Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On "Climate Confusion" by Roy W. Spencer ****

Not so many years ago, I went to see An Inconvenient Truth. I was very much taken in by it. But I also wanted to read the other side of the story. I wanted to read that in part because some people I know are true no-sayers when it comes to global warming. They pointed to certain "facts" that go unreported. Well, I didn't find those particular facts here in Spencer's book, but he is a global warming skeptic.

And I feel as if I'm very much taken in by his arguments as I was Al Gore's. I rather suspected this would happen. Not being a climate expert, I don't have the brain tools necessary to know whose claims are necessarily specious. There's much to like about Spencer's book, however, and a little that I find frustrating as well.

Where I find Spencer the most convincing is in his arguments about how science can be wrong. In other words, Spencer talks about what science is and is not and about what it can and can't do. He points out, for example, how paleontology cannot present completely convincing scientific facts. I have been skeptical of much of what some claim paleontology shows in the past with regard to evolution, and there's no reason I should be any less skeptical with regarding to climate, though I have been. It's just that the climate paleontologists make so much more sense. However, unlike true science, findings in paleontology can't be tested. We can look, analyze, and interpret, but we can't run tests to see if that's how things really happened.

Without the knowledge supposedly gained from paleontology, we are dependent then solely on weather records, which only go back 150 years. That's not enough time to be able to tell much about whether the current uptick in temperature has to do with carbon or whether it has to do with simply natural forces. There was, for example, an uptick in temperature in the 1930s, before carbon was an issue (although, I believe Al Gore's, would have shown that to be a much smaller uptick). We also can't say for certain that it's carbon that is making the earth get hotter, given that climate systems are so complex. We simply don't know to what extent climatological forces can make up for the excess carbon in the air.

What we do know is this: Earth is getting hotter. We are burning a lot of carbon fuel. All else is conjecture, including the connection between them. Valid points.

Spencer then gets into economic theory, justifying mostly conservative trickle-down economic policies. The rich may be getting richer, he notes, but that's not necessarily bad. Sure, they might have a larger percentage of the pie, but the pie itself is larger, so the poor are better off too. He points to Bush's tax cuts for the great growth in the mid-2000s.

His points make some sense in this regard. However, I doubt, in light of the great bursting of the economic bubble that happened shortly after this book's publication, that many of the economic policies put in place by conservatives are really as beneficial as the author seems to think (huge deficits, a lack of regulation leading to financial meltdown, the gouging of the poor by the rich in the form of deceptive mortgages). There is balance that is necessary. Certainly, too much taxation at the top prevents funding for new technologies, but too little, I would say, results in unstable societies in which the chances for those at the bottom to move to the top becomes more and more difficult, which in turn also prevents innovation--and also creates so many of the economic problems that persist now.

If you get a sense I have some problems with the arguments of the book, you're right, and it's to those I move now. Spencer equates freedom with democracy, as Bush did, which again is nonsensical (democracy is not freedom to those in the minority, unless the minority willingly give their consent to the majority's decisions and/or there are built-in systems to protect minority views, which is often not the case).

Spencer remains skeptical about virtually any environmental policy that has been enacted. Chloro-fluorocarbons--might have had something to do with ozone depletion (so the fact that those were banned and the ozone layer has begun to recover is a bad thing because it hurt the economy?). The banning of DDT is the cause of continuing malaria outbreaks in Africa. And on and on. All things in balance, as I note, and Spencer may have some good points here with regard to some of our overdoing of environmental laws--or he may himself be a bit out of whack. It's hard to say, since I don't know the science behind all these decisions. Still, ridding ourselves of a bird-killing, thalidomide-baby producing chemical doesn't seem like a necessarily bad thing--would continuing problems in those regards have been worth it to stop malaria. One has to weight costs and benefits.

And this is, in the end, Spencer's point. For him, it doesn't make economic sense to curb carbon proliferation when the science is still fuzzy on the matter. Good point. Unless of course he's wrong, in which case, Ooops. But what if he's right? Is it so much to ask us to give up a little bit of our wealth to try to prevent something bad from possibly happening?

But another point he makes is that it isn't a little bit, and in this he has a very valid point. Hybrid cars and fluorescent lightbulbs aren't going to get us to levels of atmospheric carbon that will actually rid ourselves of the problem. What would do so would be so drastic that we don't have the stomach for it. In this regard, he's right. And when one notes that back in the 1960s, scientists were concerned about a global ice age and a population time bomb, neither of which turned out to be remotely correct, there is a danger in becoming too alarmed by something that may be just as inaccurate of a set of predictions.

There are other options, he points out, but they will take time. Technologies such as wind, solar, clean coal, and nuclear can become effective at curbing atmospheric carbon proliferation--but only if we devote economic resources toward that rather than toward drastic cuts to energy usage. Point taken.

Where I'd differ a bit with him is that I do think taxation (not so much cap and trade) could be an effective means to force this technological gain earlier. Rather than making it harder to make such gains, taxing fossil fuels higher would likely curb their usage and make these other technologies more attractive--the taxes could even be fed into R&D for such energies.

Points of disagreement or agreement aside, Spencer's book is a good thought piece about how we can better harness energy usage on our planet.

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