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Phil-osophically Speaking - December 4, 2009

On Dec.9, in another effort to save the world from itself, international leaders will be meeting in Copenhagen to discuss imposing carbon restrictions to reduce greenhouse gases being released into the environment.

Global warming - it’s the latest menace. It must be. Former Vice President Al Gore has been bloviating about it for years and assorted doomsayers have made rescuing the planet from carbon dioxide emissions among the sexiest political issues out there. If you want to be part of the “in crowd,” global warming is the issue for you.

Of course, as an inhabitant of the third planet from the Sun, I’m all in favor of saving this blue and green orb from global catastrophe. True, I’m a born skeptic - like a lawyer from Missouri you have to show me. I don’t apologize for it. No less a light than T.S. Eliot said that cynicism is a civilized trait so, I figure, skepticism, a close cousin, should not be overlooked as a trait of good breeding.

If there is one thing we should have learned from Holden Caulfield, the young protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, it is that the world is full of fraud. But swindlers, counterfeiters and hysterics aside, I do not maintain that average global temperatures are regular, consistent and unchanging.

Frankly, I haven’t been to a cocktail party yet where climate stasis has been a conversation starter. Have you? In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the climate is actually doing what most scientists say it’s doing - changing. Like the weather, the Earth’s climate is a dynamic force; it is either warming or cooling depending on whatever phenomena are at play.

Nor do I doubt, or question, or, for that matter, disbelieve that climate change can impact our lives in important and even dramatic ways. Take a gander at the climate history of Greenland. Late in the 10th century that hardy, bearded bunch, the Vikings, were drawn to its verdant, fertile fields and placid waters that were teeming with codfish and seals. To borrow a phrase, it was a good place to live, work and raise a family.

Yet, by the middle of the 13th century this bucolic paradise had become so cold (courtesy of a mini ice age that also froze the Thames River and canals and waterways in the Netherlands) that beautiful Greenland was transformed into an arctic ghost town. Since 1850, Greenland’s climate has warmed proving that both the cooling and warming began before man-made carbon dioxide emissions. This is but one example of many climatic changes that have occurred throughout the Earth’s ancient history, without the influence of man-made pollutants.

Climate systems are incredibly and densely complex; it is very easy to get entangled in a “chicken or egg” scenario on what came first. For example, warmer climates give birth to more vegetation, which in turn leads to a greater production of carbon dioxide. The same is true of the oceans, which contain significant amounts of carbon dioxide. When the oceans heat up, carbon dioxide is released in the atmosphere. In other words, carbon dioxide may follow temperature changes instead of causing them.

While it’s true that humans living in industrial societies often affect their environment by changing the constituents in the atmosphere, solar cycles of the Sun, the most powerful energy source in our solar system, must also affect the Earth’s climate with its emission of radiation. Nature is a force unto itself; and I for one can scarcely believe that the melting of the ice caps is a man-made phenomenon unalloyed with any natural causes.

For those who are misled by the gentle fiction that nature is an innocent bystander before environmental degradation should, at the earliest opportunity, avail themselves of scientific studies regarding the catastrophic eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. That rupture by Mother Nature coughed up more pollutants into the Earth’s atmosphere than all the man-made pollutants in history.

Nevertheless, to address the dangers of man-made global warming and climate change environmentalists (which now includes much of the United States Government) has been peddling what is called “cap and trade.” It is a policy that centers upon an administrative approach to control pollution by providing economic incentives as a way to reduce it.

In its simplest terms “cap and trade” works like this: Industries that need to increase their emission allowance of carbon dioxide above the established “cap” must buy credits from those who pollute less. In effect, the buyer is paying a charge for polluting, while the seller is being rewarded for having to reduce emissions by more than was needed. In addition, these incentives are supposed to stimulate engineering creativity among pollutants to devise technological solutions to meet the required thresholds.

While it’s true that similar agreements have been useful in reducing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, also called Freon) that had threatened the ozone layer that protects the Earth from dangerous ultraviolet rays as well as reducing the amount of acid rain that had been a growing problem ever since the Industrial Revolution, the fact is reducing carbon dioxide is more problematic. Much more. CFCs are used in smaller quantities and in just a few specific industries whereas power and transportation, the very foundation of a modern industrial economy, are intimately connected to carbon emissions.

Economists estimate that the costs of bringing emissions under the cap could be one hundred times as great as CFCs and acid rain; a difference in cost, one authority noted, between getting a tune-up and buying a new car. This is why India’s environmental minister told U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton that his country is not going to sacrifice hundreds of millions of mostly poor people to meet emission standards of rich Western nations.

Meanwhile, China, despite recent concessions, is also asking the U.S. and other Western nations to pay 1 percent of their yearly gross domestic product to help the developing world finance emission reductions. These expenses would come on top of the financial burdens of retrofitting American based industries to meet their targets of a 17 percent greenhouse emissions reduction by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.

In the midst of a powerful and debilitating recession, these percentages are a chokehold on economic growth as well as a sure-fire job killer. Moreover, after making all these expenditures we don’t even know if the science is correct or whether it would make much of an impact.

We all want clean air and clean water. But before we spend billions let us be certain, or as certain as we can be, that the threat is sufficiently clear, that its causes are undeniable and that the solution devised is workable and feasible.

As if the situation isn’t complicated enough, more than 3,000 e-mails and documents were made public on the Internet purportedly showing scientists manipulating climate data to make it conform to their theories that global warming is an existential threat. This is obviously very disturbing, and if these e-mails cannot be explained away then a great many will have a lot of explaining to do. It is too early to make an honest judgment on whether those with an agenda are cooking the numbers, but it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

What’s not too early to recognize or understand is that science, for all its lofty pretensions about unbiased truths can, like any other entity, be politicized. A science that pantomimes political correctness instead of being guided by solid evidence is close-minded and becomes nothing more than an ugly superstition. There is enough serious debate about the causes, effects and possible solutions for climate change to give us all pause, so let us think before we act, and walk before we begin to run.