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Gambling with global warming

Alan Braunholtz

Another warm spring ” at least this one’s a bit wet. Short term, this has its advantages. Early rafting is beginning to overlap with the end of ski season when people are here to enjoy the rivers. The fishing is great, too, though I’d suggest heavy metal music, Alice Cooper and the track “Poison” in particular to provide the most synergistic I-pod sound for some stretches of our rivers.

Longer term, it’s another worrying sign that the vast majority of climatologists are right about global warming or climate change.

This isn’t a partisan issue; scientists just try to explain the world we live in. There is some discussion about whether this is a natural warming cycle dependent on the sun, etc., and independent of CO2 and other pollution. This is a valid question, getting more research, but the overwhelming consensus is that man-made pollution is significantly contributing to a rapid change in the planet’s climate now.



Not Republican science, not Democrat science, not Green science, just science.

To politicize this issue does no one or science any favors. Science needs to be judged on its merits: peer review, consensus and and independent replication of abnormal results are all important here. It’s a great tool for understanding issues and planning. Dismissing any results inconvenient to our beliefs as “rubbish from the other side” is arrogant stupidity. Then we’re in the “we’re right regardless” world of big mistakes.



The climate is so complex, of course, no is absolutely sure. It’s really important, though, so I’d at least listen to the majority’s viewpoint instead of cherry picking the odd and obscure findings that I want to believe in.

The precautionary principle comes into play here, too. Like what happens if we’re wrong? If climate change is a hoax and we do something anyway we end up with cleaner air and more efficient industry. It costs our economy a little, but probably not as much as some doomsday economists predict. Capitalism is nothing if not adaptable. If climate change is caused by us and we do nothing, then we get a planet in chaos. No one really disagrees on the calamitous effects of rapid change.

One of the politicians I most admire is John McCain. I don’t always agree with him, but he does what he thinks is right regardless of how difficult the political pressure or bullying may be. John McCain is now convinced by the growing body of evidence that climate change is a very big issue for mankind. With Sen. Lieberman, he got the first bill to the Senate that would actually do anything about it. It failed 55-43, but he’ll be back.



For this legislation to pass, public opinion will have to influence politicians more than industry does. Politicians care mostly about getting elected. If enough people use their vote to protect the weather, then industry can’t spend enough money to buy the debate. At the moment they own it.

Oil, gas and coal companies have given $14 million to Republicans and $3.2 million to Democrats since 1998. Without pressure from the public to make the air we depend on a campaign issue, this won’t change. It’s really a race. Can we force this debate to the point our leaders do something about it before the impacts cause the world a lot of pain?

The smart (actually dumb) money says we can’t. Continued political opposition (from our White House in particular) to any action and growing evidence that climate change will be faster and nastier than previously thought has got the world’s scientists worried stupid.

Now these normally levelheaded people are considering getting into James Bond scale sci-fi fantasies as a last ditch cure. Giant space parasols and mirrors, spraying the stratosphere with small reflective balloons, huge wind powered whisks in the oceans spraying salt mist into the air to keep the clouds whiter and denser, dumping iron into the southern oceans to stimulate algal blooms, etc. All are now being discussed along with more practical alternatives, such as removing the CO2 before or after the burning of fossil fuels, and burying it underground.

Norwegian State Oil already removes CO2 from its natural gas and buries it back where the gas came from. Statoil avoids Norway’s carbon tax and over the years has buried a total of 70 million tons of CO2, equivalent to 1 percent of the world’s annual emission. If we could get the CO2 out of coal (the cheapest and most available fossil fuel) then we could be in business.

Still the fact that we’re even considering schemes to play around with the amount of sunlight reaching the earth is worrying. Do we know enough to make it better or worse and CO2 concentrations would still rise anyway affecting the chemistry of the atmosphere (ozone) and the acidity of the oceans.

We must be mad to gamble on an untried future safety net when we have the technology available right now to reduce pollution with greater efficiency, renewable energy and conservation.

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, Just how lucky do we feel?

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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