seemingly leads one to believe that “we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t!” And there is merit in such a conclusion. But the proper conclusion to draw from such a conclusion is “let’s get on with it, and the sooner the better.” Doing what? I’ll address that question right after briefly discussing consequences of global warming.

Fifth, then, is the matter of consequences, and it is useful to think of there being at least two levels of consequences, direct and indirect. Direct consequences would include the following:12

• At some point in time—and at some locations—temperatures may become so warm, for extended periods, as to be unbearable.
• There will be more storms, and more severe storms.
• The flooding of rivers will become more common..
• Tsunamis will become more common.
• As drought affects certain areas, fires will become more common.
• Diseases will spread.
• Migrations from seacoast areas will be necessary as sea level rises.
• Animal migrations (caused by loss of habitat) may occur (and result in animal attacks in some areas).
• Food supplies will be diminished as some areas become less arable (e.g., desertification, increased rainfall), hail destroys crops, etc.—resulting in increased cost of food, to the point that it becomes unaffordable by many.
• Violence may become a serious problem as more and more people become desperate.13

The indirect results of the above events are most important to humans, and include property damage (and the costs therewith associated), increased suffering, and a severe culling of the human population.14

For example, James Lovelock—who favors technological approaches to the global warming problem—“fears [that] we won’t invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects ‘about 80%’ of the world’s population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets have been foretelling Armageddon since time began [not quite true!], he says. ‘But this is the real thing.’”15

Such a prediction is scary. But even more so is Dr. Erik R. Pianca’s recommendation of a deliberate 90% culling of the human population! I hope that Dr. Pianca meant this as a “tongue in cheek” recommendation, but have no way of knowing whether or not it was.16

Lovelock’s “80% figure” was given in 2008. In his 2009 book (op. cit.) he states (p. 6) “we do have to take seriously the possibility that global heating may all but eliminate people from Earth.” And (p. 33): “The climate war could kill nearly all of us and leave the few survivors living a Stone Age existence.” And (p. 247-248): “Our first imperative is to survive, but soon we face the appalling question of whom we can let aboard the lifeboats? And whom must we reject? There will be no ducking this question for before long there will be a great clamor from climate refugees seeking a safe haven in those few parts where the climate is tolerable and food is available.”

Even if one views Lovelock as somewhat of an alarmist, the fact that the vast majority of climate scientists (a) believe that global warming is occurring and (b) poses severe risks for our species (to say nothing of other species, of course) should suggest to us that we take global warming seriously.

How, sixth, should we respond. I am going to keep my comments here short by simply noting that two basic approaches can be used—that of mitigation efforts and that of adaptation ones. As both of those topics are discussed well in Lovelock’s book (among many others), I am simply going to suggest here that the reader explore that literature.

The recommendations that I offer in Parts III and IV can be thought of responding to this statement by Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International: “We have the opportunity to build a society that represents our highest capacities, with extreme poverty eliminated; great technology that works with rather than against nature and provides us with abundant energy and resources; a closed-loop economy with no waste; communities that work and support one another; happiness, satisfaction, and service as the central approach of ‘money=happier people.’”17

The recommendations offered in III and IV involve both mitigation and adaptation, but are also—and simultaneously—addressed to problems in addition to global warming.

  • See Part 1.
    1. For example, Mark Hertsgaard, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, p. 5. []
    2. For a good discussion of “denial” see Nicole Hodgson. Also see Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2010. Additional books on the subject include James Hoggan (with Richard Littlemore), Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books, 2009; Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010; and Haydn Washington and John Cook, Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. []
    3. A noted scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. []
    4. Now being referred to as “Eaarth” by Bil McKibben! See his Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: Times Books, 2010. The basis for this renaming is the fact that the change that has already occurred is so significant that a new name is warranted. See Paul Greenberg. []
    5. An interesting point relative to the view that evolution has occurred on earth is that prior to there being an atmosphere one could say that the situation was “natural,” when plant life began one could say that the new situation was “natural,” when humans appeared, one could say that that new situation was “natural,” etc. Given these facts, it might appear that it is unreasonable for me to assert (e.g., see my Our Primary Problem” and “Some Uses of Bbiology: Three Perspectives“.) that human life today is, for most of us, “unnatural.” Prior to the Agricultural Revolution there occurred a co-development of humans as biological entities and the gatherer-hunter way of life—meaning that each “fit” the others. Since that time, however, our ways of life have changed drastically while our biology has remained basically the same—resulting in a “discrepancy” between the way of life for which we had become “designed” and the way of life that we actually have. (As James Lovelock has noted, “We are perfectly evolved to live as hunter-gatherers.” The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. New York: Basic Books, 2009, p. 80). Which fact could very well be the root of virtually all of our problems! Because of this, it is perfectly reasonable to state that our present way of life is “unnatural.” (I am puzzled that Lovelock, in noting that we still are “designed” to be gatherer-hunters, does not—if would seem—see the fact that we aren’t a serious problem. []
    6. Lovelock (op. cit., p. 74) has stated that “the exhalations of breath and other gaseous emissions by the nearly 7 billion people on Earth, their pets, and their livestock are responsible for 23 percent of all greenhouse emissions.” []
    7. Op. cit., p. 52. []
    8. Op. cit., p. 40. []
    9. Op. cit., p. 7. []
    10. See, e. g., Dahr Jamail and Gaia Vince. []
    11. Op. cit., p. 50-51. []
    12. For further discussion. []
    13. See, e.g., Ed Vulliamy, “Ciudad Juarez is All Our Futures. This is the Inevitable War of Capitalism Gone Mad”. Vulliamy concluded his article by quoting from Charles Bowden’s Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. (New York: Nation Books, 2010) “Juarez [Mexico] is not a breakdown of the social order. Juarez is the new order.” []
    14. Lovelock (op. cit., p. 31) states regarding dangers: “Our gravest dangers are not from climate change itself, but indirectly from starvation, competition for space and resources, and war.” []
    15. See “Enjoy Life While You Can”. []
    16. Also see Melbourne neuroscientist Dr John Reid. []
    17. The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011, p. 7. []

    Al Thompson works (data management) for an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: A.Thompson@Astronautics.com. Read other articles by Alton.