A few weeks ago, I published an essay in this space critiquing the recent March for Science, which coincided with Earth Day 2017. The March had been represented as a non-political demonstration of grass-roots support for continued funding of basic scientific research. Fair enough. But in reality it was, of course, a highly political, highly public rejoinder to the Trump Administration for its demotion of Climate Change from “Most Important Issue of All Time!” to “Meh.”
As regular readers of this blog might already have guessed, I am very much in accord with this adjustment. And furthermore, it’s about time. But as always, when you start goring sacred cows you expect pushback. And sure enough, a few days ago a comment came in from Javier, who was kind enough to critique my critique and to set me straight about the very real threat posed by Climate Change. But in so doing he repeated some common logical fallacies and added a couple of his own.
The central point of the essay, which Javier completely ignored, was that the March was wholly a political stunt, planned and executed by persons with questionable, highly partisan agendas, and who wouldn’t know scientific rigor if it walked up and introduced itself. Just how seriously can you take such a thing?
Climate Alarmism has always leaned heavily on emotional appeals. And when you engage Alarmists you notice right away that while they are quite passionate on the subject, their grasp of science fundamentals tends to be shaky. They are also, as a rule, rather weak on natural history. Javier fits the pattern. Take, for example, his insistence on a distinction between “ancient” and “naturally occurring” carbon. Although it’s not totally clear what he means, it seems to have something to do with us humans, as if by extracting carbon in its various forms we somehow change its fundamental properties. This is magical thinking. Carbon is carbon; it’s all the same stuff. And if he’s worried about the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere, he needn’t be. Because even with a hundred parts per million (ppm) more CO2 in the atmosphere than a century ago, this amount is still a fraction of the long-term average.
But whatever their shortcomings in the way of knowledge and coherent reasoning, Alarmists are generally quite long on zeal and certainty. There is little room for doubt in their minds, and if you happen not to share their point of view, they are wont to express disapproval in the strongest possible terms. They might, for example, tell you, as Javier did, to “get a fkn clue.”
There is something odd about this obsession Alarmist types have with carbon, as though it were the enemy. Truth is, we owe our lives to this element, literally. Carbon’s unequaled ability to form complex molecules with other elements, chiefly hydrogen and oxygen, makes life possible. Without carbon we would not exist.
Extended semi-topical digression:
For the first billion or so years after the Big Bang, there was no carbon. There was nothing in the entire Universe but hydrogen and a trace of helium. For the life-giving element to be born, stars had to die.
The titanic energies required to forge heavier atoms from lighter can only be found in the naturally occurring thermonuclear reactors we call stars, which during the bulk of their lifespan fuse hydrogen nuclei to form helium, a process that also releases tremendous amounts of energy in the form of heat and light. Elements heavier than helium may form only in the terminal phases of dying stars, after the hydrogen is exhausted and the star begins to contract. Under tremendous heat and pressure, helium nuclei fuse to form carbon and carbon nuclei fuse to form iron. But these reactions absorb energy, and once the available energy is expended the star peters out. The end. This is the ultimate fate of smaller stars.
But larger stars end their lives not with a whimper, but with a very large bang. The most spectacular of these are the extraordinarily violent, and rare, cataclysms called supernovae.
A supernova occurs when any star above a certain mass exhausts its nuclear fuel. With no internal pressures to oppose its own intense gravitational force, the star implodes at close to the speed of light. At the core of the imploding mass unimaginably large forces squeeze every bit of empty space from around and within the constituent atoms, until no further compression may occur. For a moment there is only pure, elementary matter and ultimate energy. In this seething cauldron, atomic nuclei crunch together and stick, and new elements are born.
The imploding stellar mass rebounds from the impenetrably dense core, blasting itself and anything within a few billion miles into atom-sized bits, releasing incomprehensibly huge amounts of energy, and for a time, shining brighter than an entire galaxy of a hundred thousand million suns. Racing outward at phenomenal speed, the powerful shock wave destroys any nearby solar systems as it sparks the formation of new stars from lingering clouds of interstellar gas and dust.
Since the birth of our Universe roughly fifteen billion years ago, generations of supernovae have forged a spectrum of progressively heavier elements, until now there are ninety. Four and a half billion years ago, a nearby supernova most likely triggered the formation of our solar system from the drifting remnants of long-dead suns. We see its residual energy in the continuing rotations and revolutions of our own star and its many captive celestial bodies.
End of digression.
It appears that Javier is also unclear about the meaning of “isotope.” Isotopes are slightly differing forms of the same element. Each isotope of a given element has a different numbers of neutrons, hence is a little heavier or lighter, stable or unstable. There are three natural isotopes of carbon, but for the purposes of our discussion there is really only one, carbon 12 (6 neutrons and 6 protons,) which forms 99 percent of what’s in nature. Because the nuclear charge of an atom is unaffected by neutrons, neither is the arrangement of electrons. Hence all isotopes of a given element, including carbon, have the same chemical properties, so it doesn’t matter which isotope we are talking about.
While acknowledging that the Earth has been warmer before, Javier dismisses this as unimportant. Which is a gigantic logical inconsistency, because if warm spells have happened before–and they obviously have–that means they are a normal occurrence, not a cause for worry.
But while we’re on the subject, it might occur to you to wonder why anyone would ever fear the warmth anyway, given that it’s the cold that is the real threat. Life flourishes in warmth but perishes in cold. Inconveniently, our planet is still very much in an ice age, and sooner or later, the benign interglacial period we currently enjoy will come to an end. This is a statistical certainty. It could happen at any time, geologically speaking, with perhaps only a few decades of warning. And when the ice does return, it will strain to the limit what human civilization still exists, or destroy it outright.
We had a minor taste of what’s to come a few centuries ago, during the Little Ice Age, which caused havoc and suffering for humans all over the planet. The Little Ice Age began to let up about three hundred and fifty years ago, and our current warm spell is simply the global climate rebounding to the Holocene normal from that downward deviation.
But those who obsess about all things carbon might want to consider this: If elevated CO2 really is raising the temperature of our planet, then we may actually have forestalled the end of our current interglacial period, and bought our descendants a few precious additional centuries of habitable climate.
Like many Alarmists, Javier exhibits a weak grasp of the scale on which natural processes actually operate. His claim, a common one, that human processes overshadow natural ones does not survive even casual scrutiny. For example, of the roughly 800 gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now, less than 5 percent are of human origin. As for his odd claim that humans move more sediment than all rivers combined, I suggest he take a look at any good satellite image of the Mississippi delta, which protrudes a hundred fifty miles or so into the Gulf of Mexico, and which consists of trillions of tons of sediments deposited in just the last few hundred years. And the Mississippi is, by volume, nowhere near the largest river. The Amazon, with ten times its flow and many times its sediment load, deserves that distinction.
These may seem like minor points, but such inaccuracies reflect sloppy, unclear thinking, and by implication place the underlying thesis in doubt. Much of the Alarmist narrative is based on similarly shaky logic.
When he claims that the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 is unprecedented and dangerous, Javier is echoing a talking point that Bill Nye, March for Science spokesman and mascot, is fond of repeating. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim, which frankly doesn’t pass the common-sense test. There are a number of natural processes that can rapidly dump enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and in three point something billion years of Phanerozoic history, there have been many times when this has, in fact, happened. Yet the planet survived every single time.
A thirty percent change in the concentration of a minor trace gas over the span of a century isn’t exactly shocking the system. It is a slower rate of change than occurs every single year in the transition from summer to winter, as twenty-plus million square miles of vegetation blossom and then die back across North America and Eurasia. Alarmists like Bill Nye push the rate-of-change argument because it sounds scary and vaguely plausible, and can’t be totally refuted because it’s a hypothetical future concern.
If Javier is dead set on worrying about about something, perhaps he should consider this: Were the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to drop to around 200 ppm, life on Earth would become a difficult proposition because plants would not be able to absorb enough of the gas to properly build tissue. Several times in the last couple of million years the concentration of CO2 has flirted with this critical benchmark. If we get carried away with carbon sequestration we could end up being seriously screwed.
Javier also errs in asserting that only a tiny handful question the dangers presented by Global Warming. Alarmists are fond of repeating this point like a mantra. But as with any faith, those who most fervently believe find it hard to accept that there are those who do not. There are actually plenty of excellent, highly credentialed scientists who have not swallowed the Kool Aid. Fully half of professional meteorologists, and two-thirds of Geoscientists are climate skeptics. And little by little they are dismantling the Alarmist narrative with facts, logic, and data. They just don’t get very much press because, unlike the planet-in-peril types, their message is against the grain and not terribly sexy.
Judging by his phrasing and use of young-person slang (“fkn,” “dude”), Javier is not of mature years. And for this reason we can in good conscience cut him some slack. Because, like every other young person, Javier thinks that the world is new, his every experience is unique, and his insights piercing and singular. He’s had the fear of global warming pounded into him from Day One by the education-indoctrination complex. And he has the impatient ardor typical of the very young, which demands that the rest of us take IMMEDIATE ACTION on this VERY OBVIOUS LIFE AND DEATH matter. What Javier doesn’t realize is that he has been expertly played by a system that has certain expectations of him–most importantly uncritical obedience–and which does not appreciate being closely questioned.
If his mind isn’t yet entirely closed, someday soon Javier may come to realize that Global Warming is merely the crisis du jour. For some reason, we humans have an innate need to invent existential threats, and Global Warming is the latest expression of this peculiar compulsion. Forty years ago, the fathers and grandfathers of today’s Alarmists were in a panic about an impending Ice Age. Three and a half decades of steadily declining temperatures had convinced a few worrywarts that we were headed for a deep freeze. It was a really big deal. I know this because I was there. We’re talking breathless headlines in end-of-the-world type. But the cooling trend bottomed out in the late 1970s and reversed, and then along came Global Warming, and everybody’s head swiveled right on cue.
Climate Alarmists have grossly oversold carbon dioxide as a driver of climate change. In reality, it is a minor component of the overall system, one variable out of literally thousands regulating climate. And it is quite likely that the modestly elevated levels of CO2 we currently experience are the result of a warming climate, not the cause of it.
Furthermore, the slight increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide has been a boon to the plant life of planet Earth, which has added billions of tons of new growth in the last couple of decades.
Eventually, inevitably, the magic will wear off, and Climate Change will be replaced by yet another manufactured crisis and forgotten. I just hope we don’t kill the economy first with punitive, productivity-destroying carbon taxes and insanely expensive yet worthless carbon-mitigation schemes.
Speaking of “kill,” presumably this is what somebody was trying to do to John Christy, prominent, highly respected scientist and skeptic, when they fired seven shots at his window a few hours after the local March for Science went right by his office. Weeks have passed, and yet not one major mainstream news outlet has picked up the story. Curious omission, that.
Javier is right about the human problem, though, and if he had read my earlier posts on this issue he would know that I agree with him. There are too many of us for this planet to comfortably support. And this, in a nutshell, is the root cause of pretty much all our major problems. Too many rats in the box. And if we’re really serious about the health of this planet, and our species, perhaps we should focus our energies in that direction.
Even so, like most Alarmists Javier seriously overestimates the importance of humans in the scheme of things. Our influence is dwarfed by that of natural processes, which operate on scales orders of magnitude greater than our own.
We do not manage this planet; it manages us. The Earth is large and immensely ancient, while we are very small, very new, and, like every other life form, ultimately transient.