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The Power to Mislead

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Since human beings have inhabited this planet, say for the last 40,000 years or so, we have been sent problems to solve. Pretty difficult problems too. I don't mean the mundane problems of existence, how to start a fire, catch animals, grow plants, figure out what stuff is poisonous and what isn't. No, not those kinds of problems. I'm thinking about the big problems, like plague, which wiped out nearly 50% of the population of Europe. How to build structures that would withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. How to rid the world of tyrants who arose century after century to enslave and murder, often in the name of a cause. How, having invented the most terrible of weapons, to control their use.

And for the last half century, we've been presented with big problems about the environment. We were burning so much coal that the air of some of our cities became literally unbreathable and impenetrably dense. Yet we had to keep warm. We used pesticides to stop the destruction of food by worms and insects, but we were killing birds, and accumulating these pesticides in our bodies. We wanted our cars to go faster and be more powerful, but lead began to poison our children as they were at play. We loved getting whipped cream out of cans, but the ozone layer that protects us from deadly ultraviolet radiation was being eaten up. And these environmental problems, tough problems, we have tackled, and we can say that we have mastered many of them. Not everywhere, and not all of them everywhere, but a good start.

Now, in the last decade, we have realized that we have a very difficult problem to solve. Some would say the most difficult problem human beings have ever had to solve, because it requires an unprecedented amount of global cooperation. It goes by the name of climate change. Like most of the other problems it is of our own making. And if you think this was only discovered by Al Gore a few years ago, well, it wasn't. A Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, warned in 1903 that if we keep burning fossil fuels at the rate we were burning them then, and that was a pretty low rate compared to what has happened since, the carbon dioxide concentrations on the earth would become abnormally high, that is, they would be higher than any we had known in recorded history. Well, he was right. We did and they have. 106 years ago Arrhenius realized this, and we are still going on. By the way, he was not an obscure guy. He got the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

So we have this problem, the increase of carbon dioxide, which we call a greenhouse gas because it makes our atmosphere more like a greenhouse, and warms it. There are thousands, literally thousands, of scientific papers that confirm this, explain it, demonstrate it. Published in the finest scientific journals in the world.

But does everyone, at least every educated person, believe it? No. There are still some idiots running around trying to tell us that there is no problem, just alot of scare mongering by some environmentalists trying to take away our SUVs! Or turn off our air conditioners. People like Albert Z Conner of Wilmington Delaware who wrote a letter to Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, a society of 200,000 scientists, and they published this letter. Here are one or two excerpts:

"President Barack Obama's selection of Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy, Lisa Jackson to head the EPA, and Carol Browner to be White House energy czar is a disturbing indication that this Administration subscribes to the myth that human-made carbon dioxide is a major factor in global warming."

And further on he says: "It is one thing to impose drastic measures and harsh economic penalties when an environmental problem is clear cut and severe. It is foolish to do so when the problem is largely hypothetical and not substantiated by observations"

And, "There is a rising tide of scientific evidence that repudiates the conclusions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore's alarmist campaign."

Scientific evidence? I don't think so Mr Conner.

I looked up Conner, and this is not his first foray into this. He seems to be one of the people behind something called the Petition Project, getting signatures for a petition circulated 10 years ago that reads"

"We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind.

There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth."

Many beneficial effects Mr Conner? Sure, just ask the Australians how beneficial their 10 year long drought has been so far. Ask the pacific islanders who are looking for a place to move as the sea level rises that have already occurred eat away their home. Or if you want, wait around until the sea level rises another meter, which it will, and 30,000,000 people more or less in Bangladesh have to move because their land is under water. Oh yeah, that will be really beneficial to them, Conner. And to us as well, because in case you thought otherwise, they aren't likely to stay there and drown quietly, I think they are going to come here and share the high ground with us. Sound good, Mr. Conner?

Well, there are a lot of misleading statements around on climate change, and there is a lot of science that refutes them. Want to learn more? The Royal Society in London put out a little booklet on this, called Climate Change Controversies, A Simple Guide and you can find it at http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=6229. We talked about this in my radio program, Environment on the Edge, and you can download a podcast of that for free from itunes at http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=319560376.

The great 20th century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote "The expansion of human power has hardly begun, and what we are going to do with our power may either save or destroy our planet. The earth may be of small significance within the infinite universe. But if it is of some significance, we hold the key to it. In our own age we have been forced into the realization that there will be either one world, or no world."

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