By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune August 30, 2011
Today I am writing about religion. Specifically, about those who worship in the Church of the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. More specifically, about those who, as a matter of faith, believe that the science of climate change is settled.
These believers preach that mankind is steering the planet onto an irreversible and cataclysmic course unless we do something. They have engaged in a clever ploy of labeling those who disagree with their dogma as "deniers" and "anti-science." When actually they're the ones trashing science.
Let's take the latest scientific research that demonstrates, again, that the science of climate change is too complex to lend itself to simplifications and claims of "consensus."
It came last week from the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, where a high-energy particle accelerator is creating in the lab certain atmospheric conditions to study the mysteries of clouds and, by extension, climate. The cloud experiment is duplicating the effect of cosmic rays — the charged particles that constantly bombard the planet from space — on the formation of aerosols, tiny liquid or solid particles suspended in the atmosphere that ultimately form clouds. The more aerosols, the more clouds; the more clouds, the more sunlight is reflected back into space; the less sunlight, the cooler the Earth. And vice versa.
The CERN experiment's initial results, announced Thursday, show that increased cosmic rays "significantly enhance" aerosol formation in the mid to upper atmosphere, "tenfold or more." In the lower atmosphere, the role of cosmic rays is less clear. Finding out what makes the difference in aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere will be CERN's next job.
CERN scientists carefully avoid any engagement in the debate over what's missing to explain the variations in aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere. They do know that the presence and interaction of components normally in the lower atmosphere — water, sulfuric acid and ammonia — that help form aerosols are not enough to explain the amount of aerosols actually there, not even when cosmic rays are added to the soup.
Some say the missing element is man-made, namely emissions of greenhouse gases. Others hypothesize it could be other things, natural things, that enter just the lower atmosphere, such as dust particles or sea spray.
Henrik Svensmark of the National Space Institute in Copenhagen has advanced a controversial theory that the sun's magnetic field is intimately involved in aerosol formation: The stronger the magnetic field, the more cosmic rays are deflected away from Earth, thus fewer aerosols, fewer clouds and a warmer Earth. He may or may not be right.
The CERN experiment is basic science at its best and is newsworthy even without the global warming context. (An aside: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory had proposed the construction of the world's most powerful high-energy accelerator on its west suburban Batavia campus, but it lost it to Texas in a political decision, where it was abandoned after $1 billion or so had been spent. CERN now is what Fermilab could have been. Chalk it up to the public's failure to understand the importance of basic science.)
I've brought up the CERN experiment not to debunk the positions of one side or the other in the global warming debate, but to illustrate the uncertainty of science, especially how one discovery leads only to more questions, further uncertainty and deeper research. That especially includes climate science, whose variables are so numerous and complex that it takes a supercomputer to try to model the climate.
The CERN experiment does not point directly to man-made greenhouse gases as the cause of global warming, although it is reasonable to believe that it is an early step in the chain of evidence. On the other hand, concluding that the experiment stops far short of proving that man-made greenhouses cause global warming doesn't make one "anti-science" or a "denier." It's just the give and take of science.
The certainly with which some regard the evidence of man-made global warming as undeniably conclusive insults science and its principles. Raising questions about research is exactly what science demands, even if the consensus of the world's best minds declares the world flat. Demands that we all bow to some "consensus" that greenhouse gases cause global warming are as senseless as declaring that there is no evidence to support the theory of evolution.
Dennis Byrne, a Chicago-area writer, blogs at The Barbershop at chicagonow.com.