Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Global Warming Facts ....

The Rhetoric Garage

For the moment, let’s table the fact that the recent warming trend is far outside the parameters any similar previous temperature fluctuation recorded in the geological record, along with the fact that the ability to farm in Greenland as those lucky Vikings could would come at the price of significant portions of densely inhabited costal areas getting swallowed by the sea.
Thanks to Ted Remington for pointing me to this piece on George Will's use of rhetoric in framing his words on global warming ... all in all I think it was an interesting analysis of Will's word choice.

The art of rhetoric is alive and well (as well it should be): the whole reason for writing an editorial or a position piece in Newsweek is to persuade, convince, and (dare I say) convert. The appropriate tool for that job is rhetoric, this wasn't a submission for a science journal after all.

But enough about rhetoric ... I'd like to correct some faulty assumptions that rhetoricgarage makes about the "facts" of global warming. (BTW -- one of my favorite movie scenes: So I Married an Axe Murderer, the hero's mother explains that her newspaper is trustworthy and reads a headline. "Man gives birth to baby ... and that's a fact.")

Anyway, rhetoricgarage erroneously believes that "the recent warming trend is far outside the parameters of any similar previous temperature fluctuation recorded in the geological record". Unfortunately for him, this is not a fact. The fact is that we don't have high-confidence estimates of global temperature trends beyond 80-100 years ago. The reason is that we didn't have reliable weather stations at enough locations before this time. Lacking any direct temperature data, we scientists are forced to look for proxies of temperature -- essentially variables that are related to temperature (but nevertheless not driven by temperature alone). Examples might be tree rings, analysis of ice cores, etc. These give an imperfect, fuzzy, and error-prone "history" of the earth's temperature but one that is probably accurate only on geologic time scales (i.e. this gives a good idea of how global climate changes over the course of 10000 years.) There were some papers published a decade or more ago that tried to claim our current warming trend is some sort of thermal abberation (the infamous hockey-stick graph) ... but this paper has been heavily criticized from within the scientific community for both its methodology and its conlcusions. in fact the whole thesis is fragile enough to be completely overturned by removing a single proxy set (the bristle-cone pine data).

So its just not accurate to claim that our current warming trend is abnormal -- we simply don't know what "normal" is yet.

The next "fact" presented by rhetoricgarage is that farming in greenland "comes at the price of significant portions of densely inhabited costal areas getting swallowed by the sea." Er, not really. True, global warming causes rise in sea level. But the rate of this rise is the key issue. For the past hundred years average sea levels have risen, what about 8-10 inches? Current rate of sea level rise? = about 10 inches/CENTURY! Yeah, we're going to have a real crisis because of the flooding this causes. NOT. No city is going to be suddenly swallowed by the sea.

rhetoricgarage continues:
With hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies on global warming agreeing, without exception, that the earth is warming due to human actions, it is those who deny that it is happening who are basing their position on faith divorced from facts...
Err, except that this statement is untrue. Though a minority, there are reputable and actively publishing memebers of the global-climate community that dispute this very point. Richard Lindzen and Claude Allegre come to mind immediately. Additionally we should be precise: there are hundreds of peer-reviewed studies showing that the earth is in a modest warming period (about 1 degree in the last century). There's a scant handfull of articles that try to establish a link between this warming and man's activities. Think about it -- how does one, even in principle, establish a causal link between mankind's CO2 emissions and global climate change? Is this a process that we can experiment with, can we hold all the variables constant except one and do a test? Can we perform multiple runs and find a least-squares fit??? The best the scientific community has done is establish the plausability of such a scenario, and then trot out some computer simulations as proof. (Please excuse me for a second, while I laugh my a** off at this brand of "science"). Alright I'm done laughing.

Lastly let me make one gesture of reconciliation: I am a scientist, and I could be convinced of global warming catasrophe ... if the global mean temperatures were to suddenly accelerate or if sea levels were to suddenly begin rising at a truly unprecedented rate or if scientists made a computer model that was validated to be accurate for more than a few months and it predicted climate catastrophe, in short if there were a solid, fact-based, case that human-caused catastrophe was impending then I'd gladly support reductions in CO2 or whatever solution was found best to combat the coming ... Armageddon?

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Ted Remington said...

Thanks for your post concerning my commentary on the George Will piece. After reading your take on things, I thought you deserved a response.

While you make your points clearly, there were a few spots where you waxed a bit "Will-ful" in your argument, couching your positions as reasonable and scientific, while those on the other side were objectively "erroneous" and in some cases actually laughable. In particular, your characterizations of some of my points were a bit wide of the mark and ended up being a bit fishy (red-herring-ish, to be specific).

I wanted to offer a brief response to three specific parts of your post.

First, early in your post, you say,

"rhetoricgarage erroneously believes that "the recent warming trend is far outside the parameters of any similar previous temperature fluctuation recorded in the geological record". Unfortunately for him, this is not a fact."

First, if this isn't a fact, it's *fortunate* for me (and for you as well). More importantly, your response to this point isn't to say that measurements of recent climate change show a warming trend in line with patterns established in the geological record. What you say (if I'm following you) is that these records are themselves not necessarily accurate. That's a qualitatively different assertion than saying recent warming trends are *within* the geological record seems to suggest is the norm. You might be right that the norm suggested by the geological record is inaccurate or not meaningful, and that therefore the discrepency is irrelevant, but that doesn't contradict my assertion.

And, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you given your line of work, the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the variety of indirect measures of temperature change we have, when taken together, *do* give us a baseline that, while imperfect, suggests that recent temperature fluxuations are outside the norm.

On the rise in ocean levels, you say, "Yeah, we're going to have a real crisis because of the flooding this causes. NOT. No city is going to be suddenly swallowed by the sea."

Er, but I never said that. I never even *suggested* that tidal waves would be suddenly wiping out cities, any more than Will suggested that Greenland would be the breadbasket of the western world by this time next year. I merely pointed out that if temperature changes as dramatic as would be necessary to make Greenland's climate as farmable as Will claims it was 1000 years ago, those changes would entail large coastal areas being reclaimed by the sea. I don't think one needs to imagine this happening in a tsunami-like fashion to recognize the huge social, economic, cultural, and humanitarian upheavals this would cause, even if it did occur over a length of time.

On the near unanimity of climate scientists on global warming, you say: "Though a minority, there are reputable and actively publishing memebers of the global-climate community that dispute this very point. Richard Lindzen and Claude Allegre come to mind immediately."

Er, define "reputable." That's a value judgment, not an objective term. What comes to mind immediately when I think of Lindzen is not his sound scientific arguments, but his established ties to groups with axes to grind when it comes to the global warming issue. Allegre? What comes to mind in his case is the fact that he's not a climatologist at all.

In fact, several of the notable "outliers" when it comes to the consensus view on global warming have changed their positions in recent years and have come them closer to the mainstream (John Christy and Ron Bailey come to mind immediatey).

And, again, as I'm sure you know, there are those who call themselves "scientists" (and who even manage to have some other people call them "scientists") who will assert that there's no causal link between smoking and lung cancer, that the HIV virus doesn't cause AIDS, that the fossil and geological records of earth's history are consistent with a theory of a 6,000-year-old earth, etc.

If the pragmatist movment in American philosophy taught us anything, it's that the easiest thing in the world to do is allow an always mythical "certainty" to be the enemy of action. My sense is that many global warming contrarians keep raising the bar--asking for yet more proof--and when the scientific community provides more evidence, the bar is moved yet again.

True, the IPCC found an only 90% chance that global warming is happening and that it's caused by humans. We'll almost certainly never get to 100% certainty until it's way, way, way too late. And my suspicion is that, if he's still around, George Will will still be insisting that it's not happening or is a wonderful thing.

As someone with an essentially pragmatist view of human action, I feel we ultimately have to take our best educated guess at what is the proper course of action based on the best evidence available (and weighing the risk of being wrong with the risk of inaction). In the case of global warming, I honestly think it's a no-brainer. Given the widespread scientific consensus on what's happening, and the fact that much of the action we could take would be good to do anyway (e.g., finding alternatives to fossil fuel, raising mileage standards on cars, etc.), it's hard for me to conjure up a strong argument for not taking steps to minimize our affect on global climate. The dopey assertion Will makes that somehow such actions must necessarily entail sacrificing our very way of life are so laughable that I can't imagine anyone taking them seriously. It's about as rudimentary an example of a "scare tactic" fallacy as I could come up with.

In the end, I don't think we, or our children, can wait for the George Will's of the world (and others who might share his views) to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the risk is real. Human knowledge is never certain, even on the simplest of matters. And even if one could be certain, that by itself is no certainty that people would be persuaded (you can still find people who think the earth is flat and that we've never been to the moon).

I, for one, feel that in general, and in this case especially, we have to make do with the best available information we have and choose the moral course of action based on that, recognizing that we are always basing our belief in the rightness of our actions, at least in part, on a leap of (good) faith.

I appreciate and respect your view, but I don't think we have time to wait for you to be persuaded to make that leap if you haven't by this point.



J. Willard Curtis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Willard Curtis said...

First Ted I'd like to say thanks for visiting and commenting! I actually long for a real debate about global warming, but I usually meet people who are either 1) already skeptics or 2) fervent believers who can't quite articulate why they believe.

Anyway, to offer some response to your post:

Point numero uno: is the current warming trend anomalous? In your initial post you said its "far outside the parameters of any similar ... fluctuation" and presented that as fact. That's just not true. The paper cited by the IPCC most recently notes that the observed warming over the last century has only occurred a few times over the last million or so years. These authors go on to use that as the basis for concluding that they are 80-90% sure that the current warming is anthropogenic. In your response you seem to moderate your initial position to the following: "give us a baseline that, while imperfect, suggests that recent temperature fluctuations are outside the norm." Well I think we're getting closer to common ground :) "imperfect, "suggests", and "outside the norm" are phrases that most scientists would be comfortable using and hearing. Though I will quibble with your choice of the words "overwhelming consensus" -- I'm not sure what that means in this context. We just don't know what the true temperature history of this planet is, and its impossible, in principle even, measure. As far as i know there is no consensus, overwhelming or otherwise, about the degree of certainty in our reconstructions of small-time-scale temperature fluctuations in the geologic past.

2. The "flooding" issue. You're correct that I exagerated your words for rhetorical effect. The thrust of my point, however, stands: we've already experience sea level rise over the past century consistent with current warming trends. We know exactly what 10 or so inches of sea level rise entails over the course of a century ... and frankly its just not alarming.

3. the issue of scientific consensus generally. My issue was your original use of the words "without exception": that's hyperbole but not an accurate depiction of the literature on global warming. Richard Lindzen is in every important sense of the word reputable: he literally enjoys the respect (in matters of climate science) of his professional colleagues. And he has published several articles in the climate journals indicating important feedback mechanisms (especially with regards to cloud formation) that are not accounted for in the infamous models (upon which rest this whole ship-wreck of global warming alarmism). I will also direct you to this Wikipedia page which lists many prominent scientists (climatologists and other) who are skeptical of the current force of nature that is global-warming hysteria: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientists_opposing_the_mainstream_scientific_assessment_of_global_warming

A note here regarding scientific consensus is probably in order. The beauty of science, and its strength compared to aristotelian scholastisicm and other methods for arriving at knowledge in the field of natural philosophy, is empiricism and testability. I don't think there's really room in the 21st century for the age-old thought virus of "the priests/scientists tell us so, therefore the debate is over because they are the bearers of true knowledge." Which is the impression I often get from believers in the global-warming-catastrophe. If the case is so compelling then let's move beyond simply citing the credentials and bona fides of this theory's supporters: show me the facts. show me the data. show me the evidence.
We're smart guys, we can be persuaded when the data is persuasive. I'm not going to put my head in the sand if it really is clear that we're headed for environmental catastrophe -- seriously, I love me kids too.

If you really start going down this rabbit hole, if you push the scientists that are promoting GWA, you'll find that their evidence really does consist of the following data: the earth has warmed about 1 degree F in the last century, and there has been a corresponding increase in atmospheric CO2. (and there are many regional effects being caused by this warming.) Well, those facts are not in dispute by anybody really. The dispute is over whether the one caused the other (or rather how much one has effected the other). Causation is a real b*tch to establish conclusively (whereas most of the literature just notes the correlation of the warming trend and its coincidence with a rise in atmospheric CO2.)

Anyway I'm going on too long here but let me rebut one last point. In your reply you state: "The dopey assertion Will makes that somehow such actions must necessarily entail sacrificing our very way of life are so laughable that I can't imagine anyone taking them seriously." I'm inclined to agree that this a bit of hyperbole on Will's part, but I get the sense from your comment that you don't fully appreciate the very real and substantial costs associated with the remedies being bandied about for this mythical global warming problem. When people start throwing around stringent cap and trade energy policies, its likely that GDP growth would take a significant hit. Even small reductions in GDP growth, over the long haul, mean ALOT of misery: this misery will lay for the most part on the poor among us and the poor in the developing world who adopt such policies. There will be a real price in human suffering and death from any policy that substantially lowers global GDP growth ... and that's a fact! ;)
(And really any policy initiative that doesn't substantially alter GDP growth is one that basically entails negligible sacrifice on our part -- any such policy I heartily endorse.)

Yours truly,
The TechnoUtopian