"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Monday, January 6, 2014

Global Warcoolmingange... or, Some Cold Weather Reading For You

Clear evidence of Global Warming
The remarkable weather we're experiencing across a large portion of the United States has put global warming, cooling, climate change, or whatever you want to call it, on the forefront of many minds recently. It is being portrayed in the news as the big culprit for the historic temperatures and snowfall. But, there's a lot of rhetoric used in the debate - lots of empty rhetoric, to be precise - on both sides, as well as biased and incorrect statistics. Together, it makes a discussion of the facts difficult. For starters, there is not universal agree on two basic points: whether or not the earth is warming, and whether any warming we may or may not be seeing is part of a larger trend, or something else.

With so much misinformation, agenda-pushing, and confusion out there, it's hard to differentiate fact from fiction. This problem prompted me to write a somewhat lengthy paper in a philosophy of science class I took in college. As a side note, the class was taught by Dr. Brendan Sweetman at Rockhurst University. I highly suggest you get a copy of one of his books, especially "Religion and Science: An Introduction" and/or "Religion: Key Concepts In Philosophy."

I have included my full 5,000+ word paper here for your reading pleasure. It is a bit lengthy, but since we're all snowed in, find a nice chair, curl up with a warm cup of something, and enjoy!

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Introduction


Global warming is a complicated topic, both scientifically and emotionally.  It is confusing, multifaceted, and much debated.  One of the main reasons why is because not everyone can even agree what to call it; IT being whatever is happening.  Nearly everyone agrees that something is happening, but there is hardly total agreement about what exactly is happening.  At the very least we can say that theories exist about the nature of the world’s climate.  In the 1970’s, scientists were concerned about the theory of global cooling.  However, in more recent years after further scientific research the theory of global warming has become widely accepted as the proper description for the changes seen in the earth’s climate.  There are also some who prefer a more broad term and therefore subscribe to the theory of global climate change to describe the widespread changes in the overall climate because it allows for both cooling and warming without ruling out either option.  Even within these broad theories, more specific theories exist.  Thus, the title of this paper is Global Warm-Cooling Change because it illustrates just how confusing this problem is with the prevalence of so many different theories.  In order to alleviate the problem of terminology, “global warming” will be used for the remainder of this paper as a catch-all term for changes in the environment, unless otherwise clearly noted.

The goal of this paper is not to illustrate the complexity of the overall issue, but rather it is an attempt to explain both sides of the global warming debate as simply as possible without judging the morality of either side and hopefully to discover the underlying scientific philosophy behind the theory of global warming as a man-made phenomenon.  In other words, the author hopes to ascertain whether the science of global warming is actually real, authentic science or a pseudo-scientific study with a political agenda to force a moral paradigm upon society and thus gain control over large portions of the population.  It is a hard task to say the least.  A simple Google search for “global warming” returns over 19.5 million results.  The volume of scientific data alone is overwhelming, and the moral and ethical components of the debate make the issue all the more sensitive.  The mere mention of the subject can spark heated debates (no pun intended) that eventually turn into quasi-religious or moral symposiums.  The political nature of the subject is also especially contentious.  It seems as though there is no room for debate on the matter and that the only question now is what to do about the problem of global warming.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author is an admitted skeptic of man-made global warming.  The Earth is of course warming, but I believe the science related to the study of its causes is as of yet incomplete.  That is not to say there is no issue here.  Obviously there is otherwise I would not have devoted an entire paper to the subject.  What are the issues then?  By and large, the debates on global warming revolve around its causes, mainly whether it’s man-made or not, and the extent of the problem.  We consistently hear about “consensus”; the consensus within the scientific community and the consensus of the data.  But is there really a consensus of either one?  Again, some agree and some disagree.  Even data, which ideally is completely unbiased, is debated.  For example, whether ice mass in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland has been increasing or decreasing has been a source of impassioned debate over the years.  Like so many sub-topics of this issue, the answer is not clear.  Ice increases in one area but decreases in another, which only leads to further debate.  Questions abound regarding the soundness and scope of data, which leads many to wonder if the situation is as bad as we are told.  Hopefully what follows can bring a little clarity to the issue.

What is Global Warming? - The Main Points


In order to begin the discussion of global warming, it is necessary to have a good working definition of what global warming is.  A very simple definition of global warming can be found on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website: “The term Global Warming refers, without any implications for the cause or magnitude, to the observation that the atmosphere near the Earth's surface is warming.”  This is probably one of the best definitions of global warming because it clearly states that the term makes no assertions as to the “cause or magnitude” but simply says in essence, the Earth is getting warming.  The definition goes on to say: “This warming is one of many kinds of climate change that the Earth has gone through in the past and will continue to go through in the future.”  This seems to say that the climate is cyclical.  There are surely many people who would take issue with this definition for one reason or another, most likely because they would say that the science is settled – global warming is indeed caused by human activities and the magnitude is such that we should be very concerned about the disasters which may occur in the future, or have already occurred.[1; See footnotesMore about disasters will be mentioned later.

Figure 1: The conclusive data shows that average global temperatures have increased by approximately 0.6 degrees C in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. Source.
Regardless of the possible qualms against the aforementioned definition, it stands out as a good one because it accurately states that the Earth is in fact warming; to be exact, average surface temperatures have warmed by about 0.6°C over the past 50 years or so (Figure 1).  This is the main argument in favor of global warming.  It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, the media, politicians, and the general public agree on this point.    Temperatures have risen, according to the data, and if the data is correct then there is not much to dispute.  However, there is much disputed about the data.  There are questions raised over the context of the increase, whether it’s significant, and whether it is just part of a cycle or a result of something else.  And even if the temperature increase itself is relatively undisputed, the next step in the global warming theory - identifying the cause of the temperature increase - is much more controversial, even though the media tells us that the science is settled.  Precisely identifying a cause is a difficult task because so many variables affect the atmosphere, but much of the scientific community seems convinced that the sole cause of global warming is carbon dioxide.

Since the 1960’s, carbon dioxide has increasingly become part our social consciousness.  Ask anyone about global warming and they are likely to mention CO2; ask anyone about CO2 and they are likely to go on about how bad it is for the environment.  Nearly everyone these days views CO2 as the culprit of global warming because such a large amount is produced through man’s industrial activities which have risen rapidly and drastically in the past 200 years.  In reality, its most important function may be as a greenhouse gas, but CO2 is also necessary for life on Earth and it is a fundamental building block of the universe.  Carbon dioxide and the many other gases that make up our atmosphere protect us from the harmful rays of the sun and also act like a world-wide blanket by trapping in some of the Sun’s rays in the form of heat.  Without carbon dioxide the earth would be too cold to be inhabited by human beings and most other forms of life currently on Earth.  Contrary to what is portrayed in the media, the gases commonly known as “greenhouse gases” actually make up a very small portion of the atmosphere.  The two most common gases in our atmosphere are nitrogen and oxygen.  Nitrogen is the largest component of our atmosphere, accounting for 78% of atmospheric gas, while oxygen makes up 21% of the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide itself comprises a very small portion of all the atmospheric gases, just over 0.03% to be exact.  Two other gases, methane and water vapor, comprise 0.00017% and 0-4% of the atmosphere respectively.[2]  Water vapor has a tremendous propensity to hold heat, and thus is the main source of the greenhouse effect – something you won’t hear very often.  Water vapor and the clouds that it forms account for 90% of the total green house effect.   Methane is also a very powerful greenhouse gas (about 21 times more powerful than CO2) and it has increased by 150% in 250 years, but because it exists in such a low concentration it is not widely considered to be as important as carbon dioxide.  For now, the focus of the global warming debate is firmly fixed on carbon dioxide and its effects, even though it was only recently suggested as a possible agent of global warming.

Figure 2: Numbers are in gigatons. Source.
The Swedish scientist Bert Bolin was the first scientist to begin studying the carbon cycle in the 1950’s and 60’s and originally put forth the notion that CO2 might be a contributing factor to global warming.  Through the study of carbon, Bolin discovered that the carbon cycle is responsible for circulating carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, oceans, plant life, and humans.  As shown by Figure 2, the majority of CO2 is released through natural means, and subsequently most carbon dioxide is also absorbed through these natural means.  Bolin found that the carbon cycle was tremendously efficient at cycling the naturally produced CO2, but the addition of man-made carbon dioxide threw the cycle out of balance.  Since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, he theorized that increased amounts of the gas would help warm the atmosphere.  It is interesting to point out that Bolin was doing this research at a time when temperatures were consistently falling year after year and the scientific consensus was that the cooler temperatures would bring about a new ice age.  The idea that carbon dioxide could warm the climate was in fact good news to those in the scientific community who foresaw numerous negative effects as a result of global cooling.  Thus, the seeds were sown for the modern global warming movement.   

Figure 3
The argument for carbon dioxide as a cause of global warming does present a very compelling case.  Over the course of the past 50-60 years there has been a noticeable rise in CO2 levels, which coincides very nicely with the rise in temperatures mentioned above.  Some of the most often cited data on CO2 levels in the world (if not the most cited) come from the NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.  Figure 3 is a graph of carbon dioxide observations since the 1950’s and clearly it shows a marked increase in carbon dioxide concentrations.  Figure 4 shows the correlation of carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature increases.  It clearly seems that one follows the other, and according to the proponents of man-made global warming CO2 is the obvious culprit.
Figure 4

In summary, theory of global warming generally has three propositions: first, the Earth is about 0.6°C warmer now than it was a hundred years ago.  This fact is nearly indisputable (notice it is not entirely indisputable).  Secondly, the proponents of global warming believe this is a problem and point to increased concentrations of CO2 as the culprit of warmer temperatures.  Lastly, according to the theory, the cause of increased CO2 levels is a result of human activities.  It seems simple enough.  Now before the other side of the global warming argument is presented, we should pause to elaborate on some scientific philosophy and how it relates to the theory of global warming, especially the theory of man-made global warming.

The Philosophy of Global Warming


In the beginning of Al Gore’s renowned film, An Inconvenient Truth, he borrows the following quote from the witty 19th century author Mark Twain: What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.  Well, what do we know for sure about global warming?  We know that the average global temperature has been increasing.  The NOAA, the United Nations, hundreds of other scientific enterprises and the mass media all tell us that they know CO2 in the atmosphere is the cause of global warming, and that carbon dioxide is on the rise.  Furthermore, we are told that there is a consensus of scientists who all know that the reason why the CO2 concentration is higher now than ever before is a result of man’s industrial endeavors that require the burning of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and ultimately warm the planet.  Thus, we know global warming is man-made.  But, like Twain and Gore warn us: What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

Since the theory of global warming purports to be a science, it should be analyzed according to standards conventionally expected of other scientific endeavors.  There is still a debate in the scientific community over what exactly constitutes a scientific theory, but traditionally a science is something that is testable, or falsifiable, and can be reproduced by other scientists, as well as various other standards depending on the scientific philosopher in question.  One of the most widely accepted criterion for the scientific status of a theory is the one put forth by the influential 20th century scientific philosopher Karl Popper.  He wanted to establish a clear differentiation between true science and pseudo-science and did so by asserting that a theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable.  Popper makes several assertions as a buildup to his final conclusion.  In his own words he states:
Every good scientific theory is a prohibition; it forbids certain things to happen.  The more a theory forbids, the better it is.  A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific [my emphasis added].  Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice… Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it.  Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable... they take as it were, greater risks.
In other words, a good theory will state that “X” is probably true.  But it doesn’t stop there.  It will go further to say that if in fact “Y” is found to be true “X” must be false.  There have been theories throughout history which have claimed to by science, but fail the basic test of Popper’s criterion.  Marxism is one such example, because proponents are rarely swayed by falsifying evidence.  Psychoanalysis also fits this description.  Might the theory of global warming also?  Popper goes on to talk about stubborn theories by saying:
Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers – for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by re-interpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation.  Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowing, its scientific status.
Clearly what matters to Popper when determining the scientific value of a theory is not the confirming evidence, because verification can easily be found for just about anything.  The proper role of science, according to Popper, is to falsify.  This begs the question: can the theory of man-made global warming be falsified?  Is it a true scientific theory?  The general theory of global warming could be falsified if it could be proven that temperatures were not increasing.  Furthermore, the theory of man-made global warming could be falsified if it could be shown that the temperature increase was not caused by man’s activities, i.e., excess carbon dioxide production.  The theory could also be falsified if it could be proven that CO2 did not warm the climate to the extent that it is currently purported to.

We must keep in mind that it is one thing to state specifically what could falsify an existing theory and another for proponents of the existing theory to be willing to give up the theory if and when it is falsified.  Whether or not proponents would be willing to give up the theory of man-made global warming if it was falsified is up for debate and beyond the topic of this paper.  Popper did not write specifically in regards to this topic because the modern global warming movement simply did not exist in Popper’s time like it does today.  Therefore, in order to discern what Popper would say about the theory we have to interpret his writings on other subjects in light of the current debate because anthropogenic global warming was only speculation in his time.  There were of course concerns about the environment in general, but the theory that human beings had a substantial amount of impact on weather patterns and the climate was unheard of.  Only after stunning weather anomalies like the American dust bowl of the 1930’s did people begin to take notice of the impact that human activities could have on the environment and climate.  It was only recently with the advent of new scientific technologies such as satellite imaging, computer models, and better radar equipment that the true impact of man on his environment has come into focus.  The result of society’s increased awareness is the modern environmental movement.  But that is only one side of the argument.

The Other Side of Global Warming


Global warming is a science, and being a science, it requires evidence to support its claims.  The evidence, as we have seen, is fairly convincing.  Global warming seems to be occurring, and it seems to be caused by carbon dioxide emissions from human activities.  But is it?  Many scientists speculate that the fiery ball of hydrogen only 93 million miles away has more to do with temperature increases than carbon dioxide.  In fact, according to some scientists, solar activity and temperatures have an even stronger correlation than does CO2.  That fact is largely ignored by the scientific community though.  One would think that a proper scientific perspective would try to include all the evidence to arrive at well educated solutions.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.  Scientists can be very biased.  A philosopher named Thomas Kuhn put forth a theory to explain bias in science by saying, in essence, that the scientific community latches onto certain paradigms that fit well with the data and exclude paradigms that don’t fit in with the existing paradigm.  In many cases, this is how funding for scientific research is awarded.  The problem is, data has to come from somewhere.  Try as we might to achieve objectivity, it is incredibly difficult to find completely unbiased data, or to analyze the data without prejudice.  Often times, as Kuhn says, we tend to look at things through a certain paradigm.  After all, we are only human.  That being said, let us take a closer look at the data behind global warming.

It is widely accepted that the role carbon dioxide plays in global warming is a major one.  As we have seen, the rise in atmospheric CO2 coincides very nicely with the global rise in temperatures.  However, what is often left out of the discussion is just how much of an effect CO2 has in the warming process.  It is true that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, but just how much of an effect it has, and how much of that effect is caused by man, are separate matters.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but it is only one of many.  Figuring out the effect of CO2 on the warming process takes only some relatively simple mathematical calculations.  It requires knowing the composition of the atmosphere, how much of an effect all the constituent gases contribute to warming, and how much human activities add to the total amount of gases.  These simple calculations show that of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 3.225% is man-made.  Furthermore, carbon dioxide accounts for approximately 3.6% of the total greenhouse effect; by contrast, water vapor accounts for about 95% of the warming effect.  The product of carbon dioxide’s greenhouse effect (3.6%) and the percentage of CO2 concentration from man-made sources (3.225%) shows that only 0.117% of the greenhouse effect is due to atmospheric CO2 from human activity.  So, all the debate over CO2 emissions is over an effect that equals less than one-quarter of one percent.  Statistically, that is insignificant.

As mentioned earlier, the main source of data on atmospheric carbon dioxide comes from one observatory: the NOAA observatory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii.  The data from that observatory clearly shows that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are on the rise.  This should not be debatable, but the problem is that Mauna Loa is a volcano, and volcanoes emit carbon dioxide.  If the math is not convincing enough, this should be a startling fact.  It may be that the effects of the volcano are factored out, or that the analysts somehow compensate for it, in which case it may not be a problem.  However, it might be a bigger problem for the integrity of the scientific community that so much importance is placed on just one observatory.  Why are there not hundreds or thousands of observatories taking CO2 readings?  There may be, but Mauna Loa is the one relied on the most.

Another issue with the data of global warming concerns how temperature readings are taken; specifically, where they are taken.  There are thousands and thousands of weather stations around the world that continually monitor temperature.  Some of them have been in place for many years.  In some cases, they were built in open fields or other places that would be suitable for impartial temperature readings.  However, some of these stations have remained in place as urbanization crept up around them.  The result is that some weather stations are now near exhaust fans, by heat-producing buildings, or near airport runways.  Of course not all weather stations have been left in these compromising locations, but even moving a weather station could compromise the readings.  Weather station anomalies may not be enough to skew the data to a significant degree, but scientists should keep in mind that anomalies do exist.  That leads us to the scientists themselves and the supposed agreement among them.

One of the most often used terms in relation to the debate over man-made global warming is “consensus.”  The mass media, many politicians, policy makers, analysts, the environmentalist crowd, and even scientists themselves constantly remind us that there is a consensus in favor of global warming.  The most often cited evidence for scientific consensus is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which regularly releases reports on the state of the climate.  The panel synthesizes research into a unified report but does no original research itself.  Thus, several thousand scientists contribute to the reports released by the panel.[3]  However, the consensus of contributing scientists is hotly debated.  Many scientists actually petitioned to have their names removed from the report because their research was not accurately portrayed.  The IPCC report has also been the center of controversy over the use of less than credible sources.  Whether or not the report is accurate, there are clearly unresolved issues surrounding its credibility and the consensus of scientists should, at the very least, be taken with a grain of salt because there are thousands of scientists on the other side of the argument.  For example, the founder of the Weather Channel, John Coleman, is skeptical of man-made global warming and even warming in general.  There are many petitions with the aim to show that there is not a universal consensus on global warming among scientists.  One online petition has over 37,000 signees, and another petition, the “Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change”, has gained wide support and media attention.  Even if there is a consensus of scientists who agree with global warming, that should not be taken as proof that it is fact.  One does not necessarily have to agree with Karl Popper’s assertion that the role of science is to falsify, but there should be no doubt that consensus does not a science make.  Science is intended to allow room for differing points of view, not to censure dissent.  Science is also intended to simply provide data and make predictions.  How society handles the data and predictions is beyond the realm of science.  Unfortunately, science has strayed beyond its bounds.  Until now this paper has stayed away from the ethical component of the global warming debate.  There is so much written about the ethical and moral concerns of global warming that an entire book could be dedicated to that aspect alone.  However, this paper would be incomplete without a brief discussion of the morality of global warming and some of the political issues surrounding it.

Every rational person would agree that we should not abuse the Earth and its resources.  The Catholic Church has always taught that human beings are stewards of God’s creation.  It is our responsibility to care for the Earth because it is a gift from God.  However, that does not mean we can’t use the Earth for our benefit.  No one wants to burn coal just to pollute the atmosphere, and likewise most people don’t want to live in mud huts either.  There must be a balance – an understanding that we can use the Earth’s resources, but without abusing them.  The problem with the modern global warming movement is that scientists have used the science to impose their morality on others.  The agenda though may go beyond simply imposing morality to controlling people.[4] Ottmar Edenhofer, a member of the U.N. IPCC recently said:
…[O]ne must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy. Obviously, the owners of coal and oil will not be enthusiastic about this. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore…[my emphasis added]
This statement should be concerning to anyone who values individuality and personal liberty.  A statement such as this goes beyond science and makes suggestions for how society should handle the problem.  It is especially troublesome when the assumption is that the science is settled, when in fact there is still plenty to debate.

Conclusion


It might be a stretch to say that global warming is not happening at all, or that humans have nothing to do it.  It might also be a stretch to say that it is as bad as we are told.  At the very least, we should be able to agree that there is an issue and it needs to be addressed.  The science as it stands today is divided.  The data indicates many differing possibilities.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether or not the Earth is warming, cooling, staying the same, or what the causes are, we should be good stewards of the Earth no matter what.  Hopefully, this paper has illustrated that although there is plenty of scientific research to indicate the Earth is warming and man is responsible for it, and even though many thousands of scientists agree with the theory, questions abound and there are still plenty of scientists who don’t buy the theory that global warming is a man-made problem.  Many people who do believe in global warming also see other problems that are much more pressing and more easily solved.  World hunger, for example, could be greatly alleviated or even solved if it received as much funding as global warming and climate change research.  Nevertheless, such a radical change in international policy is not likely to occur soon.  In the mean time, we can only continue to study our world as thoroughly as possible, and rely on the data provided to make decisions about our world.  But we should not rush to judgment.  We have to understand that the Earth is much larger than we are and has been around for a very long time.  There have been drastic changes in the Earth’s climate before, and there will be again.  It is a system, a very large system that is much larger than we humans realize.  Science’s obsession with anthropogenic global warming may stem from a lack of perspective; perspective that could be greatly enhanced if we simply had faith.  If we had faith that there are things in the world greater than us, faith that things aren’t always as bad as they seem, or very simply, faith in God, then science can afford to be wrong.  But if we remove God from our thinking about the world, everything becomes centered on human beings and our actions.  Without a reliance on God we might come to believe that it is only up to us to save the world, in which case science cannot afford to be wrong.  But as we have seen, scientific inquiry is not always beyond reproach.


Footnotes

[1] Examples of “disasters” caused by global warming range from the oft noted “increase” in “severe” weather, such as hurricanes, to predictions that cases of kidney stones will rise along with temperatures

[2] This number varies around the world because water vapor is very sensitive to temperature changes. Water vapor concentrations around 4% can be found around the equator while at the poles it is near 0%.

[3 ]It is surprisingly hard to find the exact number of scientists who have signed IPCC reports. Numbers vary depending on the report.  The highest number found was 3500.

[4] There are some who believe that after the fall of Soviet Russia, the modern environmental become a refuge for estranged communists.  There is some evidence to back this claim, but it is beyond the scope of this paper.
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