ToddSeavey.com Book Selection(s) of the Month (November 2008):
Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery
I’m increasingly convinced that what you hear in the news is never false — and is always taken so wildly out of context that you’d almost be better off not having heard about it. Here are just ten of countless examples with regard to global warming:
•In the widespread reports about global warming, you’ve probably heard about glaciers retreating in some areas. You probably haven’t heard about the fact they’re advancing in others — and were a source of terror far greater when they were advancing in great numbers just a couple centuries ago than our melty ones are now.
•You’ve probably heard temperatures have been warmer in recent years than in earlier decades. You probably haven’t heard that the world was warmer in the Middle Ages, with no input from modern industry, obviously.
•You’ve probably heard increasing temperature readings from a small northward-pointing strip of Antarctic land. You probably haven’t heard that that is now believed to be the only portion of Antarctica that is warming.
•You’ve probably heard of some polar bears being threatened by melted ice. You probably haven’t heard that their overall numbers have increased dramatically (making the push to governmentally label them “endangered” out of fear of future climate changes a disturbing instance of policy-as-propaganda).
•Years ago, you probably saw a convincing, even startling “hockey stick”-shaped graph that seemed to show unprecedented recent temperature rise — a graph created by the lead author of the UN climate report before last. You probably didn’t notice that the graph was very quietly withdrawn from the 2007 report (the one linked above) after being exposed as a sort of “beginner’s mistake” statistical artifact — a meaningless graphing phenomenon that can be produced with any randomly chosen data points if a certain method of correction is misapplied to the graph.
•You’ve probably been referred to RealClimate.org as a neutral arbiter of climate claims. You probably haven’t been told that it was founded specifically to refute criticisms of the “hockey stick” graph and gradually, grudgingly failed. (An aside: don’t think neutral assemblages of randomly-chosen, non-partisan humans tend to edit Wikipedia articles, either — it hasn’t been the case with entries related to the current financial crisis, and it would be naive to think it was the case with a topic as volatile as climate has become. Young activists often have more time on their hands and more commitment to PR outlets such as online encyclopedias than do aging greybeards who know these topics best but have trouble operating their computers.)
•You’ve probably heard “oceans will rise” — in fact, you heard they’ll rise some twenty feet and swamp New York City if you’re one of the many unfortunates who saw Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth [sic]. You probably haven’t heard that the believed-likely rise — a few inches — will take a century or more, by which time one would expect we will have better climate science, better remediation technology, and in all likelihood completely different energy-generation technology.
•You’ve probably heard that we could helpfully reduce global warming gases by cutting energy output by a third. You probably haven’t been encouraged to ask whether banning a third of civilization’s energy output would be the most devastating, poverty-inducing blow humanity has ever suffered.
•You’ve probably heard about the threat to coastal dwellers if severe storms become more frequent (a problem for which even the latest UN report now says there is no evidence). You probably haven’t heard musings about whether, worst-case scenario, it might be a hell of a lot cheaper to just relocate some beachfront homes (like the ones currently encouraged by government-subsidized flood insurance) rather than transform industrial civilization.
•You’ve probably heard frequent reporting — coyly implied to be related to global warming — about phenomena associated with hot and dry spells, such as wildfires and deaths from heatwaves. You probably haven’t heard that more people die in cold spells or that in a recent ice age, the ice covering what is now Chicago is believed to have been a mile thick, compared to which your 80-degree day on the beach becoming an 82-degree day on the beach is trivial. Yet humanity endures.
With one of the U.S.’s more prominent and well-informed skeptics about manmade global warming, Michael Crichton, passing away from lymphoma a few days ago, this seems an appropriate time to take a look at the climate change controversy (Crichton was also a supporter of the American Council on Science and Health, for which I work, though I hasten to add that ACSH has no position on climate change, which falls a bit outside our medical/public health bailiwick — and the subject is in any case more divisive among scientists than most of the issues we do tackle, generally ones where scientists are agreed but the media and one or two crackpots are racing in the opposite direction). Given how absurdly tall Crichton was (I met him at one ACSH event), like some sort of bioengineered human-tyrannosaurus hybrid, I imagine he had to endure even more pointed inquiries about “the weather up there” after coming out as a climate skeptic.
As a sort of postscript to last week’s blogging and article about apostate libertarians, I must note that, oddly enough, some libertarians, semi-libertarians, and an ex-libertarian are the people who have most pressed me to consider the possibility that manmade global warming is a real problem — and since (perhaps not coincidentally) one or two of these left-identifying libertarians also fall into the category of “some of my more pedantic and insistent acquaintances” — one of them being rather obsessively fearful of food additives as well — I was left with little choice but to read a portion of the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report that shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore (coincidentally, I’ve just cut off contact with the libertarian who most strongly insisted I read the IPCC report, over other matters, but this Book Selection entry nonetheless exists partly due to his insistence). I also read two skeptical books about global warming, as I will explain.
As you may recall, I was a pro-science “skeptic” in the broad sense (suspicious of unscientific and pseudo-scientific claims and irrationality in general) long before I even had an interest in politics. If I thought the case for global warming were strong, I would have no problem in saying so, even if it presented new challenges for my political philosophy (laissez-faire capitalism, which I think would survive the challenge, since there are legal frameworks capable of dealing with negative externalities such as temperature-raising gases without necessitating the kind of complete socialistic/green rethink of our entire society and its relationship to nature that some, like Al Gore, would love to see). Normally, my life is made easy by being able to point to what scientists say and oppose it to what the nutcases, the superstitious, the ignorant activists, and other manifestly-wrong parties say. Questioning the apparent “consensus” of climate scientists requires a bit more audacity, of course, but when you see how much spin is involved in maintaining the climate “consensus,” you have to wonder whether a bigger dose of skepticism about the scientific establishment itself is needed — even though that makes my job harder, and more unsettling.
Rather than simply taking sides in the climate debate, I should say I’m thankful to people on “both sides” (crudely defined) who’ve pulled me one way or the other, starting with statistician Chuck Blake, my apolitical math geek friend who began reading the original science papers underlying the UN report and discovered, in short, that climatologists are as guilty of overextrapolating from weak statistics as are the toxicologists and nutrition experts who fill my day with needless scare stories, usually based on random, meaningless 1% fluctuations in graphed relationships (about life expectancy or nutrient content or what have you) that will be completely contradicted by the next, equally meaningless study, as the public has begun to notice (not that this should be seen as reason to dismiss the handful of truly powerful correlations epidemiology has uncovered, such as the average seven-year reduction in lifespan caused by smoking).
(Chuck was one of our debaters at Lolita Bar on the topic of climate change a year and a half ago, and he faced Al Gore-trained Andrew McKeon of the Climate Project, who as it happens notes that tomorrow brings a UN/NYU-Poly Institute/AIG “green technology” conference, for those interested.)
In private conversation, I’ve also now seen Chuck spar with people like my old sophomore roommate Marc Steiner, who has worked as an environmental consultant, and physics-trained businessman Mitch Golden. But the most interesting results tend to occur when Chuck confronts a climatologist or, in one recent case, an eco-biologist specializing in the Antarctic. I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say they tend to start out repeating the eco-doom party line and then gradually admit that it’s largely overheated rhetoric that dissolves upon having its countless unquestioned assumptions challenged. The eco-biologist, reports Chuck, eventually admitted that the climate-science case for radically lowering our standard of living is weak but that for moral reasons people ought to consume less anyway, so why not startle them a bit? Well-meaning, deceitful, economically dangerous, scientifically irresponsible.
More prone to being condemned by the keepers of the climate consensus, though, are books like Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (by Singer and Avery), which offers just one possible alternative explanation for recent slight temperature increases besides human malfeasance: natural cycles in the Earth’s temperature, possibly correlated to solar activity.
Whether or not you’re ultimately persuaded by that explanation, you’re likely to learn some interesting facts along the way in reading this book, such as:
•The Earth’s temperature varied far more radically over the millennia than its recent or near-future-projected changes, even before there were humans around to be a possible cause.
•Climatology is a relatively young science and its computer models work so badly that they have essentially never yet predicted future outcomes accurately (except with lots of post hoc tinkering to get the predictions to “match” after the fact).
•Climatologists’ models do not even retroactively “produce” the ice ages, the single largest perturbation in global temperature — yet we’re to believe they can accurately foresee something as subtle as a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise over the next hundred years, which is the most common current warming prediction.
•The posited sea level rise is roughly comparable to the one that occurred over the past century, and that didn’t exactly transform human existence or produce noticeable hordes of “climate refugees,” as we are warned the inhabitants of 2108 will suffer, perhaps too blinded by panic to launch their hovercars before high tide arrives with a couple inches more foam than in previous years.
I should thank Gina Duclayan — as the wife of Daniel Radosh, not usually my first source for right-wing crackpottery, I promise you — for recommending the book The Deniers, which catalogues the esteemed, award-encrusted, academically-powerful, much-honored scientists who head the doubters on global warming. For anyone who thinks only fringe figures (comparable to Darwin-deniers or Holocaust-deniers) question the IPCC “consensus,” this book is the antidote — and literally lists the CVs of the doubters, all prominent and respected in their areas of expertise.
Yet the author, environmental activist Lawrence Solomon, notes with some frustration that while each of these scientists says the case for the piece of the manmade global warming argument that falls within his area of expertise is weak, each scientist also tends to assume that in other areas, outside his, the case for manmade global warming is solid. This pattern in itself helps perpetuate the appearance of a strong consensus. (To put it another way: there is a consensus, but on what exactly? It’s less clear and less frighteningly monolithic when you start breaking the myriad claims down into their component parts — what to measure where and when and by what method, with what degree of accuracy, from which part of the glacier at what time of year, etc. etc.)
Perhaps we are in imminent climatological danger. I don’t claim to be an expert — and so I’m not going to spend any time debating it further here (this is already my longest-ever post, I think, and numerous other topics await). I know there are people far better qualified to discuss all this than I, and I expect the science will improve rapidly in the decades ahead (all the more reason not to make drastic policy about it now).
But there are countless reasons to be suspicious of the scare, including the whole practice of issuing a “final word” via the UN, which may sound like a prestigious, important way of doing things but absolutely is not the way science is normally conducted (you don’t hear of a biannual “last word on biology,” say, being issued, with the underlying data sometimes concealed and the scientists involved being forbidden to revise their work after the initial summary for policymakers is released). The whole field has been highly politicized from the start — in part by one of my free-market-friendly heroes, I have to admit, since Margaret Thatcher pretty clearly put a lot of money on the table for scientists willing to buttress the theory back circa 1980, searching for a solidly scientific rationale for weaning the UK off oil to diminish the Middle East’s political heft (as noted in the imperfect but interesting documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, brought to my attention by Diana Fleischman).
Pushing the topic may be a noble cause — perhaps even leading to some accurate science — but it is unquestionably hyper-politicized, creating a potentially biased start to research on a very, very complex subject (there is not simply one global thermometer somewhere that’s going up, perfectly correlated to industrial output).
And speaking of complexity, it’s worth noting that even the most “alarmed” climatologists, unlike political activists such as Gore or Robert Kennedy Jr., will quietly admit that no individual weather incidents such as Katrina can be traced to global warming, since global warming is just a matter of a (very vague and hard to calculate) global average temperature that may have effects like increased frequency of intense storms, but only in a very subtle, statistical sense that makes it impossible to say, ah, that storm was the extra one this year (a bit like trying to say “Those two cancer cases were the extra ones out of 300,000 caused by increased chemical use this year”). And Gore’s attempt to blame countless subsidiary problems such as tropical diseases on warming is just boderline-religious apocalypticism.
And though one hates to attribute bad motives to people when the arguments ought to suffice for debate purposes, I think it’s fair to step back and recall that the scientists (who are not as unanimous or numerous as you’d think, but ignore that for the moment) and activists and governments and UN officials hyping the scares — not to mention the media — are not magically ignorant of the fact that the scare creates more attention, regulatory power, and funding rationales for them. Such people (rightly) wouldn’t trust Microsoft if Microsoft said “Oh, you all really need pay us $45 trillion to do software security work for you to avert a possible-maybe-could-happen software problem 100 years from now” — but they expect us to believe governments and ratings-seeking reporters and grant-seeking scientists have never even noticed how useful the global warming scare is for them personally. I wouldn’t want to say we should therefore dismiss everything said on this topic, but a high standard of evidence seems fair.
And as my statistician friend says, only in the most crazy-apocalyptic of the predictions do we face any sort of significant risks sooner than 100 years, by which time, if we haven’t acquired better data, developed much cheaper remediation technology, invented something more energy-efficient than oil, or found time to move people away from the coasts of Bangladesh and Florida, we would have to have problems far, far more serious than global warming or have become a much, much slower-moving species (recall how different the world was 100 years ago — at which time if we’d extrapolated from existing trends, governments would have come together to ban horse manure before it buried New York City, as that was probably the biggest threat we then faced, now completely irrelevant).
The real danger here may be to science itself. If the next century looks back upon science as superstition, I think it will be largely because the global warming scare was seen to discredit that entire branch of human knowledge.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that both Obama and McCain embraced the cause of urgent global warming regulatory action, as have the Tories in England (even pushing a plane-travel surtax that the left wouldn’t have dared try). Yet the occasional article hinting at the complexity of the issue comes out, such as the headline “Global Cooling: Alaskan Glaciers Grow For First Time In 250 Years” or, just last month in Science, “Winds, Not Just Global Warming, Eating Away at the Ice Sheets.” Then there are unforeseen yet vastly significant phenomena like naturally-occurring atmospheric methane variation…and behind all such wrinkles, the broader problem (seen in econ, climate science, medical news, sociology, and our own everyday lives): drastic extrapolation from tiny variations (like the recurring mistake of divining the whole “direction of the country” from near-50/50 election results). If current trends hold…yet they almost never do.
A few random nature and energy afterthoughts, while we’re at it:
•I thank Scott Nybakken for pointing out that our friend Gersh Kuntzman was recently depicted next to a bucket-craving walrus on the popular site ICanHasCheezburger.
•My anime-loving friend Woody must be delighted to see, as noted atop Drudge yesterday, that the Shizuma Drive (or rather, cheap, toolshed-sized nuclear reactors) may be at hand. Cheap, small power generators (like the ones imagined in the cartoon Giant Robo) might just solve all our problems, with or without bureauratic attempts by government to directly subsidize “energy independence” and the like. Would-be parasites should apply for their windmill subsidies now, in short, before mini-nukes — or something else out of left field — renders windmills (and everything else we’ve known) irrelevant.
•Finally, while Diana Fleischman, mentioned above, has been romantically linked to a vivisectionist despite her being a militant vegan, I merely find myself dating a former taxidermist, about whom more in the next couple days.