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Climate Change: What Are the Real Questions?

shutterstock_116446909 My favorite part of Earth Day.

Ancient history

On April 22, 1970, I -- along with a teeming multitude of junior high school and high school kids, college students, hippies and New Leftists -- participated in the first Earth Day, a "teach-in" organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to make the world aware of the imminent environmental crisis that faced the world -- starvation from Malthusian collapse, the coming Ice Age, industrial pollution combined. In Pueblo, Colorado, we had a list of "demands" -- the one I remember best was closing the City Park to car traffic so people wouldn't be exposed to all that automobile exhaust.

It wasn't a complete loss, as I met a couple of girls who I'd have an unrequited crush on for years after, but it didn't have a whole lot of other effect locally -- anti-pollution laws had already cut the emissions from the CF&I steel mill significantly, and the City Park remained open to cars, even on weekends. The enabling legislation that led to the Environmental Protection Agency had been signed the preceding January; and at least for me, my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat when my father pointed out to me that a lot of the people who drove into City Park on summer weekends were poor people who lived in poorer parts of town. The country club members who lived near us would be fine -- it was my friends Manuel and Vern, who worked with me on the loading dock, who wouldn't be able to visit the park.

In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which predicted the imminent environmental crisis that faced the world -- starvation from Malthusian collapse, the exhaustion of oil and "nonrenewable" resources, industrial pollution combined. The charts looked impressive, the model looked impressive -- this was long before I really became involved in modeling myself, and learned how much of a model's results depend on the assumptions of the modelers -- and I really thought this was the real thing. My friends and I started planning a sort of neo-Mission style adobe fort in order to survive the collapse.

That didn't happen either, the brunette with the waist-length hair who was going to be the new Eve to my Adam never did actually sleep with me, I went off to college, the world didn't end again. By then, I was starting to get more skeptical.

When the imminent environment crisis of global warming faced the world, I read about it fairly widely. The model of CO2-forced warming seemed plausible, but too many of the predictions depended on models that I knew were more complicated than I would trust -- and by then I'd lived through the predictions of imminent nuclear war, and nuclear winter, and nuclear winter's baby cousin the global cooling that would be caused if the U.S. were foolish enough to try to take back Kuwait, forcing Saddam Hussein to set fire to the oil fields, and a half dozen other imminent crises -- and I had become a confirmed skeptic of imminent crises in general.