Monty Python and Global Warming
Am I the only one who finds the current saga of an icebound global warming research ship in Antarctica, comically similar to Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail? As I watched a line of volunteer environmentalists trudging between their marooned ship and an evacuation helicopter, it reminded me of King Arthur’s horseless column prodding onward in the British comedy classic. By hook or crook today’s environmentalists are going to prove that global warming is man’s fault even if record cold weather gets in their way. The ultimate irony is that forty short years ago many of this same gang were clucking and flapping their wings over global cooling. Chicken Little is alive and well.
Before my ultraconservative friends conclude that I’m firmly in their camp let me state that, like 97% of the technical community of academic scientists and practicing engineers, I believe man’s activities DO contribute to global warming. However, like most of that same community, I believe these activities are only a minor component to global climate change. Mother Nature is the lead player in this saga that has turned into a skunk squirting contest.
The latest round in the global climate change debate was triggered in 1988 during U.S. Senate hearings when NASA scientist James Hansen testified: " The greenhouse effect is changing the climate now!" He predicted with 99 percent certainty that 1988 would be the warmest year on record. Wrong! Unfortunately, Dr Hanson’s computer model did not consider sea temperature including the phenomenon called El Nino that had occurred 19 times in the previous 102 years. Dr Hanson’s alarming prediction never materialized but it still became the rallying cry of the radical environmental movement and the liberal
career politicians in congress who do their bidding.
Ironically, I had experienced a similar over-dependence on computer modeling in the mid 70’s while engaged in energy conservation research. Computer programs were being touted as the greatest thing since bottled beer in predicting annual energy consumption in building design. I had been retained by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to review design plans of buildings to be constructed and owned by various State agencies. The engineer of record for a large building project submitted a computer generated set of heat loss calculations the size of a telephone directory. Reviewing his computer program was laborious and time consuming but despite my concerted effort I could not identify a mysterious factor included in his program sheet. When asked to explain this "mystery
factor" his answer was jaw dropping: "That’s my fudge factor Lefty. It brings the annual energy consumption estimate into line with historical results for similar buildings. It took a lot of work to produce this program but it sure impresses these government bureaucrats who control the purse strings."
Two things to be learned from this true but sad tale: First, any computer program must stand the Gi-Go test. If all variables are not taken into account, no matter how complex the program, it results in: Garbage in-Garbage out. Second, when in doubt use the KISS principal: Keep It Simple Stupid! Empirical evidence trumps computer modeling every time. Unfortunately many of the same shenanigans have occurred more recently in the global warming debate.
In her twenty five year old environmental common sense classic,"Trashing The Planet", the late Dixie Lee Ray pointed out the relative contributions of man-made vs natural green house gas emissions. For instance, the largest source of greenhouse gases is probably termites, whose digestive activities are responsible for about 50 billion tons of CO2 and methane emissions annually. When Dr Ray appealed for a pragmatic approach to energy use in the United States, those termite emissions were about 10 times more than the burning of fossil fuels. The forces of nature, understood and still mysterious,
contribute far more to the effects of global climate change than man’s activities.
Complicating the issue are countries like China and India with large increases in fossil
fuel consumption. These countries want no part of any treaty that curtails fossil fuel use in the development of their rapidly growing industrial base. They welcome with open arms any industry willing to expand abroad. We should beware of unrealistic environmental regulations that trigger the "Law of Unintended Consequences" and drive industry abroad resulting in a net increase in green house gases globally. Labor costs are only one reason U.S. industries expand abroad. Existing and pending government regulations and their impact on production costs are also important to corporate decision makers. These decisions include curtailment, expansion, or exporting of industrial
activities. Today, retaining and expanding employment in the private sector is emerging as the best opportunity to avoid the national debt bomb that is about to explode in our face. Let’s not retard employment growth with misplaced good intentions.
A final piece of advice for the two camps engaged in the global warming debate: To my well intentioned liberal friends who get emotional when engaged in environmental issues— "Take a cold shower." It does wonders to calm down matters of the heart. To my conservative friends— "Put a cork in it." Yelling at folks with good intentions is counter productive to a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem.
Retired Consulting Engineer and Farmer