Cognitive Daily

I try to stay away from answering “Ask a Scienceblogger” when it strays too far from my areas of expertise. This week, the question is the following:

I read this article in the NRO, and the author actually made some interesting arguments. ‘Basically,’ he said, ‘I am questioning the premise that [global warming] is a problem rather than an opportunity.’ Does he have a point?…

I don’t really think I need to be an expert to respond. The article in question seems to have been written largely as a joke. Al Gore suggests that New York would be underwater as a result of rising sea levels. The author’s retort: “get with it Democrats, where is your traditional love of public works? Rising ocean levels will keep the government in the sea wall business for decades.”

I agree, that could be an interesting problem to solve. Unfortunately, the world isn’t run by liberals. So when a real climate crisis occurs as a result of global warming, such as the drought in Darfur or Hurricane Katrina, real people die, in the thousands and hundreds of thousands.

How will the citizens of Canada feel about millions — possibly billions — of refugees seeking the land of plenty that the article’s author thinks will be created there by global warming? Somehow I doubt they’ll be welcoming them with open arms. If one country, the Sudan, can’t peacefully handle the societal impact of global warming, what will happen when the entire planet is reeling from its effects? Is it really easier to relocate billions of people than to accelerate our search for renewable energy sources?

Clearly the author doesn’t believe global warming will really occur, or he would display a better understanding of the science behind it. From using non-words like micobiotic to the idea that global warming will create rainforests (actually the Amazon rain forest will be one of the first casualties of global warming), he simply doesn’t have the foggiest notion what global warming will really be like.

But even if he’s 100 percent right on the science, there’s one other huge flaw in the author’s argument. Eventually we’ll run out of fossil fuels, and the earth will begin to cool again. Not only will we have to repeat the massive relocation of the world’s population, again, but we’ll have to make the transition to renewable energy sources anyway.

Why not make the transition now, and save ourselves not one, but two massive, bloody relocations of most of the world’s population?


  1. #1 _Arthur
    August 31, 2006

    I have a buddy who follow 3 lines of argument:
    1) There is no Global Warming, only normal fluctuation
    2) There may be a Global Warming, but it is a Natural Cycle, not man-made at all
    3) Even if we, the USA, applyed the Kyoto Protocol, it wouldn’t lower the temperature ENOUGH
    3.5) The US will not pledge to Kyoto unless China does too

    He has not reached yet the last-ditch lines of defense
    4) Reducing carbon emissions would cost too much, would hurt industrial profits, would be too bothersome right now

    and theres always
    0) More studies are needed, I’ll pick the ones that favor my prejudices, and siscard the others

  2. #2 AndrewE
    August 31, 2006

    Global warming is an opportunity, one that demands the human race to pull together. One state in the entire US is finally implementing strict emissions caps thanks to its Hollywood front man…what about the 50 others? Then there’s China, India, Brazil all pumping out masses of toxins to compete in the race towards economic supremacy, Russia, Ukraine, Iran with questionable atomic infrastructures.

    As Professor John Holdren of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a BBC interview:

    “We’re already experiencing dangerous human disruption of the global climate and we’re going to experience more,”

    The postulation on whether global warming is a result of human intervention in the environment is last millennium, we’re already in full swing. How many more Katrina’s will it take to convince Mr. Bush? What type of world will out children’s children inhabit at the current rate of pollution?

    I do my bit on a personal level, gave up my car, separate my trash 4 ways, use minimal resources etc but most people don’t give a sh**, they just worry about the next pay packet, the next gadget or whatever. Perhaps if we knew what the meaning of life was, what our purpose here was then we’d have less of a difficult time taking direct action.

  3. #3 Alex
    August 31, 2006

    Let me preface this with a few points of note. I do believe global warming exists. I do believe humans have contributed to it. I am all for minimizing our footprint and harm to the environment. I have not yet seen evidence that shows it as anything other than a natural phenomenon, nor any evidence that shows our contribution to it is anything more than negligeable. It is obvious the climate change is happening, but the extent of which and cause of which is only theory up to this point, and they are plentiful.

    That said. Yes it can present us an enormous amount of problems, but I do believe there is opportunity to be had as well, if only we can recognize it. The disasters that are possible are gradual, and avoidable as long as we’re paying attention and planning ahead. The major losses of life that will be blamed on it will be entirely avoidable and due to human folly, not the environments.

    That’s what bother’s me most about this post and the article it’s describing. The political posturing. If we’re going to get through what may be a difficult cycle of the earth’s climate we need to do better than bicker and snipe back and forth about party allegiance. If the earth is working on roasting us, due to our own hubris (the entire world over) or simply a natural cycle, who you vote for becomes far less of a concern. Finding out concretely why, and how, and even how to survive is much more important.

    A bit of an aside here. Why is global warming being blamed for Hurricane Katrina? Katrina was by most accounts an entirely ordinary Atlantic hurricane. Katrina was rather large and strong while in the gulf, but by lanadfall she was not. Hurricane Dennis and Jeane were of similar size and force when they made Landfall in Florida over the last two years. The only difference was the timing and location of the hit. If Katrina had hit an area without levee’s to break the loss of life would have been minimal. I don’t mean to downplay this tragedy, but I fail to see how climate change can be blamed for a somewhat ordinary event.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    August 31, 2006


    Some of your points are well taken, but I did want to comment on your points about “party allegiance.”

    This isn’t a nonpartisan issue. Republicans deny global warming exists and deny that humans are causing it; Democrats don’t. There are real, substantive differences here, informed by fact, not just party allegiances. If Republicans stay in power and don’t change their policy, then there won’t be a solution to the problem.

    Regarding Katrina, the hurricane’s size and immense storm surge were certainly influenced by higher temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which in turn was influenced by global warming. There does remain some debate as to whether the large number of Atlantic hurricanes in 2005 was caused by global warming, but there’s little debate that higher hurricane intensity is related to global warming.

  5. #5 _Arthur
    August 31, 2006

    Alex, there has been no solid scientific paper so far establishing positively that Global Warming will increase the *INTENSITY* of hurricanes.

    In general terms, Global Warming, if it increase, will cause all kinds of extreme weather, putting more energy in the atmosphere, and create stronger winds among others.

    Some evidence imply that the *number* of tropical storms and hurricanes will increase, without demonstrating necessarily an increased strenght.

    As with heat waves, a single bad hurricane year doesn’t make a trend. If ever the US is beset by repeated hurricanes (or heat waves, or snowstorms) it would probably convince the US public, albeit belatedly.

    As for the Global Warming debate, US industrial lobby as a block is opposed to costly environmental measures, as, for example they long opposed the ban on CFCs, long after the damages to the ozone layer was soundly demonstrated on a scientific basis.
    So the acccusation is that this lobby, and Conservatives who embrace it for various ideological reasons, is actively detracting scientific evidence of global warming, not on a scientific basis, but for ideological, and ultimately, financial reasons.
    If they want to argue that fighting Global Warming would cost too much, fine. But denying the validity of scientific evidence for specious reasons, or making up slanted counter-evidence, is just plain foolish.
    If you think that the War in Iraq is costly at $250B a year,those will seem paltry compared to the costs associated by rising seas, or increased hurricane activity, or crop failures, if the weather really gets out of whack, to speak in unscientific terms.

    Climate scientists deplore that the issue has been heavily politicized, to the point that it devalues their research, because politicians will label their research as “junk science” or “posturing”, when it is not.

  6. #6 Thomas Palm
    September 1, 2006

    Arthur, you’ve got it backwards. Statistics of hurricane trends show that we are getting more intense hurricanes, not more hurricanes overall. You’ll find more info over at the RealClimate blog. For example:

  7. #7 AndrewE
    September 1, 2006


    I find your lack of foresight disturbing. The reports are in abundance, I’m not sure what you’re looking for exactly…One report to bind them all? You know as well as I do that when it comes to scientific analysis there are always multiple camps for and against, there is rarely global community consensus. And beyond that, even if all the world’s foremost environmental scientists stood and declared in unison that the effects of global warming have already begun to affect the existence of humanity, I doubt Joe Blogs would bat an eyelid – why? Because too many people are dislocated from the concept of natural habitats (rain forests, polar regions etc, rivers, seas etc) as the sustenance of life on this planet. ‘Rurbanisation’: for millions of us life is made of concrete, it is automated, electrified and filtered through screens; real nature feels so far away that it is safe for us to turn a blind eye.

  8. #8 _Arthur
    September 1, 2006

    Thomas, I stand corrected, my memory failed me.
    RealClimate also suggests to read:
    “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis That Greenhouse Warming Is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity”
    which is mostly “debating the debate”, tho.

  9. #9 Dave E
    September 2, 2006

    My question is this:

    Can voluntary measures make mitigate or reduce global warming? Is it possible that we will have to impose some sort of world-wide regulation that removes individual rights to solve the problem? I’m not kidding- voting democrat and driving a hybrid might not be enough. Kyoto, on its own, wouldn’t make enough difference to stabilize the climate.

    Who will be the first to say that being green enough to save the planet means getting rid of democracy? Because IF politicians (of any stripe) get the stones to impose regulations that will fix the problem, there will be backlash, because the sacrifices involved will hurt. And people will vote them away. Treaties can be withdrawn from, or broken, and politicians turned out of office.

    I’m being deliberately melodramatic, but there is a problem with the refrain “Vote Democratic if you want to save the earth”, and the problem is a fundamental one in democracy- the people can vote against policy that makes them uncomfortable. And I am not advocating eco-dictatorship.

    People piss and moan until their side gets into power (Courage- it could begin in the fall if you prefer Democrats), but then will no doubt be disappointed at the pussyfooting and half-measures that will be implemented. Because once in power, staying there will be the goal.

    A major reason I dispair when I hear Gore say that the ‘debate is over’ is not that I doubt the science, but rather that it is horrible politics. Asking a society to give up goodies right now to save the planet even a few decades hence needs arguing for it again, and again, and again, because the sacrifices will be NOW. Armchair environmentalists will defect in droves, I’ll bet, if regulations are draconian enough to really make a difference, because it will cost them money, and make them less comfortable. Hairshirts look best while still on the rack.

    Refusing to ‘debate’ the deniers sounds too much like pleading the 5th to the public- you wouldn’t do it if you weren’t guilty. Consider- refusing to dignify a question with an answer is to give it an unspoken answer- I think I am too good, and too righteous to explain myself. When you think about what John and Jane Q thinks of science in general- that it is a godless, amoral, even frankensteinian pursuit- saying that the science is settled is a mistake. Evolution, for example, is much more certain than AGW theory, and people still don’t buy it, and up until recently, scientists mainly tended not to engage (notable exceptions exist). This vacuum may have let ID get much more traction than it otherwise would have.

    So, in my opinion, the debate is just starting, and if one really thinks that the evidence is overwhelming, there is nothing to fear. It is an opportunity to educate the public about what will be necessary. Opportunities abound for commerce, for science, for national sense of mission. It will take statesmen and women to put it together into a coherent policy, and petulant attempts to silence or smear critics, however misguided they are, won’t help.

  10. #10 Stephen Erickson
    September 5, 2006

    There is that old saw about Chinese character for “crisis”.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    September 5, 2006

    Hadn’t heard of that one. I looked it up and found this.

  12. #12 Michael
    September 6, 2006

    The correct answers were:

    1. James S. Robbins is a retard.
    2. Yes, climate change is an “opportunity” in the same way, say, alcoholism is an opportunity. With a lot of hard work and suffering you can gradually work your way back to even.

  13. #13 E.M.M.
    September 8, 2006

    The question of “opportunity” seems a simple one to answer:

    Will the land-area that will become habitable due to global warming (thawing permafrost, more rainfall etc.) be larger than the area rendered uninhabitable by the same?

    To that equation add the cost of migrating from one area to the other. Even in arable land is created at a 2:1 ratio the ammount destroyed, the cost of getting whole populations from point A to point B almost certainly causes the end result to be negative.

  14. #14 Lab Lemming
    September 8, 2006

    If you own a windmill factory, then global warming is an opportunity.

  15. #15 M Susan Carey
    July 14, 2008

    Is anyone investigating the effect of increased UV on the rate of water evaporation, and on the rate of ice sublimation? If the increased surface UV is seriously increasing the evaporation rate, we should expect stronger storms, dryer deserts and forests. Just increasing the rate would dry the land quicker, and load the atmosphere faster.
    Is any one investigating the possibility that the bees are experiencing a kind of ‘snow blindness’ due to the increased UV, which they use to track their way to and from the hive? The decreased hive populations would cause ‘collapse’ that would appear in the winters.
    I ask because a little fractal theory of energy as matter that I have been playing with for about 20 years, suggests that Ozone (O3) has an optically active ring structure only in the upper atmosphere. In lower atmospheres it would assume the tautomeric linearly described form, and lose the light-bending property. Since Einstein predicted that humanity will survive the bees by only four years, these could be very important answers.

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