The Corner

Listen to the Earth, But Also to the Bean Counters

Two scientists make a good case in USA Today that the earth has definitely warmed over the last century and is continuing to warm. I think they’re largely right on that score. Where they lose me is here:

One can argue for hours whether this year was warmer or colder than last. To us, it doesn’t matter. We should be reading the earth, not thermometers. The earth is clearly warming, and sea level is clearly rising.

In order to convince a skeptical public that global change is real, scientists and funding agencies need to invest more in field measurements and monitoring rather than computer modeled predictions.

As for the skeptics, it’s time to get off the atmospheric temperature kick and read the earth. We also believe the science clearly indicates that humans are playing a new, and critical role in driving that warming. But, lack of clarity in the exact degree that humans are causing global warming should not be used as an excuse to ignore the monumental changes that rising sea level and changing climate will bring to the planet, and our society.

This is a bait-and-switch argument. One can concede that the earth is warming and that it’s a problem. But the “lack of clarity in the exact degree that humans are causing global warming” is still a huge issue, not a trivial one as these guys suggest.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the world is entering a phase where we’re plagued with lots and lots of earthquakes. That would be a huge problem. Let’s also assume for the sake of argument that — somehow — the use of fossil fuels contributes to the problem. If humans activity accounted for 100% of the earthquakes, you could make a very powerful argument for abandoning fossil fuels right away in order to end anthropogenic global seismic activity. But if human activity accounted for only .00000001% of the rise in earthquakes, you’d have to make a very rigorous cost-benefit analysis argument for eliminating fossil fuels.

Likewise, if the sun or some other natural phenomena is responsible for all global warming, we shouldn’t care about using fossil fuels. But if, as so many contend, it’s all humanity’s fault, the case for spending trillions on switching energy sources makes more sense.

Since the reality is almost surely somewhere closer to the middle, cost-benefit analysis matters. A lot.

And yet, so many of the arguments for “environmentally responsible” or alarmist public policies (depending on your point of view) leap from arguing the evidence is in that we’re getting warmer to it’s all man’s fault and it’s obviously worth the money to ameliorate or fix the problem as quickly as possible.

That’s one reason why I often care less about scientific arguments about how to deal with global warming than I do about economic arguments.

Update: From a reader:

Ahh, but Jonah, these scientists are not necessarily (at least in this article) arguing that the answer is the elimination of Fossil Fuels from our energy portfolio (or inducing other massive and costly economic changes), they quite rationally are indicating that if the planet is heating up, perhaps we should be cognizant of the worrying aspects of that trend, a la Bjorn Lomborg.

I agree with that entirely, and I defer to Lomborg on almost all of these issues. But taking the reader’s interpretation of their piece at face value, we’re still left with a hugely important “and therefor what?”

Update II: From a different reader:

I agree with you, but I just want to point out the harm that is done by your statement that “reality is almost surely somewhere closer to the middle.” You have no basis for that conclusion other than the pressure against deniers and toward consensus. The facts are we don’t know, and until we know there is no way to determine if switching to other fuels will be more cost effective than building more sea walls and desalination plants. But spending our money to treat a wrongly diagnosed cause will leave little left to deal with the impacts.

Good point!

Update III: From yet another reader:

You wrote: “we’re still left with a hugely important ‘and therefor[e] what?’”

I’m not quite sure what you’re asking for here. The authors are essentially saying “Look, regardless of the cause, the earth is warming, and that has consequences that should be addressed.” That’s your reader’s interpretation, and it seems both correct and controversial. So what’s the problem? Are you criticizing the authors because they did not describe those consequences or specify appropriate remedies? To me the consequences–flooding, altered coastlines, long-term loss of some land areas, etc.–are straightforward enough that they don’t need to be spelled out. The potential remedies–levees, alterations to common shipping lanes, abandonment of some coastal areas, etc.–are pretty obvious too, at least at the level of detail appropriate for an editorial.

Fair enough…but: My hunch is that not one in a hundred readers read that op-ed as an argument for more levees and alterations to common shipping lanes. Instead, I suspect they read it as a case for the Copenhagen-style proposals floating around out there. I think if they mean something different, they should have said so because the obvious interpretation isn’t that.

Update IV: Okay the update thread is getting out of hand. So this is the last one. Not like the subject won’t ever come up again:

Jonah,

 

I’m a scientist; I don’t play one on TV.  Although it’s not my field, I’ve followed the Global Warming debate as best as my real job allows ever since I read an article in Physics Today (during the Clinton administration) about the lies being told by the IPCC.

 

Regarding the USA Today article, I don’t think the authors make a good case for Global Warming.  My reading is that it’s more of the same nonsense we’ve been hearing for years, just packaged differently because of the flak caused by Climategate.  You can’t prove Global Warming by providing local evidence.  Whatever is happening with our planet’s climate affects things in different ways over the entire planet.

 

I’m a regular reader of Planet Gore, and they had a nice link to a video a few weeks ago indicating we’re overdue for an ice age.  Let’s get more evidence.  Let’s not listen to drivel as provided by Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young that’s meant to appeal to our emotions as much as our reason.

 

Thanks, love your work,

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