Saturday, March 17, 2007

Pasturing the Horses

I am very happy for Al Gore. He got an Academy Award for his documentary on global warming, and he is also up for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The last person to actually get that kind of trifecta of honors was Charles C. Dawes who was, at various times in his life, a Vice President, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the coauthor of a Top Twenty song ("It's All in the Game") recorded by three generations of big-time musicians.

The fact that no one remembers who Charles C. Dawes is today tells you a little about the transitory nature of fame. Party on Al -- the champagne does not flow forever.

I have written about Al Gore's Academy Award winning-movie, An Incovenient Truth, before. That piece stands on its own, but there is a bit more to say now that we are in the post-Academy Award period. You see, Al Gore's movie has done its jobs very well. Perhaps a little too well.

At the very beginning of the book version of the movie, Al Gore devotes an entire page to a Mark Twain quote:

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

It's a good quote, and generally true, (though it may be from Artemus Ward, not Mark Twain).

What's ironic about that quote is that Al Gore's movie now has everyone so darned sure about global warning that we seem to have swung completely to the other side.

I mention this because a few weeks ago I had a generally lucid person screaming at me about global warming -- actually red faced and shouting -- simply because I shrugged my shoulders and said "could be" and did not seem all that concerned about his pronouncements about the world's impending disaster. This person was freaking out because I was not freaking out.

The truth is that scientists are not very good at explaining simple systems, much less very large and complex ones. Scientists are getting better at collecting data, but they are not very good at interpreting it, and in the case of climate, they have very poor historical data and almost no understanding of how such complex global systems as volcanic action, oceanic flora, the biological sources of greenhouse gases, solar flares, geologic wobble, water vapor, and particulate matter all inter-relate. Just 30 years ago, some of the very same scientists now telling us we are going to die from heat stroke were telling us we were going to die from the cold.

This is not to say that today's scientists know nothing, or that global warming is a bunch of hooey. In fact, global warming may be the most important issue of our time.

Or not.

While I remain an agnostic, I am quite certain of one thing: It is much better to be warned very early about a massive global problem that may end up fading away, than it is to be warned very late about a massive global problem that escalates and ends up killing us all because we did not have time to act.

A stitch in time saves nine, etc.

And so, I am very happy that so many people are paying attention to gobal warming. I am quite content that so much measuring and modeling is going on.

I believe in science.

But please, don't expect me to freak out based on current data and theories.

One reason I am not freaking out is that I am dubious about some of the basic suppositions that underlie much of the hysteria. For example, does anyone in the world really think we will be using the internal combustion engine 100 years from now?

One hundred and thirty years ago, no one had ever heard of a car or an internal combustion engine. Back then, if you had said that New York City would have a population of 8 million, people would have said: "Impossible! Where will we pasture all the horses?"

We now live in a similar era -- a time of significant technological shift. It is still too early to say whether the cars of the future will be powered by hydrogen or electricity generated by pebble-bed nuclear reactors or something entirely different, but I think it is not too early to say that they will not be powered by oil. We are running out of oil too fast, and the $500 billion and the 300,000 deaths already spent in the war in Iraq is too high a price for not making a change.

As for using coal and oil for heating and cooling, that era is also coming to a close. I am 48 years old, and I have no doubt that the last buildings I work and live in will not be warmed or cooled by fossil fuels, but by off-the-grid solar-driven geologic heat pumps or something even more economical. This is not fantasy -- the techology exists right now.

And so, when Al Gore and others predict that our coastal cities will lie under 20 feet of water because of our continued use of fossil fuels, I do not buy the conclusion because I do not buy the premise. He is like a man, in 1900, wondering where we will pasture all the horses in 1950. Of course by then we were not pasturing horses, we were turning them into dog food.

But that, as they say, is another story.

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