Friday, February 05, 2010

A State of Uncertainty: My Current Thoughts on Climate

We live in interesting times. Global warming has become an issue that appears to demand action--but it's an issue that dramatically depends on a very complex kind of science that very few people can master. To make things worse, some of the people who claim to understand the issue disagree about it in the most fundamental ways. That leaves the average 21st century person in a position a little like the average 16th century European, trying to choose between Catholicism and Protestantism with their eternal soul at stake.

I've judged a number of formal debates, and I like to analyze this problem in debate terms. The four "stock issues" of a formal debate are:
  1. Topicality
  2. Significance
  3. Inherency
  4. Solvency
Topicality is the definition of terms. The global warming debate involves some surprisingly slippery terminology. I've noticed a shift from "global warming" to "climate change" without any explanation. I'm going to define the term under debate as "catastrophic increase in atmospheric heat produced by human activities."

Significance: I define "global warming" as "catastropic increase in atmospheric heat" to nail down the second stock issue in debate. Anything less than a "catastrophic" increase is not a significant harm. "Lukewarmists" believe that human activity affects the climate, but not enough to worry about.

Inherency: In formal debate, the party advocating change must show that the significant harm can't be solved without adopting the kind of change that they propose. They have to show that the "harm" is "inherent" to the status quo--until we change the way things are, we can't escape the problem.

Solvency: The affirmative team in any debate has to persuade the audience that their proposed solution will actually solve the problem--without creating more problems that are even worse.

Scoring this debate

In any formal debate, the party advocating change bears the burden of proving all four stock issues. I've defined the terms to my own satisfaction, so I'll give the "warmists" the topicality issue. I have yet to be persuaded on any of the remaining three issues.

So far, I'm not persuaded that there is a significant harm. I've heard a lot of horror stories about how bad things could be, but some of those claims aren't well supported by the evidence. At present, I'd call myself a "lukewarmist." I think that human activity is causing some increase in atmospheric heat, but I am not persuaded that the rise in CO2 is more likely than not to cause a catastrophe.

I'm completely unpersuaded by the inherency arguments. The "warmists" seem to be arguing that humans must immediately apply governmental caps to CO2 emissions. Why not argue for a crash program to construct nuclear power plants? I think that putting massive amounts of cheap, clean, green, safe energy on the grid would reduce CO2 emissions more quickly and more reliably than any amount of coercive control.

I fundamentally disagree with the solvency arguments. The proposals on the table are pathetic! How can we save the planet from runaway CO2-induced heating unless we deal with the vast amounts of CO2 being released by the teeming billions of the developing world? The most advanced societies could cut their carbon emissions to zero but the levels of CO2 would continue to rise for generations under every current plan. To make matters worse, the most likely results of cap-and-tax type regimes would be a global recession and/or depression, resulting in even-deeper poverty in the developing and underdeveloped nations. That means more soot, more smoke, more deforestation around the word. Poverty is a cause of CO2 emissions, not a cure.

My own position

I would agree that we have a "global warming crisis," but I see it is a human crisis of collective decision-making--a political crisis, at the moment, not an environmental crisis. The human race has been presented with a problem that it must solve, one way or another, just as Europe was presented with the problem of Protestantism in 1517. How are we going to handle it?

I believe that "warmists" and "skeptics" can and should agree on an immediate course of action to reduce CO2 emissions. A crash course in nuclear power is the best solution to this political crisis. Warmists can sleep at night, knowing that we are finally DOING something that could eliminate the need for fossil fuels altogether. Skeptics would enjoy the benefits of cheap, clean, plentiful energy that doesn't depend on foreign (and often hostile) governments. The planet would be a safer and more peaceful place, whether or not the weather is warming.

I'd love to know if there's something I'm missing here. Feel free to straighten out my thinking in the comments!


Cedric Katesby said...

Scott, I hope you'll accept any criticisms I make as constructive ones. No offence is intended. Please take everything I say in good humour.

I’m not ready to blame ALL the “denialism” on a fossil fuel industry disinformation campaign. It certainly doesn’t account for MY questions.

Yes and no.
Nobody is accusing you of being in on the payroll of Exxon. However, the PRATT's you mention are indeed from the fossil-fuel industry. They are talking points that are recycled by professional deniers and spoon-fed to the media and to bloggers everywhere. The "Urban Heat Island Effect" PRATT is a classic.

It came from somewhere.
Do you remember where you first heard it?

I can't answer that question for you but...I can tell you where you DIDN'T get that PRATT from.
You didn't get it from the scientific community. You did not read a series of peer-reviewed papers in "Nature" and then start worrying about the "Urban Heat Island Effect".

Every time you innocently repeat a PRATT on the Internet without fact-checking with scientific communities; the Heartland Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute do a little happy dance.
How to Boil A Frog presents Naomi Oreskes - pt. 1 4min 21 sec
How to Boil A Frog presents Naomi Oreskes - pt. 2 4min
How to Boil A Frog presents Naomi Oreskes - pt. 3 4min 22sec's an issue that dramatically depends on a very complex kind of science that very few people can master.

No argument here.
So how does the interested layman figure out the truth over a complex scientific issue?
Beware the Dunning-Kruger effect!

Nobody is immune to it. Not you. Certainly not me. When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
Remember Richard Feynman: Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Carl Sagan came up with the baloney detection kit.
Here's another look at critical thinking involving science.
Skewed views of science 10 min

That leaves the average 21st century person in a position a little like the average 16th century European, trying to choose between Catholicism and Protestantism with their eternal soul at stake.

Very, very bad analogy.
We are not dealing with two belief systems. We are dealing with...reality. Science is about the study of reality.

Either the world is getting warming..or it is not.
Either the scientists are involved in a massive global conspiracy or the fossil fuel industry is playing games to make more money.

Either smoking is the leading cause of cancer...or it's not.
Either the medical community are involved in a massive global conspiracy or the tobacco industry is playing games to make more money.

I've noticed a shift from "global warming" to "climate change" without any explanation.

Yes, there has been a shift in the terminology.
However, this is just yet another PRATT.
Do a google search and check out what the scientists themselves say about this.
A while back, I was curious about this one myself because...I didn't know the answer.

Cedric Katesby said...


After all the effort I put into editing my post, I've only just realised that two of the links (Dunning-Kruger and the "skewed views of science" video) have been posted before on a different thread here.

Scott W. Somerville said...

Cedric, I truly appreciate your comments, and I am delighted to take them in good humor.

At the moment, I think I'm a "lukewarmist" who has trouble taking the anti-nuclear ideologues seriously. I'm NOT yet persuaded that rising CO2 levels are going to be amplified by other forcing mechanisms. I don't expect you to do much about the Gaia-worshipping greenies, but you might be able to help me assess the arguments for and against CO2 amplification. Do you know any good resources?

Cedric Katesby said... might be able to help me assess the arguments for and against CO2 amplification. Do you know any good resources?

Well, I approach the whole topic as a complete layman.
When I look at any science topic, not just global warming, I am always painfully aware that I am way out of my league.
I double-check everything.
I don't rely upon "other people's" interpretations of what the scientists did or said.
(Here's a perfect example of what I mean. Please, please, please hold you nose at the title and watch. 7min only.)
I go to the scientists directly.
I demand the peer-review be there. And LOTS of it.
I demand the scientific process.

Everybody should have a solid, reliable system to sort out good information from bad information.
That system, that process of gathering reliable information, should be consistant. It should not bend and wobble depending on the topic you examine.
Avoid confirmation bias at all costs.
It's not just global warming.
There's plenty of disinformation out there that confuses and seduces good, normal people like you and me.
Being "smart" is no protection.
Having a "degree" is not protection.
Using "common sense" is not protection.
Science is often counter-intuitive and goes against "common sense".
Everybody thinks that propoganda and or disinformation doesn't work on them.
That's the first false assumption that people ALWAYS make.

Take vaccinations for example.
I don't know anything about vaccinations.
I'm not a doctor.
Yet there is this big media circus over parents being afraid of vaccinating their children because of alleged links between autism and vaccinations.
The anti-vacc crowd created slick web-sites. They got some big name Hollywood personalities on their side to promote the cause. They even had a few tame "doctors" with Phds to trot out in front of the media.
They expertly manipulated the media to examine "both sides" of the "controversy".
The hysteria and the fear and the indecision that they caused was world-wide.
The inaction on getting children vaccinated put children everywhere at risk from diseases that science had conquered long ago.
It was criminal. It was stupid.
Yet the disinformation campaign was/is stunningly successful.
Medical science only had the facts.
Hysterical parents had their fears.
Fear won.
How would you, as a non-medical scientist, rationally and cold-bloodedly assess the topic of vaccinations?
What resources would you use?
How could you avoid being flim-flammed?
Here's a few links to bring you up to speed on the issue.
Warning: May cause you to get very angry with some very stubborn people.

7:30 Report piece on the Anti Vaccination Network.
Ben Goldacre on MMR, autism and media mendacity on London Tonight
The Anti-Vaccination Movement
"Building bridges" to the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement?

When I want to find out about medical issues, my first port of call is the AMA.
They do the work. They follow the scientific process. They have earned my attention.
When I want to find out about global warming, I go straight to NASA.
They do the work. They follow the scientific process. They have earned my attention.

If you want to be a real skeptic and not a "skeptic" then regularly read issues examined by skeptical societies. Test your "baloney kit detector" on other scientific issues. Test your consistancy.
Remember: Skepticism is not a position. It's a process.

Cedric Katesby said...

Just one more item.
If you delve into the skeptical community out there you'll find all sorts of genuinely wacky and wonderful material.
I've had the JREF (for example) embedded in my web name for several years now.
Perhaps the most imaginative and witty presentation of skeptical thinking I've seen in a long time would be....Captain Disillusion.
He's made many cool videos.
Check 'em out.

Scott W. Somerville said...

Cedric, have you ever read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"? If so, how do you apply that to big issues like global warming?

Cedric Katesby said...

If so, how do you apply that to big issues like global warming?

I only dimly remember the book.
(I have a copy around the house somewhere.)
From a scientific perspective, there's nothing very "revolutionary" about global warming so I don't think that Kuhn applies all that much in this case.

The Earth Sciences that support AGW are long established.
The idea that carbon dioxide traps heat and that people pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is very old.
The scientific consensus on global warming was reached decades ago.
The remarkable thing about the history of AGW is how...unremarkable it is.

There was no radical explosion of new ideas. No shocking discovery that shook the scientific foundation to it's core. The way that AGW became accepted in the scientific community was in a plodding step-by-step manner. Science being done the old fashioned way. Through hard work, involving multiple different disciplines and decades of painstaking record keeping and research.

The scientifically illiterate general public simply didn't notice.

The only reason we are discussing it NOW is because of the attack on science.

Vested interests have realised that if they are not allowed to continue pumping carbon into the atmosphere, that this will hurt their profit margins.
So they have mobilised public ignorance and set up "Institutes".

Belittle the scientist.
(Label them hippies, commies and wild-eyed wierdos.)
Re-cycle the talking points.
Throw up a smokescreen.
Delay, confuse and sow indecision.
Doubt is their product.

They don't have to prove anything themselves. They just have to keep public opinion off-balance and unfocused.
The tobacco industry got away with such tricks for decades.