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Human climate disruption [Jun. 18th, 2006|09:27 pm]
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Update post coming soon, but first:

I read this annoying editorial in the newspaper this morning about global warming (which I'm going to refer to as "human climate disruption" instead, because calling it "global warming" misleads the discussion). Actually, I only read about half of it, because as I said, it was annoying.

I was pondering a counter-letter to the editor, but then I realized that it was unlikely to do any good if I didn't address the issues in contention. If you're going to try and change somebody's mind with new information, you have to figure out what information would actually matter, or all you're going to do is add heat to the disagreement.

And so, a quiz:

So, whaddaya think about anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change?

A) It's totally happening
B) A lot of people say it's true, but I'm not convinced
C) I hear arguments for and against, and I'm not sure what to think
D) I think it's some kind of hoax
E) Other

If you answered anything other than A, I'd like to try and change your mind, so leave a comment explaning why (generally speaking) you don't find the idea persuasive.

I was thinking that I'd write a short explanation of the physics involved, because it's actually pretty straightforward. But I want to know whether that's actually where the disagreement arises...

[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-06-19 03:47 am (UTC)
Can I offer some advice?

I think you really need to take a clue from the evolution wars in this particular issue, and actually not just give the current scientific consensus, but some discussion of how it came about. If nothing else, this forces you to question some of the basis for your understanding of the topic (which is entirely for the good, since you'll then understand it much better).

With evolution, I have the best success starting from historical study of morphology, moving to talking about selection, taking a detour through sequence analysis, and then talking about comparative genomics. I don't know nearly enough about climate change to figure out what the analogous thing is there, but maybe you do.

And, of course, try to find common ground with your opponents. Not on the science, of course, but on learning why they're not willing to believe it. I'm still really happy with this post.
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[User Picture]From: tdjohnsn
2006-06-19 03:50 am (UTC)
I hate to step into this since studying this is what you do for a living (or at least part of it), but I tend to find the people who say "something is possibly happening, but the systems are so huge that we can only guess at whether the cause is anthropogenic or natural, though we suspect a combination, and by the way, that study really doesn't say what you keep saying it does" to be the most believable. Part of it is how so much of the "yes it is happening and it is all our fault" crowd black-ball anyone who even suggests that possible, maybe, there on line 1,049, the numbers don't add up to the approved conclusion, which seems like bad science (arn't you supposed to come up with better research or a cooler spreadsheet to prove your point rather than smearing and destroying peoples reputations?) And people who just poo-poo any suggestion of causation don't seem serious. I found the article at: http://www.junkscience.com/Greenhouse/ informative, though not being a climate scientist, I don't know if they are glossed over something important. They seem to be open to feedback and comment, so that is a point in their favor.

I could deffinately be convinced, but right now I don't trust the people doing the convincing (or the unconvincing.)
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2006-06-26 04:35 am (UTC)
Hey Troy! So, to follow up, now that I found time to read through some more articles:

Yes, I think the JunkScience guy is glossing over a couple important things. The biggest is that we have a number of different lines of evidence that strongly support the idea that increased CO2 is anthropogenic in nature: along with the timing and correlation with industrial activity, it also has the right isotope profile to be coming from fossil fuels, and it's got a geographic correlation between hemispheres that matches industrialization level. I think it's telling that he doesn't (as far as I can see) mention any of these things at all.

SkepDic is pretty harsh on the page: http://skepdic.com/refuge/junkscience.html

I think part of the problem is that many of the people who are most loudly trying to do convincing aren't scientists, but advocates with an agenda, and you're right, they're not especially trustworthy. (Despite saying "let me change your mind", my personal agenda here is more about understanding how non-scientists understand and interpret science, and how they change their minds about it, than it is to actually change your mind about this subject in particular...)
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[User Picture]From: ciddyguy
2006-06-19 03:55 am (UTC)

I say A

And I do think we humans have something to do with the cause of global warming but I've also heard that some of this is the earth's natural adjustment and it may or may not be total long term warming as some fear.

Then again, who knows?

I don't think it's all man made but we've sure helped it along I think.

Even out here in Seattle, we've had some mild to very mild winters in recent years. Not had a really, really good heavy snow since 1996.

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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2006-06-19 05:10 am (UTC)
I'd take issue with your assertion that the physics is actually pretty straightforward.
There are several interlocking mechanisms, with some obscure positive and negative
feedback loops, and I quite expect that some important facets of the problem are
not understood at all at this point.
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[User Picture]From: arcticturtle
2006-06-19 02:27 pm (UTC)
Physics: CO2 absorbs in the infrared. That's simple.

Planetary science: The planet sheds a lot of heat through the particular portion of the infrared band where CO2 absorbs. Block that, and things will change. A lot. Also fairly simple.

Geology/oceanography/atmospheric science: A lot of carbon that used to be underground is no longer underground. If all of it were now in the atmosphere, we'd already be completely baked. Here's where it does, indeed, get complicated. For various reasons, not all the carbon is in the atmosphere now. How long can we continue to get away with this? Have we even gotten away with it for this long, or is it already biting us? These are where the debates and research take place.

So I agree with Beemer: the physics is simple, even if the geology isn't.

But I think this is well beyond the point where we should be seriously addressing the problem. The quesetion is not whether we're playing Russian roulette. The question is how many bullets are in the gun, and how likely the chamber currently under the hammer is to contain a round. "We don't know for sure how many bullets there are, so let's keep playing" - the standard conservative line - is hair-pullingly insane.
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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2006-06-19 02:42 pm (UTC)
I don't agree that it's that simple at all. You seem to be assuming that releasing trapped carbon and the resulting carbon dioxide and its infrared absorbtion are the whole problem. And this is where I disagree.

Yes, CO2 absorbs some infrared wavelengths. Others, it doesn't. Remember that it does this in both directions (IR coming to earth and IR coming from earth). Now add in carbon monoxide, methane, oxygen (and ozone), water vapor, and many other gases, along with their effects. And the changing albedo of earth, which of course also varies with wavelength. And those are just some of the first order effects. Simple? Hardly.

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[User Picture]From: earthling177
2006-06-19 08:28 am (UTC)
I would love to either have a long talk with you someday or have some time to compose an email that is probably too long to fit in a comment here. My general impression is that both sides have good arguments and they are talking past each other as if only one thing could be happening and only one side could possibly win, and I think that the talking past each other and the "war" in which only one of the ideas is supposed to be right and dominate is the downfall of the entire thing -- consider for a second or two that there are dozens of other (sometimes powerful) sides that have something to win if we don't do anything because we're fighting to get either "global warming is happening/is not happening" and "it's happening but it's no one's fault/it's our fault totally" as the only idea that is right. And the situation is not new -- it happens all the time in politics, to name just one: some candidates win by breaking all the other factions apart and having them fight each other and then less than 30% of the population puts someone that 70% of the population definitely did not want, it's how a guy that did not even *live* in MA became our governor, for example.

In any case, it would be interesting to address several of the problems so we could get past the fighting and get to the real science and hence, hopefully, some way to fix the problems.
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[User Picture]From: madbodger
2006-06-19 02:44 pm (UTC)
You hit the nail on the head. When people see me pointing out that the
oversimplified explanation (suitable for people who get their science from
CNN, USA Today, and Fox News) isn't workable for determining what to do
next, they assume that I'm supporting the neocon "let's just ignore it"
attitude. Which I'm vehemently not.
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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2006-06-19 01:45 pm (UTC)
I answered "B", but I think that's because over the years I've had some issue with the notion of what "change" actually means with regards to the climate.

Consider for example that I remember growing up in the 70's with talk about the strong possibility of global cooling. :-)

The argument I could easily buy is that there are natural cycles (ebb and flow) in the climate. Much like a coin that is spinning, nudging it will cause the behavior to become more erratic. What direction the ebb and flow is at any given time would depend on where in the cycle we were.

You should put together a recommended reading list. :-)
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[User Picture]From: navrins
2006-06-19 02:00 pm (UTC)
My main reason for being in the B/C camp is that it seems to me that any science on the subject has to be generalizing from a single data point. Everything we know about how global climate change on an inhabited terrestrial planet works comes from looking at exactly one example, over a time period that's quite small. It's hard to do real science with only one subject to study, with no control over any of the variables. I believe that most of the scientists in the field are probably doing the best they (you) can with the experiments it's possible to do, but I have a hard time believing that many reliable conclusions can be drawn from that set of experiments.

That said, I'm weird. I don't think that addressing my reservations would do anything to change public opinion.
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[User Picture]From: polyrhythmic
2006-06-19 02:14 pm (UTC)
I do believe climate change is occurring. You can give me the evidence that it is primarily anthropogenic. But your first hurdle is likely to be making me listen to the evidence without turning off my ears because you are then going to tell me how the fact that I fly across the country on a regular basis is killing the fish. I don't want to think of myself as a fish-killer, so it's easier for me to hear and remember the parts of the debate that say "Well, maybe the change in climate is just a natural phenomenon and the ocean levels are going to rise a bit each year, but it's so slow that we'll have plenty of time to move farther inland and SCIENCE is going to solve the problem for us before it matters, even if we don't actually fund the research cause it's too scary" than any more reasonable statements.
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-06-19 04:24 pm (UTC)
You won't be able to read this article unless you subscribe, but it is sobering to think of an airplane as a several hundred to a few thousand long caravan of cars in the stratosphere. [And, of course, I fly a ton, too.] I'm fairly certain that flying is the single worst thing I do for the environment.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2006-06-19 02:21 pm (UTC)
There was an interesting interview with some science writer who spent some time in the arctic on the subject of global warming. He pointed out that journalism and science are at odds because journalism is about "balance" and giving both sides of an issues equal say, whereas science is supposed to be about verifiable results.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that on the subject of global warming (among other issues) science has been hijacked by politics. The earth's climate system is so complex that I believe both:

a)how could it not be impacted by people? We are part of the environment therefore it is impacted by us and vice versa, and

b) geological/atmospheric/environmental time is not measured in human life spans, so we are merely guessing what impact we are having on the planet, especially in the short term.

For me, the most compelling argument for global warming isn't weather disasters, it's ice core samples that suggest that the rate of warming is happening faster in earthtime than it has in the past.

But the scientific process is about creating hypothesis and then seeing if they stand up to questioning. A lot of what I'm reading with regard to global warming seems to be people trying to support their pet theories rather than allowing them to be questioned. The problem with global warming is that if the catastrophists are right, we won't survive.

I'm less interested whether or not humans are causing global warming (or whether or not there is global warming) than I am in being good stewards of the planet generally. This shouldn't be about "How much can we get away with without unleashing global disaster," but about looking for alternatives because things like oil are causing many problems in our own lifetimes, whether it's little kids with asthma in inner-city neighborhoods, or the political blood bath that's related to the fight over an unrenewable resource.

But as I type this, I'm also feeling full of shit. Even if I'm part of the supporting structure of the pyramid in my own country, I'm sitting on the top in a global perspective.
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[User Picture]From: helava
2006-06-27 06:33 pm (UTC)
I think that's the thing that bothers me the most about modern "journalism" - why is it that anyone thinks journalism is about "balance"? It's not supposed to be about balance - it's supposed to be about reporting *truth*. Which isn't necessarily balanced. Journalists aren't *supposed* to give equal time to a scientist, who's an expert on the subject, and a crony hired by some lobbying firm, who knows jack-all about the subject other than the PR line he's been fed by the company he's a shill for.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-06-19 03:57 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, the thing I've found most difficult and frustrating on this issue (and many others) is the lack of anything like a reliably impartial source.

On subjects that I feel confident I know about, I prefer to talk to knowledgable, articulate defenders of opposing viewpoints. I am a great fan of the adversarial tradition for arriving at reliable truths.

But when I am ignorant, talking to proponents of any position is somewhat pointless as a way of resolving controversy. Basically, anyone can convince me of anything by throwing enough cherry-picked factoids and theoretical overviews at my head, and I know it.

So finding an impartial source becomes important to me.

By impartial here I _don't_ mean not having an opinion, necessarily (though that's ideal... although in general anyone who cares about a subject enough to bother learning it will have an opinion, so I tend to assume that those who claim otherwise are lying).

I mean being motivated enough to walk through conflicting positions and the evidence supporting and disputing each position, erring as much as possible on the side of the position being discussed at any given moment.

To put that differently: if someone does have an opinion, and wants to convince me, their best bet is to walk me through a sincere process of trying to prove themselves wrong and legitimately failing, being careful to go back to data each time.

(And no, I'm not saying that all articulable positions are equally worth discussing. I'm open to "This idea is absurd and not worth discussing further" -- but I will make up my own mind about its absurdity. If it doesn't strike _me_ as too absurd to be worth considering seriously, the speaker has just lost credibility.)

This is _very_ difficult to do well. Often, when people try, they end up setting up and dispatching straw-man arguments... not necessarily intentionally, sometimes just because they don't entirely understand the position they are arguing against. This generally convinces me immediately that I can't trust the speaker's impartiality.

Relatedly, anyone asserting that the physics of climate change is so simple that a short explanation of it will definitively demonstrate something worth knowing raises all my skeptical hackles on this front. That just seems so implausible on the face of it that I can't take it seriously... I _expect_ unexpected interactions and complex multiply determined results for anything as complicated as, say, the rate at which cream diffuses into my coffee... let alone for climate.

Don't know if any of this helps.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-06-19 04:05 pm (UTC)
Incidentally, the above is why I (and many people, i think) am such a sucker for the rhetorical technique of "Yes, I _used_ to believe what you believe, and I was content with that, but then I discovered X and Y, and well, OK, that was uncomfortable but I rationalized _thus_, and then some guy over coffee shared with me argument Z, and boy _that_ was compelling, and..." This will almost always convince me more effectively than simply stating X, Y, and Z. This is dumb, I realize, but it works pretty reliably.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-06-19 04:46 pm (UTC)
Some more ruminations.

One thing that puzzles me somewhat on this topic is the degree to which the argument loses sight of its practical goals.

I mean, it seems to me that the claim that matters for practical purposes -- the reason this is a political issue rather than an academic one -- is: "If we change our pattern of fossil fuel use in ways that reduce X and increase Y, we will change global climate conditions over the next N years in the following positive ways."

I find it rare that anyone discussing the underlying science remembers that that was the point. At best, they seem to be trying to prove "Our pattern of fossil fuel use over the last N years changed global climate conditions in the following negative ways."

And I get that the latter is an important step on the way to the former... but if you stop there, you get reactions like polyrhythmics. You also get a lot of knee-jerk environmentalism. "Global warming is our fault so we have to save the whales!" and that sort of thing.

So if you really want to weigh in on this usefully, I think you need to make the following points:
1) Global climate is significantly different today from what it was two hundred years ago, in the following ways: X, Y, Z.

2) Those changes are not just normal climate fluctuations, it's not solar permutations, it's not just one of those things that happens for reasons we don't understand. It's the result of our own actions, had we not done A, B, and C we would not be experiencing them.

3) Those changes are dangerous to humans. (People who talk about "destroying the environment" annoy me.)

4) Those dangers can be mitigated or eliminated by changing our behavior in various ways. If we do A', B', and C' and stop doing A, B, and C we will no longer suffer those dangers.

The evidence for 1) seems overwhelming and straightforward.
The evidence for 2) is not straightforward, and requires some care and intelligence to follow, but there sure is a lot of it.
The evidence for 3) seems pretty clear.
I'm remarkably uncertain about 4), myself.

And really, if 4) isn't true, then why should anyone outside of academia give a damn about 1-3?
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-06-19 06:56 pm (UTC)
[I'm just gonna say it. It's fun watching you have a conversation with yourself...] Can you expand out your ovjection to "destroying the environment"?

For that matter, I don't understand your fourth sentence. Isn't history important even to non-historians?
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-06-19 07:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, just wait 'till I start disagreeing with me and calling me nasty names.
Then the fun _really_ starts.

(Why yes, I _am_ bored today. How did you know?)

Re: "destroying the environment"

Objecting to "destroying the environment" makes one sound vaguely altruistic... like we're preserving a national monument or something.

Which just ain't so.

We can't destroy the environment any more than we can destroy the universe... at the end of the day there will still be an environment. The flap isn't about not "destroying the environment", it's about avoiding a lot of death and property damage... most relevantly to ourselves and property we'd sorta like to hold on to, like our houses and stuff.

Which is obvious, natch, but I hear people talk as if it weren't.

Re: history being important even to non-historians (which one is my fourth sentence again?)... typically, it isn't important in ways that have billions of dollars associated with them. I mean, sure, I'm vaguely interested in, say, how the asteroid belt formed. But I doubt I'll see much political discussion stemming from different theories about it.
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[User Picture]From: finagler
2006-06-19 08:01 pm (UTC)
I have a deal with my step-dad (an avid "we just don't know but I'm skeptical" proponent, who I've learned hates being called a flat-Earther...): show me just one actual expert in climatology who doesn't believe that the Earth's climate is (a) getting warmer on average and (b) that this is due to human-caused CO2 emissions, and then I'll bother listening to you. No, not a statistician who wrote a non-peer-reviewed book. No, not a science fiction writer either. He still hasn't come up with one.

For my part, I point to the UN's executive summaries of the world's climate-study peer reviewed journals, plus the fact that even the frikkin' Bush administration believes it now.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2006-06-20 08:13 pm (UTC)
So, I have no problem in general with this sort of appeal to authority as a way of getting out of discussions like this one.

And there's no reason you should listen to me when I'm not actually saying much of anything... I mean, certainly I'm not trying to convince you, or anyone, to doubt anything in particular... hell, even my own skepticism is rather vague and indefensible.

That said, I have a cognitive obstacle here you probably don't, which is that I know an astrophysicist who had to change careers because of the drought of grant money for studying heliogenic atmospheric effects... which makes me wary of the "if there were a legitimate argument here, scientists would be demonstrating it" school of argument.

Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, and I don't claim that my wariness is legitimate grounds for skepticism here... I merely assert that it does contribute to mine, legitimately or otherwise.

Which, I hasten to add, does not obligate you or anyone to go out of your way to convince me of anything.
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[User Picture]From: finagler
2006-06-21 01:07 am (UTC)
It was probably unclear given the thread-nesting, but I was actually only commenting on your very first sentence: the thing I've found most difficult and frustrating on this issue (and many others) is the lack of anything like a reliably impartial source.

My point is that, while I think most people in this country would agree with your sentiment, the reality is that though there is broad consensus among all the world's scientists about the fact that global warming exists and is at least in part caused by humans. (That wasn't the case even a decade ago, but the experimental data and computer models have both progressed in the past few years.) That consensus is backed by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Acadamy of Sciences, and the Bush administration own Science advisers. And on the other side you have... who? Michael Crichton?

In the face of such overwhelming consensus you'd think that the idea that global warming doesn't exist would be treated like stories of alien abduction. But it's not. While one difference is that there used to be more uncertainty about global warming some 10-15 years ago, I think the main difference is this: alien abductees can't spend millions on PR firms to sow uncertainty and doubt.
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[User Picture]From: boat_of_car
2006-06-19 04:41 pm (UTC)

wierd science

Sorry, Doc...you are certainly one of the most intelligent and insightful people I have ever met, and yet you seem convinced of something I can't bring myself to belive is the whole truth. its funny that I find myself agreeing with most of what's been said...so I'll just add my own $1.50.

It is true that the climate has become gradually 'hotter' in the history of recorded climatology and geology- that's a known , true fact. The same for many of the things that the global-warming crowd points to- the oceans are higher, the poles are thawing etc etc etc. My problem is that most of this data seems to be taken as 'the record', rather than the small piece of actual earth history that it represents: whether you believe that the earth is 1000 years old or 3 billion, you can see a pattern in the geologic record of climactic change of huge proportions. It seems to me, that taken as a whole, we should of course expect that things will get generally warmer, because it appears (to me) we are in that part of the cycle. Someday, the poles will shift or something, and we'll begin to get cooler.

This is not to say that humans are not to blame for a great many of the environmental issues, and may in fact be to blame for an *accelleration* of the warming effect- we actually probably are. We clearly consume natual and mineral resources at an alarming rate, and produce nasty byproducts that take thousands of years to be turned back into anything useful, so it's a given that we'll run out. I just don't think its quite as swift as some want us to believe.

And I also agree with the comments about not having a reliable, trustworthy source...everyone in this seems to have an agenda of some kind- even, I'm very sad to say, the esteemed Doctor himself...
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[User Picture]From: psyclonic
2006-06-20 10:07 pm (UTC)

Re: wierd science

Reading this I get the sense that you feel you disagree with DocTec more than you actually do:-) Anthropogenic climate change may occur simultaneously with natural climate change, hence the extreme cloudiness (ha) of the issue. One can believe that our industrial output affects the climate without believing that it has any significant effect as a consequence. There's no necessary conflict, tho as it happens A is often assumed to be a primary causer of B. Whether that is correct or not is a related but separate discussion.

As far as agendas go, that word has become so polarized that it needs to be relegated solely to its polar function; that is, indicative of a self-serving goal. I'd characterize DocTec's "agenda" as educational, as much for himself as for poll respondents, aka non-self-serving. Otherwise all Science could be agenderized, same with all Politics and all Religion. Art. too.

OMG, and LJ! FLEE!

BTW nice username. Once the coasts are flooded by human-caused global warming (sinking Manhattan first of course), many cars will discover their boat nature :P

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[User Picture]From: boat_of_car
2006-06-22 03:23 am (UTC)

Re: wierd science

I was mostly just teasing him.

Of course he meant only the best
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From: nosato
2006-06-19 05:05 pm (UTC)
Just some quick comments, as my Internet time is limited while my mother is visiting...

When you talk about "human climate disruption," you may want to look into "extreme" events...like the trend of extreme high temperature days is positive and the trend of extreme low temperature days is negative and so forth. These are the indicators that what we really look into (I think). While mean values are convenient measures for "global warming"...like comparing it to a departure from the Normal (30-year average), we do care (more) for extended period of extremely hot days, for example.

In addition, "geography" matters. Not all places on Earth will observe warming trends. Those places with increasing precipitation events may observe "cooling" trends, as available energy is used to evaporate water, rather than increase temperature...I stop here...you know what I am talking about.
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[User Picture]From: finagler
2006-06-19 08:26 pm (UTC)
I don't think explaining the science will help convince anyone. I'm a bright guy and can understand the explanations, but I'm still no expert and unless I plan to become one I have to trust that whoever I'm talking to isn't cherry-picking data or just plain lying.

The trouble is that serious amounts of money have been spent to convince the public that:
  1. Experts actually disagree about whether the Earth's climate is, on average, getting warmer or about whether humans are causing that warming.

  2. There's a massive conspiracy among climatologists to suppress people who disagree with their "dogma." (Be sure to call scientists who study climate and the environment "environmentalists" because that word helps link them to politically motivated activists who chain themselves to trees.)

  3. The people who believe in global warming have missed the fact that [insert plausible-sounding but inherently flawed techno-babble that, in fact, has not been missed by the scientific community].

This is basically the same technique used by the Intelligent Design folks, and for that matter are the techniques successfully used for so many years to convince Americans that "the jury is still out on whether smoking is harmful to your health."

The best collection of arguments I've ever heard to help immunize against this massive PR campaign are all in the new movie An Inconvenient Truth. See it, and bring your skeptic friends with you.
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[User Picture]From: finagler
2006-06-19 08:28 pm (UTC)
BTW, who wrote the editorial? Was it an Op-Ed?
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