Bjørn Stærk har vært en agnostiker i klimaspørsmål. Men bla. studie av TV-programmet The Great Global Warming Swindle, overbeviste ham om at det var klimaskeptikerne som tok feil. De tør ikke en gang gjengi klimateoriene riktig. Nå er han overbevist om at mennesket oppvarmer planeten. Hva gjør vi med det?

Off the fence on global warming

Over the last year there seems to have been a shift in the global warming debate. Even a media non-junkie like me could feel it. The human impact on the climate has become part of the public consciousness in a way it wasn’t before, it’s more real, more urgent. People aren’t ready to buy carbon offsets for their plane trips yet, but they think maybe they ought to. This shift isn’t relevant to the issue itself, people seem to believe whatever they want to believe about global warming, adjusting their level of skepticism/naivety according to ideology. If global warming is taken more seriously now than a year ago, this reflects the inscrutable mass interaction of wish and fact, propaganda and education, not necessarily any change in the actual science of climate change.

A year or two ago I decided to become a global warming agnostic, because I realized I wasn’t able to separate the facts from what I wanted to believe, which was and still is that the science isn’t in so don’t worry. Since then I’ve tried to have no strong opinions myself, but instead listen to what people on both sides have to say, note what makes sense, and what doesn’t. It’s amazing how easier it is to think clearly when you have no ideological commitments to consider. Like listening to music without ear plugs.

I’ve decided it’s time to come down off the fence now.

Are we humans the cause of global warming? Before I try to answer that, let’s get a few distractions out of the way. They occupy the attention of some otherwise very bright people, but are not relevant to the question of man-made global warming.

It’s irrelevant that some environmentalists, celebrities and other people who believe that we’re warming the planet are hypocrites, evil, or in some way behave short of the carbon-neutral ideal. For instance, when scientists travel by plane to a climate science conference, that does not mean that they argue that climatology can’t be real science, because the only experiments it does are in computer models. I don’t agree with that. Done carefully, science may also be the study of a non-resettable, uncontrolled complex system in real time. Far more difficult, yes, but still science. Or, by any other label, still valuable.

I didn’t fully make up my mind on global warming until I saw the Channel 4 skeptical documentary «>made me embarassed on behalf of the skeptics. Compare the slick style and clever editing of Martin Durkin’s documentary with this dull and pedantic rebuttal from Chris Merchant at Edinburg University. It illustrates everything I hate about polemical documentaries, and everything I love about science. Cautious, boring, smart, glorious science.

At one point in the documentary, Durkin shows a clip from An Inconvenient Truth where Al Gore displays the «>our contribution is cumulative, disrupting an existing balance. Again, misrepresentation, not scientific counterarguments. Why would he do these things? Listen to his explanation, judge for yourself. Data distortion, cherry-picked evidence, and, oh, «>sound familiar?

I actually first saw An Inconvenient Truth after writing most of this post, and I didn’t particularly like it. Too emotional, too little science. I want technical details. I don’t want to have something fascinating like a CO2-temperature feedback loop covered up with an «it’s actually very complicated», as Al Gore does, I want to hear the juicy details. The details that go over my head still give me an idea of the nature of what I don’t understand, the approach scientists use and the level of uncertainty involved. This allows me to apply those rules of thumb and general principles I mentioned. I described some of these principles earlier in a post about conspiracy-like worldviews, and now that I’ve had time to watch climate skeptics from an agnostic point of view for a while, I detect some of the warning smells I wrote about then. When something like The Great Global Warming Swindle manages to fall so flat on its face, and is still held up as a «>technical and unemotional lecture series on climate change by Richard Wolfson at Middlebury College. Or read the Real Climate blog. Compare this. Maybe there are better cases to be made for the skeptic point of view, (let me know!), but to me the whole field looks pretty pathetic, with a purely ideological appeal. I share that appeal, I instinctively distrust environmentalists, but it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

So if global warming is man-made, and we can expect the warming to continue, where does that take us? It doesn’t automatically follow that we have to do anything. Figuring out that we’re warming the earth is a lot easier than predicting what effect this will have on the overall climate. And even if we conclude that global warming will cause damage, that doesn’t mean the price of stopping it is worth paying. There might be other, more important problems we should focus on today. Unpredictable technological advances over the next century might do more to solve the problem than any government intervention.

This is where I go from having a strong opinion to a weak one. I’m not sure what we should do about global warming. On that question, I remain an agnostic. We should do something, but I don’t know what. I want to hear your ideas, I’m not ready to form my own. But in looking for the answer, there are a few things I think we should keep in mind.

First, there is no safety net. I touched a bit on this when I wrote about «>precisely because it’s a good story. The climate predictions that are most likely to reach you, the news consumer, after having passed through filter after filter after filter, are the predictions that make the best stories. Usually horror ones. Take that as another reason not to listen to non-scientists. Reality ignores all our stories, and plays by its own rules. That’s why we need science.

Third, even though we shouldn’t trust specific climate projections too much, particularly the ones that make it through the media filters, it seems reasonable to me to be very concerned. When you mess with a system you don’t understand, one that involves enormous forces and intertwines with the basis of life for every single one of us, the resulting change is probably for the worse. Maybe not catastrophically worse, but enough so that unpredictable climate change is not something you want to happen. You want things to stay the same, because you’re very small and the earth is very big and what you already have is something you’ve learned to live with. It’s not just that the phase space of possible climates is vastly bigger than that of comfortable ones. Even change within the comfort zone requires costly adaptation, can cause loss of life, political instability, etc. Climate change is inherently undesirable.

It also seems to me that, while it is impossible to predict the climate of 2050, you can still establish a relationship between, say, higher temperatures and stronger hurricanes, or other weather extremities, and use that to say something about what we may expect. All predictions are not equally speculative.

At a minimum, we should embrace any cheap optimizations we can find. If there is a way for us individually, or society as a whole, to reduce carbon emissions at little cost or annoyance, we should take it. One such cheap optimization might be nuclear power. We have it, it works, and it’s both safer than its reputation, and cleaner than the current alternatives. Another might be to simply not waste electricity in your home. Or use more energy efficient technologies. While it may be somewhat expensive to invent or invest in those technologies, that efficiency might soon pay for itself. Cheap optimizations like these are no-brainers, and I’m sure there must be many of them.

Expensive measures, for instance ones that reduce emissions at the cost of less fuel efficiency, or that require massive regulation, are harder to justify, (by which I mean precisely that, and not that I’m against them.) Any effort spent reducing carbon emissions is effort not spent elsewhere. Is carbon offsets really the worthiest cause for you to spend money on? Does the cost of regulation justify the effect on the climate? We should be careful of the Lollilove factor, the tendency of well-off people to to embrace charitable causes that make them feel good about themselves, but do little good for anyone else. We who live in the world’s wealthiest countries live in bubbles of dream reality, where the scale and nature of the world’s problems are reflected only by accident. The fact that global warming has penetrated these bubbles does not mean that it is more important than the problems we don’t notice.

On the other hand, ranking problems objectively in this way leaves out an important factor: The ability of people to care. If problems #1-7 are too remote or boring to capture our sympathy, and #8 is the greatest tearjerker since Titanic, that doesn’t mean we should discourage people from caring about #8 – it might be that or nothing at all. Also, while environmentalism shouldn’t be about guilt reduction, feeling good about something you’ve done for the environment doesn’t make it misguided. So, no, I’m not against expensive measures, I just want to thoroughly understand them and their consequences first.

I’ll remain undecided on what to do for a while longer, and very much open for sane ideas. But as for global warming, it is happening, it is caused by human activity, it is a serious problem, and we should do something to slow it down.

Bjørn Stærk har tilbudt document denne artikkelen som samtidig er publisert på hans eget nettsted. Samarbeid er et pluss. Vi ser frem til flere.

Off the fence on global warming