The Latest News on Global Warming; Weirdness Still Prevails

(Digital Vision)

The U.N. is holding its big annual conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa. For those of you still paying attention to global-warming news, you may want to add a couple of links to your reading:

+ There’s been a second round of “ClimateGate” e-mails, (the first preceded the U.N.’s climate-change Copenhagen conference in 2009); the Times‘s  Andy Revkin becomes a more prominent character this time around, for which he is attacked, against which he promptly defends himself.

 + A new study in Science argues with the accepted wisdom on climate sensitivity. From the website of Oregon State University, home to lead researcher Andreas Schmittner:

A new study suggests that the rate of global warming from doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide may be less than the most dire estimates of some previous studies – and, in fact, may be less severe than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007.

Authors of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program and published online this week in the journal Science, say that global warming is real and that increases in atmospheric CO2 will have multiple serious impacts.

However, the most Draconian projections of temperature increases from the doubling of CO2 are unlikely.

+ And in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens raises hell by not only arguing that global warming is akin to a religion but that the religion is dying:

As with religion, it is presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate. As with religion, it comes with an elaborate list of virtues, vices and indulgences. As with religion, its claims are often non-falsifiable, hence the convenience of the term “climate change” when thermometers don’t oblige the expected trend lines. As with religion, it is harsh toward skeptics, heretics and other “deniers.” And as with religion, it is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit.

Also, fwiw, our latest podcast (“The Truth Is Out There … Isn’t It?”) examines how we make up our minds about the risks of climate change, and reports the surprising finding that higher levels of scientific knowledge are correlated with greater polarization on the issue:

Greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.

In other words: the more you know, the more you know that what you know is true — even when it’s not.

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  1. VBinNV says:

    Nominee for quote of the year:

    “The more you know, the more you know that what you know is true — even when it’s not.”

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  2. Mike B says:

    Apart from a few Religious wingnuts I believe that the mast majority of people know that the basic element of climate change are real, but a large group will never admit it because they feel that conceding the point will cost them money, their burgers or their motor vehicles. It’s exactly what the Tobacco industry did for decades to avoid regulations that would cripple their industry. One would think that the act of inhaling smoke would bound to have some negative health consequence, but the industry’s denial machine was able to fog the issue for decades. A lot more people have a lot more to lose from current climate change solutions so they simply man the barricades and deny that burning billions of tones of Carbon based fuels in a closed system could have any impact.

    The way to fight this is to have an honest debate about how much people are willing to sacrifice to prevent climate change and disconnect “belief” in climate change with any sort of remedy. The pro-environmental movements has basically equated belief in global warming with owing small electric scooters and eating tofu dogs and surprise surprise we’re getting a popular backlash. If the majority of people prefer to pay for flood walls instead of higher electric bills then that should be on the table.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 25 Thumb down 25
    • Ally says:

      While I strongly agree with your general argument, I would argue that the cost of business-as-usual is a great deal more than just building some flood walls. Because people see this as an ideological argument, they don’t think in terms of risk management. When you consider that if climate change is real, there’s a high likelihood of
      - large-scale desertification resulting in displacement of communities; loss of agricultural land and the need to relocate crops leading to dramatic (even if temporary) increases in food prices;
      - increased extreme weather events causing economic instability and raising insurance costs, as well as being disastrous for some individuals;
      - spread of tropical diseases leading to greater medical costs
      - loss of biodiversity and collapse of many tourist industries
      And as well, a relatively low but still significant probability of a catastrophic event such as sudden release of large methane stores from melting Arctic permafrost, resulting in a global ecological collapse.
      When you add all of this up, even if you are pretty sure that global warming isn’t real, doing nothing about it looks crazy. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to crash my car next time I drive to the shops. But I still strap my baby into her expensive, uncomfortable infant seat – because I don’t gamble with her future, even when I think the odds are in my favor.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 16
      • Jeremy says:

        You just argued that zero times infinity can be any number you want it to be. Yes, it can, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with every political argument about potential catastrophes, and shows that this kind of thinking is entirely ideological. This is extraordinarily bad reasoning.

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      • Ally says:

        Do you seriously estimate that the probability that science is right about climate change is zero?

        That’s a scary level of certainty to have about anything.

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      • Chris says:

        “When you add all of this up, even if you are pretty sure that global warming isn’t real, doing nothing about it looks crazy.”

        What? I’m pretty sure that we won’t be invaded by aliens, but if we were I am sure there would be many of the same types of events you mentioned in your post. So if I add all that up does that mean I should ask my Congressman to do something about alien invasion because doing nothing about it looks crazy? Your argument is either worded incorrectly or incoherently.

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      • Ally says:

        If aliens were readily available to be studied empirically by scientists, and virtually all the scientific community – agreed that an alien invasion was in progress right now, then yes, I’d want the government to do something about it.

        It’s true that “pretty sure” covers a range of probabilities. I use it, as you can see, to describe the probability of a car accident in any given trip (around 1/10000 for me). You are using it to describe something with a probability I would estimate more like 1/10000000.

        For me, the consequences of climate change seem severe enough that I would need the probability of science being right to be less than 1/10000 to justify inaction. So, how certain are you that all the scientists are wrong and you are right about climate change?

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      • Mike B says:

        Most people who would bare the cost of preventing such risks will be dead when those risks might actually pan out. Therefore their actions are perfectly rational.

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      • Ally says:

        What is rational depends on what you value. If you care for anyone outside yourself – and most people do actually care for their children – it’s not rational to risk their future.

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  3. Sam Morrill says:

    I would like to preface this comment by saying that I am a big fan of Freakonomics. I’ve read your work, I listen to your podcast (somewhat obsessively) and I follow your blog via Twitter. Generally speaking, I love the way you hack away at conventional wisdom and find new angles to approach tired solutions to old problems. However, I take serious issue with your approach to the issue of climate change.

    In your most recent podcast, you cite Pew research that shows that scientists consistently rank as the most trusted professionals in the United States. In general, this may be true, but keep in mind that the scientists that Americans have the most direct contact with are their physicians. Since physicians are primarily tasked with keeping us alive, we as their patients have a vested interest in trusting them and following their advice. Climatologists and other environmental scientists, on the other hand, do not provide this sort of vital service to us. On the contrary, their advice is often opposed to our immediate interests since human comfort and convenience often comes at the expense of the environment. Therefore, I suspect that if you were to take a closer look at the numbers (rather just lump all scientists together), you would probably find significantly less trust of those scientists who do not necessarily serve our direct and immediate interests like physicians do.

    Furthermore, I found it particularly offensive when you interviewed Steven Levitt and had him liken (albeit indirectly) the fear of climate change to some of our less rational fears–spiders, sharks, earthquakes and so on and so forth. This analogy makes a huge omission: Whereas our fears of animals and natural disasters are largely rooted in our fear of bodily harm to ourselves, the fear of climate change is largely rooted in a fear of the havoc that it may wreak on our children and our children’s children and society as a whole. In other words, the fear of climate change is a more selfless fear than it is a selfish fear.

    This brings me to my final point—the issue of selfishness versus selflessness. Considering that the credo of Freakonomics is the “study of incentives – how people get what they want or need,” I’m surprised that you spent no time discussing the incentives that drive each side of the climate debate. On one hand, you have climate science deniers who are largely driven by the fear of their tacit understanding that any sort of action to combat climate change would likely require changes to their lifestyle. On the other hand, you have those of us who are greatly concerned about climate change, full well knowing that we may need to make sacrifices to offset the threat, but are willing to because it is the right thing to do. I take no issue with Freakonomics throwing climate science under a microscope, but it is truly regrettable to grant (false) equivalency to those who have their head in the sand to professionals who are dedicating their lives to seeking a real solution to a real problem. You would do us all a better service by dedicating thirty minutes to discussing why some people are able put aside their immediate self-interests and why others, sadly, are not.

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    • Brian says:

      I guess obtaining political power and dedicating your life to earning your paycheck are selfless endeavors. Typical liberal demagoguery of assuming evil motives to the other side and pure altruism on theirs.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 26 Thumb down 25
      • Sam Morrill says:

        The notion that fighting climate change is politically expedient is a complete falsehood. Jimmy Carter learned this the hard way when he asked Americans to wear sweaters. It is also a falsehood to say that there is more money to be made promoting climate science than there is to be made by environmentally devastating industrial practices.

        Please note that I made no mention of politics in my original post. Science is not a political matter. Unfortunately, it has been politicized by certain elements (be they religious or economic) who are not suited by scientific consensus.

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      • John B says:

        “Scientific consensus” has been used over and over again to justify global warming (oops: climate change).

        The fact that more and more scientists do not follow the standard line is ignored and the word “consensus” is used as a club, not to convince others as to the merits of their position.

        The world is flat; the sun and planets revolve around the earth; etc. etc., were all part of scintific consensus at one time. And their consensus was a lot greater than the present one. They were proven wrong by science. Open the inquiry up to scientific review rather than relying upon “consensus”.

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      • Sam Morrill says:

        The idea that the planet has been steadily warming on average since the industrial revolution is not up for dispute, even skeptics acknowledge this fact. The “debate”, instead, centers around what is causing that warming. Global warming has been rebranded because every time a foot of snow dropped somewhere in the U.S., deniers would parade around on cable news with signs that read “What global warming?”, which was apparently an effective way to sew the seeds doubt. Climate change takes into account all of the aberrations we are experiencing, but it is still as true as ever that temperatures are trending upwards.

        It’s interesting that you choose to reference our previously held notions regarding the solar system and the shape of the earth. You’re right that Galileo and Copernicus were revolutionaries of their time, but it is also true that similar to climatologists today, they were suppressed and fought uphill battles against the powers that had enormous stakes in the status quo. Back then it was the Catholic church (who had been teaching their faithful that the earth was the center of the universe for centuries), today it is big industry. So, your analogy is valid, it’s just the other way around.

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      • Mike B says:

        How can this fail to pass the most basic sniff test?? Single volcanic eruptions in the past have lowered global average temperatures by a degree or more, yet somehow the actions of several billion humans burning stuff in a CLOSED SYSTEM for two centuries doesn’t have any effect? Trying to pretend that the climate change is being caused by solar cycles or orbital shifts is wishful thinking.

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    • Mike says:

      Playing the moral superiority card doesn’t resonate. Many of those very same “selfless” people are sitting around asking for billions from others for their own benefit. As always, it’s a question of which costs of society you are willing to bear and which costs you are willing to force someone else to bear.

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      • Sam Morrill says:

        Your comment is well taken, although I’m not sure who you are referring to when you say “Many of those very same “selfless” people are sitting around asking for billions from others for their own benefit.” Perhaps you could clarify who it is you’re referring to.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 7
      • EP says:

        Oh, I don’t know, Solyndra? Al Gore? The people enjoying the extravagant conference right now?

        Thumb up 7 Thumb down 8
    • aepxc says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • James says:

        Problem is, it’s nowhere near a simple liberal vs conservative issue, because you can find a lot of us in the conservative to libertarian range of the political spectrum who willingly accept the known science of AGW, and the need for major changes to deal with it. We might not agree on the practicality or effectiveness of any particular tactic, but that’s mere pragmatics.

        Certainly there’s something to be said for the lifestyle aspect. I do admit that it’s a heck of a lot easier for me to contemplate giving up SUVs when I wouldn’t have one at any price.

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  4. Kevin McKague says:

    If 98% of oncologists said that you had cancer, would you ask for a 99th opinion from a chiropractor, or FOX commentator?

    98% of climate scientists believe climate change is real, and I don’t know enough about what they study to dispute them. I just know that there aren’t many things that 98% of any given field agrees on, so I’m with the scientists on this scientific issue.

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    • Min says:

      If 98% of oncologists say I have cancer, clearly all 98% are colluding to try to get at my delicious insurance money for all the services that’ll have to be rendered to treat my problem or make survival at least comfortable for the rest of my life.

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      • Mike B says:

        Yes, and I guess the implication that cancer is only a myth made up by the medical community to scam people’s insurance.

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  5. Ally says:

    Having checked out the so-called “second round of Climategate” emails posted on the Daily Telegraph blog, I’m unimpressed. I am a scientist, and these emails look like normal, robust scientific dialogue – including internal critique and discussion of whether particular results have been presented in a misleading way. They’ve been selectively quoted to look as bad as possible, and even then, there’s nothing remotely disturbing about them.

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  6. Nosybear says:

    I’ve always felt the “Draconian” predictions do the science a disservice. Of course, in modern American media, shock value is necessary to get someone’s attention. The reality of doing any projection is you get a wide range of outcomes. Using the most extreme is generally bad practice as those predictions seldom verify: The weatherman predicts 20 inches of snow, it sometimes happens but more often we get 10. I also love the “secure in our knowledge, regardless of its truth” quote – pretty much sums up human nature, confirmation bias and a number of our cognitive weaknesses.

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  7. Kevin McKague says:

    It always amuses me when people suggest that scientists ar
    e financially motivated to “prop up” the idea of climate change as a man-made phenomenon.

    If, by some implausible possibility, 98% of the scientific community were willing to go along with such a conspiracy, wouldn’t it be far more profitable to take the money from those doing the polluting? Who are the wealthy climate change activists with the money and the motive to outspend the oil industry?

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    • John B says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        Yeh, the 98% agreement claim is bogus on its face. On the other hand, 86.5% of statistics are just made up.

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      • Ally says:

        Well, it could come from the 2010 study by Anderegg et al. in PNAS, which reviewed publication and citation data for 1,372 climate researchers and concluded as follows:

        (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

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  8. James says:

    “Greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive…”

    You know, I’d really like to see the evidence for this claim, and in particular the standard for what constitutes “greater” scientific literacy. It seems to fly in the face of other evidence: that 98% or 99% of climate scientists (baslcally all those not funded by Exxon or the Kochs – and even some of them :-)) who obviously have the greatest scientific literacy on the subject, the membership of just about every scientific professional organization, and so on.

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