An Even Brighter Side of Global Warming?

27 July 2006 at 1:45 pm 8 comments

| Richard Langlois |

I remain agnostic about whether global warming is taking place and, if so, whether it is being caused by human behavior.  In part, my skepticism comes from some familiarity with large mathematical models in my graduate student days — and my recollection of how sensitive they are to the assumptions fed in.  I certainly agree with Peter about what the issues are.

But I recently saw a review by Bob Whaples on EH.net (the economic history website and list-serve) of a book called Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate by William F. Ruddiman.  According to the review, the earth for the last 900,000 years or so has experienced cycles in which massive glaciation lasting on the order of 100,000 years has alternated with comparatively brief (10,000 year) “interglacials.”  Basically, the earth is now permanently colder than it was in the time of the dinosaurs, probably because there is now less volcanic CO2 and because the push of the Indian subcontinent into the Himalayas is somehow scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere.  Ruddiman apparently argues that the interglacial in which we now live is lasting longer than it should because humans have had an effect of warming the climate since the beginning of settled agriculture, which reduced forest cover in favor of crops.  (Apparently the author also tries to link recent “little ice ages” to the plague and other events that took land out of cultivation, though, like Whaples, I find this less compelling.) Bottom line, as you might guess, is that we are long overdue for the next ice age, and what is saving us is — man-made global warming.  Ruddiman apparently believes that global warming will be less than predicted and that before long the Ice Age will win.  If the two trends ended up canceling each other out, it would probably be fitting, since global warming alarmism arguably had its roots in Ice Age alarmism.  In any case, I have long hoped to see, as a throw-away bit in some science-fiction story, a depiction of giant furnaces in the Amazon valiantly trying to churn out CO2 to stave off a coming glaciation.

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The Bright Side of Global Warming Assets versus Activities

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Mahoney  |  29 July 2006 at 2:52 pm

    Richard,

    I am interested to know if you have seen the film “An Inconvenient Truth” and if so, why the evidence of systemic changes that are observable from 1970 to today that are provided do not lead you to move beyond an agnostic stance to at least suspect that global warning might be a problem that requires a response?

    Thanks for your consideration.

    Joe Mahoney

  • 2. anon.  |  30 July 2006 at 12:42 am

    The best response to Al Gore’s movie comes from MIT atmospheric scientist and Alfred Sloan Prof Richard Lindzen in a WSJ Op-Ed piece titled – “Don’t Believe the Hype: Al Gore is wrong. There’s no ‘consensus’ on global warming.” see here – http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008597

  • 3. rlanglois  |  30 July 2006 at 7:24 am

    Joe:

    I haven’t seen the movie, though I’m not sure Al Gore would be my first source for scientific data. Frankly, however, the reading I’ve been doing lately suggests that maybe it’s not a coin flip — perhaps it’s more likely than not that global warming is happening, though I’m not sure we yet have a good handle on what the effects will be. Even if we posit the fact of global warming, however, the appropriate response (if any) doesn’t follow directly. I agree with Peter that policies (like carbon quotas and taxes?) that slow or reverse growth and that keep countries like China and India from growing are likely to make it harder not easier for the human race to respond to global warming.

  • 4. Joe Mahoney  |  30 July 2006 at 10:36 am

    Richard, thanks for your thoughtful response. I highly recommend the movie as a worthwhile experience.

    It is not so much the words of Al Gore (or the MIT scientist for that matter) but rather the pictures from around the world of the changes from 1970 to the present that I find to be “coercive facts” that we are experiencing global warning.

    Thanks are due also to the person who sent the WSJ opinion piece.

    I have no insights to offer on what the Truth is, although in the case of global warning I believe it is warranted to suspect that global warming deserves greater attention and public suppport for further scientific inquiry.

    Best and warm regards,
    Joe Mahoney

  • 5. Bo Nielsen  |  31 July 2006 at 1:59 am

    See also “The Sceptical Environmentalist” by Bjorn Lomborg.

  • 6. JC  |  2 August 2006 at 6:40 am

    I came into academe having become enamored of Jay Forrester’s ‘system dynamics’. But almost immediately Dennis Meadows’s “Limits to Growth” came out – and embarrassed all but the whackiest of us. Now we have:

    http://www.chelseagreen.com/2004/items/limitspaper

    Richard’s cautions seem pretty appropriate. But so are Al Gore’s photographs. The question is not so much whether the glaciers are retreating, that much seems self-evident. The question is ‘what does it mean?’, and that’s where these models come in. Why should we think these models give us a good sense of what is going to happen in the future?

    Incidentally for those of us who want to escape Power Point – even given Ed Tufte’s support – Gore’s use of visual aids is a wonderful lesson to us ‘cpmmunicators’.

  • 7. Eric H  |  2 September 2006 at 9:09 am

    Aren’t photographs simply elaborate and powerful anecdotes? And no doubt that he failed to include counterindicative photographs?

    Back when it first came out, I read Gore’s Earth in the Balance and found that he is a gifted political but a poor physical scientist. I have not seen the movie, but the fact that all of his arguments have been out for a while but are making a significanat impact when presented in visual form tells me that the movie is very powerful propaganda (yes, that is the correct word even if his entire argument is true). Moviegoers have few choices for viewing movies dedicated to the opposite or even a moderate viewpoint, while readers have lots of access to all kinds of discussions about GW. If the movie is like the book, then he overweights the positive feedback and underweights the negative feedback. Further, when moving from the physical science to the economics, he counts only the costs and none of the benefits of warming, but only the benefits and none of the costs when talking about the prevention.

    Models are not the real world, and the larger and more complex the model, the more difficult it is to use.

  • 8. Lee Prangnell  |  4 May 2009 at 6:51 am

    Although I can understand a little bit of healthy skepticism, I cannot see how one can deny that human behaviour (particularly in the corporate world) is causing massive damage to the eco-system as a whole.

    If you were to look at the scientific evidence in relation to how transnational corporations are expelling huge amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. This in turn is making the green house gas layer much more effective therefore the ultraviolet and infrared electromagnetic radiation from the sun is causing the planet and the surrounding atmosphere to heat up. This is causing damage to millions of species and human beings are ultimately to blame for this due to our incessant and relentless desire for a fossil fuel rich lifestyle (in order to entertain ourselves).

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