Tuesday, December 25, 2007

# Posted 8:07 AM by Taylor Owen  


BEWARE OF GLOBAL WARMING COOLING! Thirty years ago, prominent men of both science and journalism expressed great concern about the potential for a dangerous freefall of global temperatures. As one of them wrote:

Since the 1940's the northern half of our planet has been cooling rapidly. Already the effect in the United States is the same as if every city had been picked up by giant hands and set down more than 100 miles closer to the North Pole. If the cooling continues, warned the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, we could possibly witness the beginning of the next great Ice Age. Conceivably, some of us might live to see huge snowfields remaining year-round in northern regions of the United States and Europe. Probably, we would see mass global famine in our lifetimes, perhaps even within a decade. Since 1970, half a million human beings in North Africa and Asia have starved because of floods and droughts caused by the cooling climate.

I came across this quote, attributed to Lowell Ponte, while reading Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction, written by Mark Maslin and published by Oxford University Press. The author's self-avowed objective is to persuade his readers to adopt a more "collectivized" and "egalitarian" approach to the threat of global warming, or to affirm such an approach if they already favor it. ( pp.40-42) Maslin teaches geography at University College of London. Although Americans associate "geography" with the memorization of state capitals, in British English it refers to a discipline that we might call environmental studies, broadly defined.

Given Maslin's agenda, I think it's fair to say that his inclusion of Ponte's quote shouldn't be taken as a crude effort to discredit today's warnings of environmental disaster. Rather, Maslin approaches the global cooling myths of the 70s as an example of how scientists can make seriously mistakes, but ultimately correct themselves by virtue of their dedication to finding and analyzing new evidence.

In spite of this admirable self-awareness, Maslin doesn't really take a balanced approach to the politics of global warming, at least so far. (I'm halfway through the book right now.) For example, Maslin describes those who discount the threat of global warming as "individualists…Their success is often measured by their wealth and the number of followers they can command. Victorian mill owners or self-made oil barons are good representatives of this category." (pp.38-39) Maslin may as well add that skeptics of global warming like to kick puppies and hunt endangered species for sport.

In spite of such excesses, Maslin does cover a fair amount of basic science that places the global warming debate in a much more useful context than, say, the polemics of Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. For example Maslin describes how, from a truly long-term perspective, the earth is in a period of relatively low temperatures. 100 million years ago, in the age of dinosaurs, the earth was far warmer than it is today. Over the past million years, there have been Ice Ages at regular intervals. Over the past 10,000 years, the earth's temperature has risen consistently as it emerged from the most recent Ice Age.

What does all of this mean for the debate about global warming? I'm not sure. I started reading Maslin's book precisely because I don't know much about climate change (or to be more precise, I've forgotten what I learned when I sophomore in college back in the spring of '97.) Unlike almost any other scientific issue, global warming is water cooler talk just about everywhere. If it 80 degrees one day in October, people casually talk about global warming. I'd like to know a little more.

UPDATE: I did a bit of quick googling for Lowell Ponte and came up with some interesting results. These days, Ponte is an internet-based conservative pundit, among other things. There also seem to be a fair number of conservative sites and comments that hold up his best-selling book from 1976 as evidence that it is best to ignore scientists' reckless predictions of imminent disaster, hot or cold.

In contrast, more liberal writers, such as this one, consider references to Ponte argument to be deeply flawed, because scientists never took himseriously, in spite of his popularity and high profile in the mainstream media at the time. In their view, any serious effort to use Ponte's work to discredit global warming amounts to an unintended statement of an author's ignorance.

David Adesnik

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Here are two links to get you started on the global cooling issue, if you're interested:

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