Friday, October 23, 2009

The Heat Is On

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of a recent poll of 1500 American adults, that says that only 57% of them think that the Earth is getting warmer, a 20-point dip from three years ago. Now, given there is a population 300 million-plus in this country, a sample size of 1500 does not imbue me with confidence that this is a realistic portrayal of American attitudes, even if they have solid statistical evidence that the sample is valid. That is not the issue, anyway.

If we cut past the hyperbole, the hype, and the political nitpicking, we can get to the heart of the matter: the Earth's average temperature is rising. I highlight "average," because the Earth is not a uniform body, the atmosphere is not a uniform covering (the composition and thickness varying from place to place), and the planet is not a closed system. If we go back as far as we have solid records for local temperatures, chart them, and compare the values over time, we see local variations, rises and falls, and overall, like the stock market, a continuous rise.

The planet is slowly getting warmer.

The mechanism by which this occurs has been known since the 1950's. Solar radiation bathes the Earth. Some is reflected back into space, some of it is absorbed by the upper layers of the atmosphere, and much of it penetrates to reach the surface, to be absorbed by land and water. That absorbed energy, mainly in the form of heat, is radiated back into the atmosphere, to worm its way back to space. Much of it escapes from the top of the atmosphere, but some of it is reabsorbed by certain molecules found there, which are greedy for heat energy. These molecules, the most well-known being carbon dioxide, trap the heat and re-radiate it back toward the surface of hold it in the atmosphere. In any event, the result is simple: a certain amount of these molecules holds/maintains a certain amount of heat; fewer molecules, less heat retained -- more molecules, more heat retained.

The amount of these greedy, heat-loving molecules is altered by global processes that we have an incomplete but general understanding of. For carbon dioxide, it is absorbed by plant life and converted into oxygen, or sinks into the deep ocean, or becomes locked up in rocks through many processes. It can also be released, through volcanism, large scale fires, deforestation, and of course, the burning of fossil fuels. The Earth's system for regulating the ecosphere is well-established, being as old as the planet itself. It evolved over millions of years, has survived global catastrophes and alterations, and operates on its own, subject only to the changes in the amounts of molecules in the atmosphere, the amount of solar radiation being intercepted, the amount of vegetation covering the surface, the albedo (shininess) of the surface, and myriad smaller-scale factors, which we are only now beginning to understand. While not a closed system, it is a system nonetheless, operating automatically, behind the scenes, as we go about our daily lives.

Therein lies the crux of the problem, for the system that is our ecosphere, a system governed by the large-scale effects of its constituents and the small-scale effects of the laws of physics and chemistry, is going about its business, day and night, unconcerned with our existence. Natural forces continue to shape and mold the world we live on, oblivious to our wants, desires, or preconceptions.

Belief is not required.

So the question should really be, are the actions of humanity having a measurable effect on the changes we are seeing in the global climate? And the answer must be: unequivocally. How much of an effect, and how quickly that effect is being felt, should be the object of the debate. The constant, fractious, and puerile arguments over "global warming" suffice only to waste time and effort that could be better spent determining a baseline for global climate change that would allow us to measure the significance of our impact, beyond the use of an average. We must study the Earth's systems in finer detail, to try and determine how the shifts in various factors shape the responses of the systems to our machinations. We must also find ways to mitigate our effects on the planet, for even if we determine that we are causing potentially catastrophic harm, it is better to have started to make attempts to reduce our impact on the ecosphere, than to wait until we are at the edge of the precipice.

Whatever choices we make from this moment on, the Earth will continue spinning through the cold void, sweeping through the tendrils of solar particles and waves of energy emitted by the Sun, and its systems will keep on acting and reacting to the changes that occur, a minuet of chemistry and physics. Should we fail to heed our own warnings, should we delay and deny, should we choose to put less than our best efforts into working with our home world -- as opposed to merely existing upon it, rapacious in our desire for resources -- then the Earth will not even shrug. It will simply continue on, carrying on its surface the burnt, collapsed, and abandoned remains of the only intelligent civilization that, so far as we know, ever existed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ignorance Is Bliss

It must be nice to live in a world where suppressing knowledge and inventing facts are rules, rather than exceptions. How much better it is to go through life ignorant of those things which might upset you or lead you astray. How grand and satisfying it is, conjuring up fallacious tidbits to reinforce your delusional world view. Why surrender to reality, when you can live a life of happiness and joy, ensconced in your cocoon of prevarications and obfuscations?

For some odd reason, a great number of people have either come up bereft of logic and reason, or decided that facts should not get in the way of a good story. In either case, we are seeing, through the media, a wave of tripe that that threatens to engulf our country in a miasma of ignorance. And the media are complicit in allowing it to spread, by eliminating self-censorship for the reward of cheap and easy ratings.

How else can we explain the "birthers" cabal, or the anti-health-care-reform ranters, or the "tea party" crowd, for example? Here we have movements that either a) have incoherent and poorly parsed messages or b) have clear messages based on fabrications, innuendo, and outright lies. In either case, the record is easily set straight, the fabrications are easily debunked, and the messages invalidated by their unreasonableness and illogical frameworks. And yet they persist -- why?

We have methods of communication that span the globe at the speed of light, and ways of conveying this information that allow for individuals to dial in to ideas and data that match their view of the world. Satellite communication, 24-hours news, the Internet -- the scions of the digital revolution -- have made it possible for any idea, no matter how realistic, no matter how logical, no matter how factual, to be disseminated to everywhere on Earth, to be discovered, absorbed, and regurgitated by those who covet such knowledge. It only takes one person to put out a scrap of information, that within hours could be considered gospel.

There is no filter on information, anymore. No peer review. No editor. No oversight. Where those things exist, they are easily bypassed. All one needs is an Internet connection, and a place to deposit the information -- personal web site, social networking site, comment section of any news/entertainment site, etc. -- and through the auspices of "information" providers, web spiders, and re-writers, a "fact" is borne to every machine that can hold it, passed on to every computer that requests it, and lodged on data storage devices everywhere. Even if removed from it source, the information can never truly be erased.

Can it be any wonder, then, that so much unsubstantiated, illogical, and specious knowledge continues to plague us? Were it tucked away in a musty book, on a dusty shelf, in some dingy hall, it might never see the light of day. If the purveyors of such nonsense were still forced to go through others to have their ideas see the light of day, then many of these things would have remained in relative obscurity. They would be nothing more than fables, stories to scare children with, the intellectual equivalent of things that "go bump in the night."

Those of us aligned with the forces of reason, sanity, and logic will continue to rail against the descent into ignorance, but it becomes harder and harder to be heard over the din created by the maunderers and sycophants. The only bright spot in the current maelstrom is that the tools that allow such rubbish to exist and thrive, may ultimately be turned against it. Given time, patience, and the will, we may yet dispel the gray clouds of ignorance, and pull Mankind into brighter light and clearer air.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I Give You, The Do-Nothing President

It is safe to say that nothing of recent note has engendered a firestorm quite like the announcement that President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

You would think, gauging by some reactions, that the announcement disrupted the space-time continuum in a way that the ancient calendar of the Maya had not foreseen.

Much has been said about it at this point. Some people, myself included, applaud the move. Many others are confused, or fail to see how he "earned" it. Some are downright hostile, foaming at the mouth over how the prize has "become a joke," or "definitely went to the wrong guy," or bemoaning the fact that "there are so many more deserving people," or even claiming it is "a slap in the face to President Bush." And at the mention of the fact that the nominations for the award closed February 1st, a scant 11 days after he took office, there was a downright furor stirred up.

Time to take a depth breath, America. Now, let it out.

Much of the hysteria is due to the general atmosphere of anger, hypocrisy, and ill-will generated by the President's election. Nine months in and people still can't get over it. The amount of sheer animus toward a President has not been at this level since President Lincoln's first election, when a large portion of the country seceded, rather than be "ruled over" by someone they saw as an "abolitionist." Then, as now, it was a matter of perception, because Lincoln was nowhere near the abolitionist cause, and was desperate to do anything that would keep the Union together, short of abolishing slavery. Worse, his Presidency got off to a very slow start, as one Union general after another could not bring him the victories he needed to vindicate his efforts to fight a war to make the country whole again. He was pilloried and vilified, not only in the Confederate States of America, but the Union as well, even by members of his own cabinet.

So, President Obama can take comfort in the fact that he is not alone. Mind you, his job is a bit more difficult, fighting two wars overseas, while trying to survive a sluggish economy and create real reform at home. Perhaps even Lincoln would blanch at trying to take on so many things at once. It makes a civil war seem easy by comparison.

I will posit that bestowing the prize on President Obama was unexpected and a curious decision. Certainly, the Nobel committee was under no obligation to take the nomination to heart, but consider it they did, and it should be noted that while the nomination came fairly early in the President's term, the actual decision came some months later. In that time, President Obama had the opportunity to show that he was serious about fostering peace, through actions which sought to reverse the course of American foreign policy, by trying to open up dialogs with potential "enemies," shoring up relationships with friendly nations, restoring diplomacy as a centerpiece of foreign relations, and attempting to strengthen the place of the United States in the United Nations. By making Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State and letting her set the tone, he made it clear that a new breeze would be blowing, and that we would still be tough, but we would try to work with nations, not against them, unless their actions called for it.

Perhaps these do not seem to be accomplishments in concrete terms. Perhaps there is still much to do. Regardless, President Obama is no more a miracle worker than any previous holder of the office. To hold him against a standard that says everything he touches must be "fixed" for him to be successful, or to claim he has "done nothing" is sheer hyperbole. That he has not continued the ruinous policies of the previous administration, has upset the applecart of pomposity and grandiosity that was our foreign policy, and has made attempts to tackle, head-on, as many of the nation's intractable societal problems as he can, speaks volumes about the man.

President Obama has charted a new course, in search of a better America. Not unlike Columbus, who had a vision and pursued it -- despite ill winds, ill fortune, and a crew on the edge of mutiny -- our President is moving us forward, toward clearer air and brighter light. The Nobel Peace Prize should be thought of as a sign that we are on the right course.