Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Climate Change Denial: Far too common for comfort.

Kayla's watching American Idol, so I guess I'll blog. I've been wanting to write about this for a while so I guess I'll get rolling on it.

Working in natural resources, this is an issue that comes up often. My particular program works with water resources. This includes: Water quality, water quantity, and various aspects of biota in water. So, we need to be very aware of the possible implications of climate change. Namely, increased frequency and severity of floods, less stable stream flows, and increases in overall temperature. Lately, I have noticed an unfortunate trend among some of my coworkers and policymakers in our area. They seem to think that there is still some sort of debate to be had about the existence of climate change.

This reminds me of the so called "controversy" in evolution. People without enough information to develop an educated opinion about the situation express their opinion anyway, then defend it vehemently. At this point, learning ceases. They don't seem to care about any new information unless they can use it to win their argument.

A few weeks ago I witnessed a very well informed biologist dissect the ridiculous arguments of a policymaker (we'll call him Ben) piece by piece. It was a near perfect rebuttal and was delivered politely and professionally. Afterward, Ben simply apologized and said, "Thanks for that information, I had no idea." Err, no, that's what he should have said. Instead he responded with, "Well that's one man's opinion." Later when confronted with the question of, "How do you refute the evidence?" he, in a rather hostile voice, demanded, "What evidence?" At this point, I left and set to work e-mailing links to the IPCC report.

In response to his first comment, no sir, you are wrong. That happens to be the opinion of 99% of the scientific community (response to the second is found somewhere below). A quick Wikipedia search will show you that: "no remaining scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate." But why the hell would we listen to elitist climatologists about climate change? After all, they only spend 4-8 years in school learning about this stuff and then their entire career studying it. In the slightly paraphrased words of Jon Stewart, "Why would we let elitist pilots tell us how to fly our children around in planes? We know better, step out of the way while I land this thing!"

Listen, THERE IS NO CONTROVERSY among the scientific community about whether or not climate change is occurring. There is also NO CONTROVERSY with respect to the question of whether there is a major anthropogenic influence. Just so this is absolutely clear: 1) Climate change is real. 2) Humans are a major cause.

A recent Skeptic magazine article by Patrick Frank pointed out the flaws in the predictive models used by climatologists and really made my head spin about this issue. After all, many of his points seem valid as far as modeling is concerned. It appears that he doesn't agree with the common interpretation the global temperature increase/CO2 increase correlation. "Correlation is not causation," he states. Can't argue with that can I? Well, yes. Correlating the number of pirates with the increase in global temperatures will give you a significant change in slope but everyone (except loyal followers of the FSM) knows that the correlation is meaningless, so we ignore it. The rather obvious difference is that we KNOW CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This is how correlation studies work when there is no control. You must determine whether the correlation is sensible prior to making the claim.

Unfortunately that doesn't allow you to perform a double blind study but in climatology this is rarely if ever possible. Imagine what we would need. For starters, a population. In this case we would need a population of planets similar to earth. Then, we need to treat some as controls (no excess CO2 in the atmosphere). Now, we measure the changes in average temp on each planet and test for significant changes. Can I stop now? Obviously this is ridiculous. It's never going to happen. So, what are our options?

1. Ignore it until it's too late to do anything.

2. Build models. Models that predict changes in temperature associated with changes in CO2 greenhouse gases can be tested to a point. We can test whether they are capable of predicting current conditions when fed data from the past. It's tricky, it's imperfect, it's the best we've got. The current models, as far as I can discern from the folks at the IPCC, only predict the upward trend in temperature when excess CO2 and other greenhouse gases (Methane, Nitrous Oxide, CFC-12, and others) are added to the model. This makes the correlation even more telling.

The predictions of future effects are admittedly not necessarily accurate. This is where it seems prudent to adhere to the precautionary principle. This is the same principle that makes you wear a helmet, buckle up a seatbelt, and avoid dark alleys. Chances are, none of those things is going to kill you. But why risk it? If the cost outweighed the risk it may make sense. The problem here, is that we don't know the level of the risk so the cost may not be worth it. In fact, our "sometimes inaccurate models that aren't very good but are the best we've got" tend to predict that it is not worth the risk.

I believe the Chardonnay is kicking in so I'll end it here.

If you have your doubts, please go to the IPCC website here for the physical science evidence. If you feel it is too much information to digest, I would argue that you have no business debating the issue. However, you should at least take the time to read the summary for policymakers. And Ben (who actually happens to be two people), if you're out there, if you even have a computer, please check out this report. Maybe then we can have a meaningful conversation about climate change.

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