14 December 2008

Sussing Climate Change Sceptics

I have a big problem with climate change sceptics: I just do no understand how they can maintain their position in the face of overwhelming evidence from overwhelming numbers of overwhleming well-qualified scientists.

It's as if several hundred doctors, all acknowledged experts in their field, tell you that you are seriously ill, and must do something or you will die, and you say: "Well, I'm sorry, I just happen to disagree. I think you're all telling me this just to provide work for yourselves. And besides, I've found three doctors who tell me I'm fine."

Now, would anyone seriously take that attitude when it came to their own health, or of their family? I think not; so why would anyone take this view when it comes to humanity - that is, *every* family on this planet?

Well, here's one stab at explaining this literally suicidal state of affairs:

I do think that lots of potentially reachable people like my lawyer friend genuinely don't understand the difference between what happens in a scientific debate and what happens in a political one. And especially when such people are on the political right, they tend to suspect that the climatologists' global-overwarming consensus is not really settled science, but is only a sort of fairly well reasoned technical conjecture.They tend to think it probably has some merit, but that it requires caution because it's distorted by a political desire to multiply the power of federal economic planners who'll limit the natural workings of free markets. They see scientists and government officials as an interrelated elite with a closed outlook and a definite agenda....

Interesting: politics as kind of conceptual poison that taints people's world-views. I hope the rest of the analysis quoted in the post above turns out to be just as perceptive.


Russ Nelson said...

You ask, I answer: I'm skeptical of Anthropogenic Global Warming. It's all based on models and predictions. Yes, the world is warming, but it's warmed a few degrees every 1500 years for longer than man and his CO2 emissions have existed. I don't trust our ability to discern the difference.

Thus, I think that it's completely unwise to spend the amount of money that people propose is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions. There are REAL PROBLEMS which we could ACTUALLY SOLVE with that money.

Yes, economists like me are depressing, because we tell you that no, you can't have the pony. That no, you can't solve all the problems of the world. That yes, you MUST choose, and further, that choosing to reduce CO2 emissions is not the expenditure most likely to increase human welfare.

Hate on economists if you want, but we're gonna keep tying you down to reality.

Glyn Moody said...

I quite understand that we must choose, and I understand the possible implications: reduced growth for developing countries, negative growth for developed countries.

But think of it as a 21st century Pascal's Wager: if I am wrong, people's living standards will suffer in the developed world, many people will continue to die in the developing world. But if you are wrong, and the climate scientists are right, the earth will not only heat up *overall* (including local *reductions* in temperature), but it will pass multiple tipping points to do with methane emissions, oceanic currents etc.

That will not be a matter of living standards declining, or even of people dying at the scale they do today, but of the breakdown of civilisation as we know it, and massive social and political disruption, including large-scale deaths from famine, wars over key resources like water and land etc. And that's assuming we're “lucky”, and that a pandemic doesn't strike at the same time.

You will probably be sceptical again, but I ask: why do you dismiss the consensus view of experts in their fields? Why do you disbelieve their models, which they have developed fully conscious of the difficulties in doing so, and their interpretations? What is that makes you so sure that thousands of scientists are wrong?

You're an economist; well, I'm a mathematician by training, so I have no problems with accepting models provided they are built from our best understanding of physical phenomena, and fit the existing data.

Everything I read – notwithstanding shallow criticisms that this was a “cold” year, which therefore “disproves” climate change – suggests that the models not only work well, but are getting better and better as they are fine tuned and the number-crunching power of computers increases.

I can't do justice to the immense weight of scientific knowledge that backs up these assertions. I can only recommend blogs like RealClimate (with lots of background links at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/05/start-here/) and books like Thomas Homer-Dixon's “The Upside of Down”, which has very full references to the original papers so that you can check all this out yourself. Interestingly, he also believes that the application of *open source* ideas is probably our only hope for sorting out this mess....

Anonymous said...

My skepticism is largely due to 'big' media pushing it so hard. However, I'm in the "don't know" camp and so, using the precautionary principal, accept that it may be happening and thus, it is a good idea to reduce the man-made CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

However, my skepticism is fueled, sadly, everytime I read articles which are politicised rather than scientific. It always sounds like the equivalent of "think of the children". The problem is that the issue is no longer just scientific, but politicsed, and therefore there is lots of bandwagon jumping.

So I ask: how to dispel myth and rumour from science in all of the reporting and hysterics that seems to surround the issue?

Glyn Moody said...

That's interesting, because it's largely what the article I linked to suggested.

I think the answer to all this is to let the scientists speak - and to get the politicians out of this, who muddy everything. Perhaps we need some independent commission made up purely of scientists to oversee this.

As I wrote in the my comment above, I find the Real Climate site (http://www.realclimate.org/) - "climate science from climate scientists" to be a good source of objective info.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the problem is politicians per se. In order to actually get anything done it has to engage the politicians, but without all of the baggage. I'm at risk of contradicting myself but politicians have to be involved!

Isn't one issue the way that the media try to sell 'controversy' where there isn't one and also to further the agendas of their main sponsors?

Also the incredible lack of scientific understanding in the general population doesn't help an issue where the science is still being worked on; the science is incredibly complex and studying a chaotic system; and huge interests (e.g. oil companies) have major stakes in discrediting the science for short term gains (stock positions). A lay person is never going to be able to understand the issue and thus has to rely on others. The problem is that scientists are not understood and too removed from 'Strictly Come Dancing', the 'X-factor' and 'Coronation Street'.

I don't know what the answer is; education is probably a start.

Glyn Moody said...

Yes, I'm sure you're right that the poor standing of science in terms of wielding influence has a lot to do with it.

Unfortunately, education is a long-term project, and we may not have that much time....

Anonymous said...

Well I would want a second and third opinion. Some doctors saw the wrong leg off. Lets ask that nice Mr Al Gore If he is at home in his centrally heated and air condition mansion(s). p

Glyn Moody said...

The point is there have been a thousand opinions from independent climate scientist all around the world. Or would you prefer to wait until you are definitely dead before accepting their diagnosis?

And the hypocrisy of one exponent does not invalidate the underlying science.

Russ Nelson said...

The problem with Real Climate is that there's no perspective. The climate is going to hell, so we MUST, MUST, MUST address it. Not true. Not true at all. For example, suppose the risk of nuclear was higher than the risk of the climate going bad? Or the risk of an asteroid landing in our laps? Or perhaps the first billion dollars should be spent on clean water, because that will save more lives over the long run?

Pascal's Wager is fine because belief is free. Neglecting clean water because the world might get warmer is not free. The cost is cholera.

If it's worth anything, I don't put much reliance in economic models either. The way you make them work is you ignore enough of the real world and then they successfully predict exactly how the world is going to work except for all the things you can't predict, which is what dominates the outcome.

Glyn Moody said...

The difference with climate - and by climate I really mean the environment, and all its manifest, interlinked problems (climate change, deforestation, desertification, loss of water tables, loss of biodiversity, population growth) - is that it is the context in which everything else happens. Giving clean water to people who need it isn't going to help much if (a) there's no water to give them (b) there's no fuel to cook by (c) there are no crops/fish to eat etc. etc. So it seems to me we have to fix the context before we even start to fix the details.

Of course you're right that nuclear may be worse than climate change - but for me, that's at argument not to use nuclear. There are plenty of other options that don't have its problems. The easiest one is Negawatts; then solar energy has few drawback other than lack of efficiency. But, again, for me that's an argument to come up with better solutions (which are already turning up with the limited effort currently expended).

But perhaps I'm just an incorrigibly optimistic mathematician, and think that not only do good models give good results, but that we could use them to fix big problems. Whether we will is another matter....