Here's an entry I posted at http://www.thinhouse.net -- where all future blogs by me will appear. Please check out ThinHouse, our family project in sustainable living. Tom
Linus Pauling, the great American chemist and anti-nuclear activist (plus the only person to ever win two Nobel Prizes by himself) once said this:
"When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect -- but do not believe him. Never put your trust in anything but your own intellect. Your elder, no matter whether he has gray hair or has lost his hair, no matter whether he is a Nobel laureate, may be wrong. . . . So you must always be skeptical. Always think for yourself."
I thought about this while looking at the most recent brouhaha in the press over Global Warming. The latest round started with conservative columnist George F. Will opining that it was all overblown, and Al Gore taking out a slide from his presentation that seemed to overdramatize the link between Global Warming and a spate of current disasters. Then Andy Revkin, the DotEarth eco-journalist at the New York Times, got involved. Accusations have been flying fast and thick (see them go at it here and here and a thousand other places if you Google it).
Here's what I come away with: Global Warming is a theory, not a fact. As a theory, it's going to get debated until doomsday (although I hope not literally). Scientists are going to weigh in on both sides, people are going to pay attention mainly to the evidence they already want to hear, and policies, for good or ill, will be argued over. There are facts and opinions enough for everyone to feel they're right.
My own take on it? Speaking as a science-trained journalist (and therefore a professional skeptic twice over), I think that long-term predictions of climate change are far too complex to model accurately. We simply do not have the tools to predict the future. I am amazed how we can take it for granted that scientists cannot reliably and accurately tell us what tomorrow's stock market or next week's weather is going to be -- yet we are willing to believe that they can predict the global climate fifty years down the road.
I'm sorry -- that doesn't compute. Remember the old saying that a butterfly fluttering its wings can influence the weather on the other side of the world? Take that butterfly and multiply it a billion billion times to accommodate every possible interaction of the geosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere. Each interaction influences the others. Feedback loops kick in. unpredictable results pop up. Bottom line: There are too many unknowns and variables involved in climate change to give me much confidence in any future modeling.
This, of course, does not stop people from making predictions anyway. To get a sense of just how wrong scientific seers can be, see the (admittedly politically biased but still amusing) list at this weird Canadian site I found, which shows how the only thing the press likes more than catastrophe is hyperbole. Or read Lewis Lapham's and Simon Schama's book End of the World, which offers a collection of perspective-broadening disaster writing from history. Smart people have been crying global doom for thousands of years. So far, thank heavens, they have been wrong.
I'm not saying that Global Warming isn't real. It might well be -- most scientists seem to believe it -- and certainly anything that spurs humans to more sane actions ecologically can't be all bad. Whatever works.
But Global Warming is not why I'm interested in ThinHouse.
I'm after something else. I'm going for sustainability. I want my kids to inherit a beautiful, biologically vibrant planet, with all its natural wonders intact. To make that happen, I figure, for a lot of reasons other than Global Warming, humans have to scale back their energy use.
Is Al Gore right? Maybe, maybe not. Is George Will right? Ditto.
As for me, I'm going to follow Linus Pauling's advice.