A Climate for Change

Recently, 10 years of emails were stolen from the servers of Britain’s East Anglian Climatic Research Unit. In a remarkable feat of opposition research, climate change skeptics have found perhaps two dozen emails that indicate academic impropriety. Since the first release of information, those folks and media outlets with an axe to grind against global warming have had the best days of their lives…and I don’t blame them. Most media outlets and political junkies (like yours truly), are more than willing to jump on the scent of scandal if it means scoring a point in a debate that we believe important.

It is important to provide some context to this debate before proceeding. The bulk of the conflict, for most Americans, is caused by a language barrier. Oh I know that all of the news we read is written in or translated to English, but most of the information about environmental issues comes from the field of science. The language of science has become alien to most Americans, and the people most commonly translating the stories are either reporters (who don’t speak the language well) or corporate science writers (who are paid well to distort the real science). I would like to make a couple of points about this divide below:

  • Science, when practiced ethically, is a process. What it is not is a belief system. The Catholic priests and lay ministers who taught me high school biology, physics, and chemistry saw no conflict between faith and science. The physicist’s search for the fundamental laws of matter and energy, and the biologists search for the origins and interrelationships of the species are not attacks on religious faith.
  • Science is advanced through peer-reviewed literature. Michelle Malkin (right-wing blogger), or Ariana Huffington (left-wing blogger) may be able to establish benchmarks in politics by writing a paper and posting it, but the same is not true in science. Researchers do their observations and experimentation and write their results in articles. Those articles are submitted to journals which have gatekeepers called referees. If the article meets the standards of the journal (for methodology, citation, relevance) then the article is published. But that is just the beginning of the process. A hypothesis expressed in an article will have to stand up over time, and is subject to vigorous critical scrutiny and submitted articles that may explain the data better.
  • Science has become, in the minds of some in 21st century America, something to be used in add campaigns. Many from both sides of the political spectrum are convinced that science and lawyers somehow go together. If you can persuade enough people, regardless of the facts, that they have a stake in your opinion, then your opinion is correct. In the case of climate change, we the American people have become the O.J. jury, with Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe acting as the “Dream Team” lawyers who get him off.

There is now no doubt that scientists working at the CRU engaged in some very bad behavior. This is the case because some of them tried to game the peer-review system I described above. They tried to get journal editors fired who published articles they did not like, and took liberties when setting up charts and graphs to make them more impactful (that is apparently what was happening with the most publicized email, the one that talked of ‘hiding the decline’). For these reasons, many commentators are correct to call for the data and conclusions generated by this center (or based on this center’s work) to be scrutinized. Such scrutiny is, I feel, in the best traditions of science. The question that should have been asked by responsible journalists (if there are any left in this country), is what would the total invalidation of this center mean to the theory of climate change?

This question was not, of course, asked. The “journalists” at Fox News ran with the story that climate change was “debunked”. They, and others across the media spectrum, have asked questions like, “What will climate change promoters do now that the theory is in question?” Even to a non-scientist, the idea that what was uncovered was definitive proof of a conspiracy is laughable. There is no smoking gun here that demonstrates that CRU data should be invalidated. What is more, the CRU is not the only game in town, as Fox News and others have continued to falsely report. The American people deserve better reporting than this, regardless of its political impact.

So, excluding the CRU, what are the facts?

  1. NASA and NOAA have original comprehensive surface temperature data dating back several decades. The raw data is available to the public via the internet. The data shows a steep increase in average global surface temperatures over the past several decades. These agencies also have satellite acquired temperature data as an additional validation.
  2. Dozens of researchers at universities around the world have conducted two basic types of historical tests; ice core sampling to determine atmospheric CO2 levels, and both tree ring and coral analysis to determine surface temperatures. The body of international work on temperature reveals a graph often called “the hockey stick”. Think of historical temperatures from many thousands of years ago following the line of the handle; at the end (the present) the blade curves up dramatically. Remember, this is independent of the CRU work.
  3. On CO2 levels, the evidence is striking. For tens of thousands of years, the level of atmospheric CO2 was very steady at about 280 parts per million. Since the end of WWII, the concentration has been growing at more than 2 ppm, and will by 2050, be double the historical levels. Remember again, this information is coming from many sources, and is highly reliable. It also makes sense to most of us. We know that trees breathe CO2 and make oxygen. We know that burning fossil fuels release CO2. We know we have been burning or cutting down a lot forests around the world. This really is not rocket science.

The previous facts represent the basics not tampered in the slightest by the findings in the emails. I would like to pose a further question on this topic though. Folks that are convinced that global warming is a hoax or conspiracy have failed to answer a critical question. They say that this is all about power; but for whom? Who benefits from this apparently worldwide conspiracy? This topic has been around for far longer than Obama has been on the scene. It certainly can’t be the concoction of of Islamic extremists, as the acceptance of the United States of climate change would permanently destroy their meal ticket. It certainly can’t be a plot by pseudo-communist enemies of the United States like Putin and Chavez, as again it would pull money out of their pockets. So who? The Democrats are in power, and environmental legislation or a treaty on climate change is not a recipe for staying in power, it is politically dangerous.

I can’t answer those questions, but every American knows who actually will benefit from quashing climate change. Exxon Mobile is hurting this year, as its annual profits will probably fall to $20 billion or so. Boo hoo. Over the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years, the firm made almost $86 billion. They are not alone in their industry. Now I am no enemy of business, and I am a big fan of making LOTS of money. Exxon and others in their industry are actually better (from a responsibility side) than other firms in that they do pay their taxes (unlike Fox parent News Corp, who’s effective federal rate this decade is under 5% Exxon’s in 2007 was just over 41%). I simply state their profits in order to illustrate their motive.

Unlike British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon has been steadfast in its refusal to diversify. Where other firms have embraced their status as energy providers and begun looking into other sources, Exxon has chosen to dig in and fight. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting think-tanks who generate junk-science. Now, it isn’t junk-science because of the results, but because these writers and institutions don’t follow a clear scientific methodology. They game the peer-review system every day in ways that the bad boys at the CRU could only dream about, and they send their stuff directly to media hacks and political staffers. The most effective ways to reduce pollution from fossil fuels is to reduce demand, and the best way to do that is to tax the fuels. The Europeans have done that for years, and used the tax revenues to build the best systems of mass-transit (and highways) in the world. This would cost Big Oil big money. There my friends, is a motive for conspiracy…if you are in to that sort of thing.

The ultimate irony of this situation lies in the people who most commonly support climate skeptics. Conservatives and evangelicals make up a large portion of climate change skeptics, and they are also the most aggressive in their feelings on how we should deal with threats from the Muslim world. Why is this ironic? Author Thomas Friedman has illustrated a trend that, I believe, all Americans should be aware of. He calls it the first law of petropolitics, and I have linked it here . Essentially, it demonstrates that as oil prices go up, freedom around the world goes down. Oil money supports the petrodictatorships that most Americans rightly worry about; Iran, Syria, Venezuela. It also funds most of the madras’s teaching extremist Islam around the world. Lower the price of oil and you improve American security. How do you do that? You lower the DEMAND for oil.

I would encourage all to think about these issues as you watch and listen to the news. These are topics that clearly threaten the American way of life, and we have chosen to remain ignorant of them for too long.

The rational middle is listening…