Getting Ready For The Great Climate Change Debate

A Lincolnesque Moment?

The debate over climate change legislation is coming this summer to a congress, cubicle, bar, and blog near you.

You don't hear a lot now, but it could be pretty big stuff. After all, if the global warming people are right, the fate of the planet could be at stake. (I like to think of the debate as a little black swan being trailed by bigger, nastier swans.)

Given that this might be a Lincolnesque moment (but probably without a Lincoln) it behooves us to get ready - to figure out what we believe so that we can send emails to congresspeople, argue with friends, etc.

Who Not To Trust

Because the subject is so complicated, for me it is mostly a matter of figuring out who to trust and not to trust. Should I trust liberal Paul Krugman, conservative George Will, somewhat conservative David Brooks - or the sincere lady down the hall who says she gets her answers from an MIT PhD?

I have come up this personal checklist regarding who not to trust.

I tell myself to:
  • Watch out for really passionate people. As the poem says, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity". They often confuse certitude with rectitude, and like the guests on Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer are inclined to drama.
  • Be especially wary of passionate people with distinct conservative or liberal biases. As argued in my Freedom -vs- Fairness blog, both sides can be tainted. Conservatives, who value economic freedom above all else, resist restricting anyone's freedom to make money - even if that freedom does damage to others. They cannot even admit the need for restrictions. Liberals, having extended the notion of fairness to include equal treatment of the planet itself (not a bad thing) can also be suspect. Even if it were proven that there is nothing we can do to counter climate change, I expect that some liberals would want to enact punitive legislation just for the damage already done.
  • Be alert to those who seek credibility by citing lone-wolf scientists from MIT (or Harvard, Yale, Cal Tech - wherever). They can be very seductive. Enough PhD's have been produced by prestigious schools to support any position imaginable. Because these people are crazy does not mean that they aren't smart or smart sounding. Even legitimate scientists are not to be trusted individually. That's not how the process of public prediction and confirmation works.
  • Try not to place too much faith in any single subset of data. In a field as huge and complex as climate change it is possible to find observations to support any position. Those crazy PhDs noted above are not without their empirical evidence.
  • Be very very dubious of conservatives - passionate or otherwise - with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Who To Trust

So, who do you trust?

Some people argue that you should study the subject and become sufficiently well versed to have your own legitimate opinions.

I don't think that's possible, even if you have a PhD from MIT. As proposed in the SECULAR FAITH IN A SANE UNIVERSE post in this blog, I think that complex issues are best answered collectively by the largest creditable community you can find. That's how science works. The weirdness gets averaged out and what's left is the best opinion at the time.

Based on my web browsing (if you trust me), the best consensus on climate change comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cited on EPA's Climate Change web site.

State Of Knowledge

So, what do we know?

Quoting the State of Knowledge, from the EPA and the IPCC:

Scientists know with virtual certainty that:
  • Human activities are changing the composition of Earth's atmosphere. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times are well-documented and understood.
  • The atmospheric buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is largely the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.
  • An “unequivocal” warming trend of about 1.0 to 1.7°F occurred from 1906-2005. Warming occurred in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and over the oceans (IPCC, 2007).
  • The major greenhouse gases emitted by human activities remain in the atmosphere for periods ranging from decades to centuries. It is therefore virtually certain that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to rise over the next few decades.
  • Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations tend to warm the planet.

What's very likely...

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations" (IPCC, 2007). In short, a growing number of scientific analyses indicate, but cannot prove, that rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are contributing to climate change (as theory predicts). In the coming decades, scientists anticipate that as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise, average global temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise as a result and precipitation patterns will change.

What's not certain...

Important scientific questions remain about how much warming will occur, how fast it will occur, and how the warming will affect the rest of the climate system including precipitation patterns and storms. Answering these questions will require advances in scientific knowledge in a number of areas:

  • Improving understanding of natural climatic variations, changes in the sun's energy, land-use changes, the warming or cooling effects of pollutant aerosols, and the impacts of changing humidity and cloud cover.
  • Determining the relative contribution to climate change of human activities and natural causes.
  • Projecting future greenhouse emissions and how the climate system will respond within a narrow range.
  • Improving understanding of the potential for rapid or abrupt climate change.
What Next?

Given the State of Knowledge quoted above, doomsday seems possible but not inevitable - at least not yet. Therefore, when I write my emails and present my arguments, I'm going to propose that we do something but not everything - holding out the possibility of doing more should accepted science indicate that the doomsday scenario is more likely.

A cap and trade system seems fine, or maybe a straight carbon tax. Because there is no doomsday consensus yet, there is probably not the political will for really effective action. But a public policy tipping point might be possible. And regardless, "going green" seems like a good thing. Although nobody knows for sure (that's how black swans work) it seems reasonable to believe that the various green initiatives might develop new technologies that could actually spur the economy rather than drag it down.

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1 comment:

Nathan said...

This was a very good post. I would like to add an additional piece article to set the stage for this debate.