Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Global "climate change:" inconvenient questions

A conundrum for the global warming activists

This post is about global warming, or global climate change if you prefer, but not in the sense that you might expect. I am not qualified to argue the science of global climate, other than to look at my recorded weather history, including snowfall, which is, to put it mildly, a bit antithetical to the alarmist view.

Bear with me, dear reader, while I set the stage for the specific point I wish to raise.

As I look at things, there are some points on which we should all be able to agree, regardless of our inclinations. These set the stage for further discussion.

1) Climate predictions have been all over the landscape virtually forever. In the 70’s, we were being warned of the “coming ice age.”

2) Climate reality in recorded history has varied wildly, and the severest of those variations occurred before humans and their various enterprises were a meaningful presence on the earth.

3) We have a great deal of difficulty “modeling” weather patterns for next week, next month, or next year, let alone decades from now.

4) Climate “science” is inherently influenced by politics, perhaps more than any other field of knowledge in this day and age. Why? Because it’s a wildly effective weapon in the epic battles in the fields of energy, the environment, capitalism, and numerous other ideological debates.
Further, the vast majority of “scientists” involved in related “research” work in the public sector; they are funded by government either directly or indirectly. Like most professionals, these researchers want to prosper in their chosen pursuits, and prospering means gaining more government money, which requires playing to those who control that money, which demands reinforcing the ideology and political ambitions of those in power.

5) The climate argument separates very clearly on one level: looking at the historic data up to the most recent point that it exists, and looking forward with predictions that vary to the degree in which they take history into account. (Think of the disclaimer you usually get with information on any investment vehicle: “past performance is no indicator of future performance.”)

As we ponder this “discussion,” it seems clear that the last point is the most relevant to the latest commentary, opinions, and warnings. Most recently, the public debate wanders significantly over the landscape.

In the last few weeks, I've heard that global temperatures have cooled in the last 10 years and that they have been flat since 2000. Then I read in a Paul (Pass the Koolaid) Krugman column, printed in the Times Record, that the predictions for global temperature change are twice as horrible as previously thought.

Krugman writes:

“The fact is that the planet is changing faster than even pessimists expected: ice caps are shrinking, arid zones spreading, at a terrifying rate. And according to a number of recent studies, catastrophe — a rise in temperature so large as to be almost unthinkable — can no longer be considered a mere possibility.”
“Thus researchers at M.I.T., who were previously predicting a temperature rise of a little more than 4 degrees by the end of this century, are now predicting a rise of more than 9 degrees.”
Krugman further opines that “the vote on the Waxman-Markley cap and tax bill is an abomination: I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason — treason against the planet.”
That’s Krugman; always calm and collected. There’s nothing wrong with him that a quick blast from a fire extinguisher aimed at his noggin couldn’t fix.

So how can such diametrically opposed views exist in an era of supposed "scientific consensus?"

In a moment or two it dawned on me. The recent evidence of flat or even declining temperatures involve actual observations, while Krugman's case depends on predictions that build on dire historical reports For those who are true believers in global warming, the most recent data undermines their arguments, and so predictions of catastrophe need to escalate accordingly to compensate for wilting prior evidence.

Real facts vs. prognostications; it’s that simple. The former bows not easily to any agenda, while the latter is easily swayed by political fashion and the dollars that flow from it. So as Krugman’s arguments founded on history crumble, he has no choice but to escalate warnings for the future, which by definition cannot be challenged factually.

But that's not my point. Instead, I want to pose a more basic question, and I offer a metaphor to illustrate it. A lifelong engineer like myself is genetically driven to ponder certain questions about the various scientific and technology issues of our age. We simply can't avoid wanting to understand things on our own terms.

I suppose this is the adult version of "taking things apart to see what makes them tick." I begin with the tale of a fellow engineer with whom I worked for most of my career. His father passed away at a fairly early age because of heart problems and emphysema. My friend was aware that his father had high cholesterol, and concerned about his own fate, he decided to have his own blood work done.

Sure enough, he had very high cholesterol; in the upper 300's as I recall. Concerned, my friend took this situation on with a fervor. He worked his way up to running 10 miles or so every day, lost weight (obviously), and went on an extreme cholesterol avoidance diet. And he began to have success at lowering his numbers.

Encouraged, he continued on with his plan. As time went on, his numbers continued to drop, and eventually, they dropped so low as to be unhealthy, so his Doctor advised him to get the numbers back up. So he reversed many of his eating habits to kick the numbers higher, and it worked. Except he overshot the target, sending his numbers too high, and he had to go back on the low cholesterol diet.

I don't remember how many times he oscillated around the "ideal" number. But I want you to think of his circumstances as a metaphor that can shed some insight on "global climate control." An undeniably miraculous and elegant a "system" as the human body may be, it pales in comparison to the global "climate system."

We know that various treatments and life style changes take considerable time to have an effect and show themselves in the physical condition of our body. And we know further that is nearly impossible to reach the exact ideal point, and then hold everything right there. There are too many delayed effects, too many unknown influences, and too many items to monitor and control on a daily basis.

So inevitably, the human experience is one of oscillating or see-sawing around a desirable norm, with some highs, and then some lows, and then the cycle easily repeats. It would be nice if we had a cholesterol dial on our foreheads that constantly displayed our up to the minute HDL and LDL levels, along with a dial for setting our target levels in response.

Think of the thermostat you have to control the heating of your home. It shows the actual temperature, and you set the desired temperature you want. Wouldn't it be fun to have an automatic cholesterol control system like that?

Here's a little engineering secret for you. The thermostat in your home doesn't keep your home at a truly fixed temperature. It has an upper limit and a lower limit that it uses to control your heating or cooling cycle. When the temperature reaches the upper limit (if you are heating), the system turns off until the temperature drops to the lower limit, at which time the heat kicks back on to drive temperature back to the upper figure.

Your interior temperature is actually cycling back and forth over a span of something like 3 degrees, and there is some adjustment range. It has to work over a range like this, or the system would drive you nuts by turning on and off every few minutes. Your water heater works the same way. There are time constants and operating ranges involved.

So why does this matter? Before I explain that, let's put aside any doubts about global warming, and what the human role is in any such concerns. They are not germane to my point.

Of far greater concern are what I consider the “inconvenient questions” that arise when considering what to do about climate, as uncertain as the theories and prognostications are. It’s one thing to sit around the dinner table, or in your favorite coffee roasting house, and discuss the subject. It’s quite another to set national and global economic policy, with unintended consequences a given, based on raging and emotional debate.

So here’s some questions I have. I hope you readers can provide answers to help me decide where I stand on the subject. They express things in the most basic of terms.

• Who will we trust to be the temperature "Doctor" for the world, the one given the authority to say what the “global temperature” is and what it should be?

• Who will be the authority to declare that global temperature needs to be lowered, or for that matter, raised?

• Who will be the authority that determines when the steps taken to affect such change need to be scaled back because of change beyond what was called for?

• How many degrees of temperature undershoot or overshoot will we tolerate, and how will we address this very real issue?

• How will we determine what the “lag” is between proposed remedies and their effects? Who will say “enough is enough” or “reverse course,” and on what basis?

Or, to put it in simple terms, who will own and control the thermostat for the world? And can we trust him or her to keep us all comfortable? Not too warm, but not too chilly either.

You know, "just right," like porridge.

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