[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Coping with Global Warming
Observations from a cyclist's point of view over a lifetime of how Nature, solar radiation, and the weather have been altered by man, some arguments that global warming is a myth, and what cyclists can do to cope with the changes.

Why do I consider myself to be an accurate observer of the weather and of Nature? How have the forests and the weather been changing during my life? What evidence do I offer that the sun has become more likely to burn due to ozone depletion? What evidence can I provide that the weather has become hotter during the summer due to global warming? What evidence from my experiences indicates that the weather is becoming more unpredictable? How does bias affect my observations and the observations of those who disagree with me? Are doomsayers unreasonable? Are those who feel we should do nothing reasonable? Does the hot sun theory explain global warming? Is our ignorance of former temperatures responsible for global warming theories? Was the US treated unfairly at Kyoto? Why does the US have a history of wasteful practices? What can cyclists do to fight against global warming?


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Coping With Global Warming

My Merits as an Observer

There are times when others have doubted my memory. For instance, in crossing part of Northern Ontario this year, I told other cyclists that the climbs were steeper than they had been in 1966. Of course, I was answered with "they just seem steeper because you're older." Then I pointed out the still visible old road beds that I followed then. The truth is that I climb about as well as I did 30 years ago, and the truth is that I had the feeling that the roads were steeper on only part of the trip: the part where the roads have been straightened. While I didn't remember every curve of the road, I did recognize when the road was familiar and when the route had been changed.

Like everyone, I remember some kinds of things very poorly, and I remember other things very clearly. Basically, we forget the things that aren't important to us and remember the things that are. From an early age, I saw myself as an observer of the natural world and a critic of our human world, and so I remember clearly many details that others have forgotten or perhaps never even noticed.

Recent Changes in the Forests

As an observer of Nature and a cyclist, I am always very aware of the trees, bushes, and grasses along the road; I am constantly aware of any changes, especially to the trees. From my cycling rides, both in Alabama and out of state, I feel very strongly that the quality of our forests has been declining during my life. Very often, the trees next to the road have been left untouched while the ones further back have been decimated.  Particularly hard-hit are the hardwood trees, which take a human life-time to become old enough to seed and 150 years to mature, and which have been cut more ruthlessly each generation. Quite often in Alabama, whole hardwood forests and all the wildlife they contain have been destroyed to plant pines, which grow more quickly on the now badly eroded soil. In addition, as a construction worker for over a decade, I saw the quality of boards declining, and the carpenters I worked with reported even better lumber from earlier times. You can pretty much judge the age of the tree by picking up a board from it: the heavier the board, the closer the rings are together, the slower the tree grew, and the older it was when it was cut. While foresters seem to regard older, slower growing trees as a fault to be corrected, carpenters know that the wood of such trees is stronger, more resistant against insect and weather damage, and less likely to warp. My observations about the decline in our forests have been supported by articles I've read on the subject. However, companies involved in forestry prefer a little obfuscation to the bald truth; they like to report an increase in acreage or number of trees; they love to refer to an increase in the number of deer as evidence that the clear-cutting of forests is healthy for animal life. (Deer and rabbits eat mainly plants that grow at the edge of the forests, so the destruction of forests increases their numbers while it starves animals dependent on nuts, cones, and fruits). One western forestry company proudly announced that it was now gluing together pieces of wood rather than using whole logs: Time reported that the real reason was that the company no longer had any whole logs in its millions of acres of forests. Since we have made no attempt to reduce our use of lumber, we are now importing wood from endangered tropical forests.

Recent Changes in the Weather

Along with observing trees, I also observe the weather. I am an outdoors person, and I have very clear memories of hot and cold weather going back into my childhood. I remember clearly, for instance, Halloween in Pennsylvania compared with Halloween in Alabama: the temperature, the crispness of the air, the wind, the amount of light, and the clothes we were wearing. I also remember the summer weather. As a boy, I played outside every day during the summer. As a young man, I hiked in the woods and went on cycling trips in the summer. A few years later, I was a construction worker, working outside every day for over a decade and spending my weekends in the woods. Then, after I returned to teaching, I made long cycling trips during the summer.

People who spend most of their time air-conditioned indoors have said to me, "You really don't remember what the weather was like" or "You're getting older now and the heat bothers you more." But both statements are completely false. As to the second point, I have been staying in better condition since I returned to cycling in 1985, so I can ride in weather over 100°. While I never encountered such temperatures before the 90's, now I couldn't make my trips otherwise. Let's look at some specific changes in the weather that I have observed.

The Power of the Sun to Burn

First, I never used any suntan lotion before 1990. On some occasions, my skin would get red or peel, or my nose might give me trouble, but this was due to being out in the sun with no suntan at all. When I visited Canada in 1966, I noticed my tan disappearing and the sun only weakly drying my clothes; on the same trip, by the time I reached Iowa, I had a very deep tan (part of which might have been road dirt). In 1988, I discovered that I needed to wear a hat to keep my scalp from burning (largely due to hair loss). In 1990, I added a bandana to protect my ears which were burning and peeling, I used a sun block part of the time, and I started using a skin moisturizer. By my 1995 trip, I was using a sun block regularly, and in Canada at Espanola, my face was badly burned by the sun after I turned south. In 1997, even though I already had a good tan, I found myself being badly burned on October 10th, three and a half months after the sun reached it's highest point. Finally, I saw a good illustration of this burning potential while in Canada in the summer of 1998.  I ran out of sun block, so I decided to discontinue using it until I reentered the US. I had been using it on top of my arms and knees and my nose, even though all those areas had a deep tan and even though I was not riding between twelve and two o'clock (when the sun is most likely to burn). The result of not using the sun block was that the top of my arms became quite red and the top of my nose itchy on days with bright sun, even though I was north of Lake Superior. This problem of sunburning is somewhat different from but closely related to global warming. The ozone layer, which protects us against sun burn, has been badly damage by chloro-floro-carbons (such as Freon, used in air conditioners). These chemicals share some of the responsibility for global warming, and their use (or at least the use of Freon for air conditioners) has increased due to global warming. These observations of mine have been supported by magazine articles during the same period of time that have been warning about the increased danger of solar radiation due to the thinning of the ozone layer; in particular, they warn against the danger of skin cancer, recommend the use of a sun block, and recommend staying out of the noonday sun.

The Increase in Temperature

Second, the maximum temperatures have been much greater during this decade. I clearly remember heat waves from earlier years. On my bike trip in 1966, there was a heat wave in Minnesota that pushed temperatures up into the 80's. In Missouri on the same trip, temperatures in the 90's caused many deaths. People were scrambling to get air conditioners (mainly window units then) and brown-outs were the result. As a construction worker, I have also experienced several heat waves in Alabama: on one job, we were told that we could sit down whenever we wanted to. However, while temperatures could be miserable at times (temperatures in the 90's and humidity above 80%), I never encountered temperatures that were life-threatening for healthy adults until after 1985. In the '60's, I saw nothing unusual with beginning a bike trip in August, and I had no problem with heat on the trip. In the late 80's, I discovered that I could no longer bicycle in the early afternoon during the summer in Alabama, due to an exhausting heat. Heat has had these affects on me: in 1991, I experienced considerable diaper rash on a tour; in 1993, my stomach locked up, and I could barely drink fluids; in 1995, I found that I couldn't travel for more than 20 minutes or climb a hill; in 1997, I became heat sick when cycling after six o'clock in the afternoon. While I did not have a thermometer with me at the time, I would have to assume that the temperatures were in the high 90's or above on all these occasions; I was cycling yesterday in 98° weather, and it did not bother me at all. On my most recent trip, I encounter temperatures in the 90's and 100's on up into Canada, far north of Minnesota. My observations, that the hottest weather has become much hotter, then, are not based on minor, barely observable changes. These observations are supported by a report in Scientific American than the number of extremely hot days has increased (The article also explains why.  Note: a lot of the important material in this article is found within the charts).

Greater Variation in the Weather

Third, the weather has become more unpredictable. Looking back over the years, I can remember some unusual weather. While in Pittsburgh, I once had to walk to school in deep snow before Christmas. On a few occasions in Alabama, we have actually had deep snow, and we had an unforgettable ice-storm in March of '61. In February of '76, the weather stayed warm for the entire month. However, most of the exceptional weather I can remember has been much more recent. I became aware of the problem during long, hot, unseasonable droughts in the '80's. In 1988 and 1990, I encountered heavy rains on my trip. In '88, I was fortunate enough to be able to wait out six days of heavy rain with relatives, but in '90, I experienced many days of heavy rain in Colorado, and seven inches of rain in one day in Nebraska, a state which averages nine inches a year. Since then, rains and floods have destroyed some of the towns along the Mississippi where I stopped in 1990. In 1994 I remained in Georgia rather than taking a trip; during the summer every single bridge for miles around was destroyed by rains and floods, an event that had never happened before. A neighbor's trash can, left open and out in the open, had over three feet of water in it after a few days' rain. On my 1995 trip, I experienced both severe rains and hot weather on the same trip. In 1997, a year I didn't make a trip, I saw fields flooded that had never flooded before. Just about every state in the US has been struck at one time or another with disastrous weather.  According to the same report in Scientific American, whether the weather is becoming more unpredictable and whether storms are more frequent and more violent are still unproven hypotheses; certainly, I am not the only person wondering whether it is true or not. However, Scientific American does report that the severity of rainfall and the quicker drying of the soils are established as true. (I guess I should make a statement that increased solar warming can lead to other results than warmer weather; for instance, it can lead to greater evaporation, higher winds, and stronger rainfall. So rather than experiencing warmer temperatures, we can experience colder temperatures and more violent weather as a result. Global warming can create new weather patterns that make some areas drier and some areas wetter than in the past.)

Bias of the Observers

In looking at statements made about global warming, we do have to consider the bias of the observers. In my case, I am a great lover of Nature, and I dislike the harmful effects that man has had on forests, wetlands, and wild life. On the other hand, many people are very satisfied with our economic prosperity and see little value in preserving woodlands in their natural condition. Their experience of the natural world is from an air-conditioned car or house anyway. In addition, some companies and the people who are paid by those companies profit greatly from continuing their current practices. Thus foresters and forestry companies claim that we should be cutting more rather than less timber, and oil companies, their employees, and their agents claim that global warming is just a figment of the liberal imagination. Insurance companies, on the other hand, face ruin if the number of catastrophic storms increases; therefore, they have joined in spreading the alarm.

Calling Environmentalists Doomsayers

An interesting twist to the anti-global-warming arguments is to call those who warn against environmental problems doomsayers and to point to disasters that never materialized. There are several ways in which mankind can destroy itself, with nuclear and biological weapons the most likely tools. And there is the remote possibility of a comet or asteroid hitting the earth. However, even these kinds of disasters would probably not kill all men, even though they would be likely to destroy civilization. Civilizations can also be destroyed through overpopulation, exhaustion of the soil, depletion of natural resources, and climatic disruption, although some counties would be affected more than others. I have heard it claimed that no civilization has destroyed itself in such a fashion, a claim that is obviously false. Polynesia has many examples of islands that either became depopulated due to disaster or that saw their civilizations crumble. Easter Island is the best-known example of the latter. But the history of Western civilization (and Eastern as well) is the story of the collapse of one civilization after another. It is true that many of these declines, such as that of the British Empire, are simply for political or military reasons, but the effect of mismanagement of the environment is a very frequent cause, with problems due to salt (over-irrigation), goats and sheep (overgrazing), and the destruction of forests (and the long-term effect on the water table) being important causes. While it can be debated whether Rome fell due to lead salts or other errors, the fall of Rome is not a matter of dispute. So, the idea of wrong decisions leading to eventual collapse is not entirely foolish.

However, most "doomsayers" are just pointing out that our policies are having an adverse affect or will lead to problems in the future. With some of our poor decisions, we may never recognize the problem; for instance, the majority of the virgin forests of the US were destroyed by burning, and then the land was farmed using methods that ensured that most of the topsoil was washed away. In spite of this loss, we still have many forests and productive farm land. Undoubtedly, we would be better off if we had been less careless, but we have no way of measuring our loss. All we can do is to try to live in the present in a way that is not destructive of the future, which means that sometimes we must deny ourselves something today so that our descendants can have a better life than they would have had otherwise.

The Naïvité of "Anti-doomsayers"

In particular, I find the "anti-doomsayers" are very naïve about the results of global warming. One person in an Internet discussion was not bothered by the idea of a six degree warming or of the sea rising three meters (the most severe predictions). He did not recognize that the Little Ice Ages involved a change of less than a degree nor did he recognize the amount of damage that a ten-foot rise would cause. He did not recognize that whole forest communities would die. He felt that all we needed to do was to turn up our air conditioners, build a few dikes, and grow our crops in new areas.

The Hot Sun Theory

In addition to those who use the "doomsayer" arguments, there are those who deny that global warming has any connection to CO2. According to them, the sun gets hotter and colder naturally, and that has caused the recent warming trend. However, we have been aware that the industrial revolution has been affecting the weather for some time. We know how much the CO2 content of the atmosphere has increased, and we know the CO2 content of the air during past ages through the examination of deeply buried ice. We know that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at present exceeds the amount at any previous time. The effect of CO2 on the atmosphere is also well-known: the effects of the various greenhouse gases can be precisely compared. The present warming of the atmosphere did not take the scientists by surprise; they predicted it, and they have been observing the process. Because of an article written explaining what would happen, I knew in advance that the dust produced by the volcano Pinatubo would reduce the effect of global warming for a year or two; during that same period, I heard the idea that global warming was a myth because the temperatures had returned to normal. It is true that there is some natural warming and cooling of the earth, whether due to fluctuations in the sun or due to changes in the ability of the earth, water, and atmosphere to absorb and reflect heat; however, the changes that have already happened are greater than any changes since the end of the ice ages.

The Poor Data Theory

Nonetheless, another group of challengers to global warming claim that there is no proof that the world is actually getting warmer (ironically some of these also hold the preceding view as well). One statement of this nature is that a satellite has proved the opposite. A second statement is that weather stations have been growing hotter only due to the encroachment of cities. A third statement is that accurate weather keeping is only a hundred years old. A final statement is that no one really knows what the weather was like in past times. In all of these cases, the challengers are accepting as true what they want to believe and ignoring what they don't want to believe. Yes, the satellite data is contradictory: the problem is due to one satellite's never being calibrated against the other; these satellites were supposed to overlap to make such a calibration possible, but one satellite was destroyed on launching, creating a gap. Yes, it is true that the local weather at many weather stations has changed due to the expansion of cities; however, we have been adding many rural weather stations at the same time, and the effects we are seeing are much greater than any local warming. Yes, our weather keeping has been improving rapidly over the years; we couldn't use the weather data from a hundred years ago to make the weather predictions we make today; on the other hand, we have very accurate information going back thousands and even millions of years that was faithfully recorded by Mother Nature herself and is preserved as a fossil record. No, it is not true that have no idea of what the weather used to be like; the problem is that too many people who have little understanding of science like to pretend that they know more than they do. One does not even have to be a scientist or use a themometer to be aware of the changes, and the most noticeable changes have happened since the mid-80's.

The Unfairly-Treated US Theory

The final claim is that the global warming conferences at Kyoto are purely political and put all the burden on the US. The meetings were held because governments and scientists all over the world were concerned about the changes that are taking place. Most of the developed countries have been much more active in fighting CO2 production than the US; for instance, in Europe and in Asia, efforts have been made for many years to reduce the amount of automobile traffic and to encourage transit use, cycling, and walking. Most non-developed counties are not major producers of CO2 anyway, although they often do have serious environmental problems. I don't deny that China and perhaps some other counties need special attention, however. China seems to be worried about global warming and pollution but also has to cope with limited resources and rapid growth. Rather than all the burden of fighting global warming being placed unfairly on the US, the US has been wasteful of its natural resources and has been dumping far more than its share of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The History of Wasteful Practices

Our wastefulness goes back to the settling of this country when it seemed as though our natural resources could never run out, no matter how wasteful we were. Rather than being settled by productive farmers who knew how to care for the soil, the US was settled largely by the poorer classes from England and Europe who adopted a slash and burn policy, burning down the trees, allowing erosion to remove the rich soil, and moving on after the fertility had declined. When the industrial revolution began in the US, there was a shortage of workers and an abundance of raw materials, so wasteful methods of mining were adopted as well. In some cases, such as with the buffalo and the passenger pigeon, the natural resource was deliberately destroyed rather than being carefully used. Our wastefulness combined with our abundance gave us a higher standard of living, making it more difficult to see an economic reason for moderation and helping many people identify wastefulness with prosperity. Thus many people in the US object to efforts made to keep the air, water, and soil clean from pollution and object to policies designed to regulate strip-mining and clear-cutting. To many people who have little contact with the natural world and who fail to see its importance, the destruction of natural areas is an unimportant consequence of our prosperity, and they would be hardly upset if all the trees, mammals, birds, and other animals were destroyed. In many cases, there is no economic justification for our destructiveness, as the destructive practice benefits no one. To give one such example, strip mine companies until the 80's would routinely refill their strip mines with the soil on the bottom and the boulders on the top, effectively destroying the value of the land forever. They argued that putting the rocks on the bottom and top soil on the top would ruin them financially, an argument that is absurd; all they had to do was to begin by placing the layer of soil to one side, and thus they could fill the old hole with rocks from the new hole and then place on top of that the soil from the next hole and so on.

The Spector of Financial Ruin

I have noticed that every time a problem is noticed and efforts to correct it are proposed that anti-evironmentalists deny any benefit from a correction and raise the spector of financial ruin for the companies or farmers involved and a huge drop in employment, no matter the problem, no matter the solution. When it was first noticed that CFC's were destroying the ozone in the upper atmosphere and it was proposed that Freon no longer be used in spray cans, an immediate cry went up that spray cans would disappear from the market and that the makers of those products would all be ruined. Nonethless, the danger to the atmosphere was acknowledged, Freon was disallowed for spray cans, and for a few months to a year, we had to use a pump instead of a high-pressure spray, and then the spray cans came back. I still encounter those who say that blocking the sale of Freon in spray cans was wrong; I've never heard an anti-environmentalist say, "Thank God we acted then before the ozone thinning got worse." The cost of maintaining a clean environment is almost always much smaller than the cost of continuing to pollute the same, and the cost of both is passed along to the consumers anyway.

The Role of Cyclists

The question then is what can we who value Nature and who ride bicycles do to cope with the problem of global warming (in other words, I am finally getting around to my thesis).

I think that first we should continue to point out that the emperor has no clothes. If we allow those who want to lie and to obfuscate to dominate the discussion, there is no hope for eventual improvement, and the accelerated destruction of the natural world will continue. All the environmental movement has done so far is at best to slow this process in a few regions, and all environmental victories are likely to be destroyed by global warming and climate disruption. There is a strong desire to adopt an ostrich-like behavior and to depend on our political leaders alone to make the necessary changes; however, they are far too weak to act unless they feel they have the majority of the public behind them, so each of us must fight this battle as well.

Second, we should be willing to point out that 31% of the carbon dioxide produced in the US comes from transportation, and we should be willing to point out that much motor vehicle use is either unnecessary or could be replaced with more environmentally friendly methods of travel, especially cycling. Most motor vehicle trips in the US are for short distances which can be covered easily by bicycle in about the same time. In addition, bicycling would reduce pollution and congestion and lower health costs.

Third, we should be willing to set a good example by reducing our own consumption while still having an enjoyable life. Bicycling whenever possible, living in smaller homes and keeping them cooler in the winter, using fans and ventilation rather than air-conditioners in the summer, and replacing incadenscent bulbs with fluorescents while using as no more lights than necessary at night are some ways of greatly reducing our personal production of carbon dioxide and pollutants. As an immediate bonus, our cost of living will be less than that of our neighbors. For many years in Alabama, I noticed trailer houses sitting in the sun, with two air-conditioners running full blast all day long. In the late 70's, the closest, cheapest living place to my work that I could find was such a trailer, sitting in the sun. Rather than endure the heavy expense of air-conditioning or add to the burden on our planet, I bought two $20 fans, put one blowing air in at one end of the trailer and the other blowing air out at the other end, and I closed all the other windows. The trailer was comfortable in even the hottest weather, and my electric bill was small. (Nonetheless, it would make better sense to locate a trailer or house under some trees.)

Fourth, we should look into our own futures to plan to avoid the worst results of global warming in our own lives. Even if every change were made immediately, improvements in the weather would come about only slowly. It will take many decades and perhaps many generations to reverse the damage already caused. Therefore, it is imperative on cycling trips to use a sun block, to avoid the midday sun, to avoid dehydration and overheating, to be prepared for violent wind and rain, etc. The couch potatoes that hide from the bad weather will only be making themselves more vulnerable to it, as fit people can better weather heat waves and emergencies. But while being more fit will be more valuable as the world becomes more hostile, being more careful will be even more important. Our choices of where we live and where we build our homes and how we behave during violent storms and floods can be life or death decisions.

In short, we should keep a stiff upper lip, stay our course, and not give up until the fat lady sings.

Related See Why I Ride a Bike for a very short environmental argument.


Global Warming: Myth vs. Fact   A short article that highlights some of the erroneous statements made about global warming.

Spewing Out Your Tailpipe  This poem reminds me of a story Byron told. It seems John Silvester challenged John Dryden to a poety contest, offering "I John Silvester/Slept with your sister!" The angry Dryden replied, "I John Dryden/Slept with your wife!" Silvester replied, "Hey, that doesn't rhyme." "No," say Dryden, "But it is true."

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