Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Climate Change: Summary Position Part I

I have been spending the last couple of weeks criticizing arguments found in the climate change debate. I would like to spend a couple of days explaining my own position on this subject.

First: You and I do not have time to become "fully informed" on climate change.

We do not have time to read the International Panel on Climate Change Reports and to read all of the works cited in that report and see if the report accurately reflects those articles, and to read all of the criticism of the report, and to read the responses to the criticism.

And neither do you.

Even if you are a climate scientist, you do not have time to do all of this. The climate can read that section of the material that is relevant to her field of study, but this will still necessarily leave whole fields of study that she does not have time to study in detail.

Thus, we are going to have to make our decisions in the face of substantial ignorance.

One group of people that I condemn wholeheartedly are those who get their climate science from reading a half-dozen news articles a year, many of them engineered by the PR firms of companies that produce or consume fossil fuels, and think they know what what the Earth's climate will be like 50 years from now. Their arrogance is orders of magnitude worse than that of the drunk driver who insists that he can make it home without killing anybody.

Second: The best information on what is going to happen is in the scientific consensus.

The people whose opinion about what burning fossile fuels (and deforestation, and the construction of cement) will do to the future of the climate is to be found in the scientific consensus.

This is not to say that the scientific consensus is correct or that it should not be questioned. In fact, one of the reasons to trust the scientific consensus is that it is produced by an institution that very much respects the possibility of error and the value of challenging current ideas against new evidence. There is no science scripture that says, "You must believe this and those who do not are to be sentenced to death as heretics." Science is filled with examples of people challenging received opinion and, eventually, winning.

Still, science is done by scientists, and scientists are human beings. In any community of, say, 20,000 human beings you are going to have some who are paradigms of virtue and some who lack virtue. You will find people engaged in politics and fraud, corrupted by their own biases, acting on petty grievances against one another and seeking to do favors for their friends.

Science, as an institution, does not deny the fallibility of scientists. In fact, the institution of science is built on the fact that scientists cannot always be trusted and safeguards must be put in place to lessen the harm done by human failings.

With all of its flaws, there is still no better source of information than the scientific consensus. Worst of all, again, are those people who claim that they can visit a half-dozen web pages on the internet and call themselves an expert capable of second-guessing a community of tens of thousands of researchers who have spent their lives studying the relevant subject matters.

Third: The scientific consensus concerns what will happen under different scenarios - not what should be done about it.

In order to become an expert of what should be done about climate change, it is not enough to be an expert on climate change. One also needs to become an expert on all of the different issues that one could tackle with the same resources. To do anything to address the issue of climate change means taking resources away from the fight to reduce the harms done by malaria and AIDS, for example. This requires not only knowing the science of climate change, but the engineering of different mitigtion strategies, and a comparable level of knowledge of all of the other issues competing for the same resources to tackle their problems.

No mortal has those abilities, and anybody who claims to have the answer and who claims certainty that their answer is correct is claiming god-like powers of intelligence of wisdom (and of moral virtue in deciding which options to pursue).

Fourth: Even in the face of these facts we can know that some arguments are flawed, and that no morally responsible person would use them.

To say that these arguments are flawed is not to say that we know what the right answer is. It is to say that no decent and responsible person would clutter our attempt to get to the right answer with this garbage. People who use these arguments show gross indifference to the welfare of whole cities and whole populations. Not since the days of Hitler have we seen such massive disregard to the potential for mass destruction than we find on the part of whole segments of the population as we are currently seeing among those who use these flawed arguments.

You do not need to know and understand the whole of the climate change debate to know that the Three Percent Argument (humans are responsible for only three percent of the greenhouse gas emissions) is entirely irrelevant to the debate. We are talking about changes in greenhouse gas concentrations over the past few decades. To look for a cause of a change in concentrations we must look for a change in emissions. The most significant change in emissions over the past 50 years as been human emissions. Furthermore, the change in CO2 concentrations is more than fully accounted for by the change in human CO2 emissions. We have no gap that requires looking for a second (natural) source.

Regardless of what the final answer to the global warming issues are, this argument is flawed and remains flawed. So do the other arguments that I discussed. They are now and always will be arguments that a responsible person would not use.

If I were to say that no morally responsible person will drive while drunk, it would be absurd to interpret my comments as being against driving - that no person should drive anywhere at any time. I am obviously stating that, while driving is (or can be) morally permissible, the morally permissible forms of driving do not include driving while drunk.

Similarly, it is absolute rubbish to claim that it is morally irresponsible to use one of these garbage arguments to support a conclusion on climate change, it is absurd to interpret this to mean that one cannot support that conclusion responsibly. In fact, this gross misinterpretation of my argument is, itself, a morally irresponsible fallacy.

Above, I described my position on climate change to be substantially one of ignorance - and I do not have the time to change that situation. I do argue for trusting the scientific consensus - but not for worshipping it. It is not a prohibition on questioning the scientific consensus. However, it is a prohibition on those who question it to refrain from garbage arguments - arguments that are already known to be flawed and that no responsible person would use.


Anonymous said...

a sensible approach to the issue. however, this current email scandal cuts to the very heart of whether there even is a consensus, and if there is one, if it's a product of corruption. do you intend to explore the disturbing allegations that the big scientists of East Anglia hijacked and sabotaged the peer review process, and perpetrated witch hunts against skeptical scientists?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am not yet certain how much of a scandle there is - as opposed to a need on the part of some people to twist what others have written for the sake of political points.

Yet, even if there is a scandle, science remains the best source of information. You cannot name any institution that can serve as even a close substitute for science. While science can never be perfect so long as scientists are human, humans (with those same flaws) are also involved in every substitute to science.

Yet, science has its own built-in correction mechanisms. Unlike virtually anything else.

If you can name a competitor to science that has proved to do a better job of delivering accurate predictions of future events, please do so.

You cannot.

Anonymous said...

if that's the case, then you really, really need to read about what has transpired at the CRU (as well as Goddard and NOAA) in greater detail.

this is a false dichotomy. none of those raising concern over East Anglia are saying to oppose science itself (in fact, I would say that suggesting as much is a garbage argument that no morally responsible person would use), but to investigate and hold accountable those who seem to have actively worked to corrupt the field of climatology and undermine those "built-in correction mechanisms."

If this has happened, and there are many real reasons to suspect it has, then that's not science at all.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


[N]one of those raising concern over East Anglia are saying to oppose science itself (in fact, I would say that suggesting as much is a garbage argument that no morally responsible person would use)

Right. And it is not my argument.

Yet, there are a great many people who declare that they already know the verdict without ever examining the evidence.

In fact, national talk show hosts said they knew all along that there was fraud because the scientific consensus could not possibly be correct.

This is the arrogant presumption that I am talking about.

There should be an investigation. Those found guilty of wrongdoing should be punished. And work needs to be done to modify the conclusions based on new information.

if that's the case, then you really, really need to read about what has transpired at the CRU (as well as Goddard and NOAA) in greater detail.

Read about it . . . from who?

From the likes of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh?

I will, in fact, read about it when competent reviewers have rendered a decision and recommended a course of action.

What I will not do is appoint myself judge, jury, and executioner based on snippets of information that show up on the internet.

Anonymous said...

don't you think it looks even a little dishonest for you to say that most of the critics haven't bothered to look at the evidence or to suggest that the only people to read are Beck and Limbaugh?

a morally responsible person who does not want to make garbage arguments might start with somebody like the University of Virginia's Patrick Michaels: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704398304574598230426037244.html

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I noticed this quote in the link you cited.

Messrs. Mann and Wigley also didn't like a paper I published in Climate Research in 2002.

So, we are clearly not dealing with the verdict of an impartial judge. Instead, we are dealing with the opening statement of one of the litigants in the dispute.

Even where scientists render an opinion on such a matter, since they are human, these may well be ill-conceived snap knee-jerk reactions based on a cursory examination of information filtered by the biases of both the transmitter and the receiver.

I am saying that I will adopt the conclusions of an impartial panel that has the time (that I do not have) to look at the evidence in detail and reach a conclusion.

I am not going to condone reading the transcript of one of the complainants and, without a trial or listening to the other side, declare that I have enough information to render a verdict.

Anonymous said...

i offered Michaels' piece as but one example of substantive reasons for concern. there are things in the article that clearly are disturbing regardless of his motives: direct quotes from these leaked emails which are publicly available and easily verifiable.

it appears that you are really setting up a standard tailored to allow you to ignore and dismiss whatever information comes to light that paints your side of the debate (I do not believe you are as disinterested as you say) in a bad light.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


i offered Michaels' piece as but one example of substantive reasons for concern.

I have not denied that there is reason for concern.

To deny reason for concern is to render an 'innocent' verdict without a careful review of the evidence.

This is just as objectionable as rendering a 'guilty' verdict without a careful review of the evidence.

I am doing neither. I am saying that there should be a careful review of the evidence and I will not pre-judge the verdict that such a review would come to.