11:35 pm - Friday August 22, 2014

Berwyn: Global warming: Rhetoric or Reality


Berwyn, Global Warming, Rhetoric, RealityIt never ceases to amaze how the simple mention of global warming in a news story sets off a tsunami of rhetoric. It generally comes from a very vocal minority that would go to its grave swearing that the sum total of climate science is a liberal plot to enrich Al Gore. Alternately, we are told the Martian ice caps are melting, proof that solar radiation and sunspot cycles — and not greenhouse gases — are the cause of planetary warmups.

The arguments are stunningly simple. Intuitively, they even make sense. It’s more convenient to point the finger at external causes than to be accountable for our own actions. It’s understandable, too, that existential fear drives denial like nothing else. We don’t want it to be true — how horrifying it would be if we’ve really screwed up the planet to the point that imperils our kids and grandkids.

That same concern may also be driving the most urgent warnings to do something — anything, even at a high social and economic cost — to try and prevent the worst. How will future generations think of us if they knew we had a chance to act but didn’t, out of pure selfishness?

The global warming skeptics may turn out to be right. Nothing could make me happier, because even short of the worst-case scenario, the outlook for a globally warmer world is grim and nearly all the signs are pointing in that direction.

But who knows for sure? Maybe this cosmic gravitational dance that keeps the Earth on the cusp of a delicate balance between burning and freezing is subject to forces greater than we understand. A slight wobble in this planet’s orbit, or a sudden tug from some unknown black hole, internal processes in the sun that have never been observed … any of these things have the potential to affect Earth’s temperature.

Still, there are incontrovertible facts. We can measure the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. And we do know exactly what they do. It’s simple physics. If you put “X” amount of these gases into the air, the temperature will warm by “Y.” It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pot of water, or like the heat that builds up inside your car when your park it in the sun with the windows closed. It’s clear that global temperatures have increased in recent decades, right in line with what the physics predict.

This is where the arguments from global warming skeptics turn disingenuous. Often, in reaction to a news story on local or global temperature trends, the same few people (I count less than a handful) will react by pointing out that Summit County had a snowy winter, or that cool, rainy weather in June is a clear sign that global warming is a hoax. There’s a huge difference between weather in Summit County and global climate, but there are a few people who apparently can’t make that distinction.

Recently, the skeptics have even taken the offensive, citing short-term numbers to show there’s a cooling trend. This may work from a rhetorical standpoint if you’re trying to undercut the other side’s argument, but it’s clearly just massaging the numbers.

This is the point where I start to feel what it might have been like for Copernicus back in the 1500s when he started telling people the Earth was round. The concept didn’t fit into the existing belief system, so round-Earth proponents were ostracized and tortured by church inquisitors. Interesting how that strain of fundamental conservatism is still part of what drives the argument of global-warming skeptics today.

It would be one thing if scientists in general were prone to exaggeration and to rash predictions, if they really did stand to make a lot of money from advancing global-warming science. But it’s safe to say that, in general, researchers are extremely cautious about drawing conclusions from their work, and insist on having quantifiable data before pronouncing findings.

The so-called science touted by skeptics, on the other hand, can nearly always be traced back to funding from the very industries that have the most to lose if society takes the big steps needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Who are you going to believe?

There is some room for debate on this topic, but let’s make sure it’s rooted in science, and not based on denial and fear. Let’s put all the cards on the table face-up, and leave the jokers out of the deck.

Bob Berwyn has been reporting from Summit County since 1996.

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