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I have rarely witnessed such passion and venom as currently besets the ongoing debate on climate change. It seems as if everyone has a view. Surprisingly for me, a very large section of opinion makers are firmly on the No side of the argument. They believe global warming is bunk.

Sifting through the rhetoric, it seems that many commentators see climate change as the ultimate liberal conspiracy. According to this viewpoint, 1990 saw an end to Communism but instead of throwing away the placards, the socialists threw their lot in with the new cause célèbre: environmentalism. Twenty years on and our leaders are in Copenhagen, addled by decades of left wing fear-mongering. They will willingly throw away any chance of future prosperity on a mirage, a dream that will never happen. It’s an understandable argument, but it misses a key point. The protesters don’t matter. The politics doesn’t matter. All that matters in this debate is the science.

I’m not a huge fan of militant activism, because activists often jump to huge conclusions based on relatively few facts. Activists have got many things wrong in the past, which leads to the conclusion that just because you are passionate about something doesn’t make you right. The corollary is also true, however. Passion in itself doesn’t make you wrong either.

Another view is that Climate Change is just one big bandwagon, upon which many people, who don’t understand the science, have crept aboard. This is quite true, but for the same reasons as above it is also irrelevant to the debate. The fact that it is a bandwagon issue doesn’t make it implicitly untrue.

The only thing that matters in this debate is the quality of the science. Climate scientists from many different fields, using multiple lines of evidence, sophisticated measuring devices, supercomputers, myriads of data points and complex statistical models, have paintakingly arrived at a conclusion that the world is warming and that a significant part of that warming is man made. If you want to argue this, you need to argue the science. This is not at all easy, which is why so few people in this debate, on both sides of the argument, are qualified to talk about it at all. Right now, there is plenty of heat, but very little light.

So, unless I hear that there is a reasonable alternative theory that addresses the data and the multiple lines of evidence in a coherent way but yields a contrary outcome, I will stay with the consensus view. Ultimately, scientists are reasonable people. It’s not normally in their interest or their nature to reject the evidence in favour of political dogma. Talk of a conspiracy among scientists is unlikely in the extreme.

This is the fourth posting in my 2019 Time Capsule series, looking at how the issues of today might be seen ten years from now. This entry is a topical one, particularly given the influenza scare over the weekend.

Global Warming

Global WarmingThe scientists are largely agreed: our world is warming up, and the long term effects on the environment are likely to be very substantial indeed. The principal cause is a massive increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to “anthropogenic factors”. In other words: us folk is wot have done it, m’lud. Guilty as charged. Over the last two centuries, we have been busy burning away Earth’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, natural gas and oil. All around the world, average temperatures are on the increase, while glaciers and ice shelves are on the retreat. Weather effects such as bushfires, droughts and stronger hurricanes provide us with hints of a coming crisis. Although climate change deniers still exist, the main scientific debate now rages about the depth of the crisis seemingly awaiting us. Will the effects be as bad as scientists are predicting? Ten or twenty years is probably too short a time to say for certain. However what should have changed by then is the extent to which we will we have started to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. Will nascent technologies such as wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, nuclear power and solar power be much more in evidence? Will a new source of energy be discovered? How will these technologies affect how we live our lives? How will they affect world politics? Interesting times.

Killer pandemics

pandemicOne of the big wildcards, when it comes to speculating about the future, is the possibility of a nasty virus originating in somewhere like South East Asia or the jungles of the Congo, and devastating the world’s population within a matter of months. It has happened before and many people will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. Influenza is regarded as one of the most probable culprits due to the ease by which it infects new hosts and how amenable it is to air travel. While there is always a worry that such a scourge might rear its head at any time, a more interesting question is whether scientists might have it beaten. A recent breakthrough in Australia indicates that a weak spot might indeed have been found, and that we might be able to immunise people from all deadly ‘flu viruses in the near future. We hope so. Viruses, owing to their vast numbers and their propensity to mutate quickly, are never beaten for very long.

Next in line: The economy.

Phelim McAleer is a film-maker who has produced a documentary challenging the climate change consensus. He appeared on an Irish political program this evening to  debate with a climate scientist, Dr. Kieran Hickey. Now I haven’t watched much of this guy’s documentary yet, but even so, his argument was full of glaring logical fallacies.* 

1) A key plank of McAleer’s argument by the sounds of it is that because the scientific consensus got DDT so badly wrong that they must be wrong this time. 

Rubbish. Even if the scientists did get DDT wrong (and I’ll bet there’s a bit more to this story than meets the eye), that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong on climate change. Methinks there is some selective thinking going on here. What about other scientific consensuses he omitted to mention? The connection between HIV and AIDS? Cowpox vaccination and Smallpox? Microbes and cholera? Smoking and lung cancer? Indeed, when it comes down to it: Gravity, Genetic theory, Plate Tectonics, Quantum Mechanics and Evolution are all scientific consensuses. It’s just a classic case of poisoning the well

2) Scientists have an agenda. 

The allegation here is that climate change is a big liberal conspiracy. This is an odd one, because the biggest vested interests in the climate change debate have always come from the other side! Get this: the combined revenue of the top 5 oil companies last year was 1.5 trillion dollars. 1,500,000,000,000 dollars. 1.5 million million dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of Canada. Climate scientists were persona non grata in the White House for most of the last 8 years of the Bush presidency. If it’s a big conspiracy the financial backers must be an odd bunch indeed. Just because scientists are (according to you) bad people, it’s doesn’t make them wrong, Phelim. 

3) Climate change is a fad.

Apparently Phelim was taught in school in the 1970’s that the Ice Age was approaching in our lifetimes. In between there have been lots of fads, many of which have never come true. This argument attempts to conflate fads with real science, which is just ridiculous. Many of these fads never had any sort of consensus scientific backing. They were just media baubles – minority views that caught the imagination of the press for a period of time. Climate Change originated in the 1970’s as a seriously minority view. There was an activism bandwagon on climate change in the 1980’s which was often shone more heat than light. Cultural fads like this come and go, but the difference in this case was that real science began to weigh in over the past 20 years or so. This has swung the pendulum away from pure fad and into the realm of fact. An analogue is Wegener’s continental drift model that began as a minority view, but became in time accepted as a valid scientific theory when the science began to validate many of his arguments. Fads are not science. They lie on the margins, waiting to be validated or disproved. A lot of hard work needs to take place for a fad to become science, and in the case of climate change, this work has been carried out, with the argument pointing in no uncertain terms towards a deeply worrying future for us all. 

Here’s my biggest gripe with the whole thing. Debates are good when one person’s opinion is pitched against another person’s opinion. So if you bring the audience around to your point of view, you’ve won. Well done. A big prize to you. However, when you have a debate against a scientific consensus, then it doesn’t work so well. Even if the audience all agree with you, even if they carry you around on their shoulders in adulation, that doesn’t make your argument right. Science is not determined from public opinion. It has nothing to do with public opinion. It’s based on evidence, and the only way to challenge the science is to use the tools of science against it. These challenges do happen, but they don’t take place in public debate forums. No, they happen in scientific journals, conferences and papers, where each piece of evidence is scrutinised and debated until, you guessed it – a consensus emerges. So, even if the science is wrong in this case, Phelim, what is your alternative? Film-making?

* If you have never heard much about logical fallacies, I recommend you to take a look through this site. It may be the most educational hour or so you will spend this year.

What if humans no longer existed? What if one day, all the animals woke up to find us no longer here? What would happen to the Earth then? Here’s an account that speculates about what might happen next.

I’m fascinated by these things ever since I read a book that associated the rise and fall of human society in Ireland with pollen samples taken from ancient soils.

Flikr image by 3water. Reproduced under Creative Commons license

A new cinema is opening in my home-town today, and one movie I really want to see is the Al Gore documentary “An Inconvenient Truth“. I’m sure I’ve got a fairly good idea of the content already without knowing much about it: things are looking bad, here’s one piece of evidence, here’s another, here’s another (oh no), here’s another (enough already), here’s another (oh please, please), here’s another (aah – where’s the razor blades?), here’s what we are doing about it at the moment (not very much), here’s what the major powers are doing about it (climate change, what climate change?), here’s what it all means if we continue to ignore it (death, and doom and destruction and lots of awful yucky things), and finally the inevitable “here’s what we can all do about it”.

Now it’s the last bit that intrigues me the most. What can we do about something like this?

The stock answer is simple. We all get together and co-operate to make things better. Simple in principle. Devilishly complicated in practice.

When I was a kid, the priest at Mass would exhort us to be better people – to reach out to poor people who were less well off than us. They used to plead to people about making changes in their lives to create a more just society. And do you think people listened? Did they heck…

Arguments and exhortations to change are just not very effective. Treaties and agreements are often short term in nature, breaking down when the circumstances change. There are around 200 countries in the world, and do you think they can agree on anything? Not particularly. The Kyoto protocol, itself a badly watered down compromise, is already practically irrelevant. Indeed, even the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a common-sense corner-stone of how people should be treated, is blissfully ignored by many governments around the world. The same is the case with the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, along with many other international agreements that are gathering dust as a result of governmental inaction. It’s not just governments who do not co-operate to make things better. On an individual level, SUV sales have never been so brisk, obesity levels are going through the roof, and none of the major tobacco companies have yet gone bankrupt. It’s the price we pay for having high levels of freedom. We co-operate when we see a personal (often short-term) advantage in doing so, otherwise we are perfectly free to opt out.

Long term agreements to co-operate are ineffective because they often go against very fundamental dynamics in our society. Free co-operation is difficult to achieve, because all you need is one defector to upset the apple-cart. The desire to compete for personal gain and to protect what is ours practically define us as humans. Co-operation often makes sense within this context, but when circumstances change and the effect of co-operation becomes self-defeating, the parties to the agreement quickly start looking for a way out.

The only way long-term co-operation seems to work is when it is imposed from a higher authority. The higher authority says “this is how you must behave”, and if you defect, the higher authority imposes strict penalties against you. To meet the challenge of global change in this context, it seems to me you would need a single world government, and a pretty dictatorial one at that. I’m not sure if too many people would be very happy with this. I certainly wouldn’t be.

Is there an alternative to this? Whatever the answer, it needs to comply with social dynamic models – how humans as a group behave in a relatively free environment. Otherwise, it’s probably a failure from the start. For a solution to be effective in the long term, it needs to be economically valid as well as environmentally valid. Economics will always win if there is a conflict. I think there is an alternative, an incomplete and potentially unjust one, but nevertheless quite an effective one.

Human nature is not that prone to major change, but there is one thing in society that changes at breakneck speed. Because of it, each generation often experiences very different and often improved circumstances, compared to the preceding one. The phenomenon is technology: our ability to bend the natural environment to do our bidding – arguably one of the few core competences that sets us apart from other animals in this world.

Technology is an interesting phenomenon in this context because it changes rapidly, it changes the world rapidly, and most particularly because it fits in with human social dynamics. It thrives in conditions of competition and collaboration and it meets a very basic need within us all – the need to make things better. The advances in computing, genetic engineering, space-science, communications, food-science, medicine and materials science are bewildering and beyond the ken of even the greatest 1930’s science fiction writer. We have achieved massive quality of life improvements in our society in just a few generations by letting the tinkerers free to build on ideas from their peers and fore-runners. Why not see how this impressive intellectual capability could be applied against the greatest threat we face to our existence?

Of course, technology has both good and bad aspects to it. It could be argued that the climate change problem itself is a result of technology in the first place. If we had not discovered the industrial potential of coal and oil, things might be very different today. But, if it has caused the problem, then it’s probably a good starting point for finding some solutions too. Technology already has had a huge effect in changing the environment for the better. We have lower emissions from cars and planes, much more efficient fuel consumption, lower levels of industrial pollution, and many alternatives to oil are already available. Compare, for example, the huge coal-burning industries of the start of the century to the much more efficient modern factories of today.

I’m not saying that we should support technology as a solution to our problems because it is the ideal answer, but because it is probably the most effective answer. Technology has a potential to improve societies that can afford it, while ignoring those that are too poor to do anything about it. It also can make very small numbers of people fabulously wealthy, while huge inequalities exist around the world. It’s not perfect, but what it does have the potential to do is to achieve change rapidly. Technology, combined with a degree of governance, can help to quell some of the excesses.
Where governments and powerful organisations fit in is in helping to create the context within which research into these technologies can be fostered. In normal circumstances, this should have happened already, but the current US administration, in its refusal to accept the dire warnings of the IPCC, has put back the effort by a decade. Vital years have now been wasted that could have been productively spent researching and testing technological solutions and alternatives. The reason I single out the US is because of its position of prominence in world economic thinking. When the US commits itself to a goal, other countries swiftly follow suit, particularly if they sense an opportunity to make money.

So, to meet the challenge of rising sea levels and desertification and all the bad things that are predicted, we need to start thinking about economically valid solutions to the problems we face. I think that these solutions can be found, not through ineffective exhortations to cooperate, but through an environment that gives technologists the resources and freedoms to address the problems of the future.

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