Global Warming: Less Politics - Real Solutions Needed
By way of background, about 30 years ago, I became curious about global warming. It struck me as an interesting topic because here was the first real documented case of man influencing the global air composition. I wrote tens of letters to scientific leaders and policy makers, urging that research be carried out. Since that time, the issue has indeed been taken more seriously, and much good science is now being done. However, in recent years, the issue has also taken on a political hue and is being steered more by activists with agendas.
There are substantial scientific issues inhibiting the forecasting of impacts from global warming and the making of future policy:
1. The major greenhouse gas on Earth is water vapor, and it is changed in ways we don't understand by small perturbations. It overwhelms tiny carbon dioxide signals.
2. The major modulator of climate is the cloud system, which is poorly captured by climate models, even the ones running on banks of supercomputers.
3. Climate has swung around wildly in natural, not-well-understood cycles for millions of years, and assessing man's alleged influence on climate is problematical at best.
4. Arguing from a thermodynamically favored viewpoint, the main modulator of climate by man, is probably going to be caused not by greenhouse gas but by sub-micron-sized aerosols influencing cloud droplets. This so-called Twomey Effect is more likely to cool rather than warm the planet.
Given the present poor state of our ability to forecast future climate changes, the U.N.-sponsored Kyoto Treaty is, in my opinion, premature. Kirill Kondratiev, a respected member of the Russian Academy of Science, put it this way: "The position of developing states is naturally based on their striving for an increase of the standard of living as first priority, and they are not prepared for any curtailment of their industry.
"The U.S. administration and Congress rejected the Kyoto Treaty because of inadequate scientific substantiation and, furthermore, because it would have very serious economic consequences without positive environmental improvement."
And, I note in passing that China and India have plans to add more than 800 new coal-burning power plants by 2020 that are exempted from the treaty.
So, in summary, buying into premature treaties on global warming will, at this time, accomplish little for the environment, have negative economic consequences and, in the end, discredit concern for and actions required to solve serious environmental issues.
Still, in spite of the problems, the more general issue sends up a red flag. Perturbation to nature by man is truly growing serious. It is going to have to be dealt with if civilization is to survive. The question is how.
One thing the United States could do is sponsor a kind of Environmental Marshall Plan to assist developing countries in building energy-efficient, pollution-free power plants and industry. This could surpass in action several times over what the flawed Kyoto Treaty could accomplish and would cost less.
An Environmental Marshall Plan would send a message that the United States indeed does take global environmental issues seriously. In addition, by taking proactive steps like this, we could develop a model that would contain marketplace paradigms and cost-benefit considerations and provide incentives, rather than dictating actions from top-down like the Kyoto Treaty does.
In the meantime, rigorous high-level scientific research should continue apace on these critical environmental issues. We are presently at a very early stage. Institutions like the new International Arctic Research Center in Alaska can pave the way toward furthering our understanding of global change and trans-boundary pollution.
Glenn Shaw is a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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