Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Climate Change Point of View

Climate Change is both a highly contentious and polemic issue and one, that has dominated headlines for quite some time. I have a view, but before I share it, I feel duty-bound to make a couple of points.

Firstly, I believe the subject must be addressed in terms of the Oxford dictionary definition:
“ … a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels …” 
As opposed to the Wikipedia definition:
"Climate change is a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years."
Why you ask? Because the Oxford classification focuses on changes to climate post 19th century, hence it attributes climate change to modern humankind in terms of increased Carbon Dioxide emissions due to the use of fossil fuels to drive industry, motor vehicles, produce electricity etc.

The Wikipedia definition is also accurate, but present day conversation, (indeed argument), must focus on the study of modern kind’s contribution. This should be the default stance in any debate about the subject because climate change per-se has been happening since the dawn of time so the pertinent question is, has it accelerated by the use of fossil fuels since around 1900 or before that, the birth of the industrial revolution. Otherwise put, does one believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), meaning human made global warming?

The Oxford definition would be the preferred current day political view while Wiki's definition is the preferable science view.

Secondly, and though I have not stated it yet, you may wish to understand how it is that I arrived at my present view or interpretation about the subject. It has largely resulted from considerable consumption of reading material from all camps, right, left, liberal, conservative and the fringes. My interest in the subject peaked shortly after purchasing Time Magazines now famous issue dated April 3, 2006 with the cover headline, “Be worried, be very worried”.

Well I did get worried and from then on, I gravitated toward any article, op-ed piece, editorial, and documentary or radio segment on the subject. However, I went further and in 2009, launched the now redundant blog, Climate Change Views at (link now inactive). As you will note from the business card images below, the goal was to create an on line portal to all views, ranging from the most alarmist to the most ardent deniers on the subject. In just over 18 months, I must have amassed and collated, read and presented links to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles on the subject of climate change and global warming combined with a short pitch of my own as a prelude to each. It was not long before something struck me, one detail stood out, that is, there is no consensus.You may think there is, when in reality there is not. If you expand your reading to all media, you will find this is the case.

Climate Change Views Business Card 2009
Rear of Climate Change Views Business Card 2009
In Australia, if one sticks to reading Fairfax media (The Age in Melbourne, Sydney Morning Herald) or listens to and/or watches SBS or ABC TV and Radio, then they can be excused for thinking that consensus exists about man made climate change. Conversely, those who read NEWS Ltd press (Herald-Sun, The Australian, and The Daily Telegraph) and tune there radio frequencies to conservative stations may be excused for thinking quite the opposite. For Americans, it is like comparing the left leaning (Liberal) MSNBC, The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Baltimore Sun or New York Times to the right leaning (Conservative) Fox News, The Washington Times or Wall Street Journal. 

Moreover, the ideology behind opinions also splits along occupational and vocational lines. Broadly speaking, teachers and those within the education establishment, motion pictures and the arts together with civil and public servants will mostly hold a views consistent with those of the left, the result being more than a natural propensity to align with alarmists. Conversely, those in finance and including accountants, construction sector, energy exploration and agriculture will hold views more consistent with the centre right and right such that they gravitate toward the true sceptics view, and even outright denialism.  

However, when one breaks out of the comfort zone, moves away from tribal thinking patterns and other ubiquitous factors and absorbs all views, sentiments and opinions from the entire ideological print and electronic media spectrum, as I did for Climate Change Views, then this notion of consensus, soon recedes. 

So where do I stand in terms of today’s conversation about climate change? I am neutral; I sit in the middle of a continuum between global warming alarmists and climate deniers. This automatically makes me a climate sceptic, which is fine by me. I attribute this to all the reading I referred to above. More precisely, how did I arrive at this interpretation after my period of being an alarmist and “worried”? Otherwise said, what drove me to the middle? Two points warrant a mention. 

Climate Modelling 

I am not convinced of the accuracy of climate models. You have heard the lines:
“The modelling tells us that …”, and “… the model suggests …” etc. 
It is not surprising that climate change proponents love the modellers, those behind the scenes mystery minds’ willing to forecast what is going to happen to our economies and climate by 2020, 2050 and beyond. 

By way of example, I draw your attention to the following past news lines:
“The Government will press ahead with its emissions trading scheme or Carbon tax for example; arguing that modelling to be released proves it is pro-growth and good for the nation's long-term economic competitiveness …” 
Or this one
“As you know, the Government released its Treasury modelling yesterday and what that modelling demonstrates …” 
Models come in various guises those based on abstractions (abstract models), those based on cause and effect (causal models), the mathematical, those based on probability distributions (statistical models) and those based on a computer program which attempt to simulate an abstract model (computer model). Indeed, there are many more, however they all have one thing in common, they are based on abstractions, concepts, and theories, though not necessarily hard truths of science, i.e. the models used to derive estimates and thus policy are based on assumptions that have in many instances gone untested.

In reviewing the book, Economic Models of Climate Change: A Critique by Stephen J. DeCanio one critic wrote: 
“ … the models used by neo-classical economists to consider climate change have so many solutions to their equations that they cannot produce information useful to policymakers without being rigged to do so … “
DeCanio rips away the fig leaf of objectivity from economists claiming to produce valid information for the climate change debate. Deconstructing their models through all their theoretical twists and turns, DeCanio reveals how their biases shape assumptions that in turn predetermine the outcomes of their analyses, a heads I win, tails you lose approach. DeCanio shows how these models, posing as application of the scientific method, with hundreds of equations that seem objective, are classic examples of, "garbage in, garbage are out'.”

Truth is, I do not like the garbage in, garbage out idiom that is now commonly used to “express the idea that in computing and other fields, incorrect or poor-quality input will produce faulty output”. Not all the input is faulty or incorrect however, I do appreciate the point made.  Climate models will remain a valuable tool to evaluate future climate but they need to improve. See: Are climate change models becoming more accurate and less reliable?

Settled Science

I abhor the phrase, “the science is settled” because science is never settled, it’s a mark that we are understanding something  in a justifiable and defensible way but the unsettling of settled science is possible, and we must be open to that possibility.

The American philosopher William James summed it up when remarking upon the views of the science establishment amongst his Harvard colleagues. I find his words so poignant that I present verbatim. 
 "Science has made such glorious leaps in the last 300 years that it is no wonder the worshippers lose their heads … I have heard more than one teacher say that all the fundamental conceptions of truths in science have been found and that the future has only the details of the picture to fill on. But the slightest reflection on the real conditions will suffice to show just how barbaric…crude…such notions are …whatever else be certain, this at least is. That the world of our present natural knowledge is enveloped in a larger world of some sort, of whose residual properties we, at present can frame no positive idea".
Well over 100 years have passed since these statements; given all the scientific advances of the past century has time not vindicated him?

Moving forward to present day, in his book, The Good Life, Hugh Mackay questions complex scientific constructs and theories (pp. 76-78 2013 edition) such that, when considered in light of today’s climate science debate, at the very least, it makes one wonder.   
“When we turn to science, we assume that here, at least, our certainties are warranted. But are they? Most of us recognise the equation E = mc2” … “We know it has something to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity and perhaps we know he revolutionised scientific thought by challenging the accepted wisdom that mass and energy were separate phenomena. Today, the theory is being tested and challenged and’ …”contrary to Einstein’s conviction, it is possible for particles to travel at speeds greater than light” …”certainty in science like certainty in everything else that relies on assumptions, interpretations and theories, is more slippery than we might care to imagine. Scientific proofs are by their nature always provisional. In Religion and Science (1935), Bertrand Russell expressed the uncertainty that empirical scientists must learn the live with. He wrote that science is always tentative, expecting that modification in its present theory will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at a complete and final demonstration.”
“Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) challenged the ideas that scientific truths once established are immutable and that scientific theories evolve via an orderly progression of thoughts. His point was that any scientific theory is subjective construction based on either constantly shifting data or perceptions of the data, or on occasion startling, which he called “paradigm shifts”. To assume certainty or stability at any given point in this process is to ignore the long history of science. The integrity of any theory, Kuhn argued lies in its falsifiability - that is, its openness to the possibility of repudiation in the light of more evidence, fresh insights or more creative interpretation of data whose significance was not previously understood.”
“As we moved through the twentieth century, labelled the Age of Uncertainty by many philosophers, psychologists, economists, political scientists and social analysts, we came to realise that, as Australian social analyst Richard Eckersley wrote in Well and Good (2004), “scientific knowledge is never the whole truth or an absolute, immutable truth. And what science has done, and how its results are applied, are powerfully determined by its cultural context”. Indeed, as Stephen Trombley put it in A Short History of Western Thought (2011), “Any claim to absolute knowledge is questionable, and that knowledge is dependent on the perspective of the observer”. In other words, we interpret what we see in the light of our existing knowledge, our existing convictions, or faith, and even our existing prejudices: the viewer is indeed part of the view.”   
Consider if you will, the present climate change debate in light of the last sentence.  
“According to Brian Schmidt, co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for physics, scientific theories should be regarded as predictions. Much of what we regard as scientific knowledge, he says, is mere hypothesis that allows scientists to get on with their work until the hypothesis is proved right or wrong.” 
“The French philosopher of science Bruno Latour, among others, has taken the uncertainty principle one step further. In his provocative book, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2011), he reiterates the conventional scientific wisdom that scientific facts are mere human constructions, just like any other human construction and claims that, like those other human constructions, scientific facts appear real and stable to us at a given time, even though they might be subject to future revision or reinterpretation on the light of new understandings’ … “these scientific constructions are not significantly different from the artefact's of a religion, in which we construct beliefs (the religious equivalent to theories), icons, fetishes and even gods out or our understanding of the world as we experience it. Embracing scientific knowledge strikes Latour as being rather like a leap of faith based on fresh revelation.”
Has it clicked for you yet? Think of how climate change alarmists construct beliefs and fetishes; indeed let us reflect on the impact of ones politics and ideology when attached to the mix. Consensus on climate change? Please … 

If we’re now questioning the accuracy and validity of some of the theories of even Time Magazines Person of the Century, then how certain are we of the role of Carbon Dioxide, by way of example, in terms of its impact or otherwise on climate change? Not least, all other variables, (known and unknown) connected with the science. 

On a final note, from my experience, when considering the issue in terms of the Oxford definition, it is clear that both camps, warmists and deniers alike, sometimes bend the known facts to their liking, as do politicians from both the left and the right, and just about everyone including writers, dare I write, like myself. But truth be known, it's the alarmists who are most guilty of this practice and once again, the alarmists who want to shut down any constructive conversation. 

Once I was worried about climate change now I am merely curious for more knowing. But curiosity alone is insufficient reason for Governments squandering billions indeed trillions of public dollars when not all, is known, models fail to predict with the accuracy one would expect, and incomplete accord  - even amongst experts - prevails. To be sure we must be wary as in watchful, we must invest in further research, and give our planet the benefit of the doubt, but in the process, it is prudent to position ourselves centrally, because it is only from that axis that we can objectively approach the complexity that is, climate and make for better public policy.

Feel free to comment:

© 2014 Ottavio Marasco. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You have some novel perspectives and have grappled with different points of view.
    Stephen J. DeCanio's book on "Economic Models of Climate Change" looks interesting. An important, but overlooked, area is the consequences of warming. There are lots of heated arguments about how much warming (forgive the pun), but not much about the extent a given amount of warming will be a problem. It is only economics that can formulate some sort of answer to these "What-if" questions. But often the answers assume that when people seeing their conditions changing, they do absolutely nothing about it.
    There is a paradox here if we assume that dangerous global warming is real. The more evidence that we get of the forms of the danger we can get from the climate models, the better we can understand the adverse economic impacts. That means people can find ways of adapting. But if climate models are unsuccessful in identifying the what, where, when and extent of dangerous climate change then attempts at adaptation will be hit and miss. So the failure of climate models to understand the detail means that roundabout mitigation policy is more necessary. There is thus a moral injunction for climate scientists to improve the quality of the climate models to enable focussed adaptation, with millions of lives depending on it. But such clarification may demonstrate that there is not a severe problem at all.