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Climatophobia - Habemus plus vis computatoris quam Deus
Ramblings of a Unix ronin

We still hear a lot about consensus about climate change, and yet when you talk to people at large, it's still pretty clear there is none, outside of a few scientific circles.

One of the big problems, I think, is that the debate has become polarized into two political camps — "Of course it's all anthropogenic" and "Nonsense, it can't possibly be anthropogenic, the planet is just too big."  There is no middle ground of "Let's try to determine how much of this change may be anthropogenic", because the careful middle-grounders have been shouted down by the climate change deniers on one hand and the ZOMG-technology-is-BAD crowd on the other.  Each camp spreads lies and disinformation about the data, and particularly about the other side's data.

For instance, most of the most outspoken climate change deniers I know insist that the possibility of climate change is rubbish because it's all based on baseline data that starts in 1960.  (It isn't.  But repeat the lie often enough, and you'll convince people who are willing to take your word on other matters.)

Another common anti-climate-change canard is "What, this prediction of the whole planet's climate a hundred years ahead comes from the people who can't accurately predict the weather in my neighborhood three days in advance?"

Well, actually, no, it doesn't.  And in any case, that's a different and only superficially related problem.  Trying to predict chaotic short-term local fluctuations in a tiny part of a large system is actually a much more complex and difficult problem than analyzing and projecting trends in the long-term, large-scale average state of the entire system.

To give an admittedly inexact analogy, if I build a giant pachinko machine out of two-by-twelves and half-inch rebar, and I pour a 55-gallon drum of marbles into the top of it, I have a very, very slim chance of being able to predict exactly which marbles are going to be bouncing off a specified pin ninety seconds from now, and in which direction.  However, I can unequivocally state that the general trend is going to be for the marbles to proceed downwards, and I can predict with almost complete confidence that five minutes from now, all or almost all of those fifty thousand marbles (or however many marbles fit into a 55-gallon drum) are going to be in the bin at the bottom of the machine.  (But there's always the possibility my deck could collapse, at which point all bets are off.)

"The planet is just too big"?  Yeah, well, they said that about the oceans, didn't they?  "We can just dump trash and sewage into the oceans without repercussions forever.  They're so huge we could never affect them."  "We can fish the oceans forever.  The oceans are vast, and their supply of fish is inexhaustible to all practical purposes."  Tell that to Newfie fishermen who watched their livelihood vanish when the Grand Banks crashed, or to Peruvian anchovy fishermen after that fishery crashed from massive international overfishing (mostly in order to grind the anchovy up for fish-meal fertilizer).  Take a look at the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer runoff down the Mississippi.  Fer cryin' out loud, the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout left an oil slick on the Gulf that was naked-eye visible from orbit.  Look how polluted the Mediterranean Sea has become, with the entire effluvium of North Africa and most of southern Europe draining into it.  Look at the tundra of Siberia and the Canadian arctic: the permafrost is thawing.  Oh, yes, we can SO affect the planet as a whole, and anyone who thinks otherwise is suffering from dangerous delusions or dangerous ignorance.

The other side of the argument, of course, is the anthropogenic-climate-change-is-holy-truth, how-dare-you-question-it camp who deny any possibility that any part of what we can see happening around us could possibly be natural.  "This has never happened before!"  Well, yes, actually, it has.  Repeatedly.  We don't know what the trigger factors were then.  We have some idea this time.  "The Earth's climate has been stable for millions of years until we came along!"  Well, no, actually, it hasn't.  It's at best metastable, and even if it had been, "millions of years" is an eye-blink in Earth's history.  The dinosaurs alone were around for about 160 million years.  They sneer at your "millions of years" — or would, if they hadn't gone suddenly extinct, apparently due to a series of global changes they couldn't adapt to.

Oh, and while we're on the subject, you folks in the climate-change-zealot faction in the scientific community:  I hope you're aware that your shrill efforts to shout down and suppress any contrary opinions from the scientific community probably did more to discredit your position and make the man in the street question your conclusions than anything your most vocal opponents ever managed.  That wasn't the smartest thing you ever did, you know?

(Counterpoint to that:  about that anti-climate-change petition that's going around in the news?  The one allegedly signed by 31,000 "scientists"?  Word is nearly 9,000 of those "scientists" actually have real Ph.Ds.  Still no word yet on whether any of those 9,000 are actually climatologists.  What, you tell me, over a thousand behavioral psychologists say they don't support climate change theories?  Right.  Duly noted.  I'll be sure to consult a proper seismologist next time I need some psychological advice.)

What we need to do is acknowledge three things, really:

  • There is a large and growing body of evidence that the Earth's long-term (from our viewpoint) average climate is changing in ways that are likely to severely impact our way of life, and possibly our ability to feed large subsets of the human race.  Yes, periodically certain subsets of that data have been shown to be in error.  That doesn't invalidate all the rest of the data.  No, it's not conclusive yet.  But if we wait until it is conclusive before we start doing anything, and it turns out it IS drastically changing in ways that are bad for us, we're pretty much fucked.
  • We don't know for sure how much of this we have caused, but it would behoove us to do our best to find out, so that we can avoid making unplanned changes to it in future.
  • And last, REGARDLESS OF THE CAUSE, we need to get to work on figuring out viable approaches for controlling and mitigating such changes, without trying to roll back the green-fantasy clock to some kind of bucolic pastoral Utopia that has never actually existed, so that we can try to maintain our planet in a general climatic realm compatible with the continuance of modern civilization as we know it.  This isn't going to involve abandoning technology; it has to involve leapfrogging to clean technology.  (And just don't get me started on that "clean coal" bullshit.  Talking about "clean coal" is like talking about hot ice or lightweight lead.)

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jhetley From: jhetley Date: September 21st, 2011 08:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'll have you know that Younger Son's PhD is in Psychology of Perception*, which is much more relevant to this subject . . .

*Which is to say, what optical (etc) illusions do to the brain.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: September 22nd, 2011 01:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
No slight to Younger Son intended. :) Perception is nine tenths of a great many things.
milktree From: milktree Date: September 22nd, 2011 02:16 am (UTC) (Link)

A really major problem is that many (most) people don't know the difference between "weather" and "climate".

Here's a hint: Weather is if it'll rain on Tuesday. Climate is that it's hot in Phoenix and cold in Anchorage.

unixronin From: unixronin Date: September 22nd, 2011 04:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Very true. Combine that with the unfortunate choice of "global warming" rather than "global climate change", and the result is too many people who think it means the entire world is going to be uniformly warmer all the time. "It's colder this February than it was last December! This global warming stuff is a crock of bull!"
unix_jedi From: unix_jedi Date: September 22nd, 2011 03:54 am (UTC) (Link)
What we need to do is acknowledge three things, really:

5 things. (I'll quibble with 1 in a minute):

* If the changes are worth mitigating. If we spend a trillion mitigating, that's a trillion that we don't spend elsewhere. It might be far cheaper to deal with the effects than try and prevent them.

* We don't have _any_ model that can be run _forward_ and work. Which means we don't understand the inputs, and thus any "trend" is due to bias. (Otherwise, take a historical record of time, say 20 years. Plug the first 10 years into the model, and see if the model handles the *actual data of the next 10*. So far, nope.)

Now, the quibble(s) with point 1:

There is a large and growing body of evidence that the Earth's long-term (from our viewpoint) average climate is changing in ways that are likely to severely impact our way of life, and possibly our ability to feed large subsets of the human race.

Changing, yes. It's been in a constant state of flux for as long as we can postulate. That said, global warming would be a great thing for our way of life and especially with feeding people. We've got historical records of much warmer periods - and those periods coincided with huge expansions of population.

Yes, periodically certain subsets of that data have been shown to be in error.

Some. And some has been out-and-out fraud. Lies. Deliberate deception.

That doesn't invalidate all the rest of the data.

It severely damages it. If a large, vocal, and guiding segment of a group turns out to be deliberately lying their asses off it doesn't mean that their conclusions are all wrong.

But it does mean that everybody else who's been citing them, hanging out with them, and who's been "peer reviewing" and reviewed by them is suddenly very suspect.

And as of right now, there has not been a shakeout from the known and proven deliberate frauds that have been uncovered, and many of the fraudsters are still in positions of power and gatekeepers in the debate.

No, it's not conclusive yet.

Not even close.

But if we wait until it is conclusive before we start doing anything, and it turns out it IS drastically changing in ways that are bad for us, we're pretty much fucked.

Unless of course we go off half cocked and demolish industries and do something that makes things worse, or spend stupidly. Ya know, since we didn't actually have conclusive evidence.

"Fallen Angels" is damn prophetic, and at the time it was written, I thought it was ludicrously stupid with the politics. Whoops.

But what most of the Global Warming crowd tends to forget - or elide past - that we're close to being as hot as we can get, barring some major, non-human created issues. We can get a few degrees hotter here and there, but there's heat sink effects and limits.

We're close to them in our human level of comfort.

But the limit LOW is damn near uninhabitable.

For every degree C we raise the "average" temp, we get about 10% additional agricultural areas in Canada and Siberia. My cure to world hunger is to figure out how to try and get a C or two extra.

But we're not necessarily "fucked", because we've never, not once in recorded history, been able to project the environmental problems more than 50 years out. By the time you get there, it's changed. And that's what I expect to happen here.
attutle From: attutle Date: September 22nd, 2011 06:02 am (UTC) (Link)
A few of my thoughts:

Anyone who claims that this is such a crisis ought to do everything in their power to open up the data, communicate clearly, assist with widespread understanding, and understand that they need to overcome people's scepticism with facts, patience and data and education. Yelling at people is never the right way to win an argument, or to educate.

The system is dominated by negative feedback mechanisms. Anyone who blathers on about runaway-this and tipping-point-that loses all respect.

We know that the ground station data at certain stations is bad, due to changes in collection, heat island effect, etc. We haven't been honest about this, and it isn't clear how to correct for these issues because the data is closed.

The models are crap. They don't predict accurately, they have to be tweaked to fit the data, and they are closed and unavailable.

This topic involves a lot of data collection, a lot of noise and vast quantities of numbers. It looks very sciency, but it isn't science. Science involves testable and disprovable hypothesis.

We may not agree about whether or not we have inadvertently altered the climate.

I'm willing to concede that it is well within our ability to intentionally alter the climate, and that's the part I find scary.

If we conclude that we can and should intentionally alter the climate, what I've seen so far makes it very clear to me that we'll get it very wrong.

The people most likely to get it most wrong are the ones who have managed to convince themselves that they have the best understanding of the climate. This scares me far more than the current climate change trends.
unixronin From: unixronin Date: September 22nd, 2011 12:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
You have an excellent point. Several, in fact.
ithildae From: ithildae Date: September 23rd, 2011 09:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Once we figure out how to alter the global environment, that will pick regional winners and losers. Do we have the political structure to handle those choices? Who decides? Can a rogue nation unilaterally alter the climate to benefit themselves, at the expense of everyone else? "Corner on the Market!". Charming ring to it, isn't there?

hrrunka From: hrrunka Date: September 22nd, 2011 07:52 am (UTC) (Link)
For every degree C we raise the "average" temp, we get about 10% additional agricultural areas in Canada and Siberia. My cure to world hunger is to figure out how to try and get a C or two extra.

What would that same change do to agricultural production in, say, Africa?
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ithildae From: ithildae Date: September 22nd, 2011 05:54 am (UTC) (Link)

Before we can address any of your points, the science needs to start working again. That means allowing disagreements to be published, actually adressing points made by those who disagree, melding new theories and ideas into something that better models our planet. It would be really nice if we had a working climate model, of any kind, that could take historical data and come close to what really happened over the following year or two. At some point, we have to stop talking ideas and show something that works. Just that would drive much of the politics out and give science a chance in the debate.

At some level, we need to move past our God complex. Even if we have an impact on our biosphere, we have no idea how to manipulate it globally. Our planet and star are variable and dynamic, trying to hold our climate in stasis could bring an even worse doom than the IPCC could ever predict. We don't know enough, and we seem to be a very long way from knowing enough.

At the macro level, everything points to clomate change, possibly caused by humans. Every detail subject that I feel competent enough to understand has some flaw or error in the logic chain for it being human caused. Admittedly, that is far from a representative sample, but still, every detail level? Really?

The sorry end game for this mess is likely held in the old maxim, "Science changes one funeral at a time."

unixronin From: unixronin Date: September 22nd, 2011 12:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
At the macro level, everything points to clomate change, possibly caused by humans.

I would say, "probably partially caused by humans." But as Rob Hansen pointed out elsewhere, once you have established that the change is occurring, what percentage of it is natural and what percentage anthropogenic really isn't an important or interesting question. The question of blame pales into insignificance next to the question of what we're going to do about it and the problems it presents us with.

Edited at 2011-09-22 12:56 pm (UTC)
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unix_jedi From: unix_jedi Date: September 23rd, 2011 12:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
At the macro level, everything points to clomate change, possibly caused by humans.

That's partially also explainable by statistical noise overwhelmed by hopeful thinking.

When Kratatoa blows again - (much less the Yellowstone fault) - and drops temps 2-3 degrees by average for 10 years, and we're talking MAYBE our "carbon release" (which is a really bogus issue, but that's a much longer comment.) MIGHT raise the temp a tenth of a degree in 10 years...

I say "these two things are not even remotely on the same scale".
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wyrdling From: wyrdling Date: September 24th, 2011 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
thank you for presenting one o the most rational overviews of the issue i've yet to see.
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