There were quite few comments on my Climategate post last week. There was a bit more I wanted to say and will do so here.
My bottom line message was that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) IS a major problem, but one that has received considerable hype from both "sides." One side is convinced, for good reason, that AGW is a real problem, but is not afraid to dramatize the threat a bit or to see the "other side" in threatening terms. The other believes the whole business is some kind of false science inspired by some left wind conspiracy. Or they repeat ideas that don't hold water under examination: e.g., that since the earth has had climate cycles before, we can't pin changes on greenhouse gases. Or that since we can't forecast weather well next week, how can we predict climate change fifty years from now? Or that there can't be global warming caused by man because the earth's temperatures haven't changed much during the last 5-10 years.
If we had some magic technical fix for AGW (e.g., a cheap and effective process to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or fusion power was made practical tomorrow) that would still not fix the really serious problem...sustainability. There is simply too many people on our planet and there will soon be a lot more. All want to enjoy the high standard of living in the western world--and how can we deny them what we have? We can't--they have as much right as we do for a comfortable life. We are using up the planets fresh water, exhausting the soils, polluting the air and ocean, using up limited resources (like oil)..the list goes on and on. Our species can't expand our numbers forever and we have to find a way to live indefinitely with the planet's carrying capacity.
Getting back to the Copenhagen meeting. It has been clear for a long time that no nation is willing to hurt its economic development in the short term for ameliorating a theoretical problem mainly in the future. Kyoto was pretty much of a joke in terms of doing anything serious and the agreement of last week lacks concrete measures. Even people who are emotionally committed to doing something about AGW are unwilling to change their personal lives in a meaningful way. How many global warming activists are jetting across the world for seemingly endless meetings? I know some with vacation homes--the ultimate waste of resources. If such committed people won't sacrifice and are not a little hypocritical, how can we expect others to?
Lets be honest with ourselves...there is only a few ways left to proceed now:
1. Put large amount of resources into technological improvements in energy efficiency, new energy sources, removal of Co2 from the atmosphere, etc. Make it cost effective and NO SACRIFICE to reduce fossil fuel emission. Green industry can be a boon for everyone. The U.S. is very rich in solar and wind energy...we are just scratching the surface. And we and much of the world waste huge amounts of energy. Obama should make this a priority---a Manhattan Project like effort.
2. Take serious steps on adaption--making the changes necessary to reduce the impacts of global warming and to take advantage of the good things that go with it. And there will be good things. The Canadians and Russians are going see vast areas opening up to agriculture. Washington State wines will get even better (sorry Californians).
Taking both approaches will help give us time to deal with the overarching problem...sustainability and overpopulation.
But there is something else we have to do educate ourselves better. Too many people on both sides of this are expressing opinions without really understanding what they are talking about. The climate system is extraordinarily complex and people learn a few facts and think they understand more than they do. For example, most people don't understand about natural variability..how the atmosphere has variations without any external cause, like increasing greenhouse gases. Thus, it is possible for temperatures to remain steady or even decline for a few years under increasing greenhouse gases...if the natural variability is on a downward turn. A year ago I explained this to a leading "free market" environmentalist who never understood this fact....I could see the impact this simple (or not so simple) idea had. And global warming activists need to do some learning too...how many times have I heard simplistic arguments that warmer temperatures will cause increased humidity and increased severe precipitation everywhere. Just not true.
And scientists must do a far better job at explaining things...in an open and non-patronizing way. Communication has to be seen as an essential part of our job, and we need to be more open with the uncertainties--what we are not sure about.