Global warming issue is a climatic game of poker

December 20, 2009

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I had a difficult time believing in such a thing as acid rain until the balsam forests in the mountains where I like to hike turned brown, and what had been rich fishing holes became sterile pools of lifeless water.

Still, the notion of making up one's mind on the basis of firsthand information - and not on the basis of someone else's say-so - has a lot going for it. Too many people have agendas, too many people have axes to grind and too many people have money riding on the outcome to put your full faith and confidence into ideas of which you have no direct knowledge.

In the case of global warming, the problem is that by the time we have firsthand information available at our doorsteps, it will be too late, just as my belief in acid rain came too late to save any forests or fish.


To be right up front about it, I don't have any more idea about global warming than the person reading this page.

Here's what I do know: If everyone had a glacier in his backyard, we would all be a lot more open to the idea. Having hiked in Alaska, Norway, Switzerland, the Andes, the Himalayas and the Italian Alps, I do know for an absolute fact that, to quote the Wicked Witch of the West, we're melting. And not slowly, either.

Back in 1993, before climate change was on anyone's radar, it didn't take a scientist to see that the glacier at Tracey Arm in Alaska's Southeast Passage was shrinking at an astonishing rate. No one seemed terribly concerned about it at the time - it was just nature taking its course.

Ten years later, there was a growing suspicion that emissions had a hand in it. A frustrated mountain guide in Norway pointed to what had once been an ice field and asked me how people in my homeland could deny the evidence - to which I replied that there aren't a lot of glaciers in Maryland.

I can understand why petroleum companies, and scientists in the employ of petroleum companies, would deny that a problem exists. I'm ever so amused by the flowery, Big Oil advertisements detailing how they're at the forefront of green energy and they're helping to save the planet. They're all members of the American Petroleum Institute, of course, which is currently running the "unfortunate truth" ad campaign urging us to petition Congress to vote down climate-change law.

What's harder to understand is the motive of scientists who are fearful of climate change. What would they have to gain by alarming people about a phenomenon that doesn't exist? Money? There's a lot more to be made by taking the opposing side. Fame? Quick, name the top three global-warming scientists. Do they just like to stir things up? If so, they would have become newspaper columnists.

But sometimes, scientists do become slaves to their own beliefs (see the "steady state" theory on the universe). I think - I hope - that things might not be quite as dire as they say, that we're not on the brink of a tipping point from which there is no return. I've been outdoors enough to know that nature has remarkable healing abilities. And of course, we've been oversold on calamities before.

So what can we do if the truth of the matter is that we just don't know for sure?

One idea I rather like is to let Mother Nature herself be the judge. The trick, according to Ontario economist Ross McKitrick, is to take the human element out of it while calling everyone's bluff at the same time.

A rather nominal tax would be placed on carbon emissions and pegged to the earth's temperature. If the temperature goes up, so does the tax. If the earth cools, the tax goes down or disappears altogether. That's it. No argument, no politics, no global conferences. Nature is the final judge. If the petroleum and coal scientists are confident they're right, they'll keep right on investing in fossil fuels. But if their rhetoric is all a profit-motivated smokescreen, they'll be more judicious.

McKitrick, a global warming skeptic himself, told the New York Times, "Either way, we get a sensible outcome. The only people who lose will be those whose positions were disingenuous, such as opponents of greenhouse policy who claim to be skeptical while privately believing greenhouse warming is a crisis, or proponents of greenhouse gas emission cuts who neither understand nor believe the ... projections, but invoke them as a convenient argument on behalf of policies they want on other grounds even if global warming turns out to be untrue."

I like it. Call it a climatic - and climactic - game of poker.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at, on or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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