Debunking the Debunkers

Dr. Holdren and former President Obama

Dr. Holdren has the personal distinction of making President Obama laugh during one of their many conversations about climate change:

“Mr. President. I have a consolation for you. The proportion of Americans who believe climate change is real, and that humans have something to with it is 60–65%. This is a good deal more than the portion who believe evolution is a fact, which is 50%.”

“He looked at me, laughed and said ‘That’s no consolation.’”

Holdren, Obama’s Science Advisor & Director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, said the President was disappointed that they had failed to reach the public on climate change. Why Americans ranked it so low on the list of worries was just one of the many questions that confounded them both in 2010.

Today the problem is ranked much higher. In data collected from a 2017 study, 39.6% of Americans said unchecked climate change would be a “very serious” problem.

Still, Dr Holdren finds some Americans mistakenly confuse the uncertainty in the science for flawed findings. Climatology is based on probabilistic modeling and therefore uncertainty is built into it. This doesn’t mean it is fraught with error.

Although Stephen Schneider, the Carl Sagan of climatology, confessed in Scientific American in 2002 to a “lingering frustration“ about the uncertainties that infuse climate change, this is due to the complexity that bedevils the science, and not due to flawed scientific practice. Accurate climate modeling take years of synthesizing data from meteorology, fluid dynamics, physics, biology, and chemistry.

IPCC approval sessions are notorious juggernauts of consensus-reaching. Its long-range projection reports take three years to write, go through two rounds of reviews, and take up to a thousand review comments. On each chapter.

The probabilistic modeling that comes out of the scientific findings shows us that we might see a sea level rise of three feet by 2050. It’s also possible we could see a sea level rise of three feet by 2115. The most likely outome is sea level increase will occur somewhere between these two lines.

Humans may be found wanting in our prediction abilities, but we generally take measures to avoid risk. For proof of this risk aversion, look at how the insurance business is always booming.We will buy insurance on a 1% risk of some major consequence.

We only need to know there is a 1:100 chance of our home burning down to invest in fire insurance policy. (Especially true now that more than a quarter of CA homes are at moderate to extremely high risk of fire, acc’g to a 2017 risk analysis by Verisk).

So, how is this any different?

“Here we’re talking about 50% risk to the planetary life support system and they’re telling us that’s not certain enough,” said Dr. Stephen Schneider.

Why the Climate Wafflers are Wrong

Those who are saying it’s not certain enough call themselves “lukewarmers.” Holdren calls them “wafflers.” They assert that humans are simply not good at forecasting complex systems and make the following criticsms:

1. Climate models inaccurately predict the rate of global temperature change.

2. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) forecasts are erroneous, and

3. Global temperatures are rising at a slower rate than expected.

“Climate scientists can’t predict with any precision, and that my friends, is why I’m a proud lukewarmer,” says someone with the YouTube handle “Potholer54.”

With this gambit, Potholer54 confuses uncertainty for imprecision and that, my friends is a big mistake. What folly to demand the banishment of doubt before seeing the high degree of risk.

Keep Calm and Carry On

And although it’s unclear at what level the federal government will commit to participate in the IPCC, scientific research here in the States doggedly persists and improves.

Dr. William Collins, lead author of IPCC Assessment #5 (written in 2014) and Director for the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reports that scientists are working on accompanying the findings for the next IPCC Assessment #6 (due out in 2020) with a powerful suite of models that will give a degree of detail down to the level of zip codes.

“It’s a big juicy problem, which, of course, is one of the things that has attracted many scientists to work on it,” says Dr. Holdren. “Scientists, for the most part, like to work on things that are interesting and challenging, but also have some bearing on societal well being.”

We’ve got a high degree of uncertainty and a colossal cost of delay. The logic of working on the problem is beyond compelling. In these conditions, the only thing to do is keep calm and ignore the wafflers.