Environmental Law 101:Global Climate Change, Part II

Several years ago, I prepared a presentation about global warming entitled “Framing the Debate: A Layperson’s Summary of the Scientific Case For and Against Global Climate Change.”  I didn’t know much about the subject at that time and I didn’t feel like I was getting useful information from all the people yelling at each other on television.  Such is the nature of political debates—they shed a lot of heat, but little light.  I wanted to explain the issue and what the debate was about.  Global Climate Change, Part I was the introduction to my presentation.

I ended my presentation with some lyrics from The King and I sung by the King of Siam who is trying to figure out the complexities of life.  In a soliloquy (A Puzzlement), Rodgers and Hammerstein have him say some things that reminded me of the debate over climate change:

There are times I almost think

Nobody sure of what he absolutely know

Everybody find confusion

In conclusion he concluded long ago

And it puzzle me to learn

That though a man may be in doubt of what he know

Very quickly he will fight

He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so

Since politicians and ideologues have, in recent years, entered into the debate, the quality of the debate over climate change has decreased, largely because several issues get confused and intermixed in the debate such as:

–Is the temperature of Earth increasing?

–Is the increase related to human activity?

–Is there anything that humans can do to reverse the trend of higher temperatures?

–Is there anything that humans can do to reduce the impact of higher temperatures?

–Should we be planning for the obvious consequences of a warmer climate?

In trying to learn about the subject, I read a lot of literature including two books by Robert Balling, Jr., a Professor of Geography and Director of the Office of Climatology at Arizona State University.  [See The Satanic Gases (CATO Institute, 2000); and The Heated Debate (Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1992).  The Satanic Gases was co-authored by Patrick Michaels, a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia.  Between the two of them, they have published more than 300 papers on climate issues.]

The conclusions in these sources, simply stated, are that CO₂ levels increased 60% since the beginning of the industrial revolution; the atmospheric concentration of CO₂ is rising; anthropogenic emissions are a cause of the increase; and doubling CO₂ concentrations could warm Earth by 2.5˚F.  On this point, Charles Mann (How to Talk About Climate Change so People Will Listen, The Atlantic, September 2014) writes that:  “If the level of carbon dioxide is the atmosphere rises only slightly above it current 400 parts per million, most climatologists believe, there is (roughly) a 90% chance that global temperatures will eventually rise between three and eight degrees Fahrenheit, with the most likely jump being between four and five degrees.”

More specifically, Balling concluded:  There is no doubt about it—human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO₂ and these activities will certainly continue to force atmospheric CO₂ levels to climb.  In the community of greenhouse scientists, there is virtually no debate surrounding this observed increase of atmospheric CO₂  The rate of has been measured through many parts of the globe, the rate is recognized to be exponential over the past 100 years and the emission rates by nations are reasonably well known.  Given the physical reality that CO₂ in the atmosphere acts to warm the earth by absorbing energy emitted by the earth’s surface and atmosphere, one by safely conclude that the increase in atmospheric CO₂ will act to warm the earth to some extent.

Before anybody gets too excited, one has to look at what Balling really said—and what he didn’t say.  He concludes that CO₂ concentrations are rising. [Balling and Michaels estimate that the “atmosphere effectively has a carbon dioxide greenhouse effect that has not been seen for at least 10 million years.]  Balling concludes that human activity, since the start of the industrial revolution, has contributed to those concentrations.  He concludes that higher GHG concentrations mean higher temperatures.  He acknowledges the difficulty of determining the magnitude of the impact of greenhouse gases to Earth’s climate—i.e., will be in the range of 2.5˚F (which he views as tolerable) or will it be in the range of 9˚F and be catastrophic.

When I read the two books, I felt the authors had done an excellent job of presenting the facts without hysteria.  But the facts lead to the inevitable conclusion that temperatures on Earth are increasing and that we should not be fighting over the obvious (that temperatures are going up); rather we should be debating about what, if anything, can be done about it or whether the trend is already out of our control.

Other good, knowledgeable scientists, of course, have differing points of view although, in many respects, they agree on more than they want to admit.

For example, Reid Bryson, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin has stated:  “It’s absurd.  Of course it is going up.  It has gone up since the early 1800’s before the Industrial Revolution because we are coming out of the Little Ice Age, not because we’re putting more carbon dioxide in the air.”

And consider William Gray, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University who said:  “Human kind has little or nothing to do with the recent temperature changes.  We are not that influential.”

And Tad Murty, Oceanographer and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Ottawa who stated:  “The atmosphere hasn’t changed that much in 280 million years and there have always been cycles of warming and cooling.  The Cretaceous period was the warmest on earth.  You could have grown tomatoes at the North Pole.”

And Fred Singer, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia who stated:  “The greenhouse effect is real.  However, the effect is minute, insignificant and very difficult to detect.  It’s not automatically true that warming is bad.  I happen to believe that warming is good and so to many economists.”

And Tim Patterson, Paleoclimatologist and Professor of Geology at Carleton University (Canada) who stated:  “In fact, when CO₂  levels were over ten times higher than they are now, about 450 million years ago, the planet was in the depths of the absolute coldest period in the last half billion years.  On the basis of this evidence, how could anyone still believe that the recent relatively small increase in CO₂ levels would be the major cause of the past century’s modest warming.”

As you can see, all of the parties cited above acknowledge that temperatures are going up.  They disagree about whether the increase is significant and whether human activity has contributed to it.  Yet we have a political debate about whether temperatures are increasing.  We can’t even agree on what is obvious much less on the difficult issues of impact and causation.  That’s where the controversial subject of climate modeling comes in; that will be the subject of a future post.  Obviously, computer modeling is indispensable to modern life, but, having dealt with computer modeling during my career, I recognize its limitations and frailties.

But, to try to tie up some loose ends on the point of whether the Earth’s climate is warming, it might be helpful to share some thoughts.  With all due respect to Professor Murty, one can’t grow tomatoes or anything else on the North Pole because there is no land at the North Pole; nor, for that matter, is there any “summer ice” any more because it melts.  And as a result of the “modest warming” referred to by Professor Patterson, glaciers on Earth are presently dumping 260 billion metric tons of water into the planet’s oceans every year.   [Kenneth Chang, The New York Times, May 20, 2014.]  A full melt of Earth’s ice sheets over the coming centuries will cause sea levels to rise 230 feet. [Kenneth Chang.]  No Florida.  No barrier islands.  We like to talk about the duty we owe future generations.  The fact is that every future generation is going to have less land and more water.  Earth was formed something like 4.5 billion years ago; mankind has lived on Earth for something like 40,000 years.  During ice ages, ice covered up to 30% of Earth’s land area; today it covers 10%.  [Kenneth Chang; Robert Balling.]

Despite all rhetoric, some facts are clear.  Temperatures are rising and are expected to continue to rise.  Ocean levels are rising and are expected to continue to rise substantially. Regardless of the cause, we should acknowledge what we know (that we are in a long term trend of significant temperature increases) and debate (a) whether man’s activities significantly impact temperature increases; (b) whether significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will significantly impact the temperature trend on Earth; and (c) what we should be doing with respect to our most vulnerable ocean shores and harbors in light of expected future increases in sea levels.  Politicians love a debate; they also don’t like to deal with situations until there is a crisis.  It is good to remember that some American cities are located below sea level; and many people live essentially at sea level.  Interestingly, the Pentagon is seeking funding to begin responding to higher water levels at our military bases around the world including in the United States.  At least some people are looking ahead rather than, as the King of Siam said:  “Though a man may be in doubt about what he knows; he will very quickly fight to prove that what he does not know is so.”




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