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Why global warming really doesn’t matter

Essay by Ed Quillen

Climate – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

AS I WRITE THIS, Salida has just seen three or four straight days of rain, the strange spectacle of water falling from our sky. Not our usual violent summer thunderstorms, but a long gentle soaker, as though we were in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And it’s chilly for July; I need to wear a sweater as I sit and type. Thus “Drought Associated with Global Warming” is not a topic that leaps to mind.

But it’s a topic that is impossible to avoid these days. Often I get asked “What do you think of Global Warming,” and my quick, but accurate, reply is that “I try to avoid thinking about it.”

Is that because Global Warming is “An Inconvenient Truth,” as Al Gore puts it? Or is it because I’m a fairly practical guy at heart, and I don’t like to waste time thinking about things that I can do nothing about? In other words, if I apply thought to writing a computer program to automate some tedious office chore, I can usually see results. First I think about the problem, then I do something about it. If I think about Global Warming, though, or even adjust my lifestyle to be far greener than it is now, will it change anything?

Before answering that, I think it might help to define exactly what we’re talking about with Global Warming. Some people act as though it’s a religious issue and ask “Do you believe in Global Warming?” with the same fervor as others ask “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you believe in UFOs?”

But it should be a scientific issue, and the general explanation runs something like this:

1) Our planet’s average temperature appears to have warmed by about one degree Fahrenheit during the past century.

2) This coincides with an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, probably brought on by the increased combustion of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum.

3) Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas.” It allows solar radiation to flow in to heat the planet and then radiate energy in the infrared range. But CO2 blocks some infrared energy from escaping, so the planet gets warmer.

You don’t need a greenhouse to see this process. Just think of your car on a sunny winter day — cold as it may be outdoors, your car is warm inside because the windshield glass allows the sun to shine in and heat the interior. This heat is radiated as infrared energy, and the glass blocks a lot of it. So the car’s interior warms.

4) As our planet warms, all sorts of bad stuff will happen. There’s more heat energy, the driving force behind thunderstorms and hurricanes, so they get more violent. Higher temperatures mean higher evaporation rates, so fewer plants grow in our high desert. Warming melts the icecaps of Greenland and Antarctica, so the oceans rise, with dire consequences for people who live near sea level.

Crops that once flourished in a given place may no longer thrive there, so agriculture faces some adjustments that may be tough. Wild plants and animals will have to migrate or adapt. Some general cataclysm could result.

WHILE THERE ARE MANY SCIENTISTS who agree with the above, there are some who don’t. For one thing, our span of reasonably accurate climatic data is pretty short. If there had been thermometers and observers and record-keeping systems spread across the earth for the past 10,000 years, instead of the past 100 years, we might have a better idea of what was really going on.

But still, the temperature does appear to have risen, doesn’t it?

That’s true. But we know that the earth’s temperature has fluctuated considerably over the years. From just about anywhere in Salida, I can gaze to the left of Mt. Shavano and look straight up the North Fork Valley — where there was a thick glacier about 18,000 years ago.

Clearly, our climate has warmed since then. And cooled — Colorado’s modest modern glaciers in the Front Range were once thought to be survivors from long ago, but are now considered to be fresh starts, only a few thousand years old. There was the “Little Ice Age” from roughly 1300 to 1820, when glaciers advanced and New York harbor froze solid. Zebulon Pike’s journal recounts an Arkansas River frozen over, with ice thick enough to carry a horse, as far down the river as Spikebuck, in January of 1807.

IN OTHER WORDS, we have cold years and warm years. Sometimes they come in a row, just as you might roll a series of four snake-eyes at dice (the odds are 1,679,615 against it, but it must happen), or find a dozen 3’s in sequence in a long expansion of pi (3.1415926535…). It’s hard to tell if something is an actual trend or merely a statistical variation. Take several billion years of terrestrial climate that varies, and there are bound to be some century-long sequences of rising temperature.

So that’s the first problem with “belief” in Global Warming. Even if we accept that it’s happening, we’re not sure whether it’s a normal variation, in which case there’s nothing we can do about it, or the result of increasing CO2 levels, which we might be able to affect.

Our fossil fuels — that is, coal and petroleum that have been in the earth for millions of years — are primarily made of carbon and hydrogen. They come from plants that long ago captured solar energy. When you combine them with oxygen, that stored energy is released as heat and light. And primarily, you get two chemical compounds, CO2 and water (H2O).

But that’s not the only source of atmospheric CO2. Active volcanoes, for instance, release lots of CO2 — but we don’t know how much. When a tree falls in the forest and decays, it releases CO2, just as it would if it were burned. Water absorbs and releases CO2.

Most data, though, points to fossil-fuel combustion as the leading source of increased atmospheric CO2, which in turn is a possible cause for Global Warming.

If you asked me on a February morning when it’s 10 below zero, I’d probably tell you Global Warming is a good thing, and the more of it, the better. But there’s the specter of rising oceans and changing climate.

And if you look at that with some objectivity, it’s not all bad. Sure it will affect agriculture. But some places that cannot grow crops now on account of short growing seasons will be warmer, and thus able to grow crops. As ocean levels rise, other land will be more habitable, that sort of thing.

In other words, we adapt, as do the animals and plants. As for those which can’t adjust or move, well, extinction is a natural process, as natural as birth and death.

Adjustment is nothing new. Sam Bingham’s book about Saguache County, The Last Ranch, had a significant observation. The traditional response of herdsmen to drought is migration to greener pastures. It’s only been in recent times that we devised ranches and expected the herds to stay in the same general area all year ’round for year after year. I’m in the middle of a biography of Genghis Khan that my daughter Abby sent me for Father’s Day — the Mongols moved around a lot, depending on the climate.

It has long seemed to me that environmentalism is the most conservative of attitudes: “Nothin’s gonna change my world.” But the world itself changes. And sometimes I think we humans are awfully arrogant to think that we can change something as big and complex as our planet’s climate.

TO MOVE ON, let’s consider how we’re supposed to respond to Global Warming. The main thing is we should cut our consumption of fossil fuels.

Global Warming or no Global Warming, isn’t this something we should be doing anyway on economic and health grounds?

The United States exports billions of dollars every year to buy oil. We go deeper into debt to finance wars to maintain our oil supply. The mercury from our coal-fired power plants isn’t good for anybody, and coal-mining is dirty, dangerous work.

Of course we should be building cars and trucks with better gas mileage, and heating our homes with solar energy, and generating electricity from the wind and with solar panels. We should be using biofuels and cogeneration. We should consume energy as efficiently as our engineering allows, and continually work to improve that efficiency.

And sadly, we ought to give nuclear power another chance. My objection to it was never environmental, but political. The levels of security required for widespread use of nuclear power always struck me as fundamentally incompatible with our American ideals of liberty and transparency.

But we now live in a security-minded country that monitors damn near everything. There are security personnel now in the strangest places — I recently received an email about armed guards around the Mt. Elbert pumped-storage power plant at Twin Lakes, a facility that used to be open to the public.

In other words, we’ve already crossed that line. If we must have guards and secrecy at a small hydro-electric plant, then what difference will it make to have guards and secrecy at nuclear power plants — facilities that produce electricity without damming rivers or producing carbon dioxide?

To get to some kind of conclusion here, Global Warming doesn’t matter. Granted, it has a certain apocalyptic aura that pleases some people. There are all manner of zealots to tell us that we will be punished for our wickedness unless we repent now and change our evil ways — which can range from tolerance of homosexuality (Pat Robertson) to military bases in the land of Mecca (Osama bin Laden) to burning gasoline.

But if the international science community discovered information suggesting that natural — rather than man-made — factors are responsible for global warming, would it mean that we should be totally profligate about burning fossil fuels?

Of course not. Our current consumption habits are wasteful, expensive, and unhealthy. And U.S. oil dependence makes us vulnerable to foreign enemies, terrorists, and anti-American sentiments. And what about oil spills? Asthma sufferers? Coal miners? And all of that insane stuff we mass-produce? Mountains of tires and plastic? Overburdened landfills? Polluted estuaries? Hazy skies? Higher cancer rates? And ailing frogs, fish, wildlife, and children?

We don’t need to spend hours analyzing the “hockey-stick graph” to determine the validity of global warming, or trying to figure out how much atmospheric CO2 is anthropogenic.

WHETHER WE’RE ACTUALLY in the midst of Global Warming or Global Cooling or Global Stasis, we know what we ought to do. We should be embracing healthier actions and habits so that we can enjoy living in a healthier society, with a healthier economy and healthier lives.

The global warming activists urge us to walk more and drive less, to drive slower on highways, to use energy efficient light bulbs, and unplug appliances when they’re not being used. They want us to turn off lights when we leave a room, and use passive solar techniques and curtains and caulk to save on home heating, and keep our cars well-tuned and our tires properly inflated. In essence, they want us to live a little more frugally.

And you certainly don’t have to “believe” in global warming to see the advantages in wasting less and spending less; or in developing cleaner technologies and establishing energy sources which don’t require foreign oil; or in old saws like “Waste not, want not.”

Thus it seems to me that the really important question isn’t whether humans are responsible for global warming. The more relevant question is “How can we make it easier to save energy and produce less pollution and live better?”

— Ed Quillen