I’M MELTING: I want to sue someone for false advertising. Last Friday’s gathering at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree came billed as a smackdown for the ages, pitting well-paid apologists for big oil against the party-pooping doom ‘n’ gloomers who populate the global warming jet set. How could it not be explosive? After all, the event had been cosponsored by two groups with wildly antagonistic agendas: the Santa Barbara Industrial Association-led by the ever swaggering, ever sneering, but always gracious Joe Armendariz-and the hyperactive brain trust of the Community Environmental Council (CEC), which has been churning out position papers, white papers, and technical treatises on global warming by the bushels-ful, all with catchy slogans attached, like Fossil Free by ’33. Instead, the four-hour-long gathering turned out to be one of the more interesting and illuminating discussions on a decidedly overheated subject. Had I paid to attend, I’d want my money back.
The opening act was a glorified industrial infomercial in which representatives of the oil, natural gas, wind, and solar industries got to joust for rhetorical-if not market-supremacy. But the main event featured the CEC’s Tam Hunt and UCSB Professor David Lea holding down the Chicken Little side of the debate, while James Taylor (a pugnacious pundit with the right-wing Heartland Institute) and Daniel Botkin (professor emeritus of UCSB’s very own environmental studies program) were assigned the Darth Vader side of the equation.
Taylor played the heavy to the hilt, arguing that weather patterns are always changing and to the extent that the world is getting warmer, solar activity-not human industry-is to blame. The Arctic may be shrinking, but the Antarctic ice sheets are spreading, he said. And besides, the United Nations panel of scientists-about 10,000 of them-that has repeatedly concluded global warming is real and that humans are responsible, has been infiltrated by Greenpeace types and eco warriors. Taylor noted how a majority of Swedish scientists concluded that humans were not to blame for climate change, that Danish economists ranked global warming dead last in terms of spending priorities, and that only 41 percent of all climate scientists believe the problem was of such magnitude that it should be taken from their hands and given to policymakers.
UCSB’s David Lea said Taylor seemed like a very nice man, but that he’d give him an F. “As a professor, I’m not used to people disagreeing with me,” he joked. Lea pointed out that, thanks to human activity, the Earth is now getting zapped with an additional 2.7 watts of energy per square meter than before. That additional energy load, he cautioned, will be felt. Tam Hunt aimed straight for the pocketbook, arguing that big companies like BP and 3M that invested in technologies that mitigated the effects of global warming wound up saving hundreds of millions. The State of California stood to save $74 billion, he said, and the County of Santa Barbara $1.5 billion if they did the same. While Hunt did not exactly play the God card, he did the next best thing, announcing that the Pope himself had embraced the issue and would be coming out against global warming during his upcoming tour of the United States. Taylor had a field day with that and tweaked Hunt for relying on the Pontiff as a scientific authority. “The last time we did that it was around the Spanish Inquisition,” he said. For good measure, he added, “And Galileo was proven correct.”
But the most intriguing speaker was Botkin, who began studying the effects of global warming way back in 1968. In recent weeks, however, Botkin has emerged as the darling of the global warming atheists after writing a Wall Street Journal editorial trashing a scientific study that concluded 35 percent of all species will go extinct because of global warming. (No such die-off ever occurred in the past 2.5 million years, when the planet experienced massive weather extremes, he argued.)
In the flesh, Botkin hardly repudiates global warming. It should be taken as seriously as the forest fires now engulfing Southern California, he said. And like the fires, global warming is hard to reliably predict with computer models. Botkin expressed vexation with self-loathing humans who believe nature would be a better place if we never evolved from the great apes. And panic, he cautioned, has rarely generated clear thinking.
In response to the global warming frenzy, Botkin observed how nuclear power-which does not emit greenhouse gases-is enjoying new-found respect. Right now, 104 nukes are generating 8 percent of the nation’s power, he said. And we have 70,000 tons of radioactive waste all dressed up with no place to go. How many nukes will we need to replace fossil fuels, he asked, and isn’t the waste they generate scarier than global warming? And what about the corporate greed-bags now exploiting fear over global warming? The feds are now subsidizing ethanol-and corn-production to the tune of $8.3 billion. What sense does it make to make ethanol, which costs $7.12 a gallon to produce, when a gallon of gas costs only $1.75 to produce? Armed to the teeth with telling factoids, Botkin noted we’d have to plant corn on 320 million acres to kick our gas habit. “You can either eat or you can drive,” he said. “That is not a solution.”
Botkin took issue with free-marketeers like Taylor, who argue that if alternative fuels were so great, private enterprise would have already produced them. He disputed the existence of the free market where energy is concerned, pointing out how California’s utility industry conspired with the State Legislature to severely limit the amount of solar energy the utility companies were legally required to purchase back from residential solar producers. This line of criticism clearly resonated with people attending the conference. One man asked Botkin to what extent he thought the Iraq War should be regarded as an oil industry subsidy, not the sort of question you might expect from such a pro-business gathering. Stressing he had to answer that question as “a human being and not a scientist,” Botkin said when he ran the numbers a year ago, he discovered the federal government could have provided free solar units-and paid the installation costs, too-for every single person living in the United States with what it had then spent on the Iraq War.
Like I say, I want my money back.