At the outset, it is important to acknowledge we humans have been deluding ourselves for some time. This idea that somehow we are in control of the environment ( either positively or negatively ) is simply delusional. Stop and think about it. When you do, you realize that we ( as individuals ) have precious little control over anything but our minds -and for some of us, not so much control there either.
Not that we don’t have the best of intentions. Not that we don’t have limited success. We can control things like the temperature in very small spaces. We build homes and maintain them to keep ourselves insulated against environmental extremes.
Our control, however, is both limited and temporary. Although it is not going to happen for another 5 billion years, consider that our own Sun will someday swell into a red giant and swallow the Earth. Now that will really be global warming.
It all goes back to the shift in numbering in the west that gave us the ability to calculate risk. The Arabs, by way of invasion of India, had exposure to the Hindu numbering system. In turn, this enabled them to incorporate eastern intellectual advances into their own scholarship, scientific research, and experimentation. The impact was tremendous, first for the Arabs and then for the West.
In the hands of the Arabs, the Hindu numbers would transform mathematics and measurement in astronomy, navigation, and commerce. New methods of calculation gradually replaced the abacus, which for centuries had been the only tool for doing arithmetic everywhere from the Mayans in the western hemisphere, across Europe, to India and the Orient. 
As the new numbering system took the place of the simple abacus over the next 500 years, writing out calculations became preferred over movable counters. This written computation encouraged abstract thinking. In turn areas of mathematics never conceived of in the past came to the forefront. Sea voyages became longer, time-keeping more accurate, architecture more ambitious, and production methods more elaborate. If you want to contemplate the the impact, consider how the modern world would look if we still measured and counted with I, V, X, L, C, D, and M-or with the Greek or Hebrew letters that stood for numbers.
The upside to abstract thinking should be completely obvious. Our advances in understanding have created the technological advances to support humanity’s ever swelling population. Today, we have the capacity to feed, shelter, and ensure the health and safety of every one of our 7 billion+ companions on this little blue-green marble in space. Where we fail to do so is a largely a failing of political and religious systems that govern those regions.
The downside to abstract thinking is a little less obvious. As it turns out, each time we achieve some limited success in temporarily controlling the external world, we get it in our heads that we, in fact, CAN control the external world. Our modern calculator and simulator for abstract thinking, the computer, has only served to enhance our hubris and delusional state.
Consider Frank Drake’s the now-famous Drake equation from 1960:
N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL [where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live.]
The problem with this serious-looking equation is that it makes speculation appear to be legitimate intellectual inquiry. Drake’s equation has variables that cannot be known. Worse yet, most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work this equation is to fill in with guesses.
Of course, when you are guessing, you are substituting your personal prejudices for actual data.
In 1983, computational advances in computing allowed Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich to appear on the Johnny Carson show a combined 65 times to pump their paper “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.” Following these appearances, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. At the heart of their undertaking was an equation, never specifically expressed, but one that could be paraphrased as follows:
Ds = Wn Ws Wh Tf Tb Pt Pr Pe etc (The amount of tropospheric dust = # warheads x size warheads x warhead detonation height x flammability of targets x Target burn duration x Particles entering the Troposphere x Particle reflectivity x Particle endurance, and so on.)
The Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero and gave rise to the mostly harmless SETI project. In the case of Sagan and company, the study not only made those guesses, but concluded they were catastrophic. According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. In contrast, the greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age.
One might expect such claims to be the subject of some scientific dispute. However, Sagan and his coauthors were prepared. Nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign.
Being very direct, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. Also true of Sagan and Ehrlich’s Nuclear Winter. Expressions that can mean anything mean nothing. Like many others, I take a hard view that actual science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. Any equation which cannot be tested is not science. Such things are unquestionably the domain of faith.
Faith is defined as the firm belief in a thing for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the heavens and earth in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. The belief that Nuclear Winter will drop the earth’s temperature by 35 degrees is a matter of faith. Where you stand by faith, you are participating in religion.
Ok, so we can all agree that the planet, as measured for the restricted range of the last ~130 years, appears to be warming. Note, that this has nothing to do with the much lauded “Scientific Consensus” politicians are so pleased to pump on the Tonight Show. This statement of fact is based on the temperature measurements we have been able to make over time.
ASIDE: Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. No one says that the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody invokes the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to someone engaged in stating a scientific conclusion to speak this way.
So, there are (at least) two questions we need to address: (a) what are the contributing factors to this warming? (b) what (if anything) can (or should) be done?
The first question has been the subject of study for some time now. According to their published history, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created in 1988. Set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to provide the governments of the world with a scientific view of what is happening to the world’s climate. The initial task for the IPCC as outlined in the UN General Assembly Resolution 43/53 in December 1988 was to “prepare a comprehensive review and recommendations with respect to the state of knowledge of the science of climate change; social and economic impact of climate change, and possible response strategies and elements for inclusion in a possible future international convention on climate.”
While they do have plenty of computer models, these models include variables that are not measurable. As we reviewed before, when you are guessing, you are not in the realm of science. So let’s just assume that there is currently a trend towards increasing temperature – albeit a trend with very large variance in potential outcomes.
So, what to do about it…
I think nearly everyone agrees that a reduction in greenhouse gasses is part of the goal, as is carbon sequestration. Others have suggested that perhaps just by reflecting back around 1% of the sunlight (and people should understand that global warming is a 1% problem – which over time is adding up) it would have the desired cooling effect irrespective of what we do about carbon and other greenhouse gasses. Scientifically speaking no matter what we do on the carbon emissions front TODAY the impact of these actions are likely 200 to 20,000 years down the road.
Oddly enough, Beef might just be the answer in the short term. Hell, it might be the answer for the long term as well.
You see, an often overlooked source of greenhouse gas and carbon are the desertified areas of our planet. As you can see from the map, in environments where humidity is guaranteed throughout the year it is almost impossible to create vast desertified areas. No matter what you do, nature covers it up so quickly. And we have environments where we have months of humidity followed by months of dryness, and that is where desertification is occurring.
Allan Savory gives a very compelling TED Talk on the subject. He talks about an area of the Tihamah Desert subjected to 25 millimeters of rainfall. In terms of drums of water, each containing 200 liters, over 1,000 drums of water fell on every hectare of the land in one. In less than a day, the land will be devoid of all evidence of rain. Some of the water runs off as flooding, but most of the water that soaked into the soil has now simply evaporated – water vapor in the atmosphere is a very potent greenhouse gas. Because water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils, we send off carbon back to the atmosphere.
We have just simply not understood why desertification really began to happen en mass almost 10,000 years ago. We also don’t really understand why has it accelerated lately. Again there are no models, just guesses. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying to stop it.
One of the early thoughts we had was that we would need to protect the land from overgrazing. So we reduced grazing animal populations. The problem there is that any seasonal grass that is left over at the end of the wet season has to decay biologically before the next growing season. If it doesn’t, the grassland and the soil begin to die leading to desertification.
So absent biological decay ( here meaning grazing animals to come and eat the grass), the decay must be handled by oxidation which is a very slow process. In fact, this smothers and kills grasses, leading to a shift to woody vegetation and bare soil, releasing carbon. Ugh. What to do.
Well, next we thought to use fire. Fire also leaves the soil bare, releasing carbon, but worse than that, burning one hectare of grassland gives off more, and more damaging, pollutants than 6,000 cars. Currently, in Africa, we are burning more than one billion hectares of grasslands a year. Almost nobody is talking about this. This is probably because it does remove the dead material and it allows the plants to regrow.
Perhaps we really ought to consider that math for a moment. Assuming an outrageously high 1.5 cars for every person on the planet, this world has ~10.5 billion cars in play polluting every day. In Africa they are burning grassland equivalent to 6,000 billion cars or the equivalent of every man woman and child driving ( simultaneously ) 857 cars daily.
I suggest to you that your purchase of a Prius is not going to make this problem go away. It is a problem born of the agricultural revolution and it is one that can be remedied (at least partially if not entirely ) by organized and planned grazing by livestock. In a nutshell, we need to consume more bacon and beef.
Allan Savory and his team are already doing so on about 15 million hectares on five continents. Quick calculations show that we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years. ( Keep in mind that ALL plant and animal life here on earth is primarily made up of carbon ) Further, if we just do that on about half the world’s known grasslands we can take carbon emissions back to pre-industrial levels, while simultaneously feeding people.
Bacon and Beef. It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on your low carbon emissions diet. 
 Peter L. Bernstein. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (Kindle Locations 247-255). Kindle Edition.
 And before you get too up in arms about methane levels from livestock, please read this paper on Methane Production from Cattle.
The structure of what children are learning in school has been changing for the worse since 1983.
In 1983. the report of American President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education was published under the title “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform.” Its publication marks a landmark event in modern American educational history. Among other things, the report contributed to the ever-growing (and still present) sense that American schools are failing. As well, it touched off the current and ever swelling wave of local, state, and federal educational reform efforts.
If you take the time to read the report, you will discover that the report surveys various studies which point to academic underachievement on national and international scales. For instance, the report notes that average SAT scores dropped “over 50 points” in the verbal section and “nearly 40 points” in the mathematics section during the period 1963-1980. Nearly forty percent of 17 year olds tested could not successfully “draw inferences from written material,” and “only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.” Referencing tests conducted in the seventies, the study points to unfavorable comparisons with students outside the United States: on “19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.”
In response, we set out as a nation to fix what was wrong with out schools.
Education reform in the United States since then has been largely driven by the setting of academic standards for what students should know and be able to do. These standards can then be used to guide all other system components. The SBE (standards-based education) reform movement calls for clear, measurable standards for all school students. Rather than norm-referenced rankings, a standards-based system measures each student against the concrete standard. Curriculum, assessments, and professional development are aligned to the standards.
For a time, States were entrusted with the development of standards, but more recently the States Governors have gotten together and established something called the “Common Core: State Standards Initiative” These standards propose to define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.
They claim the standards:
Further, when asked why we need these standards they claim:
We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce. Common standards will help ensure that students are receiving a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state. Common standards will provide a greater opportunity to share experiences and best practices within and across states that will improve our ability to best serve the needs of students.
Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do help teachers figure out the knowledge and skills their students should have so that teachers can build the best lessons and environments for their classrooms. Standards also help students and parents by setting clear and realistic goals for success. Standards are a first step – a key building block – in providing our young people with a high-quality education that will prepare them for success in college and work. Of course, standards are not the only thing that is needed for our children’s success, but they provide an accessible roadmap for our teachers, parents, and students.
So, I ask you, what if nothing was wrong with our schools in the first place? If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine. What has all this standardization managed to do?
Well, for starters I think it is doing two things that are likely to cause more problems than they solve. The first is that this approach to education tends to push teachers and students away from creativity and towards conformity. The second concern I have is that it creates fear and suspicion between and among teachers, parents, and administrators.
The scholar Yong Zhao has made a similar argument, calling for what he calls “mass localism” as the key to successful education reform. In this post, he writes:
Soon enough, the reformers will celebrate their success in finally moving America out of its miserably outdated, 19th century, parochial education system and imposing consistency and coherence upon a seemingly chaotic system. Yet, in my opinion, they will have succeeded in destroying precisely what America needs for its future in a 21st century, globalized society. And, in time, even the reformers will discover that America has lost its capacity to be the leader in creativity, innovation, and democracy. They will have succeeded in ruining the engine for that.
He goes on to explain,
… a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.
Finally, he concludes,
An ideal education system is tens of thousands of autonomous schools and millions of autonomous professional educators connected together in a global community, where they exchange ideas, collaborate on projects, and create new solutions. In this system are tens of thousands of innovation centers and millions of innovators instead of one wise body located far away from the real actions of teaching. Such a system enables every community, school, teacher, and student to build on its strengths. And such a system can be spared from a total disaster that could result from one authoritarian body–no matter how wise that body may seem to be.
In my mind, standardization and centralized control are the objectives of the technocrats, and these are the biggest opponents of innovation. The stakes attached to tests are the tools of coercion, by which teachers and students will be rewarded or punished for the extent to which they comply. But in the big picture, the final objective is not tests, but uniformity, and adherence to a centrally conceived and approved version of truth. I think the Common Core is the vehicle for this technocratic vision, and it should be firmly opposed for this reason.
All of this leads to the second issue, the mistrust that exists between teachers, parents and administrators. Because the performance of the students on the tests is considered of paramount importance, over actual learning skills, parents, teachers, and administrators are all now focused on ONE form of demonstrating learning. This focus is central regardless of the individual learning style of the student in question.
For example, we might need to confront head-on why many within education have lost faith in the transformative potential of a knowledge-based subject-centred curriculum. However now that we expect Governors (and Government) to “define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs…” we have abdicated our responsibility as a society to guide education locally.
One of the unique things about America’s educational system at the K-12 level has traditionally been the local school board. The school board was responsible for setting the standard for achievement in it’s district, incorporating the community’s view of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The school board also has also been responsible for working with the superintendent to establish a valid process for measuring student success and, when necessary, shifting resources to ensure that the district’s goals are achieved.
So now, with external forces setting the standards, and advocating penalties for failing to live up to the standards, we have become passengers on this journey. There is a real loss of teacher autonomy in the classroom. Over the past few years the policies of the previous government has chipped away at the professionalism of teachers, exposing them to ridiculous levels of over-regulation.
If you find it irritating having external bureaucrats crossing the “t”s and the dotting the “i”s of every lesson, you might also realize how this lack of trust in our teachers abilities to teach and our community’s ability to set standards is impacting the overall level of trust by parents of the schools. Because all the local participants are in fact passengers and not crew on the journey, no one is really responsible for any individual child’s success in education. Worse, no one is willing to step up and be on the crew.
After all, responsibility without authority is rarely a recipe for success. Perhaps it is time for Americans to become Crew on our collective educational journey rather than simply passengers. Let’s get rid of National Standards and return Education to the communities and the people.