When Scientists Argue Against Anthropogenic Global Warming

We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
—Native American proverb

Recently a blog I follow addressed concerns about the oil sands in Alberta, and pointed out the fact that the European Union may soon declare Canada’s source of fossil fuels as “highly polluting.” This comes down to an important question we face in society: do we as citizens and governments make decisions based on what’s best for the economy of today, or what’s best for the environment of tomorrow.

A supporter of continuing on with business-as-usual made the comment that fossil fuels are safe and clean, and that if we ignore this important energy source we would put millions of people at risk of harm unnecessarily. A documentary that is available on Youtube was referenced (known as the Svensmark documentary—you can find it here) which helps to disprove the “facts” that climate scientists have been claiming for years, trying to illustrate that carbon dioxide levels follow climate change and not the other way around.

The Svensmark documentary may be well produced, raise provocative food-for-thought, and have been done by a scientist, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct. The documentarian’s theories are controversial at best, and there are many more climate scientists who disagree with his views than agree with them.

The basic problem is that climate change is complex. There are a number of factors that play a part in it. Over the long term, orbital forcings (subtle changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun) will have an impact. Over shorter terms, fluctuations in solar irradiance (the sun’s overall energy output), levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, volcanic activity, and the El-Nino southern oscillation all play a part.

When any one of these is affected, global temperatures change. A good example of that is the recent solar minimum we experienced with the last sunspot cycle, leading to a lack of increase in global temperatures despite increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, what global warming skeptics often refer to as proof that our emissions aren’t the culprit.

I’m still amazed that some people will look to any possible explanation to write off our own responsibility as a species in contributing to the problem. It’s hard to ignore the addition of 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by our species every year, and not think it can have an impact when carbon dioxide is a known greenhouse gas, something that even the strongest of skeptics can’t deny because it’s basic physics and an indisputable fact.

Indeed, I acknowledge that many people will be affected adversely if we stop using oil completely and abruptly—mostly those who profit by industries affiliated with fossil fuels—but if efforts could be put into using renewables more and fossil fuels less, it would certainly make a difference. Since fossil fuels are going to run out eventually—they are not a renewable energy source despite what Republican congressional candidate Jesse Kelly claims—the need for alternative energy sources is something our planet will ultimately face anyway. I’d just like to see us start making a transition now instead of waiting until we face two serious crises: the devastation from global warming and the absence of fossil fuels because they’ve been used up completely.

Will Renewable Sources of Energy Become Affordable?

In the present economic environment, most who opt to purchase renewable sources of energy—solar, wind, or geoexchange—do so because they believe in the importance of doing the right thing, they are financially capable of the more expensive but greener energy sources, and they’re also aware of these green options and agree that purchasing them is worthwhile.

But will renewables always remain so costly? Most experts don’t think so. As one example, electricity costs from onshore wind turbines are expected to drop by 12% over the next five years, reaching parity with conventional fossil fuels. Reasons for the decrease in cost include lower-cost equipment and gains in output efficiency, according to research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

I have no doubt that in coming years, as the referenced study concludes, green energy will become more affordable and reach parity, ultimately becoming even cheaper than conventional fossil fuels. The reasons are simple:

a) developing technologies always decrease in cost with time
b) fossil fuels are in finite supply, and as we have to turn to ever more challenging sources—offshore drilling and the Alberta oil sands in particular—energy from these sources are going to cost more and more.

I cannot wait for the day when people will be able to switch to greener sources of energy because they are the most affordable option. Since the pocketbook usually wins over doing the right thing, it can’t happen soon enough for my liking.

 

Rick Santorum and President Obama’s “Phony Theology”

Last weekend, Rick Santorum expressed some interesting views on CBS’s television news program “Face the Nation.” During the interview he pointed out to host Bob Shieffer that President Obama follows some views based on science, what Santorum referred to as a “phoney theology” because it’s not based on the Bible. The link to an article including a video of the interview in its entirety is here if you’d like to see it.

Believing what science helps to prove should never be considered a “theology,” and anyone who wants to “debate” global warming, as Santorum refers to it, might as well debate whether the Earth is flat or round, or whether it orbits the sun or vice versa.

One of the most interesting ironies about Rick Santorum and any others who subscribe to his ideologies is that the fossil fuels they worship as gifts from God, which therefore can do no harm, come from fossilized life-forms, both plants and animals, that existed millions of years ago. That very fact flies in the face of the many staunch Republicans who believe Earth’s creation took place only a few thousand years ago.

If this planet is indeed a gift from God, wouldn’t it make more sense that He would want us as stewards of this world to take proper care of it? Fossil fuels aren’t manna from heaven, and until people can see this planet of ours in its proper context—as something we need to preserve for the generations to come while we use it for our own purposes—then we’re truly on the road to Hell.

I would hope that future political leaders in the US as well as all over the world would have at least a reasonable appreciation of science. In the world of today, the ideology of 2000 years ago can’t do it alone.

Do We Really Need Another Book on Global Warming?

All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is opposed. Third it is accepted as being self evident.” —Arthur Schopenhauer

A question I’m often asked by the media when I’m interviewed about my book is the title of this post: Do we really need another book on global warming? Journalists refer to the many books that can be found in stores or on the internet, and mention former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. David Suzuki by name, and wonder whether I have anything further to add to what’s already been said on the subject.

I have great respect for both Mr. Gore and Dr. Suzuki, and they have helped educate and inspire me in my pursuit to understand the climate crisis fully. But I don’t believe I’m in the majority here. Most people I encounter seem either unconvinced and skeptical, or they believe there’s a problem but aren’t motivated to do very much about it. When I ask around to those who fall into the unconvinced and skeptical category, sometimes the answer comes back that they don’t completely trust a former politician in the case of Mr. Gore, or a liberal-minded scientist with a PhD in the case of Dr. Suzuki. The concern they express is that these individuals have a hidden agenda, and that filters are needed to properly interpret what they have to say. It disappoints me to hear such responses because I believe these men to be honest in their motives, and that they are simply trying to open people’s eyes to the situation our planet is facing.

My attitude about having added another book on global warming to the shelves is simple, and I can best explain it by way of analogy. Many of my patients are smokers who would love to quit if they could. There are many methods they can use if they want to try: quitting cold turkey, acupuncture, hypnosis, and laser therapy are all available options. Then there are the medications they can take, such as nicotine supplements (patch, gum, lozenge, etc…), Wellbutrin, and Champix (Chantix in the US). Yet despite so many options, most smokers are unsuccessful in their attempts to quit and stay quit. If the vast majority who attempted to quit were successful, I would argue that another method to help smokers end their addiction would be unnecessary. But since most available methods aren’t successful, I’ll gladly welcome the next new method that comes along, and I’d never suggest that we don’t need it simply because of the lack of success we’ve achieved thus far.

I apply that same line of thinking to my having written another book on the climate crisis. If the majority of people in the world believed that the problems our planet is facing are real, and especially what problems it will be facing in the generations to come, and were all making major efforts to help minimize their emissions, then I would argue another book on the subject isn’t necessary. But that’s not the case. We need as many methods as possible to educate the public on this very important issue that we’re all facing. Ignoring the facts won’t make the problem go away. Education and understanding are the keys to reaching solutions.

If some people aren’t going to be convinced by former Mr. Gore because he was a politician, or because he’s a member of one particular political party instead of another—even though he has already won a Nobel Peace Prize honouring his efforts—that can’t be helped. And if others can’t be convinced by what Dr. Suzuki has to say, even though he has dedicated decades to environmental issues and to educating the public about them, what can be done to change that? If you mistrust someone because of a hidden agenda, whether real or perceived, it’s very difficult to eliminate that lack of trust from the equation.

The book I wrote, “Comprehending the Climate Crisis,” speaks to a different demographic. I wrote the book I wish I could have read first when I started to dedicate serious effort to understanding the problem. My book is written for people who are open to learning the facts, who want to understand the whole picture in its context and not only listen to the brief soundbites they hear from the media on a daily basis. It’s written for the average citizen who doesn’t necessarily know all of the pertinent science but wants to understand the problem more thoroughly. Obviously my method of education won’t appeal to everyone just like Mr. Gore’s and Dr. Suzuki’s methods don’t appeal to everyone, but I believe that every little bit helps, and the more people who become educated on the facts surrounding global warming and the climate crisis, the more people who will actually begin to do something about it.

I look forward to the day when another book on the climate crisis will truly be redundant because it will be preaching to a vast choir of people making a difference. But until that day comes, if some people out there won’t listen to the politician or the PhD, perhaps they’ll listen to the doctor.

My Prescription for the Climate Crisis

“Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” —Roger Revelle

Prescription PadAs a cardiologist, I write a number of prescriptions every day. We have so many medications at our disposal which help blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes that sometimes it feels like I’m getting writer’s cramp by the end of a long day at the office. And although some people may describe us physicians as nothing more than pill-pushers, when it comes to cardiovascular medicine these medications are vitally important. We have so many clinical trials that have proven these treatments make a big difference to most patients, usually leading to less death and disease in the long run. Of course, this requires that patients fill the prescriptions and take them as directed. Some patients will benefit, some will suffer adverse effects, and some will have a neutral effect overall, but when treating populations at large, this is the right thing to do.

Applying the concept of a prescription for the climate crisis is a lot more difficult than for coronary artery disease. As Roger Revelle’s words outline, we only go through this experiment once, so I don’t have the benefit of a clinical trial to show that the changes I advocate are definitely the right ones. Also, with more than 7 billion people on the planet, it’s going to be tough to get even a healthy minority to adopt the many recommendations available for change. Compliance—the adherence to the recommendations—is guaranteed to be poor.

But does the lack of a clinical trial mean we shouldn’t try? I don’t think so. Most branches of medicine don’t have diseases with such high prevalence as heart disease and cancer so they don’t have clinical trials available to answer the important questions of how best to treat. We extrapolate all the time to apply what we think is best given the information we have at hand. This is the art of medicine.

If we want to apply the best evidence to the climate crisis, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since they’re at the root of the problem. With that in mind, here are some prescriptions for us to consider:

  1. For individuals and families:
    Reduce your carbon footprint. There are a number of things that can help you to accomplish that and it’s not hard to find a list of them. Chapter 6 in my book is dedicated to it; this very blog has two earlier posts that provide some easy changes you can consider around the house. Things like green electricity and natural gas from Bullfrog Power, purchasing carbon offsets, having home audits to improve energy efficiency, and buying local foods all make a difference, especially if everyone adopts these changes.
  2. For businesses:
    Give consumers greener options and make it attractive to them to consider. In Atlantic Canada a few years ago, Loblaws started to charge a small five cent surcharge per plastic bag for groceries, a move meant to encourage people to bring in their own. Instead, customers started to go to the competition where there was no surcharge. Rather than penalizing people to make them change, reward them instead. If customers who brought in their own bags were to receive some sort of benefit, perhaps a small discount, then others would start to follow. It’s best if doing the right thing isn’t painful on the pocketbook.
  3. For governments:
    A) Make it easier for citizens to go green. Give them substantial subsidies when they make green choices such as upgrading old furnaces, having home audits, purchasing solar panels, using geoexchange, and purchasing hybrid or electric vehicles. Most such changes are pretty costly and the more affordable they are, the easier it is for people to make them.
    B) Start investing in renewable sources of energy. Instead of putting so much effort into finding fossil fuels which are steadily becoming tougher to access (e.g. Alberta’s oil sands, offshore drilling), invest time and money into developing cheaper renewables such as solar and wind. Any technology becomes less costly the more it’s developed. If the same effort that was used to put men on the moon in less than one decade nearly fifty years ago was applied to the climate crisis, we’d go a long way toward solving this problem.
    C) The governments of the world need to make sure that measures which help curb the trend of an increasing global population are taken. Most of the world’s seven billion people either live in first world standards or aspire too, and that requires energy. Improved education, equal rights for women, and the growth of democracy can all help curb an ever-increasing population.
  4. For international organizations:
    Sit down, discuss the issues, and don’t leave until everyone agrees to stick their neck out equally to make change. If China and the US which— the two biggest emitters on the planet—can’t agree to put a price on carbon with measures such as cap-and-trade, how can other nations be expected to make a change? You all have to make sure that the successes achieved with the platform drafted in Durban, South Africa this past November lead to a truly effective and binding agreement in 2015.

As with medical prescriptions, the only real way to hope for benefit is to make sure these recommendations are followed as directed. This global problem needs action from every level: individuals, families, businesses, governments, and international organizations. Every one of these levels can make changes that will have a significant long-term impact, and with a global effort we really can avert a devastating crisis. Otherwise, our future generations will have to contend with problems simply because we didn’t take our own medicine.