Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Al Quixote

The world is getting warmer. Probably. It's difficult to verify that empirically since we are talking about fractions of a degree and measuring the very accurate information we can assimilate today against a set of data that was eyeballed and closely estimated in decades past. But the world probably is getting warmer.

And we as a race are trying to stop that from happening. With an Emmy and a Nobel Prize to his credit, Al Gore has become the personification of the world's efforts to educate everyone and push for changes aimed at stopping global warming.

But let's stop to consider something for a moment. This is not the first time in the history of the Earth that the globe has warmed. In the days before factories and pollution, in the days of the dinosaurs, the world was warm. Very warm. Then it cooled - severely - then warmed again. In fact, I can recall many scientists in the 70's predicting the world was headed for another Ice Age. And that prediction came from the same sets of data comparisons we use today that tell us the climate is becoming hotter, not colder.

The chart at right from www.scotese.com shows the cycle of heating and cooling the Earth has routinely followed throughout its history. It places us near the bottom of a cool trough that was preceded by a warm spell and shows our climate taking another upturn in temperatures as the cycle continues.

So the world does seem to be getting warmer and the climate does appear to be changing. Did pollution, carbon gasses and a hole in the ozone layer cause all this warming? For certain, none of that helped. Tons of gasses and particles spewed into the atmosphere just can't be a good thing. But the world was warming before all that happened and it will continue to warm even if we stop all pollution from now on.

It's just the way the Earth works.

Climate change, global warming, whatever moniker we want to put on it, I'm not sure we can stop it any more than we can stop the rain from falling. As humans, we tend to rush in and fix what we perceive is wrong without stopping to consider that there may be worse consequences to our actions and more terrible outcomes if we make the repair.

For example, a recent suggestion by some scientists was to fill the upper layers of the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to simulate conditions caused by massive volcanic eruptions. At times in the past, major volcanic eruptions produced clouds of sulfur dioxide that acted as an insulator and cooled the Earth. But one can imagine all the things that could go wrong if we try to do the same thing, not to mention filling the air with toxic chemicals. Isn't that what we are trying to avoid?

Another example is a rush to build an automobile powered by hydrogen. Sounds like a good idea since we could avoid burning fossil fuels. Problem is, it takes so much energy to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen that we actually burn more fossil fuels (coal fired generators to make the electricity to separate out hydrogen) than the gasoline engine we are trying to replace.

Should we cut back on carbon emissions and all the monoxides, dioxides, acid and junk we pour into the air we count on to survive? Absolutely. But we may just be jousting at windmills if we think we have the ability to stop the Earth from going about its business.

Would it not be more prudent for us to put our energies into discovering how we as a race will adapt to a warmer world than in how we can stop it from happening in the first place? That might be a better use of time, resources, and Mr. Gore's sizable clout than trying to stop the rain.