Monday, March 27, 2006

Intellectual Recklessness and Sea Level Rise

Time Magazine is devoting a substantial amount of space in its current issue to global warming, under a title page that says, "Be Worried. Be Very Worried."

To a certain extent, that does not mean much. News outlets like sensational headlines because they help sales. Still, every once (as with the weeks after 9/11) it is possible to have sensational headlines that actually reflect something of the real world.

When I left college, I became particularly interested in global warming (a.k.a. "climate change"). This is in part because my first serious job after college involved working for an environmental consulting firm, and papers on climate change crossed my desk every day.

One of the arguments that climate change critics constantly used -- one that the Bush Administration still uses -- is that the climate change is complex. We really do not know what is happening; therefore, we have no reason to take any action against it.

Now, imagine that you are a passenger on a cruise ship. Those who study the north Atlantic have warned that there may well be icebergs in the water up ahead. However, the head of the company that owns the ocean liner says that it would be bad for business if the ocean liner did not make the trip to America in record time. Therefore, he orders the ship to travel at full speed.

Then, they see the iceberg. Because of the speed at which the ocean liner was traveling, it simply cannot slow down or turn fast enough to avoid a collision.

With other lives at stake -- particularly the lives of children at stake -- this type of decision is not just another innocent miscalculation. This is recklessness. At best, this is a moral crime. At best, this is a crime as bad as the mass murder of, let us say, 1,500 passengers who died as a result of the chain of events that this decision set off.

On the issue of global warming, the morally responsible course to have taken when evidence of trouble ahead started to come in would have been to slow down -- to give us a better chance to maneuver around any climate obstacles that may have shown up ahead of us. Instead, our CEO ordered "full speed ahead," because anything less would have economic costs.

As if running into an iceberg would not have economic costs.

The argument, "we do not know what is up ahead; therefore, we have nothing to worry about," is an example of the informal fallacy, "argument from ignorance." Any use of an informal fallacy is an example of intellectual recklessness. When an informal fallacy is used in conjunction with a policy that puts lives and well-being at risk (particularly the lives and well-being of children), we have a moral fault.

Throughout the 1990s, scientists we claiming that the sea levels could rise from 0.5 to 1.0 meters as a result of global warming. This mostly had to do with the fact that water expands as it gets warm, and that expansion would raise sea level.

Global warming skeptics made their argument that climate science is uncertain, and they could easily be wrong. Because they were wrong, we have nothing to worry about.

A morally responsible person would have recognize that if there is a possibility of error, then that possibility could go both ways. If scientists are wrong, it is just as possible that they had underestimated the rise in sea level as it is that they over-estimated sea-level rise. But the skeptics did not wish to consider this possibility. They continued to argue, "we know nothing; therefore, we have nothing to worry about."

Current research shows that scientists might have actually made a mistake about sea-level rise. Current data suggests that the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are melting. Instead of a 1 meter rise in sea-level, we are now looking at a 7-meter (about 23 feet) rise in sea-level.

So, if you are inclined, go onto the internet and look at some nice coastal pictures. Imagine a two-story building sitting right on the shore at the high-tide mark. Next, imagine that sea-level is now at a height equal to the roof of that house. Then, trace that sea-level inland and look at what will be lost.

Imagine that for every coast on every continent.

What we are about to lose is going to cost us a lot more than an ocean liner with 2,300 people on board (of which only the wealthy will be able to get into the available lifeboats). The cost, this time, is going to be global.

Intellectual recklessness such as this is one of the most violent and destructive of all moral crimes. Murderers destroy lives and can devastate a community, but the intellectually reckless now have the capacity to sew destruction on a planetary scale.

The magnitude of the destruction that they cause means that the intellectually reckless or orders of magnitude more morally corrupt than the serial killer or serial rapist.

It is well past the appropriate time to get appropriately angry at those who engage in and promote the moral crime of intellectual recklessness. If we, ourselves, turn out to be among those people, it is time to feel an appropriate level of shame and to resolve to do a better job in the future.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic argument, and I love the Titanic analogy. I don't wish such descructive results of global warming were trure as much as skeptics, but to say we should do NOTHING because we don't know everything about the situation is completely absurd! If you're driving in hard raing at night on a curvy road, wouldn't you slow down because you might not know what is coming? If there is even a slight chance that our current rate of pollution could have such devestating consequences, the smart move would be to slow down and use a little caution while we figure out exactly what the danger is. Thanks for making such a good point.

Mark said...

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Anonymous said...

It boggles my mind that they can't err on the side of caution. The Bush and Clinton administrations excuse for not signing the Kyoto Protocol was that it would cost too much and the results weren't known. WHAT? So instead of trying to do something... anything... they felt that since it wasn't going to be enough, we shouldn't do it at all. The cost of implementing the protocol seems to be far less than the projected cost of not stemming our influence on "climate change".

Anonymous said...

Just found an interesting ad by the Blue Man Group about global warming awareness and thought I'd share.

Anonymous said...

I agree that 'climate is complex' is a bad argument. However, it _is_ complex. The problem _I_ have (I'm a weather forecaster), is that there hasn't been a full accounting on the other causes of warming (for example, increased solar activity, soot on ice caps, changes in land use). Some of these have had recent peer reviewed papers published...have you heard about them in the news? No. They're not sensational enough. There actually is a lot more beyond the headlines you see in climate science. There was a massive climate shift in the Pacific in 1977. I'm not going to dispute that since then it's gotten a lot warmer. However, I take issue with extrapolating events from the past 30 years and then running with them...without conceding that we're due for another climate shift "anytime now" :-) These cycles occur on roughtly 30 year intervals. (do a search for Pacific Decadal Oscillation). If we keep warming up once the Pacific shifts again, then I will have to reassess. Second, I take issue with the idea that cutting greenhouse gases is the most efficient method of responding to climate change. First off, it would likely take a major cut in our standard of living (although rising oil prices may just do that by themselves). Sure...cut greenhouse gases...but has anyone told the public what that really would cost? Anyone? What's the bottom line? How much more per month would my gas bill be to heat my house? How much would a gallon of gas cost? There is so much hyperbole out there from both sides that it's not possible to objectively assess costs and benefits. Remember...Kyoto was a _start_. There were going to be more cuts _after_ that. But climate change isn't science's politics.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to illustrate what I mean by hyperbole. I was curious what the source for the 7-meter rise was...I think I found it here In order to get the 7 meter rise, you'd have to melt the entire Greenland ice cap, which would take 500-1000 years. In the next 100 years, the estimated sea-level increase is a foot or two.
So why focus on the 7 meter rise? It's certainly more dramatic. But I won't see children won't see it...their children won't...their children wont...etc etc etc.

By the time 500 years rolls around we'll have switched to solar and nuclear power...because we'll be out of affordable oil. Which will reduce greenhouse emissions by themselves.

Considering the changes that have occured in the last 500-1000 years, and the rate of change of our technology in the past 100...isn't it reasonable to think that we'll be able to solve that problem in 500 years?

So...the problem we _should_ be solving is what to do about that 1-2 foot sea-level rise. And land use has a MUCH bigger impact on that than reducing greenhouse gases. Start by not allowing people to rebuild in those flooded out areas of New Orleans.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The Problem

Actually, for me it is not a question of whether I heard about these other issues in the news. This is an area where I have actually kept track of the scientific research.

To the degree that there are other causes of global warming, they work in addition to (not instead of) the greenhouse effect.

It is simply not possible for a greenhouse gas to refuse to absorb energy. Any line of reasoning that suggests that we can increase greenhouse gas concentrations without increasing the amount of energy absorbed has to be talking about magic.

A 2xCO2 (twice the concentration of CO2 than that was present at the start of the industrial revolution) means that the atmosphere will absorb about 4 watts/m^2 of energy. This energy has to go somewhere. According to the laws of thermodynamics, a base increase in atmospheric temperature of 2 degrees C is required to dissipate this additional energy.

Anything else that you want to mention will either be adding to or subtracting from this base increase. The base increase is as solid as anything in science.

Scientists are well aware that there are a number of factors that will add to or subtract from this base increase. Furthermore, they are aware that there are "error bars" associated with each of these options. Adding these into the calculations, we can expect between a 1.5 and 6 degree C increase in base temperature under 2xCO2 conditions.

On top of this, there will still be these "decadal oscellations". However, like waves on an ocean where the sea level has risen, these decadal oscellations will occur in a climate whose base temperature has also risen.

I am looking for the source of the 7-meter number that I used in my report -- but it was not about the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet. It talked about a partial melting of the Greenland sheet and of the movement of Antarctic ice off of the land and into the ocean.

It should be noted that the concern in Australia has to do with the break up of the ice shelves. The thought is that the ice shelves were acting like a break holding the land ice back. With the ice shelves disappearing, the land ice may move out into the water, increasing sea levels even before it actually starts to melt.

If we are talking about the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet (adding 7 meters to sea level), we may assume that there will be some melting of the Antarctic ice sheet as well (adding even more to this total). If both ice sheets melt completely, we are talking about a 70-meter (or 230 foot) increase in sea level.

I have not even mentioned the concern with the frozen methane at the bottom of the ocean and what will happen if this melts and enters the atmosphere -- and how much this will add to the speed at which these ice sheets melt.

Now, you mention hyperbole. However, I am not talking about these extreme situations. I am talking about a relatively modest 7-meter increase in sea level with no other adverse effects by 2100. It will still be hugely expensive.

Dealing with the Problem

I agree that simply cutting greenhouse gasses is not necessarily the best solution, and may be a 'cure' that is worse than the 'disease'.

However, it is a mistake to present this as a dichotomy between either doing nothing or slamming on the breaks and bringing the world economy to a dead stop. Certainly, slamming on the breaks and bringing the world economy to a dead stop would be extremely hazardous, so let's not do that.

This argument is like telling the cruise ship captain in my example that his engines have only two speeds; full stop, or all-ahead full. It is a false dichotomy.

My argument is for slowing down so as to get some maneuvering room until we get a better idea of what lies ahead of us. If we discover that there are no ice bergs, then you can yell at me for slowing down for nothing. Yet, if there are ice bergs ahead, I suspect we would both be grateful for a better opportunity to maneuver around them rather than crash into them.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in getting that reference. The one I provided is very recent, which is why I'm confident I have the right take on this aspect, but if you have different information than I do, I'd like to know.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Here is a reference to a press release from NOAA discussing a 6-meter sea-level increase (20 feet) or more by 2100.

Arctic, antarctic melting may raise sea levels faster than expected

With both this and the Greenland studies coming out at the same time, I will admit to the possibility that I confused the two numbers. Yet, the confusion has no bearing on my point.

Anonymous said...

Umm...looking at that press release, I still don't see where it claims a 6m sea-level increase by 2100. Specifically it states " that Arctic summers by 2100 may be as warm as they were nearly 130,000 years ago, when sea levels eventually rose up to 20 feet (6 meters) higher than today. " It'll still take a _long_ time to melt that ice, if the prediction proves correct. On a more shortterm note: "In the last few years sea level has begun rising more rapidly, now at a rate of about an inch per decade" 2100 that's 10 inches, if it continues at present rate.

John Collins said...

I read a book several years ago when doing research on analyzing failures in complex systems managed by humans.

I wish I could remember the title but here is the gist of what it said are the types of systems humans tend to do most badly at controlling:

1. System's bottom-line behavior is controlled by something which is subject to forces that cause it to have momentum.
2. Humans cannot directly observe the momentum in the the thing controlling the momentum in the system because they don't have the right instruments or software to monitor it.
3. The sensors humans do have - only monitor/display the EFFECTS of that momentum on other things in the system. Not on the primary thing driving it.

For some psychological reason, humans don't perceive momentum of some unobserved thing as driving the behavior of the system.

They try in vain to directly control the things they are monitoring - which unfortunately are only tracking the indirect consequences of this momentum. In fact, that includes not only the natural behavior of the system, but how it is reacting to their attempts to control it.

Thus, lacking the right instruments they will tend to:
1. ignore the problems first, then
2. overreact to the drastic behavior which is a plain sign something bad is going on,
3. cause the behavior of the system to become erratic until it fails because they refuse to grasp that they only have indirect monitoring and indirect control of the system they are responsible for

My takeaway from that was that engineers should strive to build the right sensors for the system they are going to make other people responsible for. And scientists should strive to uncover and model the how the system truly works, so that engineers can do that.

Momentum in this context is not speaking to momentum in the strict mechanical force sense of classical physics, though that is a good example of it.

Anyway, yes we can all understand direct-control systems - a child can.

It is hard to understand a system that has an indirect cause-effect element in the overall chain of causes and effects.

It is nearly impossible to understand a system which has a lot of intermediate cause-effect elements in between the driving/root cause - and the ultimate, bottom-line effect(s) derived from all these initial and subsequent causes. And what we cannot understand or perceive is impossible to control!!!

Anyway, I think this way of looking at things like what you are talking about breaks it down in more practical terms. At least it points the way to achieving a solution.

And it explains the current inability to get traction on it. That's phase I, unfortunately.

John Collins said...

Scientists have just announced that they have measured the temperature over the arctic is rising faster per decade than the temperature over the rest of the world has risen.

Apparently they can tell this has been over the last 3 decades.

John Collins said...

Researchers have just announced that one-third of the coral in monitoring sites in U.S. Virgin Island's and Puerto Rico have died off in the last four months.

The following facts are mentioned in the AP Science article cited above.

A biologist working for the National Park Services says it is unprecedented. He says colonies that were there when Columbus came have died off in the last three to four months.

A biology researcher at the University of Puerto Rico points out if this niche dies off it will hurt key parts of the local island's economies. He has reported finding an 800-year-old colony, standing over 13 feet high, has died very recently. He also says before now they had never seen entire coral colonies die off before.

The heat in the summer of 2005 was the hottest in the last 21 years, according to satellites, says the coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch. Another researcher says the coral in the Pacific and an Indian oceans has been hit even harder, saying the problem is happening worldwide.

The science behind what is happening is simple.

High temperatures kill the algae living in a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Since the coral depends on the algae for nourishment, within a week of the algae dying off chances are that the coral it was providing for will die off too. If the lack of food doesn't kill them, disease can sweep in and finish off what the shortage started.

And apparently, that is what is happening.