Originally Published: May 16, 2007 4 a.m.
Dr. Terry Lovell's April 15 "Talk of the Town" argued that "science" does not support agreements calling for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"To deny development to and thereby kill millions of the poorest people on earth" he said, "is not just racist, sexist and classist, it also is totally scientifically incorrect and unsupportable. Before we empower the so-called environmental movement to cause another developing nations-wide genocide, we should stop and do the science."
I agree science should play an important role in guiding society's response to climate change. Ironically, Lovell's use of science in some places was misleading, and in others irrelevant.
Lovell said, "the earth's atmosphere is 99.946 percent NOT carbon dioxide (CO2)."
He insinuates that because the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is so low, it must not be important. CO2 is less than 1 percent of the atmosphere, but it causes between 10-25 percent of the Earth's heat trapping capacity.
Lovell: "Of the 0.054 of 1 percent of the Earth's atmosphere that is carbon dioxide, the portion that human activity causes is in the single digits." This may be true for a single year, but since the industrial revolution, we have caused atmospheric CO2 to climb from 280 to 380 parts per million (ppm), and in this century, few dispute that this concentration will increase to between 500-1000 ppm.
Lovell: "Termites produce 10 times as much carbon dioxide as does all of mankind and cattle produce more carbon dioxide." Termites and cattle exhale carbon dioxide that plants recently removed from the atmosphere. Termites and cattle are part of a cycle that adds no new CO2 to the atmosphere. The combustion of fossil fuels, however, releases vast quantities of CO2 out of circulation for 300 million years. If termites and cattle flew airplanes and drove cars, Lovell would have a point.
Lovell's examples demonstrate how scientific findings can elicit a particular perspective on climate change regardless of their accuracy or relevance. But of even greater concern is his portrayal of how science works.
Dr. Lovell said valid scientific research must follow three criteria:
Temporal precedence: A always must occur before B.
Mutual exclusivity: B never may occur without A.
Occam's razor: No better fit exists of the data to a model of the empirically observed state of nature.
These criteria have certainly been important to helping us determine simple things like which salts dissolve in water, to more complicated things like how to land a rocket on the moon.
But they are useful only when the system under study is highly constrained, where scientists truly can control or predict the relevant variables.
In extremely complex systems like the carbon cycle and the earth's heat balance, which involve innumerable variables, science can shed light on important relationships, and can inform discussions of probable outcomes, but it definitively cannot and will not predict specific outcomes‹until it is too late and the outcomes are here.
The question then becomes, are the probabilities of various climate change outcomes high enough to merit serious action now?
We are already accustomed to acting on future scenarios that involve high degrees of uncertainty, especially when the stakes are really high. Take health insurance for example. Many of us make regular substantial payments to protect against disease or accidents that have very low probabilities.
The February report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported with 90 percent confidence that human-induced climate change already is taking place.
Even scientists who are skeptical about the relationship between carbon dioxide and climate change acknowledge some chance that it actually may occur.
Indeed this is why virtually every scientific professional organization whose scientists' work relates to climate change‹including the National Academy of Sciences‹has stated that given the risks involved, we know enough to act. These scientific organizations are not genocidal environmental groups.
It is important to remember that global warming is just one part of a larger issue: dependence on fossil fuels. This dependence forces us to pursue strategic control of the Middle East, and it positions us as economic competitors with less wealthy countries that are just developing their economies.
Contrary to Lovell's claims, our insatiable appetite for oil is making it harder, not easier for less developed countries to develop.
From every vantage, it is in our country's best interest--as a matter of national security, ecological sustainability, and international diplomacy--to reduce our dependence on fossil energy drastically.
To learn more I encourage everyone to read the summary statements for policy makers by the IPCC http://www.ipcc.ch/.
(Tim Crews is a professor of Environmental Studies and Agroecology at Prescott College.)