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Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth's climate
December 17, 2003 2:51 PM   Subscribe

The American Geophysical Union has just adopted a new policy position on global warming in which it states its concern over rising greenhouse gas emissions.
posted by y2karl (37 comments total)

 
Quote:

Enhanced national and international research and other efforts are needed to support climate related policy decisions. These include fundamental climate research, improved observations and modeling, increased computational capability, and very importantly, education of the next generation of climate scientists. AGU encourages scientists worldwide to participate in climate research, education, scientific assessments, and policy discussions. AGU also urges that the scientific basis for policy discussions and decision-making be based upon objective assessment of peer-reviewed research results.

Science provides society with information useful in dealing with natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and drought, which improves our ability to predict and prepare for their adverse effects. While human-induced climate change is unique in its global scale and long lifetime, AGU believes that science should play the same role in dealing with climate change. AGU is committed to improving the communication of scientific information to governments and private organizations so that their decisions on climate issues will be based on the best science.


This policy position was adopted by a unanimous vote of the AGU council.

Also, smoking causes cancer.
posted by y2karl at 2:54 PM on December 17, 2003


Had to be a wimpy declaration to get a unanimous vote...
posted by wendell at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2003


> Science provides society with information useful in dealing with natural
> hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and drought, which improves
> our ability to predict and prepare for their adverse effects.

On the other hand, the Modern Language Association wants you to know it's all just a social construct.
posted by jfuller at 3:26 PM on December 17, 2003


I found the following sentence of their position paper to be interesting.

stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

For these sorts of people the fact that humans cause change is damning in and of itself. The fact that this change may be positive is unimportant. The central evil is that man caused it.

What idiocy.
posted by paleocon at 3:42 PM on December 17, 2003


The fact that this change may be positive is unimportant.

And the benefits of rising greenhouse concentrations in the atmosphere are?
posted by y2karl at 3:59 PM on December 17, 2003


Coastal real estate opportunities in Nevada?
posted by ook at 4:25 PM on December 17, 2003


Hey, paleocon, before you get your panties all in a knot, you should read what you quoted. The AGU is concerned specifically with "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". The operative word being "dangerous". One imagines that they wouldn't be concerned with beneficial or benign anthropogenic influence with the climate system.

Work on those reading comprehension skills!
posted by mr_roboto at 6:14 PM on December 17, 2003


<--- emits greenhouse gasses, and they don't stink either
posted by Eekacat at 6:45 PM on December 17, 2003


mr_roboto, that's not the opinion of the AGU, it's a quote from a political organization.

The statement is very carefully worded. It asserts that: temperatures are going up recently; greenhouse gases are going up; if you increase greenhouse gases (presumably holding everything else constant), then it is "virtually certain" that temperature goes up; if temperature goes up, the oceans rise; however, regional effects will vary (and therefore no local weather pattern can constitute evidence or counterevidence).

They also assert that although something is happening, no one knows how fast temperatures might rise, or even whether the effect is significant compared to natural processes. No timeframe can be specified that might make a falsifiable prediction. Finally, reducing emissions might make things better, or it might not, but it is not the only possible solution. No statement is made about whether stabilizing emissions is a good idea or not, but the statement does assert that no one can say what constitutes an acceptable level of emissions.

The conclusion is that there is cause for great concern, and that more funding for research, computers, and education is needed. Politicians should listen to scientists, but scientists do not have to make policy decisions.

You don't actually have to believe in global warming to support the AGU's statement. All you need to support is increased funding for a research program on climate change.
posted by fuzz at 7:47 PM on December 17, 2003


fuzz:

..or even whether the effect is significant compared to natural processes.

where do you get this? Read the first paragraph: "Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures".

Note: rapid increase. Is that "significant" by your definition fuzz?

something is happening, no one knows how fast temperatures might rise

Your reading must be fuzzy. In fact the report says no one knows "exactly" how much ie. estimates. Obviously no one can predict the future "exactly". This is about risk management just like trading stocks.

In addition it does say we know some things for sure "Some impacts have already occurred, and for increasing concentrations there will be increasing impacts."

Impacts have already occurred. There is no doubt that it is happening the report is clear.

Finally, reducing emissions might make things better, or it might not

The report doesn't say that. This is what the report actually says: "Actions that decrease emissions of some air pollutants will reduce their climate effects in the short term. Even so, the impacts of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations would remain."
posted by stbalbach at 9:15 PM on December 17, 2003


Let's look at the statements you quote, and see whether they are compatible with different possible changes in climate.

Yes, there has been a rapid increase over the period 1950-2000, just as there was a rapid decrease over the time period 1960-1975. If that increase is mostly due to natural variation, but a small amount is due to greenhouse gases, then that does not contradict the statement "natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase". The statement "for increasing concentrations there will be increasing impacts" doesn't predict any quantifiable results. The impact could be real but very small, and the statement would still be correct.

If it were to pass that for the next 50 years, no statistically significant warming occurs, the timeframe could be extended to a longer period and still be compatible with the statement. I have heard climate change advocates say that a timeframe of 100 years is needed to perceive the true effects.

You quote a statement that if emissions are reduced, then the climate effects of the emissions will be reduced in the short term. On the other hand, if warming continues despite reduced emissions, then the statement deliberately leaves open the possibility that the change could still be due to the impacts that "remain", or to other factors that have greater impact than emissions.

If next summer is as cold in Europe as this past summer was hot, then that could be attributed to the local variation cited in the statement, or to the unknown timeframe.

So how could this statement be falsified? What evidence, over what period of time, could possibly contradict it? The entire statement, including the parts you cite, is carefully worded so that it cannot be wrong.

I actually support the conclusion that more funding into climate research is needed. I accept that there is a real link between greenhouse gases and some unquantifiable climate change that may or may not be significant once we can quantify it sometime in the future. I think it is important to measure that over decades to see if it has consequences for us.

I think the scientists were very careful not to conclude anything else of substance, but to use leading phrases that allow politicians to extrapolate from the very limited knowledge of current science to a level of "concern" that justifies the further funding.
posted by fuzz at 10:38 PM on December 17, 2003


It's probably worth saying that I think there are very compelling reasons to work to reduce air pollution further, without needing to rely on the unquantifiable doomsday scenarios of the climate change hypothesis.

There has been some unbelievable progress in my lifetime, and I think we need to focus on bringing to the cities of the developing world the kind of smog reduction we have achieved for LA or New Jersey thanks to the Clean Air Act and other anti-pollution efforts. I worry that the focus on climate change leads to unworkable political grandstanding like the Kyoto treaty, distracting everyone from more practical initiatives. Meanwhile, new industrial wastelands are being created in the developing world, the smog cloud over southern China is visible from space and not addressed at all by Kyoto, and people will get sick and die in quantifiable ways from those very real catastrophes.
posted by fuzz at 10:51 PM on December 17, 2003


Fuzz - "I accept that there is a real link between greenhouse gases and some unquantifiable climate change that may or may not be significant once we can quantify it sometime in the future." You aren't aware of the recent nonlinear, sudden climate change research, are you? - stbalbach or I can clue you in if you are not.

Any climate change is significant, though the issue of what it would mean for humans or life on Earth is an open question. But I like the metaphor of jabbing randomnly at clock-works.
posted by troutfishing at 10:54 PM on December 17, 2003


(Er, sorry, y2karl. I didn't notice this thread when throwing up my (previously composed) enviro-post-thing here, or I would have referenced it. Great minds etc etc, I suppose.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:13 PM on December 17, 2003


The Discovery of Global Warming

Rapid Climate Change

American Scientist Online: Rapid Climate Change

An exploratory model of the impact of rapid climate change on the world food situation

Ocean & Climate Change Institute - Abrupt Climate Change

Are We on the Brink of a New Little Ice Age?

What Drives Societal Collapse?
posted by y2karl at 11:22 PM on December 17, 2003


troutfishing, I've tried to follow your links on thermohaline currents in the past, and basically they looked to me like studies of the form "if warming proceeded beyond a threshhold that we can't quantify, then potentially bad things could possibly happen, and here is a logically consistent theory of how they might happen".

Most climate science seems to be of the form "if climate change happens, here are models of the consequences." That type of conditional doesn't prove that climate change will actually happen. It simply elaborates a theory based on premises that may or may occur. In that respect, it reminds me of string theory.

If there are falsifiable predictions or climate theories that are not stated as conditionals, please correct me.

y2karl, it seems to me that your links go even further in proving my point. Most of them are almost entirely conditional, attempting to show that rapid climate change, if it happened, would have complex consequences that we cannot predict. That doesn't mean that such change is actually happening. The articles are actually quite honest about the limits of our current ability to know what is happening.

The first link basically demonstrates that we know that average temperatures are rising over the last 25 years, assuming that we are not making the methodological errors that it explains we made in all previous attempts at rigorous climate measurements. That's all we know right now, and the rest is speculation, as they go on to explain.

The article also states that we still don't have an explanation for the global cooling in the 1960s. So how do we know that whatever that was won't happen again? Our current models don't have any demonstrated explanatory or predictive power.

The article on the Little Ice Age basically proposes that one possible outcome is global cooling. So whether we measure warming or cooling in the future, the theory is not falsified?

The article also says, "besides needing believable models that can accurately predict climate change, we also need data that can properly initialize them," "for the ocean, our data coverage is wholly inadequate," and "our knowledge about past climate change is limited as well."

Finally, that article describes how the magnitude of the current changes is similar to the changes of the Little Ice Age of the 16th-18th centuries, which directly implies that the current changes are within the range of natural historical variation, contradicting the opening paragraph of the AGU statement.

The only thing I can conclude from all of this is "the climate can change rapidly, but there are many different, sometimes contradictory scenarios, and we don't know how, or why, or how much, or in what direction, or when".
posted by fuzz at 12:19 AM on December 18, 2003


fuzz - your first paragraph is one way to characterize it, sure. But that seems to miss (in my mind) the most important part of the story.

Another way to characterize it is - "We have determined that the Earth's climate system is inherently unstable and that it can go through sudden phase shifts which result in abrupt climate changes. We are concerned about Global Warming because one of it's peripheral effects - already observed - seems to be that it replicates some of the conditions which are believed to have set off known abrupt climate shifts we have discovered in the Earth's recent past."

I can boil that down too : "We believed that X caused sudden climate shifts in the Earth's recent past. Global Warming seems to produce X. Therefore we are worried that Global warming could trigger a sudden climate shift."

Capische?

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"Most climate science seems to be of the form "if climate change happens, here are models of the consequences." That type of conditional doesn't prove that climate change will actually happen." - There is now strong consensus that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is already happening - among climate researchers, earth systems scientists of all types, cryologists, atmospheric scientists of all sorts......

"If there are falsifiable predictions or climate theories that are not stated as conditionals" - There are not for one simple reason : ALL long-accepted scientific theories are stated as conditionals.

I'll repeat that again. All scientific theories are stated as conditionals.

All scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to change. Scientific "knowledge" and "theories" are best guesses substantiated - but never proven in the strong sense of proof you are demanding of Global Warming - by repeated experimentation.

But - LO! - these scientific best guesses have produced a cornucopia of product - computers and medical technology such as MRI's, nuclear weapons and toaster ovens......

Are you saying that - since all science is provisional - you believe all of these supposed results of science amount to a giant hoax? If so, you'd best find a nice warm fire-lit cave to retreat to before the massive schizoid delusion of modern industrial civilization melts and vanishes before our eyes revealing - as in some Philip K Dick or Stanislaw Lem novel - that we have been living a collective delusion. You'll be fine though, holed up in your cosy cave stocked with furs and firewood, while the humans run about all shrieking and lamenting - "our computers! Our cars! Where have they gone! It was all a dream! We're lost.....lost.......doomed......."

OK - now that I've run my point into the ground....

That argument of mine - stripped of the hyperbole - amounts to an "So - you only believe in science when it is convenient?" accusation which I would also level at my Born-Again brother who is teaching his children that the Earth and all of the world was created Ex-Nihilo by God, exactly as described in Genesis, On October 26th, 4400 BC, (as calculated by Bishop Usher in 1645) and so all of evolutionary theory, paleontolgy, a lot of archeology, theories of plate tectonics......and on and on - amount to a vast conspiracy or hoax to hide the real and obvious Biblical truth!

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There is one rather simple way to address your whole argument : without the Earth's atmosphere, the Earth should be, it is believed, a whole lot colder than it now is. This can be calculated as a simple function of the balance of heat energy contained in the solar radiation the earth receives vs. the rate at which that heat energy would be radiated into space if the Earth had no atmosphere at all.

OK - this is a rather simple equation. What this means, also, is that - you, my friend are LIVING in the Greenhouse effect! The atmosphere has an insulating effect!

Now accepting this - and I'm hoping that you will - you will then have to grant me that the various components which make up the atmosphere, and their relative concentrations in that atmosphere, will determine the level of that insulating effect.

This is why the studies of Dr. Charles Keeling are so crucial - Keeling has been tracking rising levels of atmospheric CO2 concentrations for about 4 decades, and so the CO2 temperature record reconstructed from the Vostok Ice Cores - which shows a close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and temperature - is very suggestive.

This does not "prove" any correlation, in the strong sense. But bear this in mind - it is a matter of simple physics that molecules of atmospheric CO2 do have an insulating effect. They slow the radiation of atmospheric heat energy into space. Period. This has been known for about a century.

The only way that increased atmospheric CO2 levels cannot increase the Greenhouse Effect (which prevents the Earth from being a frozen snowball, by the way - so it's a good thing up to a point) is if there are counterbalancing mechanisms.

So - to think of it another way - it is actually incumbent on skeptics of the Greenhouse Effect (that would be actually the enhanced Greenhouse Effect) to demonstrate what those mechanisms might actually be.

Jerry Lindzen, at MIT, is the only respected atmospheric scientist I'm aware of who is doing credible ongoing research into the possibility of such a mechanism, a Pacific Ocean area "heat vent" which would open up as the earth warmed and cloud cover - the theory goes - decreased over the Pacific Ocean area thus letting the extra heat vent into space. But Lindzen does not dispute the Greenhouse Effect per se. He just believes that his "heat vent" mechanism will take care of the problem. Lindzen also has stated publicly that the earth doesn't need nearly as many species as it currently has, but that's merely his opinion in that it falls outside his area of acknowledged scientific expertise.
posted by troutfishing at 6:59 AM on December 18, 2003


fuzz I agree with you this is a carefully worded document however I don't agree that it is ambiguous, reading between the lines one can see a real concern and not just a noncommittal stance as you suggest.

the unquantifiable doomsday scenarios of the climate change hypothesis.

Predicting the future weather is very difficult. We are lucky to predict the next 7 days much less 100 years. The predictions are all over the map it is true some are extreme (the East Coast Ice Age is my favorite extreme hypothesis). But one thing is clear, humans are influencing the weather, on that point everyone is clear. Once you accept that fact, would it not make sense to try and decrease the risk, just in case things go terribly wrong? This is the type of thing the sooner we act the better. It is like preventative health care or a retirement savings account. You can't quantify your future but you can take steps to decrease the risks even though things might be OK today. On that account Bush & Company, Inc are acting irresponsible.
posted by stbalbach at 7:10 AM on December 18, 2003


Oh, and one more observation - To demand Popper's falsification criteria be applied is inappropriate in this case for the simple fact that we are inside the experiment!

If we were as Gods and had a whole bunch of identical Earths to run experiments on, I'd say "Sure - go ahead and apply the falsification principle" - It would then be appropriate.

But if you demand falsification of Global Warming then you are also saying, in effect, that all attempts to study the Earth on which we live are not legitimate scientific ventures. But I - for one - like our partial ability to predict earthquakes, the possible vectors of hurricanes, or even weather several days advance.

After I had written the above comments, I thought - "I'd better go back to Popper, just to make sure that I don't make an ass of myself." Popper's lucid, beautifully written argument has a long list of criteria concerning falsification, but here is his nutshell summation -

"One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability." - Popper was proposing a general method for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. He surely would have appreciated the irony and difficulties presented - for his theory of falsification - in this formulation of CO2 buildup first stated in 1957 (The first "International Geophysical Year") by Hans Suess and Roger Revelle -

"Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past, nor be repeated in the future. This experiment, if adequately documented, may yield a far reaching insight into the processes determining weather and climate. "

Revelle was the director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the time, and has said that he and Suess didn't really somehow grasp the larger implications of their dry little statement. He said that- at the time - it seemed like an exciting scientific opportunity to be able to watch this [ non falsifiable? ] experiment in progress.

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In my prior comment, I should have said : "This correlation does not "prove" any causal link, in the strong sense. But bear this in mind.... "

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

stbalbach's point is a key one - we buy insurance for our houses, based on possibility of disaster, right? But can we prove that any disaster will happen prior to it's actual occurrence? - generally not, given current methods. We still fork over those premiums every month, however!

No one can really "prove" that Global warming will result in disaster - at least until that disaster has actually occurred.

An insurance policy seems.......simply prudent.

Or to put it differently - you brush your teeth every day - and perhaps even floss too - right? Why? Well..........
posted by troutfishing at 7:59 AM on December 18, 2003


Guys, I'm not saying that this is a giant hoax. I'm saying that the results are way too inconclusive to justify the kind of political alarmism that non-scientists use on this issue.

The scientists know that, but they are in a difficult situation. Politicians and the general public don't understand the need for long-term research programs. Scientists are torn between trying to get attention for the research and funding to investigate the situation, and the need to make scientifically rigorous statements. Their compromise is to adopt an alarmist tone while making statements that are careful not to actually assert that the impending disaster of global warming is a scientific fact.

From one of y2karl's links:
It will be another 20 years before the climate changes that are predicted to be associated with the greenhouse effect become large enough to be unambiguously differentiated from naturally occurring variations in climate. As a society we have the choice of ignoring the warning signs that our studies have uncovered or taking some action.

I think we should spend the next 20 years aggressively investigating our options. We should continue to focus on improving our ability to predict climate change. At the same time, we should test the technologies and polices we might need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, implementing them on a small scale where there would be minimal economic and social disruption.


In other words, we are 20 years away from actually being able to say statistically whether or not global warming is happening. I agree with that conclusion, but Lomborg was tarred and feathered for saying essentially the same thing, because he made the mistake of agressively promoting that idea in a forum accessible to non-scientists.

As for the "better safe than sorry" argument, that's a well-known philosophical fallacy known as Pascal's Wager, than can be used just as easily to justify going to Church on Sunday, just in case the Catholics are right about hell.

That argument could also have been used to justify increased emissions. Imagine that we had possessed today's climate models back in 1975. If we apply them to the data that was available back then, and extrapolate the trend linearly into the future as some (mostly non-scientists) are doing today, we would have concluded back then that it was absolutely necessary to increase greenhouse gas emissions in order to counter a situation that, just as troutfishing argues, in the past led to the Little Ice Age. Of course, that prediction would have been completely wrong in predicting the data of the subsequent 20 years. The "preventive health" our current scientific knowledge allows us to speculate on would have actually made the current situation worse, not better.

How do we know that we are not in the same situation today? We don't. We have some interesting speculative theories and models, and we need to use the scientific method to see if the future data actually conform to those theories' predictions or not. The existence of multiple models that make contradictory or vague predictions makes that very difficult, in a scientific fallacy analogous to drawing a bullseye around the place where the arrow falls.

I am inside the teeth brushing expriment as well, but there is clinical data from the past that establishes the predictive power of the toothbrushing model. Can't we at least ask of the climate model that it correctly predict the last 50 years of data?

Our current models don't stand up to that empirical test. They therefore don't enable us to explain much about what will happen in the future. Something is happening and it is very important to investigate it further, but any policy recommendations are purely speculative. Anyone who says otherwise is talking politics, not science.
posted by fuzz at 8:19 AM on December 18, 2003


One more thing :

Global Warming is like tooth decay
posted by troutfishing at 8:21 AM on December 18, 2003


Hey troutfishing, try an experiment: replace "brushing" with "accepting Jesus", and "getting cavities" with "going to hell" in your link.

Let's try it on your comment:
No one can really "prove" that not accepting Jesus will result in disaster - at least until that disaster has actually occurred.

An insurance policy seems.......simply prudent.

Or to put it differently - you pray every day - and perhaps even confess too - right? Why? Well..........


The critical difference is the proven ability of tooth decay models to explain past clinical data. Neither Catholic models of hell nor global warming models of hell have that body of empirical evidence today.

I sincerely hope that global warming models will accept the need to distinguish themselves from the Book of Revelations by making falsifiable predictions and proving that they unambiguously explain the available past data. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof", and the empirical requirement is made stronger, not weaker, by the unprecedented nature of the claimed consequences. Environmental alarmism unfortunately has an appallingly poor predictive track record over the last four decades, and that naturally raises the evidentiary threshhold.
posted by fuzz at 8:45 AM on December 18, 2003


Kinda off topic but in troutfishing's tooth link it says "The 1845 British Franklin expedition to discover the Northwest Passage was done in by it's stores of lead lined cans of food .. the sailors became mad as hatters and wandered about on the ice".

I read the history of Franklin and subsequent expeditions to find him and never heard about the lead theory. I think in truth they became lost, stuck in the pack ice and died of scurvy and/or starvation. No doubt the lead cans didn't help but they would have died of scurvy, starvation and exposure long before lead madness. The interesting thing was they knew how to fight scurvy (limeys) but the British Navy thought fresh air and exercise was all real men needed because that's the way they had always done it and damn any changes. Many later British Navy expeditions to the Artic also died of scurvy despite generations of knowledge of how to ward it off.
posted by stbalbach at 8:47 AM on December 18, 2003


fuzz - Lomborg does not do peer-reviewed science - in any of the fields he presumed to speak for, or in any field at all, as far as I am aware. It was on this basis that he was roundly condemned by specialists in the various fields covered in his book. For that matter, his book was not a work of science per se, It was not subjected to any peer review process. If Lomborg chooses to act as a scientist and submit work for peer review, I'll take him more seriously.

"My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval." - E.O.Wilson, generally recognized as one of the world's greatest living scientists.

Moving right along, your argument (from your last comment) would be fine except for the fact that we are living inside of that experiment which - as Revelle and Suess noted back in 1957 - will be an irreversible one. It is already irreversible, but as we continue to load the environment with carbon we may cross irreversible thresholds.

It is important to recognize, I think, that Global warming is not occurring in a vacuum. Humans - like beavers with contrivances, in the words of Loren Eiseley - are most places on earth busily gnawing away at the biosphere. This is a problem because the biosphere itself is what provides the free (socialist?) services we depend on - the production of oxygen, the cycling of nitrogen and carbon, the maintenance of a stable, livable temperature, and so on. So as we gnaw away at that very biosphere which supports us, we compromise it's resilience, especially with the additional stress of climate change.

The difference between acting in 1975 to forestall an anticipated ice age onset and acting now to prevent negative effects from increased Global Warming lies both in the fact that - while climate research was a very young science in 1975 - a fantastic amount has been learned since then and also - more importantly, for these reasons:

To forestall a possibly impending ice-age onset in 1975 would have required extreme human interventions in basic earth processes, on massive scale. If we even had the capability, we would have been blundering around more or less blindly. It would have been like randomly jabbing with an awl at the works of a delicate watch mechanism in hopes of repairing it.

However, the advice of climate scientists is now not that we should intervene with the Earth's climate in a massive way. Not at all. Climate scientists are warning us that we'd be foolish to not cut back on our ongoing massive intervention into the earth's climate processes - in the form of or CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions - which has been in progress since the beginning of the industrial revolution. They suggest that we should refrain from intervening.

And therein, my friend, lies all the difference.
posted by troutfishing at 8:58 AM on December 18, 2003


"I read the history of Franklin and subsequent expeditions to find him and never heard about the lead theory......"

St Balbach - That interesting twist came out fairly recently. I was probably overstating the case there for dramatic effect, but : " Lead levels up to twenty times normal in the hair of the three bodies exhumed, the fact that officers, who enjoyed preferred access to tinned foods, died earlier than the other seamen, and a study of the tin cans abandoned by the expedition, which exhibited flaws in manufacture that permitted the food to be contaminated with lead, all support his conclusions. Just how much lead poisoning contributed to the failure of Franklin's men to reach safety we will probably never know." Here's a whole mess of links on the subject
posted by troutfishing at 9:04 AM on December 18, 2003


Damn. I hate sloppy grammar. Oh well.
posted by troutfishing at 9:07 AM on December 18, 2003


E.O Wilson is not a climate scientist either. Lomborg's key scientific point was that global warming evidence is not yet statistically significant, and that current models of global warming will require decades of data before they can be asserted to be scientific fact. As a statistician, he is qualified to make that assertion, whether or not you agree with it. Frankly I'm always surprised when a skeptic like yourself argues based on an appeal to authority.

The quote I cited above from y2karl's link basically agrees with Lomborg on that point. Lomborg also stupidly made some very aggressive political assertions about the motivations of his opponents, and that was what got him into trouble. I think that the way he was attacked personally greatly weakened the case for global warming. Wilson's complaint is about the media reaction to Lomborg's work, not about his scientific critiques.

On both sides, there's way too much emotionalism around this issue. For the moment, I don't dare venture into the new Lomborg thread. Thanks for being able to have an interesting disagreement here.
posted by fuzz at 9:33 AM on December 18, 2003


E.O Wilson is not a climate scientist either. Lomborg's key scientific point was that global warming evidence is not yet statistically significant - fuz, you're right.

Here is Stephen Schneider on Lomborg : "Bjorn Lomborg's chapter on global climate change is a clever polemic; it seems like a sober and well-researched presentation of balanced information, whereas in fact it makes use of selective inattention to inconvenient literature and overemphasis of work that supports his lopsided views. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and other honest assessments don't have the luxury of using such tactics, given the hundreds of external reviewers and dozens of review editors....Note that Lomborg offers a wide-ranging estimate for how much it would cost to control climate change but only one figure for how much the climate change itself would cost us. In reality, the cost of climate change itself is generally considered -- by the very economists whom Lomborg quotes for costs of control -- to be much more uncertain than the cost of controlling climate change. In other words, this putative statistician quotes a range of costs when convenient but not a range of benefits when inconvenient. Neither does he tell us, as any assessor should -- let alone a statistician writing a popular book! -- that these are very crude estimates grounded in subjective assumptions at every stage. To imply that the costs are empirically determined is to completely misunderstand the situation, or misrepresent Bayesian statistics (subjective) as frequentist probabilities (objective)......Lomborg's analysis does not even address the cost that climate change will exact on nature, despite the media clamor that ensued after the Working Group 2 concluded that the monitoring data show a "discernible" impact on plants and animals due to recent temperature increases. Plants and animals breeding earlier or altering their ranges didn't make the Lomborg climate discussion, but fertilization of crops with carbon dioxide (considered a "positive" outcome of global warming) certainly did -- a good example of the one-way selective filter that Lomborg uses throughout the book. " Who is Stephen Schneider? (Wikipedia)

I posted refutations of Lomborg's work over on the Lomborg thread, and also one link to a cover of Lomborg's work which has extensive links to pro-Lomborg sources.

Meanwhile, thanks also for the civility
posted by troutfishing at 10:11 AM on December 18, 2003


Thaks trout I'm going to read up this book looks like a winner on the subject.
posted by stbalbach at 10:13 AM on December 18, 2003


stbalbach - you're welcome - that's a gruesome picture on the cover of that Amazon book! You know, - I learned of the lead story, I seem to recall, by watching a NOVA episode or a similar PBS production. I bet you can still get it.

Meanwhile.....I believe I had lead poisoning once myself. But there were no ice floes or pack ice to wander around on at the time, given that I lived in massachusetts. I guess I was lucky for that.
posted by troutfishing at 11:30 AM on December 18, 2003


Fuzz says: The scientists know that [the results are inconclusive], but they are in a difficult situation. Politicians and the general public don't understand the need for long-term research programs. Scientists are torn between trying to get attention for the research and funding to investigate the situation, and the need to make scientifically rigorous statements. Their compromise is to adopt an alarmist tone while making statements that are careful not to actually assert that the impending disaster of global warming is a scientific fact.

Which scientists are you talking about, Fuzz? Are these people you've worked with? Are they people you've had private conversations with? The climate scientists I've met are genuinely alarmed about the fact that we are on the verge of trashing the planet and that action is being prevented by people who have economic incentives to encourage inaction.
posted by alms at 2:23 PM on December 18, 2003


Are these people you've worked with?

Yes. I changed a lot of my thinking about the practice of science once I started to work with people who were willing to explain to me how they and their colleagues approached the politics of funding.
posted by fuzz at 2:48 PM on December 18, 2003


fuzz - are you willing to mention in which field you were working or associated with? - It makes a difference sometimes.

Now - I'm aware that science isn't some great pinnacle of objectivity. Kuhn had some good observation on this - but the extreme caricature of your last statement might be "I don't believe scientists or their findings anymore - they all have agendas!"

I know that this is far more extreme than anything you've said or implied. So where do you stand on the spectrum , from the 'science is ultimately objective' end to the 'scientists are all agenda driven and hence untrustworthy' opposite extreme?
posted by troutfishing at 7:09 PM on December 18, 2003


I don't mean to put you on the hot seat though - I'd have a have time figuring that one out myself.
posted by troutfishing at 8:13 PM on December 18, 2003


Oops - I meant "I'd have a hard time...."
posted by troutfishing at 8:14 PM on December 18, 2003


Yeah, I can see how you might interpret it that way; I'm reluctant to betray confidences of the people I've been working with by getting too specific. I'm outside academia but working with research scientists across disciplines on projects and funding requests.

I actually have a huge amount of respect for the way the scientists approach the political game. Global warming and anti-terrorism are two areas today where there is a perceived crisis that motivates the politicians to prioritize funding. Scientists are carefully adapting their proposals to those priorities. They will dress their research agenda in emotional language. But they are almost universally precise and careful to avoid overstepping the confirmed factual basis for their claims. Scientific training makes people almost incapable of lying or making unsupported assertions.

That's why you have to read the AGU statement, which is really the opening manifesto of a funding request, with great attention to the language and the claims made, and ignore the stirring calls to action that are in fact carefully isolated from the scientific statements.

Another trend is that people doing unrelated research will try to find a way to make it generate anti-terrorism or global warming results. yrkarl's link on "An exploratory model of the impact of rapid climate change on the world food situation" is an excellent example of this. The research is really a stochastic model of how changes in food production affect population growth and deaths. By using the unsupported assumption that global warming will lead to reductions of 3-10% in the annual harvest, and plugging that into the model, bingo!, we have a paper on deaths due to global warming, which clearly is a matter of study worth funding.

That particular paper is highly intellectually dishonest, but there is also lots of very valuable and ethical scientific research going on right now under the cover of global warming. The perceived urgency of climate modelling is fueling a boom in funding for research into complex systems modelling and supercomputing. Researchers in those areas are naturally looking for ways to apply their research to climate modelling.

I'm a Kuhnian in that I think that science has evolved a set of cultural practices that are an integral part of the method it uses to seek truth. But I'm an empiricist and not a relativist; I believe that science has far stronger claims of truth than other socially constructed forms of knowledge, because its culture insists on the outside verification of empirical observation. Ideas that cannot be subjected to such tests are not scientific ideas; they are outside of science. In that sense I'm a follower of Popper.

Scientists are people too. Even if scientific knowledge is not agenda-ridden from a philosophical standpoint, in practice scientific funding is political, and sometimes scientific debates are highly influenced by political considerations. My respect for the scientific community is that their fundmental ethics believes that that influence is wrong, and they have a responsibility to fight and eliminate it, but that doesn't always stop it from happening.

I believe that the real problem is that people who worry about policy, as well as people who believe in a cause, need an answer now as to the reality of global warming. Science can't provide knowledge on schedule, but politicians aren't interested in ambiguous answers. Politically, it has become impossible to say "we just don't know if global warming will continue or not, or whether it's our fault or natural variation, and so we will have to wait 20 years and improve our science. So this isn't a crisis yet, but given the magnitude of potential consequences, we should still get lots of money to study it closely." Saying that would dry up funding and provide a political opportunity for opponents of any attempts to reduce pollution.

The environmental movement has backed itself into a corner with repeated assertions of impending catastrophe, and backing off from those claims now would destroy their credibility. The tragedy of all this is that they are leading the scientists into the same corner. The scientists are maintaining their commitment to rigor among themselves, but they are getting drawn into the policy debate. The Lomborg affair is to me a sad symptom of what happens when non-scientific practices of political debate and censure infect the scientific community.
posted by fuzz at 3:44 AM on December 19, 2003


fuzz - that was a really great, insightful response - this part made me laugh out loud - "Another trend is that people doing unrelated research will try to find a way to make it generate anti-terrorism or global warming results"

Of course. So human, that.

As far as the "impending catastrophe" problem - well, hmmm - the Cassandra problem. Are we in free fall and due to smack into the pavement at any time? The "Cornucopian" vs. "Malthusian" issue fascinates me, especially since both claims aren't falsifiable, yet they are the very crux of the debates between environmentalists and their chosen foes.

But it's good to hear that : "I'm a Kuhnian in that I think that science has evolved a set of cultural practices that are an integral part of the method it uses to seek truth. But I'm an empiricist and not a relativist; I believe that science has far stronger claims of truth than other socially constructed forms of knowledge, because its culture insists on the outside verification of empirical observation. Ideas that cannot be subjected to such tests are not scientific ideas; they are outside of science. In that sense I'm a follower of Popper. "

That's exactly where I stand on this. I've been slowly accumulating material on the overall issue - maybe for a post, maybe just a webpage or two. The interraction between the scientific community and society - a la C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures" perspective - especially interests me. I have a brother who's teaching his children that evolution is a hoax, and yet one of his kids is pursuing higher level math. But - further - is it necessary for much of the population to understand science for society to function? But if they do not, or if the split widens, where does this lead?
posted by troutfishing at 6:37 PM on December 19, 2003


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