Jan 10, 2009

The Economist Hits an Iceberg

The Economist is an intellectually rigorous, well-written weekly. It's like Time magazine but 10 times meatier. Rather than viewing North America as the center of the universe, its focus is global. Its analysis of current events is characterized by historical perspective, political insight, and sober common sense.

Of all the magazines and newspapers out there, The Economist is what I read most religiously - and trust most implicitly.

So I'm feeling a bit distressed. In a recent editorial, titled "A Sea of Troubles," the magazine declared:

"Greenland's ice is on track to melt completely, which will eventually raise the sea level by about 7 metres (23 ft). Even by the end of this century, the level may well have risen by 80 cm, perhaps by much more."
There's a line in The Fellowship of the Ring movie in which Gandalf asks his former mentor "Tell me, friend, when did [you] exchange reason for madness?" Emotionally-speaking, that approximates my reaction to the above.

Let's begin with the second claim – that, by the time the new century gets born 91 years from now, sea levels may have risen by 80 cm (about 2.5 feet) due to the melting of Greenland's ice.

Making predictions about anything nine decades hence is tricky – because the speed of technological innovation keeps increasing. We're likely to experience more change in the first 25 years of this century than in the entire past century.

And let's be clear: the past century was no slouch. In 1940 you needed another human being to help you place a phone call. Telephone company employees moved cables from one slot to another to connect the wires over which conversations took place.

Today, my pocket-sized wireless wonder not only allows me to call vast tracts of the planet without the intervention of a single soul, it connects me to that great communications grid known as the Internet.

Neither the telephone operators, nor the folks who spoke into one part of their telephones while holding the second part to their ear, could have foreseen anything like the Internet. It was beyond their ability to imagine 70 years ago.

Our understanding of environmental issues and our ability to address them will not remain static over the next 90 years. New discoveries await us – discoveries that have the potential to change the environmental landscape as profoundly as telecommunications has already changed.

So let's return to The Economist's first statement: "Greenland's ice is on track to melt completely, which will eventually raise the sea level by about seven metres (23 ft)."

Where do these ideas come from? They can be traced back to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which projected that, if the melting of Greenland's ice were to be "sustained for millennia," the sea level would rise 23 feet.

You can look up millennia here. It's the plural of millennium – 1,000 years.

So when The Economist says Greenland's ice "is on track to melt completely" it means we're going to be in trouble thousands of years from now. But since our own environmental practices have advanced well beyond those of Ancient Rome, how likely is it that humanity won't have learned a thing or two in the interim?

Let's put this another way:
If someone recorded the fluctuations of a particular company's stock over the course of an hour, extrapolated from that data, and then insisted they could accurately predict the stock's value five years from now - would we take them seriously?
I'm not saying we shouldn't care about the environment. But the news magazine I value for its sound judgment now seems to fall short when it reports on this topic. This isn't the first time I've felt I was being served alarmist hooey rather than solid analysis.

And that's a shame. Because now I won't be paying much mind to the 16-page special section on the supposedly dire state of the world's oceans.

visit NOconsensus.org for more on the global warming debate