Let’s avoid rushing to judgment about climate change

By Dr. Arnold Flick

SAN DIEGO — Without dwelling on the whys and hows, in the early 1970’s Roger Revelle, then head of Scripps Oceanographic and subsequently Jerome Namias, a senior meteorologist there, gave of their time to talk with me about what was then called the “greenhouse effect,” still called as such in some circles, but in general context became “Climate Warming” and is now called “Climate Change.” I’ll come back to this later.

Regardless of its name, the topic is the relationship of the increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere to increasing surface temperature on planet Earth. Inasmuch as CO2 and a few other gases trap heat in a manner analogous to greenhouse glass, the term “greenhouse effect” was the initial name. Among these gases, CO2 is much the dominant. Its increase is ascribed to increased burning of carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil. This increase started in the late 19th century and has continued gigantically since then.  Just since 1965, coal consumption has risen from about 1400 million metric tons daily to about 3800 million metric tons daily in 2013. In this same time frame, oil consumption has gone from about 55 million barrels a day to about 95 million barrels a day in 2015. So there is no doubt but that the CO2 burden on the atmosphere, from human activity, has sharply increased. Estimates of change in atmospheric CO2 preceding human activity, this going back hundreds of thousands of years and based on estimates from fossils and trapped air in glaciers shows a wide fluctuation, although current levels are very high within the last 10,000 years.  This natural CO2 comes from such as fermentation, volcanoes, and release from the oceans’ dissolved gas.  Parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere were about 250 a century ago and are now about 400 with the rate of rise increasing. Generally accepted data shows global temperature to have increased by about .7 degrees centigrade since 1970 and is still rising. A rise above 2 degrees Centigrade is anticipated to have very adverse effects on human standards of living.

Drs. Revelle’s and Namias’ interest in the greenhouse effect was already longstanding in the 1970’s; that of Revelle beginning in the 1950s. Both Professors were certain that the greenhouse effect was happening; Dr. Revelle thought people would be noticing it in the first quarter of the 21st century, i.e. now, and Dr. Namias thought its effect would be noticeable at mid-century. I was interested in the possibility of negative environmental feedbacks that would diminish the greenhouse and asked each of them the same 2 questions: 1, if more atmospheric CO2, then more would disperse in the ocean with rain and wind and would this, in turn, lead to plankton blooms consuming the CO2 and trapping it in their bodies 2, would more evaporation from the ocean lead to an increased cloud cover that would block the sun? Those questions did not have answers then and are not fully answered now.

Plankton is now said not to be a potential feedback. The basis for this statement is that plankton is inhibited by an acid environment and CO2 in the ocean is an acidifying chemical. This statement ignores the potential for plankton to adapt, either by mutation, or by adaptive enzyme accommodation.

The cloud question could not then be answered as both professors stated that the question was too complex for their computer modeling. They did opine, however, that it was unlikely going to be a major negative feedback.

At that early date, an additional question, namely the oceans as a “heat sink” was not raised. This topic is now of great interest, and is thought to explain the slower than anticipated increase in atmospheric temperature relative to the rapid increase in atmospheric CO2.

In the last 15 years scientific inquiry into this topic and economic analysis of possible remedies have been upstaged by politics. President Obama has made this his signal issue and the federal government has followed. As always, in the short term, politics trumps everything: sober inquiry, a search for truth, and dissent from the majority are swept aside. Some UN agencies are considering that questions about Climate Change are legal and punishable offenses.  Moreover, the Attorney Generals of New York and Massachusetts, Eric Schneiderman and Maura Healey among others, are investigating Exxon Mobil for its contrary opinion on Climate Change. Exxon’s position is supported, notably, by 1973 Physics Nobel Prize winner Ivar Giaever among others.

It’s apparent that no one will escape the effects of a major climate change. Whether you are the richest multi-billionaire in Seattle or the poorest Eskimo in Alaska, a meaningful change in climate will affect, very likely adversely, your greatgrandchildren or maybe even your grandchildren. The issue is how much immediate damage do we do by immediate economic sanctions imposed on our own small percentage of the world’s population in response to a threat, the size of which as well as its very existence as a progressive phenomenon, is still under question by serious scientists.

My own opinion is that we make haste slowly; push those things which do not collapse our economy and standard of living and depoliticize this issue to permit rapid and dispassionate study. What are “those things”: well, every home with a solar roof and, yes, nuclear energy which produces no CO2. As for windmills which are already gobbling the bats (bats are insect eaters): have you noticed that the President has waived the rules on windmills thus permitting the slaughter of eagles?

*
Flick is a retired physician residing in San Diego.

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