Climate Confusion I

There are a couple of comments from recent posts of mine on climate that deserve to be bumped up here and discussed on the front page. I’ll just treat one of them right now. Concerning my post on Climate McCarthyism this morning, mike259259 writes:

Every major scientific group concurs [with the “consensus’ view]. The National Academy of Sciences published a report last year reaching a firm conclusion: “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems.”

The extremists are the ones who ignore the science because it disagrees with their predetermined conclusions. It’s usually liberals that do this, but on AGW it’s conservatives.

Now, a lot can be said (some of the other commenters have already done so) about the perniciousness of scientific “consensus,” or the ways in which the NAS and other scientific bodies hedge quite a bit when you get into the details inside the full reports, but leaving all this aside it should be noted that there are no more than a handful of people who dispute that summary statement. I suspect Roy Spencer could sign off on it (as indeed MIT’s “skeptic” Richard Lindzen signed on to a previous NAS report that said essentially the same thing). Indeed, it is completely compatible with the summary sentence from Spencer that I quoted in my original post: ““Even the IPCC admits the biggest uncertainty in how much human-caused climate change we will see is the degree to which cloud feedback [temperature change => cloud change] will magnify (or reduce) the weak direct warming tendency from more CO2 in the atmosphere.”

These two statements are compatible because the entire scientific argument is about how much warming we might experience in the future on the current trajectory of increased greenhouse gas levels, and what effects it might have. When the “official” IPCC studies all project a range from about 1.5 degrees (which would be no big deal) to 4.5 degrees (which would be a big deal), with no probability assessments for any point in the range, then it is impossible to say there is a formal “consensus” on catastrophe. What Spencer (among many others) is saying is that we are far from having an adequate grasp of the all important feedback effects of the weak forcing of greenhouse gases. (Keep in mind that greenhouse gas forcing is not linear: that is, all of the models show that if a doubling of greenhouse gases would produce a temperature rise of X, a tripling would not produce a temperature rise of 2X; probably more like 1.5X or less. It is the slope of that curve that is the nub of the whole matter. And if X turns out to be a fairly low number, then we’ve got yet another overblown eco-crisis.)

Now, as to mike259259’s second point that conservatives are anti-science, well, at least two things come to mind. Which ideology is it that throws a hissy fit over genetically modified organisms and childhood vaccinations? Or files lawsuits to stop de-listings of recovered species (like the gray wolf) even after the government’s science advisory bodies say “the science” says they should be de-listed? Who’s not respecting science now?

But rather than stopping with the simple observation that ideology or politics drives acceptance or rejection of certain domains of science, it is worth pressing on to ask why liberals dislike some kind of science, and conservatives other kinds. Liberals in the case of childhood vaccinations and GM organisms dislike certain forms of authority (especially private sector, for-profit authority—does anyone think the liberal outcry against GM foods would be as loud if it were a government lab rather than Monsanto that was leading these innovations?).

Conservatives have a symmetrical view, about which I have been trying to persuade liberal environmentalists (but I repeat myself) who will listen: even if catastrophic global warming were proved, we do not consent to being governed by Al Gore. Actually I can amend this: especially if catastrophic global warming were proved true, we do not wish to be governed by Al Gore.  Putting environmentalists in charge of dealing with the serious effects of global warming would be like putting Barney Frank in charge of fixing the housing bubble.  (Oh, wait. . .)

Mike259259 would be correct to say that it is a non sequitur to reason back from rightly not wishing to be governed by the left to concluding that global warming must therefore be false, and conservative science and policy skeptics ought to be more clear and rigorous about their reasoning.  But conservatives are certainly right to be skeptical about the same crowd of apocalyptics who have been wrong or mostly wrong about every past eco-scare, a point Steve Chapman makes in a recent column where he makes much the same critique of conservatives as mike 259259. And the credulity with which the climate campaigners snap up every possible unfounded sign of doom (aliens might get mad at us–seriously??) actually does more to discredit their cause than any ostensible simple-mindedness from Rick Perry.

It gets even worse on the policy side. Consider Bjorn Lomborg, who does not dispute a single bit of the “consensus” view of global warming, but merely argues quite compellingly that the climate campaign’s remedy—carbon constraints and green energy—fail every conceivable economic test, a view he holds in common with most prominent economists who study this subject closely, such as Yale’s William Nordhaus, Richard Tol of the University of Hamburg, and a couple other folks whose names I can’t remember at Oxford and Cambridge. For this clarity the head of the IPCC compares Lomborg to Hitler.  Lomborg gets singled out for this treatment–and pies in the face, etc–merely because he is the most visible.  Again—who is ignoring science now (in this case “consensus” social science)?   The closemindedness of the climate campaign to any kind of reasonable criticism of scientific uncertainty or to any alternative policy analysis has inflicted more damage that all of the skeptic efforts. As Walter Russell Mead says, the global warming crusade has had the most incompetent and self-destructive leadership of any social/political movement ever.

More on all this tomorrow, including general thoughts on policy skepticism.