Monday, February 15, 2010

From NYT

From The Distracting Debate Over Climate Certainty


I have gone through an interesting evolution in my awareness of AGW. First, I knew of Dr, Hansen's testimony and the general concept that more CO2 was going to eventually lead to a warmer planet, which could in some far off future affect sea levels. For all of the Clinton era, that's all the thought I gave it. Surely we would do something to head off significant change. We seemed to have a lot of time in which to do it. Even Dr. Hansen expressed no alarm to speak of.

Fast forward to 2006 and "An Inconvenient Truth". I came to realize that we were very late in the game and that the world was still really not paying attention. I had been vaguely aware of the IPCC reports, so I had at least an idea that we needed a treaty and we needed real reductions, and we needed them within a decade.

AIT brought home the reality that climate change is already underway. Lost permafrost stays lost. Lost glacier mass stays lost. Lost ice sheets stay lost. Dried up rivers stay dried up. And it all just keeps getting worse.

And then I discovered RealClimate.Org, a place where many of the scientists who are on the front lines of AGW come together to go into enormous detail about the latest issues and findings, and I found that this was a warm place, a place where knowledge was sought and shared. I also discovered that many commenters completely disbelieved and rejected any of the science that I was already comfortable with. I joined a Climate Skeptics group on Yahoo where many of those in this camp participate; today they wouldn't let me in, but back then it was easier. Many of those men and women are scientists who simply, flatly, reject the science of AGW. CO2 is not as strong a warming agent as scientists say; we are at or near saturation; stronger GHGs actually lead to surface cooling; there are many stronger variables in climate than the small increase in CO2; CO2 is a very small portion of the atmosphere; water is a stronger GHG and is far more plentiful.

Most of the above is defensibly true. What I tried to do in that group and in some others was to try to reconcile these skeptical arguments with what we are seeing in nature, and with the geological record. They were dug in, not at all interested in weakening their positions by examining anything that could cause doubt.

Then came "The Great Global Warming Swindle", a well produced position piece which was to serve as a bookend to "AIT". I, unlike many "believers", watched this entire show and was left with this question: "Why do they believe so strongly in hypotheses with so little supporting evidence, yet they flatly reject hypotheses with strong evidence"?

We got into a long period where everybody challenged everybody's funding. Parallel to this were vigorous efforts to debunk the hockey stick. The air got very thick in the denier camp. There were countless counter-theories in play.

And the clock kept ticking.

Over at RealClimate, the talk turned heavily toward resentment of the deniers, even while those same deniers came to RC to defend themselves. Posts would typically have hundreds of comments, most of which were hostile back and forth between camps.

I began to observe that nobody was listening to anybody anymore. If your opinion came from a certain perspective, it was either certainly wrong or certainly right, depending on the listener's perspective.

Even the hosts at RC, the scientists themselves, got caught up in it. Post after post accomplished nothing more than to attempt to rebut the latest denier paper or challenge. And 15 pages of comments.

None of it was worth a moment of our time. Nobody cared.

Finally, the rhetoric ramped up. "How can you still be uncertain? Loss of ice mass! Record temperatures! Rising sea levels! Hotter summers! More storms! More droughts!" Any and every recent event which fit the pattern of AGW was instantly stapled into the theory. I began to point out that AGW theory is much narrower: Rising CO2 will lead to rising temperature. A doubling of CO2 should, in the short term, lead to a temperature rise of 2*C, plus or minus a degree.

That's it. That's AGW theory. Add CO2, get warmer. Nothing about when we lose ice mass, nothing about changing patterns of storms, nothing about more or less livable land. All of the rest are hypotheses and observations, not theory. And when events overtake these observations: more ice in the Antarctic, stronger rebound in the Arctic, cooling temperatures in the northern Atlantic, we are left to ask: were these permanent changes or are they more variable?

There are unknowns, such as the sign of cloud feedback. We believe there are accelerators; are there brakes? We don't know. We simply keep insisting that we are running out of time, as if to say: We don't have time to ask these questions anymore. We just have to assume that the worst-case scenarios can happen and must be avoided, and we must therefore undergo radical, concussive change and we must begin right away.

I have seen good people, honest people, people who have very specific roles in this era, lose their senses over the state of debate. They, like many of us, have come to realize that we are going to stall our way into finding out how right or wrong these hypotheses are. We are not going to change our behavior as much or as rapidly as we were warned that we needed to. It won't even be close.

So, we'll find out.

But let's circle this all the way back around to Dr. Hansen, whose own evolution maps what's gone wrong with AGW advocacy.

In 1988 Dr. Hansen's position was "Let's slow this down and flatten it out. Let's keep CO2 below 500 ppm so we don't risk destabilizing ice sheets, which risk significant sea level rise." He considered this entirely plausible and did not sound too alarmed. In fact, he was criticized as it was for even presenting a "business as usual" scenario. His critics accused him of fanning the flames.

By the time of AIT, Dr. Hansen was becoming concerned. He was coming to believe that 450 ppm is the better target to avoid destabilization, and we were running out of time to get there.

Since then Dr. Hansen told us, two years ago, that we can only avoid catastrophe if we stopped burning coal immediately. We did no such thing.

He has also said that we need to get to 350 ppm in order to avoid destabilization. That would mean lowering atmospheric CO2.

Except that in 1988 Dr. Hansen told us that CO2 remains aloft "essentially forever", by which he meant hundreds of years.

So here I am today, a complete believer in AGW, a relative believer in many of the related hypotheses, and it's been more than a year since I saw any reason to remain in the discussion. I know where things are, I can see where they're going, and even Dr. Hansen continues to insist that "there's still time, but not much", even as his threshold keeps falling and even as we keep marching toward it.

Nobody is listening to anybody anymore. The obfuscators won, probably a couple of years ago. When will we admit it, and focus our energies where they really will be needed: planning to adapt. We need strong information about rates of change so we can determine what sort of resources to commit, and when.

The email dust-up and especially the IPCC foul-up both point to, as you point out Andy, the hardening of positions on all sides, but it does reveal the hubris and hysteria surrounding climate science in 2010. If they believe their own science, then they must strongly suspect that destabilization is a foregone conclusion and likely already underway.

I occasionally accuse people who believe they are saying important things of trying to have "yesterday's conversations."

I feel that way about climate science all the time, and I'm sad to say that even Dr. Hansen has fallen into the trap.

Well-meaning though people may be, they cease to be part of the solution if they will not honestly confront the problem.

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