Reason Freely

Climate Change Skeptics

Posted in essay, news by reasonfreely on March 9, 2010

Let me start off by saying that it is our ethical duty to question authority and, generally, I like skepticism.  I’m a skepticism pusher.  But I don’t like it when people use the label of skepticism (or science!) to promote their agenda.

Climatologists are not always going to get everything right, and both carbon activists and energy companies want us to make policy decisions based on their predictions.  This is what happens when you combine the three main ingredients of ideology and praxis in the 21st century:

Complex reality

Media sensationalism

High stakes

Complex Reality

Climatology is a very complicated discipline steeped in complexity.  As a sociologist, I am no stranger to complex causality.  Sometimes you don’t know whether A caused B or B caused A.  I understand that studies of complex phenomena are a collection of trends, probabilities, and assumptions.

Complexity is more than just a word meaning “diverse and interconnected causes” ; it is also a whole emerging mathematical discipline on its own (known to most moviegoers as “Chaos Theory”).  Feedback systems, attractors and wave transformations play havoc with predictions.  Simple predictions are just not possible; so laymen can easily draw any conclusion from the research out there now.  The best example is why we changed the term “global warming” to “global climate change.”  On the whole, the world is warming.  On average.   Some regions experience more dramatic effects, like the Larsen B ice shelf or Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Some areas will actually cool.  Some times of year in some areas may be dramatically warmer.  Some times of year in some areas may actually be more mild.  One germane example:  As the oceans warm, they shed more water into the atmosphere.  That can add up to a lot more snow coming down in Washington, DC.  More snow in DC actually indicates a warmer climate.

The reality of an issue is as complicated as the effects of human-produced CO2 emissions on climate change is hard to explain easily.

Do our CO2 emissions cause climate change?  Bad question:  Even the “skeptics” agree that our CO2 emissions cause some climate changes.  What proportion of climate change is due to our CO2 emissions?  Bad question:  Just about everything is influenced by climate change because just about everything is on the ground, in the water, or under the sky.  Even Earthquakes, it turns out, may be influenced by our CO2 emissions.  As glaciers melt, the earth shifts to respond to higher mass in lakes and seas and lower mass on land.  After the ancient glaciers melted in North America, the ground has been rising steadily.

Anyway, you get the point.

With such complexity to the results, we see four opportunities for bias:  First, advocates of any position can find evidence to support their agenda.  Second, scientists get a lot of things wrong when making predictions or theories about complex systems.  Third,  laypeople can easily get lost in all the details, and generally only see the information the press presents.  And fourth, it is easy to tweak your results when so many factors are involved.

Media Sensationalism

In science, a study that is referenced more is more valuable to a researcher for tenure purposes, prestige, and grant funding.  A study that gets play on CNN is more likely to be cited more (though also more likely to be critically examined).  It is also more likely to be used in political advocacy for one position or another.  And that’s good for the study’s authors.

At this point, the voting public probably has an enormous literacy in green tech buzzwords.  Carbon capture, cap-and-trade, recycling, greenhouse effect…  But unfortunately, even a fairly well-read American’s understanding of these technologies does not address what is actually going on in the environment.  Carbon capture technologies reduce carbon output from smokestacks.  Many middle class Americans probably have at least that level of understanding.   But what does that actually do for the environment?  Is it like recycling a newspaper, where the cost of not doing it is relatively low and the benefit of doing it is also relatively low?  Or is it like recycling an aluminum can, where the costs are higher?  Or perhaps like removing CFCs as a propellant in aerosol products — a massive benefit for a very low cost?  Heck, I don’t know.  But the media talks about carbon capture technology all the time.

S0me alarmists in the press cast global climate change as the end of the world.  It would certainly be bad, triggering starvation, hurricanes, ecosystem collapse, and so forth — but those things are already happening.  We certainly don’t want it to get any worse, but sensationalism just adds to the public perception that every scientist and every green policy advocate is also an alarmist, pulling a publicity stunt, or exaggerating the reality of the situation.

The “skeptics” on the other side are just as bad, though.  Even though the most common arguments against climate change have been defeated, they keep bringing them up.  Now they’ve begun assailing climate science with ad hominem attacks.  Contemporary journalism can’t afford to do real research anymore and the cable news shows treat every issue as if it could go either way even when it’s pretty solid, so suddenly climate change is a debate.  And right wing opinion stations like Fox News even exaggerate climate change skeptics (siding against Al Gore because he wears a donkey pin) and disguise opinion as news.

High Stakes

It may not be the end of the word, but climate change will affect billions of people worldwide, causing the aforementioned starvation, ecosystem collapse and natural disaster.   On the other hand, green legislation promises to cost billions of dollars and upset American energy companies’ very profitable status quo.  I don’t mean to trivialize the energy companies’ position — they have billions of dollars at stake, thousands of jobs, and the essence of our economy.   They’re motivated.  Their lobbyists and PR firms are motivated, too.

Still, some companies can profit from green legislation.  A lot of people have staked their life savings and mortgaged the house to get their slice of the green technology revolution.  And they’re highly motivated.  So are their lobbyists and PR firms.   Some of those who predict disaster are genuinely concerned.  Between green tech dollars and genuine and justified fear, the stakes are high on the left, as well.

In Sum

The issue is too complex to fully understand as a layperson, though I won’t stop you from trying.  Free thought allows for this contingency by carefully examining expert sources (authority).

* Accepting expert interpretation (authority) may be necessary, but you should question your expert.  Make sure they are legitimate and respected in their field, and read their work.  Do not use a news show or editorialist (or blogger) as your primary source for scientific information.  Choose a scientist, economist, or environmentalist — or one of each.

* When comparing dissenting opinions (such as arguments from “climate change skeptics”), use them to challenge experts and see what the response is, rather than accepting them conditionally.  To that end, find a science blog and respond there, or follow a science blog that confronts dissenting opinions with evidence.

* The media has made it hard to see what is true and what is not.  Learn to pick fact from opinion in a news story, since opinion has been creeping in too much this past decade.  If a fact disagrees with your understanding, take it to an expert and try to understand it in richer context.

* The muddy nature of the issue will get worse as the stakes get higher:  Oil is running out, international tensions are increasing, and we’re approaching several environmental, economic, and cultural tipping points.


3 Responses

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  1. Jason said, on March 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I think the biggest thing missing from the discussion on Climate Change is the general public’s lack of familiarity with cyclic, i.e. waveform, behavior, and in general the difference between ‘heat’ and ‘temperature’ as informed by thermodynamics.

    One analogy I think would make this more clear is discussing the climate like a spring. Most people are familiar with the behavior of springs. The more energy stored in a spring, the larger the amplitude of it’s motion. It’s easy to understand that the harder you pull down on a weight attached to a spring, the higher it will bounce back up.

    Similarly with the atmosphere– the more energy collected in the atmosphere, the more powerful the cycles of weather will become. That means at times we experience new lows in temperature, as well as new highs– but the fundamental driving factor of this is that there is more energy absorbed in the atmosphere from the sun, as it retains more heat in the thermodynamic sense. Global Warming refers to the atmosphere’s increased retention of heat from the sun on a gross scale.

    The common misperception is that more heat in the atmosphere will generically mean higher temperatures, but this is true only when measuring average temperature across the planet. In local terms, this energy is applied in multiple ways throughout the kinetic action and chemical precipitation of the atmosphere we generally refer to as weather. It means, roughly, that the weather will be more energetic– which means stronger cold fronts as well as warmer warm fronts, as the weather itself moves faster. Arctic winds which may have previously moved at 5 miles per hour now move at 7 or 8, meaning that their reach is increased with their momentum, and the same is true of tropical air masses. As noted in the OP, more energy in the atmosphere also means more water vaporizing out of various sources (lakes, rivers, the oceans, etc.), which further means more precipitation.

    To return to the spring analogy, we can think of the weather like a small child’s bouncing horsey. You know the thing I’m talking about– a plastic horse is mounted on a frame attached to several springs. The child sits on the plastic horse, and can bounce on the springs. The child bounces on the springs by shifting his weight to add to the momentum of his motion– he pushes down on the springs as he begins to bounce downwards, and shifts upwards as the springs move upwards. A responsible parent always supervises play with the bouncing horsey, because a truly energetic child can bounce violently enough that it starts to become dangerous.

    With Climate Change, expecting the temperature simply to rise across the board would be like expecting the child’s motion on the bouncing horse to result in higher and higher bounces. It would ignore the fact that the increased energy in the springs also results in the bounce pushing the horse down further as well, and that the average velocity of the child in the bouncing also increases. And, much as the potentially dangerous bouncing on the horse is derived from the action of the child riding the toy, so can this extra energy absorbed by the atmosphere be the result of human action.

    The flip side of the spring analogy, though, is that in spring-motivated action, there are further forces which dampen the movement, and eventually bring it to rest. Aerodynamic drag acts on the child on the spring. The spring itself absorbs some of the energy as heat through material deformation which dissipates out through the frame. The child may deploy his legs to the ground to dampen some of the bouncing through his legs.

    I tend to view the alarmists as those who underestimate the robustness of the environment’s ability to dampen this effect, to expend energy into new forms which stabalize the action of the atmosphere (the weather) in new ways. Certainly I agree that overall warming is having a deleterious effect on our environment, but I disagree that it is happening at the rate many of the alarmists get excited about.

    I do however, understand the logical and ethical dilemma at play. There is a degree of uncertainty as to the pacing of the mounting effects, as deducing the overall action of the change is highly erratic, due to the extremely multi-variate nature of the problem.

    Can one say that the growth of the presented problem is exponential? Quite certainly– in such a highly multi-variate system, undoubtedly the guiding mathematics behind the change are highly dynamic. The problem is further complicated by being non-linear– the inputs are not smoothly linear, they are frequently on-off. You turn your car off, you don’t drive it continuously– things turn on and off in a similar matter all the time. That strongly suggest that the response of the atmosphere is highly polynomial, across multiple variables. In determining the degree to which the problem is exponential– i.e. how rapidly the change will occur, and at which point certain inflection points are crossed, and the overall response rapidly changes– is then a matter of some uncertainty.

    At the conservative end of that uncertainty, the response is robust, perhaps even self-stabilizing; there is in fact a consistent, logical possibility that the environment will in fact self-stabilize to accommodate for the new inputs generated by increased industrial activity across the world. Anyone who has taken a course in differential equations understands that some equations have stable solutions– in fact, in cyclic behavior where damping occurs, this is the norm. The spring will eventually come to rest if no further inputs are given. It is reasonably and rationally within the realm of possibility that the atmosphere of earth is a stable system which will have a steady-state solution which robustly supports human life without further action on our part, much as the spring may come to rest, or more likely settle into a stable cycle of vibration.

    However, let us assume that this is not the case, that the atmospheric response to human input through industrial action is not inherently steady state, that it is not inherently stable. In the mathematics that govern the control of more complex physical action than springs, stable solutions become less given, but as likely. Aircraft with unstable aerodynamic configurations can be made stable through the application of electronic control algorithms– in fact, this is true for the majority of fighter aircraft today. Considering this, it is rather rational to say that even if the atmospheric response to increased input from human industry is inherently unstable, that there is perhaps some stabilizing effect that can be achieved by further human action which would stabilize the atmosphere, that through the direct application of engineering to the problem, the atmosphere can be stabilized in a manner which robustly supports human life. Here, one enters the ‘market action’ argument– that if it is in fact the case that the atmosphere is unstable, but that it is possible to stabilize it, then self-interest will compel humanity to enact these engineering fixes in a manner that would achieve this stablization, and through market action, do so in the most efficient manner through repeated iterations as new controls are enacted.

    The third possibility is that atmospheric response to the input of human activity is so unstable that nothing can be done to stabilize it once a certain inflection point is reached. This is the argument that once the global climate is broken, it cannot be fixed– no positive effect can be had by further human action.

    Faced with these three options, the ethical dilemma is which possibility one chooses to act upon. In the first case, no action is required. In the second case, action is required, but can be taken after it is undeniably evident that something must be done. In the third case, immediate action is required, and cannot wait until evidence is so overwhelming that it cannot be ignored. There are two questions involved here: the first, of whether or not to act, and the second of when to act.

    On the question of whether to act, we cannot ignore that action does not come without price. The choice not to act, however, carries with it the risk that we are wrong, and that inaction will cost us something. The reasoned, rational response would be to weight the costs and benefits of action against the risk of potential loss posed by inaction.

    Here, the inertia of the status quo is to maintain itself– and hence the social inertia of the question of whether or not to act is to favor inaction. In order to build social inertia towards action, the potential risk must be great enough that a sufficient number of people will be compelled to act, both on the risk of potential loss, but also on the potential benefits of action.

    This is where modern environmentalists look to start playing games with the market, by seeking to change the market forces acting on the central question of whether to act. This is what Cap and Trade is about– about making the economic impetuous to act, because under the Cap and Trade system, the economic impetuous is to act to reduce carbon emissions. However, Cap and Trade is an artificial means of market manipulation, and by being artificial, it is easy to trace the costs of it’s imposition on the markets, and hence easy to weigh the costs of the action against the potential risk of inaction, and potential benefits. Depending on the risk one associates with inaction, and the potential benefit one believes will be derived from the action, it is a reasonable possibility that the cost-benefit-risk ratio is not good. In fact, personally I don’t believe in Cap and Trade, because I do not find the cost-benefit-risk ratio to be favorable.

    This is in part because I am familiar with engineering investment, and believe that there are technologies which have the potential to achieve the aim of Cap and Trade without relying on artificial market manipulation. For example, fully electric cars. Fully electric cars have a shot at being economically viable independent of any tax incentives, merely on the cost of processing oil into gasoline and distributing it. Distribution of electric energy is much more cost-efficient than the distribution of chemical energy in the form of gasoline. If one could develop the hardware and manufacturing process to produce cars which took advantage of the fact that it’s cheaper to move the energy required to move a car for 400 miles at 60 miles/hour over a high-voltage electric wire than by moving it by gas-pipeline, and that generating that energy in the form of electricity is cheaper than refining it from crude oil into gasoline, then the natural economic pressure would be towards the use of electric cars, because it would supply the means of transportation for cheaper. The main difficulty here is that there is a great deal of investment to be had in the development of such technology– the major costs of this economic development lie experimental prototypes, and a great deal of research and development which does not have a rapid return on investment. The costs of taking this route are all up-front, which provide an enormous barrier to investment. The potential benefits, though, are worthwhile even if no action is required on the part of the environment, on raw economics. Electrical energy is cheaper than chemical energy– developing hardware that exploits that fact is beneficial even if it offers no benefit to the environment. Another example of this is the use of nuclear power plants, which can produce more power for the same economic investment over time, and be built safely (France and South America being prime examples).

    What this strongly suggests is that action is most likely to be widely adapted where it aligns with natural economic interest. This further suggests that action is most potent when it aligns with natural economic interest, and further, through market action, that technology will naturally evolve towards efficiency, as this move produces economic savings. Action will naturally proceed where economic interests are aligned, but will not overcome social inertia where economic interests are opposed.

    Admittedly, this ignores social interest– but I separate this out for a reason. So far, we have not seen a social interest that can be directly attributed to climate change. We face no refugees, no victims of global warming– there are not people destitute as of yet by droughts or flooding that can be without question attributed to climate change. Some of us suspect that the increase in drought, in a perceived increase in severe weather, is due to climate change. But so far, a direct causal link has not been found.

    For instance, we cannot say with certainty that Katrina was the result of human input through industry to the atmosphere. Many of us find it highly probable, but there is no direct evidence that Katrina was not simply a natural occurrence that would have happened without human input. Certainly, statistically speaking, New Orleans was in fact overdue for a strike by a hurricane. It is well within the realm of statistically probability that Katrina could have been as strong without human input into atmospheric energy. Stronger hurricanes than Katrina have been witnessed, before human industry began so radically producing many of the inputs we think are most directly causing human impact on Earth’s atmosphere.

    What social interest exists, then, exists in political form, mostly arising from warning from climate scientists. Here, then, we begin to examine the secondary question– not of whether or not to act, but when to act, and here ethics plays a much stronger role. To return to the ethical dilemma of when to act, the possibilities before us are roughly whether or not there is a point of no return.

    If there is a point at which there is no return, then logically we should act before that point. Ethically, as the survival of the human race would depend on such, then there is no question that we should act to preserve ourselves, unless one wants to delve into philosophical esoterica in which our own existence and survival is not imperative.

    However, if there is no point beyond which we cannot recover, then the reasonable response is to weigh costs, benefits, and risks against each other. Ethics enters into this because some of the potential loss presented here is the loss of human life, perhaps even on a large scale, but one that is not absolute (remembering that this is the specific subset in which we assume there is no point of no return).

    In the ethics of most people, loss of human life, and potential human suffering weight the scales heavily towards the prevention of such. But we must also admit that this potential for human loss is weighed against economic interest as well. If every American donated half their income to feeding and caring for economically destitute children, we would save enormous numbers of lives and generally improve human quality of life. The social interest is clearly to do so in most common ethical systems. But our economic interests are otherwise. Determining the costs associated with certain risks, then, must contextualize the situation in which the cost-benefit-risk analysis takes place– is it the kind of decision where human loss is taking place directly in front of you, or is it more like the situation where you choose to pocket the change from your meal at McDonald’s, rather than donate it to charity? In this case, risk assessment generically comes in a few forms– expert assessment, informed assessment, and derivative assessment.

    Derivative assessment is the assessment of the individual who has no expertise in which to contextualize the assessments experts or informed assessment. To derivative assessment, in fact, there may be little way to determine between the analysis of someone who is merely informed vs. the expert. For example, the average lay person doesn’t know the difference between a climatologist and meteorologist. They are therefore more likely to base their assessment of opposing viewpoints based not on technical expertise, but on other social markers. For example, fame. A famous meteorologist (say, the popular local TV weather guy) might carry more weight with someone making a derivative assessment than an unknown and relatively unaccomplished climatologist, even if the climatologists’ expertise is more directly related and relevant to the actual issue. Because the derivative assessment is being made by someone with little to no expertise in the field, methods which are genuinely irrelevant may be applied to see which ‘expert’ the assessor believes. Other subjective assessments may be made on strength of personality, tone of argument, or clarity of response. To the derivative assessment, an expert’s testimony may mean less than the counter-testimony of a less-informed individual merely because the expert is not an assertive personality, has an dismissive tone, and speaks in technical jargon the assessor does not understand.

    On the ethical level, for the derivative assessor, the risk of potential loss depends greatly on which testimony the assessor chooses to believe. That decision is heavily influenced by the impact of that decision upon the self. If one believes that there is a solution that can be reached (i.e. that the world is not going to end), and that any human loss will be suffered by others (i.e. that if there is an impact, it will most likely be those in other countries or states who suffer), then the risk is very minimal. This risk assessment is weighted strongly by the assessor’s ability to empathize with humans beyond their immediate experience– i.e. it weighs heavier with those who feel strong moral imperatives to care for others beyond their experience. Negative consequences of preventative actions which impact directly on the assessor, or those the assessor is familiar with and cares about, will almost always outweigh the far more distant possibility of danger and consequences for people the assessor will never meet.

    Informed assessment is made by those with some limited amount of expertise in the relevant area of discussion, but not direct expertise. For example, I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering. I understand a great deal about thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and complex math, though I would consider my expertise limited in comparison to those with, for example, doctorates in these fields. Similarly, my expertise in these fields is related to the relavant field of study, but not directly, i.e. I’m not a meteorologist and while I can understand the basic principles in applying thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, complex math, etc. to the prediction of weather, I am not fluent in these uses of the fields I have knowledge of, in fact I do not have any expertise at their application in this manner.

    In some sense, informed assessment has it’s own perils, as basic knowledge of the relevant field makes it easier to argue with expert assessments one does not agree with. There is a certain amount of knowing to little to know how much you don’t know. Those with personal reasons to disagree with an expert’s assessment will find it easy to justify their disagreement with simple arguments based on their related area of knowledge. Those who agree, conversely, will find it just as easy to insert personal bias, because it will be easy to say that the expert’s assessment fits squarely with their limited knowledge of the field. Having the basic tools to critique the expert assessment makes it easier, one way or the other, to come to a personal assessment, one which is likely not informed by a more robust comprehension of the issue. For example, especially in science, publication in certain journals carries more prestige than publication in other journals. In this case, informed assessment is giving authority to certain others who have established that authority– we choose to trust these journals over others because in general we have found their methodology of review to be superior in the past. With science, this is a double-edged sword, however, as in general in speaking of new discoveries and theories, we are talking about the unknown. One theory might be as likely as another, but circumstantial evidence often, especially on the cutting edge of science, makes one theory seem superior to another until further evidence is brought forward. Often prevalent theories are just plain wrong, and can be rather stupendously so. It was once a prevalent theory that the sound barrier could not be broken, but this was proven wrong. This too, however, gives a catch– because we can clearly point to many examples where prevalent scientific theory on a given matter was wrong, it makes it easier to say that it’s possible that current prevalent scientific theory on the question at hand could well be wrong for reasons and evidence not yet apparent.

    On an ethical level, then, risk assessment for the informed assessor is strongly based on the assessment of which experts the informed assessor believes holds the most relevant expertise, and the risk that expert assigns is most likely to apply. This decision is more subtly influenced by intellectualization of the issue, as the informed assessor delves more into his or her relevant knowledge to weigh the expert testimony based on knowledge and logic. In this context, the potential of human loss is more equivalent with the other intellectual concepts being considered. The potential human loss is as ‘real’ as the other possibilities under consideration, and the interests of the self, such as personal association with potential victims, personal cost and impact on the assessor’s life, are compartmentalized away from the logical assessment of one experts’ testimony vs. that of another. The ethical decision, then is more ideologically based– and where human loss is concerned, in most moral ideologies, the impetuous is to act to preserve human life. This biases most informed experts to place more weight on assessments which threaten human life vs. assessments which estimate low risk to human life. The threat of human loss will disproportionately weight the assessment of risk larger than it may statistically pose.

    The side effect of this is that this assessment is then doubly righteous to the viewpoint of the assessor– informed both by their own limited expertise in the field, and by their moral convictions. Those who turn in lesser risk estimates are therefore not only ignoring expertise in the field, but are making a moral decision which jeapordizes the lives of others. This is why so many alarmists seem like self-righteous jackasses, and come off that way to those who have lower risk estimates than their own. They are convinced not only by their own expertise, but their moral convictions that lesser weights on the risks involved is dangerous and will cause human loss. This self-righteousness is then likely to backfire with derivative assessors, as it will make informed assessors prone to angry demeanor, talking down to those without similar expertise, and may lead to emotional responses rather than those founded in reason in discussion of the issue.

    Expert assessment of the risk posed is also tinted by ethical responsibility, in fact probably more heavily tinted than either informed or derivative assessment. Yes, the expert is more familiar with the relevant facts, evidence, and analysis, and is in a much better position to make a rational, objective assessment. However, this also puts the expert in an ethical position of responsibility, of personal culpability. If the expert is wrong, and many people suffer loss because of it, then the assessor is personally responsible for some degree for the human loss that follows an erroneous estimation of risk. This bears immediate weight on their judgment, as it brings self-interest directly to the forefront, and presents the expert with a scenario where they are directly witnessing the potential for human loss. In this situation, then, the expert is posed with numerically based estimates, but the interpretation of that analysis is then weighted by the potential for human loss.

    Say, for example, that the numbers showed that there was a 32.5% chance the climate change would reach an inflection point from which there was no return, a 48.3% chance that climate change could be mitigated by human action (i.e. there is no point of no return), and a 19.2% chance that the climate would stabilize itself without human action, with an error of +/- 3.2% These are just numbers I’m pulling out of my ass– I believe personally that both the chance of there being a point of no-return are much lower, and the chance of the global climate being inherently stable are much lower. I specifically chose these numbers to keep the possibility of a point of no return to a 1 in 3 chance, which would be the case if the three scenarios were equally probable.

    So, an expert confronted with this raw numerical analysis, in the case of climate change, would be confronted with a 32.5% chance that without action, humanity would be destroyed, or roughly a 1/3 possibility of the end of the world without immediate action. Ethically, the imperative would be to act for change immediately, because the life of the species would depend on it. On a personal basis, this would be a very clarion call to action. Think about what you would do if there was a 1/3 chance you’d die tomorrow, if you didn’t act. Think about what you would do if there was a 1/3 chance that a loved one would die tomorrow, if you didn’t act. Here I have exaggerated the risk, to show the disproportionate weight the ethical dilemma places on the risk assessment. If we were talking about a 1/5 chance, the ethical imperitive would only diminish very slightly, similarly if we were talking about only a 1/10 chance.

    But we must also consider the impact the decision has on the analysis itself. Anyone who has made a technical estimate knows that certain assumptions must be made, and that general practice is to keep these estimates as conservative as possible. But here the ethical dilemma poses a question of which way is more conservative– assuming that the global climate is inherently stable, or that it inherently poses a risk to human survival? Both are equally scientifically valid. The ethical imperative is to make the assumptions most likely to preserve human life, which would be to overestimate the possibility of human loss. The scientific method would be to do analysis on all three possibilities.

    But here we run into the ultimate problem of analysis of a system so complex as the global climate: there is sufficient uncertainty that these three different assumptions show wildly varying results. It is settled scientific fact that human industrial input into the atmosphere is causing climate change– but the impact of that input, i.e. whether there is a point of no return, whether it is possible we can engineer fixes, or whether the planet itself will stabilize this input– that is something that it is not possible to say with any degree of reasonable certainty in a system so complex until a catastrophic event makes it so. The truth is in the statistical noise. At the very least, the possibility of human ingenuity solving the problem cannot be discounted, as it is difficult to predict what science will discover, and what human invention may produce.

    What this leads to is a lot, probably a majority, of experts making estimates based on the moral dilemma, biased to overestimate the potential for human loss such that we can responsibly act to minimize this potential. Which in turn leads to a bias on the part of informed individuals, which further leads to a disconnect with many individuals making derivative assessments as the righteousness induced by the moral dilemma impacts the discussion.

    This issues bears striking similarity to another threat to human existence in the post-industrial world– that of nuclear holocaust. In a post-Cold War world, we are much less concerned with the possibility, and can in retrospect see that the fear of global destruction had a large impact on related issues, and produced many irrational responses based on that fear. Today, the threat means much less than it did, say, 40 years ago. The threat of nuclear holocaust is still real today, but it is much reduced, and it does not drive a global mentality as it once did.

    I think that climate change will become a similar issue– that the threat posed will continue to rise until there is sufficient economic and social pressure to motivate engineering solutions to the problem. This derives from my own informed assessment that the chance that there is a point of no return, beyond which human ingenuity cannot be brought to bear, is so low that while it bears consideration, it is mostly a fantasy for cheesy disaster flicks. That is not to say that I don’t think climate change will be disastrous– just that I think that it will be possible to fix after it becomes so. I do not see a social consensus for action mounting before there is sufficiently catastrophic evidence that cannot be denied, and I do not think that such has emerged as of yet.

    In looking at potential engineering solutions, I think there are two things which need to be done. One is to reduce greenhouse emissions, and two, to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and regulate the global atmosphere as best as possible. The path I see as most viable to the first is to moving towards a purely electric energy economy– electric cars, electric mowers, etc. where that energy production is either reduced (i.e. ‘clean’ coal, natural gas, etc.) or zero (nuclear energy production, wind farms, wave farms, solar energy, etc.)

    But the next step is not just to go carbon neutral, but carbon negative. That is a more difficult technical problem, but I think the most likely path to that is the production of ethonal from simple organic matter through photosynthesis, i.e. ethanol from sea-lichen for example. I think eventually, one day, we will reach a point where it is cost effective to do so, and that once it is cost effective to do so (and not merely through artificial market manipulation, but actually more cost efficient) we will start removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

    In the meantime, I think the atmosphere is more robust than we give it credit for. For example, I think a lot of people miss that we measure atmospheric carbon content for periods before there were direct measurements by tree-ring growth– because it would seem to be the case that trees grow faster when there is more carbon and water in the atmosphere (which is consistent with our understanding of photosynthesis). In other words, as carbon levels rise, the earth warms, producing more water in the atmosphere– producing more biomass capable of photosynthesis, removing more carbon from the atmosphere. That’s a stabilizing process that gives us more time than the alarmists really allow for. I would not be surprised to find further stabilizing processes as yet undiscovered at play. In general, I think the global ecosphere is more robust than we give it credit for.

    • reasonfreely said, on March 18, 2010 at 8:56 am

      Good points there. But I think that climate change is more of a “boiling frog” situation, whereas nuclear war goes from fine to dead in a matter of hours. That makes a huge difference.

  2. T. Caine said, on March 9, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Greetings. I enjoyed the post a lot because I think the argument is accurate. The complexity of a lot of these issues is hard to fit into a 30 second soundbyte and most people have not yet been convinced that the issue is important enough to devote more time and effort to really becoming educated.

    I think the problem with the belief that eventually these things will be forced to happen via the market (resource shortage, efficiency, population increase) is only that under certain scenarios by then the market would be a little too late to the party. I do not think any climate change proponents argue that in due time our civilization may find its way to sustainability through capitalism and evolution alone. After all, sustainability is rather smart despite requiring change.

    I also think that people have to know more about how these are interconnected issues. You do not have to be on board with climate change in order to pursue sustainable goals that will focus on different things, but indirectly help climate change anyway (if the problem exists in its worst predicted forms.) Energy conservation makes a great deal of sense for reasons of the aging grid, rising prices, international security, etc. It just so happens that it could lower carbon output. There is more to sustainability than global warming.

    Lastly, I’ll also say that recycling makes a lot of sense–including newspaper. It stimulates the economy. it represents a growth market potential. It reduces our waste stream as well as taxing the earth for new material sources. Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy required to produce it from virgin material. Recycling paper saves 64%. In my opinion recycling is one of the no-brainers; a win-win. There are no reasons not to do it.

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