Friday, August 11, 2006

Don Quixote Had it Easy

Don Quixote Had it Easy

One of my numerous niblings lives in the South where he raises children and builds racecars. He’s a serious Christian and an extremely intelligent young man. He has not, however, subjected himself to much formal education and skepticism does not come naturally. From time to time he sends me links to posts he finds interesting. I usually don’t know whether he’s sounding me out or pulling my chain, but I always answer seriously.

A few years ago he pummeled me with the famous NASA conspiracy theory where "evidence" suggested that the US had never landed anyone onto the surface of the moon. The whole thing was staged, goes the story, in order to impress the Soviets. Now, I hope no one reading this finds the concept credible, but I spent some time and effort trying to convince my nephew that Neil Armstrong was for real. Eventually he gave up. I don’t know whether he was convinced or lost interest, but it took a long time. You should see some of these web sites. They are unbelievably detailed and carefully documented. If you’ve ever purchased a Rolex watch in a train station or a timeshare anywhere, you might easily be susceptible to this sort of thing.

Lately my nephew has been fired up again on the subject of Global Warming. I think his love of automobiles and proximity to thickets of Republicans have made him reluctant to accept it without a battle. He has been reading a lot on the Web and has fetched up a few interesting links. One article demonstrates, quite correctly, the Problem with using Hydrogen. The production, transportation and usage of hydrogen as a fuel are all inefficient operations that consume energy. If you were to use fossil fuels to power these processes, you would be dramatically increasing CO2 production.

He has also pounced on me with the recent discovery that trees produce methane under normal circumstances, implying, therefore, that everything the "liberals" advocate is wrong!

Methane from Trees - Links: Nature, Financial Times (subscription), The Guardian

I’m making the assumption, when I answer him, that he is quite capable of finding both sides of the argument if he wants to. What I try todo is put a little perspective on the issues, to pry him loose from right wing dogma, without writing a technical tome. Here are some of my responses:

You may not have noticed the revised version of the Guardian article, which has to following update: The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday January 16 2006

The headline above overstated the more circumspect case outlined in the article below, which said that plants emit up to 30% of the methane, a greenhouse gas, entering the Earth's atmosphere. Scientists have just discovered this, but to conclude that it is a new cause of rising temperatures is mistaken.


The Earth's climate system has been in near equilibrium for a long time. It's the changes in that equilibrium that matter. There are so many causal relationships that it is hard for scientists to keep track of where particular components of the atmosphere come from and where they go. We're still learning. Think of how children recognize when something is wrong.

And what do we know? We know only that the equilibrium no longer controls the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that average temperatures are rising and that these effects are significantly due to human activity. The rest is informed speculation.

We also don't really know what to expect in the future. We have models that run on supercomputers (extremely expensive models) that predict certain patterns, but different models predict different outcomes. So the scientists fight over the differences. What they don't fight over, at least most of them, is whether something is wrong.

The methane finding really tells us that there are still very important things about the climate system that we didn't know. It's kind of like using DNA tests on people who were convicted of murders before DNA tests were used. It gives us a pretty good picture of how badly our justice system has worked in the past (and probably still does). We are not very good at catching the right guy, but I think we are still pretty sure that someone was killed.

To be honest, we don't know for sure which actions will be helpful and which will be harmful. This is one reason a lot of scientists don't necessarily support Kyoto per se. It is fairly safe to assume, however, that anthropogenic effects can be reversed by looking at what people do and stopping orreducing those activities. People cut forests. CO2 concentrations are going up. Maybe something about the forest, if not the trees, is sequestering CO2. Who knows? Maybe our best strategy will turn out to be that we need to cut the forests down. I remember the Woody Allen film Sleepers where the guy wakes up a hundred years in the future and everybody makes him smoke cigarettes to improve his health. Meanwhile, I personally think it's best to stop cutting the forest down.

At any rate, it's certainly reasonable to expect that burning fossil fuels, at least, has something to do with upsetting the equilibrium. We haven't been doing that for very long. So let's find ways to reduce it. Fill your tank with nuclear energy -- that's the policy that I support. It may be completely wrong, but if we wait until we are absolutely sure of the science, like the cigarette smokers in the 60's and the 70's, it may be too late.


Global Warming Refutations - Links: Patrick Bedard in Car and Driver, September 2006. Not available online, but you can see a discussion of it here.

Denial runs deep. There are three arguments implied here. 1) Water vapor has a dramatic impact on the climate system. People who study the climate forgot to include the effect of water vapor because they are stupid. There is nothing to worry about. Let's keep burning fossil fuel as fast as we can. 2) The climate in the past has been so cold that it was unfavorable to humans. Now it is warmer, which is nice. Maybe if it were warmer still it would be even nicer. There is nothing to worry about. Let's keep burning fossil fuel as fast as we can. 3) The Kyoto Protocol is a bad plan that is economically unfavorable to the US. Therefore, any change to our current energy generation scheme is bad for the US. Any plan to limit CO2 production is probably a conspiracy of liberals and foreigners to weaken us. The only thing to worry about is political change, not climate change. So let's keep burning fossil fuel as fast as we can.

It may turn out, though I strongly doubt it, that all of these arguments represent the essential truth. Even so, I believe we should err on the side of caution and start acting asif there just may be a potential for destructive climate change related to our activities. Considering what we have to lose, I think we should err on the side of caution. The plan I support is to replace current generators with nuclear power and to transition our national car fleet from gasoline to electric. This would not be so terribly painful and would have several benefits. The air would be cleaner. The US would not be hostage to foreign oil supplies. Conversion to potential future energy sources, such as fusion, space-based solar power collection, geo-thermal, fuel cell, tidal, wind, solar, or hamster-wheels, whatever, would be simpler. I think it would actually be good for our economy since a huge chronic drain of currency would disappear.

Well, I don't know whether he wanted to hear all that, but I not good at knowing when to quit. Wish me luck.

8/11/2006 1:19 AM

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At Friday, August 11, 2006 9:34:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Good luck!

I hope you enjoy the sport in the effort irrespective of its effect on your nephew. If he's anything like me, he may be experiencing a hardening of positions and losing his capacity to entertain opposing viewpoints.

At Saturday, August 12, 2006 7:45:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

At the very least, he may come to accept that these are complex issues and that one can reasonably disagree.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At Saturday, August 12, 2006 2:01:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I suppose it is sport for me. I'm actually honored that he asks my opinion. As long as I don't offend him, everything is cool.

I don't think we can afford to let our positions harden. People arrive at their positions for good reasons. They have access to what I call deference networks, where they will defer to the opinions of others in certain areas. If his minister is anti-scientific, if his peers make fun of hippies and libruls, then his deference networks may not connect back, even with six degrees of separation, to anyone who understands the science.

Incomplete deference networks are common, but dangerous. As long as I'm part of his network, even on a conditional basis, at least I know he's getting a more balanced picture.

At Saturday, August 12, 2006 2:08:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...


I'm his uncle! I babysit for the kids when he's in town. He can think I'm pig-headed, but he can't say it out loud.

At Saturday, August 12, 2006 5:58:00 PM, Blogger mal said...

we have been living in a very stable period in the earths climate. I think we forget that at our peril.

As regards transportation of Hydrogen?
Hydrogen as a fuel source is moot until we get a CHEAP source of electricity to allow us to economically crack water. Fusion of course is the pie in the sky solution but even Fission would get us there. If its cheap, who cares how much energy we expend transporting it.

At Saturday, August 12, 2006 6:20:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Wait! Can't we get hydrogen from grass? Or rabbit droppings? I heard it grows on trees.


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