January 23rd, 2018

Climate: politics or perception?

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on September 9, 2017.

Science points to

a need for policy decisions to deal with climate issues

Kent A. Peacock



Last week Hurricane Harvey dumped over 50 cubic kilometres of water on a sadly unprepared Houston. Since then, Irma has ravaged several islands and is plowing toward Florida, with Jose in her wake to administer the double-tap. Meanwhile, over 1,000 people have died in southern Asia from flooding, while here in Alberta we swelter in stifling smoke and heat.

Are these events caused by global warming? Or are they just weather? After all, droughts, floods, storms and fires have been coming and going for a very long time. Climate scientists such as Michael Mann (in a recent op-ed in the Guardian) have been careful to explain that one cannot attribute any particular event (such as a wildfire or a storm) to climate change. The immediate causes of storms, droughts and floods are complex and often subject to rapid, unpredictable fluctuations.

However (and a big however), there is very good reason to think that the intensity and in some cases the frequency of such events are being increased by the global warming that the planet has already experienced, now more than one degree C (1.8 degree F) over pre-industrial times. Despite the complexity of climate the basic reason for this is simple: there is more heat than there used to be in the atmosphere and oceans and all that heat has to go somewhere. And go it will, whether or not there are people with their vulnerable infrastructures in the way.

But when so many people are suffering, is it even polite to “play politics” by bringing up global warming at a time like this? This question rests on a deep misunderstanding of the nature of climate science, and indeed all science. Because the science of climate has policy implications, some of which are very obvious (such as that humanity must abandon the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible), people make the mistake of thinking that climate science is a political position. They think that it is advanced mainly or entirely for rhetorical reasons. Even some academics who should know better make this mistake.

Scientists are human; they are fallible and they have their loyalties and prejudices, their hopes and fears, like anyone else. However, they are also professionals. This means that they are trained, in simple terms, to tell the truth, to report what they have discovered even if it is disconcerting, inconvenient, unpopular or frightening. Some scientists are reluctant to discuss the policy implications of their work. Others (such as Professor Mann) are willing to speak out, often in the face of personal vilification. But when they report their scientific results they are simply doing their best (within the limits of human fallibility) to tell it like it is.

The visionary physicist David Bohm argued that science itself is a form of perception. Human sensation can be extended and made more acute by technology. We can use telescopes, satellites, deep-sea buoys, computers, ground-penetrating radar and a myriad other means to see what cannot be seen with the naked eye. Science is also a social institution with a long history. The scientific consensus that global warming is real and that it is caused almost entirely by human emissions of carbon dioxide is not a wild speculation by a few mavericks desperate to garner research grants or publicity. It has been built up on the basis of patient observations, calculations and cross-checks performed by thousands of scientists over many decades. It is not a political position, but just a perception. Could the perceived consensus be wrong? Of course! But are we willing to bet the whole farm on that slim chance? How lucky do we feel today?

The Great Leader in the White House recently proposed to cut $1 billion from the budget of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the U.S. agency whose job it is (among other things) to monitor climate and weather. The U.S. Senate, in a rare moment of clarity, refused to implement most of Mr. Trump’s cuts. Even they seem to realize that at a time like this, we need science more than ever. We need science not only to report on and predict ecological disasters as they unfold, but to help humanity find its way out of the jam we have gotten ourselves into. To ignore the perceptions of our scientists at a time like this would be like trying to drive in heavy traffic with our eyes closed. This is not recommended.

And what are the implications for Alberta? That is a discussion for another time. I will merely note that we now have a government in power that says that it will make its decisions about climate and energy policy on the basis of science. Let’s hold them to it.

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10 Responses to “Climate: politics or perception?”

  1. George McCrea says:

    Stopped reading as soon as Michael Mann and the Guardian were mentioned as sources. Mann’s famous hockey stick has been proved bogus many times over. His hockey stick made no allowances for the medeavil warming period or the little ice age and that is just the start. (The famous history of the Themes freezing over). He is currently before the courts and is refusing to provide the data used to prepare the hockey stick graph



  2. grinandbearit says:

    Not only has George stopped reading but he has stopped honestly dealing with the evidence. A very large body of data from several sources and using various statistical methods confirms the essential accuracy of Mann’s hockey stick (regardless of what lawyers get up to in court, science is not settled in a court of law). The science has left George and his fellow deniers far behind.
    For example, https://www.skepticalscience.com/broken-hockey-stick.htm

  3. Kent Peacock says:

    The so-called hockey stick has most certainly not been debunked. On the contrary, multiple lines of evidence point to a sharp up-turn in global surface temperature beginning in the late 20th century. Here is a very authoritative article supporting this claim: https://thinkprogress.org/most-comprehensive-paleoclimate-reconstruction-confirms-hockey-stick-e7ce8c3a2384/

    Sorry, but there is no vast international scientific conspiracy, no “trick”—just some very inconvenient facts.

  4. zulu1 says:

    The present Canadian case brought by Michael Mann followed other cases against him in the US where it was never demanded of him to present his evidence. In Canada the court demanded he provide his evidence, and when refused he was found in contempt of court.
    This begs the question , why would a scientist who presumably had solid evidence of his theory refuse to enter it into evidence ? He arrogantly pursued this case only to find his credibility destroyed.
    Science is fact based , and when that evidence is missing, you lose your case.

    • grinandbearit says:

      it is important to distinguish between the scientific facts around human caused global warming, which are decided by collecting confirming data and by making successful predictions of future events, and the current status of a lawsuit which is about damaged reputations. We do not know the ultimate outcome of the lawsuit, but we do know that it is not about whether there is dramatic global warming or not. That case has already been decided by the scientific evidence, evidence that is available from many, many sources.

      Apart from the settled science question, I am having trouble establishing the veracity of zulu’s claim that the court demanded that Mann provide his evidence and that the court found him in contempt. Could you direct me to the evidence for those claims?

      • Fescue says:

        Yes, George has his finger on the pulse. And don’t hold your breath, grinandbearit, for any evidence from these people.

        This extract is from Dr. Mann’s Lawyer:

        “Contrary to the nonsensical allegations made by John O’Sullivan in his July 4 posted on climatechangedispatch.com and elsewhere, plaintiff Michael Mann has fully complied with all of his disclosure obligations to the defendant Tim Ball relating to data and other documents.

        No judge has made any order or given any direction, however minor or inconsequential, that Michael Mann surrender any data or any documents to Tim Ball for any purpose.

        Accordingly it should be plain and obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense that Mann could not possibly be in contempt of court.

        Just to be clear: Mann is not defying any judge. He is not in breach of any judgment. He is not, repeat not, in contempt of court. He is not in breach of any discovery obligations to Ball.

        In this context, O’Sullivan’s suggestion that Ball “is expected to instruct his British Columbia attorneys to trigger mandatory punitive court sanctions” against Mann is simply divorced from reality.

        Finally, a word about the actual issues in the British Columbia lawsuit.

        If O’Sullivan had read Ball’s statement of defence, he would immediately see that Ball does not intend to ask the BC Court to rule that Mann committed climate data fraud, or that Mann in fact did anything with criminal intent.

        O’Sullivan would have noticed that one of Ball’s defences is that the words he spoke about Mann (which are the subject of Mann’s lawsuit) were said in “jest.”

        The BC Court will not be asked to decide whether or not climate change is real.

        So there is no chance whatsoever that any BC Court verdict about Mann’s libel claims against Ball will vindicate Donald Trump’s perspective on climate change.”

        And by the way, all of Dr. Mann’s data are available online – open source, open access data and methodology http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/data-sources/

      • zulu1 says:

        It’s not a claim, it’s in the court record. Don’t be lazy, look it up for yourself, I have no interest in whether you need verification, or not.

        • grinandbearit says:

          Interesting response from zulu. I have looked at the Mann v Ball et al. case summary, documents, ruling, hearings etc in the Supreme Civil lawsuit (File Number VLC-S-S-111913) available online.
          There is nothing there to support a court order for data or a ruling of contempt of court.

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