Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Global Warming

Doug Strain, age 86, and a principal engineer of the Silicon Forest phenomenon here in Oregon, shared his views on global warming at the Linus Pauling House on Hawthorne yesterday.

Doug's view: it's happening, but likely a rising CO2 level is more an effect than a cause of global warming. The original computer model, out of the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), wasn't sophisticated enough regarding energy transformations. The sun and oceans are the big players, and neither was sufficiently accounted for at the time CO2 was fingered as a main culprit behind a rise in average global temperature.

Doug describes himself as a life-long metrologist, starting around age 5, when a family photo shows him measuring the snow level. His Scottish grandmother emigrated to the USA and pretty much raised him in early childhood, as both parents worked. She detected his early interest in science and measurement and gave him a copy of some book by Lord Kelvin, which he devoured with gusto.

Early on, Doug invented a way of measuring the fat content in butter using its electrical properties. When the family moved to California, he planned to introduce his invention there, but the demo was a disaster, as in CA, the butter was already salted by the time fat content was tested, which fried his device, spattering butter on his pants. Doug went on to invent many more measuring devices, graduated from Caltech, acquired/named Electro Meaurements Inc., later renamed to Electro Scientific Industries.

Bjorn Lomberg's The Skeptical Environmentalist started Doug down a path of questioning, starting from a strongly green position. He's been a supporter of the Rocky Mountain Institute and renewable energy groups. He still considers himself an environmentalist. But Lomberg spoke to his need to see numbers and diagrams, i.e. to gain access to a lot of relevant global data.

Doug's research led him to start questioning the computer models, and consider a back to basics approach. He hasn't become a pie in the sky optimist. For all we know, the climate changes now underway could be disasterous, but he doesn't think rushing to lower CO2 emissions is necessarily a rational, empirically justifiable response, even if global temperatures are in fact rising with CO2.

The structure of our debate (a Wanderers meeting always turns into a debate) followed along the lines suggested by Jon Bunce: is global warming happening, and if so what are the causes? If global warming is happening, is that a bad thing (maybe it'll forestall a next ice age)? If it is a bad thing, what if anything might humans do to stop, slow or reverse it?

As far as Doug is concerned, it's happening, he's not sure how good or bad it will be, and he doesn't know if there's anything humans can do about it. The global climate has never held steady, with or without humans. Change is the norm, not the exception. Life tries to adapt, plus has an important role to play within the many feedback loops (Gaia Hypothesis). But do we really know enough to take smart corrective action at this point? How might we become smarter faster? Accelerating our rate of knowledge acquisition regarding the planetary ecosystem, not sitting on our hands doing nothing, is the way to go.

I learned from this discussion that Michael Crichton has become embroiled in the global warming controversy, having done three years of research leading up to his latest novel, State of Fear. Here's a quote from Quaker-P last night:
[Crichton is] very critical of how science is funded, with continued funding basically contingent upon a certain point of view gaining credence. We could probably progress more quickly with double-blind funding -- in politics too (e.g. you see the money show up in your campaign chest, but it's not altogether tracable, i.e. not really clear who exactly your biggest donors might be -- so keep doing what you're doing, if you're getting support, as you must be doing something right).
I hope I'm rendering Michael's views accurately (I haven't read the book yet). Both Doug and Michael are members of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI), and Doug is my source here.

Many at the table agreed that measures people advocate to reverse global warming, such as becoming less dependent on fossil fuels and cleaning up polluted city air, should be undertaken regardless of the impact on global warming i.e. we have other reasons for taking many of these recommended actions.

We went around the table both before and after Doug's presentation, to get a read on where each of us stood on the global warming issue. I was willing to accept that the global models could be improved (no real argument there), and that access to good data remains a priority. A TV camera was running, and I said to the camera we should all drink a lot of coffee -- meaning we need to stay awake, burn the midnight oil pondering these important and perplexing issues.

As for the conventional wisdom, that CO2 is a principal cause of global warming, and human activity a principal cause of CO2, I'm still willing to accept that this may be true. However, I'm also quite willing to give skeptics a hearing. I think Doug did an excellent job presenting an alternative perspective. His goal was to spark debate, and in this he most certainly succeeded.