Planet Earth

A Vast Mass of Gas

June 24, 2011

Multiple Pages
A Vast Mass of Gas

My sometime college classmate and debate judge, Al, has just published a very long rant in Rolling Stone. Though I know little of that scene–it’s been years since I last dined with Jagger—I see Al has something interesting to say, as recovering Nobel laureates often do, once he’s gotten the usual pitcher of warm spit out of his system.

I counsel constant vigilance on seeing young Gore in such a mood, for the world’s salvation affords an enchanting pretext for those predisposed to societal intervention, and Al has been known to wave the abolitionist banner at the sight of a cigarette. This time he (or his focus group) actually has a point: The climate change debate has become indistinguishable from professional wrestling.

The Climate Wars are as far removed from scientific discourse as the World Karate Championships are from a match cage full of masked Mexican dwarfs. Although the problem began back in the day when the antics of the two WWFs, wildlife and wrestling, were still distinguishable, the gorgeous Georges, Rushes, and Glenns of yack radio and TV have kicked the nonsense up a notch by focusing on scientific noise to the complete exclusion of signal. When was the last time you saw a climate scientist complete a sentence on TV, let alone a paragraph?

“The Climate Wars are as far removed from scientific discourse as the World Karate Championships are from a match cage full of masked Mexican dwarfs.”

This change in media strategy is an exercise not in science, but semiotics, the increasingly dark art of creating and manipulating symbols. It scarcely signifies which of the usual K Street suspects authored Fox’s latest gambit, or whether the bills are paid by the Koch’s petroleum coke or the soft coal in Rupert Murdoch’s ancestral backyard. The content, or lack of it, testifies that the talking heads who are supposed to defend us against regulation and carbon rationing have been told to quit arguing about climate science and talk down to their audience on science itself. This they do in true postmodern fashion by denying that anybody’s science is better than the other fellow’s. Having denounced relativism with every other breath, they sure know how to practice what they preach.

And how to forget the past as prologue—it is quite a spectacle to see the right attempting to rerun Steve Gould and Carl Sagan’s generation-old gambit of appealing to their own authority while indulging in prime-time number-fudging. The evidence of this ranges from vanity-press journals with PR copy presented as though it were peer-reviewed scholarship, to the barmy bafflegab of a bona fide peer, a bug-eyed Old Harrovian named Christopher Monckton. This crack cricketer’s quack Question Time is quite delightful, for he is numerate enough to serve as the Daily Telegraph’s Sudoku editor, and it is a joy to watch him bowl over the cranks, carnival barkers, and octogenarian emeriti annually assembled for the Tea Party science fair laid out by Heartland and Discovery Institute.

Meanwhile, back in print, James Delingpole’s anti-science grandeegrams differ from a press leak from the left sphincter of the UK Independence Party so little that they defy parody.

The purpose of all this sound and fury is simple. It serves to distract us, quite literally, from the clouds slowly gathering overhead.

The atmosphere is the Earth’s most subtle dynamic system, chaotic in its motion, majestic in its flow, and a mass of gas so vast that some of what goes up into it takes centuries to come down. Your personal share of it—its mass divided by the nearly seven billion souls now living—comes to the better part of a million tons, so what possible harm could one do by burning a ton or two a year of fossil fuel? After all, we exhale CO2, as does every other living creature from Bambi to Shamu the whale.

The answer, alas, is rather a lot, because when you convert from tons to volume, what we generate dwarfs what we exhale. So let me try to school Al in symbol creation: Forget about inflating party balloons. Civilization’s CO2 emission already amounts to a fully inflated Hindenburg popping into existence in the sky once every second. One Hindenburg looks kind of cute tied up to the Empire State Building or Pier Six, but imagine 3,600 cigars the size of the QE III materializing overhead every hour, 24/7. That’s enough to spread a solid roof of dirigibles over Manhattan in twenty minutes and adumbrate everything coastwise from Lakehurst to the Hamptons in five days flat. And how much solar heat does this veritable vergeltungs flotte trap? To keep up with the rate at which CO2 is already downloading solar energy into the oceans, each virtual Hindenburg would have to toss five A-bombs into the drink every second. O the humanity! O the menhaden!

Now for the bad news—we’ve been at it for fully five generations, and herding the hundreds of tons of new CO2 in your share of the air into a cloud directly overhead, like the one that used to follow Li’l Abner’s sidekick around, extends over our personal share of the global commons out to where it bumps into the next guy or gal’s. Either way, it won’t look good at Ascot, so don’t be surprised if Al decides to throw it in the ring for his final shot next Inauguration Day.

When it comes to intelligent discussion about how science, climate policy, and free markets should intersect, Al is running unopposed. Republicans, and the Tea Party in particular, have only their talking heads to blame.


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