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Commentary: Recent Notes on Climate Change

Posted By NAEP, Tuesday, September 13, 2016

By: Neil Markee
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As you might expect, my Climate Change clipping file grows faster than just about any other collection. I keep of articles out of the New York Times, Wall street Journal and local newspapers. One clipping in my current environmental file is out of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), [6/29/16] and titled “Climate Denial Finally Pays Off.”  Columnist Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. notes that he has written about climate change 45 times in the WSJ over the past 20 years.  He argues that he generally has taken what he considers to be moderate positions and posed reasonable questions, although they may not have coincided with positions held by some advocates at the time. During the same period, I have read any number of articles raising legitimate questions about such things as climate models, the cost-benefit ration of proposed approaches addressing the problem, and the credentials of some of the advocates for this action or that. Jenkins has visited those topics. Rarely would I classify the authors of such copy as “climate deniers.” But I did wonder how climate denial had paid off for any one. 

Some wrinkled clippings further back in the file provided an answer. The 7/13/16 issue of the WSJ carried a double-column ad titled, “If You’re 97% Certain, You’re Certain.”  The headline was in light blue (a bit too dark for Columbia and too gray for Carolina), as was a large check-mark next to the name of the sponsor, Partnership For Responsible Growth.  They apparently advocate “For a Free Market Solution to Climate Change.” I think that means a carbon-tax approach.  The second paragraph read, “Scientists have studied whether or not climate scientists agree about climate change. And, lo and behold they do, 97% of them anyway.”

Some time ago, I clipped a note that listed a number of widely supported, supposed, scientific truths—since the days of Galileo and the flat-earth folks— that subsequently have proven to be false.  I wish I’d kept the clipping, but the point is that establishing scientific fact by majority vote has proven to be unreliable.  I wonder how many scientists at the time would have sided with Galileo or gone sailing with Columbus. Personally, I doubt I’d have been called before the church tribunal or invited along by Chris. 

But I’m enough of a contrarian to believe that there is a lot more to be learned about climate change and the viable options before us to accept what we know now as “settled science.”  I suspect the earth is warming a bit faster than what had been the recent (in geological terms) norm, some of that is probably caused by human activity and, warming could be a serious problem, if it continues.  For me, the unsettled question is what to do about it—and that is mostly about money and politics, not science. I wonder what percentage of the world’s political leaders agree on what action to take? Clearly, many of those people representing huge fractions of the world’s population see economic development via industrialization, at the current cost, as a more important priority for at least a few more decades, despite the resolutions adopted in Paris.

Referring to what some believe to be true at the moment as “settled science” sounds like earthlings have checked off one more item on the list of topics we need to study. Newton may have agreed, but I doubt it.  For the sake of higher education’s research institutions, I hope there is no list. More than likely, we will find that “settled science” is an oxymoron.    

Oh, about denial paying off, apparently author Jenkins believes that the series of ads were placed in the WSJ in an attempt to convert “climate deniers,” including even those who write for that newspaper.  If that is the case, and if each ad costs the $27,309 he mentions, then maybe his articles have paid off for the WSJ.  But you have to read the ad wording carefully. For example, it strains credibility to argue that 97 percent of climate scientists or any other international group of learned professions, fully agrees on the specifics of any scientific issue that is as young, rapidly evolving, and politically charged as is climate change. So what exactly do they agree on? That another nation should bear the cost seems to be a popular proposal.

Down the clipping pile a layer or two, I came on some good news on a related topic.  The scientists have found indications that the ozone hole over Antarctica is shrinking. They attribute the change to actions taken by nations to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbons in compliance with the Montreal Protocol of 1987.  “Full recovery is not expected until the middle of the century.” If that proves to be the case, it will have taken most of a century to heal a thin patch of ozone in the atmosphere that can be “in some years larger than the North American continent.” That’s good news both because reducing exposure to high levels of the sun’s ultraviolet rays has a substantial positive effect on health globally and because it demonstrates what can be done if earth’s nations can find ways to work together and can muster enough patience to see it through.

The article referred to was titled, “Ozone Hole Shows Signs of Shrinking Study Shows” was written by Henry Fountain and published in the 7/1/16 New York Times.   Author Fountain focuses on a study report published in The Journal of Science. The lead author was Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist at MITThe article is about the best source of information on the ozone hole I have seen lately. You might want to read it.   

Good News/Bad News sounds like the opening line of a joke but this time the article was about the planned closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California and there wasn’t much good news as author Michael Shellenberger saw it. (“Michael Shellenberger is the founder and president of Environmental Progress, an environmental research and policy organization.”) At first glance, closing a nuclear plant and replacing the power it had been producing with electricity from solar and other renewable sources might seem like a step along the way to reducing carbon in the atmosphere.  Maybe that would be good news, if it were the likely outcome—but it’s not, he says.  According to the article, the state already can generate more solar power than it can use on a sunny day and, if so, adding more capacity might be exportable, if competitively priced, but would not reduce carbon in California’s atmosphere.

 In the past, the energy from closed nuclear plants in the state has been replaced by power generated by natural-gas plants, which obviously entail burning a hydrocarbon fuel and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Why do they build gas-fired plants?  The obvious reason is because they need power when the sun is obscured by clouds and after the sun goes down.  We have been kicking that problem around for some time.   I recall, decades ago, a fantastic article in Popular Science or some such magazine that suggested huge reflective bodies in space to direct light to solar-power plants on earth after the sun went down. I don’t remember the details, but it never happened. The challenge remains to make solar or wind (another form of solar) a viable source of energy round the clock. We need to develop viable ways to store massive amounts of electrical power, and none are on the horizon.

So why is closing its largest source of clean energy apparently a popular option in California? In the state, the definition of renewable energy excludes nuclear power.  According to the author, “The answer, as is perhaps obvious, is the ideological insistence on renewable and an irrational fear of nuclear power.” I live fairly close to the infamous Wading River nuclear plant built, tested and immediately and forever closed here on Long Island and I recall the fear-charged public discussion. We have been paying for and talking about what to do with the cold plant ever since. 

What’s happening in your world?

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