Sunday, January 31, 2010

More on climate

The previous blog entry 'Climate change and doubt' touched on two reasons why there are some who doubt the consensus view on climate change, namely that the subject and science is so complex that to get an understanding of the general idea across to the lay public :

a) Experts have had to greatly "simplify" an incredibly complex set of phenomena e.g. very roughly reducing the issue to "man's use of fossil fuels has added such great quantities of greenhouse gasses, mostly carbon dioxide, to the planet's atmosphere that the globe is warming; that this is causing multiple negative changes; and that unless the concentration of carbon dioxide and the temperature rise are held below a certain level, there will be catastrophic consequences", and,

b) The complexity is such that its "proof" has to rely on a heavy dose of "an appeal to authority."

The problem with the first is that occasionally new information is developed that may seem at odds with the "simplified story," leading to weakening it in the eyes of the lay public (even if/when the new information actually still fits within the experts' more complex models). The previous blog entry had provided a couple of examples (i.e. the "Bering Straits effect" and the effect of solar radiation on the Alps)... Recently 'New Study Turns Up Heat On Soot's Role In Himalayan Warming' suggested that black carbon (i.e. soot) may be as much, if not more responsible for the melt rate of the Himalayan glaciers than greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide. Note that this does not vitiate the warming argument, or necessarily change the model. However it also does not fit neatly with the simplified narrative - it puts forward black carbon as a big issue rather than mostly blaming greenhouse gas, and it also thereby shifts responsibility somewhat from the developed nations (who historically have been larger consumers of fossil fuels, and bigger emitters of carbon dioxide) to the developing nations (more responsible for soot emissions)!

The problem with the second (i.e. the "appeal to authority" issue) occurs when issues or facts come up that prove negative to the credibility of the authority in question... Note, the issue is that in this case a weakening of credibility results in a weakening of the acceptance of the argument that rests upon it. This does not mean that the negative issue has to completely disprove the authority, it simply needs to raise doubts about the authority's competence or probity... Thus the "Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035" kerfuffle has proven very negative, to the consternation of the scientists and others who, fixated on the science, don't understand why their protestations that a simple error in one report on the issue does not detract from the solidity of the underlying science! Well, get ready for more! UN climate change panel based claims on student dissertation and magazine article reports that other parts of the seminal IPCC report are also problematic and include assertions that are not based upon peer-reviewed science! A huge issue, since when additional doubts of this kind are raised, the effects are not simply additive but probably exponential... Ditto for 'UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim.' Temperature and CO2 feedback 'weaker than thought' reports that although research "confirms that as the planet warms, oceans and forests will absorb proportionally less CO2..." the effect is less than recently thought and at the low end of IPCC assumptions (where they are included...). Again, a blow to authority even though it does not run counter to the models and actually agrees with them re process, if not with projected outcome!

The bottom line is that perhaps these two efforts (excessive simplification and an appeal to authority) need to be revisited, and perhaps jettisoned...

On a slightly different tack, one effect of the mounting criticisms is that the scientists and those who accept the consensus view are feeling justifiably beleaguered, and thus inclined to 'circle the wagons" in defense! This would be a mistake on their part, and counterproductive. They need to develop a new narrative and explanation as mentioned above, and also jettison the IPCC chair. There already were sufficient grounds to question his fitness for the position (e.g. see here) and now things are getting worse, with additional questions being raised regarding his credibility and actions and activities, see Climate chief was told of false glacier claims before Copenhagen and UN climate chief Rajendra Pachauri 'got grants through bogus claims'

Previous related blog entries:
Climate change and doubt - Jan 24th, 2010
Meet Dr. Rajendra Pachuri - Jan 23rd, 2010
We wuz wrong - Jan 23rd, 2010

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