by Richard T. Stuebi
The community against taking action on climate change — skeptics who honestly or otherwise question the science, and deniers who have already concluded it’s all a bunch of bunk — seems particularly strident these days. For instance, check out the harsh comments underneath this blog post reviewing the recent release of a report from the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program detailing the climatic changes that are already in evidence.
I’m somewhat knowledgeable about technologies to address climate change, but I’m less knowledgeable about climate science per se, and therefore less able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the climate debates. So, I was very pleased to when the Cleveland office of URS Corporation (NYSE: URS) and Ideastream recently hosted a presentation by someone who understands the issues very well: Peter Adams, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Prof. Adams offered a very cogent and non-hyperbolic synopsis of what is known and what is unknown about climate science. In his view, it can be stated with confidence that climate change is happening, and is being at least somewhat driven by human activities, though the degree/pace of future changes are highly uncertain.
I particularly appreciated the way he carefully and non-disparagingly handled the issue of climate skeptics and deniers. Prof. Adams noted that some of the skeptics have seemingly impressive credentials, but illustrated how nefarious their tactics can be by using a powerful analogy involving the statue of Venus de Milo:
“The scientist would say that the Venus de Milo is a statue of a woman, whereas the skeptic would say ‘A woman has arms, and this statue has no arms; therefore, it’s not certain that this is a statue of a woman, and it can’t be proven as such until the arms are found.'”
In other words, skeptics are having some successes undermining the consensus on climate science and reinforcing the vigor of the denier blogosphere by weaving intricate arguments in which each of their statements is factually or technically correct but completely lacking in context. Unfortunately, because much of the public is so poorly-informed on energy and environmental issues, and on technical matters generally, many of our masses are unable to see how the “true” statements made by credentialed skeptics lead to a “false” (or at best, highly misleading) conclusion.
One such misled soul was in the audience for Prof. Adams’ talk: a member of the public who was apparently quite certain that climate change wasn’t happening, based presumably on readings of skeptic publications and web-sites. In the post-presentation Q&A session, our in-audience denier was sufficiently bold to offer a sequence of rebuttals to Prof. Adams’ talk, disguised in the form of awkwardly-phrased questions to Prof. Adams. It was actually a bit humorous to watch Prof. Adams cordially but definitively dissect the denier’s parries — kinda like the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in which the Black Knight stubbornly fights King Arthur and is sequentially severed of all his limbs, until as a bloody stump he cheerfully announces from the ground “OK, we’ll call it a draw.”
If I were a denier such as our misguided fellow audience member, I wouldn’t have been so stupid to take on Prof. Adams — an obviously intelligent researcher who studies this stuff every day for hours, and who is clearly not an extremist prone to overstatement. Actually, because he seemed to be such a thoughtful observer of the skeptic/denier universe, I asked Prof. Adams two questions related to climate skepticism that were puzzling me of late. While he responded verbally at the presentation, he did some follow-up research and subsequently emailed me more detailed commentary, which I’ve included below (with his permission):
1. Given that climate science and meterology are related in some important ways, why do some meterologists (such as ours here in Cleveland) have the opinion that climate change is NOT happening?
“[Reporters] interviewed the head of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and asked him why so many meteorologists do publicly disagree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus. His comments are insightful, and he even admits to being a former skeptic. He personally accepts the IPCC position now as does the AMS as an institution. Basically, he points to some cultural factors in [the meteorologist] community: they have an inherent distrust of models, natural variability is their major focus, and long-term drivers of climate such as CO2 levels are not part of their world view (they are completely irrelevant to tomorrow’s forecast)….The danger is that [meteorologists] are not really climate experts although the average person perceives them to be. They are Bachelor’s level scientists, not researchers. Most probably have not read much of the climate change literature and, as even the AMS head points out, weather forecasting is different than climate science in significant ways.”
2. What has changed since the 1970’s, when many scientists were concerned about “global cooling”, not global warming?
“[It appears that] the discussion of ‘global cooling’ was exaggerated in the popular press [in the 1970s] compared to scientific circles and the scientists were much more tentative about it than they are today about global warming. Moreover, the ‘global cooling’ vs. ‘global warming’ apparent contradiction really is not a contradiction at all. Global cooling scientists were mostly concerned about the cooling effects of atmospheric haze particles, but there were already concerns about global warming from CO2. Of course, today, climate scientists still recognize the important cooling effects of haze particles that have partly offset global warming (the ‘air pollution that has saved us from global warming’ that I mentioned [in my talk]). So, the major change between now and then is not a different physical understanding per se but rather a reappraisal of the relative importance of these two factors. Moreover, there are very good reasons why this shift/reappraisal has taken place. First, with the advent of the Clean Air Act [of 1970], our greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at the same time that we have reduced haze significantly. It is probably not a coincidence that the post-WWII cooling ended in the 70s (circa Clean Air Act). In fact, climate models that include greenhouse gases and haze particles tend to predict the observed flat temperatures or cooling from 1945 to the 70s and then accelerated warming thereafter. Second, science tells us that greenhouse gases will always tend to win in the end. This is because haze particles are short-lived (atmospheric lifetime is about one week) whereas CO2 is long-lived (about 100 years). So, even if your mix of CO2 and haze emissions cancel each other out in the short term, the haze goes away and the greenhouse gases continue to build up. We would eventually have flipped from cooling to warming even without the Clean Air Act.”
Prof. Adams closed his email to me with the final thought about climate skepticism/denial among the public:
“As long as enough of the public is predisposed towards believing in climate change, trusts the IPCC and/or simply acquiesces when CO2 caps come along, we can solve the problem. Witness how many areas of public policy there are (e.g., some subsidy) where the majority of people think it’s a bad idea but don’t care enough to override the efforts of a determined special interest group. Climate change policy may end up being like that, except in this case, [the special interest] helps to save the world. The idealist in me would prefer for everyone to buy into the science and the need for CO2 regulation. But acquiescence might be the ‘least bad’ of the possible solutions.”
I’d accept acquiescence too — if we could even achieve that. But it’s hard to make progress on responsible climate legislation when the deniers are shouting so loudly, absolutely unwilling to entertain any views other than what they positively know to be the case, and drowning out discussion on the items where reasonable people can disagree reasonably.
I see this as a highly unfortunate development: climate science has become a “hot button” moral issue, akin to abortion, wherein parties hold non-negotiable positions based on fundamental beliefs rather than any set of facts.
At least a little bit of the blame for this must accrue to Al Gore and others of his ilk who make claims that are likely to be overly dramatic, from a lecturing and too-certain stance, that the planet is heading to certain/imminent climate disaster.
But the problem is more fundamental across our society. As long as we live in a point/counterpoint world of people convinced of their rectitude and shouting past each other in insulting fashion — “Jane, you ignorant slut” — constructive dialogue will be near-impossible, and progress (much less resolution) on any important and complex social problem like the climate issue seems beyond grasp.
Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.