Apparently, as one of the winners in Matt Briggs’ Rename “Global Warming” Contest, I have the option of writing an essay on “What I learned from Global Warming”. This is a bit of a challenge since it presumes the existence of something I have not yet experienced to any great degree. But to the extent that plausible evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming has already appeared I would say that I have indeed learned something from it. So here goes:
What I Have Learned From Global Warming
The most important thing I have learned from Global Warming (so far) is that I have been right to give significant credence to predictions based on general scientific principles. More specifically, I have learned to take seriously the predictions of basic physics when made in the context of the simplest model that fits the known facts of the situation without introducing additional variables whose values and effects are less well understood. (But since I am not dead yet – and hope to continue learning until I am – I could find no way of addressing the topic without including that extra word in the title).
When the simplest scientific models predict something, it really should be considered as quite likely to happen – even if deniers and naysayers are able to point out various more complicated models in which the predicted effect may be reduced or counteracted by various other secondary effects. In the case of CO2 induced global warming, it was of course conceivable (before measurements proved otherwise) that the predicted absorption of outgoing radiation might be limited by saturation of CO2 energy levels (after all, if equipartition could not be at least temporarily defeated then lasers would be impossible); and if bicarbonate can buffer the addition of acids or bases to a solution then perhaps something could similarly damp the effects of atmospheric CO2; or maybe the global surface temperature is automatically stabilized by an increase in reflective cloud cover whenever the temperature goes up a bit, etc.etc. All of these scenarios could of course have prevented global warming, but each is dependent on very special circumstances that we had no reason to expect were actually the case – and for each anti-warming scenario it was equally easy to come up with some hypothetical mechanism for amplifying rather than damping. So now that the trend is becoming clear, perhaps more and more people will see that banking on complicated second order effects as an excuse to postpone mitigating action against something predicted by a simple and clear first order argument was foolish. In this case it may quite possibly turn out to have been the most foolhardy and irresponsible and ultimately harmful act in the history of humanity.
Let’s hope that others learn quickly enough so that as a species we can keep my extra word in the title at least until the phenomenon really is history, because if it becomes “What We Learned” within the century or more that it will take to reliably stabilize our effects on the climate then that will only be in our epitaph.
Update: This has now been posted on Briggs’ site and the comments include both what may be a clearer presentation than my own of my main point by Rob Ryan, and an interesting (to me) exchange with Tom Scharf who, I think, misheard my claims as to the likely extent of the harmful effects but with whom I may really disagree about how important it is to try to prevent them them.