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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card March 6, 2005

Global Warming: Fighting Off the Ice Age

I've been waiting a long time to see real science applied to global warming.

Finally, there's a bit of rationality applied to the subject.

Not that there haven't always been real scientists involved. But either they, or the people writing about their work, have been functioning like "creation scientists" -- they are already convinced, so instead of testing their own ideas, they turn whatever data comes along into "proof" of their belief in order to persuade the ignorant unbeliever.

Whether the temperature's going up or down, whether they're talking about the fall of civilizations or the disappearance of species in ancient times, it's always somehow a proof or demonstration or warning about the peril of global warming.

The sky is falling, so we must shoot the dog.

Here are the questions we've always faced on this issue:

1. Has global temperature risen?

2. If so, how much?

3. Is this out of line with temperature fluctuations in the past?

4. What have the consequences of global temperature change been so far?

5. What have the consequences of warming or cooling been in the past?

6. How rapid are the changes?

7. To what degree are today's global temperatures the result of human activities?

8. What evidence is there that current changes, if any, are part of a broad trend rather than a temporary fluctuation?

9. If human activity is causing global warming, then what is the cost of stopping those human activities compared to the cost of allowing global warming to continue?

10. When computer models are used to predict future temperature trends, how do we know that all significant variables have been included?

11. How well have these computer models predicted temperature change in the past?

12. How do we know that human activity that causes global warming is not saving us from even worse global temperature change?

Time and again, I've read the little religious testimonies from scientists and writers about science, bearing witness to their personal faith in global warming, without seeing even a hint that they have addressed any of the questions above except in the most superficial way.

Most of them seem to start with the article of faith that any unexplained phenomenon is the result of human actions, and any phenomenon resulting from human actions must be bad, and any price humans must pay to stop doing these bad things is worth it.

It's the New Calvinism: Humans are evil by nature and should be punished, even if the punishment won't solve the problem, and even if the problem is actually better than the "solution."

*

If you want a perfect example of this, look at the Kyoto Protocols. The consensus among serious scientists is that the Kyoto Protocols, even if they were completely implemented, would not have any serious effect on global warming for the next century.

Yet they insist that we should adopt and obey the protocols with all the force of law that international treaties have.

Why?

Because it will show that we take the problem seriously. Because it's a first step. Because it's the Right Thing.

In other words, we should blindly obey even though we know that it's pointless.

Worse yet, the Kyoto Protocols impose drastic cuts on the activities of western nations which are designed to cripple our economies. Well, no problem -- most western countries can simply ignore the protocols as they become inconvenient to follow.

Like the economic rules governing the European Community, if the big boys (France and Germany) don't want to obey them, they can simply ignore them -- while still demanding that the little guys follow the rules.

In the U.S., it's different. Treaties have a force of law second only to the Constitution and Congress cannot weaken or change the requirements of a treaty without a two-thirds majority, a burden no other western nation faces.

If we had adopted the Kyoto Protocols, we would be facing disastrous strictures in the next few years, which could not be satisfied without destroying our economy and making us a former great power.

Meanwhile, China and India, two enormous polluters, are exempted from those rules because they are "emerging nations."

In other words, the Kyoto Protocols are not about saving the world. They're about crippling the west while giving China and India and other nations a chance to "catch up."

Nobody seems to notice that if our economy collapsed, so would everybody else's. There would be no catching up. There would only be collapse for everyone.

If you thought the tsunami was bad, see what would happen if the U.S. economy suddenly went pffffft. See how many people in other nations would have any place to sell their goods. See how many would starve.

But we did not sign the Kyoto Protocols. So our economy, if it dies, will be killed by other causes.

Meanwhile, though, the Kyoto Protocols give our rivals and enemies a nice stick to beat us with. True, the protocols are ineffective at their stated purpose; true, we have no idea whether global warming is even a bad thing; true, the primary effect of the protocols is destructive; but America is Evil and Selfish for failing to sign them and abide by them.

When somebody invokes our failure to sign the Kyoto Protocols as proof that our government "doesn't care about the environment," then be assured that what you're hearing is religion or politics, not science.

*

In the midst of all the empty rhetoric and faith-masquerading-as-science, a bit of real science emerges now and then. As witness: an article in the March Scientific American by William F. Ruddiman, entitled "How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate?"

For the first time, in all the popular articles I've seen about global climate change, here are scientists actually mentioning the single biggest cause of global warming and cooling: the changing distance and position of the Earth and the Sun.

With all the talk about human-caused "cataclysms," it's worth pointing out that the historical cataclysms -- the ice ages -- had astronomical, not environmental, causes.

The author is not concerned about advancing a "cause"; he's concerned about accounting for the evidence.

So he started with the maximum and minimum amounts of solar radiation reaching the northern hemisphere (which for various reasons, is the only half that matters in terms of global climate change). He recognized that for many millions of years Earth has been in one long ice age, interrupted by relatively brief warm periods in which solar radiation increases, the ice caps retreat, and the sea level rises.

All of human history takes place in the current warm spell between long ice ages.

Ruddiman realized, though, that based on solar radiation rhythms alone, we should already be back into a major cooling period. Instead, starting about eight thousand years ago, we have had a global climate markedly warmer than the solar radiation would predict.

Ruddiman's thesis -- which is controversial, as all new ideas are -- is that the beginning of human agriculture added just enough greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to make a significant difference in global climate.

In other words, his thesis is that, far from beginning with the industrial age, human influence over global climate has been continuous since we first started changing terrains in order to grow ever greater quantities of dietary staples. We have always affected the climate; only the degree of the effect has changed over time.

The kinds of changes we have made are exaggerations of natural changes. When the global climate warms because of astronomical changes, coastlands flood and swamplands increase. During warm summer months, the decomposition of plant life in these marshes raises the amount of methane in the atmosphere.

There is also a feedback loop. In southern Asia, strong summertime heat over land draws additional moisture from the Indian Ocean, which causes more flooding as the monsoons dump their rainfall; the methane levels then rise even further. Warmer summers also cause far northern wetlands in Asia and North America to emit more methane and warm the atmosphere further.

This feedback system naturally prolongs and intensifies the peaks of solar radiation.

But human agricultural activity in effect seems to have prolonged the warm spell for thousands of years longer than normal. About eleven thousand years ago, methane (and global temperature) peaked and then began slowly to subside as solar radiation reaching the northern hemisphere subsided.

That trend should have continued. Instead, about five thousand years ago the methane began to rise again and so did global temperature until it returned to levels similar to the peak of six thousand years before.

Previous warm periods have been remarkably uniform, since natural systems on Earth behaved in the same way in response to astronomical phenomena. But our warm period has followed a markedly different pattern. The only obvious difference is human presence.

It was five thousand years ago that farmers began systematically flooding large areas of southern China in order to grow rice under water.

In effect, they created vast new swamps. It changed the world, and not just by allowing the population of China to balloon.

Other human activities contributed. European forest-clearing and Mesopotamian irrigation had their effects, and the terracing of hillsides in southeast Asia for further rice production created even more swamps.

There are even suggestions that when human activities are sharply curtailed, the global climate begins to revert to its natural (based on solar radiation) ice-age climate. When the Black Death left Europe relatively depopulated and much land turned back into forest, there was a corresponding cooling of the climate. As the population bounced back and forest lands were again brought under cultivation, the temperature rose.

Sometimes one change in human behavior balances another. In America, for instance, vast regions that were once heavily farmed have reverted to forest, because it is now cheaper to grow all our grains in the midwest and ship them to the forested east and southeast. However, this has happened alongside a sharp growth in carbon dioxide emissions. So you could either say that forest regrowth has hidden the evil effects of industrialization -- or that industrialization has hidden the evil effects of reforestation.

Or maybe we could stop thinking of it as good and evil and, as Ruddiman suggests, simply measure what the climate usually would be, compared to what it is; isolate the causes of the difference; and then make rational, calibrated changes based on the desired outcome.

In other words, let's abandon this absurd Enviro-Calvinism and stop trying to throw Adam and Eve out of the garden. Instead, let's find out how best to tend this garden in order to promote human life for a long, long time.

And let's also keep perspective. We are in the midst of a steady progression toward colder and colder climate (the 22,000-year cycle is only one of the solar radiation cycles that affect us). Quite accidentally, we may have postponed the next ice age.

And I, for one, think that's a good thing. Those who bemoan the dangers of global warming are forgetting the far more cataclysmic effects of ice ages.

*

Let's get some serious science done on this subject and start trying to calibrate our response. The goal is not to return to some ideal "state of nature" as if we weren't part of this world and ought to be ejected from it. The goal is to find a sustainable balance that balances reasonable costs against attainable benefits.

One obvious question ought to be: Are the costs of reducing global warming worse than the costs of simply letting our coastlines move inland and relocating our coastal activities?

Another obvious question might be: Are human emission-causing activities changing in compensatory ways? As an example: The population explosion has turned out to be a largely self-solving problem (as it always has been, if you regard famine and plague as "solutions), because apparently humans cut down on their reproductive rate when they feel prosperous and secure about the future.

Is it not possible that growing economies pass through heavy-emission cycles and then, as their technology improves, they naturally emit less greenhouse gas? Perhaps, if we simply let human life alone instead of punishing humans for being alive, we'll have a phase of excessive warming followed by a phase of more balanced temperatures.

One thing is certain: We can't afford to adopt drastic "solutions" without taking into account that some global warming might actually be a good thing.

We need better measurements. We need rational analysis. We need to stop regarding humans as "unnatural" and recognize that we, too, are part of the biosphere and are entitled to influence the environment as part of our effort to survive.

Because we're the cleverest of the beasts, we are capable of making more sweeping and devastating changes. But we're also capable of making sweeping and beneficial changes.

There are six billion of us, more or less, on this planet, and right now any large areas of hunger are caused by political rather than environmental problems. The great economic engine that drives the global economy is not a robust system. It can collapse.

Far more humans would die, and far more damage would be done to our climate, from the collapse of that economic engine than from the degree of global warming predicted by rational scientists.

So whatever we do to correct any possible overwarming of the earth (a threshold yet to be rationally defined), fundamental decency, as well as scientific rigor, suggests that we should look first for changes that do not break down that global economy.

The Enviro-Calvinists say, in effect, "The sky is falling, so we must shoot the dog."

Rational science says, Here are the observable events; here are the possible causes; here are changes we might make; here are the possible outcomes of action or inaction. (Rational science also admits it freely when we just don't know enough to make an informed, intelligent decision.)

When we have enough reliable data, let's make our decisions based on informed consensus rather than the religious fervor of Enviro-Calvinist fanatics -- especially since their god is an imaginary "state of nature" that does not include civilized, industrialized, mobile, and reproductively enthusiastic humanity.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.


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