Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What I Do and Don't Know About Global Warming

While I may technically be a scientist (a political scientist, that is), I don't really know anything about real science. I took the two-year sequence of science for non-majors at the University of Chicago, and my wife has an MA in chemistry from Cal Tech, but that's about it.

So, when it comes to global warming, I don't have much to say. I can't make heads or tails of climate models, I don't understand the physics and chemistry behind the theories, and I certainly don't know enough to agree or disagree with the arguments bandied around.

What I do know, however, is to be skeptical when anyone, anywhere, tells me that there is no more dispute over an issue. So, when I hear people telling me that the dire predictions are no longer contested, or are settled science, I tend to resist joining the bandwagon.

For example, in a recent issue of Discover magazine to which I subscribe to bolster my meager scientific knowledge (although, unfortunately, I no longer have the issue so I don't know which one it is for linking purposes) I read an article from the editors about how there was no longer any debate about whether global warming was caused by humans, only how great the damage would be. In the very same issue was an interview with the chief hurricane scientist at NOAA, who was arguing that he does not believe that global warming is, in fact, man-made. Now I can't assess the arguments from either side; but I do know that the chief hurricance guy at NOAA is a real, respected scientist who disagrees with an opinion that Discover tells me is un-disagreeable-with. Similarly, a recent article in the Boston Globe discussed Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology at MIT:
Lindzen acknowledges that global warming is real, and he acknowledges that increased carbon emissions might be causing the warming -- but they also might not.

``We do not understand the natural internal variability of climate change" is one of Lindzen's many heresies, along with such zingers as ``the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940," ``the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average," and ``Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now advancing again. And, frankly, we don't know why."

When Lindzen published similar views in The Wall Street Journal this spring, environmentalist Laurie David, the wife of comedian Larry David, immediately branded him a ``shill." She resurrected a shopworn slur first directed against Lindzen by former Globe writer Ross Gelbspan, who called Lindzen a ``hood ornament" for the fossil fuels industry in a 1995 article in Harper's Magazine.

Finally, an article in last Saturday's Australian informs us that "Science tempers fears on climate change." The article, which has had early access to the forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a UN-based organization that has been in the forefront of the fight against global warming) reports that "the world's top climate scientists have cut their worst-case forecast for global warming over the next 100 years" and that "the new projections put paid to some of the more alarmist scenarios raised by previous modelling, which have suggested that sea levels could rise by almost 1m over the same period."

Let me be clear: I do not know what is going on with the environment. I don't know enough science to believe or disbelieve the claims for and against global warming being caused by humans. But neither do you. Nor do most people, including the scientists who tell us that the science is settled. And that's the point. So long as I hear that there is no more debate or discussion over the question, I will be skeptical of doomsayers. The only way to reach a reasonable and effective public policy solution is to allow as much debate and discussion as possible. So stop telling me that no one disagrees with global warming as a man-made phenomena and stop telling me that we have to act in accordance with the precautionary principle. I don't know what to think about global warming, and I certainly don't know what to do, but I'd like to learn.


smilerz said...

The other thing that instantly turns me off is when one side counters the skeptical view with insults and name calling as opposed to addressing the points made.

stefan moluf said...

100% agreed. I've become more and more irritated with scientific orthodoxy as of late, and those working in climate change seem to be some of the worst offenders.

It's so hard to get unpoliticized science these days.

Disappointed UPS International Relations student said...

"... I do not know what is going on with the environment. I don't know enough science to believe or disbelieve the claims for and against global warming being caused by humans. But neither do you."

Professor, your lack of expertise or even basic understanding of the problem posed by global warming and it's most probable (if not definite) lead perpetrator, man, is disappointing coming from a savvy international scholar such as yourself. If you choose to enter into this debate with limited understanding of the facts, it just seems logical to first scrutinize those who entirely deny any possible correlation or causality relationship between human actions and global warming.

You chose to settle down in the beautiful Pacific Northwest partially because of its spectacular pristine wilderness. Is it so hard to understand why people are up in arms trying to insure its preservation?

I agree that the debate on global warming and climate change must remain open and that to ensure accuracy and effectiveness in our efforts to combat its destruction we must be open to possible other perpetrators. But any effort made to excuse or ignore human causes is deplorable.

Seth Weinberger said...

To the Disappointed UPS Student:

I don't know why my lack of knowledge about global warming should be disappointing to you. I'm not a environmental scientist, plain and simple. I can listen to people on both sides discuss climate models and predictive forecasts, but I don't know enough to know who's right or what to believe. An important part of knowledge and scholarship is recognizing limitations. I remain engaged in the conversation in an effort to improve my understanding, but I don't debate it. What I do is what international relations theory tells us about efforts to control the problem: That international treaties will be fraught with collective action problems, for example.

You ask whether I understand why people are up in arms over global warming. Of course I do. And I am not, as you say, excusing or ignoring human causes. All I am questioning is the argument that the debate is over. I know that there are reputable serious scientists who question whether man really has any impact on the warming of the globe. I also know that there are people who look at the whole issue in terms of cost-benefit analysis: Will the costs and benefits of a warming planet justify the costs of preventing that warming? I don't know whether to believe them. All I'm saying is that in order to understand the problem I need to hear from both sides, and not be told by one side that the debate is over and that there is scientific consensus. If that openness disappoints you, I'm sorry. But I will not apologize for trying to remain open to knowledge.

PS: I would encourage you to come by my office if you want to talk more about this. No need to remain anonymous!!!