At the risk of boring readers rigid, I can’t resist another blast on climate change/global warming. It’s partly provoked by Wayne Wood’s Homer Simpson perspective on global warming (immediately below) and partly by a Salon article linked by John Quiggin, which highlights the role of energy industry corporations in funding global warming “sceptic” scientists.
I can deal with Wayne’s argument fairly shortly. I may be misreading him, but Wayne seems to think that the inevitability of a new Ice Age at some currently unpredictable time in the future provides a good excuse for doing nothing about man-made global warming occurring now. The onset of an Ice Age may occur suddenly and result in catastrophic global average temperature drops of 10 degrees C in a decade. Because that’s more severe than even the most dire predictions for man-made global warming, let’s do nothing!
But it can’t be sensibly argued that the direst predictions for man-made global warming (5-6 degrees C temperature rise over the next century) would have anything less than very dramatic effects on human society, albeit not quite as severe as an Ice Age. So surely it makes sense at the very least to make serious research efforts to find out how likely the direst predictions of the global warmers actually are, and to take prudent, moderate precautions in the meantime. Suggesting that we should simply bury our heads in the sand and do nothing about an avoidable climate disaster, because at some unknown time in the future (conceivably a million years hence) an even larger but unavoidable climate disaster will happen, doesn’t strike me as a rational argument.
Similarly with Wayne’s final suggestion that we should embrace and welcome cataclysmic climate change because it just might result “in a phoenix society made up of an ultra improved species“. It’s at this point I begin to wonder whether Wayne’s post is actually satirical, replete with deliberate ironies I completely missed. This argument is advocating calculated lemming-like behaviour. We should all jump off a cliff without knowing how high it is or what’s underneath, because with a bit of luck we might land in soft warm water and be swept off by the currents to a beautiful tropical island where we’ll live happily ever after. Feel free to jump first Wayne, I’ll be right behind you. Trust me, I’m a lawyer.
As for the Salon article, the existence of energy industry funding for some of the “think-tanks” pushing a sceptical position on global warming is fairly well known. Nor does it invalidate per se all research funded by those means. The ALP and trade unions frequently fund research by the Evatt Foundation or Australia Institute, but only extreme right wingers dismiss it automatically as unreliable and biased. There is no fool-proof shorthand method of deciding which research is credible and which isn’t.
Publication in a refereed journal provides some measure of quality assurance, but certainly isn’t a guarantee. Apart from the fact that the expert consensus is sometimes wrong (e.g. Galileo), refereed journals may also be subject to political pressures and editorial biases. Moreover, that can occur in any direction. Scientific American’s treatment of Bjorn Lomborg’s book was shabby, unfair and unscientific on any reasonable view. More recently, and in an opposing ideological direction, a paper by prominent sceptic scientists Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas (and two other well-known warming sceptics Sherwood and Keith Idso) seems to have enjoyed a charmed run in the journal Climate Research. The journal’s editor-in-chief and two other editors resigned in protest after the publisher refused to permit publication of an editorial critical of the Soon and Baliunas paper. Soon and Baliunas had cast doubt on Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” hypothesis of the millenial climate record, which is constantly used by global warming advocates to argue that the current decades are the “warmest on record”.
I didn’t blog on the “hockey stick” refutation paper by Soon et al, because the authors clearly had axes to grind, and it wasn’t obvious to me that any of them had sufficiently specific expertise in this area. On the other hand, both Baliunas and Soon are well-qualified solar scientists, and their work in such areas is fairly mainstream in my understanding.
The Salon article in fact sums up succinctly my own understanding of the current state of the global warming debate:
While most climate scientists agree that the most general issues about global warming are settled — Principally, is global warming happening? Yes. And do human activities have a role in it? Yes. — there are unanswered questions that help the skeptics spread doubt.
“The only kind of skepticism that I would accept from a colleague would be the uncertainty in just how much of a role humans have versus other possible causes,” says Michael E. Mann, a paleoclimatologist and professor at the University of Virginia, whose research on warming has been embraced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But what there isn’t any lingering doubt about in the scientific community, says Mann, is that humans have played a role in the warming that’s occurred in the last century.
What the Salon article fails to mention, however, is that the unanswered questions about the extent of likely warming and the proportionate influence of other causative factors (including the sun and supernovae) are the really important ones. If (as currently seems most likely) the temperature rise over the next century is going to be fairly modest, then extreme precautionary measures would simply be stupid and counter-productive. Most man-made CO2 is generated by fossil fuels, and oil and gas are due to run out by the end of the century. We have time to take prudent, moderate but real steps to ensure timely conversion to clean, non-CO2-generating renewable fuels. We certainly shouldn’t simply do nothing (as some of the extreme sceptics seem to argue), but nor should we go into panic mode and implement extreme and economically damaging policies.