"Some thoughts on global warming…"

State Representative Jim Ott, former meteorologist at WTMJ Channel 4 and WTMJ radio for 20 years, weighs in on the global warming debate.

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Some thoughts on global warming…

1) Since 1958 background levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have been monitored at a site in the Hawaiian Islands. The data show a slow but steady increase of atmospheric CO2 levels. Many scientists attribute this to human use of fossil fuels, and feel that if we had data father back, say through the 19th century, the data would show levels began to increase during the industrial revolution. What is often overlooked is that there are also significant natural sources of CO2, including forest fires and volcanoes.
2) CO2 is one of the so called “green house” gases, which means it is effective at trapping energy that the earth emits back to space. Theoretically, with rising levels of CO2 more of this energy should be trapped, and the atmosphere should be getting warmer.
3) For the last 20-25 years or so we have had some pretty warm years. On a world wide basis some of this is determined by satellite data, which has only been available since the mid 1980s. So it is somewhat difficult to know the entire significance of this data, since we are comparing it with average temperature data for earlier years and with things like ice cores and pollen data for times before the invention of the thermometer. I would also note that 20-25 years is too short of a time to say that a climate change is taking place. Never the less, many scientist feel that this warmer than average weather and some of the associated affects like the shrinkage of some mountain glaciers is due to the increased levels of CO2 due to human use of fossil fuels.

Even if we are witnessing the beginning of a long term climate change in progress (and I think it is too soon to say that we are), there are numerous other causative factors that could be involved. We know this because the earth’s climate has gone through major changes long before humans could have been a factor. To assume that the last 20-25 years of warm weather are due to human activity would be similar to having an effect that could be caused by any of ten different factors, and just assuming that one factor was responsible, and ignoring all others. Part of the reason this attitude is prevalent in the area of climate change is that the other factors are not very well understood, so it’s convenient to latch onto one that, at least in theory, is understood.
The mainstream media has played an important role in fostering the idea that global warming is happening, and that it’s due to human activity and that it will get worse. That’s because much of the nation’s media, like the TV networks, are based on the east coast. Whenever there is an unusually warm weather event there, it is a story to them, and they bring in some climatologist or other researcher who believes that global warming is caused by human activity. When the weather on the east coast is cooler than normal, we do not see reports stating that maybe global warming isn’t happening.
Imagine an observer who was present in North America 10,000 years ago as the most recent continental ice sheet was melting. He would have observed the same thing we have observed for the last 20-25 years, but on a much grander scale: a warming climate that spanned hundreds, and probably thousands of years, and the associated melting of the ice.
All of this was happening without the impact of human activity. In fact, the geologic record indicates that there have been four episodes of continental glaciation in the last million years, and each time the climate cooled enough to form the glacier, and then warmed enough to melt the glacier, without any help from man. Back it the 60’s it was fashionable to assume that human civilization has actually developed in an “interglacial” period, and that someday another continental ice sheet will develop. I believe there are some scientists who still hold this view, but you will probably not hear from them on mainstream media outlets.
But even on shorter time scales we have witnessed some major fluctuations in weather patterns. I wouldn’t refer to these as climate changes, because they are of too short a duration. For example, the 1930s (dust bowl era) were warm years. The 1960s were much cooler. The 1990s were warm years. Why did the 1960s cool off at a time when atmospheric CO2 levels were increasing? Why some were our most brutal winters on record in the Midwest in the late 1970s and early 1980s? No one can answer those questions, but it does make one wonder how we can just assume that the warm 1990s and 2000s were caused by human use of fossil fuels, and no other factors were involved.

If we make (and perhaps act upon) predictions that are based on incorrect assumptions, the predictions may turn out to be wrong. For example, after the devastating hurricane season of 2005 a number of hurricane forecasters assumed that global warming was responsible, and that more of the same was on the way. The mainstream media ate this up, and Gulf and east coast residents braced for the worst in 2006. Of course the 2006 hurricane season was exceptionally quiet, with no major storms affecting the United States.
Why? Could it be that the 2005 season was a normal but perhaps extreme fluctuation of hurricane numbers that has been going on for a long time, the causes of which may be found somewhere in global ocean temperatures or in other poorly understood climate feedback mechanisms? What if as a nation we make decisions on food and energy production that are based on a prediction that we will see a continued warming of the climate in the next 50 to 100 years? And what if it turns out that some of the ignored causative factors in climate change become dominant and we have cooler (or wetter, or drier, or more variable, etc.) than expected weather? In fact some of the overdevelopment of low elevation coastal areas (i.e. the coast of Florida, New Orleans, etc.) has taken place during a time of relatively quiet hurricane seasons. After a few decades without a storm like Hurricane Camille in 1969 it is easy to forget that we can’t assume anything about the weather, and that the coastal areas are affected by hurricanes.

Basically, many of the things we should be doing as a nation are the same whether or not human induced global warming is occurring. For example, it is always good to cut down on air pollution whenever possible. We should continue the search for new forms of energy and not waste what we have since fossil fuels are a finite resource that someday will be used up. We should continue to look for ways to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, even if it means using some of our own resources in environmentally sensitive areas. I believe this can be done in a safe and clean way. We should recycle whenever possible, especially if it can be done in an economically advantages way. And of great importance is the need for continued research in the area of climate change and climate influences. It is only in the last 25 years that we have come to understand the El Niño effect, and there certainly is much more we need to learn about how and why the climate changes. Right now, in spite of some of the definitive statements being issued by the scientific community, and the willingness of the mainstream media to take every warm weather event as proof of global warming, we really don’t know for sure whether or not human activity is significantly affecting the climate, or even if the warm weather is going to continue.

The United States was roundly criticized, both here and abroad, for not signing onto the Kyoto Protocol. This was a treaty that would have required us as a nation to cut down on our CO2 emissions by a certain percentage, while allowing some other nations much more lenient restrictions or none at all. I feel it would have been a major mistake for our country to sign onto such a treaty, and I hope that we will avoid such treaties in the future. Those who are doing the criticizing never bothered to ask exactly what reducing our CO2 emissions by a large percentage would actually mean in terms of lifestyle changes, cost, etc. It’s one thing to say we will decrease our CO2 emissions, but it’s another to say we will only be allowed to drive certain kinds of cars, industry will have to cut production by a certain amount, the cost of gasoline is going to increase by a certain amount, and so on. There are the kinds of issues that should be put before the public; a simple percentage on CO2 reduction tells us nothing.
On this backdrop we must also consider the following:
1) We don’t know if the required percentage reductions were achievable, no matter what steps we would have taken as a nation.
2) We don’t know for sure whether or not human activity is responsible for the last 20-25 years of warm weather.
3) We don’t know for sure whether or not the climate will continue to warm in the future, even if human civilization is having an impact.
4) Therefore we don’t know that even if we were to achieve the required reductions in CO2 emission (at a great cost) that there would be the desired results on the climate.
In summary, there’s a lot we still must learn about climates and climate change, and I feel that continued research in these areas is very important. Making assumptions and predictions without a better understanding than we have now may lead to some incorrect predictions, and therefore improper actions. Assuming that whatever seems to be happening at the present time will continue to happen is a common reaction. After the brutal winters of the early 80s many people assumed we were in for more of the same in subsequent winters. It didn’t happen. Assuming that the climate will continue to warm now and that it’s due to human activity is just that: an assumption. We don’t have all the information we need, and we certainly don’t have all the answers.

State Representative Jim Ott
23rd Assembly District

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