Common Sense and Global Warming

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column asking some basic questions about global warming. Not surprisingly, I received a blizzard of responses. The responses were well reasoned, well written and informative. Two of the best came from readers who have commented on other columns — one from the left and one from the right. Per their requests, I will not identify them but I will draw generously from their letters and the materials they supplied. I also will not identify their comments and materials in terms of political persuasions because I think the responses rise above partisan bickering and provide useful information for all.

In fact, with all of that expensive expertise available to the left and the right, it strikes me strange that a reasoned response similar to those my readers have supplied has not appeared widely in print. For this I blame the mainstream media which appears to have taken sides in the debate and consistently delivers a message of doom and dire consequences without the slightest attempt at balance or intellectual curiosity.

So here is a synopsis of what the really smart people (my readers) are saying about global warming.

Temperature recordings for measuring global warming began sometime in the 1800’s. It was sporadic at best. Those recordings increased in frequency and geographical diversity when nations understood the importance of weather in the conduct of wars. Even then the recordings concentrated on land masses (mostly in the developed world) until the emergence of satellite technology in the 70’s. So detailed studies of the total Earth’s climate and changes are only available for the last 30 years. Prior to that we have to rely on the sporadic measurements, primarily on land masses, to develop primary information. Secondary information as to temperatures is available through a variety of scientific tools including tree rings, ice and earth core drillings, and other geological studies.

For the period of time since the advent of satellite technology, the Earth’s average annual temperatures have varied about plus or minus 0.4 degrees, with the exception of a brief period in the mid 90’s where strong El Nino activities raised the variation to between 0.8 and 1.0 degrees. Having noted that, there is a significant clustering of temperatures at the high end of that 0.4 degree variation over the last ten years. So, based on primary temperature data, it appears that average annual global temperatures for the last ten years are 0.4 degrees higher than the average annual global temperatures over the last thirty plus years.

Based on secondary data developed by National Climate Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration it similarly appears that over the past ten years the average annual global temperature has risen about 0.4 degrees above the average annual global temperature estimated over the past 200,000 years. The last time that average annual global temperatures were in this range was about 130 years ago.

From this it is easy to conclude that global warming over the last decade is occurring. Whether that is a sustainable or an increasing phenomenon is speculative. But herein lies the common sense response of my readers. If you know that global warming has been occurring over the last decade, why wouldn’t you undertake reasonable measures to try to alleviate that portion of the warming that is anthropogenic (that’s the scientific term for “man-caused”).

But therein lies the rub. The causes of global warming are many, some natural, some man made. Greenhouse gases appear to be a factor but both the amount that greenhouse gases contribute, and the percentage of greenhouse gases that are man-made contribute are in dispute. We do know that the burning of carbon based fuels contribute to greenhouse gases — that includes coal, gas, petroleum products and forest fires. Let’s be sensible, if breathing the fumes from a car’s engine, a gas furnace, a BBQ or burning logs in a closed room will kill you, none of them can be particularly good even in a dispersed atmosphere.

In the end, we should assume the problem exists and task our scientists to focus on the causes as well as the means and effects of various solutions — and for this we need to understand both the climatological effects and the economic effects. In the end, the policy questions related to global warming must be reserved to the people, not the scientists. But the corollary is also true, that the people must act knowledgeably on the basis of science and not in spite of it.