Some Questions about Climate Change

Hellfire-crop

OK, I have not written anything controversial in awhile, but with the Climate Change Summit going on in Paris, a question or two has bubbled up in my little pea brain.  But before I raise the question(s), a little bit of set-up.

I remember when “Climate Change” was just plain old “Global Warming.”  And before that, I remember back in the 1970s when the scientific community (or at least parts of it) was wringing its figurative hands about a coming ice age.  But more than that, I remember something else.

My father had a heart attack in the very early 1980s.  He was a bright guy and knew that this was a serious matter (especially at age 46) and set about seeing what he had to do about it.  The received wisdom was to cut dietary fat and cholesterol, and to replace it with carbohydrates for energy.  A near-elimination of salt was recommended as well.

But the intervening years have shown that the “eliminate saturated fat” mantra was based on some seriously flawed science, and the emerging consensus seems to be that a moderate amount of saturated fat is not a horrible thing, so long as trans-fats are avoided.  Carbs, however, are not considered anywhere near as benign as they were in the early 80s.  So, if my father were getting the best advice today, it would be quite a bit different than it was in, say, 1981.

So, here is my question.  The human body is the same now as it was decades (and even centuries) ago.  Modern science has had an almost unlimited opportunity to run reproducible, peer-reviewed experiments with controlled dietary inputs and measured outcomes.  Yet what they concluded by 1980 (a time far from a scientific “dark age”) was quite wrong.

And if the medical community was so uniformly wrong about something as observable, testable, and measurable as the diet’s effect on the human body, how am I supposed to have so much more faith in today’s scientific community in its conclusions on something with such limited abilities to observe, test and measure?  Particularly when the conclusions are so different from what they were forty years ago.

Given an earth that goes back for somewhere between 6,000 and 4.5 billion years (depending on who is doing the counting), one can wonder how we can measure climate patterns over the last 100 or so years and conclude that we have observed the entire cycle rather than just a part of it.  Which is a big question.  The scientific community deals with this through computer models.

About computer models.  I studied economics in college, about the time that econometrics (or the quantitative study of economics as modeled by computers) was becoming a thing.  The programmer’s rule of “Garbage in, Garbage Out” applies no less to computer modeling than it does to programming.  There is an old joke about economists that asks “How many economists does it take to change a light bulb?”  The answer is “None, assuming that the bulb did not burn out to begin with.”

The point is that computer models rely upon assumption after assumption after assumption.  And without a thousand years of hard data, we have no way to tell whether all, or even most, of those assumptions are correct.  They might be.  Or, they might not be (and given that we have not seen the kind of temperature increases that were predicted ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps this is the better bet.)

I am not here to assert that there is no climate change going on.  I simply do not know, and am not qualified to issue scientific opinions on the topic.  Just like I am not qualified to offer expert opinions on diet and health.

dutchboy

But I am qualified to look at scientific hubris through the ages.  My mother-in-law remembers going to the shoe store and watching real-time X-Rays of her feet through new shoes in the 1930s.  There was also a time when it was considered a great idea to put lead in gasoline and paint. And more recently, fears of the world running out of oil have given way to OPEC’s impotence because we are awash in the stuff.  In each case, years of experience and further study proved that what was “consensus science” at one time was considered just plain wrong in a later era.

There was another phenomenon that I observed in my time of studying economics.  Some economists allowed their economics to dictate their politics, while others reached their political conclusions first and used economics to support them.  The same is true in law.  As a practicing lawyer, when I take on a client, I must advocate for his position and do my best to make the law fit my client’s need.  A judge, of course, should do the opposite, by interpreting the law first, and allowing that conclusion to dictate the outcome.

I have no illusions that climate scientists are any different from economists or from lawyers and judges.  With so much political significance to the issues of climate change, it would be naive to believe that the entire scientific community is science first, politics second (if at all).  Sadly, the modern discussion seems to have reached the point where open discussion even among scientists seems increasingly rare.

We should not also forget that for those of us who do not live in the world of climate science, we rely on the mass media to summarize and disseminate these scientific truths, because none of us is qualified (or will take the time) to pore through the reams of scientific journals on the topic.  The media’s role as translator between the scientific world and our own would seem to be another link that bears consideration.  Could there be an agenda?  Could there be too much money and prestige at stake for both science and media?  I have no answers, only questions.

What I do know is that through a few millenia of recorded history, people have been living, dying, and creating a lot of CO2 in between (in addition to that which was occurring naturally).  They got along then in pretty much all of the places that they are getting along now, with long cycles of warming and cooling within a fairly narrow range.  North Africa was not constantly besieged by blizzards in the time of St. Augustine, and nobody is sleeping under mosquito netting in the Swiss Alps today.

I am all in favor of clean air, clean water and good stewardship of the physical world.  I am delighted that pretty much nobody is heating a home with a coal furnace today and am also happy that many other bad or wasteful environmental practices have been reduced or eliminated.  I only suggest that the scientific mind is a human mind, and the human mind has been subject to pride and hubris since the very beginning.  And this is something that we ought to be taking more into consideration than we seem to be.

I am all in favor in science, and think that an open and robust scientific debate is a good thing.   However, it is indisputable that there has been in place for all of history, a climatic system that has proved to be quite durable, stable and resilient.  But what I am not hearing much discussion of is whether we modern humans are genuinely up to the task of fouling this system up.  I do not mean to suggest that what has always been will necessarily always be.   But sometimes past performance does indeed predict future performance.

So, those are my questions.  And, to be clear, I am not wearing a tinfoil hat as I ask them.  I am not a climate change denier, nor am I beating the drum for what is being sold as the current scientific consensus.  I like to think that there is room for a middle ground.  Let’s call it the open-minded skeptic.

11 thoughts on “Some Questions about Climate Change

  1. An interesting position. I think it most effectively highlights, however, how poorly framed the public debate is. The important part of the argument isn’t about science and scientists and eon-spanning computer models or any of that; it’s about values and virtue. Let’s take as axiomatic the proposition that we could consume resources and expel industrial waste–at a rate that is an order of magnitude greater than currently practiced–with no consequences greater than those that are readily apparent within the average human lifespan. Does that mean we should? Do we, speaking even just intersubjectively, find our daily lives made more fulfilling or worthwhile or “happier” or “better” by the unchecked, market-directed expansion of mass consumption and excretion? Even if we say “yes” to that question, can we be certain [even only as certain as scientists] that a reduction would not, once we got over the turmoil of change, be more fulfilling, flourishing, etc…? At what level of assessed probability would this alternative outcome tip the scales of cost-benefit analysis to make it worth taking up?

    And as to the matter of “consequences apparent within the average human lifespan,” your comments in this post suggest you might be just old enough to remember when, for example, Los Angeles, CA had its last Stage 3 smog alert; how many pieces of legislation and changes in practice were implemented in that area over the next twenty years; and how comparatively few Stage 1 smog alerts there have been in the last decade. On that basis alone, I would think that your stated position regarding the value of “clean air” should entail your support of many (if not all) measures proposed in response to “Climate Change” — regardless of the accuracy of the scientific ‘big picture’, no?

    Of course, contemporary popular discourse seems to have developed a severe allergy to “value” judgments [except in the most divisive and polemical contexts], so it’s little wonder that this conversation would not be the one our society is having…

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    • You raise a bigger issue, that of the moral dimension. And it is a good one that started creeping into my consciousness as I was finishing up an essay that was running long as it was.
      It seems to me that there is an almost infinite number of physical needs that must be addressed in our world, and strict limits on how many we as a society can take on. This is where I find the scientific questions of interest. Because if we expend vast resources on something that eventually turns out to be nothing, it means that more pressing human needs will have gone unmet.
      The topic of capitalism as viewed through a Catholic lens is something that intrigues me. But I am not at the point of having completely thought through where I am on this. And I do appreciate your thoughts, which are good ones.

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  2. While it’s certainly true that our understanding of the physical world will always be imperfect, I think that past bad science should lead us to doubt climate change is a challenging conclusion to reach. I think evidence is reasonably strong that we’re in a warming trend. And evidence is present that human activities are having a negative effect on the environment.

    What makes this such a tough area to talk about is the competing ideologies with which our leaders lead, and how climate science is always laid on top of those ideologies rather than allowed to stand on its own.

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    • I agree that politics has made this area a minefield. But then the Reformation was about a lot more than religious doctrines, too.
      I am not arguing that there does not appear to be a recent warming trend. But are we looking at enough data? A look at your car’s temp gauge during the first 5 minutes of running would show a very alarming trend. A longer look would show something else.
      Another issue is that all of the scary graphs seem to indicate movements in the range of tenths of a single degree. If I question anything at this point, it would be whether even the most honest of climate scientists have enough of a handle on the earth’s built-in temp regulation system. As with all things, time will tell.

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      • No, we’re certainly not looking at enough data. However, some of the environmental challenges we’re experiencing are not deniable and do need some sort of action. Some of the kinds of actions that the climate-changers are calling for do seem like they would help with those environmental issues.

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      • As well you should be. I don’t know if this is a time when we should be willing to infer a reasonable conclusion from incomplete evidence or not. But I don’t think we should dismiss this out of hand for lack of conclusive evidence. I don’t think that’s what you’re doing, I just read your skepticism, and that’s fine and appropriate.

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  3. Here’s a few recent observations that bother me…
    1. Who decided that the climate of x number of years ago, randomly selected as that time before the [evil] Industrial Era, is the ideal climate for the world?
    2. There have been talks at the current meeting in Paris that we need to target keeping temperature change to within 2-3 degrees. Who has that formula? Isn’t it a tad arrogant to think man can have any control over the earth temperatures?
    3. Though I always hear there is “consensus,” the forecast for sea level change that I have always read about was inches or fractions of an inch over many years. The president was quoted in the paper this morning as saying that “if” there is a 5,6, or 7 foot rise is sea level, there are going to be blah, blah, blah. When in the hell did the predictions call for that kind of increase?
    4. Here in Florida we have had the longest sustained period without a hurricane in recorded history. I guess climate change isn’t always a negative. Especially if we are burning less fossil fuels to stay warm!

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