Friday, June 16, 2006

Climate change: the jury is still out?!

I’ve been thinking lately about the disconnect between the available climate science, which strongly indicates that global warming is happening and is dangerous, and the many people who still believe and proclaim that global warming is an environmentalist conspiracy.

The Washington Post recently had an excellent article about the public’s relationship with the science of global warming – it’s a long one but definitely worth a read. And it’s a common theme at the RealClimate climate science blog.

Obviously there’s a lot of reasons (Vincenze suggests a few) but I just want to look at one today: the incentives many people have to engineer – or at least overstate – conflict.

Imagine you’re a climate scientist. Lucky you: you’re an expert in one of the most important fields for the future of this planet. But there are thousands of other scientists just like you and you want to stand out and be known and respected for your ideas. You’re 99% sure that global warming is happening and likely to get worse – because 99% of the data you’ve seen and papers you’ve read point in that direction. But you think there’s a 1% chance that everyone’s wrong. Isn’t it your duty to test the majority thinking? If it is true, it will stand up to some scrutiny. And maybe - just maybe - it’s all wrong. Or at least a bit wrong. You could be boring and go along with everyone else. You could be one of the many faces at a climate conference. Or you could be controversial. And interesting. Maybe a little infamous even. And have journalists seek out your unorthodox views. And maybe be the person getting flown to those conferences to give the wacky dissenting talk.

Now imagine you’re a journalist. You’re writing a story about climate science. You want to be accurate but you also need to be entertaining. So you want some conflict. You also want to be balanced. You could interview two climate scientists from the 99.9% that agree that global warming is a serious threat. That’s a bit dull. Or you could interview one scientist from the majority and one wacky contrarian. That will spice things up. And you’re being balanced by getting all the opposing viewpoints, right?

Now imagine you’re a government Minister. You could accept and publicise the global warming threat. You could introduce measures that will cost taxpayers and industry to reduce a danger that will mostly affect people who haven’t yet been born or live in other countries. Or you could downplay the global warming threat and suggest that the jury is still out. After all, it’s irresponsible to hit taxpayers and industry when we’re not even totally, absolutely 100% certain that there’s even a problem, right? Then you could reduce taxes and spend your revenue on more popular things like new roads.

Now imagine you’re having dinner with some friends. They’re all blah blah-ing about climate change. "It’s so important". It’s so terrible". It’s so boring. You could just go along with them all and nod seriously. Or you could liven things up a bit. You could point out that while everyone’s talking about ice caps melting, snowfall has increased in central Antarctica over the past decade. You could mention that everyone was worried about global cooling in the 1970s. You could make insightful sociological observations: environmental worries are a lot like fashion – it’s a constant obsession but the environmental fad of the day is always changing.

Now imagine you’re concerned about climate change. You want to find out more and you want to do your bit. You read the newspaper and notice that the two scientists interviewed disagree on whether it’s happening and how bad it will be. You watch the news and notice the politicians disagree on whether it’s happening and what if anything to do about it. You go to dinner with your friends and one of them makes some interesting arguments about Antarctica getting snowier and environmental worries always being there and never amounting to anything. You weigh up the information you have and – well, the debate seems pretty evenly balanced – doesn’t it? It seems like the jury is still out.

7 comments:

Rob Dawg said...

I’ve been thinking lately about the disconnect between the available climate science, which strongly indicates that global warming is happening and is dangerous, and the many people who still believe and proclaim that global warming is an environmentalist conspiracy.

First, it is Global Climate Change. Global Warming being the discredited theory GCC replaced. This was a necessary modification as the evidence of GW is mixed at best. That said, there are two "conspiracies." More like two cases of self-reinforcing behavoir but what the heck if conspiracy works for you go with it. The first is the scientific community and its practices of closing ranks and funding bias. Ask Lomborg about the former. The second is a cheap debating trick used by proponents of Anthropomorphic Global Climate Change. It's right there, see it? It is the same sophomoric technique used when talking about illegal immigration, excuse me, immigration.

There is indeed strong evidence of GCC. The impact of anthropogenic sources however remains the source of debate.

Kit Stolz said...

Keep in mind that virtually all the defenders and proponents of global warming a couple of years ago were casting doubt on its existence; claiming, for example, that tropospheric temps contradicted evidence of melting glaciers, etc.

Now that that line of defense has collapsed, they have retreated to claiming that burning forests, along with running millions of cars and thousands of power plants, has not changed the atmosphere. In fact, on the far religious right, numerous deniers claim that it's not possible for humans to trash the planet.

As someone wise once said, there's none so blind as those who will not see.

You make a reasonable argument, Mr. Jeffrey, but those who don't want to do anything about the threat of global warming (unlike the CEOs, it cannot be mentioned often enough, at Chevron, BP, GE, Lloyds of London, Duke Energy, and countless other rational business entities) aren't reasonable.

Just look at what Gray said about Gore in the article you linked to above. What reasonable person compares Al Gore to Adolf Hitler?

Amy Stodghill said...

I guess the big question comes down to - in 20, 30, 50 years down the road, who gets to say 'I told you so?'

If the skeptics get bragging rights, and the massive effects of global warming never materialize a new debate will arise - was there no global warming in the first place, or were the 99% right and people/businesses/governments listened and took action?

However, if the 99% are right (and the global we does nothing) there probably won't be much new debate as we'll all be struggling to adapt to a gloriously warmer world...

Melissa said...

I agree that global warming is the sort of topic a public with limited attention span can't really deal all too well with. Climate science is probably one of the most complicated sciences out there. I have taken upper level courses in physics or chemistry, but I'm too scared to take upper level atmospheric science courses. Their pre-reqs are things like multi-variable calculus and differential equations. It's not easily reduced to laymen's terms and it's also not terribly interesting.

In talking with other people, I find it is easy to scare when talking about toxicology, which has some gruesome and very tangible effects, but climate change? about as exciting as Al Bore himself.

I'll side with the general consensus of climate scientists, but overall I think there are lots of easier to sell reasons to drive less and be efficient with fuel use.

Jeff Dauphin said...

And then comes the National Academy of Sciences...

Earth Surface Temperature Highest In 400 Years - Jun 22: The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Sciences has issued a report, Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, indicating that there is sufficient evidence from tree rings, retreating glaciers, and other "proxies" to say with confidence that the last few decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years. The report also indicates there is less confidence in reconstructions of surface temperatures from 1600 back to A.D. 900, however, available proxy evidence does indicate that many locations were warmer during the past 25 years than during any other 25-year period since 900. The report says there is very little confidence in statements about average global surface temperatures prior to A.D. 900 because the proxy data for that time frame are sparse. The report was requested by Congress after a controversy arose last year over surface temperature reconstructions published by climatologist Michael Mann and his colleagues in the late 1990s. The researchers concluded that the warming of the Northern Hemisphere in the last decades of the 20th century was unprecedented in the past thousand years. In particular, they concluded that the 1990s were the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year. Their graph depicting a rise in temperatures at the end of a long era became known as the "hockey stick."

Scientists rely on proxies to reconstruct paleoclimatic surface temperatures because geographically widespread records of temperatures measured with instruments date back only about 150 years. Other proxies include corals, ocean and lake sediments, ice cores, cave deposits, and documentary sources, such as historic drawings of glaciers. The globally averaged warming of about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) that instruments have recorded during the last century is also reflected in proxy data for that time period.

According to a release, "The committee pointed out that surface temperature reconstructions for periods before the Industrial Revolution -- when levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases were much lower -- are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that current warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence."
Access a release (http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=11676). Access the Full Report (http://fermat.nap.edu/catalog/11676.html). Access the Report in Brief (http://dels.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/Surface_Temps_final.pdf).

And then comes U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and outspoken critic of global warming...

“Today’s NAS report reaffirms what I have been saying all along, that Mann's ‘hockey stick’ is broken. Today’s report refutes Mann's prior assertions that there was no Medieval Warm Period or Little Ice Age.” Inhofe also indicated that the NAS report also stated that “substantial uncertainties” surround Mann’s claims that the last few decades of the 20th century were the warmest in last 1000 years. In fact, while the report conceded that temperature data uncertainties increase going backward in time, it acknowledged that “not all individual proxy records indicate that the recent warmth is unprecedented…’ Trying to prove man-made global warming by comparing the well-known fact that today's temperatures are warmer than during the Little Ice Age is akin to comparing summer to winter to show a catastrophic temperature trend.”

Access the complete Inhofe statement (http://epw.senate.gov/pressitem.cfm?party=rep&id=257697).

Both articles above were published in WIMS Daily/eNewsUSA on June 23 and 26, respectively.

Waste Information & Management Services, Inc. (WIMS)
Publishers of Michigan Waste Report, REGTrak, WIMS Daily & eNewsUSA
Jeff Dauphin, President
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Wadard said...

Imagine your agent rings up and tells you... you who blogs about global warming on the side... that you have a gig as a tender writer with Australia's largest civil engineering company on a competitive bid for the expansion of a coal-mine.

Imagine the process of getting over you prejudices; it's just a f*cking coal-mine after all. Imagine the tender is successful and the boofy (but smart) mining industry civil engineers and their bosses are won over by your prodigious work rate and your presentation of the company's salient points.

Imagine going out for a boozy, but boozy, celebratory lunch with these freaks (freakish in size... must be an evolutionary thing in the mining industry... but lovely blokes actually) and you... part-time global warming blogger of average stature (probably an evolutionary thing)... pipe up and say once happily pissed, "how come you guys don't plan to offset your GHG emissions and include your methodology in the EMP (environmental management plan) part of your tender. The likes of Rio Tinto may not like to acknowledge global warming right now, but it is always nice for them to pull your carbon neutral EMPs out the bottom of the drawer when the media attacks RT for being climate-insensitive.

Imagine chief-boofhead looking at you and saying, "you are a f*ckign genius" and ordering his minion (actually maxion) to document the brain-wave. Imagine others nodding their approval to your complete surprise.

Imagine how good you slowly start feel at this reception.

Then imagine another dinosaur at the table saying, quite aggressively, "I don't believe in global warming... I mean it may be happening, but no one has proof".

Imagine how, now fuelled by much expensive alcohol and a recent world-view triumph, you fire-up and start defend your stance.

Imagine the chief boofhead putting up his baseball glove sized hand, indicating your 'discussion-time' is up, and turning to the the moron dissenter and saying, "If you don't understand that global warming is upon us, and that we have to work with it, I can't see how you expect a future in my team, or indeed with the company. Not your fault as yet, but I suggest you study the science - not the propaganda".

True story.

David Jeffery said...

Nice story!