Monday, January 13, 2014

Interesting Thoughts on Climate Change

I ran across a couple of interesting letters about climate change this morning, one from Pittsburgh, the other New Zealand.

Tim Kelly, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,  takes a shot at the conservative-driven climate change denialists who are working so relentlessly to ruin our kids' future and argues that environmental security must be claimed as a fundamental right of all.

Let’s be clear here: Climate change and its lesser-known twin, ocean acidification, are real and ongoing threats to our security (particularly food security) and need to be addressed aggressively.
However, conservative foundations, including the Pittsburgh-based Scaife Affiliated Foundations, and the fossil fuel industry, have been funding authors and think tanks that put out propaganda that serves only to confuse the public.
Environmental security is a fundamental right. Apparently, the need of those who fund these efforts to die wealthy trumps our (and our children’s) need for a reasonable future. If you doubt the existence of climate change (ocean acidification is proven and irrefutable), it may well be someone paid for you to do so. It should not be tolerated.
Dr. John Moore has one of the best op-eds on climate change I've seen for a long time in today's Nelson Mail from New Zealand. Dr. Moore is writing from New Zealand but he might as easily have penned this on Parliament Hill.   It is so measured, so artfully reasoned, that I produce it here in its entirety:
Life is certainly easier if we can persuade ourselves that our actions have no consequences. This is particularly so if we see our intentions as being noble - which, of course, they inevitably are!
The extreme of this view, taken at a national level, is the doctrine of exceptionalism which pervades the United States. If we (the US) do something, it is OK because of our inherent rightness; if you do the same thing, it is not because your motives are less good.
It goes back to the notion of belief trumping evidence, which I have written about previously. Ideology in all its forms, including religion, presupposes a validity, despite any amount of contrary evidence.

Evidence is fine only when it supports the ideology, and is regularly distorted to achieve this. The end justifying the means is the classic argument here.
Let's focus on a specific example: climate change.
The international effort to understand and, where possible, predict what is happening to Earth's climate is the most massive and complex scientific endeavour in history.
Reports on findings are published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after painstaking review. The findings, as in all of science, are expressed as probabilities - and they give cause for the utmost alarm.
Carbon dioxide produced by our use of fossil fuels is changing our world now and for centuries to come. The media make little effort to inform us of the reports but often prefer to spread inaccurate comment.

Human civilisation has developed and prospered over a few thousand years of remarkably stable climate. That is why we are as we are. The climate is much of our context and underpins our survival as a successful species.
We do our best not to care or notice for a large number of reasons. We ask for incontrovertible proof. Science does not do that. It cannot prove that the Sun will rise tomorrow, only that the probability is very high.
If we have ideological faith in "The Market", we imagine that it will self-manage our problems. If our belief is religion, God will sort it all out for us.
Mostly, though, we just don't want to know, because we are too busy to bother - and anyway, we see ourselves as being caring and righteous. Into this mix come the experts in creating doubt.
Creating doubt is an industry in itself. The most obvious example is the tobacco industry, which insisted for years that its products didn't cause cancer, despite its own evidence to the contrary. It hired eminent scientists to support its position.

Right now the lobby groups promoting fossil fuels are doing the same thing, often with the same scientists that tobacco used. Merchants of Doubt, by science historians Oreskes and Conway, is a book that describes this process.
The last decade was the hottest on record, the previous one the second-hottest, and the one before the third-hottest. May 2013 was the 327th consecutive month that the average global temperature exceeded the average for the 20th century. The oceans store most of the extra heat and, like a heat sink, will keep our thin atmosphere warm for many centuries.
Warmer oceans cause bigger storms. Perhaps the sight of the Tasman Glacier (by far our largest) might mean more to you. Go and have a look at it, alongside a photograph from just 50 years ago.
What about public policy or the duty of government? One of the main tasks of government is to manage risks to the wellbeing of its population.
Risk evaluation is a balance of likelihood and consequence. If the consequence of something happening is very serious, then, if at all possible, that risk should be managed.
We see this all the time in earthquake and engineering standards. We understand that the consequences of lying down on a road in dark clothes on a wet night are not likely to be good, even though we might just get away with it. Certainty is not part of risk management.
It seems that the most dedicated deniers not only deny climate change but deny the risk of it. This is true hubris.
I have no problem with people challenging parts of the science - which is what scientists do all the time - but to totally dismiss risk is beyond rationality.
I often wonder what they will say to their kids and grandchildren.

Our Government, while not quite denying risk, is doing as little as possible to manage it. There is a tragic lack of leadership, which reflects badly on us as a nation.
She'll be right, too hard, leave it to the next lot, is the sort of leadership we have learned to accept.

Moore and Kelly could be writing of the Harper Conservatives or the Trudeau Liberals or the Mulcair New Democrats.  That is the sort of leadership Canadians have learned to accept.


Lorne said...

The Moore piece is a real indictment of magical thinking, Mound. It is our capacity for self-delusion, at least in part, that enables climate-change deniers and politicians to get away with their nonsense.

Purple library guy said...

I like both pieces, but I worry about the line of thinking in the second. I disagree about ideology. Just as a scientific hypothesis is a way of making sense of masses of data about, generally, the natural world, an ideology is a way of making sense of masses of data about the human world at the political/economic level.
There is necessarily a subjective element to ideology in that politics involves clashes between different groups with different interests--notably, but not solely, classes. Where you stand depends to some degree on where you sit.

But blanket denunciation of ideology is a bad idea. There are two main groups who oppose the whole idea of ideology. One is more or less progressive liberals who believe in science; the only ideology they are aware of is that of the far right, most specifically the propaganda used to get parts of the population actually harmed by that ideology to believe the reverse. The other is marketroids and technocrats who want everyone to believe that their prescriptions are neutral, inevitable and uncontestable and anyone disagreeing is indulging in "ideology", which is to say irrationality. The irony there is that those prescriptions are in fact deeply ideological. And in fact, the anti-ideology liberals usually also espouse an ideology even as they repudiate the concept. They just don't realize it is one. There is not actually such a thing as a neutral non-ideological policy prescription.

I think there is a distinction to be made between ideology (the way you make sense of how politics and economics affect different groups and your position on which groups should be benefiting, which paying, and how), and falsehoods designed to get people to endorse the policies favoured by the holders of a particular ideology even though those policies will have outcomes which will harm them.

Everyone has an ideology whether they know it or not. If your ideology is based on having been stuffed full of lies, it's likely to give you stupid answers. Garbage in, garbage out as in every other field. That's a reason to be against black propaganda, not to be against ideology. And what worries me about the "ideology=bad" crowd is that if you don't know you have an ideology and haven't thought about what it should be, the ideology you end up with is likely to be haphazard and internally contradictory. It is also unlikely to be a serious basis for political action at a time when we desperately need political action.