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The arguments are warming

Alan Braunholtz

The popular media is getting into global warming, climate destabilization or whatever the more accurate term is for the myriad changes in local weather patterns the world will experience as global mean temperatures rise by a few degrees. Small changes can have large effects. The ice ages had a global average about 5 degrees C lower than present. The two recent big sellers, “The Day After Tomorrow” and Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear” are both forgettable works of fiction that select a few facts to support their plot, overlook some of the basic science, then run with it all the way to the box office. Unfortunately, they’re about as believable as “The Da Vinci Code,” but not nearly as entertaining.More entertaining is how political groups have reacted to works of fiction. Those who regard climate change as a “left wing anti-American anti-West ideology” are heralding it as the book of truth and promoting it with all their finances and power. It’s eerily similar to the support Bjorn Lomborg’s pop science book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” received from the business world. Both are “bah humbug, everything is fine!” works that don’t experimentally test or critically examine a theory against current collected evidence. Carl Sagan wrote a brilliant book, “Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” Part of it illustrates how to spot false arguments. Either of the above books would be good models for this chapter. Anyone interested in science would find this book a better buy than most.In science, especially new fields, there are uncertainties and mistakes. Critics of the whole field harp on these initial uncertainties to undermine all later work. Errors are selected and quoted again and again (often out of context) while ignoring other work, retractions, amendments and provisos that are proving correct. The aim is to create a straw man that is easy to knock down in the public view. In fiction this is even easier, as you create idiot characters to spout bad arguments that cooler characters then ridicule. This is partly what detracts from “State of Fear’s” reading pleasure. The “good” guys come across as such intellectual bullies-know-it-alls that you don’t really like them.Of course, on the other side of the book there are those who dismiss it out of hand as another example of evil polluting multinational propaganda put out by Rupert Murdoch’s empire. It’s probably best to view both books as provocative stances designed to generate debate and sales. No one should be afraid of a debate. I think there’s something in our Constitution about it, which strangely comes as a surprise to school districts and university regents now and again.Personally, I find the actions of the U.S. media, like NBC’s Matt Lauer who seriously asked Michael Crichton if environmentalists could change the weather to improve their fund-raising, laughable. “Dr. Evil will control the weather for one million dollars!” There are decades of research out there, and biased or star-struck parties dismiss it after reading a book of fiction. OK, so there’s a selective biography and essay at the end, but Michael Moore’s books have those and do you believe his conspiracy theories, too?The people in between the politics are the scientists themselves, who aren’t conveniently divided into good guys and bad guys, for or against us. Instead, they’re looking at theories and testing them as best they can. There’s a lot more consensus on climate change than the media let on. Almost all skeptics admit that CO2 is rising and the planet is getting warmer. The arguments start on if or how much human activity is responsible and how far it will go. Modeling the future is complex, involving a lot of variables. The biggest variable is us. How are we going to behave? Will a new technology make fossil fuels obsolete tomorrow or will we pump out greenhouse gases at an exponential rate? You also have to know how the Earth’s going to behave. All things will not be the same as CO2 and temperatures increase. There will be positive and negative feedbacks.The uncertainties and variations in the predictions provide the soft spot for climate change skeptics to attack. The “if we don’t know everything, we must know nothing” gambit is a strange but surprisingly effective tactic. It’s similar to the attacks on evolution by those who exaggerate, then fear its implications. By focusing on the very few (and often outdated) uncertainties, they hope to disprove everything we do know. I don’t think they do anyone any favors with this God of holes argument.To dismiss consensus as merely the result of a bullying orthodoxy ignores that when scientists agree, they usually do so because the science is pointing them in the same direction. Politics, funding and peer review may have some effects, but the “it’s all a hoax” crowd are also deeply involved with powerful political and wealthy forces that don’t want us to change our lifestyles at all. I feel their positions are much more open to corruption than the International Panel on Climate Change, the American Meteorological Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association of Science. Either way, it’s a poor debate that focuses on attacks on the arguers rather than the arguments.Consensus can be stifling, but climate-change critics should remember that this cuts both ways. There are plenty of climatologists out there who don’t believe in the consensus, though they wouldn’t agree with Michael Crichton at all. These scientists see much larger positive feedbacks as we awaken sleeping giants that start irreversible changes that lead to much higher temperatures sooner rather than later.The current consensus of human-forced climate change may not be right, but it’s the best we’ve got. Few of these scientists are telling us how to solve the problem, just that it’s there. To deny this consensus is a gamble against the odds, and only if the “she’ll be right” blind-faith group of skeptics is correct will we get lucky.Still, there is a problem with the entrenched views surrounding climate change that harms the science. “State of Fear” probably does us a service by highlighting these attitudes and may even help solve them. Often the hardest part of a problem is knowing it exists.Those vocally at odds with consensus do merit special vigilance, as they’ve either discovered something new or are skewing the facts for personal reasons. Both would be good to know.I’d love to see this skeptical view of orthodoxy applied to “exponential growth at all costs” economics and those who decry any proactive policies as prohibitively expensive.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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