Stephen Schneider’s book

I’ve just finished with Stephen Schneider’s book Science as a Contact Sport.  This is not really a science book, more like a memoir, but Schneider himself is a climate researcher. He recounts his activities from the 70′s to present, such as work on climate models, and as a part of the IPCC.

I’m not sure if it’s the book itself or just where I am in my own investigation now, but I felt like some of my thoughts on global warming began to crystallize as I read this book.  The book was interesting in its own right, though.

One thing I noted throughout the book is how Schneider scrupulously avoids saying that doom is certain.  He always paints it as a spectrum of probabilities.   Even if the warming is certain, he is clear that the outcomes are less so at this point, and that we need to think of our reaction as risk management.  He also is clear that risk management decisions are not science decisions.   They are the domain of ethics and politics.  He makes this point several times in the book:

I recall saying [to a reporter in the 1970s] that our models were “like dirty crystal balls, but the tough choice is how long we clean the glass before we act on what we can make out inside.”  That risk management challenge plagues us still, even as models become more sophisticated and simulate Earth’s conditions increasingly well.  What constitutes “enough” credibility to act is not science but a value judgment on how to gauge risks and weigh costs.  — p34

Later when he recounts his testimony before the 1981 Gore congressional hearing on  climate, he touches on the topic again.   After being asked about whether the problem is “urgent” he responds:

Whether one is an alarmist or considers the CO2 problem urgent isn’t based on any scientific information.  It is a value judgment.  It depends upon how you personally fear the costs of mitigating them, versus your own political philosophy about whether individuals should be free to do what they want, or whether we have collective responsibility. [...]

I do not believe that change will necessarily be catastrophic, although the issue of catastrophe is almost irrelevant.  The issue is, if we have done something, and if we can know who did it, there is the question of equity as to who should be responsible or how we can minimize the damages so that it is not a catastrophe.

It is like many other pollution issues.  I have a sense of urgency in the view that we need to consider now those actions which increase our options.  In that sense, it is urgent. In the sense it will be an urgent catastrophe which will eliminate all life, that kind of statement is absolutely unwarranted.

Again he brings up the “value judgment” when discussing the meaning of “dangerous” in Rio’s UNFCCC statement about “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”:

[I]t’s clear that what’s “dangerous” is not a scientific judgment, but rather a value judgment about what’s important and what is acceptable or unacceptable risk, and to whom.  Plus, to make that value judgment, we have to know how much climate change will take place.  And we have to know what will be impacted, what will happen to wildlife, to fisheries, to coastlines, to human health, to agriculture in one country versus a threat to health in another?  What could be dangerous to one country could be a benefit to another.
– p128.

This is very much the conclusion I was coming to as well, having read now a half-dozen books on climate change from both contrarians and pro-warmers.   It seems to me that the greatest scientific uncertainties at this point are about the impacts that various degrees of warming will have on the planet.  And Schneider seems to agree with this view.

Regarding the uncertainties involved, Schneider has an interesting take on the claims of people like Michael Crichton that scientists exaggerate the problem in order to get grant money.

On the contrary, if scientists really exaggerated the risks of climate change, society would no longer need to fund us because our job would be over.  The best way for us to curry funding favor would be to deny we know much and stress uncertainties to get research money to reduce them.  Overstating uncertainty, not exaggerating risks, would be a much better trick for that dishonest goal we are accused of pursuing by many in the climate denier camp.  They couldn’t even get their smear logically right.
– p209.

It’s an interesting counter-argument, but I don’t find it to be particularly strong.  If scientists claimed total uncertainty then there would be no reason to provide funding.  Imagine — “Scientists have yet to amass enough evidence to determine whether or not large purple flamingos from outer space are coming to wreck our ecosystems.  Funding is urgently needed to study this important problem!”  I don’t think that will open up many pockets.   If it were a deliberate strategy, the proper tack would be to provide just enough evidence of a serious problem to scare, but then insist that all the specifics are uncertain.  And of course you should make sure that a non-event is within the error bars reported, so that if nothing ends up happening, you can still claim it was among the outcomes predicted.  I could certainly see someone making the argument that the science at this point seems to be following that script.

But I don’t believe there’s any such overarching conspiratorial “strategy”.  It may be true that there are a few scientists deliberately abusing fears over climate to get more funding, but on the whole, science is not a great career to go into for money.   If you want money, you go into industry.  If you thrive on the “pleasure of finding things out”, as Feynman put it, you become a career academic scientist.    Perhaps there are other reasons that some folks become career scientists, but my experience is that there is at least a solid core of scientists out there who genuinely want to find the truth based on the dispassionate methods of science.  I’ve never met a scientist who wasn’t moved by the story of Galileo sticking to his scientific scruples (more on that later),  or Feynman and his charming tales of standing up to bigger names when he was a young guy.  Such figures are heroes to almost everyone in the scientific community, as far as I can tell.  I’ve never seen a counter-example, at least.  Given that, to claim that genuine seekers of truth only exist on the contrarian side is just ridiculous.  There are far too many scientists on both sides for that to be true of either.

So the chance that all pro-warming folks are just in it for the money is astronomically slim.  But say for a moment you believe they are.  Well the chances are at least as good that all the anti-warming scientists are in it for the money, too.  So the argument fails in any case.  You can’t have it both ways.  There’s plenty of documented evidence showing that prominent contrarians are getting funding from big energy companies.  So is it perfectly legit for them to accept money from big energy, but suspicious for other scientists to get funding from big government?   It just doesn’t add up.

One thing that was a surprise to hear was that the whole climate debate played out in miniature in the 70′s over the issue of ozone depletion.  And, according to Schneider, many of the same tactics used by contrarians today were on display then:

Industry attacks in the late 1970s on the integrity and scientific acumen of these stellar scientists in front of Congress, in newspapers, and in other media by those only interested in maintaining market share was an object lesson of what we’d experience soon enough from the coal, oil, and automobile industries over global warming.  Character assassination, out-of-context contrary facts, industry friendly Ph.D.’s denying that the science was “proven,” and accusations that the concerned scientists were “doom and gloom” mongers trying to scare federal agencies into giving them research grants—all typical contrarian tactics—were honed into a fine political art in the ozone wars.
– p111.

He offers no citations to back this up, so I think a bit of fact-checking is in order before completely swallowing what he says.   In any event, the ozone problem was eventually solved with further efforts from scientists and governmental action to eliminate the CFCs that were eventually proved to be the culprits.   The history of the ozone problem is definitely worth looking into further to see how contrarians and advocates behaved then.

One global warming contrarian tactic is to point out scientists who have changed their mind from pro- to con-.  I haven’t heard much of this from the pro-warming side, though one would presume in a large enough system there should be a few converts going both ways.   Schneider mentions a few prominent cases of well-known individuals who once contested the evidence for dangerous warming, but now have changed their view.  One is Jim Lovelock of the Gaia hypothesis, who basically asserted that the Earth is an extremely stable system, and it would be impossible for humans to mess it up.  Schneider writes:

Interestingly, Jim Lovelock now is a passionate believer that human greenhouse gas emission can cause traumatic climate responses and is advocating eliminating coal burning and replacing it with nuclear power and other energy systems that don’t emit carbon.  Ironically,  when I spent a weekend with Jim and his wife, Sandy, at Big Sur recently, I was in the strange position of trying to moderate his more apocalyptic recent views—what a change of roles from our first meeting! — p67.

One more is Bjørn Lomborg who wrote the 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which, according to his website, “challenges widely held beliefs that the global environment is progressively getting worse”.  But Schneider reports:

In an amazing turn of events, Lomborg recently dropped his nonsensical claim that climate change isn’t a problem.  Now, as if he thought of it first, he supports making “low-carbon alternatives like solar and wind energy competitive with old carbon sources,” as he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on April 25, 2009.  I guess scientists really are making progress in convincing people about the climate change. p222.

It’s interesting, but something doesn’t seem to add up here.  You’d think if  Lomborg had changed his mind, then he would be recanting his book, and actively trying to set the record straight.  But, no, his website still hocks the book, and that op-ed piece mentions it prominently among Lomborg’s environmental credentials.  Not sure what is up there.  But the op-ed piece seems pretty clearly aligned with a “warming is a problem” view of the world.

There is another contrarian pseudo-argument that Schneider brings up, which I’ve heard many times.  Some contrarians are fond of claiming that, like Galileo, they are standing up for the truth in the face of an establishment aligned against them.   Schneider dismisses this by pointing out that for every true Galileo figure in history there have been thousands upon thousands of crack-pots who it turned out were, in fact, wrong.   Simply going against consensus doesn’t make you right.  Indeed, if you’re going against consensus, the historical odds suggest you’re probably wrong.

But I would like to point out an important distinction between the current tussle between scientists over the environment and that between Galileo and the Vatican.  The current scuffle is between scientists. Galileo was arguing against an institution who’s source of information was religious philosophy.  Galileo is basically credited with inventing modern observational science, so the real argument in Galileo’s case was whether science was a better way to learn about the universe than staring at your navel and philosophizing about what you wish were true, then dictating that the masses must believe it.

That is completely different from the situation we find ourselves in now.  The strongest views held by BOTH global warming advocates AND their detractors in fact come from observation and scientific analysis.  This is not Galileo v. Church.   It’s Science v. Science here, and the question is only who has the better evidence.   Comparisons with Galileo’s tragic struggle against the dogmatic beliefs of institutionalized religion are completely inappropriate.

A better comparison might be to Einstein.  The establishment was at first skeptical of his bold claims about relativity.  But the theory continued to be refined and evidence gathered, and eventually the scientific consensus became that he was correct.  This is how the scientific consensus evolves today, post-Galileo.  If the anti-warmers come up with sufficient evidence and theory to back it up, eventually their science will win.  If they don’t, it won’t.

However, a smattering of evidence against global warming does not nullify the mass of evidence for it.  The evidence for warming exists and is real.  The evidence against it also exists and also is real.  However, both come with a lamentably large dose of uncertainty.  Yet, unless the contrarians demonstrate beyond the shadow of dobut that the vast majority of the evidence for global warming is conclusively false, it really doesn’t matter how many studies show that there is no discernible warming.  The burden of proof for showing safety is inherently higher than that for showing potential danger.

For instance, ice core records show that sea levels were several meters higher than today at a time in the past (eemian period) when the temperatures were just a few degrees warmer than today [source: Hansen's Storms of my Grandchildren].  That’s clear evidence suggesting our oceans may rise significantly if temperatures rise.  Unless you can explain exactly why that won’t happen this time around as part of a comprehensive, evidence-based theory of the climate, then we need to take such evidence seriously.  Simply arguing that our models are not good enough, as many contrarians do, does not give me much comfort.

Generally, as humans, we fear the unknown.  If you hear a strange menacing voice around the corner, you choose not to go that way if you can avoid it.  It may be nothing, but better safe than sorry.  It’s just good common sense.  You just don’t put yourself and especially not your children in potentially dangerous situations if you can help it.

And that’s what we have here.  We can hear the menacing voices around the corner.   It may turn out to be nothing, but by the time we’ve gone round the corner it could be too late to turn back.  If we’re moving too fast to turn back now, we at least need to try to slow down and give ourselves time to prepare for what we may run into.

Or how about a car analogy?  In general we presume that our cars are as safe as manufacturers can make them.  They go through extensive testing and have to meet a variety of safety standards.   But it is possible for occasional manufacturing defects to leak through that process.   When positive evidence of such a defect comes to light, do we allow a company like Toyota to sit back and claim the chances are slim that there’s a problem because, after all, they tested things and therefore have good evidence that their cars work properly and are safe?    Of course not.  Whenever there’s positive evidence pointing to potential safety defects, we demand our auto companies investigate and prove to us beyond the shadow of doubt that the evidence of defect was incorrect.

Contrarians by and large try to argue that the evidence for dangerous warming is too uncertain, so there’s no need to act.  However, unless the sum total of the evidence is so uncertain that beneficial outcomes are equally or more likely than catastrophic ones, then we must not ignore the potential for harm.  And actually, evidence for global warming leading to an improved environment is pretty scant.  There’s a potential for some CO2 fertilization effect improving crop growth in some regions; however, there is also evidence that this will not be able to outweigh the negative effect of increasing droughts and floods.  At any rate, the evidence for potential upsides is simply not conclusive enough to rely upon for policy decisions.  However, evidence of equal strength for potential catastrophe is, I would argue, reason enough for us to change policy.

In the midst of all this uncertain evidence, one of the few things we can say with absolute certainty is that the environment we have right now works pretty well for us, and has worked pretty well for us for the past 5000 years or so.  There’s ample evidence that warming could have seriously harmful, potentially irreversible, effects.  There’s much less evidence to suggest that it will make the world a more wonderful place than it is today.    So it just makes sense that we should do what we can to conserve the status-quo.  It’s the only status that we know for sure works for us.

The big irony here, as Schneider mentions at one point, is that for some reason the notion of trying to conserve the planet is not one favored by many of the so-called “conservatives”.  I suppose they’re attempting to conserve a different quantity.

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One Response to “Stephen Schneider’s book”

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