The intricate issue of climate change is popularly embraced by two very loud, mostly political, rallying points. One side states that runaway carbon dioxide emissions are forcing drastic planetary climate change and humankind’s heavy contribution to this global warming urgently must be reined in before irrevocable damage is done.
Step across the aisle and you will find others chanting that man causes no effect on his environment, and our energy and manufacturing systems should be left alone.
Tom Gillespie suggests both are wrong. A 25-year earth scientist, geology professor, and principal of the ELM Group, an environmental consulting firm based in Research Park, Gillespie strongly argues that man does indeed affect climate adversely and that measures should be taken.
However, he equally believes that by pouring all our resources to restrain CO2 emissions, we may be trying to patch only the tiniest leak in the environmental tube. Gillespie will explain where the gaping hole lies, and where science and dollars are pointing when he presents “Climate Change Science and its Effect on Cap and Trade Legislation” at the Mercer County Chamber on Thursday, June 17, at 11:30 a.m. at the Hamilton Manor. Cost: $45. Visit www.mercerchamber.org.
A vast stream of popular scientific wisdom links a definite rise in global temperature to the increased emissions of carbon dioxide. Swim against this stream at your peril. Skeptics of this global warming theory find themselves labeled as “denialists” and equated with flat-earthers, anti-evolutionists, and knee-jerk political reactionaries. Such a broadbrush condemnation excludes true scientists like Gillespie, who have long sought to winnow out climate change facts from the pile.
Growing up near Freehold in a blue- collar family, Gillespie developed his love of geology early on. He earned his bachelor’s in geology from the College of New Jersey in 1978 and soon after became a licensed professional geologist. He has spent 25 years as an environmental risk management consultant and educator. With a strong expertise in structural and engineering geology, Gillespie has taught at La Salle University and at his alma mater. He works at ELM Group, which provides a broad range of environmental solutions to private clients.
And as to Gillespie’s “denialist” stereotyping, he very much believes in evolution. He even teaches courses in it. In 2005 he testified on behalf of the plaintiffs (Tammy Kitzmiller et al) against the Dover Area School District that sought to mandate intelligent design.
Gillespie’s complaint against the CO2 emission theorists has long remained “show me the science.” From his analysis, “there’s been barrels written, billions paying for it, but the links between global warming and CO2 have simply not been demonstrated,” he says.
No scientist argues that our earth does not teeter on an incredibly delicate balance to maintain life as we know it. This is particularly true of the greenhouse gases such as water vapor, CO2, methane, and ozone. Just the right amount of these gases absorb some of the longwave (infrared) radiation bouncing off of the earth’s surface, and readmits it to our atmosphere. The result: we remain toasty, but not toasted.
No greenhouse gases at all and our globe would be quickly chill to a perma-frozen, uninhabitable wasteland. Too much of a layer, as many scientists fear, and the gas-held heat gets pent up within the atmosphere. Glaciers melt and flood, vital water sources disappear, and agricultural land scorches. Such are the feared catastrophes of unrestrained CO2 gushing into our atmosphere.
It is primarily the ensuing headlong rush to halt our own CO2 contributions with which Gillespie takes issue. His skepticism springs from many sources, initially stemming from the function of atmospheric carbon dioxide itself. “About 90 percent of the earth’s radiated longwave heat is taken out by water vapor,” he says. “CO2 is one of the least actively absorbing greenhouse gases. A packet of heat will have only a half percent of its heat trapped by CO2.”
Gillespie further notes that carbon dioxide only absorbs a few types of infrared heat waves. Basically, the gas holds all the infrared radiation it can in our atmosphere and lets the rest pass happily out into space. Thus, he explains, more CO2 will not trap more heat. “So much of the global warming/CO2 link has been established through computer models,” says Gillespie. “But models in themselves do not present confirmable evidence.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the earth’s near-surface air and ocean temperatures have risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century. The World Meteorological Organization states that the earth has been warming since 1910, with a high reached in 1990, and 2001 the second warmest year on record.
“Over both long and short periods, various factors affect our climates,” says Gillespie. Ocean currents, volcanic activity, and astronomical positions all play a part, and each ushers in its own distinct, often conflicting cycle. Gillespie cites the fact that no great temperature rise has occurred in the last 12 years, since the 1998 El Nino, whose periodic warming cycle has lasted hundreds of thousands of years. As to the actual photos of Himalayan peaks with dwindling glaciers, Gillespie points to 1930s headlines with the same type of shots and claims of ice cap reduction.
There remains one far less airy and very human cause of climate change for which Gillespie offers powerful and plentiful evidence — land use flareups.
The snows of Mount Kilimanjaro have yielded a long way since Hemingway’s 1936 story. The mountain’s ice cap volume has dropped more than 80 percent in the last century, most of that since 1970. “The real villain here is a change of land use,” explains Gillespie. “It is well documented.” Since the late 1960s, settlement has increased rapidly around Kilimanjaro.
Trees and brush were cleared, and water use increased, drying up many open ponds and swamps. Formerly rain water was filtered through the confines of jungle, dense understory, and forest, providing a slow evaporative cooling to the atmosphere. Now, after the clearcut, water runs off and temperatures rise.
“We can witness this urban heat island effect, causing climate change in cities the world over,” says Gillespie. “We clearcut away the cooling forests, and replace them with pavement, tile roofs, and mono-vegetation agriculture.” Water no longer wends through plants or collects in open areas for evaporation. Additionally, heat is magnified by the use of asphalt and other materials that soak up and reradiate more sun than natural foliage.
“The use of white buildings, concrete instead of asphalt, and other light-colored materials could go a long way to making our hot, dark cities cooler,” says Gillespie. Light colors reflect more of the sun’s rays immediately back through the atmosphere, instead of absorbing them and slowly radiating them all around us.
“If you want to attack humankind’s effect on climate change, why not begin with a problem that is known, and solvable?” says Gillespie.
One controversial answer to all this is cap and trade, which has been praised as salvation and condemned as a sell out by the full spectrum of environmental stakeholders. Begun in 1970 by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection, cap and trade was designed to allow realistic amounts of emissions, while limiting them overall.
Typically, the government allocates or sells a set number of permits to individual companies, thus capping them to a certain emissions level. Under pain of massive penalty, companies must stick to their allocated cap. Those wishing to exceed their limit may purchase additional permits from a firm that has some to spare, via a governmental exchange.
Those praising the system claim that in the broad picture, the overall amount of national pollution is stabilized by the government. Critics complain that cap and trade offers no real incentive at all. The major polluters simply keep on spewing filth as usual, add the price of buying permits to their operating costs and pass it on to their customers.
Good or bad, carbon emission trading is gaining markets the world over. Gillespie looks at this burgeoning $9 billion industry and adds it to the amount of CO2 grant funding, which nearly doubles that, and shakes his head. “What we are seeking to curb is the item over which the government has the most control,” he says, “not the one most needed.”
Yet the real crime of treating CO2 as the sole climate villain, Gillespie feels, is the message being broadcast that the science of this issue is complete and done. Advocates blare daily that the proof is in, the time to act is now, and tomorrow will be too late. “However well meaning, the magnitude of climate change has been exaggerated, the extent of the catastrophe overrated, but most of all we cannot close the door of scientific investigation to panic.”
It may well be argued that Gillespie is waiting for the lion to bite off his leg before admitting that it is nibbling at his toes. Perhaps so. But before taking aim with over $1 trillion of CO2 mitigation studies, products, projects, man-hours, and resources, we may want to pause and make sure that we’ve got the right target in our sights.
Environmental Liability Management Inc. (ELM), 218 Wall Street, Research Park, Princeton 08540-1512; 609-683-4848; fax, 609-683-0129. Joseph R. Fallon, president. www.elminc.com.