In defence of skepticism on climate change

Reviewing the “Heartland affair”, Robert Murphy notes how one climate scientist did not think that the actual evidence against Heartland was enough and decided to forge a more “damning” document; and how gleefully the rest of the climate change movement began adopting this clearly forged document with no skepticism whatsoever:

Diminished Climate Alarmism: Lessons from L’Affair Heartland — MasterResource

Now to be sure, climate science isn’t the same thing as politics and the blogosphere. Just because these climate alarmists showed ridiculously bad judgment when it came to the Heartland affair, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong about the trajectory of global temperatures in the absence of mitigation strategies.

However, I do think this episode—and the reaction of the skeptic community during Climategate—are quite illustrative of the two camps’ approaches to the actual science. Back when the Climategate emails were first spreading around the Internet, I distinctly remember many people in the comments at blogs such as ClimateAudit warning their peers by saying things like, “Guys, remember, we’re skeptics. This is too good to be true. Let’s not jump up and down on this, because it might be a trap to make us look gullible.”

In contrast, the major players on the other side—when Heartland was “caught” saying things that were far more absurd than what the Climategate emails revealed—jumped with glee. For example…

Walter Russell Mead posits his analysis of the incentives leading to distortions in the climate debate:

How Green Gullibility, Hyperpartisanship Are Wrecking The Climate Movement | Via Meadia.

  • The climate movement’s proposals (above all, the global carbon treaty that in theory will subject the economic output of  every country on earth to global controls) are radical, costly and virtually certain to fail.
  • To be enacted, these unpromising measures require an unprecedented degree of consensus, as every major country on earth would have to accept, ratify and then enforce the climate treaty the movement seeks.
  • The climate movement must therefore be, in Dean Acheson’s words, “clearer than truth” in order to stampede public and elite opinion around the world into a unique and unparalleled act of global legislation.
  • Because many in the climate movement believe that this treaty is literally a matter of life and death for the human race, the moral case both for stretching the evidence and attacking critics of that agenda as aggressively as possible looks strong to weak minds.
  • The absence of any central authority or quality control in the climate movement (and the tendency of unbalanced foundation execs and direct mail contributors to provide greater support to those ready to take more aggressive action and espouse more alarming ideas) gives more radical and less responsible voices undue prominence and entangles the whole movement in dubious claims.
  • The increasing obstacles encountered by such a poorly conceptualized and poorly advocated agenda cause the embittered and alarmed advocates to circle the wagons and become both more extreme in their rhetoric and less guarded in their claims when precisely the opposite approach would work better.

I must say that I have a lot of sympathy for this position, although I do not think the phenomenon is limited to the “the world is ending” side of the debate; the other side is just as irrational and just as selective in its facts/deliberately deceptive for policy reasons.

What we essentially have is a political debate posing as a scientific one. The best example of this is the fact that the most commonly cited reason to believe in the climate change alarm is the supposed “scientific consensus” shown through petitions like this one — the idea being that if 31,487 scientists agree with something, it can’t possibly be wrong.

The very idea makes a mockery of the scientific process. Since when was science measured by opinion polls?!? By politicising the issue so radically, scientists are forced to take sides, and measuring the number that each side has is hardly productive towards settling the debate. Just look at this paragraph from NASA’s website:

Climate Change: Causes | NASA

In its recently released Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there’s a more than 90 percent probability that human activities over the past 250 years have warmed our planet.

The “Intergovernmental” is revealing of quite how politicised the debate has been from the very beginning — the “science” of climate change is not being determined independently, but by people with clear vested interests in a certain outcome. This leads to situations like that 90% figure, which I will translate for the non-mathematicians amongst you:

The 90% is the significance level of the model that they have created to show changes in the climate over the past 250 years. A mathematical model is similar to other models, in that it is a smaller, simplified version of a complex original. What they have done is taken all known measurements of temperature in the world and averaged them out per year to try and find the “global average temperature over time”; then they have incorporated all of the factors that they know to affect the environment in order to find an equation that “models” the effects these things have; then they test how well the model fits the actual recorded temperatures. The “significance level” shows the probability that any one point on the model will reflect the actual observed temperature.

To say that there is a 90% probability that human activities have warmed the planet is misleading. In actual fact, the model that the IPCC generated including estimated human greenhouse gas emissions has a 90% chance of fitting the observed results — which is a far less persuasive statement; especially since, as anyone who has formally studied statistics would know, general practise is to work to a 95% significance level.

This is not at all to say that CO2 emissions are not playing a role in warming our climate or that the climate is not warming: both of these points are, more or less, beyond dispute. What I am saying is that — contrary to what a certain Australian Government keeps telling us — the science is not “settled”. There is a lot we have left to learn and a lot that is uncertain.

Of course, to deny the proven science is not productive either. In fact, I would recommend a healthy dose of skepticism whenever you read anything related to climate change, pro or anti. Nothing outside of the internal debates in the scientific community hold much water these days.

And no Ms Gillard, the science is not “in”. Science does not come “in”, we’re not talking poll results. That’s not how science works.

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  1. Science eh? Q and A tackles climate change without any, you know, scientists « Major Karnage

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