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the climate change debate III

The skeptics fall into several categories. 1) scientists with legitimate questions about a very complex issue which is being whitewashed for ideological reasons. 2) contrarians who include public intellectuals like my esteemed Vanity Fair colleague Christopher Hitchens, who asked me over dinner one night two years ago if I thought global warming was really real, and referred me to a recent (Aprilb 27/8 2007) posting by our former esteemed colleague Alexander Cockburn on his site Counterpunch. The posting is very interesting. Cockburn is definitely not a warmist. He compares the booming trade in carbon credits to the Vatican selling indulgences centuries ago. In fact there is a lot of scamming and shadiness in the carbon credit business. I’ve thought of writing about it myself. Around this time I hooked up with an old journalist friend who was now a carbon trader in London. He had just made a million-pound deal with some major polluter to plant a ten thousand acre jatropha plantation in Indonesia to compensate for its emissions. Jatropha fruits were the hot commodity in the alternative energy biodiesel fuel business. Since then an aquatic algae has been found to be even better. Who is going to verify that the trees are even planted, let alone harvested and their juicy nuts squeezed into biofuel when the trees comes to maturity ten-twenty years from now, when the entire energy picture will undoubtedly be very different and jatropha will have long since ceased to be part of the mix ?

Returning to Cockburn, he then points out the CO2 tonnage of emissions produced by humans burning coal oil and natural gas peaks in 1928 at 1.1 gigatons. By 1932 its has fallen to .88 gigatons, a whopping. thirty percent drop. “Hard times drove a tougher bargain than all the counsels of Al Gore or the jeremiads of the IPCC” have been able to achieve. This is an interesting point, especially since the current global economic downturn, now in its second year,  has reportedly also caused a 30% drop in fossil fuel emissions, or maybe all human emissions; I’d have to look the source again. You can see from Cockburn’s language how contemptuous he is of the warmists, which sets off immediate alarm bells about his objectivity. He obviously has an ideological stance, but to what extent does this have to do with his niche as a professional contrarian, and what does he really know ? He goes on to say that the parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere went from 306 to just 307 between l928 and l932. Now they are 380, so he concludes, “thus it is impossible to conclude that the increase in atmospheric C02 stems from the burning of fossil fuels” when the emissions went up 21% but the atmospheric concentration went up only 0.5%” First of all, how sound are these numbers ? While rejecting mainstream climate science in general, Cockburn accepts them without question, because they are useful for his position. Secondly, there are many other human sources of atmospheric carbon besides burning fossil fuel : deforestation, forest fires, land conversion, the charcoal stoves still used by billions, and myriad others. I would question whether the amount that from burning of fossil fuel could accurately be separated from the other sources in l928-32, or even now. I have learned to be suspicious of all numbers. As I said in my piece on AIDS in Africa (Dispatch #54), “the figures are figurative.” And thirdly, with 1.1 gigatons, 1928 was not the peak year for human fossil fuel or total carbon emissions at all, so what is he talking about ? In 2006 the International Energy Agency reported 5.7 gigatons of carbon emissions just for the U.S., and in 2007 the U.S. Energy Agency reported 6 gigatons nationally. The global amount is close to five times that. Fossil fuel burning accounts for about a quarter of that, so we’re looking at roughly five or six gigatons, minus 30% since the economic meltdown.

Cockburn concludes that because the carbon tonnage from burning fossil fuel has declined (this must be, I originally thought,  from less burning of coal in home heating systems. We had a coal furnace in Bedford, New York, though,  through the mid-fifties; but actually, see above, it hasn’t at all, it has increased prodigiously, five-fold or so), human emissions are not the culprit, what is causing the warming. He quotes a retired metereologist called Martin Hertzberg that the role of water from oceans, clouds, snow ice cover, and vapor is “overwhelming in the radiative and energy balance between the earth and the sun. Carbon dioxides and greenhouses gases are, by comparison, the equivalent of a few farts in a hurricane.” This is an excellent point, and while I still believe that the possibility of our not having a heavy hand in the current global is miniscule, and the number Cockburn is putting out seem to have been drawn out of a hat,  let me throw him and his fellow skeptics a bone  and recycle from the first Wikipedia entry another even more dramatic statement, whose veracity I have no way of knowing : “In the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic era, the Earth had an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 4400 ppm (or 0.44 % of the atmosphere), while also having evidence of some glaciation.”

Back to dinner with Hitchens, I assured him that I had made a thorough reassessment of the evidence and was still convinced that we are the main cause  of this global warming and referred him to the IPCC’s physical science basis FAQ’s, which should answer any doubts he might have. But, looking back on it,  I said this in a way that was also ideological, as someone who was in the faith, which I did not dare to challenge, because it was part of my heroic, which was and still is to do as much for the world, particulary its biological and cultural diversity, as I can while I am here. Hitchens, with his contempt for religious belief, picked right up on my unquestioning piety, my need to believe in the greenhouse narrative, because it was a central pillar of my whole schtick, my mission, but said nothing. I for my part wondered why he had turned into a doubter. Was it part of his general swing to the right of late ?

3) the libertarians, who are right-wing contrarians. People like Alex Jones, the Texas talk show host. These guys are not even worthy adversaries. They will say anything to stir things up and get attention. And while claiming to be independent, they are in sync with the Republican philosophy, which is not to stymie individualism, free-market trickle-down capitalism.

4) the Republican capitalist oligarchy, the uncompassionate conservatives who wants the oil to keep flowing and everybody to keep consuming it and filling the sky with carbon so they can keep getting rich. Their interest is obviously to minimuze the effects of the emissions. They have at their disposal an army of right-wing bloggers and hackers and dirty-tricksters who are ready to destroy the reputations of anyone who challenges their anti-environmental ideology and will resort to disinformation if they can’t get any real goods on him. I have seen nothing about who actually hacked into the British Climate Centre’s e-mail system. That would be a very interesting and useful piece of information. One of these boys, I bet, or their buddies in Europe or Asia. These skeptics are a persuasion, just as some of the warmists are. And as Bertrand Russell said, “The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.” Except the evidence that the human contribution is significant is overwhelming, even if not all of it isn’t true. They know from the tobacco wars that all they have to do is keep raising doubts about the science. The hard-core, ideological skeptics represent a much smaller segment of public opinion than the hard-core ideological warmists in Europe, but in the U.S., where they are most vociferous, there are more of them, which is not surprising because we are the number-one consumers of oil. With both sides, it’s about more than just what is causing this climate problem ? Your stance on global warming correlates with your stand on abortion, evolution, gay marriage, whether you live in a red or blue state, whether you listen to NPR or Rush Limbaugh. I am beginning to think that in every society there are two basic types of people, who are as distinct as cats and dogs or men and women, and that what makes you one or the other could be genetic. And whether you are a warmist or a skeptic is more a function of the psychology of conservatism, how compassionate you are capable of being for people who aren’t as fortunate or well off as you are, what makes some people want to become prophets or draws them to apocalyptic scenarios, how upset you are about the obvious degradation of the environment and the devastation of  what is left of the world’s species and cultures,  than what is actually happening with the climate.

When the news broke that e-mails by some of Britain’s top climate scientists that were extremely damaging to the warmist cause had been hacked, I wasn’t at all surprised. I was already aware of the scientific orthodoxy, and that any scientist who questioned the greenhouse narrative did so at risk to his career. The party line was not only operative in the scientific community. When I reported to my editor that the Russian scientists seemed to have serious  and legitimate questions about the importance of the  human contribution, he advised me not to give that a lot of play, because “we have a lot invested in the reality of this.” This could be seen as evidence of what the skeptics are constantly accusing, that there is a conspiracy by the liberal media to sell the American on “the greatest hoax of all time,” as the ultra-skeptic oilstate redneck Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) calls it.

But from what I can see, the media has been giving the skeptics much more attention than they deserve, and if anything most of the coverage has been slanted in their favour. And I am living proof that, liberal as I am, there is no liberal conspiracy. Which I hope these three blogs have made clear.

If you take anything away from this, I hope it is this : We don’t really know how big the human component is compared to the natural one. I don’t think it is possible to put numbers on either of them at this point. Let’s take the desertification of Mali, for instance, the subject of Dispatch #31. According to scientists sitting at computers in Texas, the Sahara is spreading south and shrinking the size of the wooded and grassy Sahel and causing massive drought in the region because of the increasing frequency and intensity of El Nino and of the similar periodic warming event in the tropical North Atlantic, which is due to our carbon emissions. But according to the Malian minister of the environment, the cause was that more and more trees are being cut by the exponentially growing population, the cause was local and mechanical instead of being a repurcussion of something distant and meteorological whose effects are felt all over the world. Who is right ? Who can know ? I saw  devastating effects of deforestation on my tour of the country– erosion, frehsly clearcut swaths shriveling baking in the sun into desert hardpan that nothing could take root in, vast fires sending clouds of thick black smoke into the night, blizzards of dust redder than the usual seasonal dust storms, because they were filled with particles of sun-dried lateric soil  that the wind had picked up. So I was inclined to believe the man on the ground, the environment minister, who was seeing what was actually happening, and not the guys in Texas looking at their computer models. But what do I know ? That’s how every scientific paper should start : What do I know, but here’s some new data for you.

And in the end, it doesn’t matter how much of it is human. There are so many other imperative reasons for us to be reducing our consumption and waste stream. And every little bit helps.