Climate change controversy

I have been reading and thinking about climate change lately – partly as a result of Prime TV’s screening of The Great Global Warming Swindle (see Swindlers List) and the discussion at Poneke’s bog (see Frog agog with umbrage over Prime plan to screen anti-Gore documentary). Here are some of my thoughts on the controversy.

1: Inevitably the science of climate change is complex.

We are looking at a complex global system and need a large amount of information from a wide variety of sources. Conclusions derived from “cherry-picking” data, or based on wishes or beliefs are obviously unreliable or just false. Similarly, arguments promoted by petitions and simple appeal to qualifications are suspect.

Individual investigations or data sets are inadequate in this situation. I think the approach of the IPCC which attempts to develop a scientific consensus from reviews of all the published scientific findings is the most credible approach.

2: There is scientific agreement that anthropogenic activity (greenhouse gases) contributes to our current climate change.

Inevitably this agreement is provisional (we see details changing with each IPCC report) as the science improves and more data is available.

The extent of this agreement covers a spectrum which is perfectly natural. I have seen the assessment that 70% of climate scientists support the IPCC conclusions while 15% think they are overestimates and another 15% think they are underestimates.

Sometimes climate change deniers raise the issue of individual scientists whose work has been included in IPCC documents but who disagree and wish their names reviewed. This shows a misunderstanding of such reviews. The documents are not petitions. There will be many scientists whose work has been included (reviewed) but who personally do not accept the overall findings of the review. They may legitimately feel (based on their own limited findings) the overall conclusions are underestimates or overestimates.

3: The different assessments of anthropogenic contribution to global warming arise from two major sources.

  • Some scientists think the influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on global temperature is either less than, or more than, the IPCC assessment.
  • There are different predictions of future inputs of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These produce different assessments of future changes in global temperature.

ipcc 1

4: Modelling future climate change is a problem.

Science does have difficulty predicting the future (but it usually does far better than non-scientific methods). We inevitably rely on computer models for this. These have problems with the extent to which they can describe the natural processes underlying climate changes. They are also dependent on the quality, and amount, of data available for input.

The quality of climate change models is improving with time. New, more realistic models are becoming available. Computing power is also improving. We also accumulate more data with time. This is a major reason for changes in the assessments revealed in the different IPCC reports.

One of the important tests of climate change models has been their ability to predict the details of climate change that we already have information for. This testing provides important feedback, enabling improvement of models.

A convincing demonstration the reliability of the IPCC assessment is shown by the way that models are able to describe recent changes in global temperatures using either natural causes or anthropogenic causes alone. (In the figure the black line shows measured global temperatures and the grey line temperature predicted by current models. Both natural and anthropogenic inputs are required.)

5: Political activists don’t decide the science

And we shouldn’t let them.

I think many environmental activists treat their causes like a religion – often relying on faith rather than evidence and using the religious techniques of shame and guilt to advance their cause. This turns people off. These attitudes play right into the hands of climate change deniers.

Some of the deniers use similar methods. Interestingly, many creationists and proponents of “intelligent design” (ID) are active campaigners for climate change denial.

Activists often rely on single arguments or data sets to support their position. They often start with a belief and then look for supporting evidence. Which is very much against the scientific method.

A common, and disturbing, attitude with many climate change denial activists is their smearing and slandering of science and scientists – playing the man rather than the ball. ID proponents also use this technique (e.g. the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed).

6: The controversy is largely political and economic

Some scientific controversy is unavoidable, given the complexity of the problem. And the majority scientific assessment will change with time – inevitably providing fuel for deniers who wish to discredit the science.

But the public controversy is not a real reflection of the limited scientific controversy. It is a reflection of arguments over policy and economics. Most governments now accept the scientific consensus and are reflecting on policies aimed at relieving the situation. These policies inevitably have economic impacts – and there’s nothing like economic impact to create political passion.

Given the degree of scientific consensus on anthropogenic contribution to current global warming we should recognise the controversy for what it is – differences related to policy and economics.

We can accept science but still disagree strongly with specific policy proposals.

7: Should we bother doing anything?

After all climate change occurs anyway. There have been big changes in the past and will be big changes in the future. Biological species have become extinct in the past and will in the future – that’s evolution.

All true. But the difference today is the changes are much more rapid. Unprecedented results in terms of species extinction and social disruption are expected. I think it’s a no-brainer. If we can do something to reduce these disruptions we should.

8: But is climate change our only problem?

Unfortunately not.

It’s just part of a wider group of problems arising from the success of our species. Our growth in population and dominance on this planet. We have huge problems arising from resource depletion, waste creation and pollution of our environment.

We will, I hope come to grips with our contribution to climate change but will still have to deal with these other problems. And with future problems we cause.

It’s the sort of situation that has driven other species to extinction. Our only hope is that we have the intelligence to reason, to learn from our mistakes and to plan for our future.

However, we are still bound by superstition and denial. There is no guarantee that intelligence and reason will win.

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See also:
“Scam of the ‘Great Global Climate Warming Swindle.’”
Climate change: A Guide for the perplexed
IPCC Fourth Assessment Report

Similar articles:
The Darwinian behaviour of creationists
Slandering science
The real climate change swindle?
Intelligent design/creationism and climate change

18 responses to “Climate change controversy

  1. Pingback: Climate change controversy | Philosophy Blog

  2. Good post. My take on the climate change issue is a pragmatic one from New Zealand’s point of view:

    Firstly GHGs are an energy sector problem in that the only emissions we can practically do anything about are the ~50% that come from burning fossil fuels. The other ~50% are pretty much untouchable emissions from the agricultural sector. The solution to reducing GHGs in the energy sector very tightly compliments the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource and alternatives need to be found with or without climate change issues. From this point of view, I have no problem with climate change as an additional driver towards a fossil-fuel free economy. New Zealand has a unique opportunity to get there first and cement our position as a green economy if we had pro-active energy management policies in government. We don’t.

    And this leads to the second point for New Zealand. New Zealand produces roughly 0.2% of the worlds GHG emissions. If NZ was to stop producing GHGs completely right now (including agricultural emissions) it would take the world about 3 weeks to replace all of NZs emissions via growth. In other words NZ is completely irrelevant as a physical solution to climate change. The only way NZ can make a difference is politically by demonstrating a fossil-fuel free economy is viable in a first world country without loss of competitiveness or way of life, which would encourage bigger countries to follow suit. Sadly NZ government seems (publicly) oblivious to this reality.

    The way I see it, solutions to climate change problems are mostly solutions to other problems as well (finite energy resources, security of supply, particulate pollution, deforestation etc) so it actually doesn’t matter if climate change is real or not, the solutions to it are valuable regardless. If it turns out it is real, it should be additional motivation to fix these other problems rather than seen as a new problem needing a new set of solutions.

    From a slightly different angle, the most important thing we can know is whether or not global warming is significant and likely to continue. If it is then we need policies in place to mitigate its effects. Ultimately if we get substantial sea level rise, those living in island nations aren’t going to care what caused it, they are going to want somewhere to dry their feet.

    So for the record I personally think global warming is a combination of natural and social causes in a complex multi-layered feedback system we’ll probably never fully understand. But I do think society has a role to play in it and needs to be ready for the implications of it regardless of its cause.


  3. Thanks for this post, Ken! I especially appreciate your 8th point – it’s not the only issue we’re facing thanks to our ever growing population…

    There are a couple of interesting articles in the Skeptic magazine. One of them is arguing that

    The claim that anthropogenic CO2 is responsible for the current warming of Earth climate is scientifically insupportable because climate models are unreliable.

    IF I understand the article correctly (and that is a big if – I got somewhat lost), the author claims because climate models don’t predict well (your point 4), humans are not causing climate change. Obviously, this would confuse prediction with explanation: Even though we might not predict future climate well, as the other article points out, the models of historical climate change are pretty darn good but only if they take human generated pollution into account, which echoes what you wrote again in point 4.

    I’d love to see other people’s interpretation of these articles, especially the first one. I am still hoping that I misunderstood something… Somehow, an article by a climate change denier in a skeptical magazine doesn’t seem too appealing…


  4. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Climate Crisis

  5. Great post, Ken.


  6. I was aware of the Skeptic articles Rachel – I guess I will now have to read them!

    It’s interesting that although the computer models have improved a lot over time their predictions of sensitivity (the temperature rise association with a doubling of CO2 levels over preindustrial levels) have remained approximately the same.

    A lot of the variability in predictions that deniers refer to is actually associated with predictions using different scenarios (about 400%). But with the same scenario the predictions are less variable (about 60%).


  7. *ditto*

    This whole issue is so intense—and I think that you’re right when people take climate change to an almost religious level. I hang out wiht alot of enviromentalists and their views are, well, really scary. It’s one thing to live in our modern world and feel secure–but after talking with these people and hearing what they have to say–I feel very scared about my future and the future of my kid. However, then there’s whole other side to the climate change issue–and seriously, what is up with the creationists being against the idea of global warming? Just because you want to save the enviroment doesn’t make you a democrat! Which, is of course, a Christian’s biggest fear. Anyways–whether or not global warming is happening or not happening to the extent that people say it is or isn’t–I think changing the way we live to be more sustainable and sensitive to our planet can only be a good thing. Thanks for your clear, calmly written post on this subject and well, I’m rooting for intelligence and reason too.


  8. ClaudesMom

    Yeah. Exactly what you wrote. No matter what, can’t we all agree that “pollution is bad” and that we should not rapidly, rampantly use up all of the resources that we have as fast as we can??? Didn’t God give instructions to humans in Genesis to look after the Earth and take care of it?? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Sad that in all the talk with $4/gallon gas no one is talking conservation. I would like to hear a presidential candidate tell us to scale back your use of energy and the world will be a better place. Help India and China learn to NOT do it the way the U.S. does. If we get all the oil out of the Arctic, then what? In Britain my middle class friends dry their clothes on lines and fold up racks it’s just they way they do things.


  9. wattsupwiththat

    On number 5, I beg to differ, LOUDLY

    Dr. James Hasen, of NASA Goddard Institute for Spaece Studies (GISS) climate modeler, recorder and tabulator of sea and surface temperature, interviewee on hundreds of newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV articles, is in fact an “activist”. He lobbied for coal fired power plants not to be built in Kansas, intimidates heads of state worldwide, and now is creating his own version of carbon trade policy. Don’t beleive me? read this:

    Click to access 20080604_TaxAndDividend.pdf

    Some recent posts (all in PDF) to the Hansen mailing list included:

    June 4, 2008: Carbon Tax and 100% Dividend — No Alligator Shoes!
    May 29, 2008:: Dear Governor Greenwash: Governors’ actions fall short
    May 29, 2008: Letters to Governors Kaine and Pawlenty: Includes Kaine’s response
    Apr. 14, 2008: Governor Gibbons and Three Coal Plants: A conversation with the Nevada governor
    Apr. 10, 2008: Yankee Ticket Prices and Fossil Fuels
    Apr. 1, 2008: Dear Prime Minister Rudd: A Letter to the Australian Prime Minister
    Mar. 31, 2008: Mr. Rogers and Darth Vader: A Letter to the Duke Energy CEO
    Jan. 2, 2008: The wrong choice for Massachusetts. Op-ed published in The Boston Globe, Jan. 2, 2008. (Download as PDF)
    see them all here

    Yet the man decides the climate science too. This is a conflict of interest.


  10. Check the latest numbers, ∆(T) for the previous 16 months is about -.77C, about the entire warming trend that is supposed to be breaking the earth. lulz, busted.


  11. If you’re having trouble with the Skeptical Inquiry article, check out this post and especially the comments. I have culled through the first 100 or so here.


  12. I cant count how many straw men i saw in this post, i must congratulate your ability to feign objectivism.

    what of models missing hotspot?
    what of natural variability and climate change precedents?
    what of recent cooling?

    and regarding action, i love your thoughtful attitude but you didnt give much thought to the fact that it will cost 300 billion a year for ten years to globally respond to climate change, but it will only cost 90 billion a year to eradicate global poverty and provide basic social services to the entirity of the under developed world.


  13. plato – you didn’t mention any straw men?
    Your “what of” are easily answered by a little bit of investigation on your part (have a look at here, for example).

    Who claims it is either or climate change alleviation of world poverty. Surely both.

    And what we are finding is that many technological advance that are being made to divert away from fossil fuels actually benefit the economy.


  14. Plato sounds like another climate warming denier. All mouth, no science.

    What the bet that he disapproves of other scientific theories too?


  15. I’d have more confidence in the global warming theorists if they were calling for nuclear power as early and often as possible.


  16. That’s a strange response, isn’t it Scott?

    Surely what gives you confidence in scientific findings is the evidence, the rigour of the scientific analyses, the authority of the scientists involved and the number of different converging forms of evidence and scientific conclusions.

    That’s pretty massive in the case of the IPCC conclusions.

    Now, of course many of the advocates for humanity taking action to reverse global warming trends are also advocating for nuclear power – for obvious reasons. Some of them may be opposed – again for obvious reasons.

    But that doesn’t add to or delete from the confidence one feels in their conclusions about climate change trends.


  17. I guess I’m thinking more like a lawyer than a scientist on this one. I REALLY haven’t done any research of my own on this topic. That leaves me relying on the reasoning of others. As an attorney, I weigh evidence all the time–but it’s human evidence, not lab reports.

    One of the strongest kinds of human evidence is called “testimony against interest.” When a person says something that goes against their precommitments in a court of law, the jury sits up and takes notice.

    If the environmentalists who fervently support global warming were changing their opinion about nuclear power, I’d sit up and take notice.


  18. One of the strongest kinds of human evidence is called “testimony against interest.” When a person says something that goes against their precommitments in a court of law, the jury sits up and takes notice.

    Does that cut both ways or are you only applying that kind of thinking to the “environmentalists”?
    Do the oil companies get a free ride?

    If the environmentalists who fervently support global warming…

    Forget the enviromentalists. Stuff ’em.
    Bury them all in a big hole together with any subconscious prejudices you may hold against them.
    Good riddance.

    You have a scientific question?
    Do the smart thing. Turn to the scientific community.
    Go to the best. The very best.
    NASA is a good first port of call.


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