Science or passion?
Of the issues Americans want the new Congress to focus on in 2007, the environment ranked only 12th in last week’s New York Times-CBS News poll. Nevertheless, few topics elicit more passion. And when it comes to the environment, people appear to be divided into three distinct camps.The first camp doesn’t believe the Earth is warming. The second believes the Earth is warming but also feels that climate change is a natural phenomenon and therefore man’s impact is minimal. The third group believes man is at least a partial contributor to global warming and only by acting proactively can we save the planet.The first camp contends that the meteorological records man has been keeping for the past 100 years or so are relatively meaningless when contrasted against the 4.5 billion years our planet has existed. This is a mathematical argument because those who proffer it feel it’s unreasonable to draw conclusions from a one in forty-five million statistical sample.The second group believes the Earth is warming but its causes are the result of the cyclical changes that have occurred naturally, and therefore there is little man can do to redress the situation. They cite solar activity, tectonic plate movements, earthquakes and volcanoes (that release millions upon millions of tons of carbon and sulfur dioxides, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride and ash into the atmosphere) – each a natural phenomenon affecting climate. They refer to other climate influencers such as Earth’s orbit that varies significantly during 100,000 year cycles, its tilt that changes every 40,000 years, and the 26,000-year cyclical wobbling of its axis.They’re quick to point out that there have been periods when little or no ice existed on the planet, periods when as much as a third of the Earth’s surface was covered with ice, how the oxygen content of our atmosphere has varied by as much as 50 percent over the eons, and that the poles have reversed polarity numerous times. Again, none of these climate-influencers was caused by man.In addition, the enormous amounts of heat-trapping methane gas that’s released into the atmosphere every year are by-products of animals and insects and are therefore also outside of man’s influence. This group also accurately points to the fact that 99 percent of the species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct due to climate changes that took place long before man ever made an appearance on earth.But it’s the last group, the people who believe that global warming is at least partially a man-made phenomenon and therefore requires a man-made solution, who represent the most interesting aspect of this debate. Here, too, there’s a mountain of evidence supporting this third position. If these assertions are correct, it becomes morally incumbent upon us to redress the problems we’ve created. But just how do we do it, and at what cost?I once read that if private enterprise owned all the world’s animals, the likelihood of any species becoming extinct would be negligible. Can anyone imagine McDonald’s or Burger King allowing cattle to become extinct, or KFC allowing chickens to be placed on an endangered list?While the aforementioned may be hyperbolic analogies, I use them to illustrate that no one really owns the air or water, and therefore it’s left to governments to protect these resources, and in the process, reduce global warming. But this is precisely where the contention occurs.A noted EPA official once opined that 95 percent of the toxic material in waste sites could be removed in a few months, but years are spent trying to increase that figure by a percentage point or two. Since no one seriously argues against clean air or clean water,”the question becomes how do those notions best fit into the cost-benefit continuum?As higher and higher standards of purity are prescribed by government, in order to eliminate ever more minute traces of ever more remote and sometimes questionable dangers, the costs can escalate out of proportion. (As an aside, that’s one reason why Bill Clinton never brought the Kyoto treaty before the U.S. Senate for ratification. He understood that the ultimate cost to the U.S. economy was prohibitive.)The problem usually boils down to the fact that eliminating 95 percent of some impurity or reducing some emission may cost X, which the taxpayers may find reasonable. However, the situation gets sticky when the cost of removing or reducing that additional 1 or 2 percent might costs 10 times that much, and eradicating 99 percent may cost a hundred times that.It is here that the controversies over the environment are unlikely to be settled at a scientific level, because passions are easily be whipped-up in the name of saving the planet. When that occurs, debate usually devolves into competing political ideologies focusing on the scientific theories that best coincide with each respective camp’s belief system.Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Vail, Colorado