As a follow-up to my blog entry yesterday, which announced that we will provide occasional coverage of the global warming issue on this website and in Solid Waste & Recycling magazine, I thought I'd provide readers with an update on an interesting and often overlooked dimension, which is the correlation between solar energy output and earth temperatures. When I first wrote about global warming for the Globe & Mail almost ten years ago, one of the most interesting scientists with whom I spoke was Sallie Baliunas, Ph.D., -- Senior Scientist at George C. Marshall Institute. Her team has studied the matter of how solar cycles affect the Earth's oceans and climate. She is particularly knowledgable about the interaction of the sun's energy and the El Niño cycles. Her research has made her skeptical of man-made climate change, and in this speech from 2002 she explains why. She also voices her opposition to the Kyoto Accord. I've cut and pasted the speech below. Baliunas is correct that even the full implementation of Kyoto isn't going to make much impact on the climate. But, personally, I've come to regard Kyoto as sort of a downpayment on an insurance policy, in case the IPCC predictions turn out to be correct. A lot of the energy efficiency things we'd have to implement are things we should be doing anyway, if only to reduce our reliance on oil that comes from despotic regimes in the Middle East that are hostile to the western democracies. The events of 9/11 gave us a non-environmental reason to reduce our oil addiction, to paraphrase George Bush (!). I'll give you a couple of quick examples of the sort of stupid things we do that we ought naught if we cared a whit about efficiency, much less the welfare of the planet. 1) In the hot weather, many retail stores turn up the air conditioning, then leave the front door open to create a cold blast of air on the pavement outside. This is supposed to entice customers inside to cool off, and to shop. It's been shown that if this practice was ended (possibly by being banned), many jurisdictions (e.g., Ontario) could avoid the need to build new power plants. An incredible amount of energy is wasted this way. 2) What is this penis envy between cities to have the world's tallest building? In today's paper I noticed a story about plans in Tokyo and Jakarta to build something taller than Toronto's CN Tower. The worst (and I mean the worst) is the Burj Dubal skyscraper in Dubai, which will soar 700 metres. The problem is not the height -- rather it's the insanity of building a glass and steel tower in the desert, a sealed structure that will have to burn incredible amounts of fossil fuel to air condition, even as it attracts the intense heat of the sun. Yes, they're sitting atop a lot of oil over there, but from a CO2 and natural resource point of view, buildings like that are monsters, and don't fit with the topography of that part of the world at all. There's no cultural tradition or natural heritage at all in this construction, just boastful and wasteful misplaced competitiveness to "be the tallest." In time these buildings will be abandoned, and will stand as monuments to man's foolish pride. 3) Metering systems exist, and are being installed in homes in California, that allow people to monitor the precise energy consumption of each appliance in their home, and the display tells then the cost of the energy as it fluctuates throughout the day. These meters encourage people to use certain appliances during non-peak periods when prices are low. New power plants are not often needed for increases in "general" energy consumption -- it's the rising "peak" demand that's the problem, and these inexpensive devices can smooth out the demand highs and lows to the extent that new plants aren't required. Why aren't they being installed across Canada right now? 4) As a more general point, and I wanted to state this yesterday, even if global warming never happens, I still think it's outrageous that we're going to burn our way through the world's readily available fossil fuel inventories in less than two centuries (i.e., from about 1900 to 2100). Yes, I'm sure more oil and gas deposits will be found, but they will become more difficult and expensive to harvest. My point is that these materials took millions of years to form in geological formations, then the industrial revolution begins and -- poof! -- we use it all up in just a couple of generations. I believe that just as the oceans and the forests are "borrowed" from future generations, so is this precious energy heritage. Imagine in a hundred years time (maybe less) how angry people will be when they look at film and video images of people driving about -- one person to a car -- to and fro from the mall, eschewing public transit and gorging up the cheap petroleum. 5) There is uncertainty about how our actions may heat up or otherwise affect the planet. But I think it's fair to say that we're conducting a dangerous experiment taking several hundred million years worth of accumulated carbon and spewing it into that atmosphere in only a century or two, and just crossing our fingers that everything will be okay, and that somehow the atmosphere will "shed" the excess heat. I'm not in favor of radical surgery at this point, but I believe the patient (us) should at least be put on a diet. There are in fact a lot of easy things we can do to reduce energy waste right now, without having to live like our aboriginal forebearers (at least, not yet).
[NOTE: THIS BLOG ENTRY WAS EDITED BY THE AUTHOR ON MARCH 15 TO REFLECT NEW INFORMATION AND ANALYSIS.] If I were able -- in this digital space -- I would stamp this Blog entry “IMPORTANT” in big red letters. This is more of an article than a Blog post -- and is meant to update readers on man-made climate change, how I have covered it in the past, and why that approach is about to change. What I’m about to write is going to surprise some of my regular readers, because in the past I’ve written a lot about the “skeptic” point of view on man-made global warming, and the sometimes fierce debates that have occurred between adherents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, and those who doubt the theory and dispute the data. I have on occasion adopted the skeptic position as my own, and even argued it one public debate in Sarnia years ago. However, I have slowly come around to believing that the theory of man-made global warming deserves a more complete airing and vetting on this website. I don’t know the extent of potential changes (no one does), but sifting through recent evidence, the computer simulations now say that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will double sometime this century, to about 710 parts per million. They could possibly rise to 1000 ppm. Temperatures will likely rise a bit above 3 degrees Celsius and possibly more, according to the models. The distribution of the heat will not be even -- in some parts of the world the temperatures will rise more, some less. I don't know if this is true or not, but a vibrant debate of the issue is required, as much government policy nowadays is founded on belief in man-made climate change. The concerns are that coming changes could be devastating to the world's ecosystems. We are seeing the retreat of glaciers worldwide, the disappearance of frogs, changes in alpine environments, and some anecdotal changes at the Earth's Arctic and Antarctic poles. We're seeing changes in ocean surface temperatures, increased hurricane activity and other developments that could be the result of natural cycles and fluctuations, but could be augmented by CO2 emissions. I'm particularly concerned about reports of extensive coral bleaching. (See the Reuters article at the end of this post.) In light of this evidence, it's difficult for a skeptic like me not to appreciate that the Kyoto Accord on climate change may be a small and much-needed downpayment on an insurance policy for the protection of the Earth’s ecosystems and carbon cycle. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is working on a new report, and I look forward to reading it with great anticipation, though I expect I’ll take no joy in its findings. I have recently read an interesting new book that has helped convince me further that there are issues worthy of further investigation, which I describe later on. (Tim Flannery's "The Weather Makers.") I plan to offer readers coverage from time to time of climate change issues on our magazine website, and publish articles about how the waste management system can contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Background My readers know I have tended to be a global warming skeptic in the past, and a skeptic about most things. Partly it’s my personality, partly it’s the nature of my profession. I probably gravitated towards journalism because of my skeptical personality. Anyway, I think journalists owe it to themselves and to their readers to adopt a “show me the evidence” approach to their stories. Don’t you hate reading drivel written by a “true believer” (for any cause)? I do. And skepticism is appropriate when writing about environmental and scientific matters, because the scientific method is inherently skeptical, with one hypothesis eventually replacing another when it offers a more elegant explanation for observed phenomena. It’s not so much that the old idea is proven wrong, as much as that the new idea is better. Think of how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity replaced Sir Isaac Newton’s mechanical laws of the universe. Newton’s laws are perfectly valid (apples still fall from trees, after all), but Einstein’s theory offers a more elegant explanation of time and space as a continuum. Over time, empirical measurements have supported Einstein's theories, which will no doubt be replaced by other theories in the future. But skepticism can also lead one down a dangerous path of not believing anything, and can do a disservice when it ignores or denies accumulating evidence. I have walked that edge myself. I’m a writer, not a scientist (and especially not a climatologist) and (let’s face it), writers are taught that a “reversal of expectation” makes for a better story. In newspaper journalism this is sometimes called the “man bites dog” story, which every reporter loves. The first time I wrote seriously about climate change, it was for the weekend edition of the Globe & Mail on November 22, 1997. The article was entitled “Science Fiction: The day the Earth warmed up” and it occupied two full pages of the Saturday paper’s Focus & Books section. I’d been asked by editor Cecily Ross to report on the climate change debate. Re-reading the article, I still think it’s pretty good, in the context of its time. (You can Google it up for yourself, I believe.) My research revealed that in 1997 there was not quite the “consensus” among scientists that global warming was real and upon us as we’d been led to think. Doubters and critics were not just geographers and other non-climate professionals. They included some eminent climatologists, such as Dr. Patrick Michaels, Dr. Fred S. Singer, Dr. Robert Balling, and Dr. Richard Lindzen (Alfred P. Loan professor of meteorology at the Massacheussetts Institute of Technology), among others. They pointed out problems with the theory and evidence. Why had the Earth cooled from 1940 to 1970, just when CO2 was supposed to be warming things? (There’s an explanation now relating to particulate matter from coal-fired power plants that were retrofitted with scrubbers in about 1970, but this wasn’t understood in 1997.) Why did the satellite data show no warming, in conflict with ground-based thermometers that showed only a slight warming (which could be from urban “heat island” effects)? (There’s a new explanation of that, too. But it's a complicated story and there's still great uncertainty.) The list of objections was quite lengthy, and gave me the sort of “man bites dog” story any journalist would jump at. (As an aside, I'm thinking of writing a new article that will include calling up all the old sckeptics I interviewed in 1997 and asking them what they think now.) Better information and explanations have developed in the almost ten years since I wrote that article, but these were reasonable questions at the time. In fact, they were “the” questions that the global warming proponents had to answer, to satisfy themselves, let alone their critics. The general circulation computer models were very faulty at that time, and couldn’t properly account for such things as the vapor in clouds. The computer models are better now, and are generating more accurate (and more alarming) scenarios. But in 1997 they needed to be challenged, and were. Science is not really about “consensus,” either. Many of the best ideas, the greatest innovations, in science have come from outsiders, people who were initially outcasts from the marble halls of academe and the received wisdom of their era. Newton on his farm and Einstein in his patent office started out as outsiders. (For a wonderful history of that, read one of my favorite books, E=MC2.) The U.N. IPCC issued a report a few years ago that claimed there was a “consensus” among scientists that a “discernable” human fingerprint was evident in recent climate change. This claim was made in the executive summary for policymakers and was written by non-scientists, and it was quoted famously by Al Gore when he said that “climate change is real” (or words to that effect). It turned out that some of the people whose work was included in the body of the large document were angry about the executive summary, and felt that it painted more of a “consensus” view than was supported by their work. There was (at the time) a vibrant debate over the science, which was anything but “settled.” (The debate, in fact, continues, and that’s a good thing, as long as the debaters are sincere. There are plenty of dissenters and skeptics to this day.) They accused the IPCC writers of outright fiddling for political purposes. My Globe & Mail article quoted Dr. Fred Seitz saying, “In my more than 60 years as a member of the American scientific community, including service as president of both the National Academy of Science and the American Physical Society, I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process.” Those were his words, not mine. That was in 1997 and, as I say, made for quite an interesting story. But I wasn’t trying to “sensationalize” the global warming topic. I was reporting the thoughts of important people, engaged in a real debate that wasn’t widely reported in the mainstream press. And it was a topic I cared about. There were credible non-CO2-related ideas out there to possibly explain what we were seeing. One such idea was the close correlation between temperature fluctuations and the varying energy output of the sun (as observed by the regular sunspot cycle). Some of those ideas are still being investigated, and astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas believes that variations in solar output explain a lot of what is happening. New perspectives In the intervening years I started to become more worried that global warming could be happening. For the record, I never claimed to know for a fact that it wasn’t. I kept checking back with the information, and I continued clipping news stories and filing them away. I knew that this was an unfolding story, and I was interested which direction things would turn. There were several reasons I continued to report the “skeptics” viewpoint, the first being that there were already plenty of environmental reporters shouting from the hilltops that climate change was underway. But there were more serious reasons. I have a deep love of nature (you’ll just have to take my word on that) and I didn't want to believe this was happening to the Earth without more proof than was available, even just a few years ago. I don't talk about it much, but there is an ecological dimension to most of my holidays and travels, which have included riding among herds of giraffes in Kenya, swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos islands, visiting Beluga whale sanctuaries in Florida, and a great deal of hiking in woods and snorkeling and scuba diving on coral reefs. I made two dives just this January amid the hurricane-devastated reefs of Cozumel. (And yes, I did think about the possibility that global warming had added to the devastation. Cozumel’s deep-water pier was utterly destroyed by the hurricane, the cruise ships can’t tie up, and the local economy is completely ruined and will remain that way for years. On top of that, the island’s soil and vegetation were killed completely by saltwater, and the reefs are buried in sand.) I'm keenly aware of the delicacy of these environments and feel passionately about the need to protect them, in addition to the larger worry about total environmental system collapse with the breakdown of the carbon cycle, if that were to happen. So if man-made global warming is really under way, that's very upsetting to me; I know very well the implications. (It may interest you to know, also, that I am something of a "weather freak" who loves storms and has been known to go out chasing them in my car. TV programs about tornadoes are just about my favorite shows.) Another reason I’ve taken a skeptical approach has to do with ongoing “monkey business” with the data. This includes a really big spat over Thomas Mann’s research and data that generated the famous “hockey stick” chart. (See my archived Blog entry “Global warming’s discredited ‘hockey stick’ chart” from Feb. 20, 2006.) This chart, which shows a range of likely increased temperatures that will occur sometime this century, was sort of the “poster child” for the global warming cause, and was used by the IPCC to illustrate why we needed such things as the Kyoto Accord on climate change. I won’t go over the details of Mann’s chart and the spat; suffice it to say that a couple of Canadian professors revealed some serious problems with how the “bristle cone" statistics were used to generate a misleading result. Mann's calculations made it look like historical temperatures were cooler and more uniform than the coming “spike. (If you want to appreciate more of this kind of discussion, read Taken by Storm: The troubled science, policy and politics of global warming by Christopher Essex and Ross McKitrick [Key Porter Books]. And, by the way, if you don’t agree with those guys, argue against their points, please, instead of making ad hominem attacks against them as people. It's as wrong to do that against the skeptics as it is against the proponents, right?) I’m a writer and not a climatologist or “expert” (obviously) but I was very disappointed with Mann’s refusal to share his data with his critics, for independent testing. The much-respected journal Science -- in which Mann and his associates originally published their findings -- has an established policy and process for resolving these disputes, and Mann refused to cooperate, which made it look like he had (indeed) something to hide. The episode became a large and widely-publicized scandal, full of rancor and bitterness among the parties involved. This kind of “monkey business” is something that really angers me, precisely because I take the global warming subject seriously. Let me cite an analogy. There are no end (trust me) of people in the environmental services business in which I toil who have a visceral hatred of George Bush and his associates. They are infuriated that it appears Dick Cheney selected what he needed from the intelligence community and “sexed up” (to use the British term) the WMD evidence to justify invading Iraq. The revelation that there were no WMD and that Bush and crew ignored warnings to that effect has damaged American credibility, which is sorely needed now as the world faces a greater threat: a nuclear-armed Ayatollah. Yet some of those same people didn’t mind at all when environmentalists a few years ago “sexed up” the information in support of man-made climate change. Sadly, the manipulation of the data -- the “spin” -- provided an entry point for critics to question the credibility of the theory and some serious science. If it was wrong for Cheney to distort facts because he and Bush were predisposed to invade Iraq, it was wrong for environmentalists to distort facts because they were predisposed to believe in global warming. Even if you believe the evidence is mounting that temperatures are rising (which is disputed by some), you can’t refer to things like Thomas Mann’s “hockey stick” chart nowadays without at least acknowledging that it has been criticized, that there have been problems with the data. For heaven’s sake, even as a rhetorical debating trick, anticipate your adversary’s argument and incorporate it into your own presentation, and thereby disarm him (or her)! As a aside, in my recent blog entry on the hockey stick chart I chided my friend Maria Kelleher about her use of the chart in a presentation to the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC), and in the process elbowed her colleague Ralph Torrie, who had kindly loaned her PowerPoint slides. That was ungracious of me and I apologize to both of them. It’s always my goal to maintain a collegial tone and debate the issues, not the person. I anticipate that Mr. Torrie has some pithy rejoinders to my critique of the Thomas Mann graph, and will afford him the opportunity to make his points (on that or something else) wherever and whenever he likes. Conclusions In the end, free thinking and skepticism provide a journalist a wonderful vantage point from which to view the great problems and arguments of his or her time. Sampling the ideas is like being up a tree above feuding animals, spotting a piece of meat, scurrying down and then back up again to taste the morsel, which is then either consumed or discarded. (Though sometimes the scavenged food gives indigestion, or, if you'll me a bad pun in respect to climate change: gas.) It’s wonderful to allow yourself the freedom to change your mind, as have done from time to time about global warming. It's more of an evolution than a revolution, in fact. I am going to maintain my skeptical attitude toward all subjects, including the unfolding and potentially ecosystem destroying, civilization killing climate change topic, not out of cynicism, but out of respect for the truth, which is something one can only ever approach on bended knee, groping. And I can’t promise that I won’t change my mind yet again, in future, in light of new evidence. (Now wouldn’t that be maddening?) I just finished reading an interesting new book that I hope everyone will read. It’s entitled The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth by Tim Flannery (Harper Collins). Of course, I haven’t read every book on this subject, but my intuition tells me that this may be the very best book written on climate change (for the lay person) that advocates the global warming viewpoint. It’s well researched, logical, compelling, entertaining and makes complicated science accessible for us non-scientists. It was sent to me by the writer of our "Final Analysis" column, lawyer Adam Chamberlain, who I expect was a bit pained by some of my latest skeptical rants. I am very grateful for his gift, because it’s precisely the sort of engagement my Blog and other writings is intended to stimulate. (Too often people just get annoyed when they disagree and don’t bother to call, or send me a letter or an email, which is too bad. I really want to get the dialogue going.) This is a book I’ve been waiting for, a sort of one-stop shopping to up-level everyone’s basic understanding of the issues and science of climate change, mine especially. So please read it, and buy a highlighter pen before you do, because there will be lots of things you'll want to turn back to as a reference. But I also offer a caution: let’s not treat even this book as gospel. Let’s instead treat it as a base, a point of departure for further reading and further investigation. Let’s argue with one another and debate. Let’s not get “too comfortable” with any of the “settled” facts. Let’s educate one another, and let’s yell and scream when we have to, but still be able to go for a pint of ale together afterwards. Postscript: My friends and colleagues in the recycling and waste disposal world will have to think long and hard about the climate change and energy implications of everything they do, if they're not already. The lifecycle analysis of diversion schemes, composting, waste-to-energy plants and landfills (especially, because of the methane) will become an increasingly important justification for why we do the things we do, or change them. Now, here's that Reuters article:
Today I posted a news item about Peel Region, which is concerned about large water containers showing up in curbside recycling systems. These containers are a "recyclable" replacement to the rigid ones that sit ontop of water coolers that have traditionally been refilled by water service companies and retail take-back systems. For convenience I've repasted our news item below. The comment I want to share is this: Is it a coincidence that the dismantling of this refillable container system for water is occurring at the same time as soft-drink companies are expanding into the water business? It's a fact that for soft-drink companies, water is the fastest-growing category. A few years ago the companies realized that they had captured as much of consumers' "stomach share" (as they call it) as possible with syrup-based soft-drinks. Allowing for the fact that juice, milk and alcohol-based drinks will occupy some future share, taking over water was the obvious next strategic objective. So now the soft-drink companies have expanded into bottled water. Does it come as a surprise that the refillable system for water in the large water cooler bottles is now being externalized onto taxpayers? I think not.