Friday, February 12, 2010

an irrational climate

“Here's my conclusion: the only strong evidence we have that Oklahoma Senator James M. Inhofe isn't a clown is that his car isn't small enough."

That line came to mind this week as Inhofe, the leading Congressional climate science denier and possibly the craziest person in the Senate (no small distinction), drew attention to his cause by building an igloo with a cardboard sign calling it, “Al Gore’s New Home.”

Working to keep the crazy contest alive in the Senate and apparently reveling in the opportunity to exhibit his ignorance of climate science, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint
tweeted, “It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle'.“

Not to be out done in the effort to portray this week’s East Coast blizzard as refutation of global warming,
FOX News (“We Manufacture Stupid”) planted a copy of Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth, outside and showed it being buried in snow as their commentator remarked, “Poor Al Gore. We should get a camera outside his house.” Sean Hannity joined the chorus at FOX: “[T]he most severe winter storm in years … would seem to contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global warming theories.” Yes, so it would seem … if you can’t distinguish “weather” from “climate”.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the blizzards that shut down Congress this week have made it more difficult to argue that global warming is an imminent danger. To be fair to Sen. Bingaman, he was commenting on the
political reality in DC rather than the reality of global warming:

“Where’s Al Gore when we need him?” quipped Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who burst out laughing when asked about the prospect of passing cap-and-trade legislation Tuesday while the city was still digging out.

[Tom Toles]

This is the kind of stupid that makes my head hurt. If it has the same effect on you, take two Tylenol and watch this segment from the Colbert Report.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
We're Off to See the Blizzard
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations
joined in on the climate science denier logic, deeming it "simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening. Just ask any peek-a-boo-ologist.” Using the same rationale as Fox News, Colbert pointed out that, due to it being nighttime, the city was covered in darkness. "Based on this latest data, we can only assume that the sun has been destroyed."

The Daily Show picked up the same theme
in this clip:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Among many good bits, it has Aasif Mandvi in the snow at night in New York debating the reality of global warming with Samantha Bee in the Australian summer heat with each citing his or her own experiences at that moment as conclusive evidence. Sadly, it doesn’t take much exaggeration to satirize this stuff.

For fear of stating the obvious, there is no lack of cold temperatures in the Northeast US during winter. The thing that’s required to produce a large snow storm is an uncommon amount of moisture colliding with those cold temperatures. Global warming is resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere which also results in more frequent and more severe storms. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the rise of average global temperatures has led to a 5 percent increase of water vapor within the atmosphere over the past century. Cold Weather + Lots of Moisture = Big Snowstorm. (More here.) Not that the weather in DC has anything whatsoever to do with global warming as an actual meteorological phenomenon.

Just to be clear, if it happens to by sunny in Seattle on the same day that it is raining in Palm Springs that doesn’t mean Seattle has a drier climate than Palm Springs. Climate encompasses meteorological elements in a given region over long periods of time; weather is the present condition of those same elements over periods of days or weeks. Localized weather conditions tell you almost nothing about broader climate trends. One particular climate science denier of my acquaintance keeps citing the fact that 2008 was the coolest year of the past decade as definitive proof that global warming is a fraud. He just can’t seem to get his head around the concept that there is a great deal of annual and regional variability in temperature patterns. But at least he is looking at the average global temperature for a full year rather than an isolated local weather event as Congressional Republicans and their FOX News overlords have been doing this week.

I’m not going to belabor the details of climate science here other than to note that the decade that just ended was the warmest on record. The previous decade had been the warmest on record, beating out the decade prior to that. Here is part of the
NASA summary:

2009 was tied for the second warmest year in the modern record, a new NASA analysis of global surface temperature shows. The analysis, conducted by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, also shows that in the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year since modern records began in 1880.

Although 2008 was the coolest year of the decade -- due to strong cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean -- 2009 saw a return to near-record global temperatures. The past year was only a fraction of a degree cooler than 2005, the warmest year on record, and tied with a cluster of other years -- 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007 -- as the second warmest year since recordkeeping began.

“There’s always an interest in the annual temperature numbers and on a given year’s ranking, but usually that misses the point,” said James Hansen, the director of GISS. “There’s substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Niño-La Niña cycle. But when we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find that global warming is continuing unabated.”

January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Throughout the last three decades, the GISS surface temperature record shows an upward trend of about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. Since 1880, the year that modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, though there was a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s.

The point here is not that I am an expert on climate science or that you should agree with my opinions on that subject. The amount of data that I might cite in a blog post shouldn’t convince you that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real and is a big deal. What should persuade you is that the overwhelming consensus of the people who actually study this stuff agree that this is real and is a big deal. Climate science is extraordinarily complex and draws upon many disciplines and a vast amount of data. It’s tough to get 100% agreement on anything in any particular scientific discipline. But the consensus on this is about as close as you are going to get.

I’ve cited this anecdote
before. At the 2008 Future in Review Conference, Harvard professor James McCarthy, former co-chair of the IPCC, was asked how many of the world’s top 1000 climate experts would disagree with the basic scientific consensus that the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations over the last 50 years to levels not seen in 650,000 years is primarily anthropogenic and is the cause of an increase in global temperatures. He replied, “Five.” He told a story about a colleague being asked the same question at a conference and answering, “Ten.” McCarthy went up to him later and asked how he got to ten. The guy replied that he could only think of five – the same five as McCarthy – but doubled the number to provide a margin of error. That is about as solid a scientific consensus as you are ever likely to get for such a complex set of phenomena. Yet it is almost an article of faith in Republican circles these days that the threat from global warming is at best greatly exaggerated and at worst a “hoax.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still legitimate questions about the science. Evolution is about as well settled a theory as gravity, but there are still gaps and contradictions in the evolutionary data. But the inherent imperfection of science isn’t a refutation of evolution – despite the claims of creationists. Similarly, it isn’t a refutation of global warming. What other basis do we have for formulating policy? Psychics?

My friend, the legendary science fiction writer and physicist David Brin has
an excellent blog post at Salon on the distinction between legitimate climate science skeptics and crazy climate science deniers. Perhaps the most salient distinction is the necessary humility of the former: “Skeptics first admit that they are non-experts, in the topic at hand. And that experts know more than they do.” Anyone who questions the overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject should begin by acknowledging the high likelihood that he is wrong. Yes, it is possible that the consensus is wrong – there have been instances in history when that has been the case. But they are rare in comparison with the instances when the scientific consensus has been correct.

And climate science has been progressing pretty dramatically in recent decades. As David notes:

[T]he Skeptic is keenly aware that, after 4,000 years of jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophecy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan (tentatively) as far as 14 days ahead, based on a science that's grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.

The whole notion that the consensus behind AGW is some kind of a hoax is absurd on its face. As David points out:
[T]he Young Guns in any scientific field... the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors... are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel Prize winners and make a rep for themselves, in very much the manner of Billy the Kid! (Try looking into the history of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)

This is a crucial point. For the core Denier narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is a corrupt or gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most... but every last one of them! Only that can explain why none of them have "come out." (And note, Exxon and Fox have even offered lavish financial reward for any that do.)
Brin exaggerates the point only slightly. There may be isolated skeptics within the field – but they don’t amount to any major schism within the broader consensus. It is one thing to be uncertain about the science. It is another thing to be certain that the science is wrong. Indeed, it is fair to assume that anyone who dismisses the whole thing as some kind of fraud or conspiracy is blinded by ideology or partisanship.

It is unfortunate that ideology and partisanship have become so polarized that even science is increasingly viewed through those prisms. You would think that as the scientific consensus behind AGW has strengthened over the past decade that the public’s agreement with that consensus would also have increased. And that is, indeed, the case with Democrats. But it has been exactly the opposite with Republicans as the
issue has become more politicized:

When it comes to global warming, partisanship is a bigger predictor of a person’s views than is education. Back in 2008,

Pew undertook a poll that confirmed the idea that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe the science regarding AGW. And with Democrats, higher education levels correlated to an increased belief in the science, as one might expect. But inexplicably with Republicans the opposite was the case: Higher educations levels correlated to a decreased belief in that science:

The confounding part: among college-educated poll respondents, 19 percent of Republicans believe that human activities are causing global warming, compared to 75 percent of Democrats. But take that college education away and Republican believers rise to 31 percent while Democrats drop to 52 percent.

I’m not sure what the explanation for that might be. Perhaps it is the case that better educated Republicans are more likely to seek out and consume media that confirm their beliefs than their less educated co-partisans. It might also be the case that they are more confident in their views or feel more compelled to adhere to the orthodoxy of their party. In any event, it’s strange.

Of course, a majority of Republicans also
don’t believe in evolution:

Unfortunately, partisanship seems to be increasingly shaping people’s views on issues rather than the other way around. Partisanship is another form of tribalism which seems to cause adherents to conform their views on a range of issues to those of their tribe – including beliefs about factual issues:

“There’s no epistemologically sound reason why one’s opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one’s opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating — these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other.”

These days, if you know someone’s partisan affiliation there is a very good chance you will know more or less their exact position on a wide range of issues – even if those issues are largely factual or otherwise not inherently related to each other in any kind of obvious way.

In the case of beliefs about global warming, you could say that Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be influenced by partisanship. But there is a difference. You don’t need partisanship to explain adherence to the overwhelming scientific consensus. Indeed, one would assume that is the default position. What other basis do you have for forming an opinion about an essentially scientific question? You don’t need partisanship to explain it. It is only when beliefs diverge from the scientific consensus do you need some other explanation. Assuming most people do not have an in depth understanding of the underlying science, which is complex to say the least, it makes perfect sense for a lay person to accept the consensus of the experts in the field. There is much less basis – other than ideology or partisanship – for a lay person without a strong grounding in the science to reject that consensus. There is almost always some contradictory data or flaws in any area of science this complex. But that isn’t the same as disproving the consensus conclusions.

And it’s not like the theoretical underpinning of AGW is a radical new concept. It has been 150 years since John Tyndall discovered that CO2 traps heat. The physical relationship between CO2 molecules in the atmosphere and the trapping of heat is about as well-established as gravity. Tyndall’s discovery happened at about the same time that the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. Since then humans have been pumping out carbon into the atmosphere at increasing rates to where today we are putting something like 90 million tons of it into the air every day. What do you think happens to all that carbon? What is the theory that would cause one to believe it isn’t warming the planet – in denial of the observable heating of the planet that one would predict?

Even if you assume a large stochastic element to the process, there should be some non-trivial probability that the consensus understates the magnitude of the problem. In other words, if there is a large element of randomness or uncertainly, the problem could actually be much worse than we think.

While brings me around to my final point. I’ve mentioned before the "
precautionary principle" which basically says: “If an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action."

Dick Cheney invoked a variation of the precautionary principle with his so-called "
One-Percent Doctrine:" "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."

To state it in terms of the Cheney variation of the precautionary principle: If there is a one-percent chance that continuing to pump anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would cause catastrophic climate change, the burden of proof should fall on those who would continue to engage in those activities.

If it turns out that the scientific consensus is correct – or that it understates the actual extent of the problem – then the costs of measures we might take now to mitigate that harm would be vastly outweighed by the harms avoided.

But what if we are wrong and the problem is less severe than is currently thought? Well, we will have made our economy more energy efficient (like the huge reduction in our energy/GDP ratio in the decade or so after the oil shock of the early ‘70’s), saving money in the long term. We will be sending less money to the Saudi royal family, the thugs running Iran, Hugo Chavez, and ExxonMobil, among others (maybe even allowing us to reduce somewhat the $700 billion a year we spend on the military). We will be pumping fewer pollutants into our atmosphere. And we will be more competitive in many of the key technologies and industries of the 21st Century. In short, we will have somewhat accelerated the end of the Age of Petroleum (good riddance, I say).

Reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, and carbon dioxide in particular (which also contributes to ocean acidification – another huge problem), seems to me like
Pascal’s Wager: The downside if we take those steps and they are unnecessary is a lot better than the downside if they are necessary and we don’t take them. This would be true even if the probability of each case was equal. But the probability isn’t equal: Our best science tells us that the probability of anthropogenic global warming is greater than the probability that it isn’t taking place.

If the minority of climate scientists who deny the consensus are right and we accelerate our transition from carbon-based fuels faster than we otherwise would have, what’s the downside? The conservative approach is to invest in the future and seek to scale back our radical experiment on the planet’s fragile atmosphere in the face of – at best, giving the skeptics the benefit of the doubt – our uncertain knowledge of its long term impacts.

IMHO, it is a better policy than … Al Gore jokes.

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