“One Simple Trick” for Global Warming

Industry doesn’t even have to bait the hook any more, we and our journalists take it with the line and the sinker. (Photo by ToastyKen/Flickr)

If you’re on the Internet — and of course you are — the ads are all around you: “One simple trick” for losing belly fat; “one weird trick” drops your car insurance costs to near zero; “housewife discovers simple trick for white teeth;” and on, and on. If you respond to those ads, and buy whatever it is they’re selling, then you will also buy the new kind of headlines we’re seeing about climate change. Just one simple trick, they suggest (perhaps discovered by a housewife!), and the problem is solved.

The latest example uses as its takeoff a study by NASA scientists that measures the effect of controlling emissions of methane and soot. I have no criticism of the study — any and all information about the harm pollution does is worth having. I have no quibble with their conclusions, as I understand them from stories in the media; that emissions of soot and methane could be reduced more easily and cheaply than those of carbon dioxide, with similar effects on climate change.

But what we get are headlines such as this massively misguided example from the Washington Post: “Simple Measures Could Reduce Global Warming.” This is a newspaper that has largely ignored the climate-change story, has refused to connect the dots of the rising number and severity of weather disasters around the world, and has reported straight-faced every stupid climate denial voiced by a Republican candidate or oil-company pseudo-scientist. Now this formerly great newspaper dips its toe in this vital subject by proclaiming that there is an easy fix.

According to the lede sentence, the study concluded that reducing the two pollutants “will slow global warming.” But what the study actually did was to estimate the effects of such things as banning all wood-burning in stoves. Worldwide. As if that’s going to happen. The calculations are of academic interest, to be sure, but how is this more simple, or easy, or likely than, for example, banning all coal-burning in power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

To fantasize that such measures “will” happen and “will slow global warming” is to indulge in the old round that says, “If we had some ham we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.”

It’s just another example of journalism lite: the refusal to do the complex, difficult and dismaying stories about the harm our industrial society is doing to itself, in favor of the sunny, stupid stories suggesting there is “one simple trick” that will make it all go away.

Examples abound. Last week, scientists published a paper about discovering an extremely rare molecule that can convert certain greenhouse gases into compounds that help form clouds. It’s extremely rare. It’s hard to find. Its properties are not well understood, nor are the effects of cloud formation on climate change. So, naturally, the headline is: “New Molecule Could Help Cool Planet.”

Then there is the rise of the macro-engineering cult, which argues that since scientists and engineers in the service of industry have brought the world to the edge of destruction by disrupting the natural web of life, they must do more of the same kinds of things, only on a larger scale, in order to save it and us. They will, we are being encouraged to believe, come up with the one simple trick we need to solve the problem without effort or sacrifice.

If you believe that, then send me $29.95 and I will tell you the one simple trick to making a fortune. (I actually saw this ad.)


 [For a related meditation, see Reflection: Government by Witch Doctor. For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]

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4 Responses to “One Simple Trick” for Global Warming

  1. Anarchy Wolf says:

    I’ve never heard that expression before, I like it.

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    Regardless of how the Post distorted the Shindell study, my take on the point of it is that the “other” greenhouse gases – ozone, black carbon, etc – while they do not pose the same sort of long term climate change effect as CO2 – are more responsible for the disproportionately faster rate of temperature increase in the Arctic… which is quite extreme compared to lower latitudes. This is leading to very dangerous feedback effects, like methane release. So they are recommending policies to address these other emissions, and make it clear this is not going to solve the CO2 problem. Not that, as you say, we’re going to do anything about any of it. Or the bees, for that matter!

    I think what they are saying in a nice science-y way is that we’re kind of in an existential emergency with the albedo effect on ice and the permafrost melt.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Yes. What you said.

    • Jerry McManus says:

      Wait, it gets worse!

      While the black carbon of soot may absorb heat, there are also types of particulates from industrial emissions, known as aerosols by the science-y types, (not to be confused with the propellants used in products such as hairspray), that are reflecting sunlight and have the perverse effect of cooling the climate.

      They fall out of the atmosphere relatively quickly, within weeks, but because we continuously produce them in quantity it is thought that, ironically, they are actually masking some of the warming we should be seeing from our other GHG emissions.

      If all the factories, trains, planes, and automobiles stopped tomorrow, brace for impact, because that’s when the fun would really start.