It's not about global warming

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<p>As a cold snap envelops much of the country, I'm reminded of a big concern I have about the environmental movement precipitated by fears of global warming.</p>
<p>What if people get bored with the issue because nothing happens for decades?</p>
<p>No, I'm not hoping for bad things to happen. What I'm worried about is the one fact that nobody but the oil companies and warming deniers talk about. All the predictions are wrong. We don't know how much human-produced atmospheric carbon will warm the planet. We don't know how much polar ice caps will melt. We don't know what environmental disasters may result.</p>
<p>The problem is in the computer models. All we can say for certain about them is that they're all wrong, unless, like a broken clock that happens to be right twice a day, someone lucks out. The clock is right for one second out of 42,200 in a day. What if one out of 50,000 predictions is right? But most likely, none of them are.</p>
<p>A computer model is only as good as the data and formulas you put into it. We don't have nearly all the data, and we don't have a remote idea of what the real equations are. I was fortunate to receive a journalism fellowship to MIT a decade ago. As part of that, we heard input from many researchers on global warming. What I came away with is that it's impossible to predict the future.</p>
<p>Some of the factors that affect the weather: The heat carrying capacity of the ocean. How that is affected by ocean currents. The effect of clouds. How cloud cover will change as the earth warms. How extra carbon dioxide will affect plant growth. How much atmospheric carbon will actually warm things - it's not a linear equation; twice as much carbon does not produce twice the temperature rise. And, importantly, chaos theory.</p>
<p>When I took the fellowship, the consensus at MIT was that we weren't even sure global warming was real, and that we could not attribute any warming or cooling trends to human activity. That consensus has now changed. The vast majority of people who study the subject now believe that warming is real and that humans caused it. So I'm worried.</p>
<p>But we cannot predict how it will progress. We know this because any honest researcher will tell you we don't have nearly enough data. We also know it because none of the computer models, when run backward, accurately reflect what already happened.</p>
<p>Concerns over global warming have had one wonderful effect: In much of the first would countries, we've become environmentalists. We recognize the importance of minimizing our impact on the planet. We talk about sustainable farming, sustainable development. Sustainable living.</p>
<p>These are things we should have been doing all along. I've always been frustrated over the fact that we treat "sustainable" living as something new and exotic. What's the alternative? By definition, unsustainable living means we're depleting resources, leaving things worse for our descendants. We could get away with this when human populations were sparse. We cannot get away with it now that we cover the planet.</p>
<p>So my concern: If nothing dire happens in the next few decades, if the compute models - the predictions - don't come true, if the planet returns to periods of major cooling (the causes of which are, again, unknown) then the naysayers will say they told us so.</p>
<p>Remember Sarah Palin's fans shouting "Drill, baby drill"? We should be weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. They're limited, they pollute our air and water, they decrease the quality of life for every animal on earth. They are not a sustainable source of energy. It's not only about global warming, it's about not turning the planet into a polluted, barren, miserable place.</p>
<p>We need to be environmentalists. It only makes sense. But we tend to be short-sighted. Even Barack Obama has given in to the advocates of more drilling, because of the escalating gas prices during the campaigns.</p>
<p>I'm worried that if concerns over global warming wane, so will our sensible desire for sustainability. And we'll all be worse off as a result.</p>