How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Climate Change

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

My Facebook feed has been abuzz lately with postings from a Progressive friend about climate change. As one might expect, the view from that side of the political street is not looking good.  One particular article put forward the ultra-gloomy contention that human-caused global warming is likely irreversible and most of the world will soon become unfit for human habitation even if we exceed the most ambitious goals proposed in the Paris Accords to curb our carbon emissions.  The crux of the authors’ hypothesis is that present CO2 levels are already so high that vast areas of permafrost in the sub-Arctic are starting to melt.  Permafrost contains huge amounts of methane, a gas with almost ten times the heat retentive capacity of CO2.  Release of even a small portion of this entrained methane will cause a warming feedback loop which will raise global temperatures at an exponential rate, melting more permafrost and releasing more methane.  The result?  Catastrophic warming that may very soon and very quickly progress beyond our ability to slow it down, let alone reverse it.

As is usually the case with climate change literature, the dire outline of the scientific problem is followed by a proposed political solution.  Our slim chance of survival, say the authors, hangs on humanity  suddenly acquiring the wisdom to reject the nationalist, capitalist economic/political model that has landed us in this frying pan and put Big Government in control of, well, everything.  The Ship of State needs to make a sharp turn, and we mean right now!

Hmm!  Putting aside the obvious inconvenience that ships, especially the State variety, are seldom capable of sharp turns no matter how urgent the need, what exactly would this course correction look like?  A possible answer comes from another Facebook post, from the same source.  It linked to a group calling itself The Climate Mobilization.  Their stated goal: To transition the US to 100% renewable energy within the next 10 years, by whatever means necessary.  I paid a visit to their website for a look at these  “means” and found they are right out of the Radical’s Handbook; boycotting and blockading businesses and whole industries, general strikes, massive protests and other “non-violent interventions”.  Their timetable warns of their intention to “escalate until we win!”  Does this sound like anarchy itching to be unleashed?  I thought the idea was to turn the Ship, not sink it. Continue reading

In Search of Settled Science

The media coverage of last weekend’s March du Jour, this one supposedly a celebration of Science (capitalization mine), portrayed the event as just that – celebratory.  But when Progressives get together carrying signs it almost always means a demonstration, and this gathering was as much a vehicle for the Left to chide conservatives about their refusal to accept the “settled science” of human-caused climate change as it was a paen to Science itself.

Watching the festivities unfold, I thought of a recent commentary by Vincent Carrol in the Denver Post.  He reported that Boulder County Commissioners had just voted to ban the growing of all genetically modified (GMO) crops on land owned by the county.  This edict will be problematic for farmers who have been raising GMO corn and sugar beets for many years on this leased land because, according to Carroll, there no longer are any non-GMO strains of sugar beet.  The farmers will have from three to five years to eliminate GMOs from their rotations. Case closed.

Here’s the Science rub.  There is no scientific evidence – none – that genetically modified crops are harmful to humans, insects or anything living.  The decision to flatly ban them flies in the face of all the research that has been done on the subject, and will do nothing but cause harm and hardship to the affected farmers, many of whom have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment used to grow and harvest a crop which they can no longer plant.

The GMO ban was met with loud approval by liberal Boulderites, many of whom no doubt paraded last week in unwavering support of Science. In fact, Boulder liberals show the same disregard for GMO research that conservatives hold for the study of man-caused climate change.   Clearly science denial knows no political affiliation.

Why this distrust of science cutting across the political spectrum?  Science is supposed to be provable, reliable, the epitome of fact.  Remember junior high science class, where we learned the basics of the Scientific Method?  Start with a theory – what do you think is happening and why.  Then try to dream up an experiment that proves your theory, or disproves someone else’s.  Compile your results.  Then the most important step; submit your findings to others who will try to duplicate them, using your methodology.  If your experiment can be repeated by others, your “peers”, then and only then are your conclusions scientifically valid.  That’s how science works.  Or used to.

Peer review has been the backbone of scientific investigation since Isaac Newton lounged beneath his apple tree, and the science it produced seemed for the most part apolitical.  These days science methodology is becoming bastardized, thanks in large measure to our newfound reliance on computers and algorithms instead of beakers and Bunsen burners.  For example, our seemingly unlimited capability to gather and analyze massive quantities of data has led to the proliferation of often agenda-driven studies that arrive at their conclusions by asking a large number of subjects a long series of questions under the assumption that a small but publishable number of queries will yield a positive result (i.e., the result the authors wish to see).  This statistical alchemy was used in a study released last year which pointed to an increased incidence of certain types of cancer in communities located downwind from good old Rocky Flats.  More traditional studies have found no such link.  More recently, another megadata study found an increase in dementia and strokes in people who drink diet soda.  The researchers relied on data from massive numbers of soda sippers (full disclosure: I drink two or three cans a day) but somehow failed to correct for obesity and several other possible variables.  Another junior high science lesson: Correlation does not automatically equal causation.

Each of these studies was ostensibly peer reviewed.  But that most vital step in the process, according to many in the scientific community, has become sloppy and incestuous, bowing to political pressures and the “publish or perish” dictum so pervasive in academia.  The problem has become so epidemic, according to a study published last year in Nature, that researchers attempting to replicate other scientists’ experiments were failing to get the same results more than 70% of the time.  More than half the time the results could not even be duplicated by the original researchers.  When the supposedly peer reviewed (and widely publicized) study that claimed to find a link between vaccinations and autism was debunked, the British Journal of Medicine in which it was featured took nearly 10 years to publish a retraction.  That study triggered a public health crisis in Britain and the author was eventually tried and found guilty of gross ethical misconduct and fraud.   In spite of the criminal misapplication of science involved, thousands of American parents continue to cite the study when refusing to have their children vaccinated.  Most of these doting parents are well-educated (and liberal).  So much for the robustness of peer review.

Stories like these invite skeptics of all political lineages to dispute the results of what may be credible, critical studies, and contribute to the ideological fog that is threatening to smother the legitimate, rigorous methodology behind the bulk of science research.  They also infer that there are both liberals and conservatives (and evidently some scientists) willing to bend science to their ideology.  So forgive those misguided wretches who choose to take the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of global warming with a grain or two of salt.

We all want and need Science to be worthy of celebration, but clearly the science establishment has some housecleaning to do.  To regain our confidence those who do science right and proper have to be willing to call out the ones who distort its process for their own ends.  The rest of us, meanwhile, need to improve our science literacy so we can recognize questionable science when we see it, even if it means looking past our ideology.  Best that we reach consensus on climate change, among other headline issues, before the research findings become moot.

Events will eventually settle the scientific disputes that bedevil us.  Hopefully we will survive the proof.

Another Potential Disaster Caused by Global Warming

Several aspects of the Global Warming debate fascinate me. One is argument that there is no debate. I consistently read that 97 percent of scientists believe it is real and is caused by man. There was a petition by Dr. Art Robinson that disputed that assertion, and over 33,000 people with at least Bachelor of Science degrees signed it. It was attacked because there were a few “fake names” used in the signatures. Let’s pretend some portion of the signatures were valid. I’ll pick that there were 30,000 legitimate scientists who signed the petition. There would have to have been 1,000,000 scientists who disagreed with the petition for the 97 percent assertion to be valid. Another attack against the petition is that the scientists who signed it weren’t experts in climate science. I signed it, and am guilty as charged. I am not an expert in climate science, but consider that I have a rudimentary understanding of scientific methods.

One of my work assignments was pretending to be the manager for several scientists with advanced degrees. They often enjoyed arguing with each other about scientific interpretation. I’m trying to imagine how disgusted they would have been if I had stepped into the middle of a discussion and declared “The science is settled.” (I think that statement, which I consider to be absurd, explains why I persist in questioning/denying.)

Another aspect of the discussion or debate is that the lower temperature last year was optimal. It seems that only negative effects can result from the temperature increasing. Of course there are several positive effects of warmer temperatures, such as increased yields for some crops. But, according to NPR, even that isn’t a positive. Global warming, according to the reports, could cause a shortage of salad. Warmer temperatures caused the Arizona lettuce harvest to wrap up early and central California, which fills the salad needs after Arizona drops off, had heavy precipitation that delayed some plantings. I agree this is terrible, because I really like salads. And apparently there will be a shortage unless we stop the many human activities resulting in carbon dioxide emissions that cause higher temperatures and increased localized precipitation? Or maybe it’s too late! So far I’ve been able to buy all the salad-making materials I want, but I guess I should live in fear that is about to end because of global warming?

Lukewarming

The subtitle of this cleverly titled book is “The New Climate Science That Changes Everything.” Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. Knappenberger have done themselves proud with a book that should make climate change “Deniers” more comfortable (except, of course, that there are those who want to criminally prosecute them). Those who believe there is a pending climatic disaster will be less comfortable reading the book. The best way for me to begin this combination commentary and review is to quote from the back cover. “In Lukewarming, two environmental scientists explain the science and spin behind the headlines and come to a provocative conclusion: climate change is real, and partially man-made, but it is becoming obvious that more warming has been forecast than will occur, with some of the catastrophic impacts implausible or impossible. Global warming is more lukewarm than hot. This fresh analysis is an invaluable source for those looking to be more informed about global warming and the data behind it.” Continue reading

Colorado Fracking Update

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing (cleverly called “fracking” by its opponents because it sounds “dirty”) tried to get measures on the Colorado ballet to severely restrict the practice, but failed to get the required number of signatures. The measures would have given more power to local governments to restrict the process and would have prohibited new oil and gas facilities within 2,500 feet of homes. The industry successfully campaigned against people signing the petitions. They probably correctly judged that the measures would be difficult to defeat if they made it onto the ballot because of previous results in several local referendums. Those opposing to fracking were given hope when Governor Hickenlooper announced, “Maybe they didn’t get enough signatures, but tens of thousands of people signed those indicatives, and want local voice—and I listen to that.”

A Denver Post editorial brings a voice of reason to the discussion. It references a series of reports by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. One conclusion of the reports is that banning fracking in the U.S. “…would set off an economic downturn the equivalent of the financial crisis, the housing bust, and the resulting Great recession combined.” The Post has been in favor of measures to move away from burning hydrocarbons. However, they warn about impacts of ending the energy renaissance created by hydraulic fracturing. My guess is that those ardently opposed to fracking and burning hydrocarbons won’t be influenced unless they win, energy generation is impeded, and the energy shortage prevents them from recharging their smart phones and turning on their computers in cold homes.

EPA Dodges Responsibility on Ethanol

The EPA is mandated by law to analyze the impacts of biofuels and report to Congress every three years, but its inspector general acknowledged that the agency has failed to complete such a report since 2011. A Denver Post editorial lists several negative impacts of using ethanol made from corn in fuel, which is the likely reason the required reports haven’t been filed. Mandating ethanol in fuel hasn’t reduced oil imports or improved air quality; two reasons given for imposing its use.

The list of negatives about ethanol is extensive. Farmers jumped on the corn for ethanol bandwagon by plowing up 6.5 million acres of conservation land in the process of planting an additional 19 million acres of corn. Massive amounts of water have been used to irrigate the larger fields of corn and more water is required to process the corn into ethanol. Fuel efficiency is less for gasoline mixed with ethanol. The higher prices for corn naturally resulted in higher prices for food. Top that off with the “…growing evidence that the mandate reduces greenhouse gas emissions much less than originally forecast, if indeed at all.”

Just guessing, but maybe the EPA doesn’t want to submit the required report because they can’t think of anything positive to say. Is it possible they’re working to protect a political agenda and not to protect the environment?

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Activists have successfully fought nuclear power generation by preventing a national solution to disposing of the waste. A Denver Post article describes how federal officials worked to open a central disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Nevada politicians opposed after the money was spent to prepare the site, and Obama declared Yucca Mountain as an “unworkable solution” early in his Presidency. The result was that about 70,000 tons of waste (increasing by about 2,000 tons per year) is now stored at 99 power plants and 14 closed plants around the country. Guarding the spent fuel is expensive and the waste will eventually have to be repackaged if a permanent solution can’t be developed. I’ve never heard that anyone claim that what we are doing now is safer than what could have been accomplished by opening Yucca Mountain.

There is a long list of positives about nuclear energy. Advocates of reducing carbon dioxide emission to combat climate change should be thrilled that nuclear plants don’t emit carbon dioxide. Nuclear power generates about a fifth of the electricity in America despite the fierce opposition that has successfully impeded its development. Wind power might catch up with that amount by 2020. I was surprised to read that John Kotek, acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, also added, “We benefited from the nuclear deterrence.”

The federal government convened a meeting in Denver to discuss the problem of nuclear waste. Kotek said, “We’re not at all at the stage of looking at locations. We’re developing a process.” He also added, “…having a waste disposal path would make nuclear more acceptable.” In my opinion, he doesn’t get it. Opponents fully understand that solving the problem of waste disposal would make nuclear energy more acceptable. That’s exactly why they will never agree to any solution. Plans to drill an exploratory bore hole thee miles deep under North Dakota for nuclear weapon waste were scrapped in the face of objections from residents. The problem won’t be solved until we find some politicians with the courage to do the right thing. Considering our latest crop of politicians, I’d say we shouldn’t hold our breath.