Here at my rural retreat in the rolling Dutchess County hunt country in scenic upstate New York, I’m facing a dilemma. I need to get back to New York City for a meeting tomorrow, but the series of monstrous winter snowstorms has made parking scarce in the purlieus of the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens. I may end up driving and hoping, or I may take the train; either way I won’t be thinking very much about global warming here at the tail end of the snowiest January in the known history of New York.
But record cold temperatures and snowfalls so heavy that I have to dodge falling icicles descending abruptly from the ivy-covered halls of Bard College aren’t the cause of my current skepticism about the alarmist predictions on climate change.
We are now in the season when the media tells us over and over again that “weather is not climate” and that the natural variations in the temperature do not, repeat not, affect the credibility of climate change. I actually believe this, although in just a few months the fiddlehead ferns will be poking up through the forest floor and the media will be back to reporting each and every hot spell as conclusive proof that climate change is already here.
My totally unscientific conclusion based on close study of the media: weather isn’t climate in the months which have “r” in them. The rest of the year, it is.
I am a flexible and modern person and so I can go with that thinking. Actually, I can do even better. The last time I was in Australia the whole country was bemoaning a catastrophic drought and not only blaming it on climate change; people were talking about the evacuation of large stretches of Australia as global warming turned it into a desert. Now much of the country is under water following record rains with a new cyclone hurling toward Queensland to make things even wetter. This, too, is climate change and is a harbinger of more disaster to come.
I get it, I really do. Hot weather means the climate is changing. Cold weather means the climate is changing. Dry weather means we must brace for more climate change; floods mean the change is at hand. Sometimes it takes a little extra work to get it all clear in my head, but I manage. After scientists told me that climate change was bringing us more hurricanes and stronger ones, I was a little confused with our quiet season last fall. I expect the answer is a simple one: busy hurricane seasons mean climate change is coming; quiet hurricane seasons mean it is already under way.
I can go even farther for the greens: I can collaborate with the media in forgetting the grotesque ethanol scam. This was brought to us by the infallible green wonks who, despite their well known and widely advertised commitment to rigorous scientific testing of all ideas somehow fell for a bunch of cheap lies and shiny illusions propagated by farm lobbyists. Thanks to the great green climate brains, we now have a government-subsidized rip-off that is worsening food shortages and creating political unrest all over the world while also spewing more carbon per unit of energy into the atmosphere than the evil oil companies ever did. I am not only willing to refrain from ever bringing this up in polite company, I am willing and even able to tell myself that the same idiots who fell for this claptrap can safely be trusted with even larger sums of money and power to develop even more complex systems of social engineering. And when I think about the probable consequences and side effects of the vast international carbon and permit trading markets the greens want to set up, I solemnly promise and swear not to think about the pathetic mess they have made with the European carbon market.
It makes perfect sense when you think about it: the greens are just smarter than the rest of us, better able to understand the dynamics of complex systems like the earth’s climate, European financial markets and the ethanol process than the rest of us boobs. I am only puzzled and disappointed that American public opinion seems so inflexibly opposed to the hefty tax increases and regulatory burdens that would, our infallible and wonder-working climate scientists assure us, stop the whole dire process in its tracks.
However, the reason that I’m skeptical about the climate doom scenarios has nothing to do with the tendency of climate change prediction to lapse into unfalsifiable propositions where everything that happens or can happen is considered evidence that a hypothesis is true — or even with the propensity of the climate ‘fixes’ they propose to collapse into expensive heaps of incompetence and fraud.
It doesn’t even have to do with the ugly links between the climate change movement and the European farm lobby, a group whose policies of protection and subsidy in the name of the environment some think kill more innocent people in the developing world every year than most diseases. Ethanol here, the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe, protectionism everywhere and always in cahoots with the greens: nothing here to think about or investigate, friends. Just good folks doing good things.
No, I’m skeptical of these prophecies because of something else: meat. Meat in Charleston, South Carolina in particular, where someone who seems to have every qualification to be a mad scientist is trying to grow meat in a lab. Dr. Vladimir Mironov has both a Ph.D and an MD, putting my own modest BA in English literature pretty much in the shade. Mironov thinks that growing animal protein — meat — in vitro rather than on the hoof will be more economical and effective than the current system.
If he’s right, and if lab produced meat turns out to be practical and tasty, some big changes are coming — and I’m not just talking about heated debates over how the rules of kashrut and halal apply to artificial pork that has never touched or been touched by a pig or pig byproducts.
According to a United Nations report (which must as we all know be completely and unquestionably true when referring to matters of climate science having nothing to do with glacier melt), “Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation.” Ronald Reagan was widely and no doubt justly mocked for saying that trees cause more pollution than cars do; had he said cows instead of trees he could have appealed to the UN for support. In any case, the report (from the Food and Agricultural Organization) goes on:
When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 per cent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.
And it accounts for respectively 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.
With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year, the report notes. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.
In a typical Malthusian-panic green response, one group recommends going vegan to save the planet. But Dr. Mironov has another approach: grow the stuff in labs without all the methane. I have no idea whether this will work at all or whether the meat produced that way will taste more like Kobe beef than like the anonymous gray ‘mystery meat’ they used to feed us when I was a promising young sprout back in pundit school. But if Dr. Mironov is even partly right, the dynamics of the world’s food supply, energy use and atmospheric composition are very, very different from what the greens say.
You would think that smart greens genuinely interested in saving the planet would be all over Dr. Mironov’s work like white on rice. You would think that the vast and well organized enviro-agricultural lobbies like the ones that brought us ethanol and the enviro-industrial lobbies like the ones bringing us bad electric cars and expensively subsidized alternative energy sources would be pumping billions or at least hundreds of millions into a relatively simple scientific concept that, if successful, would make the world cleaner while dramatically raising the living standards of much of the world’s population by making a high protein diet more accessible and sustainable.
But you would be wrong. Nobody seems very interested in the prospect of saving the planet by cutting cows out of the food chain. Very little money has gone into this field and very few scientists are working on it.
Now I don’t know whether this particular technology will ever pan out, so that PETA activists will be stopping in at the local McDonalds for a tasty shamburger. Dr. Mironov might be wasting his time, or he might really be onto something.
But the point is that there are hundreds of thousands of Dr. Mironovs working on all kinds of unconventional inventions and ideas in labs and garages all over the world. Most of them may never produce very much but, especially with the tremendous advance of knowledge in biology of recent decades, some of them are going to get some very remarkable, life changing results.
Whether we will get delicious juicy shamburgers and sinfully salty, crisp facon (fake bacon) anytime soon is beyond me. But that the future will be full of surprises that change the basic rules of the energy game is almost certain. This is why I don’t think the prophets of doom have it right. Human ingenuity has been getting us out of tight corners and making life unexpectedly better for thousands of years; I don’t think we’re done yet.