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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 29, 2008

Nullius in Verba

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Posted by Derek

Since I was talking the other day about the analytical habit of mind, this is a good time to link to an article by someone who has it like few other people alive: Freeman Dyson, who is thankfully still with us and still thinking hard. At the moment, he seems to be thinking about something that involves chemistry, physics, economics, and plenty of politics.

He has an article in the latest New York Review of Books that is one of the most sensible things I have ever seen on the issue of global warming. I strongly urge people to read it, because it’s a perspective that you don’t often see. (It ends, in fact, with a small note of despair at how seldom that particular viewpoint comes up). I found it particularly interesting, as you might guess, because I agreed with it a great deal.

Dyson stipulates at the beginning that carbon dioxide levels are, in fact, rising, and that they have been for some time. And he also is willing to stipulate that this will lead, other factors being equal, to a rise in global temperatures. He doesn’t get into the details, although there are endless details to get into, but goes on to make some larger points.

One of them is economic. One of the books he’s reviewing, by economist William Nordhaus, is an attempt to work out the best course of action. Nordhaus is not denying a problem, to put it mildly: his estimate comes out to about 23 trillion dollars of harm in the next hundred years (in constant dollars, yet) if nothing is done at all. The question is, how much will the various proposed solutions cost in comparison?

His numbers come out this way: the best current policy he can come up with, a carefully tuned carbon tax that increases year by year, comes out to only 20 trillion of damage, as opposed to 23 – that is, plus three trillion constant dollars. The Kyoto Protocol, turned down by the US Senate during the Clinton years, comes out to 22 trillion dollars of harm (one trillion to the good) if the US were to participate, and completely even (no good whatsoever) without the US. The Stern Review plan, endorsed by the British government, comes out to 37 trillion dollars of total harm, and Al Gore’s proposed policies come out down 44 trillion dollars: that is, twenty-one trillion dollars worse than doing nothing at all.

As Dyson correctly points out, these latter two proposals appear to be “disastrously expensive”. And the problem with such courses of action are that this money could be used for something better: Nordhaus also calculates the effect of finding some reasonably low-cost method to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions, such as a more efficient means of generating solar or geothermal power, the advent of genetically engineered plants with a high carbon-sequestering ability, etc. That general route comes out to roughly 6 trillion dollars of total harm, which is seventeen trillion better than doing nothing (and thirty-eight trillion better than the Full Albert). That’s by far the most attractive solution, if it can be realized. But doing an extra ten or twenty trillion dollars of damage to the global economy will make that rather unlikely, if we choose to do that.

And there are other effects. To quote Dyson:

” The practical consequence of the Stern policy would be to slow down the economic growth of China now in order to reduce damage from climate change a hundred years later. Several generations of Chinese citizens would be impoverished to make their descendants only slightly richer. According to Nordhaus, the slowing-down of growth would in the end be far more costly to China than the climatic damage.”

But there’s a factor that neither of the books he reviews mentions: that atmospheric carbon dioxide exchanges, on a relatively fast time scale, with the Earth’s vegetation. About eight per cent of it a year cycles back and forth, and that hold out hope for a biotech solution. Engineered organisms could fix this carbon into useful forms, or (failing that) just take out out of circulation completely. But we need to go full speed ahead on research to realize that.

The last part of his review addresses a larger question. Environmentalism, he states, is now more of a religious question than anything else. (Other people have realized that, and many who do bemoan the fact, but Dyson has no problem with it, saying that the ethics of environmentalism are “fundamentally sound”.) But here’s his problem:

”Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet. . .”

The distressing thing, as he mentions, is that many organizations (including, I'm sorry to say, the Royal Society among other groups of scientists), have decided that the issue is settled and that anyone dissenting from this view is to be slapped down. As for me, I’m not completely convinced by the current climate data, so I probably am to the right even of Dyson on this issue. Here he is, though, willing to stipulate that most of the basic assumptions are true, but finding no place for someone who can do that and still not see global warming as the Single Biggest Issue Of Our Time.

I know how he feels: I consider myself an advocate of the environment, but I think the best way to preserve it is to do more genetic engineering rather than less. Better crops will mean that we don’t have to plow up more land to feed everyone, and we won’t have to dump as many insecticides and herbicides on that land we’re using. That means that I also think the best way to preserve unspoiled spaces is to do less organic farming, and not more: organic farming, particularly the hard-core varieties, uses too much land to generate too little food, and it does so mainly to give people in wealthy countries a chance to feel good about themselves.

And I think the best way to preserve wild areas and biodiversity is to have more free trade and economic development, not to slow it down. Richer countries have lower birth rates, for one thing. (I actually think that the planet would be better off with fewer people on it, but I’m not willing to achieve that goal by killing off a few billion of us).

And finally, economic growth is what’s giving us the chance to find technologies to get us out of our problems. I know that there’s another way to look at it – that the technology we have got us into this problem, and that we should reverse course. But I don’t think that’s even possible, or desirable. I’d rather have engineered plants cleaning out the atmosphere, and I’d rather have electricity from fusion or orbiting solar arrays. I’d rather find cheaper ways to get some of our fouler industries off the planet entirely, and mine the asteroids and comets. I’d rather people get richer and smarter, with more time and resources to do what they enjoy. How we’re going to do any good by putting on hair shirts and confessing our sins escapes me.

Comments (62) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Current Events | General Scientific News


1. Nick K on May 29, 2008 9:06 AM writes...

Derek makes a good point about "organic" farming (idiotic name!). To grow a given weight of produce requires a much larger surface area than in conventional agriculture. How this can be reconciled with other "Green" concerns has never been made clear by its proponents. Just another middle-class fad, now fading as people struggle with higher mortgage and fuel bills.

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2. Lethe on May 29, 2008 9:10 AM writes...

While I agree with much of what you (and I guess Dyson) have to say, I am troubled by the assumption inherent in the analysis that the only way to calculate possible harm is in terms of economic damage. The loss of irreplaceable things (environments, species, etc.) resists being easily quantified financially, as these have non-monetary meaning to people. Perhaps this is a "religious" position (although I think you're misusuing the word in this context), but I'm not certain that your steadfast adherence to an economic analysis of global warming is fundamentally any more defensible.

People value things other than money. Insisting that they are wrong for doing so is unrealistic and unproductive.

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3. Eli on May 29, 2008 9:27 AM writes...

Can I get an Amen?

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4. Derek on May 29, 2008 9:30 AM writes...

Oh, I agree that there's more to this than economics. But I think that the economic analysis is the place to start, and then you take the other aspects from there. That's why I found Nordhaus so interesting (and alarming). He's not going to higher-level questions at all, but just trying to show that some of the proposed solutions are ruinous from the very beginning.

One could argue that ruinous policies are the only option we have left, but I don't think that's the case. And that discussion can get contaminated by the religious aspect of all this. There seem to be people who are actually opposed to looking for some sort of technological way out of climate change problems, because they seem to feel that this is somehow cheating and avoiding the penance that we should rightfully be paying.

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5. Cirrus on May 29, 2008 9:33 AM writes...

Hi. Derek: Well said. One of the best blog entries you have written. Enjoy reading your blog.

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6. emjeff on May 29, 2008 9:44 AM writes...

Agree with you completely. I too am very skeptical of the whole global warming issue, but even if it's real, the blame for it must go to the environmentalists, who 30 years ago squashed the nuclear power industry. As a result France gets 90% of their electrical power from nuclear energy and we get something like 10-15%. Way to go, tree-huggers.

The other inconvenient fact of today's energy climate is that we need more oil NOW , (while we're building more nuclear reactors), and we need it quick. We can't conserve our way out of this mess - we need oil, and that means drilling for it in the Gulf and in 1% of ANWAR. We can't replace petroleum with ethanol and wishing; anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry and thermodynamics knows that.

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7. Wavefunction on May 29, 2008 9:45 AM writes...

Freeman Dyson is my favourite scientist and author. I have read almost all of his books but to be honest I have never really understood his contrary opinion on global warming. In previous interviews he appeared insufficiently informed about the subject, although this one makes more sense. Curiously he says nothing about nuclear energy, probably the best short-term solution to the problem. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he once said that he did not really care how he got a KwH of energy, whether from coal or solar or nuclear. I could hardly believe my ears. He is a very smart, very distinguished and very reasonable person and a great and sensitive intellectual, but sometimes I find him saying questionable things.

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8. Deepak on May 29, 2008 10:10 AM writes...


Great blog post. Unfortunately, too many of "us" environmentalists go the absolute route, without thinking pragmatically or of the bigger picture. All you end up doing is making it a binary discussion and forgetting all the grays in the middle.

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9. Jim on May 29, 2008 10:20 AM writes...

I'm not sure I totally agree with the stance; but certainly agree that the economics put a different face on everything.

Still, the "religious" side of things has some reasonable arguements - could walking somewhere once in a while rather than driving be sensible? Not eating tasteless asparagus flown all the way from Peru? Organic, can be a waste of time but have you tasted the slower grown breed of chicken, rather than the typical broiler house bird?

Not that as a chemist, I'm obsessed by food or anything.

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10. Lucas on May 29, 2008 10:28 AM writes...

What Nick said. I once got into an argument with a passionate advocate of organic farming, who had apparently never thought of the idea that if an acre of land produces less food, then we need to use more acres of land to feed the same population. "Well," he replied, "we just need fewer people." It's the organic final solution.

To be fair, he did later suggest that people should become vegetarians, which would significantly help to reduce the strain on farmland. This is probably a much better "solution", though a bit unrealistic for most people. Eating less meat is probably not a bad idea, though.

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11. John Spevacek on May 29, 2008 10:40 AM writes...

As I stated a few days ago, one number by itself is useless. $23 trillion is a lot of money, but over 100 years that is $0.23 trillion in harm annually. Given that the current worldwide GDP is $54 trillion, it is even less. So I guess the decision then becomes either: A) we do nothing and pay for the damages as we go, or B) because the cost of preventing the harm is so small, we should do it.

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12. SP on May 29, 2008 10:47 AM writes...

To continue your point about analytical thinking, what are the error bars on those estimates? They've got to be enormous when dealing with that time frame and "hypothetical technologies", perhaps so large as to make the comparisons worthless. Remember how the Iraq war was going to cost $50 billion? (That number obviously had some ideological fudging behind it, which is another thing to consider with global warming estimates from both sides.)

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13. Derek Lowe on May 29, 2008 11:09 AM writes...

I'm somewhat relieved to say that the question about error bars occurred to me, too, but I haven't seen a copy of the book yet. As soon as I do, I'll follow up on that. I'm thinking that they won't be enough to make all those approaches equivalent, and the the signs and magnitudes are decent rough guidelines, but we shall see.

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14. juniorprof on May 29, 2008 11:13 AM writes...

But I think that the economic analysis is the place to start

I don't think this is quite right. I think the place to start is how to avoid social conflict precipitated by climate change. Drought stimulates armed conflict. If we cannot first learn to deal with water and food shortages in such a way as to avoid an escalation in armed conflicts we will not have economic analysis to worry about.

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15. SRC on May 29, 2008 12:25 PM writes...

Hear, hear!

But there’s a factor that neither of the books he reviews mentions: that atmospheric carbon dioxide exchanges, on a relatively fast time scale, with the Earth’s vegetation.

I feel vindicated for raising this and related points many times in global warming debates. It's not clear that we know all the terms to put into the model, and still less clear that we know the cross-terms. It's pretty unlikely that atmospheric and geophysicists could adequately account for the increased plant growth occasioned by any rise in CO2 partial pressure.

And there's no need to postulate genetically modified plants. Algal growth alone could probably do the job quite nicely.

My best guess: sometime in the next few years, when the hysteria has died down, and the gliterati have moved on to another cause, some climatologist will sheepishly announce that they've just realized that they'd failed to take something into account, and that there's no big deal (unless they're really creative, in which case they'll assert that the corrected model predicts an even worse disaster).

Then global warming can take its rightful place alongside the population bomb, killer bees, Ricky Martin, the ozone layer, Y2K, and shark summer, as catatrosphes that just never were quite as bad as we'd feared they would be. And we can move on to the next existential threat.

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16. peon on May 29, 2008 12:35 PM writes...

On choosing the appropriate timeframe for an assay (peripherally related to the question of error bars):

If you consider the error bars, you probably would do the analysis over a shorter period than the next 100 years, because there is little confidence about what will happen in 100 years. If you don't consider the error bars, why would you limit the analysis to the next 100 years rather than the next 200 or 500 or 1000?

If it costs $21 trillion in extra costs over the next 100 years to implement the Gore plan, than one could conclude that the plan doesn't make any sense at all, if your time frame of concern is the next 100 years. However, if you are concerned about what will happen after that, than the analysis needs to be carried out further. Just because you are clean in 7 day tox doesn't mean you're clean in 21 day tox.

I am not saying the authors did so, but you don't want to cherry-pick the time frame that gives you the answer you want to make your case. You pick either the time frame of relevance (in this case, that is dependent upon, among other things, your age, how risky your lifestyle and genetics are, and how much you value leaving behind a pleasantly habitable planet after you are gone), or a time frame that you can estimate with a desired level of confidence. 100 years may be a suitable compromise, but it may also just be arbitrary.

I agree with the comment about the risk of wars breaking out over scarce resources. This simply highlights the level of uncertainty in any estimate of costs. The error bars must be huge over the next 100 years. If you are going to do the analysis anyways, maybe 1000 years would be better ;)

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17. anon on May 29, 2008 12:54 PM writes...

I don't know any details about the models people use to predict temperature rise and climate in general, but I was always curious if they can predict when/why ice ages occur and end (as they obviously have numerous times in the past).

It would seem to me that an accurate climate model should be able to do this. Does anyone know how they derive these models and how they are tested?

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18. Jose on May 29, 2008 1:36 PM writes...

On the off chance you haven't been spending too much time on glaciers, do yourself a favor and take a look.

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19. devils advocate on May 29, 2008 1:44 PM writes...

Global warming believers and environmentalists are just members of the latest misanthropic doomsday cult. You cannot argue rationally with cult members.

Their only goal in life is to kill (indirectly if possible) almost all the people on this earth, except for people like them. This plan has significant racist overtones, something that is rather obvious if you read their literature a bit more critically.

I could go on in considerable detail about the reasons behind what I saying. If you are curious google a little about what environmentalists want- look at their true goals- control and depopulation to levels that make nazis look reasonable.

It is unfortunate that so many grant hungry scientists have tied their boats to this cause. They are not helping the medium to long term public image of science. Science is not supposed to be a dogmatic religion, but that is exactly what consenus is about. Not to mention, the numerous occasions in the past when the leading scientists in a given field have been wrong about the future of their own field. Read a little about what "leading scientific experts" in the field thought about the possibility of - Airplanes, nuclear fission, semi-conducters, nitrogen fixation, liquid fueled rockets just before they became a reality.

It is funny and sad to look at their predictions based on incomplete models of chaotic systems. Of course they also seem to forget that the earth was much greener and productive in previous geological time periods where the CO2 concentration was above 1000 ppm (in the past 400 million years) such as parts of the Jurassic, cretaceous, and the eocene.

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20. Derek on May 29, 2008 2:06 PM writes...

Jose (#18), yep, there's no doubt about it, those glaciers are retreating. And they might even be retreating due to climate change brought on by human activity, although I don't know that (and, to be fair, neither does anyone else).

The problem is that they have advanced and retreated many times over the years, and we do not understand the various factors behind these changes well enough to draw conclusions. Note, for example, the line on one of those pictures for the extent during the "Little Ice Age" - which we still do not understand, and cannot model, and which was, one would think, almost certainly unrelated to human activity.

Here's a page with more data from the same site, by the way:

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21. W Hall on May 29, 2008 4:00 PM writes...

Try this on before you go over the cliff.

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22. Skeptic on May 29, 2008 4:08 PM writes...

So, Dyson's evil doing agenda is genetic engineering (see his latest book) and the climate control issues give him a convenient cover (carbon sequestering) for government control. I can hear it now: "hey, our control over who gets to do genetic engineering is necessary to save the planet from global warming"

Derek said: "(I actually think that the planet would be better off with fewer people on it, but I’m not willing to achieve that goal by killing off a few billion of us)."

Gee, Derek, do you suppose genetic engineering could be useful for population control too? Haha

Derek said: "And I think the best way to preserve wild areas and biodiversity is to have MORE FREE TRADE..." [emphasis mine]

Speaking of religion...makes you wonder why some medicinal chemists around here are becoming increasingly disenchanted. Chin up boys, economic paradise lies straight

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23. Wavefunction on May 29, 2008 4:15 PM writes...

On a related note, isn't that what J. Craig Venter is up to? Scouring the oceans and reefs for bacteria that could be engineered into CO2 guzzlers?

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24. DetroitDave on May 29, 2008 5:33 PM writes...

Dyson stipulates at the beginning that carbon dioxide levels are, in fact, rising, and that they have been for some time. And he also is willing to stipulate that this will lead, other factors being equal, to a rise in global temperatures.
But none of the other factors stay equal! You change any on eo fht factors and all of the rest change. This is precisely the basis of all of nature; some go up and others go down. Plant gorwth goes up as the available fuels (carbon, light, nutrients, etc.) go up until the supply of water or one of the other growth factors becomes the limit. This is why the "global warming" people direct our attention to only portions of the models that support their position and ignor the mitigating factors or the factors that they do not understand.
But as a nation we could all EAT A LOT LESS FOOD! The obesity epidemic in this country is the proof. Consumption of less food alone would have a greater effect on the release of carbon dioxide than increasing the fuel economy of our vehicles by about 7 miles per gallon average.

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25. Roadnottaken on May 29, 2008 6:24 PM writes...

Disregarding, for a moment, the question of whether or not global warming is occurring as a result of human activity.

Isn't it embarrassing, as scientists, that the chief source of energy in the world is hauling rocks and sludge out of the ground and burning it? Seriously. We've got iPods, genetic engineering, and space-ships, and we still rely on BURNING ROCKS for energy. I think it's an absolute shame. I also don't understand why people fight the environmental movement. You can quibble about the details until you're blue in the face. The bottom line is that it's too complicated and too politically charged to get anywhere with science... but again, shouldn't we do better just on principle? Shouldn't we try to find a better way to power the planet than burning fossil fuels? It just seems completely obvious to me that the most sophisticated/progressive/responsible thing to do is end our reliance on limited resources and figure out how to construct a self-sustaining societal infrastructure. Can somebody please point out what doesn't make sense about this? I just don't get the counter-argument. NASA's budget is something like $17 billion/yr... can't we spend more on developing renewable energy than we spend on the friggin' space program? [to say nothing of our war program]

I just think it's intellectually embarrassing that we can't come up with something better than burning coal & oil to power the world. It seems so completely 19th-century. We've progressed away from most of the other stupid crap they did in the 19th century but for some reason people can't seem to see past this one.

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26. devils advocate on May 29, 2008 7:14 PM writes...

Environmentalism is not about science or reason. It is about controlling and impoverishing others.

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27. John on May 29, 2008 7:20 PM writes...

Derek, are you sure you cited Dyson/Nordhaus' numbers accurately? I saw no mentions in the millions, only zero or trillions. Other numbers don't reflect Dyson's review either. Wassup?

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28. Sili on May 29, 2008 7:21 PM writes...

Bugger. Just lost five rambling paragraphs.

Anyway. I'll try to make it more snappy.

1) I want my flying car. Nature's spent 2 000 million years getting good a this photosynthesis gig. I'm not willing to met my retirement fond on us getting better at it in ten, fifty or a hundred years.

2) What's your issue with the data on warming? I'm just a layman, but I must say that ">the case seems pretty conclusive.

3) Yes, preach New Age environmentalists are counterproductive. (Though, it's worth noticing that the anti-AGW people attack Gore for not being a hippie living in a hole in the ground). Science got us into this mess and Science will get us out. Some of those Sciences being political and sociology. And incidentially, Science tells us that we need to cut back on emissions.

4) Nucluar is necessary, and we need to change the publics perception of it. That said, business and government have a pretty poor record in this regard. I do not want breeder reactors built by the lowest bidder who need to make a profit this instant - but Bush has a done a good job of showing us what the current admininstration can do with no-bid contracts ... Solar, wind and waves need to be rolled out more, too. We need to get rid of this CO2 surplus and that will take a blood lot of energy.

5) Organic (or ecological as it's called here): I buy it - because I grew up on a farm and the farmers can use every bit extra they can get. The EU as is producing far more than it can eat at the moment so reducing output won't hurt. Of course the stupid stupid subsidies need to go sooner rather than later. As it is we're ruining the African economy by drowning them in artificially cheap goods making the market unprofitable for their own farmers. And at the same time EU import tarifs make it impossible for them to sell what they can produce.

6) I read a while back that if US cars had the same mileage EU ones do, you could not only reduce your reliance on foreign oil, but do away with it entirely. I think this issue alone is pretty much symptomatic of the problem with John Q. Public and the 'free' market.

7) I think those numbers are iffy. This is gonna be expensive either way and 20 trillion dollars sounds unreasonably cheap. And people are gonna die either way. My money is on more people dying if we do nothing.

Idly 20 trillion in a hundred years is only about two wars against terror at the current going rate.

In sum: I think you're wrong where you agree with Dyson ("When an old, distuingished scientist says something is possible, he is very often right, but when he says something is impossible, he's almost invariably wrong" - or words to that effect). But I agree that anti-intellectualism, anti-science and new-age feelgood 'environmentalism' is gonna do harm.

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29. Chris Wren on May 29, 2008 7:43 PM writes...

"Curiously he says nothing about nuclear energy, probably the best short-term solution to the problem"

Yes and no. Planning and construction of new reactor facilities can take a decade or longer, especially in a hostile legislative "not in my neighborhood" environment. We'll probably have desert solar farms and wave-dynamics farms pumping energy into the grid long before the hundreds of needed reactors have a chance to come online. Also, the worlds affordably-acessible uranium deposits are finite, with many of the richest reserves being in the hands of governments that are hostile to western interests - so nuclear, like fossil fuel will have a messy geopolitical dimension.

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30. TH on May 29, 2008 8:29 PM writes...

roadnottaken..."We've progressed away from most of the other stupid crap they did in the 19th century but for some reason people can't seem to see past this one"....
Unfortunately, outdated and crass and cheap still works best.
It's ironic how some of new age man is now doing a 180 on GM foods and maybe nuclear, some of the answers come from looking in the mirror.

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31. DonaldSensing on May 29, 2008 8:45 PM writes...

What interested me about Dyson's piece was his open admission that environmentalism is an actual religion in its own right. I posted a lot more about that on my own blog.

Note that Dyson bifurcated people into children of light and children of darkness (not using those terms, of course), which is essential for evironmentalism's key element - apocalypticism.

I quite disagree with Dyson that, "Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion." Environmentalism has not replaced socialism at all. Instead, the old-line socialists, faced with decades of the failure of political socialism, have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon to keep socialism alive. Environmentalism has become a much better vehicle to achieve a rigid regulation of people's lives than political socialism ever was. After all, the fate of the entire planet is at stake! Environmentalism has already led some British members of Parliament to propose that the government regulate almost every aspect of buying and selling by private individuals. If this is not socialism, it is a distinction without a difference.

That is exactly the point Czech President Vaclav Klaus makes in his book, Blue Planet, Green Shackles, that environmentalism's real implications are not ecological, but political, and always aimed toward greater control of the polity.

BTW, I feel somewhat qualified to assess religious environmentalism as I hold an M.Div. from Vanderbilt. Feel free toeave a comment on my post of you are kind enough to read it.

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32. joel on May 30, 2008 12:58 AM writes...

Just wanted to say, there are *other* ways of talking about the impacts of things like global warming other than GDP:

Your argument holds only up to a point. Yes, research into new technologies can provide society with a way to deal with these problems, but as your blog points out on a day to day basis, research is a pretty fickle thing. There are limits to how far and how fast technology can take us. What if there is no magic solution to save the day?

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33. Mags on May 30, 2008 6:10 AM writes...

I love your comments even though I'm not half as educated.
We here in the trenches think that global warming is a hoax and we think that because certain people stand to make a lot of money over the trading of carbon footprints.
I'm for oil drilling here in the States right now and nuclear power.
Nullius addictus judicare in verba magestri.
And I might add: A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi.

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34. ali on May 30, 2008 7:45 AM writes...

Man-made global warming may or may not be real (the vast majority of evidence suggests that it is), but what is absolutely without question is that fossil fuels are a finite resource. They're the best thing we have at the moment, but wouldn't it make a lot of sense to be more careful with how we use the energy. Instead of just wasting it by driving unnecessarily, or heating, cooling or lighting unoccupied buildings (to mention just a couple of the ways in which we throw our energy away) we could give ourselves more time and energy to develop sustainable alternatives. And by a happy coincidence we'd all save money and emissions would be reduced.

I've never heard a coherent argument against reducing pointless energy consumption, but because oil is still so cheap people are still happy to throw it away.

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35. chicopanther on May 30, 2008 12:13 PM writes...

I'm always *amazed* at the folks who rip "organic" farming. "Organic" farming is the way humans have farmed for more than 10,000 years, while "GMO" (i.e., "Frankenfarming") has only been around for 50 years or so. It's not the amount of acres needed to produce food that matters--it's what's IN the food you eat!

GMO farming introduces new proteins into the food chain, also introducing new (and sometimes deadly) allergies to those new proteins. "Scientists" don't really know what will happen when they use GMOs--they want to use us all as unwilling guinea pigs in their experiments. I, for one, refuse to be a guinea pig in their experiments, and will eat as much organic food as I can, thank you very much.

Not to mention that the main reason companies push GMO farming is so they can control the supply of seeds. Witness Monsanto's attempts to push "terminator" seeds on 3rd-world farmers so that the farmers will have to buy new seeds every year from Monsanto (and other companies) instead of being able to save some seeds from their harvest for the next year's planting.

Also, when you eat things like "Roundup ready" soybeans you are eating a high concentration of pesticides/herbicides in the plants. You can't wash it off, the poisons are embedded in the plant's cells. A plant absorbs whatever is in the soil (which is why folks fertilize the soil, BTW). As an experiment, take a piece of celery, stick it in a glass of water, then add food coloring to the water and wait until the coloring spreads throughout the celery. Then take the celery out of the water and try to "wash off" the coloring. You won't be able to. Now imagine that the food coloring is instead a poisonous pesticide that you'd be eating. Bon appetit!

Folks should really research the damage done by GMOs before they go promoting them. It's never been a question of not having enough land to grow enough crops to feed the world--the problem is in distributing the food to where it's needed.

-- chicopanther

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36. Dan on May 30, 2008 12:17 PM writes...

The economics of this are not quite as straightford as saying that 23 trillion dollars in damage will be done by 2100, so that's 250 billion a year in damage. You have to consider the discount rate of money, for one thing. (A trillion dollars in damage 100 years from now has a present value of 7.6 million dollars if compounded at 5% annually.

It gets more complex than that, because small levels of warming (below 2.5 degrees) actually boost the economy. So you'd have to model the present value of future warming damage by considering that for the first 50 years you might actually be gaining money from the warming, then you'd have to pay money back out over the next 50 years. So even if you gained 10 trillion to the economy in the first 50, and then lost 50 trillion in the next 50, the net loss is not 40 trillion dollars. If you invested the 10 trillion at 5%, you could pay for the other 40 trillion with it (maybe, depending on when the damage happens - the situation is rosier if the bulk of it happens in the out years).

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37. RKN on May 30, 2008 12:43 PM writes...

Man-made global warming may or may not be real (the vast majority of evidence suggests that it is), but what is absolutely without question is that fossil fuels are a finite resource.

If they really are "fossil" fuels:

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38. s sommer on May 30, 2008 2:14 PM writes...

Thanks, chicopanther & sili.. Wish all would heed your words.

City folks often seem to be clueless about farming & food production issues. Some do not even know how milk gets out of the cow. The problem with food products IS "politics!"
We need to be very wary of agribusiness and understand its' aims.
The health & well-being of humanity is not their focu$.

I'd rather stop arguing about global warming & get down to cleaning up the planet (hard to argue with that!) and preparing for drought, which is inevitable.

America wastes a ton of everything, including oil & food..

What is so macho about being wasteful? To "seem" rich?

China/India are going to quickly out-pace us in financial resources. If we are going to be able to afford to direct our own futures, we need to get with it QUICK. Our political leaders are hopelessly clueless.. ALL OF THEM.

How do we marshal the brains in our country to tackle our challenges and get real results? Find agreement & get busy, before it is toooo late. We will end up "not in charge" any more.

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39. s sommer on May 30, 2008 2:30 PM writes...

PS: The ocean is becoming acidified because it is absorbing carbon dioxide.. It is so acidic that in places it is dissolving shells right off the backs of clams. Coral is dying. Masses of floating plastic and debris are killing sea life. The acidic ocean waters are approaching Puget Sounds, where I live, threatening our famous oyster beds.
The sea life food chain is collapsing in some places. Our salmon runs are threatened, one of the best fishes to eat on earth.
The west coast has seen sea life starving, already. Once this resource is destroyed, how do we get it back? Do we want to take that chance? Who cares who is right about global warming.. we clearly need to CLEAN THINGS UP.. FAST.

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40. trrll on May 30, 2008 2:52 PM writes...

I can't really take it seriously when people complain that GMO will introduce new and deadly allergens into the food supply. Even if we tried, I think that we'd have a hard time coming up with a food as dangerously allergenic as the peanut. There is nothing about GMO that makes them any more likely to be allergenic than any other organisms, and no particular reason to think that such allergies would be any more difficult to deal with than the many, many allergies people have to foods and pollens from the organisms that we already have.

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41. trrll on May 30, 2008 3:09 PM writes...

Getting back to the topic of chemistry, I wonder what people think would be the appropriate chemical form of the carbon to be sequestered by Dyson's miraculous CO2 eating trees and how they would accomplish it. It would have to be a form that is not likely to be digested by present or future microorganisms back into CO2, so probably not hydrocarbons. Some kind of carbonate salt might work, I suppose. I doubt if we'd want them secreting the stuff into the soil, though--it seems likely that eventually they'd salt up the soil to the point at which the system would back up. So you'd probably want them depositing the stuff in their tissues, and then at some point you'd chop down your carbonate trees and bury them somewhere. Calcite (limestone) might be a choice (at least you'd know that it was safe for the environment). But for calcite you'd need a calcium source. Ammonium carbonate (with engineered nitrogen fixing genes)?

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42. Neal J. King on May 30, 2008 5:54 PM writes...

I have great respect for Freeman Dyson, with whom I actually had an occasion to speak, a few decades ago. However, in this case, I must respectfully disagree.

a) I find the use of net-present-value calculations to estimate harm to be inherently misleading, because of the use of the discount factor. This approach makes sense when the harm that is incurred can actually be compensated by payment: Then you can meaningfully trade-off fixing the harm in a lump-sum payment later vs. small payments over time. But when the harm consists of a dramatic reduction in biodiversity, how do you quantify this harm? And even if you could do that, what would you do with all the money you had saved (by not preventing the GW from going to extreme levels): What store do you go to buy extinct species?

b) Likewise, contrasting the approach of a carbon tax to that of technological change also misses the mark: The point of a carbon tax is NOT to raise money, but to create an obvious and visible economic incentive to reduce production of carbon-dioxide, BEFORE the harm has occurred. This incentive will generate a very human desire to avoid these taxes, by developing technologies that do not add to GW. Thus, the direction of a carbon tax is not contradictory or alternative to technological development, but rather leads to it.

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43. Neal J. King on May 30, 2008 5:55 PM writes...

I have great respect for Freeman Dyson, with whom I actually had an occasion to speak, a few decades ago. However, in this case, I must respectfully disagree.

a) I find the use of net-present-value calculations to estimate harm to be inherently misleading, because of the use of the discount factor. This approach makes sense when the harm that is incurred can actually be compensated by payment: Then you can meaningfully trade-off fixing the harm in a lump-sum payment later vs. small payments over time. But when the harm consists of a dramatic reduction in biodiversity, how do you quantify this harm? And even if you could do that, what would you do with all the money you had saved (by not taking spending on the steps that would have prevented the GW from going to extreme levels): What store do you go to, to buy extinct species?

b) Likewise, contrasting the approach of a carbon tax to that of technological development also misses the mark: The point of a carbon tax is NOT to raise money, but to create an obvious and visible economic incentive to reduce production of carbon-dioxide, BEFORE the harm has occurred. This incentive will generate a very human desire to avoid these taxes, by developing technologies that do not add to GW. Thus, the direction of a carbon tax is not contradictory or alternative to technological development, but rather leads to it.

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44. John D on May 30, 2008 7:48 PM writes...

I'm somewhat of an agnostic on the whole "Global Warming" thing. I know that the climate is changing but then, it has always changed.

However, if it is a problem, and a lot of people seem to think it is, let's have a plan. One with measurements and milestones so that we can gauge whether we are achieving anything or just increasing the bank accounts of a few believers.

Give me a completion date when we will have rolled back the warming, restored the ice caps and glaciers, and insured that polar bears will still be able to fly south for the winter.

But, and this is an enormous 'but' I am concerned with the kneejerk authoritarianism that is assumed in every solution I have heard. It is always something that is going to be imposed on us by our remote betters. Some of whom live in luxurious homes on acres of land and fly around to make speeches about their commitment to solving "Global Warming".

Until you do that, I can't support the cause. Call me a denier if it pleases you. I've been called worse, and in more languages than you probably knew existed. Sticks and stones and all that.

But I am with Haval, I have no intention of trading my freedom for your beliefs.

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45. syn on May 31, 2008 7:56 AM writes...

"I'm always *amazed* at the folks who rip "organic" farming. "Organic" farming is the way humans have farmed for more than 10,000 years, while "GMO" (i.e., "Frankenfarming") has only been around for 50 years or so. It's not the amount of acres needed to produce food that matters--it's what's IN the food you eat!"

I can't claim to be as smart as the Scientific people however, I have noticed that people are living far longer than they were fifty years ago; maybe the reason is in the food they eat?

Secondly, one of the things which bother me about the freakazoid reaction to 'fossil-fuels are THE cause of Glowball Warming' is that environmentals are perfectly willing to plow under the beautiful Great Prairies to grow fuel for cars yet react like Darwin's Apes in a Cage at the concept of sticking a hole in the ground in order to extract fossil fuels located in an area as vast and barren as the Antarctic.

The ideas coming from environmentals are about as sane as the 'billion new-agey mercury bulbs in our landfills'

It's like this hypochrondriatic nation of freakazoids believing they live forever if they just did the right whatever.

In the quest to be perfect all that Darwin's Apes are doing is bringing wreak and ruin to the lives of otherwise commonsense people.

I don't know much about the IDers however I do know that this Glowball Warming hysteria has ruined the field of Science by turning Science into a Religion.

It is a fect that Mother Nature is ruthless and will kill without remorse; it is rather arrogant to believe that we mere mortals should save her from ourselves.

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46. SRC on May 31, 2008 2:17 PM writes...

s sommer, re the acidity of the ocean, please read up on "buffers."

And take your meds. Some folks went to a lot of trouble to synthesize them, and not to put too fine a point on it, it's not like they're unneeded.

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47. Rick on May 31, 2008 3:05 PM writes...

I just wanted to make a comment along the lines of the above remarks on "error bars" and "discount rates".

What I consider fundamentally flawed about these analyses are that they produce a single number or at best a number with a range. The uncertainties involved are too deep for such an approach.

Scenario planning (see href="") is reasonably well developed approach for this type of analysis, primarily because it helps you think through a set of possibilities in contrast to "developing a number" which helps you think through one possibility -- probably with higher precision than is realistic.

The approach itself is admittedly more management than science oriented, but it serves to bolster the science rather than replace it.

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48. ast on May 31, 2008 4:05 PM writes...

From the first time I heard about global warming, two things were obvious: 1. Environmentalists were going to hype it, because they raise money through fear; and 2. To try to undo the industrial revolution is stupid, economically and politically.
The compliant media and politicians who receive donations from environmental hard-liners have kept people from a real understanding of the situation, but it can't last forever. If we elect the new Jimmy Carter (Barack Obama) he won't make it to a second term either, because there's only so much you can blame on the oil companies. At some point the government must pass an energy policy that allows our own resources to be developed, not only because they can provide relief from high world prices, but because we are pouring money into unstable parts of the world that are hostile to freedom and progress.

In a perfect market with perfect transparency, Americans would overwhelmingly support offshore drilling, exploration in ANWR and production of oil from oil shale in western states. But they aren't being told the whole story by our media, and they are being lead to believe overly optimistic stories about alternative energy. We all know they're out there, but nobody tells us how we would have to change our lives to use them, especially in terms of costs of electric power, transportation and home heating. A pilot project is one thing, but weaning the nation from oil is another one that few of us grasp.

I don't see either of our major parties confronting in the U.S. the truth on these issues. You don't have to be an economist to understand that people are going to resist being told they have to make themselves less comfortable and that third world countries are not going to be content with their status while we continue to enjoy the benefits of having developed our own resources.

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49. Nick K on June 1, 2008 9:28 AM writes...

Chicopanther: If GM is so destructive, where is the evidencs? GM soya has been grown for nearly two decades in the US, and there hasn't been an ecological disaster nor an epidemic of human disease, to my knowledge. You state that "Organic" methods were the rule for millenia - perfectly true, but so were malnutrition and hunger. You failed to address my point about the need for more land in organic agriculture. Perhaps you could do this. Why are China and India converting their rice production to GM so rapidly? Monsanto isn't holding a gun to their heads. Finally, to those who think there's no shortage of staples, have you looked at the price of wheat and rice lately?

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50. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on June 1, 2008 10:00 AM writes...

It's rare when the quality of scientific discourse is so poor on this blog - too bad.

As far a the form sequestered carbon would take, I read somewhere that charcoal would last a LONG time buried in the soil. Not my area of expertise, but it's not that hard to make.

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51. Jamie on June 1, 2008 11:43 AM writes...

SRC, you think that merely pointing out the existence of buffers means that acidification of the oceans is impossible in principle... and that THEY are the one who needs to take their meds? jesus h tapdancing christ. reading, get some. i though the right wing denialism couldn't get any worse than LITERALLY accusing climate scientists of being Nazis, but you got pretty close with that ignorant comment.

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52. jamie on June 1, 2008 11:52 AM writes...

Oh, and I do find it funny how many people mention the vast profits of international corporations like Greenpeace made from speeches etc, while there has been absolutely not a word breathed in the entire thread so far about any idea that there might possibly be a tiny amount of money to be made from claiming AGW is not happening.

I mean, I just can't see any possible way someone could profit from telling people to consume as many of their goods as they want, and not to recycle or stop using so much oil! It's not like these companies or the US government have paid a few scientists large sums of money to shill against the idea of AGW or doctored press releases, after all.

Oh, and the fact that some people seem to be all but sacrificing goats to the invisible hand of voodoo economics while complaining about AGW being a "religion". But someone thankfully already pointed that out.

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53. McPostdoc on June 1, 2008 4:00 PM writes...

Chris (#29): Also, the worlds affordably-acessible uranium deposits are finite, with many of the richest reserves being in the hands of governments that are hostile to western interests - so nuclear, like fossil fuel will have a messy geopolitical dimension.

The top two countries in terms of uranium reserves, at mining costs of $80/kg, are Canada and Australia (who account for 40% of proven reserves at that mining cost). Elsewhere in the top 10 are some slightly more questionable countries (a lot of former Soviet -stans in that list), but the politics of uranium is a whole lot less twisted than that of oil.

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54. trrll on June 1, 2008 4:23 PM writes...

SRC, I'm interested in hearing more about your ideas regarding ocean buffers. What specific chemical compounds do you have in mind as contributing to the buffering capacity of the ocean? What are their concentrations and pKa's?

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55. milkshake on June 1, 2008 9:39 PM writes...

troll: he has mentioned buffers because he thought you should learn about the Henderson-Hasselbach equation. Apparent pKA value of "bicarbonic acid" aka CO2 solution in water is about 6.35. Its a very simple math, I suggest that you try it for diffenrent ratios of bicarbonate/CO2 in seawater, to see how much it would have to change to bring about a significant acidification, say 0.05 or 0.1 pH unit.

The problem with independent experts from Greenpeace and others is that they are neither independent nor experts. I remember them from 15 years ago blocking truck border crossings between Czech republic and Austria and running loud picket lines in Prague: Austria phased out nuclear powerplants entirely and their government in conjunction with Green wanted Czechs to do the same - rather than complete the new Temelin powerplant about 40 miles from the Austria border. Their argument was that "It was built with Chernobyl technology" (a complete lie) and their slogan was "Hiroshima bomb with smokestacks" and "Better be active than radioactive".

The irony is, with Temelin 2000 MW on the grid, a number of brown-coal burning powerplants (supplied by lignite strip-mining that has been turning huge areas of northern Bohemia into a moonscape) could be shut down. Together with the exhaust desulfuration on the remainig coal powerplants and the demise of some heavy industries like ironmills, the air quality in Central Europe improved beyond belief - there used to be tens of thousans people dying from smog-related ailments, and kids choking with asthma brought about by the corrosive fog.
(Did I mention that the anti-Temelin pressure group named itself "South Czech Mothers?)

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56. Fred on June 1, 2008 11:21 PM writes...

"And I think the best way to preserve wild areas and biodiversity is to have more free trade and economic development, not to slow it down."

Free trade is not free. It is a race to the bottom where countries which have no environmental policy or freedoms or worker rights come out on top. You never studied history obviously. Your entire field has been outsourced and you still don't get it.

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57. Devices R Us on June 2, 2008 11:42 AM writes...

While the CO2 bicarbonate buffer system suggests pH should be 6.something, that isn't the pH region that is worrisome. Surface pH in California waters is now about 8.15 or so down a bit from 50 years ago 8.18 or so. The destruction of coral is real and there was a neat paper in Nature a few months ago showing that some coral species could change their local environment.

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58. milkshake on June 2, 2008 12:17 PM writes...

I was not implying pH should be 6.3, I know oceans are actually mildly alcaline. The point it, its not linear dependence, twice CO2 wont give you twice the acidity. You have the variable term in the equation which has log of the ratio between dissolved bicarbonate and CO2 and so this ratio has to change dramatically even for a small change in pH. Buffers buffering capacity of course decreases as you move further away from pKA but still, the oceans are quite resistant to CO2-induced acidification. (If we get significant global warming it will help too because warmer ocean = lower CO2 solubility).

Oceans are actually the likely source of delayed CO2 release because of they are warming up. I would worry more about direct temperature effect on marine life rather than the effect og increased solubility of calcium carbonate in CO2-enriched water.

You know, there is a native judgement error called "confirmational bias" - which is a fancy way of saying that a man is looking harder for facts that seem to confirm his assumption. Scientists should be trained to be on watchout against it but I think this has not been the case in political enviromentalism

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59. Jamie on June 3, 2008 11:26 AM writes...

You may worry more about direct temperature effects, but, uh, the Royal Society disagrees.

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60. Mr. Atoz on June 3, 2008 4:44 PM writes...

Here are my questions:

In 1970, when environmentalists were making predictions of man-made global cooling and the threat of an ice age and millions starving, what kind of government policy should we have undertake to prevent such a calamity?

When Gore's mentor Paul Ehrlich predicted that England would not exist in the year 2000, what should the British parliament have taken in 1970 to prevent this dire outcome?

In 1939, when the Dept. of interior warned we only had oil supplies for another 13 years, what actions should Roosevelt have taken?

And on and on. Read your history and see global warming is just the latest craze in human emotion. Water vapor is still the most abundant green house gas by far.

But here is the next real threat we refuse to acknowledge:

UN secretary Ban Ki-Moon said he found the quickening pace of global warming very frightening.

He did not say if he found the quickening pace of Iran's nuclear bomb program very frightening or what he is doing about it.

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61. RKN on June 4, 2008 5:15 PM writes...

Mr. Atoz's comments reminded me that a number of government men argued that ANWR should not be opened because, gee, it would take ten years before the first drop of any oil found there would make it to the American market. That argument was first raised, guess when - about ten years ago.

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62. Jordan on June 6, 2008 8:48 AM writes...

My issue with the vast over-consumption of energy is not necessarily global warming, but "pollution" on a more general level. Soot and smog in major cities aren't as bad as they were in earlier eras, but they're still disturbing. Cleaner air would be a very good thing.

Also worthy to remember is that the USA's principal source of oil is actually the province of Alberta, Canada, where oil is mined in open "oil-sands" pits that take an enormous amount of energy to deal with and leave vast "tailings ponds" of contaminated water (a flock of ducks recently landed in one of these and washed up dead on the shore the next day). Not a very nice way to get your energy.

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