Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Fitting Climate in our Time

A few weeks ago Janet and I saw "An Inconvenient Truth", Al Gore's movie about global warming, at the E street cinema. The movie is the first I have seen that is adapted not from a book, a play or a television series, but from a slide show! It was very well done, and did not stretch the truth in ways that I feared it might. For example, while "warming can be predicted accurately based on knowledge of how Earth responded to similar levels of greenhouse gases in the past" (Hansen, see below) it is not at all clear how that warming will affect some downstream climate events such as hurricane intensity and ocean currents. To his credit, Gore was careful to refer to these risks (which are certainly serious) without claiming them as likely to the same degree. He emphasized sea level rises, which are certainly going to happen, although the magnitude of this effect is likewise unclear.

Today I am reading Jim Hansen in the New York Review of Books ("The Threat to the Planet"). He is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "His opinions are expressed [there], he writes, 'as personal views under the protection of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.'" It's outrageous that our Federal agencies are not permitted to draw logical conclusions from the data they generate. Jim Hansen caught my attention years ago when a report of his was altered, leaving the appearance that his position was more moderate than it truly was. He is a frequent target of liars for hire, (e.g. a recent statement by liar for hire, Patrick J. Michaels).

One particularly apt quotation in the film was from Winston Churchill (in 1936), regarding the need to act in the face of imminent danger from Hitler's Germany. I suspect that history will judge George W. Bush and the American Petroleum Institute a bit more harshly than Chamberlain, who opposed such action. Although Chamberlain was clearly wrong, it is likely that he genuinely believed that he could achieve peace, and he had broad support. I suspect that those who deny global warming are a bit more like the tobacco executives who don't want their own children smoking. They know in their heart of hearts that what they are doing is bad for the country and for future generations. They may not agree that their denial is actually putting the U.S. in an ever-weaker competitive position, but they certainly understand that they are lying to the public and hurting the nation and the world in exchange for short-term financial gain. Chamberlain is heroic in comparison, but the analogy is certainly apt. Gore certainly lacks Churchill's charisma, but he may have found a way of sounding an alarm nonetheless. Hansen's article ends with this: "It makes one wonder if the American public has not been deceived by the distorted images of him that have been presented by the press and television. Perhaps the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it."

There are reasons to be optimistic. Since I last wrote on this topic (Why boycott Exxon? Note to the oil industry: we might trust you if you stopped lying!) it has become even clearer that some oil companies, including Shell and BP (see the New York Times, "A Refinery Clears the Air to Grow Roses"), are no longer denying the science of global warming. Similarly, the attainability of greater fuel efficiency seems clear, and the example of successful limits on CFC emissions sets a precedent for success in areas like this. Finally, although we all want to find natural solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ways of taking active steps to cool the planet will be increasingly considered (see the New York Times, The Energy Challenge | Exotic Visions: How to Cool a Planet (Maybe)).

Note: the title refer's to Chamberlain's speech, "Peace in our Time."

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