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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: 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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