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Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 04:08 pm

We still hear a lot about consensus about climate change, and yet when you talk to people at large, it's still pretty clear there is none, outside of a few scientific circles.

One of the big problems, I think, is that the debate has become polarized into two political camps — "Of course it's all anthropogenic" and "Nonsense, it can't possibly be anthropogenic, the planet is just too big."  There is no middle ground of "Let's try to determine how much of this change may be anthropogenic", because the careful middle-grounders have been shouted down by the climate change deniers on one hand and the ZOMG-technology-is-BAD crowd on the other.  Each camp spreads lies and disinformation about the data, and particularly about the other side's data.

For instance, most of the most outspoken climate change deniers I know insist that the possibility of climate change is rubbish because it's all based on baseline data that starts in 1960.  (It isn't.  But repeat the lie often enough, and you'll convince people who are willing to take your word on other matters.)

Another common anti-climate-change canard is "What, this prediction of the whole planet's climate a hundred years ahead comes from the people who can't accurately predict the weather in my neighborhood three days in advance?"

Well, actually, no, it doesn't.  And in any case, that's a different and only superficially related problem.  Trying to predict chaotic short-term local fluctuations in a tiny part of a large system is actually a much more complex and difficult problem than analyzing and projecting trends in the long-term, large-scale average state of the entire system.

To give an admittedly inexact analogy, if I build a giant pachinko machine out of two-by-twelves and half-inch rebar, and I pour a 55-gallon drum of marbles into the top of it, I have a very, very slim chance of being able to predict exactly which marbles are going to be bouncing off a specified pin ninety seconds from now, and in which direction.  However, I can unequivocally state that the general trend is going to be for the marbles to proceed downwards, and I can predict with almost complete confidence that five minutes from now, all or almost all of those fifty thousand marbles (or however many marbles fit into a 55-gallon drum) are going to be in the bin at the bottom of the machine.  (But there's always the possibility my deck could collapse, at which point all bets are off.)

"The planet is just too big"?  Yeah, well, they said that about the oceans, didn't they?  "We can just dump trash and sewage into the oceans without repercussions forever.  They're so huge we could never affect them."  "We can fish the oceans forever.  The oceans are vast, and their supply of fish is inexhaustible to all practical purposes."  Tell that to Newfie fishermen who watched their livelihood vanish when the Grand Banks crashed, or to Peruvian anchovy fishermen after that fishery crashed from massive international overfishing (mostly in order to grind the anchovy up for fish-meal fertilizer).  Take a look at the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer runoff down the Mississippi.  Fer cryin' out loud, the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout left an oil slick on the Gulf that was naked-eye visible from orbit.  Look how polluted the Mediterranean Sea has become, with the entire effluvium of North Africa and most of southern Europe draining into it.  Look at the tundra of Siberia and the Canadian arctic: the permafrost is thawing.  Oh, yes, we can SO affect the planet as a whole, and anyone who thinks otherwise is suffering from dangerous delusions or dangerous ignorance.

The other side of the argument, of course, is the anthropogenic-climate-change-is-holy-truth, how-dare-you-question-it camp who deny any possibility that any part of what we can see happening around us could possibly be natural.  "This has never happened before!"  Well, yes, actually, it has.  Repeatedly.  We don't know what the trigger factors were then.  We have some idea this time.  "The Earth's climate has been stable for millions of years until we came along!"  Well, no, actually, it hasn't.  It's at best metastable, and even if it had been, "millions of years" is an eye-blink in Earth's history.  The dinosaurs alone were around for about 160 million years.  They sneer at your "millions of years" — or would, if they hadn't gone suddenly extinct, apparently due to a series of global changes they couldn't adapt to.

Oh, and while we're on the subject, you folks in the climate-change-zealot faction in the scientific community:  I hope you're aware that your shrill efforts to shout down and suppress any contrary opinions from the scientific community probably did more to discredit your position and make the man in the street question your conclusions than anything your most vocal opponents ever managed.  That wasn't the smartest thing you ever did, you know?

(Counterpoint to that:  about that anti-climate-change petition that's going around in the news?  The one allegedly signed by 31,000 "scientists"?  Word is nearly 9,000 of those "scientists" actually have real Ph.Ds.  Still no word yet on whether any of those 9,000 are actually climatologists.  What, you tell me, over a thousand behavioral psychologists say they don't support climate change theories?  Right.  Duly noted.  I'll be sure to consult a proper seismologist next time I need some psychological advice.)

What we need to do is acknowledge three things, really:

  • There is a large and growing body of evidence that the Earth's long-term (from our viewpoint) average climate is changing in ways that are likely to severely impact our way of life, and possibly our ability to feed large subsets of the human race.  Yes, periodically certain subsets of that data have been shown to be in error.  That doesn't invalidate all the rest of the data.  No, it's not conclusive yet.  But if we wait until it is conclusive before we start doing anything, and it turns out it IS drastically changing in ways that are bad for us, we're pretty much fucked.
  • We don't know for sure how much of this we have caused, but it would behoove us to do our best to find out, so that we can avoid making unplanned changes to it in future.
  • And last, REGARDLESS OF THE CAUSE, we need to get to work on figuring out viable approaches for controlling and mitigating such changes, without trying to roll back the green-fantasy clock to some kind of bucolic pastoral Utopia that has never actually existed, so that we can try to maintain our planet in a general climatic realm compatible with the continuance of modern civilization as we know it.  This isn't going to involve abandoning technology; it has to involve leapfrogging to clean technology.  (And just don't get me started on that "clean coal" bullshit.  Talking about "clean coal" is like talking about hot ice or lightweight lead.)
Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 05:38 am (UTC)
Everything I know about anthropogenic climate change I learned from a so-called denier, Dr. Herbert Hendriks, professor emeritus of geology and environmental science at Cornell College. Brilliant man who now spends most of his time in a nursing home, frail body and a scalpel-sharp mind.

According to Dr. Hendriks, (a) climate change is occurring, (b) whether it's anthropogenic or natural really isn't an interesting question, and (c) it's distracting us from the necessary question which is what we're going to do about it. We need to discuss how to adjust humanity to accommodate a changing climate -- not how to adjust the climate to accommodate a changing humanity.

The more I see of the climate change "debate", the more I realize Dr. Hendriks is right, and the more respect I lose for the Greens. They seem obsessed with trying to freeze the climate at a particular state -- and I have a hard time thinking of anything less natural.
Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
Identifying the cause can, possibly, help identify mitigating factors. We are still woefully short of knowledge of how our climate works, at any level.

I do agree that we need to focus our energies on adapting to the changes. I seriously doubt we will be able to do much of anything to alter our climate in a deliberate way. (In Super Freakonomics there is a chapter on Intellectual Ventures proposing we dump Sulfur Dioxide into the stratosphere, as a volcano would, to effect temporary cooling. It will not result in acid rain, the gas is too high. We have lots of waste sulfur.)

I have noticed that many liberals and progressives are disturbingly conservative, in that they want all change to stop, or even be reversed, in the field of their chosen cause. Even if the present state is untenable or generates other problems. Why not just move forward and fix the problem? A richer population, living with more advanced technology, will reduce our human footprint far better than trying to put the technology genie back in the bottle. It takes wealth to focus on things like taking care of the broader environment. Why are we focusing on trying to get the kool-aid out of the swimming pool?
Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
Another annoyance: If Carbon Dioxide is the culprit, why are we spending our time and energy trying to add 10 mpg to the car fleets, when putting out underground coal fires, which add as much CO2 to the air as all the cars, trucks and farming equipment in North America annually, would be a much more supported task? Oh, yeah, I forgot, it doesn't harm and industry that I don't like. That's why. Besides, that would be really hard, and who would support it?

The current solutions do not go for the biggest bang per buck, but cent and half cent measures that inconvenience everyone, and damage our economy to boot. I understand the politics, old grievances and all, but the engineering really bothers me. What is the real problem we are trying to fix?