Erik Larson

Dec 9, 2009

My Global Warming Rant (or, why there's something rotten in Copenhagen)

This is actually adapted from an email to one of my GW believer friends, but it should be clear enough:

I'm not some right-wing wacko that has knee jerk reactions about Global Warming because of suspicions that it's a device for redistribution from the Left. I'm suspicious of it because the claim is that we can predict the future state of a complex system, and I've spent at least a decade coming to understand how this is a chimera. GW models are actually a species of time sequence prediction, which I've studied (I've studied sequential learning more, of course). I know a little about this general inductive procedure, and it's very vulnerable to the local minima or maxima problem (where are you on the decision surface?). So we really don't know whether the Earth will start cooling in a few years, with the warming period a local maxima. Add to this, it doesn't add up! The warming of the last century was more pronounced prior to the heavy industrialization of the 1940s on. And then there's the point that C02 is something like .054% of the gasses in the Earth's atmosphere, and of this miniscule amount, only a sliver is human caused (most is from the oceans), and of this sliver, we can only change a sliver of the sliver without ruining our economies. So, fine, I'll put in green bulbs to light my house, but am I really affecting the global climate? Would building windmills or nuclear power plants in place of coal burning plants really lower the mean global temperature? It seems really dubious that any of the proposals would make any difference, even if we've got the core science right, which is in dispute among climatologists, in spite of the "debate's closed now, go home" attitude of the IPCC crowd. So, the whole thing just seems to scream for a rational discussion, but somehow we never get one. It's the ultimate will-o-the-wisp: question the claim that "GW is anthropogenic", and GW believers throw out facts and figures for a while. The GW skeptic throws out counter facts and figures, say, that while Africa is hottest on record, North America is actually cooling, not to mention Antarctica. The believer then says "look, you idiot, it's not that every place will get warmer, it's that the climate will change." To which the unsuspecting skeptic (idiot) says, but you just used the fact that Africa is hottest on record as evidence for the theory! This goes on for a while, until eventually the skeptic is frustrated once again, because the believer has now shifted the debate from the original claim (that we can predict the behavior of the Earth's weather), to the costs of not acting. The argument goes something like this: look, we can't prove GW, but we're certain that there's climate change (the most vacuous statement ever, by the way), and we better at least try. Sure, the skeptic agrees, let's try. The debate should now be: Given the uncertainty with predicting the future states of complex systems, how much economic change makes sense? This gets the believer into trouble (because the honest answer, alongside other dangers like global economic instability, terrorist acts, geopolitical upheaval, etc., is "not that much"). So the believer performs the final sleight of hand, which is to shift the entire debate away from murky scientific predictions about the future of the planet, into a kind of political shame-you game: "look, idiot skeptic, don't you want cleaner air? Don't you like streams and oceans and national parks?". To which the skeptic (at least my kind of skeptic) can jolly well say "yes"! And this makes the skeptic's whole point—why don't we just ask simple questions about how we can reduce dependence on foreign oil, and reduce industrial pollution, and live better lives? Why hitch the project on this Nostradamus illusion that we know what the global mean temp of planet Earth will be in the next hundred years? Not enough _CATASTROPHE!_ to get the masses moving? (Sorry, folks, but even us idiot skeptics prefer to be treated as rational adults.) Final point. The IPCC touts its "list" of scientists who accept the anthropogenic claim (there's debate about whether the number is inflated, but leave that aside for now). There's also a list of very distinguished scientists who think that the anthropogenic claim is dubious. Proponents of GW often resort to the argument that the list of believers is longer than the list of skeptics. Are we really at the point where "science" is established by counting the "aye"s and the "nay"s? This is simply unbelievable as a serious scientific proposition. The existence of serious dissent from qualified scientists tells us instantly that the issue is NOT settled, in spite of the Orwellian attempt to shut everyone up who raises doubts or concerns. Sorry, GW believers, the irony here is that you, not the skeptic, are on the wrong side of history.