Sunday, January 21, 2007

Debating (political) conservatives on a religious blog about climate change

For the last several days, I've been engaged in what I thought to be an honest debate with a range of conservative readers of the blog Titus One Nine on the subject of climate change. The thread, and accompanying story, can be found here (I'm "Matt").

Kendall Harmon, the proprietor of the blog, for some reason allowed our comment-debate to go on for a very long time without any direct moderation. I'm grateful to him for that, as I think it proved to be a constructive debate for me, one that required I spend a bit more time reading the available literature and sharpening my understanding of areas outside my immediate knowledge, issues like economic discounting and the global economic costs of doing nothing versus doing something, etc.

One expects to learn a great deal in such debates. What one doesn't expect is the depths to which some participants will plunge when faced with the challenge of actually having to do the hard work of debate, as you'll see near the end of the thread.

What was also surprising was the extent to which the climate change denialist camp -- represented by some of my fellow commenters on that particular religious blog -- doesn't base its denialism on Christian principles (since both sides try to argue -- one side more successfully than the other, in my opinion -- that great harm could come to a great many people by taking decisive action or inaction). Nor does it base its argument on the science, since essentially no one responding to my comments ever brought up a credible scientific reason to doubt anthropogenic climate change.

Rather, the denialist camp is comprised of ideologically driven small-government optimists. And they're like proverbial (not literal) rats cornered (name-calling, etc.) when they are faced with having to substantively support their position.

This is a useful lesson for me. The denialists don't want to debate the science. They are much more interested in the implications of the fact of anthropogenic climate change: that we might have to rely on our representative government to tell us what to do.

UPDATE: Jan 21, 2007, 19:02. Again, the value of these debates is that they focus the mind. So advantaged, I want to briefly add what I now think are the critical questions that any debate about climate change must address, and address honestly:
  1. Is climate change occurring, and, as a corollary, is it likely to damage human economic, cultural, and political systems?
  2. If so, are we humans the cause of climate change?
  3. If so, are we able to stop it, and when must we begin to act to do so?
  4. If so, would it cost us more to act than it would cost to do nothing at all? (I credit BillS on the thread for making me aware of what's at stakes in this last question.)
Any debate that skirts or confuses these issues can't really be considered honest.


Craig Goodrich said...


You have quite well identified the questions. A point that must be made, though, is that two reasons most of us have not directly addressed the science ("No, it'll really only be 0.5w/m2 additional forcing for a linear increase of 8%" or the like) is that a) we're not for the most part specialists in the madly complex field in question, and b) it's irrelevant, within the given parameter of the discussion, to our point.

I would point out that many, many such specialists are questioning the general alarmism from numerous points of view.

Is climate change occurring, and, as a corollary, is it likely to damage human economic, cultural, and political systems?

Climate change is doubtless occurring; it always has been. Humans have adapted remarkably well to such change in the past; during the GCO Greenland was apparently agriculturally productive.

If so, are we humans the cause of climate change?

"The" cause, no. Is human activity a contributor to climate change, unquestionably (e.g. urban heat islands, for example), but both the degree of such contribution and the precise mechanisms involved appear to be controversial and poorly understood by the scientific community, judging from the debates currently going on.

Moreover, the fact that one or two unhinged Europeans have actually suggested criminalizing disagreement with the politically-approved hypothesis suggests a lack of confidence in the science on that side of the argument.

If so, are we able to stop it, and when must we begin to act to do so?

Again, given the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere (only a relatively small proportion of which is, by any account, anthropogenic), and given all the poorly-understood feedback mechanisms related to both gas concentrations and heat movement, the answer has to be -- at best -- only with great difficulty. I remember the story about a certain King Canute ...

If so, would it cost us more to act than it would cost to do nothing at all?

The question is not act vs. "nothing at all"; humanity has always acted to counteract unpleasant trends in the environment, from the moment Ogg moved into a cave and put on a bearskin when it snowed. The question is do we simply assume we can noticeably reduce the eventual warming by any practicable means, and then take draconian measures to reduce CO2 emissions (because "draconian" is the kindest term that can be used for what would be required for any substantial emission reduction) or do we continue developing technologies to cope with whatever warming may occur, as we find it occurring.

So I stand by my earlier comments in the thread over on T19. I leave the scientific dispute to others (though I follow it with interest); common sense and history are by themselves enough to decide the operational issue for me.

Matt said...

Craig, thanks for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment. I appreciate it.

Where we clearly part is in my trust of the climate science community to tell us what's really going on. I no longer work in the field, but when I did, I got the opportunity to meet a lot of these people, and it is they who comprise the working bodies of the IPCC FAR. I know them to be very conservative (with a small 'c'), and I know the IPCC to be a necessarily (in fact mandated to be) conservative process, which bars anything that smacks of pure speculation.

I won't take the time here to answer each of your points, but the emerging consensus (and -- watch out 9/11 conspiracy theorists -- you'd have to claim a conspiracy of the highest order to say that this consensus is false or deluded) is that temperature change is currently off the chart for at least the last 1300 years (and glacial retreat is off the chart for probably the last 10,000), that there is a greater than 90% chance that the emission of heat-trapping gases by humans into the atmosphere is the cause, that we will not be able to stop it completely but that we must act now to ameliorate it (since the earth-atmosphere-ocean system is sluggish), and that it will cost less to take even drastic action (hopefully market-driven government-based incentives that make good economic sense) than it would to do absolutely nothing.

This is what thousands of climate scientists working on several continents over the last several decades have come to. I'm more likely to trust what they say than I am to trust a very few.

Again, thanks for coming here to comment. Please keep reading Eventually you'll get fluent in the lingo, and then we can have a debate about the science. Whatever you do, don't listen to Rush. I've listened to some of his latest ramblings on climate change, and they're not even factually correct about what serious denialists (such as Steven Hayward at AEI) would claim to be the case.

Mike Bertaut said...

Distinguished Sirs,

For me, as a student of modern science, both its funding mechanisms, attitudes, and career tracks, the really critical question on global warming is this:

How much do I want to alter human existence in a markedly uncertain bid to alter a climatic future that we really only dimly understand put forth on the backs of climatic models with wide ranges of uncertainty and promoted by the same folks who have very limited success projecting climactic changes six months out, let along sixty years out.

I offer as evidence the 2006 Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico Hurricane
Season, which was forecasted by all 13 major climate models to be the "worse on record, even worse than 2005" and yet resulted in not a single hurricane above Cat 1 striking the mainland of North America anywhere.

If you want to inconvenience me to the extent required to reduce human CO2 emmissions enough to slow climate change (if that's even possible) then you are going to have to do better than that.

Build a model that shows demonstrable results, and you can convince me. Keep pointing to the melting Arctic Icepack and saying the sky is falling will not do it. I'm sure there is some lovely land in Canada well above current sea level that will soon become very habitable, whether I drive my car or not.


okie said...

Hello. I too am interested in these things, and just stopped by because a friend showed me this way. I am not going to say much for myself, but direct you to this wonderful set of articles that talks about 6 of the "deniers" of climate change, and how they are in fact respected scientists, and that their disagreements are far from irrational:

(this is a link to the first article, but it actually has 10 parts). I hope this contributes to the discussion.

Matt said...

Thank you for all your comments. The National Post articles linked to by okie are interesting.

I've gotta get back to work, and pronto, so I don't have time to delve into all this myself, but here's a link to very good, cautious (though occasionally impatient) blog run by climate scientists, commenting on the recent IPCC report. It's worth reading. It's also worth reading through the rest of the blog to see what you've been missing if all you're reading is the "denialist" literature.

Reading both sides is not a weakness. Especially when the climate scientist community represents the vast, vast majority of reasoned opinion on the subject. If you don't know what they're saying, and if you can't accurately portray their arguments, then you're only doing have the work.

Anonymous said...

Taking the alarmist position that the current carbon dioxide / oxygen ratio is higher now than over the past 10,000 years, what remains is any geologic perspective. This one 10,000 year period of focus is merely one such period among 459,999 other such 10,000 year periods. I am interested in an answer to how the carbon dioxide / oxygen ration averaged over the past 300 years compares to the prior 15,000,000 comparable time periods.

Matt said...

Anonymous -- The short answer is that the current departure of atmospheric CO2 from pre-industrial levels is massively dwarfed by the min-max variability seen over geological time scales.

However, the claim that the global is now warming and that our release of fossil fuels is causing that warming does not depend on such deep-time data. Instead, we infer the link statistically from the low probability that the current departure is just that -- a random but extreme departure in the context of past variability -- and directly from the fact that only the forcing provided by atmospheric greenhouse gases appears sufficient to drive the recent increase in temperature. All other proposed mechanisms appear to fall short.

This is not to say that natural variability doesn't play a part. But natural variability is incorporated into the inference process -- it is not ignored.