October 27, 2007


The recent Nobel Peace Prizes (awarded in Oslo, remember, not Stockholm) were given to two entities, one an association of climatologists, atmospheric and oceanic scientists, physicists, chemists and related political hangers-on called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And the other to an increasingly rotund megalomaniac with a chronic need for idolatrous attention named Al Gore. Guess which one a grateful world turns its lonely eyes to?

I don't mean to be too hard on Al. Certainly he popularized the issue of global warming in a way that a celebrity-entranced nation needed. He is a kind of supermix of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton when it comes to climate change. Throw in Anna Nicole too if you want. If the world goes into green rehab (crashing its Ferrari on the way there), Al Gore will deserve much of the credit.

I've written before that my first awareness of the problem of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere came about when I read Moment in the Sun back in 1969. I was in Honolulu at the time. Mauna Loa readings recorded a 6% rise in concentrations which were graphed on the Keeling Curve, named after Dr. Charles David Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Gee, too bad we didn't act then, because we understood the basic nature of the problem. It was called the "greenhouse effect." Scientists have spent the ensuing 38 years trying to overcome vested interests who wanted to downplay the significance of turning the Earth's atmosphere into a steam bath. According to "An Inconvenient Truth," this is about the time Al Gore, as a history major at Harvard, became fascinated by the concept, because Professor Roger Revell fired his imagination with his lectures about...blah blah blah. This is Al's back story. I think he understands that his credibility depends on a back story, and this is the one he's got. We're all fortunate that Al took his youthful passion to Washington, because while Al was Vice President, he kept the issue of global warming front and center and would not let Clinton take his eye off the issue for one minute, forcing all those changes which have led to near-universal use of photovoltaics and wind power, the nationally mandated 60 mpg requirement for U.S. cars, and America's extensive high-speed rail network. Imagine if none of those things...I'm sorry, I think I just suffered a transient ischemic attack. Give me a moment while my lucidity returns.

Al's slide show, now of iconic status thanks to the movie, of course went for dramatic effects, such as the 20 ft. rise in sea levels possible if all the ice atop Greenland melts. The less dramatic IPCC tended to center its predictions around 23 inches, because of the uncertainties noted in the formula above. Global temperature rise cannot be correlated linearly to CO2 level increases, at least in any simple way, and in part this is because temperature bears a non-linear relationship to f, which are feedback mechanisms. Within this bland statement may hang the viability of the human species, but its practical effect is that temperature predictions are constrained by this uncertainty principle. A rough doubling of CO2 concentrations by the year 2050 may bring about global temp changes most likely in the range of 2.0-4.5 C; if the change falls outside this bracket, the probability distribution indicates that it is much more likely that the increase will be greater than 4.5 than less than 2.0. This is where the probability estimates cluster; however, because of the "long tail" of probability estimates related to the non-linear relationship between f and temperature, a temperature rise of 11 degrees C is also predictable. Since C = 1.8F, we're talking 19.8 F, or another way of saying what we're talking about: game over for modern civilization.

Al Gore makes an easy target for climate deniers because he's a history major and really has no more of a scientific background than anyone who attended a liberal arts college with a breadth requirement. This asshat named Bjorn Lomborg, whom Sen. James ("the Troglodyte") Inhofe (Idiot-Ok.) likes to call before a Senate panel when he wants to spread a little dangerous misinformation (daily, in other words), has made a career out of attacking Gore's misstatements. Gore says stuff like, "Scientists may disagree with some of my points, but we agree on the main trends." Al, a question: how could you possibly have any of your own points on the science of global warming? It's not a good idea for Al to debate with climate deniers with scientific credentials, but his avoidance of such confrontations makes it look like they have realistic objections when they don't.

I'm not even sure what I'm complaining about. I guess I wish that someone like Steven Chu of Berkeley were allowed to tour the world and take on the deniers. He has a PowerPoint program. He's got slides. He won what you might call a "hard" prize from the Nobel people (physics). He's actually a charismatic, galvanizing speaker, even though he never strains in the slightest for effect and never exaggerates. Imagine if he took his formidable teaching skills to the lectern (or even took a ride in Al Gore's sky bucket) while the cameras roll. He could explain this 1/(1-f) nightmare with perfect clarity, and then the world would see that absolutely, positively, we are dealing with this possibility that business as usual could actually lead to a 20 F degree rise in global temperature within the lives of our children. And no one would be able to refute the statement of that possibility. It would be much like the moment when Woody Allen pulls Marshal McLuhan out of the movie theatre line to trash that blowhard behind him. The power of Chu's explication comes from one main source: he knows what the hell he's talking about. Also, he's in a lot better shape than Al Gore. Alas, that's not how democracy works. Philosopher kings are simply creatures of Greek philosophy.


  1. I'm interested in your characterization of Lomborg as an asshat--have you read his most recent book? I just finished it--he does not deny global warming nor anthropogenic contributions to it, just does a standard cost/benefit analysis on alternatives. I don't think talking about a 20 degree fahrenheit rise raises the level of discussion on climate change, especially not without a timeline and a list of conditions that would lead to it. Perhaps that is something Professor Chu addresses.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Tom. In reverse order, my statement about a 20 degree F rise was based on the probability distributions discussed in the lead paper from RealClimate.org, which is linked on the site. They go into much greater detail about the possibility of catastrophic temp. rise. I think it's quite real. The scary part to me is that the feedback loops in each case seem to be stronger than expected just a few years ago. Related to this idea is my perhaps my unfair characterization of Mr. Lomborg. But he's an economist, not a climate scientist, and in some ways he's working the other side of the glory-hog street from Al Gore. Talking about temperatures only is highly misleading. What about the undeniable acidification of the oceans that is going on right now, for example? This happens directly with a CO2 rise unrelated, really, to air temperature rise. The German studies (discussed by Angela Merkel recently) take issue with the idea that green adaptation is prohibitively expensive; indeed, their studies indicate there is a fivefold return on investment in renewable technologies. I just don't think we have the luxury of using economics as our sole criterion anymore, and this attitude is very reminiscent of Bush's approach until very recently. Thanks again for commenting.