Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Discovery of Global Warming- Spencer Weart

Any new scientific theory, when born, always comes into the world kicking and fighting back. That's because scientists inherently are skeptical, and in the opinion of one of my colleagues, also inherently mean. Whenever a new revolutionary fact is presented to them, their first reaction is of incredulity because skepticism is a reflex action for them, but also because another reflex action causes them to be galled that they weren't the one coming up with the new idea.
If 'pure' scientific ideas themselves have so much trouble coming up for air, what would the scenario be for a revolutionary new idea that also has a gory heap of political controversy written over it? Messy, to say the least. And so it is for the idea of global warming.

Spencer Weart has penned a lively, informative, and concise history of the discovery of global warming, that precisely demonstrates how difficult it is for such an idea to take root in the public mind and affect public policy. What is more fascinating is how research in climate change was spurred on by unseemly government and military interests, and misunderstood media coverage and inquiry. Weart starts with some old stalwarts from different fields, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and how they were intrigued by a fascinating phenomenon- the ice ages, which served as the driving force for suspecting the role of greenhouse gases in changing the temperature of the planet. If there's one singular fact that emerges out of the history of global warming, it is the public's extreme skepticism in underestimating humankind's role in changing the mighty earth's enormous environs, and scientists' reluctance to accept the role of small changes caused by humans and natural forces that could cause violent climate change ('The Day After Tomorrow' notwithstanding).

The discovery of global warming was a painful endeavor, often occupying many scientists' lifetimes. Almost everyone who wondered about it faced opposition in terms of opinion and funding. Almost no one could alone prove global warming without extensive collaboration; not suprising given the interdisciplinary nature of climate. Scientists had to grudgingly forge alliances with other scientists whose fields they would have hardly considered respectable. They had to beseech the government for funding and support. One of the most interesting facts is the government funding of climate studies in the 50s and 60s that was fuelled entirely by military purposes dealing with the Cold War. More than any one else, defense forces were interested in controlling the weather for military purposes, and they couldn't have cared less about global warming. But this was one of those fortuitous times in history, when a misguided venture proved to be beneficial for humanity. Just like building the atomic bomb produced a bonus of insights into the behaviour of matter as a side effect, so did the military's interest in the weather, absurd as it was in many ways, prove to be a godsend for scientists who were hungry for funding and facilities. Weart makes it quite clear how scientists found an unexpected asset in the military's interest in climate. Secretly, they must have laughed in the face of paranoid cold warriors. Publicly, they appeared most grateful, and in fact were, for the funding they got.

If the military unknowingly contributed to our knowledge of climate change by supporting dubious studies in the field, the media contributed to it by miscommunicating the facts on many occasions. During the first few years, the general public wasn't concerned and did not believe in climate change, again, because they could not believe that a puny entity such as mankind could disturb the grand equilibrium of nature. But then, as the general nature of events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts began to be linked with climate change in the 70s, the media began to pay more attention to scientific studies, and began to exaggerate the connection of man's contribution to the environment and violent weather phenomena. Just like the military's venture, even thought this venture was completely misguided (even today, we cannot pinpoint specific events to global warming), the unexpected effect of the media's spin doctoring was that people began to believe that man could change climate. Of course, the media also was not afraid to point out and again exaggerate when the scientists' predictions and explanations failed, but for the better or worse, people for the first time in history began to take serious notice of global warming and mankind's contribution to it. In the 1960's, Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' provided yet another impetus for the public to consider the general relationship between technology and it's effects on the environment.

And yet, as Weart narrates, the road was tortuous. At every stage, speculative as the scientists' predictions were, they were opposed and overwhelmed by powerful government lobbyists who had influence in congress, and much more money to thwart their opponents' efforts. Whenever a new study linked greenhouse gases with warming, industrial lobbyists would launch massive campaigns to rebut the scientists and reinforce public faith in the propriety of what they were doing. As Joel Bakan says in The Corporation, one of the main methods corporations use in maximizing profits is to 'externalize' costs. Suddenly being responsible for environmental pollution which was previously externalized would put their profit making dreams in jeopardy. Until the 80s, scientists could not do much, as firstly there was not enough evidence for global warming and secondly, computer models were not powerful and reliable enough to help them make their case. Matters were made worse by the Reagan administration which has one of the worst track records in history when it comes to environmental legislation. So unfortunately for scientists, just when their efforts and computer models were gaining credence, they were faced with a looming pall of government and corporate opposition, against which their fight was feeble.

These scientists who researched climate change were and are an exemplary lot. They built computer models, wrote reams of codes, and ran simulations for weeks and months. They went to the coldest parts of Antarctica and the deepest parts of the ocean to gather data and samples, to collect climate 'proxies' such as pollen, ice cores and tree rings, for gathering data in past ages which thermometers had not. They spent lifetimes in their search for the contribution of mankind's action to climate change, even though they knew that their results could disprove their convictions. As far as dedication to science and policy is concerned, you could not wish for a more dedicated lot of investigators.

Slowly, in the face of opposition, predictions began to get more credible, and enough data began to get accumulated to make reasonable analyses and predictions. The discovery of global warming really came in the late 90s, but the culmination of efforts really came in the late 80s. During those few years, droughts and rain deficit around the US again brought media attention to climate change. Computer models became much more reliable. When a powerful volcano exploded in 1991, computer models accurately predicted the drop in temperature (one that was more than compensated by a rise in greenhouse gases) that was caused by the accumulation of sulfate particles in the atmosphere. Scientists began to appear before congress to testify. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created that created authoritative reports on climate change and the 'anthropogenic' contribution to it. The evidence became too widespread to mock or downright reject. Global warming had to be given at least serious consideration. However, because of the uncertainties inherent in predicting something as complex as the climate, government officials always could do cherry picking and convince the public about the speculative nature of the whole framework. Here, they were making a fundamental mistake, of the kind that opponents of evolution make. Just because a theory has uncertainties does not mean it is completely wrong, as these officials would have the public believe. Of course nothing is certain. But in case of global warming, enough data had accumulated by the 90s to make one thing absolutely clear at the minimum; that we were altering the climate of the earth in unpredictable ways. Studies of past climates had also reinforced the conclusion (with some startling impetus from chaos theory) that very small perturbations in the earth's climate and ocean systems can result in huge effects on the climate (the so-called 'butterfly effect'). Man's contributions to the earth's environment are now eminently more than a 'small perturbation'.

However, when it comes to the fickle palette of politics, every colour can be shaded to suit one's interests. There was, and will always be, great hope from the fact that the opposition against CFCs worked and all nations successfully signed the Montreal Treaty. But In 1997, the US Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol in spite of Clinton and Gore (naturally) ratifying it. After this, it was but a formality for George W. Bush to resurrect this policy by not agreeing to sign Kyoto in 2001, citing that it would bring about grave economic damage.

Today, there is no doubt that global warming is real. It has been endorsed by every major scientific body in the world. Its effects are many and each one of them is devastating. Enough data has now been accumulated to reinforce the relation between greenhouse gases and global warming. Individual details do remain ambiguous in certain respects. But they will soon be quantified. And as I noted in this post, does it matter that we don't know everything with one hundred percent certainty. The repurcussions of global warming are the biggest that mankind will ever face, and even a 30% certainty about them should be enough for us to make serious efforts to stop it. In my opinion, the unfortunate thing about global warming is that it is a relatively slow killer. And because individual events due to it cannot be predicted, people are not going to be flustered by even Hurricane Katrina and think it was caused by global warming. They will just consider it to be an unfortunate incident and move on. If they knew for sure that Katrina was caused by global warming, they would be lined up on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington. But what they want is certainty. Strange that they don't seem to want it when it comes to terrorist attacks.

Weart's book is not an eloquent appeal to stop global warming. But that's what makes it striking, because the facts, as revealed by the dispassionate hand of science, make the phenomenon clear. However, that's probably the only problem I would find with the book. Weart is a good writer, but not a particularly poetic or eloquent one. I believe he could have made the book much more sobering and dramatic. He essentially weaves a history in the true sense of the word, even if he may fall short of making it read like a novel. The human drama is there, but kept to a minimum. He writes like a true scientist, making the facts matter. The science on global warming is now sound. What is not is human nature.

I cannot help putting in this cartoon again

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Note: Weart has an informative site based on his book, which contains many updated essays not in the book. Worth a look.


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