Global Warming Orthodoxy (1/3)

Surya,

America’s exit from L’accord de Paris is a great opportunity for us to start a discussion of global warming orthodoxy. Or, if you prefer a less religious-sounding and more scientific label, the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Of course, we could discuss the Paris agreement as a matter of policy, but I’ll be honest: I would borrow heavily from the work of Bjorn Lomborg and then quickly try to move us onto the main course. So let’s get to it!

I admit it: I am a “Denier.” I would love to take a high-ground approach here, as many from the Right have now done, and say that I believe the planet is warming and man is at least partly to blame. But I can’t. I’m too damn honest. Sorry — I am still not convinced. Now, I realize it could totally be me. Perhaps I just haven’t been exposed to the right arguments yet for me to stop being skeptical and start believing. Perhaps this discussion will help me discover that information.

More to the point, I want to tackle this issue like a dialectician (truth seeker) and not a rhetorician (persuader). I want to get to the truth, not necessarily win an argument, so I don’t want to take anything for granted.

Here’s my problem with global warming orthodoxy in a nutshell: It’s premised on certainty. A consensus of scientists is said to be certain the planet is warming, certain that man is the cause and certain the results will be catastrophic if we don’t take aggressive action. Yet when I ask even basic questions, I encounter a lot of uncertainty. Below are seven such questions.

  1. What is the current global temperature?
  2. A hundred years ago, we didn’t have satellites or ocean monitoring. There were far fewer weather stations, and the technology was much less sophisticated than it is today. So how do we know what the correct global temperature was back then?
  3. A hundred years from now, our energy technology will be completely different than it is today. So how can we correctly predict what the global temperature will be? (Related question: Meteorologists don’t understand the weather well enough to forecast accurately beyond a few days. Many times, even those forecasts are wrong. So why do we think we can accurately predict the weather decades from now?)
  4. What percentage of warming is attributable to man vs. nature?
  5. What is the optimal global temperature? Is it warmer or cooler than it is now?
  6. What is the optimal amount of atmospheric CO2? Is it more or less than we have now?
  7. What would it take for us to stop the planet from warming? How likely is it that we would take that action?

I know there is probably someone out there who is so knowledgeable about this topic, they could come up with good answers to every single one of these questions. However, I want to focus on two key arguments I am making:

a) After hearing those answers, no reasonable person would conclude we should feel certain about even the most basic aspects of AGW

b) You’d have to admit that proponents of the theory could be wrong about, well, everything

Don’t believe me? Go back to my very first question and try to answer it. It sounds like a stupid question you could easily answer with a Google search, right? I certainly thought it was. But I found that:

  • There is no consensus on an answer
  • There are multiple techniques for calculating global average temperatures
  • Different agencies use different techniques and have different answers

So there is uncertainty about the very first piece of information you’d need to know to think about this issue. Put another way: How can there be scientific certainty of a future catastrophe if there isn’t even scientific certainty about the present temperature?

I find this glaring contradiction amusing. We are told last year was the hottest year on record, and this year is even hotter. OK, so how hot is it? Well, climate scientists don’t measure temperature like that. They compare 30-year periods and calculate annual averages based on the aggregate data. Huh?

Now, I’ve had this debate enough times to know what most people will say in response to this: “A consensus of really smart scientists have concluded the earth is warming, and that should be enough because you are not a scientist. QED.” OK, they might leave off the snobbish “QED” part. But that’s the gist.

To that I say: You (imaginary people) are committing a well-known logical fallacy. Several actually. At the risk of sounding even more snobbish, they are argumentum ad numerum and argumentum ad verecundiam. In this context, we might translate them as arguments that demand we submit to numbers (i.e. consensus) and submit to authority. The simple counter: Authorities and consensuses have often been wrong (insert Galileo reference here). Even a consensus of scientific authorities can be wrong. As Professor Madsen Pirie writes for his example of the ad verecundiam fallacy:

Hundreds of leading scientists reject evolution.
(Close examination shows few, if any, whose expertise is in evolutionary biology.)

If you examine the scientific consensus on AGW, you’ll find a lot of scientists with zero expertise in global temperature change over time. For instance, a guy studying cloud formations and their impact on heat retention is a climate scientist, but he could very well know less than a well-read layman about the evidence for and against AGW. Indeed, this is one of climate scientist Roy Spencer’s key arguments against the idea that AGW is indisputable because so many scientists agree with it:

Contrary to popular accounts, very few scientists in the world — possibly none — have a sufficiently thorough, “big picture” understanding of the climate system to be relied upon for a prediction of the magnitude of global warming. To the public, we all might seem like experts, but the vast majority of us work on only a small portion of the problem.

I’ll end with a clarification: It’s not accurate to say I am a “Denier.” I don’t mind the name-calling aspect of it. I just don’t like that it suggests certainty in the opposite direction. I am not certain. I am also not immune to the many people whom I respect and admire declaring planetary warming to be real and a real problem. Elon Musk, Richard Branson — these guys are my heroes, and they seem to believe the orthodox position on this issue.

However, I have written my questions as a ladder of sorts. My intention is that as you progress through them, you will become more and more uncertain. At some point, I wager, you will realize few have actually thought this thing all the way through — maybe not even Mr. Musk or Sir Branson.

Jordan

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