March 18, 2005

It’s been difficult, in the Pacific Northwest these past two months or so, to argue against global warming. Until this past week, when the rains finally came for one day, we have been blessed (some say: cursed) with a warm, dry spell — a false spring — that has had little break. Only now, as spring officially starts (in America’s silly seasonal reckoning) with the Equinox approaching, are we experiencing anything like normal weather.

Northwesterners are all thinking one thing for this summer: drought. Horrible drought. The very idea of no rain, in the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, is almost unthinkable!

Actually, I tend not to argue against the idea of global warming. When I was a kid, the talk among scientists was global cooling and another Ice Age. But based on my knowledge of the recent history of the region I lived in (once again, the Pacific Northwest), it seemed farfetched. Warming, instead, seemed to have taken place.

When my father was a lad, he took the General Washington from Astoria, Oregon, to the Washington side, a few miles upstream, for the funeral of an uncle. Alas, the Columbia was frozen over, and a metal icebreaker had to be affixed to the front of the boat. Just a few miles from the mouth, people were driving their cars out onto the river. Only once has it been cold enough to get real ice out onto the river, and never to that extent again.

Indeed, nowadays, the Columbia is known to be many degrees warmer than it was before the dams were put in. With dams and sewage and gray water and factory drainage, the temperature is becoming almost impossible for salmon to live here — here where once the salmon constituted the dominant aspect of the eco-system as far upriver as the Rocky Mountains! (A pelt from a bear shot in Eastern Washington in the early 1800s was examined, and found to contain the kind of nitrogen that only can be found at sea; the salmon had brought that nitrogen upstream into the desert plains and even the mountains of the Rockies, suffusing the whole area with its ubiquitous presence. Now, of course, salmon barely exist upstream, and are abandoning the Columbia, one of its traditional homes.)

The exhaust from automobiles is of course also quite in evidence all over the country. It seemed to me, as a teenager contemplating the likelihood of an Ice Age, that global warming seemed more logical. At that time, an Ice Age seemed as unreasonable a scenario as the mass starvation scenarios that Paul Ehrlich was trotting out at that time (he predicted mass starvation by 1980). I had read enough of such population theorists to realize that they were absolutely nuts, and that arguments similar to theirs should be taken with whole deserts of salt. Unfortunately, I determined that one of my favorite writers on science, Isaac Asimov, was in their camp, and utterly untrustworthy on global ecology and climatological science. It was a strange time. It was obvious that some people writing on the environment had become utterly unhinged. This was something obvious to me in 1980, when I basically stopped reading their crap, and when I finally and firmly rejected labels like environmentalist. (And, for that matter, feminist, too; but that’s another story.)

And then, global warming — the science and the scare-mongering — blossomed!

Of course, much of what passes for global warming science is nonsense. After all, a lot of it is based on logic very similar to the Erlichian nonsense I’d abandoned in utter disgust in the late ’70s.

An eventuality like global climate shift is built for nonsense, invites it. The Day After Tomorrow, last year’s ecodisaster flick that I finally watched this week, is a good example. It takes the best of both worlds, suggesting the paradox that melting ice from global warming desalinizes the Atlantic, collapses the Gulf Stream, and brings on a Northern Hemisphere Ice Age. There are so many holes in this scenario, not to mention the obvious nonsense of an Instant Ice Age drama, that it’s best to just dismiss it.

Not so easily dismissible — indeed, I think likely to be proven out as true or close-to-true — is the scenario described by William F. Ruddiman in the March Scientific American. How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate? Ruddiman shows that the eons-old Ice Age/Warm Age cycle has long been overdue for an Ice Age return (this was known in the ’70s, hence the Ice Age theory). But when checking 11,000-year-old ice cores from Antarctica, he noticed that there were greenhouse gases embedded in them way back. Far earlier than he expected, at greater levels than he had any reason to guess.

His conjecture? That the onset of humanity’s mass agriculture increased greenhouse gases thousands of years ago, and that the consequent warming has prevented an Ice Age from starting on schedule.

Unfortunately, though we might see this long-term warming as beneficial — no Ice Age; whew! — the recent burning of fossil fuels likely will take this one step too far. No Ice Age; good. A return to a Mesozoic climate would not be so good! I don’t want to live like a dinosaur. (Actually, that’s just my extrapolation; Ruddiman doesn’t mention the Mesozoic climate models at all.)

Ruddiman’s work is neatly described and argued for in his article and sidebars. He even addresses and accounts for the Little Ice Ages that have interrupted the general warming and increased CO2 content of the atmosphere. The CO2 dips, he believes, were the result of human disease:

Two severe outbreaks of bubonic plague, the single most devastating killer in human history, correlate well with large CO2 drops at approximately A.D. 540 and 1350. . . . Plague first erupted during the Roman era, with the most virulent pandemic, the Plague of Justinian, in A.D. 540 to 542. The infamous Black Death struck between 1347 and 1352, followed by lesser outbreaks for more than a century. Each of these pandemics killed some 25 to 40 percent of the population of Europe. An even worse catastrophe followed in the Americas after 1492, when Europeans introduced smallpox and a host of other diseases that killed around 50 million people, or about 90 percent of the pre-Columbian population. The American pandemic coincides with the largest CO2 drop of all, from 1550 to 1800. Observers at the time noted that the massive mortality rates produced by these pandemics caused widespread abandonment of rural villages and farms, leaving untended farmland to revert to the wild. Ecologists have shown that forests will reoccupy abandoned land in just 50 years. Coupled with estimates of human population and the acreage of cultivate by each farmer, calculations of forest regrowth in pandemic-stricken regions indicate that the renewed forests could have sequestered enough carbon to reduce concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere by the amounts observed. Global climate would have cooled as a result, until each pandemic passed and rebounding populations began cutting and burning forests anew. (p. 52)

The only trouble I see with this scenario is that, well, I hadn’t realized the American aboriginal populations had done so much clearing of land to help affect the climate. Indeed, suggested by his evidence, Indian clearing and farming accounted for more greenhouse gases than European farming did! Then again, our knowledge of the American Indian is largely during those populations’ eclipse; many of the diseases spread and took their toll while Europeans had barely invaded their shores. Apparently.

Ruddiman keeps cool about global warming. He’s aware of ideological uses of his (and others’) work. But he resists most such talk. He ends by saying that global warming will likely continue for another 200 years, until the economically accessible fossil fuels become scarce. After that, he doesn’t know whether cooling will occur enough to bring on an Ice Age again, or not. Sagely, he says it is impossible to predict.

Of course, the idea that readily accessible fossil fuels will become scarce is loose economic talk; they are scarce now, hence their value. But he’s on to the right notion, the supplies will eventually become harder and harder to pull out of the ground. And we’ll find other sources of fuel. And they will likely have fewer climatological consequences.

And we might as well be happy about that.

Take a longer view, and keep cool. Even if major shocks to the world ecology occur such as further ice melting, and a rise in sea level. Troublesome, yes. But it would be less devastating, after all, than a new Ice Age, either as expected by climatologists or as imagined by the makers of The Day After Tomorrow. Because, the likelihood would be massive migration from the North to the equatorial regions. And, unlike the appreciative, even humble attitude of the American leadership in the s/f disaster movie, almost certainly such a migration would lead to political conquest of the South by the Northern Hordes.

Frankly, I’ve had enough of political conquest. Even if I may be a putatively privileged member of one of the Northern Hordes.

And as far as trying to regulate the temperature of the Earth by draconian pollution controls, or other regulations, I’m skeptical. For every small, barely discernable change in the amounts of greenhouse gases generated by humans, the amount of tyranny and economic hardship induced by such a change will be neither small nor barely discernible.

Wirkman Virkkala
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