Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Climate Change & State of Confusion

Global WarmingI completed reading State of Fear a week ago and was for a while at least in a 'State of Confusion' about the whole climate change/global warming issue. After a lot of wrestling of ideas in my head and lot of reading things on the internet, I want to put forth my thoughts just so that I clear up some of the confusion and try to achieve clarity.

First of all, about the novel itself, I wouldn't really rate it as a great thriller. The plot is pretty straightforward without any major twists. The story in short is -
'An environmental extremist group is trying to trigger a string of catastrophes across the world to turn world attention towards global warming. This group is being funded by a lawyer, Nicholas Drake (*the villain), who runs an environmental organization. The villain lawyer is trying to get a well meaning wealthy philanthropist, George Morton, to finance his evil schemes. An MIT professor who is also an undercover agent (*the hero) tells the wealthy philanthropist about the villain lawyer's plot. The philanthropist suddenly gets killed in an accident. The undercover agent/professor along with another lawyer, Peter Evans (*the Prius driving, well meaning common man who has been duped and brainwashed by the global warming hype) and a hot secretary (both working for the philanthropist) try to foil the plot (successfully!)'
There aren't any surprises or any great turns in the story that I expect from a thriller. So as a novel, it is not so great.

The MIT professor turned undercover agent is the "clear headed realist". He is the vehicle Crichton uses to drive home his opinion about climate change. In between fighting the bad guys in Antarctica, Arizona and some remote island in the Pacific, the professor tries to educate everyone about the reality behind the global warming hype. He is a walking encyclopedia of studies to quote from and statistics to cite. Crichton actually gives references to scientific studies as footnotes in the novel. (here is a good article about those footnotes BTW)

He has added an author's message and 2 appendices to further elaborate his points. Here is my attempt to summarize the message the novel sends:
  1. The global warming theory (rise in global temperatures due to increase in greenhouse gases) is not supported by hard scientific data. Global data show many contradictions which do not consistently support a warming tend. Sea levels aren't rising as predicted. Global climate models are in wide disagreement about how much the temperatures will rise globally (which in Crichton's opinion is further proof that we know zilch about this stuff).
  2. Overzealous scientists have used selective data, unverifiable computer models and speculation to perpetuate the hype that global temperatures are indeed going to rise.
  3. Politician, lawyers and the media are now using the hype to control the population by keeping it in a "state of fear".
    "In reality, for the last fifteen years we have been under the control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful and far more pervasive. I call it the politico-media-legal complex. The PLM. And it is dedicated to promoting fear in the population - under the guise of promoting safety"
    ... says a character, who is also a professor, in the novel. The latest fear on sale - 'the global warming hype'.
  4. The universities have been hijacked by the PLM complex and have now become exporters of new fears to feed the public.
In Crichton's opinion environmental organizations have turned into fearmongers, perpetuating the hype of a global warming doomsday scenario to raise funds.
"You can't raise a dime with it, especially in winter. Every time it snows people forget all about global warming. Or else the decide some warming might be a good thing after all. They are trudging through the snow, hoping for a little global warming. It's not like pollution, John. Pollution worked. It still works. Pollution scares the shit out of people. You tell 'em they'll get cancer, and the money rolls in. But nobody is scared of a little warming. Especially if it won't happen for a hundred years."
...says the villain lawyer, Nicholas Drake, who heads the environmental organization NREF in the novel.

So where do I stand on these things? Do I fully understand the issues the novel raises? Should I take Michael Crichton's word on this issue? Let's think of this some more...

I don't agree with the complete message of the model (as explained above). Michael Crichton has a big and obvious incentive to exaggerate his basic thesis so that the novel sells. So, I don't really buy that we are living under the control of PLM complex or that universities have turned into fear factories or that environmental organizations have formed a nexus with fund seeking scientists. I think all that stuff in the novel is just to sensationalize the thing.

In my opinion the people who want to debunk the theory (oil companies, loggers, miners etc.) have lot more money than environmental groups. So why is the theory still being discussed? If money was all that was needed to buy scientists and get them produce results to agree with your opinion, we wouldn't have been discussing global warming at all. We would instead all be driving Hummers through Yellowstone.

The basic argument is about the theory of global warming. It all boils down to a few basic questions:
  1. Is there accurate data that warming is indeed occuring?
  2. How much warming can the rising level of carbon dioxide and other green house gases cause?
  3. Since the previous question can only be answered by computer model predictions, how accurate or reliable are these models? Can they reliably model past data?
  4. Is the warming occurring due to natural causes yet unknown to us? How do we know for sure it is/ is not?
  5. If the temperatures are indeed rising what steps we can take towards stopping it? How effective these steps can be?
I do not have the expertise to answer these questions and am seeking the answers myself. There are however many fine sources out there which can give answers to these question. Two of them that I found recently are Real Climate and Climate Science. Real Climate actually has a couple of posts regarding the novel [1 , 2 , 3]. These blogs are by scientist in the field, who (I believe) know much more about the issue than Crichton does.

BUT, in my opinion there is another very very important question that I ask myself and to you.
IS global warming and the FEAR of a doomsday the only reason for us to care about the environment? Is fear the only motivating factor behind going green?
I believe the answer to that is "NO". I consider myself as someone who cares about the environment. I believe that we should act to change our lifestyle, consumption patterns and philosophy such that environment we live in and ecosystems of which we are a part, are taken care of and sustained. BUT I don't think my desire to do so is motivated by a fear of a global warming doomsday.

Imagine whole populations of China, India and Africa consuming resources at the rate at which the average American consumes. The energy demand will be gigantic and our current means of supplying such a demand are inadequate. Even if we could supply so much energy through conventional means it would cause huge and irreversible damage to vast ecosystems across the globe. What effects will such a damage have on the world? Will we be able to live with such a damage? Will these effects be necessarily harmful? Will they cause a doomsday?

Even if we don't know the answers to these questions, wouldn't it be wise to looks for ways which don't cause the damage in first place? Doesn't it make sense to look for long-term, sustainable alternatives? Doesn't it make sense to find solutions which won't cause large irreversible harm to the environment? I believe it does. The reason it makes sense is because it gives us (and by us I mean ALL of us - humans, plants, animals... everyone) a hope for future.

Crichton however, doesn't believe in that resource crunch stuff.
"I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird."
..he says in his author's message.

I think if we invest in alternative technologies and sustainable practices, there is a very good chance that we will indeed never have a resource crunch. But for that to happen, action is necessary on our part. There may be groups out there who are putting up billboards saying: "REPENT! global warming is coming". Their hearts may be in the right place, but I don't think selling fear is helpful. I think all those out there who are taking concrete steps towards cleaner-greener alternatives are messengers of hope. They are people motivated by hope not fear! I hope to be one of them.

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9 comments:

Point 5 said...

Hey nice one...even I need to read some facts abt Global warming...

U have also raised a very pertinent issue regarding China & Asia consuming more energies...I think the world cannot sustain 2 US like energy monsters..

Siel said...

The peek-a-boo quotes look great :) And thanks for the details on the novel -- interesting and depressing. And though I think there's damn good scientific evidence that proves global warming is indeed occuring, I totally agree with your point that fear should not be the only reason propelling us into action. I mean, I miss trees. And grass. And flowers...

Sunil said...

They are people motivated by hope not fear! I hope to be one of them..

Excellent.

gawker said...

Great post. Very well expressed. True, many people are screaming hysterically about global warming. But then, as we know from Americans' outlook towards life, it is difficult to make Americans take notice of anything unless someone screams hysterically at them. But yes, it is also true that instead of trying to scare them, education would go a long way into making people more environmentally-conscious.

j&c said...

The only problem with shouting is that at some point, your audience grows deaf. Education is definitely a better answer.

Another, related, answer, is to provide consumers with data on their energy usage that can actually help them figure out how to use less. One way is through more detailed electric metering; the other is through gas milage gages on the dash of a car.

Anonymous said...

"I think if we invest in alternative technologies and sustainable practices"

Define alternative technologies and sustainable practices? Hasn't the world sustained itself inspite of the large increase in the population and per-capita energy consumption? Hasn't technology and science increased our productivity many times over? Prices of raw materials are going down actually. Read about Julian Simon and his bet with doomsayers.

Also, prices in the market serve the purpose of educating the customers automatically. You don't have to scream at American and neither do you need to install meters. As resources get exhausted , prices go up which cause consumption to go down. Simulataneously, investors get incentive (higher prices) to invent new energy sources.

Ashish said...

"I think if we invest in alternative technologies and sustainable practices"

Define alternative technologies and sustainable practices? Hasn't the world sustained itself inspite of the large increase in the population and per-capita energy consumption? Hasn't technology and science increased our productivity many times over? Prices of raw materials are going down actually. Read about Julian Simon and his bet with doomsayers.

Also, prices in the market serve the purpose of educating the customers automatically. You don't have to scream at American and neither do you need to install meters. As resources get exhausted , prices go up which cause consumption to go down. Simulataneously, investors get incentive (higher prices) to invent new energy sources.

2:16 PM

Transmogrifier said...

"Define alternative technologies and sustainable practices?"

Well as I understand it sustainable practices are those which will let us satisfy our own needs, while "sustaining" the resource for future consumption. This also includes resources which can be renewed over a short time period. E.g. fossil fuels are not renewable because they cannot be replenished over short time period. Hydel power is renewable. (although large hydro-power comes with its own problems but that is another issue). "sustainability" as I understand it is not about "sustaining" ourselves. It is about sustaining of the resources from which we consume. That in turn will ensure sustainability for us and coming genrations (and other species too. think of sustaining human beings ONLY is too narrow and doesn't fit my philosophy)

Alternative technologies: Those technologies which enable us to utilize resources sustainably. E.g solar panels or wind for energy consumption. In totally other area concepts like "joint forest management" which is being tried out in parts of India.

"prices in the market serve the purpose of educating the customers automatically"

I totally agree and that is why it is not necessary to shout or scare people. Market will definitely come up with it's own solutions and educate people. But as "creative destruction" takes place there are many entities which will resist it for their own sake (e.g Big Oil who will suffer unless they adapt to changing scenarios). There is a real need to engage with them (not fight with them).

gawker said...

"But as "creative destruction" takes place there are many entities which will resist it for their own sake"

I think thats a very important statement. There are many innovations that could possibly see the light of day if the free markets, which people like to worship so passionately, were allowed to work as they should, instead of being subverted by forces that had nothing to do with free markets.