Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Climate Change - Two steps forward, two steps back


After the "No Pressure" video debacle[*], you would think that this week had run out of shite hands to deal the proponents of the AGW theoryHowever, a scathing letter of resignation by one Harold Lewis from the American Physical Society (APS) is giving climate skeptics a shot of vigour they haven't enjoyed since Climategate fizzled out. A skeptic friend passes on this article in the UK Telegraph, which cites the letter in full and includes the money quote:
It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare.
Predictably, the excitable Anthony Watts has seized upon it like a fresh cream bagel, while other sceptics are similarly crowing their we-knew-it-all-along! tune. The problem is, while we can easily dismiss the vast majority of the denialist claims (and their preachers) out of hand, I don't think we can or should do so here. Letters like these pose far more troubling questions for us than the usual band of talk-show radio jocks and TV weathermen. Of course, having an actual reputable scientist make such claims is a good place to begin. (Don't get me started.)

That said, I still think the evidence in favour of AGW is pretty overwhelming, while the sceptics have only offered very poor alternatives in return. The same conclusions have been reached by far too many people working separately around the world, for me to dismiss the fundamental message based on one man's personal assessment of a single organisation. It is also worth noting that Lewis does not explicitly comment on any of these alternative theses... although you could argue that he was not obligated to do so. (After all, his resignation letter primarily concerns the politicization of the climate change debate.) More to the point, the fact that there is very strong evidence in support of the mainstream view doesn't absolve us of the need to answer Lewis's accusations. I expect that we'll see a strong response from the APS, but for the moment I thought I'd share the reply that I sent to my skeptic friend:
Just read the resignation letter. Very hectic indeed. (For one thing, far more noteworthy than any of that Monckton guff you've sent me in the past.) 
I'll follow what comes of this closely... I have no real quarrel with the claim that climate change has become politicised. Indeed, I feel that it is unfortunately politicised from every angle, which is partly why I am unwilling to grant the majority of denialism that I come across anything more than short shrift: Certainly, their funding is typically much more open to question than others. (For the record, I support the proposed changes in the IPCCs governance structure and reporting procedures.) Of course, there are also many others within world's distinguished scientific bodies who feel precisely the opposite on this matter to Lewis. In other words, that the politicisation of climate change and persecution of scientists is predominantly running the opposite way (E.g. The following statement by 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences.)
You may be interested though, I have looked up the actual APS statement on climate change and, indeed, the word "incontrovertible" occurs twice: [Lewis specifically chooses to criticise the "poison word 'incontrovertible'" - Ed.] 
The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.
The evidence for global temperature rise over the last century is compelling. However, the word "incontrovertible" in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the 2007 APS statement is rarely used in science because by its very nature science questions prevailing ideas. The observational data indicate a global surface warming of 0.74 °C (+/- 0.18 °C) since the late 19th century.
Now, I am in no position to counter Lewis' other complaints on back room machinations at the APS - no doubt others within the organisation will have their say - but I do find his stringent objection to the use of "incontrovertible" rather strange given this context. That global temperatures have been rising over many years is a very non-controversial position. Even if you are unwilling to accept the evidence provided via proxy construction (pre-1880), then a study of the instrumental temperature record will more than suffice in this instance. Certainly, the most plausible "skeptics" are not trying to debate the fact that the planet is hotter now than at any time following the industrial revolution; instead they are trying to offer alternative causes (besides anthropogenic CO2) for the observed warming.
That aside, the accusations within the letter are undoubtedly significant. Perhaps some would summarily dismiss them as an isolated opinion from an old crank, but I hope not: Lewis' letter deserves a proper response.

UPDATE: Well, the cavalry has sounded the horn. As expected, Joe Romm is particularly scathing and sarcastic in his take down of the Lewis affair. There are some insightful points and great links to other commentators in there, but.... you know, I'm not so sure about Romm sometimes. Don't get me wrong, his Climate Progress blog is a great resource for staying up to date on climate issues. Romm can also be very funny when dismantling an opponent. However, too often his stuff feels like it is either preaching to the choir, or is simply to aggressive and dismissive of opposing views. This rings especially true for me when it comes to the economic aspect of climate change; very reasonable people have argued that we should rather focus on adaptation than emissions mitigation, and such views deserve our full consideration rather than outright dismissal. Yes, the stakes are high, but being uber-offensive seems pretty counterproductive to me. When are people going to realise that the best way of convincing someone on the merits of your argument is not by calling them an idiot? (We could all use a little more Dude sometimes...)

UPDATE 2: More responses here. I'm left pretty underwhelmed by the APS's official statement on the matter, but Arthur Smith's is well worth reading.

[*] The less said about this spectacular misfire, the better. I thought it had to be a propaganda piece for the skeptic camp when I first watched it... Not a bizarre case of self-sabotage from AWG campaigner Richard Curtis (the man behind Love Actually, Blackadder, etc). It has been reassuring, at least, to see just how quickly and widely the video has been condemned. For example - and coming from very different sides of the debate - here are commentaries by Bill McKibben and Dominic Lawson.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No anonymous comments please. (Pseudonyms are fine.)