Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Is Climate Change really happening?

We seem to have ended up in odd place regarding the debate about Climate Change.

It appears that the majority of scientists that work in the field of climate say that the climate is changing and that there is a large anthropogenic component to this change caused by greenhouse gases emitted by human activity.

There are however a significant minority of scientists and others who think that either the whole thing is overblown and/or that there is either no, or very little evidence that humans have contributed to this.

Both sides have lots and lots of data to back up their assertions. And it seems to me that often these data contradict each other even when they seem to be talking about the same thing. For example I often see seemingly authoritative statements that several of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last couple of decades. But then there are articles like this one from James Delingpole in the Daily Mail that claims there is evidence from the Met Office that there has been no warming for 15 years. Both of these cannot be true.

There is then the political dimension.

Broadly speaking those on the left and liberal wings of politics tend to believe that Climate Change is real, man-made and a serious threat. Broadly speaking those on the right think either it's not that serious a problem or in some cases that the whole idea is a left wing conspiracy. I'm talking about grass roots and activists here by the way. The leaderships of all the main political parties are broadly in agreement that there is a problem and it needs to be tackled.

Now I understand this is a highly complex issue. The ecosystem of the entire planet is not something that can be easily understood. But the point of science is to run experiments and tests to try and find the truth. However difficult this is, it is made much harder if views on the potential reality of the situation are informed by ideology.

But that is what appears to be happening. As far as I can tell, the left wing seems to be happy with the fact that the solutions to the problem are essentially collecitivist in nature. We all need to stop using as much energy, use renewables more locally, share resources more, restrict what business can do for the good of the planet etc. And the right are deeply unhappy with most of these solutions. So they question the fundamental nature of the premise and conclude that it is a stitch up.

I am a Lib Dem. I run a business that deals with energy efficiency in buildings. I basically believe from what I have seen that mankind has contributed to this problem and that we need to do something about the problem.

But am I being hoodwinked? There are millions of people who think I am.

At core I am a rationalist and I also have a strong skeptic streak. I am certainly open to the possibility that I am wrong about this. If the scientific consensus started to shift based on the evidence I would certainly consider doing so.

The problem is that is not happening. Instead views are polarising. Terms like "Climate Change Denier" and "Leftie Conspiracy" are tossed around like confetti. Both sides seem unwilling or unable to really listen to the other. I strongly suspect there is a large element of confirmation bias going on at the very least in the political arena. Those who want to believe it find the evidence that backs them up. Those that don't want to believe find evidence of the opposite.

Maybe that is the way it has to be. I tried engaging with James Delingpole on Twitter this morning after he tweeted a link to the above article. I was interested in his response to a question I had about how he responded to a broader question about scientific evidence relating to medicine on a BBC programme a while back. I tweeted:

@JamesDelingpole When you were asked about adherence to science in the context of if you were ill on that programme you didn't seem...
@JamesDelingpole ..to have a very convincing answer. Why do you trust it for your health but not for this?

His response was:

@MarkReckons Lib Dim activist asks straw man question about parti pris, scientifically inaccurate BBC propagandist stitch up?

Maybe I was a bit too confrontational in the way I asked the question but I am genuinely curious about how someone would happily accept the scientific consensus when it came to say treating them if they had cancer but be utterly convinced it's wrong and a conspiracy when it comes to the climate.

Like I say, it seems to be very difficult to engage in a debate that does not quickly degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

So is Climate Change really happening? Or am I falling for a socialist conspiracy designed to take us all back to the dark ages?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

What if those giving you the cancer diagnosis had a vested financial interest in doing so, and had been proven time and again to be prepared to either fabricate 'evidence' or destroy evidence which suggested there was little wrong with you

Eononly said...

Cherry picking data has become an art form either to prove that warming has 'stopped' or to take a couple of phrases out if a million emails to prove a conspiracy of scientists.

Reputations in science are made by going against the consensus....anyone who does actually disprove AGW is a dead cert for the Nobel prize.

Full disclosure...I'm a scientist 'and' a graduate of UEA...and obviously part of the conspiracy!

Dave B said...

Christopher Monckton wrote a good piece the other day.

He pointed out that HMG policy to avert Global Warming, is actually more expensive than the calamity they are allegedly saving us from.

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/02/03/huhne-is-no-loss/

"The biggest tax increase in human history had been based not upon a mature scientific assessment followed by a careful economic appraisal, but solely upon blind faith. "

Bob P said...

Sensible article. Like you, I was inclined to believe that humans may have something to do with global warming. But the more I looked into it, and read widely on the topic, the more it became clear that the government and campaigners' constant statements of certainty were not backed up by hard facts and figures, and (as you say) there were very many eminent scientists who were sceptical of human contributions - and certainly not all of them right-wingers. I think - politics aside - there is clearly a lot of rhetoric from green lobbyists, and some (particularly in the US) from small state right-wingers. But in the middle, there is I think a massive cause for doubt.

I've moved from "believer" to "sceptic" simply because the more I researched the topic and became suspicious of the soundbites, the more I could see that there was a lot of bandwagon jumping by politicians, big business (energy companies hungry for subsidy, city institutions keen to exploit the carbon market) and not much concern about whether we were actually responsible for any climate change.

My personal take - we're going much too fast in reacting to a change in climate that (if it exists at all) is incremental. From the data and research published over the last few years, it seems just as likely we are entering an ice age as warming up the planet - which interestingly was the mainstream view of greens in the 70s and early 80s. I have a lot of faith in human ingenuity and progress to gradually get to market new forms of energy (fission etc.) which will wean us off fossil fuels. But the drive to push through windmills at great expense and punish poor people trying to heat their homes, or stick to impossible emissions targets in the EU, seems wholly unnecessary.

I think gradually we will clean up and reduce emissions because it improves the environment, and helps with energy security etc.: wealthy countries constantly invent new technologies that improve people's lives. But the overblown apocalyptic hysteria (so much of it from affluent, high carbon footprint, jet-setters) and the mantra that we must immediately make hug (and unachievable) sacrifices to appease the green god or turn down the global thermometer by a degree or two is unhelpful and polarising.

Adam said...

I think the reason it's so easy for this debate to polarise is that it's actually quite complicated. Once you get past the basics of CO2 being a greenhouse gas, you rapidly get to really quantitative work that's rather inaccessible to most people. Here's a good article, for example, on whether the world (or at least the bits we measure) has warmed in the last 15 years - http://www2.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/Media/Commentary/2012/February/anthropogenic-global-warming-1997.aspx . Often one can choose a start date or a time period to get the answer one wants (though I don't think it's unfair to see that longer-term trends are more important and far more robust).

So if people don't trust the experts in the way they would on what shape a plane should be, it's easy to find blogs etc. that reinforce one's own views.

But I do wonder about some of these 'skeptics'. Are they as skeptical about the idea of climate scientists and politicians around the world being part of a huge conspiracy, as they are about GHG emissions leading to warming and ocean acidification? I think not.

PS I do recommend potholer54's videos - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K74fzNAUq4

OP said...

the question is conflating two different issues: the theory of global warming and the reality of climate change.

whether or not the environment is 'warming', and whether we fully understand the reasons, the climate is in a perpetual state of change, so the real questions are 'how is the climate changing?', 'what effects will this have? and 'what should we do about it?'

politics comes into it when different people are influenced to start choosing to ask false questions and come up with bad answers.

if the debate is reduced down to a simple matter of cost then everybody loses.

economy and environment are not mutually exclusive choices - it's up to us to reconcile them.

Jim said...

A couple of points:

1) "I often see seemingly authoritative statements that several of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last couple of decades. But then there are articles like this one from James Delingpole in the Daily Mail that claims there is evidence from the Met Office that there has been no warming for 15 years. Both of these cannot be true."
Yes they can, because the 'hottest years on record', depending on which record you take, only goes back a hundred years or so (UK records), a few hundred years (since thermometers were invented) or only 30 years (since satellite thermal imaging of the Earth). So its perfectly possible for the current levels of temperature to be as hot as we ever have records for, but on a plateau.

2) The point is not whether the Earth is warming or cooling, as it always has done both of those, but is man having an effect on that warming/cooling? Thats the trillion dollar question, is CO2 having more of an effect than the forces that have warmed and cooled our globe for millenia? And ask yourself, what actual evidence is there for AGW, other than a theory and a few computer models?

3) As a final thought experiment, remember AGW is a theory. Not fact. Thus as with all scientific theories it must be falsifiable. There must be something that can happen, whereby everyone says 'Oh my God we were wrong, its all nonsense!'. If you cannot think of something that can falsify AGW, and it be accepted as wrong, then AGW is not a scientific theory, but a belief system.

m wood said...

Te case for AGW is based almost entirely by computer modelling which cannot be validated without waiting a few decades to see how well they have predicted the earths climate.

The concern I have with these computer models is that none of them seem to take account of variations in the Suns energy and its solar heating of our planet. That this has a significant effect can be seen from measurements of temperatures on Mars in recent years. (They don't drive SUVs on Mars).

Until far more work is done to understand how much solar variations affect us, the vast sums of money being spent to reduce CO2 emissions could be a great waste of resources.

big pete said...

Have you noticed how twats like Roger Helmer have been out saying it's cold, so there can't be global warming, but they had nothing to say during the hot weather in September and October?

Jennie said...

A comment thread is not really the place to go into this in any depth, but both sides in this debate cherry-pick data, argue from different definitions, and conflate questions to muddy the waters.

My conclusions, based on long years of seeing both sides? Climate change is happening; it's partly natural and partly manmade; there's very little we can do to stop it, at this point, and I tend to err on the side of environmentally friendly for 2 reasons: 1, it tends to work out cheaper and 2, if climate change isn't happening (or if it is but we can't change it) but we guard against it anyway, all we have lost is some money. If climate change IS happening and we can do something about it, but we refuse to, then we're screwed. The consequences of being wrong make erring on the side of green a far safer bet in my view.

It's kind of like "if I tell this man to stop following me, he might get offended. If I don't there's a small chance he might attack me" - I'd rather risk offending someone than risk attack, even though the relative likelihoods of each happening are different. The consequences to me if I am wrong are far worse in one scenario than the other.

OP said...

Hi Jennie,
just to take up this line "Climate change is happening; it's partly natural and partly manmade"

CC is not just happening but ongoing - the atmosphere is a dynamic ever-changing system, not a fixed state.

Change is a constant process, not a singular event, so of course the proportional influence of different factors does feedback to affect the general direction of change (BTW that's me agreeing with you).

Are we afraid of change and resist it come what may, should we embrace our understanding of the processes involved as the means to spark social, political and economic innovation, or cultivate fear as motivation for wholesale revolution and upheaval?

The extreme viewpoints on either end of the spectrum are both inherently conservative and unhelpful in this regard, as they depend upon inflexible dogmatic belief in the permanence of their preferred theory.

Therefore, on a practical basis, I think it's better to step back from affirming AGW in the public domain because we cannot be completely certain about the exact form or extent of the effect of human activity, and CC is a more reliable description which covers all the bases.

Jennie said...

"CC is not just happening but ongoing - the atmosphere is a dynamic ever-changing system, not a fixed state."

Do you know, if you hadn't have told me that, I NEVER would have known

"Change is a constant process, not a singular event, so of course the proportional influence of different factors does feedback to affect the general direction of change"

I never knew change was ongoing either

"(BTW that's me agreeing with you)."

Really? I thought you were summoning a small Albanian goatherd called Dennis. Still, thank you for agreeing with me, even if you were doing it in an exceedingly patronising and condescending manner. Witness my gratitude!

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