Sunday, November 27, 2011

Global Warming: The Four Noble Half-Truths

One of the fun things about the Global Warming debate is how many different fields of knowledge it draws on.  What is the temperature and acidity of the ocean?  How has the beta radiation emitted by the sun varied?  How quickly did balsa trees in Siberia grow?  How much methane is released per year in the Arctic?  What sorts of grapes were grown how far north in Medieval Europe?  What kinds of mosquitos can survive in the "heat island" of urban Tokyo?  Even scientists in obscure fields like glaciology get their moment in the sun, so to speak. 

How about those of us who study comparative religion?  Can we add anything to the discussion?  Perhaps a bit of perspective on the Global Warming movement as a religious movement. 

Has anyone noticed how closely the claims of Anthropogenic Global Warming resembles the basic teachings of Buddhism? 

The Buddha is said to have discovered Four Noble Truths while meditating under a bodhi tree:

First, life involves suffering (or "is suffering," there is some debate on just how broadly he defined the problem). 

Second, the cause of suffering is desire (or karma; again, there seems to be some question about exactly what Buddha meant). 

Third, the way to end suffering is, therefore, to end desire (karma). 

Fourth, Buddha offered an "Eight-Fold Path" to ending desire or karma, and therefore attaining nirvana: right view, aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration (of mind, not of greenhouse gases). 

The parallels stumble over one another to emerge.  Let us put them in the following order:

The Four Noble (Half) Truths of Global Warming
By most measures, worldwide air
temperatures have increased
over the past 2 centuries by a
little more than 1 degree C.
#1  Earth's atmosphere has been warming. 

The truth: Almost certainly so.  While some skeptics point out that weather stations in cities are subject to "heat island" effects, and argue that AGW proponents have not taken this into account sufficiently, it seems clear from a variety of measurements that global temperatures have, in fact, gone up about 1 degree C over the past century. 

Mendenhall glacier,
near Juneau, with
Nugget Falls in
foreground, early 1980s.
If nothing else, global warming can be deduced from the fact that around the world, glaciers have retreated dramatically since about the mid-19th Century. 

#2  The main cause of atmospheric warming, is car-ma.  (And car-pas, they reproduce so swiftly nowadays.)   
The truth: possibly so.  There is nothing inherently unreasonable in supposing that greenhouse gases will warm the atmosphere, in fact it seems to be simple physics.  (Or so they say.)  What is clear historically is that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased over the past century, and that carbon isotopes in the CO2 show that much of the increase comes from carbon released by human activity.  

The same glacier a quarter
mile behind the falls, about 2006.
(My sons John and James
standing in front of the falls.)
However, almost half of all warming occurred before about 1945.  The amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere per year was about 1/30 then, what it is today.  So it seems unlikely that the small amount released before WWII would have had such a dramatic effect on worldwide climate.  Applying Occam's Razor, it seems plausible that whatever caused MOST of the global warming before 1950, may have cause some or most of it after 1950.  Therefore, it seems likely that half or more global warming was NOT caused by release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases by human industrial activity.  (car-ma)  But it is also possible that these trends mask other changes (much discussed by climate scientists, including sun-spot cycles, solar radiation, ocean currents, and so forth) that would normally result in cooling rather than warming.  And it is also true that temperatures rose most dramatically after about the mid-1970s.  So empirically, it seems a flip of the coin whether half the warming was due to human activity, more or less. 

#3 Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is a terrible thing, which will harm or destroy much complex life on earth, including our ownIt is therefore critical to end the cause (car-mas, car-pas) of this bad effect.

The Truth: I seriously doubt it.  If Earth's ecosystem were so fragile and subject to runaway warming and cooling trends, how did we develop life on this planet in the first place?  Some periods in the past have been much warmer than today -- yet the ice sheets did not melt, and Earth did not become another Venus.  Reports of flora and fauna from the Shang Dynasty in northern China show that 3 thousand years ago, the region was much warmer and wetter than it is today, for instance.  Other periods have been much cooler, yet Ice Ages eventually ended due to natural cycles and (presumably) negative feedback mechanisms.

Planet Earth seems fairly resilient.  Even UN predictions suggest that continued global warming will only raise the sea level by about a foot or so over the 21st Century -- so slight a rise it will be easy to gradually adjust for it, even on the lowest Pacific islands. 

What makes it easier to doubt the apocalyptic scenarios offered by AGW, is how often they have proven empty.  Al Gore blamed the Bush administration for Hurricane Katrina, and won a Nobel Prize for doing so.  The many gross errors he made in An Inconvenient Truth make one wonder about the standards of his supporters.  One also commonly comes across extreme claims about Pacific Islands sinking under the waves, Himalayan glaciers disappearing, the causes of melting ice on Kilamanjaro, and the supposed desertification of the planet, leading, one otherwise well-informed AGW proponent assures me, an "end to agriculture" and mass starvation, would reach 70% in a few decades, despite reams of contrary evidence I pointed him to. 

One can see the psychology of doomsday thinking at work, here.  Population Bomb, anyone?  Late, Great, Planet Earth

#4  Our environmental Buddhas offer an "Eight-Fold Path" to end car-ma, and attain nirvana, which also involves right view (global), aspiration (green), speech (media), action (turn off the lights!), livelihood (organic farming), effort, mindfulness, and concentration (of greenhouse gases, but first of cash into the right pockets).

The Truth:  Most of this looks more and more like a scam.  Adopting the whole program might well destroy the world's economy (what's left of it), and would likely devastate poor countries.  And Al Gore and Co would probably get even richer than they already are, off government pork falling off the butcher's wagon. 

Why do I think that?  Over the past several years, the world economy has been deeply threatened by public debt.  This is a problem that we all know the answer to: spend less money.  And yet the Left, which pushes programs to solve AGW, has in fact not decreased spending, even when it held the White House and both houses of Congress.  No, it has increased spending dramatically. 

And where has that money gone?

Into the pockets of constituents and supporters. 
So long, cruel world!  Republicans
aim to slow the growth of spending
 by two freckles and a hair,
in the year, 2525!
Faced with years of crisis, the Right has been far too timid in cutting federal spending, and has often been complicit in pork-barrel spending, too.  Meanwhile, the Left (both in America and Europe) has reacted by sabatoging every effort to bring spending under control.  An overly modest program by Paul Ryan, for instance, was depicted in attack ads as an effort to "push grandma over a cliff" -- even though it would in fact not effect seniors. 

What does that tell us? 

The Left in America and Europe is addicted to huge amounts of public spending.  It doesn't matter what the money is spent on -- the Democratic Party is unwilling to cut ANYTHING.  (Except maybe the military.)  After a year of crisis and negotiation, the Democrats agreed -- maybe -- to cut some $1 billion from the federal budget, when the debt that year was more than $1.5 trillion!  Our enormous national budget, nearing twice what we take in, now, appears to consist entirely of sacred cows.

It is reasonable, I think, to distrust attempts by people so eager to spend money and increase government power to "manage" the alleged threat from AGW by further increasing the size and power of central government.  I simply don't believe what the plutocrats claim or promise, anymore.  I think it is mostly an effort, perhaps unconscious in some cases, to line their own beds and increase their power over the rest of us. 

Furthermore, given the growth of technology and how slowly the Earth is warming, I believe far cheaper methods of cooling the atmosphere, should they be needed, will become available, if they are not already.  Some discussion has taken place over the possibility of releasing SO2 into the upper atmosphere. Whether that will become viable, or some other solution will be found, I think it would be foolish at this time to wed ourselves to expensive, economy-killing, and probably unnecessary programs from the same people who gave us 20th Century socialism and the debt crisis, and stopped nuclear power in the US. 
And those, my friends, are the "Four Noble Half-Truths," so far as one scholar of religions can make them out.  If that does not seem so far, take comfort in the fact that after 2600 years, no one seems to really get Buddhism, either.


BillT said...

For another intelligent perspective on AWG

David B Marshall said...

Bill: Thanks for the link. Ridley obviously knows the nuts and bolts of the issue far better than I do; it's a succinct, hard-hitting, and well-written paper.

It's also interesting that he is related to Nicholas Ridley. The spot where he and the other two "Oxford Martyrs" were burnt at the stake is marked with a red cross in the middle of Broad Street.

I have to take issue with this comment, though:

"So, in a sense by definition, is religious faith (pseudoscience). It explicitly claims that there are truths that can be found by other means than observation and

This is incoherent nonsense. If something doesn't claim to be science, it can't be pseudoscience.

And of course there are truths that can be found by means other than "observation and experiment." If you tell me your wife's name is "Becky," I am conducting no experiment, and observing nothing, but learning by testimony and authority. That's how most law, history, education, even science, is actually learned, in the real world. Apparently Matt has been out of school for too long, and got bit with the bug of scientism.

Theism posits a "higher authority."

Crude said...

I'm glad to read this. I've long been of the mind that the biggest problem with the AGW "movement" isn't with the claims of warming, or even man's role in the warming. It's with the projections and the policies attached to them.

The Monster said...

From an epistemological point of view, all you know is "I heard Bill say what sounded to me like a statement that his wife's name is 'Becky'." You don't know that he even has a wife, much less what her name is. However, if you meet a woman that Bill calls 'Becky', and she acts in a manner consistent with the hypothesis that she is his wife, you have additional observations to go along with "Bill says".

Meanwhile, you have a history of Bill saying things to you for which you can make independent observations. If he has been truthful in the past, you have justification for placing a higher confidence level on what he tells you.

Someone who truly does not distinguish between "I know this from personal observation" and "I believe this because someone told me" is a con victim waiting to happen. Or a Democrat voter. Is that redundant?

David B Marshall said...

If I know Bill, and trust him, and think he's serious, then if he says his wife's name is Becky, I have a good reason to think it is, a truth that I find without "observation" (of the object of my belief), still less "experiment." If an epistemology can't find room for such common-place, everyday experiences, it's time to find a new epistemology.

Why do I trust Bill? Maybe he has a "track record," which you can call "experiment," if you like, or "observation." But then, if we broaden those terms to that degree, then the Bible claims that God also has a "track record," that there are reasons for trusting Him. In either case, I think Mr. Ridley is misunderstanding the nature of Christian faith.

I take your last point. But not all of Barack Obama's supporters are con victims. Some have to work the con. :- )

Anonymous said...

ManhattanMC sez:

And an even greater surprise to find you've swallowed the climate change denial red pill and don't understand the relationship between desire and karma.


David B Marshall said...

Manhattan: You're not on John's blog, now. Do try to make a point that coherently engages the argument, if you would like to post here. If you were to read and understand the OP, you should realize that in fact, I agree with most scientists that the climate has changed slightly. So your jibe is just senseless.