Friday, 24 March 2017

Reasons to be skeptical about climate change - or not

Six months ago when I was collecting suggestions for debate proposals in a class of second-year university science students, I had to politely reject one about global warming being caused by humans. I asked the class for a show of hands, and nobody was against this. "We can't really debate this," I had to tell them. "Nobody disagrees that global warming is caused by humans."
Since then, the climate change debate has reared its ugly head again. But it's not so much about whether climate change is true, or what can be done about it. It's more like a punch up between the protagonists in Fight Club. On one side the argument is that the science is irrelevant. On the other side, it is that politicians don't understand science. Debate is not really happening because the two sides are not engaging. One side is attacking "climate deniers" and the other is attacking "climate warmists". Nobody identifies themselves with these titles. 

Below are a few of the kinds arguments that you'll hear, and what is wrong with them. 

Cherry picking of data 

"My grandfather smoked 20 cigarettes a day, drank, ate meat and lived to 95"

Ok, maybe he did, but my grandfather smoked, drank, ate meat and died at the age of 46. Neither of these proves anything about the connection between lifestyle and longevity, any more than rolling a dice once and getting a 1 will tell you what is on the other sides, how many sides the dice has, whether it's loaded, or what will happen on the next roll.

Climate science requires long and broad sets of data to find whether it's getting warmer or not. One swallow does not make a summer, and one snowball does not mean that global warming is a lie. The butterfly you saw in February is not proof that the world is getting warmer, but it is evidence, and taken with all the other evidence, it becomes very difficult to deny. See this list of climate monitoring groups that say the world is not getting warmer

Expecting scientists to be 100% sure

"There's a big black bear coming to kill you!"
"No, I think you'll find it's just a really dark shade of brown"

The reality with science is that nobody is every 100% sure. Scientists often show how sure they are with a "p" followed by a percentage. That percentage is the probability that the results they saw were the result of a coincidence. Predictions should always have ranges, and in fact one problem between the media and the scientists who have tried to communicate with media is that these ranges are often left out.

So for example you get stories like Heat-related deaths will rise 257% by 2050 because of climate change. Not 256%, not 258%, but 257%! The original paper says "around 257%" in the abstract, and the actual paper no doubt gives margins of error. Unfortunately the actual science is protected by a pay wall, so we can't easily get it. We can get this headline, which will almost certainly be wrong, and access will be completely free to blog posts saying that scientists got it wrong again. 

Next time, please write something like: "Heat-related deaths to increase two and a half times by 2050...".   

There's an article here from the Max Planck institute saying there is a 1.7±0.5 mm per year rise in sea levels over the 20th century. That's a huge margin of error, but note that even the lower level means the sea rose over 120 mm in a hundred years. In their wildest dreams the sea level did not fall. 

Turning arguments against you

"No you're a big fat idiot"

People seeking to attack the climate science will often turn arguments around. 

For example:
Oil companies have been accused of a conspiracy to cover up global warming -> Scientists are accused of a conspiracy by the renewable energy industry to create climate science

The media were accused of taking information out of context from Climategate emails immediately before Copenhagen Climate Talks that helped sink any agreement there -> NOAA scientists were recently accused of speeding global warming data to publication immediately before Paris Climate Talks to create agreement

Right wing politicians have political objections to climate change and have attacked the science ->  Scientists are accused of politicising the science.  

Strategically what is happening here is a takeover of the rhetoric. The intention is that when we hear "climate change" and "conspiracy", instead of thinking of the well-documented conspiracies by oil executives to promote junk science, people will be duped into imagining some a group of communists who have got together to create climate science.

Accusations of hypocrisy

"If you ... you cannot be an environmentalist"

Where the "..." could be any of a number of things that have an impact on the environment, for example have children, drive a car, fly, use a computer, cook food, or breathe.

This is first of all an ad hominem attack, where things have turned from attacking arguments to attacking the person arguing. These kinds of attacks happen on both sides of tribal conflicts, and do not help. The establishment loves accusing idealists of hypocrisy, although ironically they often fail to see hypocrisy in themselves.

This kind of argument puts excessive restraints on who can be classified an environmentalist, which gives an excuse for many people to do nothing. It also seeks to create a gap between environmentalists and everyone else, making it more difficult for people to take environmental positions.

And these arguments often miss the point of environmentalism. For all but a lunatic fringe, environmentalism is not really about saving the planet. It is about making sure the planet can save us. For example, it is an admirable choice to not have children since population is a multiplier of environmental damage, but the whole point of environmentalism is to make a planet where our children, and their children can survive. 

Environmentalists are not all soppy romantics desperate to save cute furry animals and to hug trees.
They are pragmatists who appreciate that all our food, fresh water and clean air come from complex ecosystems that have developed over millions of years, and that may not be able to survive the sudden changes we are imposing. The people who tell us everything will be fine are the wishy-washy idealists.

The reality is that we are a complex species living in a complex environment, and there are no simple solutions, but the first step is being honest.