The Kaleidoscopic Views of Climate-Change Deniers

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The Roman politician Cicero once said, “When there is no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.” Some interpret this to mean that the best defense is a good offense. I’ve another interpretation: When you have no explanation – deflect, defer, confound, and confuse the listener with irrelevancies. That about sums up the latest rhetoric of climate change deniers.

Because climate-change deniers are no longer able to say, with a straight face, that the climate isn’t changing, they resort to a host of irrelevancies. First, it was that the phenomenon was natural, the climate has always changed. This may be true, but it is also irrelevant since climate change has wreaked enormous environmental damage, and we need to worry about future trends. Claiming this is a natural phenomenon to justify their “do nothing” response is sheer lunacy. Imagine if a (natural) meteor was hurtling towards Earth - shortly to cause its oblivion. Can you just imagine these hide-your-head-in-the-sand birds saying, “Well, it’s a natural event, so why do anything?” The relevancy of the response, however, goes to what we should do about the situation, not to deny outright its existence.

The latest rejoinder of the climate ostriches is that global cooling causes more deaths than global warming. The refrain is eagerly grasped by those in need of a new mantra. With global cooling the real villain, anti-responders claim we should focus on that - a classic example of deflect, defer, confound, and confuse.  Some anti-global warming activists advise that carbon-cutting will only slow future deaths, and only slightly, advising air conditioning as the prudent response, even as they ignore the warming effects of those air conditioners.

“Even if all the world's ambitious carbon-cutting promises were magically enacted, these policies would only slow future warming. Stronger heat waves would still kill more people, just slightly fewer than they would have. A sensible response would focus first on resilience, meaning more air conditioning and cooler cities through greenery and water features”- Bjorn Lundberg

Let’s assume this contention is true – that more people die (directly) from global cooling than global heating. What does that have to do with minimizing deaths from global warming?  Why shouldn’t we mitigate climate change by simultaneously addressing both concerns?

Global cooling v. Global warming

According to the EPA, 19,000 people died from cold-related deaths in the US since 1979, about 8000 more than those dying from heat-related deaths (although heat-related deaths are projected to increase more rapidly). But that’s the direct causes of deaths – not including damage attributable to fires and floods, damage to the ecology and food supply, and ancillary financial effects, more proximately related to heat, not cold.

Global warming already impacts the travel industry, including bans implemented on short air travel. The resurgence of some diseases, such as malaria, are predicted to put hundreds of millions of persons at risk as mosquitos are pushed to new areas with increased transmission seasons. (A situation not helped by the unfortunate bad rap given to DDT).

Worse, perhaps, may be indirect deaths and disease linked to fossil fuels, which some evidence supports, although the impact of fossil fuels on health is a subject of contention. [1]

However, the need to control climate change shouldn’t trigger a ‘Henny Penny, Dear Me the Sky is Falling Down – Let’s Go and Sue the King’ moment [2]. Knee-jerk solutions may be counterproductive. If efforts to reduce global warming deplete the pockets of the carbon purveyors but grossly benefit the rest of us, arguably, society might accept this trade-off.  On the other hand, even as Al Gore harpoons the oil and gas industry, what if this approach does not generate the anticipated response? Recycling, for instance, can cost more than the savings generated. And our quick conversion from coal to cleaner burning fuels can have unintended consequences. For example, some blame the opioid epidemic on unemployed coal miners, denuded of their livelihoods by the rise of alternative fuels. Without alternative sources of income and bankrupted of hope, they became easy prey for the balm of poppy or its chemically-engineered progeny, like fentanyl.

Perhaps there are better, i.e., more cost-efficient and immediate, ways to address the problem– one which will impact both warming and cooling deaths and damage, rather than capping carbon emission? For example, methane production is now understood to be a far worse heat-trapping molecule than carbon dioxide.

Methane is 21 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide… Actually [the] CH4 [methane molecule]…  is at least 56 times more heat-trapping than a molecule of CO2. [carbon dioxide]” 

Comparisons of methane (a carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms attached) and carbon dioxide (carbon plus two oxygen atoms) aren’t quite so straightforward. According to research conducted by Drew Shindell, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center, because of atmospheric chemical effects, methane’s heat-trapping properties are higher. But methane breaks down faster than carbon dioxide. So, while CO2 remains in the atmosphere for around a century, methane lasts only about a dozen years. But perhaps focusing on the next 12 years isn’t such a bad idea, especially since heat-trapping of any type begets more damage, like flooding and rising coastal water – problems in the very short term.

“Over 10 or 20 years.., methane is 80 to 100 times more warming than CO2.”

-  MIT’s Climate Portal

Would reducing methane be effective and more economically palatable than carbon dioxide caps? The international consensus says yes.

In the US, methane emission sources emanate from various sources, including significant leakages. The EPA estimates about 6.5 million metric tons of methane leak from the oil and gas supply chain yearly, contributing about 10% to climate change. Others noted that methane leaks are underreported by as much as 70% - and that we really don’t have a handle on the situation. While we don’t know the extent of natural gas leaks, this might be a good place to start our salvage operation. Not only would plugging the leaks dampen global warming, but by conserving energy it would bring energy costs down, as well.

Solid waste landfills account for 14% of methane emissions. Reconfiguring landfills would prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere and provide previously untapped energy. One success story belongs to the Freshkills Landfill in New York:

  • “The City of New York sells the purified natural gas [from the landfill] to National Grid, which distributes the gas to Staten Island residents for cooking and heating fuel.
  • As of 2018, the system. .. produced about 1.5 million cubic feet of methane. [daily]” [2]

And let’s not forget agriculture and the farts and burps of cows, politely known as “enteric fermentation.”

Enteric fermentation is the digestive process in which sugars are broken down into simpler molecules for absorption into the bloodstream. This process also produces methane as a by-product. However, a small percentage of methane is also produced in the cow's large intestine and released.”

According to the UN, these enteric sources contribute 15% to methane’s impact on warming. While fart and burp gas may be a challenge to address, dairy farmers are working on it (mainly by changing cows’ diet). Implementing technology using chlorine and light may be able to remove up to 90% of those enteric offerings. Here, too, we get a double benefit: sweeter-smelling pastures along with cooler ones.

The US now agrees. Last month, the new EPA regulations on methane emissions were promulgated. Whether these are targeted enough to make a difference remains to be seen.

Another option is pursuing nuclear energy, a topic deserving its own column.

At the end of the day, though, abusing those sounding the climate change alert isn’t going to help anyone. Neither is grandstanding by actors or eight-year-olds. Scientifically and economically sound measures exist that are more palatable to many than capping carbon from coal. Perhaps it’s not the bandwagon the climate change enthusiasts envisioned, but there are good places to start and opportunities to pursue, like dampening gas leaks and capturing methane from landfills.

 

[1] Research indicates that burning carbon materials increases particulate matter. Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that over eight million people worldwide die from fossil-fuel-related air quality issues (one in five deaths), with 350,000 premature deaths in the US attributed to fossil fuel pollution. Others, like ACSH’s Dr. Fred Lipfert, who is not a climate denier, dispute the causality. (You can find more of Fred's current thinking here.) My theory is that both particle size and shape, along with the patient's pulmonary health (e.g., smoker, history of asthma or COPD), impacts disease susceptibility.

[2] Henny Penny v. The King is a fanciful story illustrating the use of epidemiology to support suits for natural disasters.

[3] The average US home uses roughly 200 cubic feet daily for home heating. These methane savings would provide heat to 7500 homes.