Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The importance of being earnest

The talking heads have been all over the airwaves with renewed zeal since Hollywood decided it’s getting warmer. (Never mind that those who actually understand and advance the natural sciences have been talking about this for years.) Now that the issue of climate change has once again entered the public awareness, the media have facilitated a wave of debate, primarily among people who are not scientists.
I’ve heard those who believe the weight of current scientific opinion declare victory and describe any further discussion as "beating a dead horse." I’ve heard those antagonistic to the research on climate say, "this is just what I believe and nothing you say can change my mind." There remain other skeptics, as there should in our system of science, who tout a litany of statistics and factoids, which range from flat-Earth science to perfectly valid concerns.
To address the argumentative skeptic, New Scientist published a special report, Climate change: A guide for the perplexed. The report, arranged into 26 sections dealing with popular climate science myths, is on the whole well researched and well written. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the climate debate, regardless of your opinion on the subject. However, among my favorite bones of contention, I ran across this in the page on modeling:

Finally, the claim is sometimes made that if computer models were any good, people would be using them to predict the stock market. Well, they are!
A lot of trading in the financial markets is already carried out by computers. Many base their decisions on fairly simple algorithms designed to exploit tiny profit margins, but others rely on more sophisticated long-term models.
Major financial institutions are investing huge amounts in automated trading systems, the proportion of trading carried out by computers is growing rapidly and some individuals have made a fortune from them. The smart money is being bet on computer models.


This statement is misleading. While government and industry do use increasingly robust computational tools to model markets and economies, New Scientist fails to make that connection. Electronic trading systems are not analogous to climate models, rather they process transactions in a similar fashion to the checkout system at an online retailer. Simple algorithms that make trades based upon small price fluctuations are also cool, but they do not attempt to model or predict anything, any more than a mousetrap predicts the number and frequency of mice attracted to bait. This evasive language on the subject of models may lead readers to question the veracity of other statements made throughout the site.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that many people don’t understand how professional science works. Many recall having solved for velocity in high school physics, or followed that epic poem that ends in "to make ATP" in college biology. At the professional level science does not fit neatly into half-page problems and essay questions, and requires judgment, years of hard work, and collaboration to reach meaningful conclusions. Many confuse debate over technique or corollary details as an attack on broad conclusions.
The contention of so many fields of science that humans are changing the global climate is a grave concern. The general public only now seems to be waking up to what scientists have been cautioning for years. And, as with any contentious debate in the United States, there are many who are digging their heels in because their party or their community leaders say so.
In a culture that lives on opposing dogmas and often struggles with developments in science, we can’t afford to confuse matters. As we work toward parlaying a hard-won mass-realization into changes in mindset and behavior, we must be honest.

8 comments:

Progressive said...

Amen to that.

Pat Jenkins said...

boy you and prog are on this today. good it gives me opportunity to give you both a hard time. now no one in the gw community has given this a straight answer so i will pose it to you. what has man done to cause gw? now don't give me the stock reply of gases this and that, but what has man done to undo the balance or genisis of the weather cycle. if that can be proven to have been tampered with then man has had an impact, if not false alarm. take care.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Pat Jenkins,
Thank you for reading and commenting. Your question raises a couple of very good points. First the immediate issue:
The short answer to you question is, scientists believe that burning fossil fuels is contributing to global warming.
There is a fixed quantity of carbon in the world. Some of that carbon is wound-up in the bodies of plants, animals, and people; some of it is in the oceans; some in rocks; some of it is in the useful parts of coals, oil, and natural gas; some of it is in the atmosphere. The carbon in fossil fuels and the carbon in the atmosphere are the two areas of concern.
Carbon dioxide, that atmospheric carbon, traps heat. When we burn fossil fuels, we take some of the carbon that has been locked-up in the ground for a very long time and introduce it into the atmosphere. Scientists can demonstrate that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (when humans started burning fossil fuels in large amounts), the level of carbon in the atmosphere has approximately doubled. Moreover, models of patterns of industrial activity suggest that the overwhelming majority of that extra carbon in the atmosphere can indeed be attributed to human activity. Weathering, volcanism, and other natural processes release carbon into the atmosphere; some of the increase in atmospheric carbon is normal and natural.
The evidence of this warming is seen in loss of polar ice (for instance, Glacier National Park has lost around 90% of its total ice mass), in increases in mean annual temperature (19 of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980), in desertification (dust from expanding African deserts is being blown as far as the Caribbean Sea, where it has been shown to cause coral die-offs), and through other means.
Another very important point that your question brings up is that of weather vis-à-vis climate. I hear many people use the terms interchangeably. Weather and climate are not the same thing, though they are related. Weather deals with localized areas and/or short periods of time, whereas climate deals in longer intervals of time and typically deals with large areas. Consider Texas in July: It’s a pretty safe bet that it will be grotesquely hot outside. That’s climate. However, it will rain hard in San Antonio on some particular day, after which it will be cool for a while. That’s weather. Global warming does not mean that it will be hotter every day; it means that the average temperature will rise. It’s also important to recognize that heat is the engine that drives weather and it affects sea-level.
The bottom-line is that there are indicators in several unrelated fields of science that demonstrate warming and predict more. Whether humans add carbon to the atmosphere is not in question. We do. Likewise, whether or not carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas is not in question. It is. The debate among most scientists about methodology and certain pieces of the climate problem is primarily over how much warming and over what period of time, not over whether or not global warming is real. As much as I pontificate about everything from art to the environment, I don’t like to tell people what to think, so I leave your decision to you.
Thanks again.
-erd

Pat Jenkins said...

thanks for the reply and i will make this brief cause you have your stance as i with mine, keeps everyone honest, gw advocates claim that disturbances in the weather cycle or pattern are caused by global warming, greater storms hurricanes etc. etc. still no one has shown the way that gw has caused any abnormal atmospheric changes. i hope i make my question clear, is any of these gases, and there are many from man or not, dirupting the weather cycle. if you have answered this and i have failed to see it excuse me for my ignorance.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Pat Jenkins,
Forgive me if I misunderstood your original question. I believe I understand what you’re getting at, so I’ll pursue the weather v. climate subject in a little more detail.
We lack the science to attribute a particular storm or the specific intensity of a particular storm to global warming. I’ve heard alarmists claim that the 2005 hurricanes (Katrina, Rita, Wilma, et al) were particularly severe because of global warming. This statement is not well-supported (if at all) by science. Here again comes into play the difference between weather and climate.
However, science can and has linked certain changes in climate to human activities. At the risk of appearing confrontational (which is not my intent), your statement, "no one has shown the way that gw has caused any abnormal atmospheric changes" is incorrect. Surface temperatures are rising; ocean temperatures are rising; certain large air currents are changing; polar ice is melting. These are all observed atmospheric changes that have resulted from additional heat being trapped in the atmosphere by increased carbon dioxide.

Progressive said...

ERD - I couldn't have said it better...nicely stated.

PJ - I think what may be the best way to think about GW is that in terms of energy. Heat is energy. The suns rays are the mian source of this. CO2 keeps more of this energy in the stmosphere instead of that amount going back out into space. So when there is a greater amount of CO2 in the atmosphere more energy is being trapped in the atmosphere. This increases temperatures, which melts sea ice, which causes ocean levels to increase. The additional heat causes droughts to be more severe and longer. It causes more moisture in the air, so storms produce more rain. It warms the oceans more than they normally are, so hurricanes have the ability to become stronger (which is what acounted for 80% of Katrina's intensity increase in thhe gulf ERD). So you can see the interconnectivity of the system itself and how smaller weather patterns are affected as well as the general, larger climate patterns.

Pat Jenkins said...

e.r. i must admit i am a little disappointed. i was hoping to get a response from you on my post of 5/31. i would like to hear your reaction. in 25 words or less. ha ha!!!

Blogger said...

I suggest that you use the #1 Forex broker.