Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Climate Change Zealots Revisited

Today was a very good day. I have nothing spectacular to report. Simply that I felt that I made progress inside and outside work.

We all need these days. Sometimes life seems just too difficult. Then something, often small happens, and the world seems better.

My post on Counterpoint and the Climate Change Zealots drew comments from Lexcen and Neil (Ninglun), Lexcen from the climate change sceptic position, Neil from the other side. Neil's own position has been made clear in various posts. See for example.

Neil phrased his response to my post very carefully but was, I think, clearly upset about my use of the word zealot. Back last October I set out a statement of editorial policy on all my blogs. Consistent with this, I said in response to Lexcen and Neil that I would put up another post to make my own position a little clearer.

On this blog I often adopt a contrarian position, trying to come at issues from a different angle. I do so because of a strong belief that this creates a necessary balance in discussion.

On the climate change issue, lets start by clearing the undergrowth.

I am not a climate change sceptic as such. I do not believe that you can pump large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere without having some impact. I also believe and have done so for some considerable time that we needed to address possible responses in a sensible fashion. So what, then, was I on about? Let met try to disentangle the issues.

The starting point was a Counterpoint story, an interview with Professor Garth Paltridge, Emeritus Professor and honorary research fellow, Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies, University of Tasmania. The audio is now up on the ABC site and I commend it to you.

Professor Paltridge phrased his words very carefully. However, he made a number of important points.

Most importantly from my perspective, he expressed concern about the way in which, at least as he saw it, scientific discussion about climate change was being twisted. This was the same point made earlier by Kevin Vrane. Vrane is not a climate change sceptic but, like Professor Paltridge, he is concerned as a scientist about the way in which science is being practised.

Now from what I know, I suspect that the Paltridge/Vrane position is correct. If so, we have a very real problem because it means, among other things, that we have to treat the scientific arguments put forward by climate change proponents with a degree of scepticism over and beyond the normal uncertainties associated with the science itself.

In saying this, I am not saying that the scientists involved are guilty of practising bad science nor am I implying that they are trying to mislead us. The position is far more complex than that. In simplest terms, and for a variety of reasons, we have created a position where funding goes in certain directions, where those expressing different views or who want to follow different lines can experience difficulty.

Part of the problem we face is that the science itself is just plain uncertain. Let me try to explain this as I understand it. Here I stand to be corrected since I am about to go far outside my area of competence that everything I say has to be treated with a huge degree of caution.

We know from the historical record that the earth's climate is extremely variable, something that makes forecasting difficult. The further we go back in time, the greater the range of variability. To get a feel as to what I mean, have a look at the post I put up on the Macleay Valley - the glacial age.

All this makes modern society with its expectation that things can be controlled, its focus on risk management, very uncomfortable. It also makes the science very difficult.

Again expressing things in terms that Belshaw can understand, to show the effects of green house gases on climate change, you have to start by defining current longer term climatic trends. This is difficult enough. Then you have to establish the variation from this trend and link it to green house gases. Then you have to extrapolate in some way to generate future forecasts as to effects.

To do these things, we have to use complex mathematical models of the world's climatic system. Or perhaps systems.

Fifty years ago such models were not possible in any realistic senses. We lacked the data. Now through the combination of satellite based technology with an extension of ground, sea and air data recorders we have a lot more data. But things are still uncertain.

Put all this aside. Assume that we have a problem even if the parameters are uncertain. What do we do about it? This is where zealotry really comes in.

First, a dictionary definition. Zealotry = fanaticism: excessive intolerance of opposing views.

This word applies to some on both both sides of the climate change debate to this point as they try to convince the world that their position is right. But if we assume that we do have a problem, and this is where public opinion has got too, all this drops away. Now we have to decide what to do. We have moved from a scientific to a public policy debate.

One of the problems we presently face in the public policy debate is that the adversarial nature of the previous debate is still with us. A second problem is the desire of people to rush to solutions before defining the problem. This, also, is the stage that we are now at.

If we look at the issue objectively in public policy terms, we are still dealing with uncertain science. How do we manage this?

It seems to me that we start with the worst case scenario and then discuss possible responses. We do not have to do these things, but they provide a base should we have too. Then, at the other extreme, we define some things that we can do now to get things rolling. In the meantime we continue to monitor scientific research, and this includes funding non-mainstream views, modifying as we go along.

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