Saturday, July 24, 2010

Climate Chorus In the Key of K


The energy bill has been raised from near death in the waning hours of this Congressional session. 

In the background I already hear competing choruses.  Despite the sheer number of scientists who have put their reputations on the line confirming that global warming is real, somehow the Denier's Chorus grows incredibly, maddeningly loud.

Today, my very smart friend, Jeffrey Malashock, read my blog post addressing the question of Hoax or Not?   Unconvinced by my argument that precaution is the better course of valor, or maybe just prone to oppose, Jeffrey sent me an article meant to be contrary.  Jeffrey is nothing if not tactful.  He prefaced the article, written by one Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, with the following words:

"I know you can search for endless articles on this topic. This one does not have an agenda, it raises some issues. I have more recent stuff by this author, but its almost all math. This is the most readable of his scientific articles. Its from the American Physical Society, of which I am a member"

I should have guessed when I read the author's name (of Brenchley?) that the letter would be stuffy.  I will provide visual proof of this for you in a bit, but suffice it to say, the letter was five parts mathematical equation, one part English.  If this is the most readable of his articles, I say, leave me out of it.  I am a policy person, not a scientist or mathematician.  I require a professional translator. 

Perhaps unfortunately for my reader, since the English part was, in fact, in English, I feel the need to have a word. 

First, since I told you what Jeffrey said, I believe it only fair to note the journal's disclaimer, printed at the very top of the article:

"The following article has not undergone any scientific peer review, since that is not normal procedure for American Physical Society newsletters. The American Physical Society reaffirms the following position on climate change, adopted by its governing body, the APS Council, on November 18, 2007: 'Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate.'"

Next, I want to point out that of Brenchley did not actually deny climate change.  He simply said that the mathematical proof being used to demonstrate that over 50 percent of global warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases is in error.  Here are his arguments.

Since they are not the main points, and of Brenchley simply leads off with them for good measure, I will not bother to address the standard stuff of all denials - the general reduction of temperature climaxing in the 2008 low (discussed elsewhere), and the sunspot argument. 

Instead, I will dive directly into the meat of of Brenchley's article.  Although i cannot begin to follow the math in this article, the written portion seems to rely upon the following:

1) too much uncertainty around certain assumptions used to formulate the equation to draw conclusions

2) reliance upon lab experiments that do not seem to be playing out in the real world

3) the likely incorrect value of "k" - not that i understand exactly what "k" is, but it is apparently important to equation calculations upon which some climate scientists have relied.

These three factors, in the end, add up to a statement that we do not have adequate science to trust what we have been told about climate change.  Even if of Brenchley got every little mathematical thing right - and if Jeffrey says he's a good mathematician, well, I can go with that - his paper is just another among many examples of the idea that we should not leap before the science is "right."   To specifically quote of Brenchley:

"In short, we must get the science right or we shall get the policy wrong."

I disagree vehemently with of Brenchley's prescription.   While of Brenchley is doing the scientific world a favor by double-checking equations, those equations are used for only one purpose - predicting multi-variable future weather occurances.  We do not need to rely upon predictions of future events for our proof of climate change.  It is immaterial at some level whether green house gases are causing 50 percent or 30 percent of the climate change.  It is enough to see that the climate is changing in dangerous ways.  There is so much evidence from the here and now - melting ice floes, measurable changes in ocean temperature - real, measurable, hard, empirical, scientific evidence of climate change that we need not wait for scientists to agree about how to quantify and model future climate events.  We can be afraid of climate change now.  

Here is another link from my blog.  I refer you specifically to the ocean data toward the bottom.  Take the link to the original web site, and read more about the science behind the ocean temperature trends.  This data is not "calculation" based on erroneous equations. This data is real, gathered data.

So, no, Jeffrey, I do not feel of Brenchley has poked holes in my belief system.   It is not enough for me that someone "proves" that we don't have all the science.   We will never have all the science.   And like the guy who recently posited that gravity may be nothing but a side-effect of a completely different phenomenon, we may sometimes find out that what we thought was science might not be science at all.  Science is simply the pursuit of knowledge, and what passes for knowledge changes constantly.  To wait for finality is  a fools game.

And looking at today's evidence, even if it is still somewhat inconclusive and leaves us with some doubt, precaution is a policy we can take before we get the science right, without too much fear of getting the policy wrong.

Jeffrey said of Brenchley's article does not have an agenda.  It may not have a scientific agenda in terms of of Brenchley's perfect mathematical talents, but it very assuredly has a bias.  The bias is this: 

We should not go overboard on precaution before we have enough science to "know."   Unwarranted precaution leads to lost opportunities. 

That is a value call, as is my belief in taking the precautionary road.  There is no such thing as science without an agenda.  The existence of purely objective science, or in the case of of Brenchley, number crunching, is still interpreted and utilized within the context of the mathematician's personal bias.

When I teach ethics I ask my students to check their logic the same way we were asked to check our math problems in grade school.  One way to check your logic, when you are applying a principle of behavior, is to ask, "Would we apply this same principle in similar situations?"  Or, "Can this principle be applied universally?"  We have many good examples of similar situations where, in hindsite, we would have been wise to apply the precautionary principle.  The Science and Environmental Health Network says it well:

"Sometimes if we wait for certainty it is too late. Scientific standards for demonstrating cause and effect are very high. For example, smoking was strongly suspected of causing lung cancer long before the link was demonstrated conclusively. By then, many smokers had died of lung cancer. But many other people had already quit smoking because of the growing evidence that smoking was linked to lung cancer. These people were wisely exercising precaution despite some scientific uncertainty.

When evidence gives us good reason to believe that an activity, technology, or substance may be harmful, we should act to prevent harm. If we always wait for scientific certainty, people may suffer and die and the natural world may suffer irreversible damage."

It is 1:13 a.m., and with sincerest apologies to of Brenchley for having a bit of fun at the expense of his name, I feel I may now sleep.

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