09 March 2012

A Skeptic's Rebuttal

Just a few short months ago, I wrote about the uprising in Sicily that was not getting any news coverage--internationally or even here in Italy. And once again, real current events were left to us bloggers to spread the word. In the buzz that spread across the web, my humble little post, A Sicilian Revolt, was linked to by Joanne Nova, who wrote an excellent piece on the revolt and the current state of Italian journalism and media coverage (I highly recommend reading it). I was very flattered to be linked to by such a well known and popular person with a website of well over 200,000 viewers.
Of course, I researched a bit about this scientist/journalist/author/public speaker that linked to my little post in her in article. I discovered that Joanne Nova is the author "The Skeptic's Handbook" (you can download it from her website), which denounces the theory of global warming being caused by CO2 emissions and 'greenhouse gases'. Her firm stance on global warming has made her widely famous and certainly a favorite among American conservatives in their constant battle against environmental protection laws. With this discovery, however, I feel compelled to speak my mind on this subject, lest anyone assumes that my admiration of her afore mentioned article signifies my complete agreement of her environmental stance. I still admire Ms. Nova because I am a big supporter of intelligent discourse (something I feel this world lacks more and more each day) and I am in no position to argue over scientific findings. However, I disagree with the overall argument which, on a surface level, raises doubt about man's damaging effects on the environment and fuels the fire between environmental protection and corporate placation to "big oil" and power companies.
As she displays on the cover of her handbook, the definition of a skeptic is "someone who does not accept the word of authorities (blindly)". I absolutely agree. Everyone should be skeptical of information they are told and should always look into things on their own. But this definition goes both ways in the climate issue--for 'believers' and 'non-believers'. I consider myself a very open-minded person and there are very valid points to her argument against greenhouse gases (caused by burning fossil fuels) being the sole cause of global warming/climate change. And I full-heartedly agree that if CO2 is not the only cause of global warming, we need to be spending our energy (and $$) on finding what is. But there is no way that the detrimental effects of burning fossil fuels can be denied.

There are many comments left by followers on her site about the ridiculousness of the term "climate change" because it is redundant. Yes, in itself it may be redundant but it is not used to only say that our climate changes--of course it does-- it has become the accepted term for describing the unusual and sometimes destructive changes in our climate. There is also no denying that there has been an increase in disastrous weather patterns in recent years.

In November of 2010, unprecedented snow storms blanketed Europe, burying cities and shutting down airports in many of Europe's capital cities, including London Heathrow. The very next year, November 2011, broke records again, but this time for warm weather, zero to no snowfall and here in Liguria, almost zero rainfall during the area's peak rainy season. This was, however, a blessing to the Cinque Terre, as they were in still under constant threat of landslides and flooding from the freakish flash flood storm the previous month. 

After an unusually dry rainy season, just one day of pouring rain on October 25, caused flash flooding across Liguria and Tuscany, destroying several towns and villages and damaging several others. While Monterosso and Aulla were severely damaged by the storm, others were even worse off. Vernazza, a village clinging to the rocks for almost a thousand years without major incident was buried under more than 14 feet of debris after floods caused several simultaneous landslides.

Brugnato, a much lesser known town, was completely wiped out by the floods of October 25.

For slideshow: http://www.demotix.com/news/916357/floods-hit-northern-italy
Borgetto di Vara, a small village in the Vara Valley was also badly damaged.

After this storm, winter weather across Europe was unusually and eerily warm, even tropical here in Liguria. Come February 1, like someone had remembered to flip the winter switch on, Siberian winds descended across Western Europe bringing snow and frigid temperatures from Paris to Provence, throughout Italy, including here in Liguria, the Cinque Terre and all the way down to Turkey and even northern Africa.

Towns in northern Italy used to snow and cold weather weren't spared from the drop in temperatures that shattered all records and caused over ten hypothermia deaths in Italy alone. Even Venice, for the first time in almost a century, saw it's grand Canal frozen over.


Urbino, an ancient city in central Italy was paralyzed under almost 20 feet of snow, unequipped and unable to help it's citizens get out of their homes.

Ms. Nova's argument is, of course, that CO2 emissions and 'greenhouse' gases (sulfur dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide--mostly bi-products of gasoline production and burning) have no provable connection with this drastic change in weather. Ok, let's say it doesn't...just to avoid the polarizing "us" and "them" arguments made in the Handbook. I still have a problem with the fact that the zealous denying of a provable connection leads most to assume that heavy CO2 emissions and other toxic gases aren't harmful.

Even if these gasses are not what is causing our atmosphere to warm, they certainly are causing harm to our health. Smog ridden cities have higher rates and more severe allergies, asthma and a slew of other respiratory diseases and general ailments. A great site that lists the common health effects of the different air pollutants can be found here.

My brother-in-law grew up in Los Angeles during some of the worst smog levels in it's history. Being on the track team in school, he and his teammates always had to check the air quality reports to make sure it was safe to run that day. Even in the 1950's, before emissions controls were even a thought in people's minds, residents of Los Angeles complained of their eyes burning while sitting in traffic on the clogged freeways.

Los Angeles, early 1990's-There is an entire city there, you just can't see it.

At the height of LA's smog problem, the mid-nineties finally brought a slew of environmental laws, city ordinances, air pollution control organizations and committees and it quickly made a difference. Los Angeles is still only partially through their 50 year smog reduction plan, but progress has been incredible. There will always be a layer of smog in LA, due to the way the ocean breeze blows all gases over the city and traps it in against the mountain ranges to the east. And there will always be good days and bad days for air quality. But only fifteen years into pollution control measures, life in Los Angeles is no longer dictated by air quality reports. Living in Los Angeles for six years myself, I can attest to gorgeous, clear days and a huge population of avid hikers in the hills that were once barely visible. 

Same view of Los Angeles skies today
These smog reduction measures should be replicated in all large cities across the planet. Ms. Nova may argue against a proven relationship between the earth's atmosphere and the smog levels in our cities, but how can she argue that the differences made between the two above pictures is not incredibly important for human health and nature alike? Why shouldn't we all be reducing emissions and finding alternative sources of energy?

If the above is not enough of an argument, here is another: the burning of fossil fuels and our complete dependency on oil just doesn't make sense--it has no lasting future. Before pollution even starts, sourcing oil causes wars, environmental disasters like the one in the Gulf of Mexico (not to mention the numerous rig spills last year alone) and allows dictators to wield power over other nations. There is also the ever present threat of Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz (again), which would sever the supply of oil to the nations that so depend on it.

The only angle where continuing our complete dependence on fossil fuels makes sense is that of the suppliers. With the simple macro economics of supply & demand, dwindling supplies guarantee they make windfall profits. But when it really is gone, even they will be out of a job.

The story that started this argument was about farmers revolting in Sicily because the cost of transporting food had exceeded the cost of the food itself. This is not an isolated problem--fuel costs are rising worldwide. What will happen when revolts start all over the world? What will happen when it's your grocery store with bare shelves because the goods are too expensive to be delivered? Global warming and climate change is no longer the most important reason to switch to renewable energy--it is now important for our survival and the prevention of famine. 

Switching to renewable energy is not only about reducing greenhouse gases, it is about making an obvious, logical and responsible move. Wind, sun and thermal heat have always been and always will be around (at least for hundreds of thousands of years, hopefully). These sources are here for the taking, as they always have been. And the means are completely flexible--you can get renewable energy from a main power source, like solar and wind farms, or you can have your very own units for your home. The cost of harnessing these infinite sources of energy is only in the upfront cost of the equipment. The sheer fact that anyone with a roof or a piece of land can produce their own energy and even feed the excess back to the grid is incredibly empowering!


And what about our cars, one of the biggest contributors to smog? I'm not a huge supporter of electric cars (yet) because I think they are still a ways away from meeting the needs of the masses, like delivery trucks, farm equipment, heavy duty vehicles, etc. and their price still does not make up for the difference in fuel saved. I am, however, a big fan of biodiesel. It doesn't get the attention it deserves, maybe because it doesn't classify as "clean" fuel, but it can be made from used cooking oil (which gets dumped by the tons every day). It can be used in current diesel engines (meaning no expensive new cars or trucks) and most importantly, it is not a fossil fuel! Using it not only helps the environment--err, public health--, it saves money, recycles used oil and protects you from rising fuel costs. Don't think it's realistic? Many companies, including the United States Postal Service have switched some of their fleet to biodiesel, with plans to increase the number of vehicles as the number of refueling stations increase. If you are interested in using biodiesel, Biodiesel Magazine lists refueling stations across the United States (you can also purchase equipment to make your own biodiesel like my neighbor in Los Angeles did for her diesel VW).

With all the discourse of whether global warming exists, how greenhouse gases affect the atmosphere, whether CO2 is really the culprit, etc... Can't we all agree that the planet and the world is better off if we make the switch to renewable energy? Whether science can or can't prove a connection, we shouldn't take that as a sign to continue polluting as we always have. Yes, we should continue to research other factors that can be causing our Global warming, but I fear that Ms. Nova and her fellow 'skeptics' are just fueling the fire for deniers to maintain the status quo.

If people really want to be independent and trail-blazers (like many claim to be), then they should make their lives independent from oil and power companies. Enough with people claiming to be independent on chat sites, comment threads and email forwards--do it for real! Take energy into your own hands! If you produce your own electricity, make your own biodiesel and even grow your own vegetables--you can't get much more independent than that! And if the side-effect of people becoming fully independent is a cleaner planet, then so be it! It would be a good thing.

For further reading, a real, scientific rebuttal was put together by environmental scientists to address the points and opinions expressed in the "The Skeptic's Handbook". See "A Scientific Guide to the 'Skeptic Handbook'" .


  1. Excellently written, I'm not scientifically minded at all but I can't help thinking that the way we live, drive and take from the planet contributes to the extreme weather we've been experiencing. We do our (small) part but there is more we could be doing as a society to improve our health and the health of the planet.

  2. Brava! Even if global warming is not due to human activitiy, we are polluting the planet at a record rate and it has many other consquences threatening our existence and that of life in general on this planet.

  3. Thank you for this post. I would be interested in reading the book you're discussing. I work with a bunch of people that are big into going green and recently some terms have been brought up that I've never heard of before such as tower packing, biological waste water treatments, etc. I feel like I need to become more knowledgeable so I can participate in the conversations!

  4. Thank you all for your nice feedback. I think the biggest point of this is we should think about the health of the planet as much as we think of our own.


I really appreciate your comments.

Vernazza Updates:

Vernazza is well on its way to normalcy and while I no longer write updates on their status, you can learn about the devastating floods of 2011 by clicking the label "Vernazza Updates". For the latest information from the organizations in Vernazza and Monterosso, visit SaveVernazza and Rebuild Monterosso.

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