December 27, 2006

The People's Mess

My sister sent me this letter to the editor from the Owatonna People's Press:

Facts on 'global warming'

1. It is a theory, not a fact.

2. If the earth is warming, it may be a normal, cyclical event (as has been occurring for thousands of years).

3. If the estimates by the global warming advocates are correct, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the change in temperature will amount to 0.14 to 0.58 degrees per decade (10 years). That would be less than 1/20 of a degree per year.

4. If global warming occurs along the lines of their hypothesis, the effects would include: (a) Longer growing seasons (increased food production) (b) Warmer winters that would cut heating bills and energy use (c) Less disease and fewer cold-related deaths (d) More rain which would decrease famines.

I think your readers deserve to know this side of the "argument," don't you? Thank you.

M. S., Owatonna.

I decided to write a letter to the editor too-- see 'comments'.


At December 27, 2006 3:47 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Dear Editor,
Maureen Sheard raised some important issues in her letter 'Facts on 'global warming''. Taking them in order,
1. Global warming is a fact. If you and I were to look at a thermometer I think we could agree on the temperature. An observation like this is called a fact, and it's a fact that the global average surface temperature has increased by 1 F, give or take a few tenths, over the last hundred years. Theories are used to explain facts, and scientists use the word 'theory' in a special way. A scientific theory is not a guess or a hunch, but something supported by logic and evidence, and something that can be tested by experiment. Examples include the theories of gravitation and thermodynamics, and circuit theory. Current theories do a good job of explaining the global warming that has been observed since the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
2. There are indeed natural factors that cause climate variation, and one of the best examples is how ice ages are triggered by the Milankovitch Cycles. Milankovitch was a Yugoslavian engineer who spent WWI in a library in Belgrade thinking about the effect of variations in Earth's orbit on climate. He published his work in 1920. The Milankovitch Cycles are understood, and there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that the global warming that has been observed is outside of normal natural variation.
3. The United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization do have an international panel of experts (scientists, government appointees, industry representatives) called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC (see Sophisticated models running on the world's top supercomputers predict that if everyone does what they can to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the global average temperature will increase by about 4 F by the end of the century, and that there will be changes in rainfall and storm tracks. Most of this climate change is due to the greenhouse gases that have already been released. It is true as you wrote that the rate of change for the whole globe is predicted to be something like a half a degree per decade but it is important to put this number in perspective: this rate of change is 30 times faster than what was observed at the end of the last ice age. In addition, focusing on the global average does not tell the whole story. The models consistently show that temperature changes will be higher over land than over sea and much higher at the poles than at the equator. Arctic environments are especially vulnerable, and Alaska is already experiencing the effects of a 3 - 4 F temperature rise that has occured over the last generation. Minnesota is predicted to have a temperature change by the end of the century of 10 to 15 degrees F, which is the difference between the average annual temperatures of Rochester MN and Lubbock TX. Although opossums and armadillos have been moving northward at a steady pace since the 70s, the Lubbock ecosystem as a whole won't be able to make the trip in time and our northern plants won't do well in the new climate. On the other hand, if we do nothing to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases the models predict twice the temperature change, 8 F instead of 4 F (again with much higher effects at the poles and over land) along with a sea level rise of about a foot and a half. More information is available at the IPCC website or in any number of books, for example Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers.
4. You have pointed out some of the good things that could occur if the predicted climate change should come to pass, including longer growing seasons, warmer winters, less disease and more rain. I hope you are right, because there are some other people who have predicted some truly awful consequences. Examples include catastrophic flooding due to the combination of storms and rising sea levels, wars triggered by the pressures of drought and famine, the spread of tropical disease and floods of refugees. In a recent address to British industrial leaders Tony Blair said the following: The emission of greenhouse gases is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, has become alarming and is simply unsustainable in the long term. And by long term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power that it alters radically human existence. There is no doubt that the time to act is now.
Sincerely yours, MSJ.

At December 27, 2006 5:34 PM , Anonymous Tim said...

great response. I hope she is thrown across her kitchen when she opens her paper and feels the force of the whomping you just gave her.

people who take smug little church-lady potshots and then disappear back into the shadows, never to be held accountable, they get under my skin.

At December 27, 2006 9:36 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

She's a citizen in a democracy and has a right to take pot shots, and the nice part is that she left the door wide open for me. The editor wrote back and said he'd be happy to print my letter but they have a 400 word limit. I wrote about 800. Time to get out my scissors and think of Strunk and White: Omit Needless Words.

At December 27, 2006 11:08 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

I got it wrong- the newspaper policy is 300 words, not 400. Tony Blair had to go along with many of my bumps and grinds. Here is the short version- maybe I even like it better. By the way, I obeyed Heinlein's law!

Dear Ms. Sheard,

Global warming is a fact. A fact is an observation, like a thermometer reading. It's a fact that global temperature has increased by 1F over 100 years. Theories explain facts. A scientific theory is not a guess or hunch but something supported by logic and evidence, for example the theory of electricity or gravitation. Today’s climate theory explains the warming.

Yes there are natural factors that cause climate change. The Hungarian engineer Milankovitch spent WWI in the Belgrade library figuring out how Earth's orbit affects climate, specifically the ice ages. There is broad scientific consensus that today’s global warming is beyond natural variation.

It is true that current and projected warming is around 0.5F per decade, which is 30 times faster than the warming at the end of an ice age. The global warming rate doesn’t tell the whole story because changes are larger over land and at the poles. Alaska is already experiencing the effects of a 3 to 4F warming since 1970. The IPCC assembles international experts to critically evaluate climate records and models. Their report (see says that if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, global temperatures will increase by about 4F by 2100. Minnesota will have a temperature increase of 10-15F, the difference between Owatonna and Lubbock TX. Although opossums and armadillos are already moving north most Texas plants and animals won't make it in time, and native northern plants will no longer thrive. If we do nothing to reduce emissions warming is predicted to be 8F by 2100 (more at poles and over land) with a sea level rise of around 18 inches.

Yes, parts of Russia and Canada may benefit from climate change at the expense of Africa, Asia and Australia. Consequences include catastrophic flooding, wars, disease and waves of refugees.

Sincerely yours,

At December 28, 2006 9:22 PM , Blogger Papa Twister said...

I liked the first letter better. Why did you change Rochester to Owatonna? I like Rochester better, although it was a muddy snowless Christmas in both towns this year. Ironically, Laura's family has ties to both Rochester and Lubbock. And finally, Matt, don't forget, you are arguing with someone who writes for a newspaper in a town whose biggest attraction is a Cabella's. Perhaps, putting her in her place is telling her to stay right where she is.

At December 28, 2006 10:56 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Owatonna vs. Rochester-- I'm guessing their own hometown's name will resonate better with Owatonnans. Also I was toying with changing Lubbock to Midland, and trying to decide what mental images each town's name conjurs. I suppose Cabela's is what people see these days. I had a nice bowl of wild rice soup there once. I'm not choosy-- I'll take any opportunity to get the word out and votes in Owatonna count as much as anywhere else.

At December 29, 2006 8:47 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Laura's family has ties to both Rochester and Lubbock-- I guess this makes her an 'early adaptor'.

At January 04, 2007 1:03 AM , Blogger rigtenzin said...

Her comment that climate changes have been occurring for thousands of years says a lot about her background.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Web Counter
Web Site Counter

Powered by Blogger

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]