Friday, February 09, 2007

IPCC Hearing in House

Last night I caught some of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) testimony on C-SPAN. Having seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth finally, I understood a lot of what they were talking about. It was heartening to see most Republicans finally on board with science (with caveats, such as, as long as it doesn't interfere with the economy). And it was heartening to see these issues, and the myths surrounding them, dealt with so clearly. For the most part.

Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was the sole Representative to offer a rebuttal to the scientists. He said there were hundreds of scientists who disputed the findings of the IPCC, but it was his fault none of them appeared. He would, however, enter their names in the record. Then he went on to question a couple of topics that made me yell, "were you paying attention?"

The Earth goes through natural warming/cooling cycles, so how do we know this isn't just one of those natural cycles?

As had been explained just a few minutes earlier, we know all about those warming/cooling cycles because of 650,000 years of evidence in the form of ice cores. The amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere now far exceeds any of the natural trends of the past 650,000 years. We also know from 650,000 years of evidence that temperature follows carbon levels. If carbon levels far exceed the natural warming/cooling trend, we know that temperature will follow.

But how do we know how much of the increase is caused by man?

As had been explained just a few minutes earlier, the isotopes in carbon created by burning fossil fuels is different from the isotopes in carbon found in more natural sources, such as volcanic ash and trees. Also, we know how much coal and oil is being taken out of the ground every year, so we know how much is being burned. We know our contribution.

There was another Representative who brought up the issue of the "Ice Age" mania of the 1970s. That's part of the "eggs were bad for us, now they're good ... you scientists don't know what you're talking about" tactic used to discredit Global Warming science. To be fair to the Rep, he brought it up to clarify, since he found the contradiction confusing. But it looked like an attempted "gotcha" to me.

One of the scientists, Richard Allen (the star of the show because of his enthusiasm and humor) explained the way science works. There are lots of ideas out there, people "pushing the envelope" of theory and testing. The media sometimes latches onto topics and blows them out of proportion (Summer of the Shark, Where the White Women At). Rep. Gilchrest (R-MD) interrupted to confirm that at no time was the Ice Age theory endorsed by the National Academy, and the Rep who brought the subject up had to take an extra 10 seconds to say "as we know in the House, the media never hypes things," or something similar. (See, conservatives know how to use irony for comedic effect).

There were also the "but what about the economy" hesitators. "We don't want to be too radical in curbing greenhouse gases because it might hurt the economy." And the scientists were asked about an upcoming study of the economic impact of global climate change. Proving that they have scientific ethics and follow the evidence rather than a political agenda, they declined to make any comment because it is outside their expertise. The upcoming study being referenced, if the Rep can be believed, states that global climate change could cost trillions of dollars and cause a worldwide depression. Sounds like a bigger hurt to the economy than shifting energy technologies.

One thing they did contradict about An Inconvenient Truth was the Greenland ice shelf and the North Atlantic Drift. It was my impression from An Inconvenient Truth that, if the Greenland Ice Shelf were to melt into the North Atlantic, the fresh water could shut down the North Atlantic Drift, the ocean current which keeps Europe warm. The North Atlantic Drift did shut down a long time ago by the draining of the Hudson Bay, causing an Ice Age in Europe. Gilchrest asked about this, and one of the scientists said it wouldn't shut down the current, but it could slow it down, cooling Europe.

And I was angered when one politician said that China is building coal-burning power plants and have stated that they will not do anything about pollution, so what should we do about China? He received a polite reply, that we would be a good example and would help slow the warming trend. But I wanted one of the scientists to snippily reply, "You want us to do your job for you? We're scientists. We look at the evidence and make conclusions about what is going to happen. Maybe if you hadn't wasted time calling us agenda-driven hacks and science a religion and had been working on this years ago, things might not be so dire."

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