Discussion Needs Climate Change

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

The new year offers an opportunity to face new challenges. Because I did not receive enough holiday greeting cards, I decided to write about climate. That should fill the “in box!”

Recently I was confronted by a friend regarding my “ignorant” views on global warming – seemingly because I am president of the AAPG. I don’t think the friend knows much about my political views, much less my understanding – or lack thereof – of climate science, paleoclimate, carbon sequestration or other areas of salient research. But she knows I am president of the AAPG and thus may be “climate challenged.”

Welcome to the global warming debate, where science, politics and passion have become so entwined that they may be impossible to separate, and otherwise reasonable people on both “sides” of the issue can become ardently irrational.

Are you a believer or a denier?

Friends, these are not scientific terms.

I’ll begin with a few contextual disclosures.

I view science, crudely, in terms of questions of curiosity: Why? How?

Questions can lead to hypotheses (“theories” in the vernacular), which can lead to experimentation, data collection, reduction, interpretation and conclusion. Interpretations and conclusions are then challenged, tested, repeated and, perhaps, result in scientific theories, which are fact-based bodies of evidence that are substantiated and made robust by additional data and testing, such as the theory of plate tectonics or the theory of evolution.

I view politics in terms of questions of economics and people. Who? What?

Well-intended to be sure, but at the end of the day, if you follow the money and opinion polls, you usually can sift through much of the hyperbole, passion and philosophy to unravel the underpinnings of political discourse.

Passion involves powerful emotions, boundless enthusiasm and, taken to the extreme, zeal. When passion becomes zeal, reasoned arguments are often difficult. Zeal and objectivity do not often good bedfellows make.

Within this context, is it possible to deconvolve science, politics and passion in the global-warming conversation?

At this point, I am doubtful.

However, in the spirit of giving it a try, let me pose some questions intended simply to help frame the conversation and move a tad closer to a set of policy decisions that make scientific and economic sense. Colleagues with a wide array of backgrounds and expertise are doing similar things as we all work to develop tangible, realistic actions.

Is It Happening? Is It Bad?

Is the earth warming? If so, how fast?

This is a question for science. Most agree that the data, in the aggregate, indicate an overall warming trend. We all know that the earth has warmed many, many times in the past and, as in the past, it will likely cool again. This is not the major issue.

Has anthropogenic CO2 caused warming in the second half of the 20th century to be greater than it would have been without anthropogenic CO2?

Again, a question for science. It is tougher to prove causation, but many agree the data, to the extent and quality that they exist, indicate “yes.” However, we are dealing with a highly complex, nonlinear system that is extremely difficult to model.

Is global warming “bad,” or is it possible warming could also be “good?” In other words, could there be geographic winners and losers as the earth warms?

These are questions for science, economics and politics. The answers may be more complex than generally thought.

What Can be Done?

If warm is more bad than good, is there something that can be done technologically to mitigate (slow/reverse) the anthropogenic component of warming?

A question for science. Many, including members of AAPG, are working on this challenging problem, including carbon capture and storage , measuring, monitoring and verifying , and compression, transport and injection infrastructure.

What Should be Done?

If there are technological solutions, what is the probability of success – and can the solutions be accomplished in time to mitigate the anthropogenic component of warming?

A question for science and economics. Many are beginning to work on this problem.

If there are technological solutions to mitigate warming, can we afford to implement those solutions?

A question for economics and politics. Some are discussing this problem.

Rather than mitigating warming, would investments be better used to prepare and adapt? What is the proper balance between mitigation/adaptation?

Questions for science, economics/politics and philosophy.

Not many are discussing this critical issue openly yet.

Given that both mitigation and adaptation will be expensive – and at the same time will create new economic opportunities – how should costs be borne?

A question for economics and politics.

Cap and trade is the popular mantra, but this solution struggles to be transparent, avoid waste, be predictable, use revenues wisely, permeate the economy and be reasonably stable.

A carbon tax comes closer, but politicians to date have not shown the fortitude to tax, and industry leaders are mostly keeping mum, although some are beginning to speak up about their preference for a tax.

Will It Matter?

Who should be required to participate in global carbon-reduction protocols?

A question for economics and politics. Kyoto, although well intentioned, had problems. We can do better.

If major economies, particularly developing nations, do not participate, will partial mitigation have enough impact on atmospheric CO2 to matter?

A question for science. Many think it won’t have enough impact.

Regrettably, these are not easy questions, because they involve the difficult challenge of building bridges between science, industry and politics amid a sea of passion.

Even if science and model forecasts are 100 percent certain, which my climate modeling friends assure is not the case, resultant mitigation/adaptation options and decisions are not necessarily clear.

The atmosphere needs to change in the climate change discussion if we are to determine and implement well-considered solutions. It is a massively complicated issue. To oversimplify is to underestimate. It will take everyone working together with open minds, an interest in hearing opposing views and a willingness to compromise.

It will take leadership.

AAPG members – scientists, engineers, business leaders, politicians, economists and lawyers from around the world – your voices are critical as the global dialog evolves from “Is it happening?” to “What can be done?” and “What should be done?”

AAPG’s Global Climate Change Committee convened forums in San Antonio (April 2008) and Cape Town (November 2008), with various climate experts discussing the state of the science regarding the question, “Is it happening?”

The GCCC is now moving toward forums that address “What can be done?” and “What should be done?” in Denver (this June) and New Orleans (2010). AAPG members have a strong role to play in these areas.

Let’s help lead.

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President's Column

President's Column - Scott Tinker
Scott W. Tinker, AAPG President (2008-09), is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin and Texas state geologist. Tinker also holds the Allday Endowed Chair in the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin. He has been a Distinguished Lecturer for AAPG as well as Distinguished Ethics Lecturer for the AAPG.

President's Column

AAPG Presidents offer thoughts and information about their experiences for the Association.