Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Current View of the Global Warming Controversy

In the raging debate over global warming (or climate change), each side contributes to polarization and misrepresentation of views. Too many of those who see themselves as part of the “consensus” about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) have a habit of ignoring the differences among those who disagree with them. These people are eager to slap the label “denier” and “anti-science” on the skeptics. (Both those labels have been applied to me by Mike Treder, who has consistently proven the most dishonest and arrogant example of what I’m talking about.)

We skeptics (okay, “planetary traitors” if you prefer) actually hold a wide range of views. I’m tired of being labeled a “denier” of some unspecified received truth. I do not deny, for instance, that there has been some global warming this century. My doubts about the claimed (and possibly real) consensus concern other beliefs. To set the record straight (and to make it a bit harder for people like Treder to misrepresent me), here are my current views, as of early August 2009:

• It’s highly probable that there has been some global warming this century—probably about 0.7 degrees C.

• The climate is dynamic and is continually changing. Further, it changes in different ways in different places. For instance, it may be warming in some areas while it cools in others. Local, specific examples are not good evidence for a global trend.

• There has been no warming over the past 12 years—despite continued human-related emissions.

• Over the next century, it’s extremely uncertain how much, if any, further GW/AGW to expect.

• Climate models are not proven reliable or accurate. Climate modeling is still an infant science.

• GW is far from the most urgent or important global issue for us to deal with. (See the work of The Copenhagen Consensus. Also see this [yes, it’s from a Cato blog, so start up your ad hominems]. Some problems that are more deserving of attention: Hunger, malaria, and unsafe water.

• Enormously expensive actions to reduce/stop GW by severely restricting CO2 emissions are premature. (Global wealth decades in the future will be far higher than with restrictions; mitigation is vastly more efficient, to whatever extent it might be needed.)

• Given the considerable uncertainty (and also taking in account geopolitical and health considerations), it probably makes sense to move strongly toward nuclear power (and more solar, wind, and wave power where feasible) and to encourage or even subsidize research into alternative energy sources.

• The extent to which global warming is anthropogenic is much more uncertain than asserted by the “consensus”/orthodoxy.

• The extent to which a consensus actually exists is not clear, nor is it clear on what exactly the consensus agrees (beyond the fact of some warming over the last century and some contribution by human activities).

I reserve the right to change these views as I continue to study this interrelated set of complex issues.


gmlk said...

I think that GW (increased GW) will be a good thing in the end, after a period of adjustment has passed.

A higher temperature and higher humidity seem to go together. AGW could lead us out of this ca. 5000 year old cold period with frozen poles and huge desert towards a future with significantly more arable land available then today.

It would be foolish to fear change just because it's change: Never assume the worst. Never underestimate the chance for the best.

This planet has managed a long, long time without us and it has survived worse then anything we are capable of putting it through. Life will adapt and when possible it will move in the direction "more" and away from "less".

Stefano Vaj said...

Max's post sounds balanced and plausible, even though I remain personally reluctant to form an opinion on the merits of AGW.

What I should like to point out, as I already did a few times, is that AGW is an issue composed by several different questions, namely:
The issues of course are:
- does GW exists?
- irrespective of whether it is anthropic or not, would gas emission reduction materially affect it?
- irrespective of whether gas emission reduction would materially
affect it, is it really a bad thing (in fact, only a massive
propaganda keeps it unpopular amongst the inhabitants of really cold regions...)?
- if it is, how bad? or rather, how much would we really like to
reduce it? what costs would we be ready to pay for it? if planet
cooling is an unconditional goal, why not reliquishing altogether the
use of fossil fuels in a six-month time, damn any other concern,
welcome back to paleolithic?

Because the measures aimed at fighting GW, even admitting that the latter exist and that they are not futile, have a *cost". A cost which can be measured in reduced or delayed growth, in investments diverted from other targets, in a massive redirection of technoscientific
research, and ultimately, for the utilitarians possibly amongst us, in human lives and human suffering.

And costs which should be compared, at the best of our ability to assess both, with the costs of GW multiplied by the probability factors of other abovementioned hypotheses and parameters, which as high as one may deem them to be are by definition lower than 1.

Taking also into account that besides the crucial issue of
geoengineering as a necessary, albeit repressed and denied, part of the equation, we might well end up calculating that the breaking point in the tradeoff between keeping our planet "terraformed" and modifying our economic and ultimately biological requirements could be found at a level less obvious than expected.

I remain perplexed about AGW, and still assume that its "proponents"
might be perfectly right. But it is disquieting to see how even in
transhumanist ranks all the issues above are dismissed out of hand in
favour of being, no matter what, on the "cool" side (pun intended).

And since I have no expertise nor training to express a meaningful
opinion on the merits, and my claims to competence lay instead in the area of politics, legislative mechanism, mass psychology and cultural
trends, I am mostly concerned with those aspects.

Mark said...

I agree with much of what Max says. Perhaps this is not surprising given the vague generalities he asserts. I do not intend 'vagueness' as an criticism. Given the complexities of the issue it would be hard to be more precise and plausible in a short blog post. That said, I wonder on what basis Max is able to make consistent these two claims:

"[1] Over the next century, it’s extremely uncertain how much, if any, further GW/AGW to expect, but some is quite plausible."

[2] Climate models are not proven reliable or accurate. Climate modeling is still an infant science.

Surely the reason for asserting that it is plausible that some "further GW/AGW" ..."is quite plausible", cannot be on the basis of climate models. For we are told in [2] that climate models are "not proven reliable or accurate". Perhaps the idea is that we have evidence for GW simply by applying Richenbach's straight rule: there has been GW in the last century so barring additional information we ought to expect more. Still, that would not explain the claim that it is plausible that some AGW is plausible. If this is not made on the basis of climate models, then what reason should we accept it?

This problem aside, I suggest some part of the slippage in the debate between skeptics like Max, and myself has to do with issues of 'accuracy'. Any time we speak of 'accuracy' we need to know by what standard and/or for what purpose. Take a road map of the US. If it were drawn to scale we should expect US highways to be 50 miles wide. The map is not accurate to that level of detail, but it may well get you to where you want to go. Climate models are typically doubly qualified. Each provides a range of estimates, e.g., 1 degree to 5 degrees of GW in a century's time, as well as an estimate (e.g., 80%) of how reliable the model itself is. Of course these two measures are intimately intertwined. Typically, the larger the range of estimate, the more confident that we can be that the model is accurate within the range. Perhaps Max agrees that part of the problem is that policy makers and public debate seems incapable of assimilating such nuances.

I'm glad to see that Max thinks it is prudent to switch from fossil fuels, given the uncertainty. I'm not a big fan of nuclear, however. I think companies like nanosolar and esolar have shown that solar is ready for prime time. (See the Scientific American article "A Solar Grand Plan" for the nuts and bolts on how to proceed). I would like to see fossil fuels taxed out of existence. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to have a progressive tax that because draconian only near the end of this period. This would give the market the appropriate information to retool and spur innovation.

Max More said...

Very well, Mark, I'm removing the clause: "but some is quite plausible." All I intended was to say that this would be a continuation of multi-decade trends (though not of more recent trends) and so I would not be surprised at warming in the future. I was NOT saying that I have a reliable model of climate change that leads me to expect further warming.

ethnopunk said...

Yes we are living in a dynamic system in which humans are possibly an unnecessary adjunct to evolution.

I don't like what I see in so much uncritical dialogue on the subject, but be that as it may, the fact remains, the permafrost is melting. Glaciers are receding. If this is not the result of Global Warming caused as a result of human intervention, then what is the cause?

Surely not Solar Flares or an increase in Solar activity? We would have noticed it if that were the case.

The only plausible explanation is that we are heading towards an environment which resembles Venus, and we should rather be doing everything we can to get a second habitat seeded on Mars.

We could just float the ISS over to Mars, and proceed from there! Would take less than a generation, and we could make some progress towards actually building a Second Earth!

Stefano Vaj said...

Max: Very well, Mark, I'm removing the clause: "but some is quite plausible."

Or perhaps you need not. Correct me if I am wrong, but plausible is simply the opposite of "implausible" and does not imply an especially high degree of probability, as in "War and peace are equally plausible outcomes of this scenario".

Mark said...

Stefano: First, I agree with many of the comments you have made previously about the issue. Two of which may be summarized as (1) nature does not determine the good and the right, (2) some differences at the level of empirical prediction may not be important at the level of policy. As for your suggestion that Max might find AGW as plausible as its denial, I'm not sure that he can consistently. Recall, that I think Max has good reason to support the idea that there will be GW based on the straight-rule: there has been a rise in global temperature in the last century so it is a good bet that it will continue in the future. My question was about the tepid endorsement of a causal model AGW; Max said he thought was plausible causal mecahanism. My question was whether he can consistently say this in absence of any significant credence in climate models. I'm not sure your suggestion will work in all cases, e.g., either magic gnomes are the cause of global warming or not. Surely these are not equally plausible alternatives. The general problem is this: there are millions of causal explanations for GW, and if we were completely in the dark about how nature works we should assign an equal but small probability to each. Of course we reject most of these because they are implausible given our current science. But this response raises the difficult bit of homework for Max in the philosophy of science: if he is going to go down this road he must say that we should have enough credence in science to eliminate many of the non-standard explanations (gnomes, wrath of God, etc.), yet not so much credence that we accept the consensus of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists that AGW is the correct causal mechanism. In other words, if this is the road Max wants to explore then he needs to tell us where the good science ends and where bad science begins, and it would also help to know why so many scientists fall into the trap of bad science despite training most of their adult lives to avoid it.

Roko said...

"mitigation is vastly more efficient, to whatever extent it might be needed."

I don't agree with this. I haven't seen a thorough analysis of the risks that mitigation efforts would come with.

It seems clear to me that, all other things being equal, reducing CO2 emissions is better than mitigating against them. But all other things aren't equal: I want to see an analysis that weighs up the risks of mitigation against the lost economic growth from CO2 reduction.

Otherwise, great post.

Roko said...

I also disliked Treder's article. I have a post up questioning his unjustified attacks on your views here.

Mitchell said...

Max - may I suggest you look into air-capture technology, i.e. technologies which can capture atmospheric CO2 and lock it away. (And then for extra cognitive dissonance, look into the idea of reconstituting energy-rich hydrocarbons from atmospheric CO2.) It's not going to make the difference in views between you and your opponents go away, but it's a neglected variable in most discussion.