Friday, September 5, 2008

A Little Misadventure: Climate Change and Bogus "Controversy"

I enjoy combing craigslist for little writing and teaching gigs. I'd say I take a shot at maybe 40 or 50 of those ads every year. As the 1970's commercial used to say about the New York Public Library, "It's fun, and it's free." Well, recently I answered an ad whose authors, let's call them Acme (like Roadrunner and Coyote Acme; John Doe Acme) sought freelance writers willing to summarize the content on their existing Acme website. What is that content? Paired, opposing essays on each of a series of controversial issues. Ten minutes reading the Acme site was enough to make clear that (from my perspective) the site was, in some way, a bogus venture.

But I had invested my ten minutes, and I wanted to see where it would lead, so I summarized their Climate Change controversy. I'll post that summary below; I doubt anyone could object to that, since any "controversy" web site about climate change is going to reference many of the same sites as Acme's. First, here's the cover-letter email I sent, no longer expecting or even intending to actually get the job:

"I think I see what you're doing here, and I like it. The dirt-poor quality of the prose in the anti-IPCC website was revealing: 'Forecasting principles have been derived from all known empirical evidence on estimating the as yet unknown. The principles are therefore scientific.' The Peak Oil 'debate' is similar -- one side represents reality and speaks coherently, while the other side represents a cornucopian fantasy and is conveyed in gibberish. This is a brilliant heuristic tactic that I fully endorse... It does put your summary-writers in a rather excruciating position, however. While the site as a whole achieves a certain kind of "balance" by offering the same number of compelling YES articles as inane NO articles, the summary must avoid taking sides. When there is a genuine ambiguity as to the relative merits of two incompatible positions, a summary of the conflict can be of great interest (there is a great deal of that on [your site]). But when the matter has already been resolved by fate, it's different.

Being open minded about whether the sun will rise in the morning is a mistake; it's not something about which reasonable people can disagree. Peak Oil and climate change are not as certain as tomorrow's rising sun, but elements of those issues are: the planet is finite, therefore its capacity to supply oil and to absorb CO2 are finite as well. The only mode of thought capable of denying these limits is a socially common (but epistemically exotic) one called cornucopianism. Its capitalist and Marxist forms are basically identical in their belief that wealth is created by something (money, and labor, respectively) other than the limited earth.

So, I think I've triangulated up a decent, even-handed summary of the climate change debate on [your site], while remaining in touch with the rapidly melting reality. I hope this is of some use..."

Needless to say, the dude did not go for any of this. Here is the summary I sent:

Debate on Climate Change, summarized by Jamey Hecht

We no longer have a lively debate about the reality or unreality of climate change. It’s here, and neither self-interest nor brazen nonconformity is enough to warrant any further denial. But there is plenty of controversy about what to do in the face of these changes in the biosphere we all share, and there is a surprising level of dissent about the degree (ahem) to which climate change results from human activity. Of course, perceptions about the current round of this debate tend to be influenced by the outcome of the previous round, in which climate change skeptics fared poorly compared to their opponents. The latter are persuaded that we’re all in big meteorological trouble, largely due to elevated levels of CO2 which have amplified “the greenhouse effect.” That was what we used to call it, before “climate change” and even before “global warming,” back in the days when the Internet was still “the information super-highway.”

The greenhouse effect is the major mechanism (among several others) of global warming. Certain molecules have electromagnetic properties that cause them to let incoming energy (in the form of sunlight, cosmic rays, high-velocity charged particles, and so on) enter the atmosphere, without allowing that energy -- or the heat into which it degenerates -- to exit again. Notorious among these climate-changing molecules are CO2, which is dumped into the atmosphere at around 28 billion tons per year, largely from burning fossil fuels; and methane, which is some 22 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Says the IPCC in its Summary for Policymakers: “There is high agreement and much evidence that mitigation actions can result in near-term co-benefits (e.g. improved health due to reduced air pollution) that may offset a substantial fraction of mitigation costs.” In this, IPCC agrees with some of its opponents, such as the National Center for Policy Analysis, one of whose position papers shares this emphasis on the sunny side: “There Are Benefits from Warmer Temperatures and CO2.” There certainly are; in September of 2007, for example, the once-fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific was clear of impassable ice for the first time. The cost-benefit question depends on just whom you ask – a polar bear will feel rather differently about this issue than will a coal mine owner. [Blog readers, take a look at this FTW story by Wayne Madsen, with its italicized introduction by yours truly: Bush Administration and Oil Companies Want Arctic Meltdown].

The folks at the Heartland Institute believe that the public has been deliberately infected with alarmism. Among their position papers is “Scientific Consensus Overstated,” a statistical issue whose resolution might require yet another survey of the “scientific community.” It elides the caliber of the respondents, and some people might claim that the views of figures like Stephen Hawking and Arthur Lovejoy might bear more weight than those of their more obscure colleagues, but that, too, is debatable. Next, Heartland argues “Climate Forecasts Inaccurate” and “Computer Models Based on Faulty Assumptions.” These, too, are probably correct, since forecasting and modeling are inherently uncertain (even without invoking the specter of Werner Heisenberg smoking his pipe in the corner, petting Schrodinger’s ghostly cat in his lap). But is perfection the issue, or is the issue prudence? I’d hate to die because I miscalculated that the 16-ton weight falling toward my head was in fact 15.837 tons, having kept myself too busy calculating to move out of the way.


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