Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Climate Change Real or Hoax? On Science & Ideology...

Just when it felt like everyone had finally jumped on the bandwagon, the climate change deniers are back. Yesterday morning I found a message from my good friend John Martinson. It said, simply, "what's this about:


The webpage John referred me to belongs to the Heartland Institute, a think tank that describes its mission this way: "...to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems." Meaning that Heartland prefers market-based solutions for social problems, and would tend to oppose regulatory solutions. Heartland believes that Global Warming is a red herring.

Heartland recently hosted a 3-day conference on the issue of global warming, and the linked website contains presentation data from the conference. Coincidentally, another very bright but non-scientist friend of mine, Avi Davis - open-minded, a bit of a neocon (I only spell that out because ideology is an unavoidable part of this discussion) - attended the conference and was persuaded. So is there anything to it?

Since Congress has before it an energy bill, I suspect that the timing on this is no coincidence. The Institute's ideological preference would be easier to manage if the global warming crisis were overblown, and onset of additional regulation unnecessary.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not accusing the Institute of skewing data to manipulate Congress or "we, the people." Maybe they're seeing what they want to see in a sea of confusing data. Did you know that cognitive scientists believe we fool ourselves when we go about the business of making rational decisions? Rather, they say we subconsciously pick and choose from among the available data whichever pieces support our emotional preferences, see, e.g. Sunstein, C. (2005). Moral heuristics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(04), 531-542. Maybe that's what Heartland does. Maybe, by the way, that's what we who believe global warming is real do, too. And for the record, since we're outing ideologies, mine is "pragmatist, left-leaning."

Even so, the fact that Heartland Institute is deeply ideological does not necessarily overcome their data. I need to feel able to tear down their data, not their ideology. While I do not begrudge them their ideology, it's the data that tells us whether or not to act. It's the old adage, "just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get me" recrafted for the climate change issue, e.g. just because I'm ideologically opposed to climate change doesn't mean my data's wrong.

Even though there's been a scientific consensus about the warming aspects of CO2 for decades, Heartland has some pretty compelling charts that are easy to read and do seem to confound the issue. It's hard to know what to think when confronted by such contrarian information.

I asked some colleagues, some scientists I know from The Nature Conservancy and from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. I also asked a group of environmental ethicists who follow the debate pretty closely. One of the latter group, Dr. Nicholas Webster, University of Utah, put the debate into "rate of change" and anthropomorphic perspective: "The question is not so much whether the earth has been warmer or cooler (within geologic time it has been and always will be fluctuating) the question is the rate of change. Based upon this, the rate of change in climate is unprecedented and does not allow enough time, evolutionarily, for organisms to adapt. Secondly, although the world has been warmer in past geologic epochs, humans did not exist during those geologic epochs. In attempting to ameliorate climate change, we are merely attempting to maintain the climatic conditions conducive to human life."

Dr. Mark Meisner, from NYU-Syracuse, pointed me to an excellent website published by GRIST, a site that describes its mission as environmental journalism: www.grist.org/article/series/skeptics/. Grist has a page devoted to debunking the debunkers. It takes each of the claims frequently made by the deniers and answers them one-by-one.

Dr. Baylor Johnson at St. Lawrence University, using Grist as a resource, gave me as an example the denier claim that the earth stopped its warming trend in 1998. According to Grist, the claim is based on the fact that no year since has been as hot as 1998 (although there is some conflicting data about the temperatures of 2005). Dr. Johnson says, "It turns out that 1998 was especially hot because according to NASA the most powerful El Nino of the century was superimposed on the longterm warming trend. The claim that global warming stopped in 1998 is simply false. Possibly no year since has been as hot as 1998, but the trendline has continued upward once one compensates for the "noise" of a major El Nino."

I puttered around the Grist site myself, and know you'll find a lot of useful information there. But I want to end with the response from a scientist, my friend Ken Wiley, from The Nature Conservancy's Arizona Chapter. Ken, surprisingly makes a pitch for relying on ideology when science is less than certain. Although he doesn't say it, he is leaning in part on something called "the precautionary principle," the idea that when we cannot know for certain, we make a safer choice. I think his words are worth sharing:

"I'm always skeptical, and think we all should be, when the opposition to something like global warming is rooted in economic impacts and "loss of jobs". That point of view, that argument, has been used as a straw-man excuse for an enormous variety of ideological agendas for the last twenty generations...

I have no doubt that many of those who are champions of global warming also have their roots, to some degree, in ideology. All of us are hugely influenced by ideology. The opinions we each may have about such things as abortion, gay and other human rights, gun laws, sex education, taxes, the defense budget, etc. are little but ideological differences.

The discussion about global warming fits, I think, into a category that is different than those listed in the last sentence. It, ultimately, HAS TO be decided by science, and it certainly, absolutely, beyond a doubt will be.

The key question, essentially your question, is "What do we do now, when we perhaps do not have the definitive answer, or the clear undeniable data to give us the answer, to what is clearly an emerging and potentially extremely important question?" I think the answer, since we do not have the smoking gun evidence, and likely will not ever have it to a degree that will satisfy all of the anti-climate change ideologues until it is too late, is to be found in ideology.

...My ideological leanings are that fossil fuels pollute, cause social disruption, are increasingly expensive, politically dangerous and economically disruptive. We all know, ideology aside, that we need to start finding alternatives. I accept the basic arguments advanced by Thomas Friedman in "Hot, Flat and Crowded" that there are compelling reasons for the development of sustainable energy, sustainable economies, population "control" and, yes, taking an ideological view that defines an alternative future for society, an new approach that transcends arguments solely based on the fear and paranoia related to a doomsday climate change scenario.

"Ideology" is such a charged and polarizing word. During the Bush years, "their" ideology was a very bad thing, smacking of prejudice and ignorance and cruelty and hubris... [By contrast], we were sure that "our" ideology was based on caring and fairness and optimism and hope for the future[!]

As always, almost no matter the situation, "their" (whoever "they" might be) ideology sucks and "ours" (whoever "we" might be) is the right and true thing. We're humans; I don't think we can get away from it. And I don't think we should. Politics is nothing be a constant battle between ideologies. It is the blessing and the curse of the human condition. A blessing because it gives us a choice. And a curse because we seem, based on history, to be such sorry ass, selfish, rank amateurs in the application of "choice". Pathetically, but, beyond much doubt, taking the long view is not our strong point.

So, back to your question. Since we don't KNOW, why shouldn't we choose to envision a wider horizon and make our decisions about the future based on more than global warming with, perhaps, an eye partially focused on the potential seriousness of climate change, as well as applying the gift of consideration to other, related issues? Such an attitude, such an "ideology", may lead us to the same place, a global discussion of global issues of concern that may make life not only better for us all, but simply possible for us all. The issues are bigger than "climate change". The solutions that will help us address climate change, even if it turns out to exist only in the paranoid delusional minds of 100 Nobel Laureates, will contribute to a better and more sustainable world......and my guess is that there actually may be a universal ideology that would agree that a better and more sustainable world is something we should all strive for."

More resources from my colleagues:

Union of Concerned Scientists on "global warming" http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/
Skeptical Science "examining the science of global warming" http://www.skepticalscience.com/
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/index.htm
Climate science by climate scientists http://www.realclimate.org/

Elizabeth Kolbert, 'Fieldnotes from a Catastrophe'
Mark Lynas, 'Six Degrees'


  1. Sandy, great post. It's also worth considering the Heartland Institute's funding -- they've gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars from Exxon Mobil. And back in the '90s, Heartland was telling us to stop worrying about cigarettes ...

  2. Thanks Miles. I'm honored you read my blog. How'd you find it?

  3. Well put together and a compelling case for sticking to our guns and erring on the side of precaution.

  4. John Martinson24 July, 2010 00:01

    Thank you Sandy. You came through!