Demystifying climate change

I am still in wait-and-see mode with respect to climate change. It’s a dangerous place to be, of course: it might be prudent to take preventative action now. But I am always cautious about taking a stand.

It might not appear that way to regular readers of this blog, since I frequently share my convictions on contentious issues. But I never take a stand until I’ve accumulated significant evidence: enough to feel that I understand the issue and am adequately equipped to defend my position against gainsayers.

On climate change, I am pulled in two contrary directions.

First, I am predisposed to trust any scientific consensus, and it appears that such a consensus has emerged with respect to climate change. The globe is warming; and human beings are at least partly responsible.

The consensus isn’t absolute, of course. There are always vested interests who will resist and attack the consensus. Think of Big Tobacco, funding research that concluded smoking is good for you. We can expect a similar defence of the status quo from industry re climate change.

On the other hand, conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios are a dime a dozen. Remember the Y2K predictions — planes falling out of the sky, etc.? That may also be a relevant precedent.

I still haven’t watched An Inconvenient Truth or read Al Gore’s book by the same title. I really should, because I need someone to demystify climate change. Gore has obviously succeeded in doing so for a lot of non-scientific types like me.

But who to trust? Ay, there’s the rub! Michael Crichton claims that environmentalism is a new religion, “a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths”:

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Crichton goes on to say that environmentalists have made a whole slew of predictions that turned out to be false. First they claimed that overpopulation was going to destroy us:

Over the course of my lifetime the thoughtful predictions for total world population have gone from a high of 20 billion, to 15 billion, to 11 billion (which was the UN estimate around 1990) to now 9 billion, and soon, perhaps less. …

We are running out of oil. We are running out of all natural resources. Paul Ehrlich: 60 million Americans will die of starvation in the 1980s. Forty thousand species become extinct every year. Half of all species on the planet will be extinct by 2000. And on and on and on.

With so many past failures, you might think that environmental predictions would become more cautious. But not if it’s a religion.

Is Crichton right? I don’t know. Science is supposed to give us fact-based, reliable conclusions. But on environmental issues, I fear it’s like the old saw about statistics: lies, damned lies, and data on climate change.

But that’s too harsh. It sounds like I’ve made up my mind — climate change is a hoax. And I haven’t made up my mind. Not at all.

All this by way of preamble! I want to call your attention to a post on Doug’s blog. In effect, it’s an attempt to demystify climate change.

First, Doug links to a sceptical argument in Newsweek International; then, he provides a point-by-point rebuttal by a PhD student from the University of California at Berkeley. I found the point-by-point approach informative.

Good photos, too! It’s the kind of writing that earned Doug recognition as a Thinking Blogger!


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Apr 11, 2007 @ 09:10:21

    On the other hand, conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios are a dime a dozen.

    To use your smoking analogy, health scares and bogus food scaremongering stories are a dime a dozen. For example, fluoridated water, radiation from the television, microwave cooking, and aspartame.

    Does that mean smoking ain’t bad for you?

    Crichton goes on to say that environmentalists have made a whole slew of predictions that turned out to be false.

    Crichton’s examples are not analogous. They are referring to a single scientist or even a group of scientists making educated guesses about the future. Not one of his examples shows a global consensus of scientists being wrong about something that is occurring right now. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made from the example of the overpopulation scare that we are being too pessimistic about the future costs of global warming, since technology we cannot now predict will be able to solve all our problems. I think that might actually be a reasonable guess, considering the exponential pace of technological advances. But that has nothing to do with whether global warming is happening (it is) in large part due to humans (it is.) And it’s a big gamble to take.


  2. addofio
    Apr 11, 2007 @ 10:00:34

    “Ditto” to JewishAtheists points.

    And one more: since we’re dealing with a phenomenon for which human behavior is a factor, predictions aren’t like predictions in physics–where if your theory says the billiard ball should do X, but instead it does Y, that’s a pretty good indicator there’s something wrong with your theory. People take action in response to dire warnings, they change their behavior, and often enough the dire prediction doesn’t then pan out. It’s what God gave us brains for (take that metaphorically or literally, works either way.)

    Which is not to say every warning should make us jump. Definitely, check it out for yourself. There will still be an element of uncertainty–the evidence about complex and contingent phenomena is virtually never certain. So in addition to weighing the evidence, it’s also relevant to weigh the potential consequences. Which conclusion has the bulk of the evidence on its side? Which error has the worse potential outcomes?


  3. SadieLou
    Apr 11, 2007 @ 11:40:19

    Maybe someone can help me understand why this issue is so political? Why is this another Us vs. Them issue?
    Does anyone else see the obvious problems with movie stars urging Americans to “do their part”? Who can afford to buy Green Cars? Even if I did buy a Green Car that burns BioFuel, where would I find a gas station that sells BioFuel? How would I afford it? How can build a house with Green Materials? It costs double what regular materials cost. Almost everything that is “good” for the environment costs more–of course celebrities can afford to make the change.
    It just seems like another issue to divide the rich from the poor and the conservatives from the liberals and the unbelievers and the faithful.
    And I don’t understand why that is. Don’t we all just live on the same planet?


  4. MaryP
    Apr 11, 2007 @ 13:22:17

    While I can’t afford a Green Car or special building materials, I *can* decide to own a small car rather than an SUV – or own no car at all! If I own a car, I can make sure to walk anything less than a mile or two, and use public transit when it’s available. I can choose not to live in a home that’s larger than my legitimate needs. I can remember to turn lights off when I leave a room, turn the thermostat down at night, and do without AC at all.

    The list goes on and on and on and on. Small changes, most of them – but changes that so many people simply aren’t willing to make.

    The celebrities are well-intentioned, I’m sure – but look how much they have and buy! Immense homes, several of them each, several cars, masses of clothes, miles and miles of luxury flights logged each year, etc., etc. Role models they ain’t, so if you can’t follow their example, don’t sweat it: You can BE an example.


  5. Sadie Lou
    Apr 12, 2007 @ 15:12:22

    Thanks Mary P. It’s true there are small things that can be done and I do. I mean, I recycle and buy energy effeciant appliances. I do drive a large car though because I have three kids and I run a child care out of my home.
    However, you’re right about celebs.
    Their homes are massive! Imagine the energy they consume or the water they use up considering pools, hottubs, green grass, landscape, etc.
    They have multiple cars too! Okay, enough bagging on celebs–I’, sure they mean well.


  6. JewishAtheist
    Apr 12, 2007 @ 23:16:32

    Stephen, I’m interested in hearing if you’ve been swayed.


  7. Stephen
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 15:33:12

    • Jewish Atheist:

    My apologies for taking so long to get back to you.

    Crichton’s examples are not analogous. They are referring to a single scientist or even a group of scientists making educated guesses about the future. Not one of his examples shows a global consensus of scientists being wrong about something that is occurring right now.

    This is a good point. I also think Crichton’s comment, “We are running out of oil” is manifestly silly. (He means, of course, that the claim was wrong.) We are indeed running out of oil. Yes, we have identified new sources, like the oil sands of Alberta. But production costs are much higher, giving industry much less bang for the buck. Surely Crichton knows that, so his argument is disingenuous.

    I also appreciated this point from Doug’s guest:

    Climate models have been validated by using them to predict historical climate events. That is to say, we’ve told them “Here’s the dust that erupted from Mt Pinatubo in 1991; predict what happens to the climate,” and the climate model says “OK” and spits out some numbers that do, in fact, match what really happened. That’s why we have confidence in their ability to predict the future.

    I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the globe is warming and human activity is a major contributing factor. The tougher question is, how catastrophic will the consequences be? For example, how much will ocean levels rise? It seems we’re a long way from consensus on that issue.

    • Addofio:

    Given the uncertainty, I agree there’s wisdom in assuming that climate change will be harmful and taking appropriate preventative measures.

    • Sadie Lou:
    Maybe someone can help me understand why this issue is so political? Why is this another Us vs. Them issue?

    I think it’s an encouraging sign that the evangelical community is beginning to take this issue seriously. You’re absolutely right, this isn’t an “us” vs. “them” issue; it’s important for the human population as a whole.

    It’s inevitably a political issue, though. Should governments introduce carbon taxes? Should they regulate industries? Should they invest in research and development for green technologies? Should governments promote carbon offsets as a responsible way of dealing with CO2 emissions?

    Not least, to what extent are political parties and individual politicians beholden to industry with a vested industry in denying that there’s a problem?

    These are political questions, and I suppose it’s natural for government and opposition parties to adopt contrary positions. But it’s a shame that climate change has evolved into a left/right issue. Political parties should work together in a non-partisan fashion to figure out what’s really happening and respond accordingly. Political leaders are failing us here.

    • MaryP:
    Good point about celebrities! You would think, with all the time they spend looking in the mirror, celebrities would show a little self-awareness ….


  8. tamino
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 19:27:58

    Two years ago I was in much the same position you’re in now. I was aware of, but not very interested in, the issue of global warming. I was not very well-informed about the issue. However, I’m a scientist (a mathematician, I’ve spent most of my career doing statistical analyses for astrophysicists). I heard of a paper by a “colleague of a colleague” claiming that global warming was false, based on numerical analysis of historical data. This piqued my interest.

    So I decided to investigate for myself. I have access to the scientific literature (peer-reviewed journals) and there’s lots of climate data available online. Also, my specialty is the statistical analysis of time series, so when it comes to data analysis, I don’t have to take anyone’s word for it, I can do it for myself.

    Two years of very intense research on the topic has absolutely convinced me of three things: 1. Global warming is really happening; 2. It’s caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases; 3. It’s bad. Very bad.

    I’ve also discovered that the main reason there’s still controversy over the subject (in spite of the *overwhelming* scientific concensus) is a well-coordinated and well-funded campaign of misinformation, often funded by the fossil-fuel industry.

    For reliable sources of online information, I recommend these two web sites:

    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

    RealClimate, a climate science blog run by climate scientists.


  9. Stephen
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 15:54:24

    Thanks, Tamino. The RealClimate link looks interesting, and I think I can get my head around at least some of the information there. I’ll keep an eye on it to see what I can learn.

    On your third point (global warming is bad … very bad) I continue to wonder whether the reality is less certain than that. It is human nature to exaggerate the significance of any information that we focus our attention on. The more intensively we study a given topic, the more it dominates our horizons.

    The question then becomes, what information are we not taking into account that, in the event, will turn out to be a crucial variable?

    I’m talking in the abstract here. It is my experience in other fields of human endeavor, and I hold out the possibility that it will also turn out to be the case here.

    That’s why Crichton’s characterization of environmentalism as a religion merits consideration. Crichton undoubtedly exaggerates, but his assertion is true to the way human beings behave: whatever we devote our attention to grows into an idol.

    It’s a mistake to assume that scientists are incapable of making this sort of error. Whether they are making it in this instance — that’s the big question mark, with enormous implications.


  10. tamino
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 12:52:05

    I base my opinion that global warming will be very bad, not on any spiritual feeling, but on evidence of the effects of rapid climate change in the distant past.

    Decades ago, it was believed that most of the mass extinctions in the past were associated with impact events, comets or meteors striking earth. It is now believed that this is true for only a few (most notably, the 65 Myr ago event which led to the demise of the dinosaurs); most of the mass extinctions in the past are now attributed to rapid climate change. An example is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

    The climate change we’re inducing right now is happening at a rate of about 2 deg.C/century. That’s some 20 times faster than the warming typically associated with deglaciation during the transition from full ice age conditions to interglacial. It’s also faster than estimates of the global temperature change rate during events like the PETM. And that rate of global warming is expected to get even faster this century.

    One of the things most people don’t appreciate is that there’s no such thing as an “ideal temperature” in the absolute sense, but temperature change is a severe threat to living systems. It’s not the future climate that seems to be a threat, it’s rapid climate change that is the real danger.


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