Thursday, July 17, 2008

Do scientists owe carbon dioxide an apology?

And, while we're at it, does the United States Supreme Court owe carbon dioxide an apology, too?

Here's the set-up: The disciples of St. Albert Gore proclaim that our polar ice caps are melting, our sea levels are rising, and our future is threatened by an overabundance of greenhouse gas -- specifically, carbon dioxide.

Last year, in Massachusetts v. EPA, --- U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 1438, 167 L.Ed.2d 248 (2007), the Supreme Court of the United States, working with a typically mushy definition crafted by Congress, found that carbon dioxide was a "pollutant."

Of course, carbon dioxide occurs in nature -- indeed, it is vital to the presence and continued survival of all life on Earth. But the theory is that we humans are producing far more of the stuff than nature intended, thus causing global warming.

Of course, global warming -- and cooling -- has occurred long before mankind appeared on this rock and will inevitably continue even if we all disappeared tomorrow.

But this is how science works -- and how it differs from dogma. In science, we come up with an idea and see how it fits reality. We keep learning new things; we keep coming up with new ideas. Dogma, says, is "a system of principles or tenets, as of a church" or "a specific tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down, as by a church." But there may also be political dogma ("prescribed doctrine"). Basically, dogma is something in which you must believe in order to be part of the group. Dogma doesn't have a lot of room for new ideas.

Which is why global warming "science" far more closely resembles "dogma," at least as practiced by the devotees of St. Albert Gore.

But those pesky new ideas keep coming up! And, sometimes, the new ideas explain things ever so much better than what was formerly received wisdom.

We may be on the cusp of one of these times. It was widely reported last week that a new and truly scary greenhouse gas, nitrogen trifluoride, has been identified. A July 8 story in the Los Angeles Times, for example, reports that this gas has 17,000 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. And when it gets out into the air, it can last 550 years... and maybe as long as 740.

The gas is used in the manufacture of silicon chips... and flat-screen TVs. When the Kyoto Treaty was negotiated, nitrogen trifluoride was not widely used. The linked Wikipedia article will tell you that only 100 tons of the stuff was made in 1992 -- but 4,000 tons of the gas were produced in 2007, and 8,000 tons may be made by 2010. It takes a lot of gas to weigh a ton.

"It is not currently known how much is ultimately released into the atmosphere," says Wikipedia. "[E]stimates are either less or more than 2%, but there is not good independent data about releases, nor measurements of atmospheric concentration."

What that means is... nobody's been looking for it. Nobody's tried to measure it.

The gas is generated for specific industrial applications. The manufacture of silicon chips and flat-screen TVs is concentrated in fairly discrete sections of the globe. Gas released in the process would go... where?

One of the problems that even the most loyal acolytes of St. Albert have in selling global warming is that -- if it's happening anywhere, such as at the poles -- it's certainly not happening everywhere. Sea levels aren't rising (at least not yet) in accord with predictions. If higher temperatures are noted at some locations, the increase is not universal. Of course, gas being released only at specific locations around the globe may be carried by the currents and eddies of the atmosphere to distant places. Maybe it will turn out that hitherto unsuspected greenhouse gases, like nitrogen trifluoride, are concentrated in particular areas and causing localized warming there.

If so, I'd say that St. Albert and the scientists owe carbon dioxide an apology.

But this is only an idea. A hypothesis. It is something that can be tested and either verified... or refuted. But I'd bet that -- if science is allowed to proceed and not be petrified in dogma -- when the story of human-influenced climate change is written, gases invented for industrial applications -- if not nitrogen trifluoride itself -- will prove far more to blame than carbon dioxide.

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