Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Global Warming Questions

A major problem with the news media is that complex issues get compressed into little sound bites and short presentations, often framed in a script that the journalistic community has adopted. (Compare the use of the term "black boxes" for the orange data and voice recorders on commercial aircraft, or the term "Richter scale" in the discussion of earthquakes--a scale not used since the 70s or so.)

When there is a multiple shooting somewhere, the media dusts off its gun control script. Not too long ago there was a mass stabbing, but the media, having no "knife-control script," couldn't advocate tighter laws for knife ownership.

To the point:
Discussion of global warming or its much more vague but newly popular alternate concept, climate change seems too often to conflate, bypass, and ignore a number of questions relevant to the discussion. Here, then, are just a few:

1. Is global warming occurring? That is, Is the climate getting hotter?
2. If the answer to 1 is Yes, then what is the base measurement? In other words, if the earth is getting warmer, since when? Since 2000? (It seems that global temps haven't changed since then.) Since 1950? Since 1850? Since 1500? Since 1000?
3. If the earth has warmed since the named baseline, is that an absolute rise or a rise on a larger cyclical pattern or rising and falling global temperatures? Do the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age suggest a cyclical pattern?
4. How can we know whether the earth is warming or not? This is a question about measurement reliability.

  • How reliable are old data, such as the temperatures recorded a hundred, two hundred or more years ago?
  • How reliable are new data? Was a parking lot installed around a measuring station that used to be surrounded by grass or trees?
  • How representative are the data? Inductive leaps can be problematic.
5. If global warming is occurring indeed, is that bad? During the age of the dinosaurs, the planet must have been pretty lush to leave behind enough plant matter to give us all the oil we now have. And anyone who has raised vegetables or fruit in a hot house knows what huge and delicious produce results.
6. How can we know if global warming will, on balance, be a negative? Sea levels could rise, but starvation might be almost eliminated because of a crop-friendly atmosphere.
7. If global warming is occurring and it is bad, what is causing it? It's popular to throw a dart at human activity such as burning fossil fuels, but is that really the cause? Sunspot activity has also been proposed. Is there a suite of causes and not just one?
8. If global warming is occurring and it's bad and humans are causing it, what can be done to ameliorate it? It's interesting here that some solutions are more popular among the chattering classes than others. Solar power? Got it!, Nuclear power? Not so much. Wind power? Yay. (But those wind generators slice and dice endangered bird species. Guess you have to choose your eco-priorities.)
9. If you have developed a list of what can be done, then what should be done? Who's going to pay for it? Why them? 
10. What if nations don't cooperate? Third world nations just now ramping up their energy needs and production are unlikely to shut down their power plants.

Whatever your position on global warming or climate change, I think it will be helpful to consider some of these questions as entry points for fresh thinking and analysis.

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