Saturday, October 24, 2009

climate deniers and Adam and Eve

In reply to a posting from someone else the other day, I noted quickly at the end that I view climate denial as something basically similar to defending the idea that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve.
That was too strong in some ways, so maybe I'd better explain what I had in mind.
First -- I do have respected friends and even close family in both of those two camps.
Second, I have seen much higher levels of awareness of science and the scientific method among climate
deniers than among folks who defined the idea that we are descendants of Adam and Eve.
Nevertheless, there is some similar sociology and psychology here. Both on the left and on the right, the scientific method often gets overwhelmed by people trying to find arguments for believing what they want not believe. And sometimes they stretch a lot.
Many climate deniers, being part of a minority, have had the virtue of being able to view the majority community
from a greater distance, which lets them observe valid and important problems. For example, Lord Monckton,
the most prominent of the climate deniers, argues that the pressure for climate laws owes a lot to big bankers who expect to make lots and lots of money, effetively ripping off the public, through unnecessary complexity. That is a valid concern. The Friends of the Earth, among others, have listened to that concern because they, too, are not so bound by
the usual political correctness. I was at a briefing they arranged about a month or two ago, where the head of the "White Knight" investment fund explained in detail just how teh Waxman Act would lead to gross manipulation, causing the price emission allowances to gyrate even more than the world oil price. With world oil, such gyrations and uncertainties are hard to avoid (but posisble -- see; with emission allowances,
they are basically silly and unnecessary, in my view. In fact, at that very briefing I noticed the Friends of the Earth talking to Senator Cantwell's people -- and this past week, Senator Cantwell announced quite proudly that her new bill
will contain restrictions on trading like what White Knight proposed. So in the end, we can still learn some important things from the climate deniers, even if the hypothesis they are arguing for is highly improbable.
The climate deniers have also said some very valid things about groupthink in science and the need to work hard
to make sure that minority views are treated with full respect. In the past, in EVERY field of science where I
have looked really deeply into what we know, and engaged in real independent thinking -- I have always found
the kind of problem which the sophisticated climate deniers claim ... real aberrations in conventional wisdom,
due to some kind of sociology such as the desire of an ingroup to get more money. If you look at, you will see that I have different views from conventional wisdom across many, many areas...
informed minority views which have passed peer review, and occasionally perturbed the mainstream a bit...
But it's really true, when I started working on climate change issues seriously just this year, I began by
re-examining the conventional wisdom about global warming. I was fully prepared to come out totally against that idea, if the logic of the critics would justify such a position.
There was a time for just about two days, after reading a paper by Happer and hearing of one guy from MIT,
when I was working for a Republican senator, when I actually thought I might go into the deniers camp... but after decent due diligence, I couldn't. (Happer is head of the Marshall Institute, a professor at Princeton, and perhaps the most officially credible US climate denier. The Republicans on the Environment and Public Works -- EPW committee of the Senate chose him as their one best witness early this year on a hearing on the impacts of climate change.)
Happer made two claims in criticism of the mainstream -- a claim about how the models oversimplify the treatment of different frequencies of light getting into the atmosphere, and a claim about the treatment of water vapor.
To evaluate the claim about frequencies, one needs to know what is actually IN the models. To do due diligence
(a key part of real scientific thinking!), I contacted a person I met at a conference on mathematical algorithms
in 2004. (AD2004 -- you can see a citation posted at if you are a perfectionist.) This guy is a strong independent contrarian thinker, who appeared in the video attacking Al Gore's video,
and he had his hands on the real codes. Turns out -- the codes really do distinguish between different frequencies,
and are based on careful analysis of the saturation effects Happer suggests they ignore. They have also considered all sides of the water vapor issue for decades.
Of course anyone who hears even the most baby debates about global warming has heard statements like
"ten of the twelve hottest years on record have been in the last twelve years," "the average temperature has actually been going down on average over the past ten years" and "sea level has been rising even faster than the most pessimistic models predicted." People making those statements often make it sound as if it is a startling thing which invalidates the IPCC study or which heralds the end of the world. However, even the executive summary of the IPCC report STARTS OUT by enumerating these kinds of data, and then asking how we can make sense of them and what we can learn from them. I do not endorse all the public statements made by people who worked on the IPCC report,
but the report itself is a remarkable and unique example of showing real respect for diverse views, far more than I usually see in science.
On this list last week, we were asked our views of a climate denying piece posted earlier by an EPA worker.
It turns out that that worker was the subject of a kind of minor but loud scandal a few weeks ago. Republican senators at several hearing showed it was proof that EPA was not living up the standards of science which it claims to uphold.
It's an interesting story.
As best I recall, the mainstream EPA's bureaucracy really had repressed this guy -- as bureaucratic systems have often done, in many agencies, under both political parties. The new head of EPA intervened to get much closer to
a more proper treatment, aftger the fact. **I STRONGLY AGREED** with thjose folks who said that we need to work a whole lot harder to ensure proper treatment of minority views, and engender more of a true "free marketplace of ideas" ala John Stuart Mill, even for federal employees. Back when I worked for DOE, I saw some standard procedures
on the discussion of ideas which are very, very damaging to the process of honest dialogue and discovery. We need to
remember to fully respect the rights of those we disagree with -- and we need to work hard to really live up to this principle, even when it may be difficult.
On the other hand, as part of that process, I put in several very intense hours actually studying that paper in detail.
I can understand how people well-versed in the basic results of climate science, but not in the scientific method (or perhaps overly dependent on bureaucratic corporate culture) would have overreacted. I have a long analysis of the paper back in my files at work... but maybe you do not want to hear more.
Aside from citations to other stuff (like what I previously looked at or like manifestos at conventions of climate deniers),
and aside from general rhetoric, the paper mainly gives details about the water vapor issue. It does go beyond Happer's testimony on that point. The one section which uses peer-reviewed work focuses on "eta," a relative humidity parameter. As best I recall (it's been a few eekks..) -- it stresses that the models assume an eta of one, but that at suffiently high altitudes eta is less than one. However, in most of the atmosphere, it is more than one. It suggests that if eta were slightly less than one, the implications would be huge... but that's silly. The rhetoric implicitly assumes the usual definition of eta in its reference to the literature, but assumes a completely different definition (absolute rather than relative humidity) when it deduces "the implications." Using two different definitions of the same variable or word in different contexts is one of the very most common forms of human psychopathology.
Now in all fairness -- life has taught me to be very careful here. There are many times when two opposing cultures, A and B, each put forward their "ten best papers" or "ten top experts," when those from A are many times better than all
of those form B... but B turns out to be right. I have seen that often enough. Sometimes A simply has more money to work out the details. Sometimes the B culture has its own high priests which do not do real justice to what science says objectively about their position. Sometimes irrational personality effects cause a division type A people and type B people, when objective reality doesn't fit the psychological categories. But in this case, with climate change...
the paper from EPA and the reports by Happer certainly tend to reduce what little probability I would ascribe to their position. What's more, I have seen valid efforts by IPCC people to actually ESTIMATE what the probability might be,
after the fact, that human actions have no significant effect on climate; they do not say it's an impossible position, but only that the probability is no more than 5% that the denier position could be right. Since all probabilities are conditional, in the end, I find myself simply agreeing with IPCC on this.
By the way, that same IPCC presentation also said that "extreme climate damage" is also in the 5-20% probability range. The normal estimate is about 5% damage to world GNP by 2100. That's about as bad as the present recession -- which is bad enough. And there is that high end risk. It calls for rational action, but not hysteria.
It IS hysteria when, on occasion, certain environmental lobbyists (not Friends of the Earth!) get paranoid about eocnomists trying to have a voice on climate change. FOR A GIVEN COST TO SOCIETY, the benefits to
the environment are MAXIMIZED if laws and treaties are "Pareto optimal," if they create an efficient balance between
economic and environmental goals. No one in this world has infinite money. For those of us who recognize that there are budget limits out there, at some level or another... those who oopose Pareto optimal arrangements are not true environmentalists, because they are blocking the possibility of arrangements which maximize the benefits to the environment in the real world. A market-based approach to carbon regulation, relying on a simple carbon pollution fee,
is part of a Pareto optimal response... though cap-and-trade with a narrow collar (advocated by Friends of the Earth!) is almost as good, for that part. "Sectoral measures" which address multiple objectives and market imperfections
(like oil monopoly) are also important.
Best of luck,

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