Friday, September 29, 2006

A Cautionary Tale About Global Weather

I first heard the word "ecology" in my biology class my sophomore year in high school. I was excited by the idea that all life on Earth existed in a state of dynamic equilibrium, always seeking homeostasis, but never quite staying there. All systems on the Earth are interrelated; we are all part of the whole.

Heady stuff when you're 15.

Around that time "Ecology" and "Environment" became buzz words. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had been published some seven years previously and the general population was becoming aware of the impact of man-made pollution. (My father was still arguing that there was no smog in the Bay Area, despite the golden brown haze on the horizon.) Big corporations became the villains as we discovered that chemicals banned in the U.S. were marketed in the Third World and countries in South America were burning the rainforest to encourage cattle grazing, supplying cheap beef for McDonald's.

Burning the rainforest not only destroyed the ecology (rainforests, it turns out, can't support the grasses cattle need for grazing), but released particulate matter in the atmosphere, reflecting sunlight back into space and cooling the Earth. Particulates were also being released by coal- and oil-fired power plants as well as auto emissions. We needed scrubbers and catalytic converters and low-sulfur coal. Otherwise, we were all going to have to move south to Mexico.

The popular science fiction of the day posited an England buried under snowdrifts. Canada was uninhabitable. People starved because the Great Plains were too cold to grow corn or wheat or soybeans.

We had to do something and we had to do it now! There was no time to waste. Yes, scrubbers and converters were expensive. Yes, steel mills and coal plants had to be either retrofitted or abandoned. But new technology would rise in its place! New plants would be built! Workers retrained! This is America, after all, and we are nothing if not resourceful!


Yesterday, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed what the San Francisco Chronicle called "a sweeping global warming initiative."

"We simply must do everything we can in our power to slow down global warming before it is too late," Schwarzenegger said during an address before signing the bill."

Further on in the article, it's deja vu all over again:

"Schwarzenegger said it is possible to protect the environment as well as the state's economy. He expects the law will lead to a new business sector in California devoted to developing the technologies industries can use to meet the tougher emission requirements.

"We will create a whole new industry that will pump up our economy," he said."

Of course, business leaders see it quite differently:

"Industry officials say California lawmakers must ease other regulatory burdens to counter the higher costs they face with the tighter emissions standards.

"An example could be eliminating the sales tax levied on new equipment, said Dorothy Rothrock, vice president of government relations for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.

"If we do continue to discourage California manufacturing, emissions will happen elsewhere without regulation, and we will not have achieved our goal of reducing emissions," she said."

However, the Law of Unintended Consequences will not be denied. Reality will be quite different. And what if, as seems very likely, the threat of global warming is not as bad as predicted? The database of accurate temperature readings across the globe is not really very big. Accurate computer models of dynamic systems is even more recent and have less of a track record. What if the best guess of the social and economic impact is off, way off? (And, in fact, the article makes no mention that the social and economic impact was even considered.)

Meanwhile, Gov. Schwarzenegger has scored significant political points, very important during an election year.