Along the Tracks

Monday, August 25, 2003

While France vacationed ...

It is widely reported that France has lost 10,000 people to this summer’s heat wave, and many believe the true toll could be thousands higher. Yet the French have been strangely passive (see Mark Steyn) about this epidemic of heat-related deaths. No outrage at public health officials. No outrage at the poorly-prepared medical infrastructure, which was apparently overwhelmed due to union-mandated vacations in hospitals and doctors’ offices. No outrage at politicians who did absolutely nothing to ease the burden.

What could have been done? Well, if the French politicos would have lowered themselves to looking at America as an example, they would have noticed that public “heat shelters” are often set up, where those without air conditioning can come for a cool break - gymnasiums, union halls, etc. Volunteers are asked to check on elderly shut-ins. Information on “what to do to beat the heat” is ubiquitous on television, radio and in newspapers - cool baths, plenty of liquids, limit exercise, etc. From what I’ve read and seen, very little of this occurred in France until thousands were already dead.

Getting to the “unique” character of French society, it’s hard to look at this terrible loss of life as anything but an indictment of socialism. People don’t look after each other; that’s the job of government. Vacation is a higher calling than the Hippocratic Oath. When the government fails the most vulnerable, it is excused, since the tragedy only affected society’s peripheral elements.

The heat wave and global warming

I have also heard, believe it or not, the first few rumblings of what has stretched from a political criticism to an ideological dogma: It’s America’s fault. How, you ask, could the death of thousands of elderly French men and women due to heat be placed at the feet of the United States? Global warming. Several reports I’ve read and heard close with an expert indicating these heat waves are to be expected as the climate warms. And we all know who tore up the Kyoto Treaty: George W. Bush.

Of course, certain other facts are ignored: That few if any would have died if the local, regional and national officials had given the situation the attention it deserved; that heat waves such as this, although uncommon, are not “unprecedented”; that the CO2 emissions-warming link remains unproved; that the Kyoto Treaty would not necessarily reduce overall emissions regardless of U.S. involvement; that even if emissions were reduced, the effect would be 50 to 100 years in the future; and that there are far more cost effective ways to deal with global warming, whatever the cause, than merely targeting CO2 emissions.

This last point is crucial. Just as the emissions-warming link has proven slippery, any solution based entirely on reducing emissions is a long-odds gamble. The earth is thought to be in an “interglacial” period at present. Today’s mean temperatures are cooler than just a couple thousand years ago - and warmer than 10,000 years ago, as the last “ice age” ended. In the wider scope, the vast majority of geologists interpret the evidence to show today’s climate to be among the coldest and most variable in earth’s long history. It is entirely possible that the warming seen in the past 100 years is part of a fitful interglacial trend toward warmer temperatures which has nothing to do with CO2. It is also entirely possible that this is a short-term climate shift which will end on its own in the coming centuries. It is even possible that this is a “last gasp” of the interglacial warm-up, and in 100 years we will be talking about global cooling!

All these possibilities exist because our knowledge of the earth’s climate history is so incomplete, especially when it comes to “short-term” changes stretching from decades to a few thousand years. Scientists have about 200 years of temperature records to study, but only about 50 which are deemed reasonably accurate and complete for the entire globe. Prior to that, most “historical” data are anecdotal and temperature averages and fluctuations can only be inferred.

The geologic evidence is the stronger base of study when going back beyond 1950, and certainly back beyond 1800. Ice cores, tree growth rings, isotope studies - all these help to piece together the climate across previous decades and centuries. Unfortunately, most of these methods are location specific, and can only give the climate for the place where the sample originates. This “hard” evidence is better than nothing, but it provides just a few pieces of the global climate puzzle. Extrapolation to world conditions is not much better than informed speculation.

Segments of climate stretching to thousands of years are broadly understood much farther back in earth’s history, but this level of precision is useless when searching for trends and fluctuations which may last only a few tens or hundreds of years. For example, we “know” the last glaciation lasted at least a few tens of thousands of years, but in that vast expanse of time, were there some 50-, 100- or 500-year periods of relatively balmy climate? Scientists are searching for ways to answers such questions, but with present methods and technologies, we really can’t tell.

Thus, the theoretical connection of CO2 emissions and global warming is tenuously based on 1) the properties of CO2 as a “greenhouse gas”; 2) incomplete evidence in ice cores that the coldest periods in the past few thousand years occurred when CO2 levels were low; 3) the observation that atmospheric CO2 levels have risen in the past 150 years, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution; 4) evidence that global temperatures have risen in the past 150-200 years, and particularly in the past 50 (where records are much more accurate).

Unfortunately for the theory, each of these propositions has its flaws: 1) CO2 is much weaker than methane as a greenhouse gas, and methane levels also vary atmospherically; the methane cycle is only just beginning to be understood. Also, the nominal increase in atmospheric temperatures due to CO2 might well be mitigated by increased cloud cover, which reflects sunlight back into space, and increased precipitation, which expands the reflective snowpack. 2) The cause-effect connection of CO2 and temperatures is not established. Perhaps colder temperatures resulted in less CO2 reaching the atmosphere, which meant less CO2 trapped in ice bubbles for researchers to study. 3) While present increased levels of CO2 are almost certainly human-induced, the Industrial Revolution itself began just as a centuries-long cool-down, dubbed the “Little Ice Age,” was ending. If cool temperatures actually cause lower CO2 levels (rather than vice versa), the inherent atmospheric capacity of the carbon cycle might well have increased with the temperatures, and once that atmospheric capacity is met, carbon “sinks” will once again take up the excess, and atmospheric levels will top off. **See note below** 4) The temperature changes observed in the past 200 years, and particularly those seen within the past half century, while trending upward, fall well within the range of temperatures those studying earth’s long-term climate consider “normal” for an interglacial period. And this period of glaciation, perhaps 3 million years long so far, is on average much cooler than global temperatures across history.

All this boils down (sorry about the pun) to a hard truth: We cannot just assume the CO2 emission theory of global warming is correct. Even if we admit it is a possibility, we must also make intelligent preparations for variable long-term climate, regardless of our successes or failures at limiting emissions. If this warm-up is part of a natural cycle unrelated to increased CO2 emissions, a universally successful and outrageously expensive program to reduce emissions will cause incredible sacrifice, especially in the developing world, all to no avail. However, if we begin a cost-effective, technology-based approach to the problems associated with global warming, we can reduce the damage while still providing the benefits of industrialization to the billions worldwide still struggling to enter the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

Among the most obvious, and most immediately valuable, preparations to make would be in the public health arena - not only for heat-related ailments, but also for expanded disease ranges and other potential dangers related to a changing climate. Such investments would pay off no matter what caused the climate change - and even if the climate change did not occur.

France’s deadly obstinacy in the face of a hot summer is a warning to governments worldwide: Don’t put all your eggs in the CO2 basket.

**Note: I think this may be the best explanation of how CO2 and global temperatures relate. The big unanswered question, when looking at the geological data, is “What caused the atmospheric CO2 levels to rise and fall prior to human activity?” If CO2 caused the average temperature changes, then we need to find out what processes led to increasing CO2 levels in times of warm-up, and what processes led to decreasing CO2 levels in times of cool-down. If, however, the temperature changes caused changing atmospheric CO2 levels, then a simpler explanation of climate change already identified - changes in solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface - may provide a more accurate and complete overall theory. We know what can change the amount of solar radiation reaching earth: sunspot cycles, longer-term solar cycles, the earth’s axial tilt in relation to the sun, and the earth’s distance from the sun in relation to the axial tilt. We aren’t yet sure what causes increases and decreases in long-term atmospheric CO2 levels, but by looking at the problem from a new angle - changes induced by temperature fluctuations - maybe we could solve the mystery.

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