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New Bottom Line Volume 5.15 – Weather or not: Risk and the physics of climate change

July 11, 1996

Controversy over “global climate change” periodically rears its head in the press, even though the scientific consensus is substantial and increasing. The latest showed up in Tomorrow magazine, where William O’Keefe, Executive Vice President of the American Petroleum Institute (API), charged that “several lead authors of a key chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s [IPCC] ‘Second Assessment Report’ altered the underlying text after its acceptance and approval…by the full IPCC plenary….The deliberate ‘cleansing’ of the latest IPCC report seriously jeopardizes the scientific credibility of the organization.”

I can’t speak to the inner workings of international panels (and others have refuted these charges). But to me the most remarkable thing about the “debate” over climate change and global warming is not that people would think that human industrial activity might affect the global climate, but that anyone might think it wouldn’t.

The sportscasters say “let’s look at the videotape.” I say “let’s look at the physics.” Earth’s atmosphere is a complex, dynamic and highly interactive system, so complex that it is difficult to model accurately–or at least so difficult to model that our computers can’t predict the weather as fast as weather actually unfolds. Climate–the longer wave patterns of atmospheric variation–is more challenging still, because the historic records are so short, and the fossil records so subject to interpretation.

Some things, though, can be said with certainty. In one sense the atmosphere is a giant heat and friction engine, powered by both the sun and the earth’s rotation. Solar radiation enters the atmosphere, heats air and surfaces which heat air, causing temperature and pressure differentials which result in winds. Solar radiation heats and evaporates water which falls back to earth as rain and snow. In turn, heat is radiated back out into space, with a balance emerging between energy in and out as the atmosphere stabilized over hundreds of millions of years.

Industrial activity has affected this balance in two key ways. Burning fossil fuels both generates gases (carbon dioxide, methane and other “greenhouse gases”) that affect the transparency of the atmosphere to both incoming and outgoing radiation, and adds “waste” heat energy to the atmospheric system. Fossil fuels do represent energy that at its source was solar, but we are releasing several hundred million years’ accumulation in a century or two–and somehow expecting no consequences.

Simply put, if we shift the amount or the nature of energy society adds to the atmospheric engine, the engine–our climate and weather–will change its behavior. It can’t do anything but that. There may be dispute over how it will change, in what patterns, how quickly, and who will benefit or suffer. There can be no dispute over whether it will change. The laws of physics take care of that one.

If that is so, where lies the prudent strategy? To not unnecessarily perturb critical systems we don’t understand. In practical terms, that means that competitive advantage shifts to those who can learn to prosper economically without depending on jiggering the global climate…for whom tinkering with the climate is no longer an economic necessity.

This is no idle concern. According to Union of Concern Scientists’ senior scientist Donald Aitken, the size of the “hurricane breeding ground” of the Atlantic Ocean has expanded 30%, which means that developing storms spend a longer time over the breeding ground, building strength as they gather energy from warmer ocean waters. In addition, Aitken notes, if Hurricane Andrew’s course had taken it just 15 miles further north a few years ago–through Dade County and metro Miami–it would have bankrupted the US insurance industry. The insurance industry can’t wait for scientific certainty about climate change. It simply can’t afford the risk. And so, as the Washington Post noted recently, “It’s the insurance and finance industry that may be some of the most important… drivers of serious investment in alternative energy sources such as solar.”

Ultimately, the choice is simple–“as if” or “get real”. We can live our lives as if economics somehow immunized us from physics. Or we can “get real,” and actually take fundamental universal principles of physics into account.

As the bumper sticker said “Gravity–It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.” Surprise–thermodynamics is too.

(c) 1996 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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