Featured Photos


Baseball Hall of Fame - 8/23/11

Featured Video


Avery's QuEST Project - It's Healthy!

House Construction


The Completed Home Renovation


Home Renovation - Complete!


Our House Construction Photoblog

RSS Feed


« | Main | »

Global Warming: Either You’re With Us, or You’re Ignorant

By Brian | September 1, 2006 | Share on Facebook

I tried. I really, really tried. But some things are just unavoidable.

It started with this post, in which I pointed out an article I had read that attributed this year’s calmer than average Atlantic hurricane season to cooler sea surface temperatures. I commented that data like this makes me question the myriad of doomsayers that appeared near the end of the horrific 2005 season, warning us that subsequent years would only get worse.

Jeff Porten, my most prolific commenter, responded thusly:

Again, you’re just being (deliberately?) ignorant about how climate works. It’s a large, chaotic system, and it’s not perfectly modeled. Pointing to outlier data this year — aside from the fact that any research on current climate has to come after the fact, so you don’t know the full story for this year either — is the equivalent of being a creationist because there are gaps in the fossil record. The “unavoidable doomsday scenarios” are based on trend analysis over decades, centuries, or hundreds of thousands of years, not on whether a storm happened to make the front page of the news this week.

If we’re debating AIDS politics, there’s room for disagreement — if we’re debating science, I’m not going to let you get away with being ignorant. One of the interesting points made in [An Inconvenient Truth] is that the newspapers report a completely different story than the scientific journals, and the scientific journals say that if you get your information from the newspapers, you’re likely to be ignorant. My information comes from the journals (usually second-hand). Go to the source, then let’s pick up this debate.

First, I’d like to respond to Jeff’s specific comments, but then I’d like to discuss a broader point about political nature of the Global Warming issue.

Jeff: the data I cited isn’t outlier data from this year (which, as you correctly point out, isn’t over yet). It’s historical data from the past three years (2003-2005). And, it’s not from the newspapers. It’s from a research paper being published next month in Geophysical Research Letters, which makes it “second-hand information from the journals,” just as you suggest. Finally, and most importantly, the fact that a debate concerns science does not mean there is “no room for disagreement.”

This leads me to my broader point about the nature of the debate. Somehow, and most prominently in the last couple of years, political debates about both global warming and evolution have reached the point where one side is claiming the ineffable mantle of SCIENCE, against which there can be no discussion and no debate. It’s not opinion, after all, it’s SCIENCE. And SCIENCE cannot be discussed or debated. Anyone who dares disagree with SCIENCE isn’t just wrong, they’re ignorant.

Lest you think this is just sour grapes about Jeff calling me ignorant, meet Richard Lindzen, MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology.:

Lindzen recently complained about the “shrill alarmism” of Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Lindzen acknowledges that global warming is real, and he acknowledges that increased carbon emissions might be causing the warming — but they also might not.

“We do not understand the natural internal variability of climate change” is one of Lindzen’s many heresies, along with such zingers as “the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940,” “the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average,” and “Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now advancing again. And, frankly, we don’t know why.”

When Lindzen published similar views in The Wall Street Journal this spring, environmentalist Laurie David, the wife of comedian Larry David, immediately branded him a “shill.” She resurrected a shopworn slur first directed against Lindzen by former Globe writer Ross Gelbspan, who called Lindzen a “hood ornament” for the fossil fuels industry in a 1995 article in Harper’s Magazine.

[Lindzen is] no big fan of Gore’s, having suffered through what he calls a “Star Chamber” Congressional inquisition by the then senator. He said he accepted $10,000 in expenses and expert witness fees from fossil-fuel types in the 1990s, and has taken none of their money since.

So apparently, you can’t even argue about science with more science. Any science that doesn’t support the foregone conclusion is simply corporate-funded media-hype disguised as science for the purpose of destroying the planet.

Here’s what I think is really going on here:

Al Gore has led an admirable charge for more than a decade now to get people to focus on environmental issues, and to understand the urgent and important impact that global warming is going to have on our planet & our economy. Some of his political opponents have countered his efforts by making dubious claims about the veracity of his evidence, suggesting “the need for more research” as a way of delaying any real action in the area. In response, Gore and his supporters have drastically ratcheted up their rhetoric around the subject. This has included a PR campaign to declare the scientific research on the subject complete and unassailable, ultimately culminating in the book/movie combo, An Inconvenient Truth.

All of this is well-intentioned and good politics, and I applaud Gore for staying the course, despite the many roadblocks. But here’s the thing: in the midst of the PR campaign, the Gore crowd’s argument has devolved into a set of talking points, and those talking points are being used each and every time the subject comes up, regardless of whether the participants are raising the original “more research” complaint.

Dr. Lindzen is one example. Here is a scientist who agrees with most of the existing scientific models, but has done his own research, and is raising questions that challenge some of its findings. This is how science has evolved for centuries. Lindzen is either right, in which case the current scientific models should be modified, or he is wrong, in which case the scientists should disprove his conclusions based on the available evidence, and show him either how his data is incorrect or how he drew invalid conclusions from his data.

My conversation with Jeff, while not as high profile as the MIT professor and the former VP, is indicative of a second example. Like Lindzen, I also professed agreement with the current models. My questions are more political than scientific: given the current science, should we be going on TV from flood-ridden New Orleans in 2005 and telling the world that each hurricane season is going to be worse than the one before? Or, as I said in this post, should we be showing computer-generated video of major cities sinking beneath the ocean when future technological innovation could prevent this, despite the rising temperatures & water levels?

In both of these cases, no one is trying to unfairly discredit the existing science, no one is calling for “more research,” and no one is seeking delays in taking action. These are the tactics for which the talking points were (appropriately) developed, but they are not present here. Instead, it seems like the Gore crowd has taken up a position, rather than an opinion, and is now committed to defending that position from all detractors. They seem concerned that a single valid point that deviates from the original conclusion would destroy 100% of their credibility and render their cause ineffective.

Given the odds of being 100% right about anything as far reaching as global warming, this strikes me as a dangerous strategy, and one that will ultimately harm the cause in the long haul.

Topics: Political Rantings | 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Global Warming: Either You’re With Us, or You’re Ignorant”

  1. Jeff Porten says at September 2nd, 2006 at 9:20 pm :
    Ugh. I think you’re conflating two arguments, and so I’m going to try to separate them accordingly.

    On the one hand, we have the science. And yes, you’re absolutely right: no scientist will ever say he’s certain of anything, and the more active a field of research is, the more likely it will have lively debates. I’ve recently heard very interesting debates over whether oil is actually a fossil fuel, or instead is a naturally occurring and renewable geothermal resource. The vast majority of geologists believe the former, but that debate isn’t closed.

    So if you’re supposing that I’ve said that science can’t be debated or discussed, you’ve misstated my views as strongly as if you said I were a Scientologist. The only time when I’ll make such statements is about the scientific method, and the only time I’ll call someone ignorant is if they misconstrue that method or its results.

    Take your article as an example. I’m not arguing against the research (having neither the inclination nor the expertise), I’m arguing against the presentation, that four decades of warming were “erased” by the previous three years. That’s very comforting. It’s also wrong, since the actual story is that in three years’ time, we had a fluctuation of the magnitude that we saw in the prior 40 years. The problem in climate change is precisely that we do not have a very wide zone for the survivability of the species, and a narrower zone for the survivability of our culture, and so when chaotic systems show this much variance over a short period of time, that is not cause for celebration. You’ll note that I’ve not argued against or opposed the results of the research, as that would be ignorant.

    Now, it’s quite possible that this system will return to stasis, with the added benefit of the cooling in the past three years, and it will turn out that present-day concern is unnecessary. We won’t know that for another five years, though, so for current planning it behooves us to act upon the best data we have.

    Which leads to the other point: the political dimension in which the science is acted upon. Science is not the stock market, and one paper does not change the “value” of a given stock; instead, it’s part of the whole ecosystem of research which leads in one direction or another. If ten papers, or a hundred, show that indicators in 2006 are moving in the right direction, that’s good news. But when there’s a small amount of research, or a small group of scientists, acting as a dissenting voice — yes, that can be politically paralyzing. Too many people are profiting from the current system and fear its disruption, and the media tend to depict any 90-10 or 99-1 argument as 50-50.

    I can’t speak for the Gore crowd, as I’m not a member of it, and I doubt any of the environmentalists I know would say they were either — any more than you would say you were a member of the “flood Manhattan” crowd. But I think the argument to be made — and one I agree with — is that in the absence of any action, we’ve clearly been on a path that has damaged the ecosystem; the only debate is how close to crisis we are. It is possible, if not likely, that we are very close to an irreversible crisis. And the only thing that will cause that to change is political will, which is easily diluted by the ignorant and the short-sighted who trumpet the dissent in the 99-1 debates as a reason to do nothing — a strategy which they’ve effectively employed for 40 years.

    Personally, I’m on record as saying that when the worst outcome includes “possible end of human civilization”, a rational actor should be willing to take very large measures even when the risk is low. I’ve been consistent about that whether I’m talking nuclear weapons or any other threat to humanity, so I’m comfortable saying that I’m not an environmentalist, and yet I think your arguments are dangerously close to those who work to increase the measurable risks.

    So — you say that you agree with the models, and that you have an opinion rather than a position. I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on Kyoto, and on what other steps should be taken right now on the basis of available data?

  2. Brian says at September 3rd, 2006 at 1:42 am :
    now this is a much more reasonable discussion. I’m glad…

    I’m arguing against the presentation, that four decades of warming were “erased” by the previous three years. That’s very comforting. It’s also wrong, since the actual story is that in three years’ time, we had a fluctuation of the magnitude that we saw in the prior 40 years.

    Well, I don’t know anything more about the data than what was in the article I linked to (it sounds like you do – can you provide a link?). If it helps any, the article says the last 3 years erased 20% of the warming of the last 48 years. Still a big swing, but not as big as you stated above.

    in the absence of any action . . . the only debate is how close to crisis we are. It is possible, if not likely, that we are very close to an irreversible crisis.

    And my point is that reversing it is not the only logical response. At one point, our society would have logically determined that we’d all starve to death if we ran out of flint to make spears. Not so today…

    And the only thing that will cause that to change is political will, which is easily diluted by the ignorant and the short-sighted who trumpet the dissent in the 99-1 debates as a reason to do nothing — a strategy which they’ve effectively employed for 40 years.

    Agreed. But the reaction to the “ignorant & short-sighted” should not be to shut down other good ideas in an effort to portray your own as the only possible solution (“your” here meaning Gore, not Jeff).

    And it certainly shouldn’t be to try and scare people into action. I find it interesting that when Bush tells us another terrorist attack is likely, you call it the politics of fear, but when Gore tells us Manhattan is going to submerge into the ocean, he’s generating political will. Just as there are other reasonable approaches to terrorism than Bush’s, there are other reasonable approaches to Global Warming than Gore’s. And none of the approaches (necessarily) require us to deny the threat of either one.

    So — you say that you agree with the models, and that you have an opinion rather than a position. I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on Kyoto, and on what other steps should be taken right now on the basis of available data?

    That’s a reasonable question. As to Kyoto, I don’t really understand it all that well. What I’ve read is that it called for reductions in fossil fuel pollution that were proportional to usage, which would have meant that the US would have had to basically shut down its economy, while China, India, etc. could continue to pollute as much as they wanted, because they haven’t achieved our level of pollution yet. And for that reason, our Senate voted 99-0 to reject it. I also suspect that crowd that holds Kyoto up as proof that Bush doesn’t care about the environment is being disingenuous, since I wouldn’t want my president advocating a lousy idea just because the title page said “Save the Environment.” It’d be nice, though, if we had proposed an alternative (we might have – but I haven’t heard about it).

    As to your other question – what other steps should be taken right now – I’d refer you to my first post on the subject, where I advocated R&D incentives for systems that help us live in a world with higher temperatures & water levels – better levee systems, better tropical storm warning systems, more durable building designs, etc. I’d like to see us do these things concurrent with finding ways to reduce emissions, etc., but I’ve heard nothing about it on either side (Bush’s lip service to hydrogen powered cars, for instance, is still just a drop in the bucket toward reducing emissions, although it does have the added benefit of reducing our dependency on foreign oil, which has implications far beyond the environment).

  3. Jeff Porten says at September 4th, 2006 at 7:29 pm :
    Well, I don’t know anything more about the data than what was in the article I linked to (it sounds like you do – can you provide a link?)

    Sorry, most of what I know about this is just aggregate neural storage. If you want to do some research on this, and you’re starting from scratch, my guess would be to start with Wikipedia and follow the links. If you have any specific questions, though, I’ll be glad to point you to the experts I’m aware of.

    And my point is that reversing it is not the only logical response. At one point, our society would have logically determined that we’d all starve to death if we ran out of flint to make spears.

    Interesting analogy. You’re aware, I assume, that what made flint irrelevant was the switch from hunter-gatherer to agricultural economies, and that this process took about 10,000 years, with massive social upheaval in the process. Early agriculturalists didn’t know how to defend a fixed position, so they became a target for the remaining hunters. Huge populations (relative to human population at the time) were wiped out or starved. Result: people founded the first cities in order to create a system of protection for their farms.

    So your analogy is actually my worst-case scenario — that climate change will force us to alter our civilization as radically in order to survive. Me, I like lattes and broadband Internet, and would rather live in a world that provides such cheaply.

    But the reaction to the “ignorant & short-sighted” should not be to shut down other good ideas in an effort to portray your own as the only possible solution

    I think there are plenty of good ideas that I support. There is interesting movement to build systems to scrub the CO2 out of the atmosphere, which would ameliorate (or if large enough, reverse) the problems of carbon load. I also expect that nanotechnology will play a role in this in the none-too-distant future. That being said, if someone is repeatedly hitting you in the head, do you try to find a helmet with more padding, or do you get him to stop?

    I find it interesting that when Bush tells us another terrorist attack is likely, you call it the politics of fear, but when Gore tells us Manhattan is going to submerge into the ocean, he’s generating political will.

    It’s a matter of both oratory and content. I would argue that another terrorist attack isn’t likely, it’s certain, because there have been terrorists throughout recorded history. What’s questionable about Bush’s tactics is that he says that it will happen right now and only he can stop it. (Vastly oversimplifying, of course.)

    What Gore is doing, conversely, is bringing people’s attention to something that they otherwise don’t know about. The rise of sea level by 20 feet is in the category of the collapse of the WTC or a nuclear explosion — it’s too big for people to get their heads around. So they naturally presume that it’s impossible. What Gore has to do — and likewise, what anti-nuclear activists do — is demonstrate that unthinkable and impossible are not the same thing.

    Just as there are other reasonable approaches to terrorism than Bush’s, there are other reasonable approaches to Global Warming than Gore’s.

    I don’t know of a credible alternative approach to global warming. I know of two alternate approaches: 1) to say it’s not happening, or 2) to presume that we’ll create a deus ex machina technological fix. I’d personally say the former is suicidal, and the latter is risky. Do you know a third option?

    What I’ve read is that it called for reductions in fossil fuel pollution that were proportional to usage, which would have meant that the US would have had to basically shut down its economy, while China, India, etc. could continue to pollute as much as they wanted, because they haven’t achieved our level of pollution yet.

    What you’ve read is, well, somewhat biased. (Phrasing that very politely.) Basically, the US economy needs energy, so the people who say that shutting down emissions requires shutting down the economy make a one-to-one correlation that energy requires emissions. That’s simply not true. We do have cleaner energy technologies, we just need to invest in them. (Notably, I’ve heard several experts say that the problem with Bush’s hydrogen proposals is that he — like many before him — are promoting technologies that perennially push off any actual change into the future.)

    As for emissions from industry, if you think about it, emissions are waste. Most companies that have re-engineered their processes to be cleaner also find that they are much cheaper after the fact. And where it’s generally presumed that this would be difficult, that’s why you have a carbon trading program, to create further economic benefits for a cleaner system.

    As for the developing nations — yeah, there’s a political mess there. It’s true that they haven’t reached our level of emissions — because no one else has, either. We’re the worst. But the basic political argument is that we got rich doing horrible environmental things in the 19th and 20th centuries, so who are we to tell them they can’t do the same things we did? And we reply, because we didn’t know any better then. And on and on.

    The thing is, the primary argument against Kyoto is that it’ll cost too much. And that’s the same argument that’s been made against everything from OSHA to the EPA to seat belts to civil rights. The green business community believes that America has the entrepreneurial savvy to do the right thing and make money from it. The other side is the one that wants to take the path of least resistance and maintain the status quo.

    No question that adopting Kyoto will be difficult. But you have to have a particular mindset to presume it’s economic suicide.

    I’d refer you to my first post on the subject, where I advocated R&D incentives for systems that help us live in a world with higher temperatures & water levels

    Right. This is why you need to see the movie, and why the movie needs to exist. Arguments of this type are similar to promoting “duck and cover” during a nuclear attack.

    You’re thinking in terms of bad storms and maybe some flooding. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Bangladesh floods on an annual basis anyway; a small water rise will cause a few million refugees to move into Europe and Asia. England is dependent on warm water surges in the North Atlantic, otherwise they would have the climate of Alaska. A variation of a few degrees or a few inches of rainfall will disrupt crop production worldwide, and cause famines numbering over a billion. A rush of saltwater into a freshwater reserve can poison the water supply for an entire region, when freshwater supplies worldwide are already in a precarious state.

    The fact is that we will come up with these technological fixes, much as has been done in the Netherlands and Italy, and they will accelerate as the need becomes more obvious. But these are band-aids, and there’s no known technology that can solve the problem globally.

    So we have two choices: 1) accept these climate effects, and the necessary economical, political, and military impacts they will have as more nations struggle to survive; 2) attempt to pre-empt the effects as best as we can, starting immediately. Again, even if 1) is not 100% certain, it seems the cost of failure is far too high to allow us to not act. And the only way that’s going to happen is if enough people see the movie, read the books, hit the web sites, and then get off their butts.

  4. Brian says at September 5th, 2006 at 5:22 pm :
    So your analogy is actually my worst-case scenario — that climate change will force us to alter our civilization as radically in order to survive. Me, I like lattes and broadband Internet, and would rather live in a world that provides such cheaply.

    You do realize, don’t you, that we radically altered our civilization to create the one with lattes and broadband Internet, right? Radical change is not always bad. Maybe global warming is the thing that finally gets the ISS built, and the crops we grow in outer space finally solve world hunger. That wouldn’t suck, right?

    Also, reversing the trends in global warming is a radical change to civilization (at least in the developed countries) as well.

    if someone is repeatedly hitting you in the head, do you try to find a helmet with more padding, or do you get him to stop?

    Well, both, of course. Especially if everyone agrees that you’re not going to get him to stop anytime soon…

    I don’t know of a credible alternative approach to global warming. I know of two alternate approaches: 1) to say it’s not happening, or 2) to presume that we’ll create a deus ex machina technological fix. I’d personally say the former is suicidal, and the latter is risky. Do you know a third option?

    I think the three options are 1) say it’s not happening, 2) radically alter the basic infrastructure of our society to one which contains all the modern conveniences, but impacts the environment like the society of a hundred years ago, and 3) work toward technological fixes to deal with the impending changes in a way that isn’t catastrophic to our lifestyles.

    Ironically, what I hear from Gore, et. al (still not having seen the movie) is mostly #2, with a large dollop of arguments against #1. So it surprises me that the two you quoted are #1 and #3.

    No question that adopting Kyoto will be difficult. But you have to have a particular mindset to presume it’s economic suicide.

    I’m happy to believe that, like most treaties, everything about Kyoto was and is political. But I am correct that the U.S. Senate voted it down 99-0, right? So if there are strong arguments in favor of it, they were coming from special interest groups, not from lawmakers (of any party…)

    You’re thinking in terms of bad storms and maybe some flooding. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Bangladesh floods on an annual basis anyway; a small water rise will cause a few million refugees to move into Europe and Asia. England is dependent on warm water surges in the North Atlantic, otherwise they would have the climate of Alaska. A variation of a few degrees or a few inches of rainfall will disrupt crop production worldwide, and cause famines numbering over a billion. A rush of saltwater into a freshwater reserve can poison the water supply for an entire region, when freshwater supplies worldwide are already in a precarious state.

    See this is the stuff that led to my original post. You’ve left the topic of global warming now, and entered the world of scary predictions. Everything you said may come to pass. Or, atlernatively, this may all be true:

    Tsunami activity ebbs and flows as it always has (we’re coming up on two years since the Bangladesh tsunami, and haven’t had anything close since. And, by the way, that was caused by an underwater earthquake, not the temperature of the water). Well before a few million refugees move into Europe and Asia, someone comes up with a way to minimize the impact of the water rise so they don’t have to move. This happens for either humanitarian or economic reasons, but it doesn’t really matter which. England inherits the climate of Alaska, and then re-tools London to mimic Minneapolis/St. Paul. Europeans suddenly have an alternative to the Alps for skiing, and the tourism industry in the UK flourishes. A variation in rainfall does not disrupt crop production, it changes crop production, as people either a) find ways to grow crops in damper soil, or b) find new places to grow crops. And increasing shortages of fresh water cause improvements in desalination and irrigation technologies to get fresh water where it needs to be (cf. any Israeli Kibbutz).

    The fact is that we will come up with these technological fixes, much as has been done in the Netherlands and Italy, and they will accelerate as the need becomes more obvious. But these are band-aids, and there’s no known technology that can solve the problem globally.

    Air-conditioning was a band-aid that allowed us to live in the desert-like conditions of the American southwest. It didn’t change the climate there, it just made the climate irrelevant. I’m saying sure – work toward solving the problem, but if you can render the problem irrelevant before you solve it, that’s just as good.

    So we have two choices: 1) accept these climate effects, and the necessary economical, political, and military impacts they will have as more nations struggle to survive; 2) attempt to pre-empt the effects as best as we can, starting immediately. Again, even if 1) is not 100% certain, it seems the cost of failure is far too high to allow us to not act. And the only way that’s going to happen is if enough people see the movie, read the books, hit the web sites, and then get off their butts.

    See, now the two choices you offer are different from the ones you offerred above. What happened to #3) attempt to incorporate these effects into our lives so that nations don’t struggle, but thrive as a new growth industry stimulates economies and expands possibilities beyond anything we can imagine today (especially since they cancelled Star Trek)?

    And again to my original point, the more the movie, books, and web sites tout disaster scenarios that don’t come to pass, the more they destroy their own credibility, and ultimately give a huge advantage to the “do nothing” crowd they’re trying so desparately to defeat.

Comments

Comments will be sent to the moderation queue.