8 September 2011

A dismaying course, part I: climate change

Posted by Callan Bentley

You may have heard that the Republican party has been embracing non-scientific and anti-scientific positions lately. National Public Radio compiled a bunch of quotations reflecting this trend on their website yesterday. I thought I might take a moment here on the blog to critique their statements (both pros and cons), and then reflect on why, in total, the Republican trend towards anti-science strikes me as a dismaying course for my nation and the world.

We begin with climate change. NPR’s also got them quoted in regards to how they feel about evolution, but I’ll have to deal with their evolution quotes tomorrow or the next day. This has already taken way too long. I suppose it’s worth reminding you that I blog as an individual citizen, not as a representative of AGU, NOVA, or the Commonwealth of Virginia. People get touchy about these political subjects, ya know?

Michele Bachmann

Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas; it is a harmless gas … And yet we’re being told that we have to reduce this natural substance and reduce the American standard of living to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in the Earth. — House floor speech, April 22, 2009

Carbon dioxide is not a poisonous gas, but that does not mean that it is “harmless.” I can think of multiple examples of how CO2 could be harmful. Consider the Lake Nyos tragedy in Cameroon. There, a lake spontaneously degassed a tremendous volume of carbon dioxide that then flowed downhill over the landscape, displacing the air (with it’s 21% oxygen content) and thereby directly triggering the deaths of 1700 African villagers and 3500 of their livestock. That is harmful in a very direct way. Of course, a gas such as CO2 can be harmful in indirect ways too. One thing that we know about CO2 is that it is selectively transparent – visible light passes through it without retardation, but infrared light is scattered by it. These atmospheric physics are well-established and uncontroversial. The property of being selectively transparent retains heat energy in the Earth’s atmosphere which would otherwise dissipate into space, and warms the planet by some amount. If this warming causes anything positive, then we might justifiably claim it as a benefit. If it causes anything negative, then we might justifiably claim it as harmful. There are examples of both playing out on the world today. I think it would be fair to say that much of southern Canada will become more temperate and agreeable with a global warming of 2°C. That’s a positive change. Canadians could be climate change “winners.” On the other hand, I think it’s also fair to say that the rising sea level produced by a warming ocean, flooding coastal communities is harmful to those who live there. The Maldivians could be climate change “losers.” Ms. Bachmann appears to be ignoring both. Her command of the word “harmful” suggests that she does not have a particularly sophisticated grasp of the word, or the nature of carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, just because carbon dioxide occurs occurs naturally, it is a non sequitur to then claim that excess amounts (produced unnaturally) are not a threat. Water is natural, but floods are a threat. Lava is natural, but you wouldn’t want to be immersed in it. Saltwater crocodiles are natural, but they’re also really freaking dangerous.

As for her comments on the American standard of living, I know of no one who is not a troglodyte, Luddite, or arboreal troll who suggests that the standard of American living should be degraded. I think the focus elsewhere has been on the efficiency of energy use that produces that standard, and the sources of the energy used to maintain that standard. Our standard of living is pretty good — not as good as Europeans in terms of vacation time and health care — but still pretty good. Those who suggest climate change is a problem worth addressing are a varied lot, but the rational ones wouldn’t suggest a lowering of any standard of living that we enjoy in the States, just how we get to that standard. To suggest otherwise is a false claim.

Herman Cain

I don’t believe … global warming is real. Do we have climate change? Yes. Is it a crisis? No. … Because the science, the real science, doesn’t say that we have any major crisis or threat when it comes to climate change. — CBS News, June 9, 2011

Mr. Cain seems to think that science is a matter of belief. I’ve mentioned how odious I find this word when applied to science. Science is not a belief system, unless you count the starting assumption of all science, which is that the natural world behaves in a consistent and predictable fashion, according to physical laws that do not change arbitrarily over time. So long as the universe makes sense, we can investigate it with logic, experiment, and evidence. No one has to believe in global warming or evolution or the efficacy of vaccines or Bernoulli’s principle. All these concepts are well-tested (well-corroborated, you might say) notions that explain the way the world works. A particular politician’s belief, or lack thereof, is completely irrelevant to the functioning of reality.

I think it’s great that Mr. Cain acknowledges that climate change exists. I think it’s also a fair point fro him to ask how much of a crisis it actually is. Certainly it has the potential to be an enormous problem, and it also has the potential to be a minor problem. The preponderance of the evidence has convinced me that it looks more likely to be big than small. While I might opt for the precautionary principle when faced with such a situation (on the only habitable planet within any kind of reasonable distance), I think it’s Mr. Cain’s prerogative to suggest other alternatives to how to deal with the issue, regardless of its size. But he goes from saying climate change exists, but that he has determined that it is not a crisis. One wonders if we’re looking at different data sets. How could one see the current episode of climate change as something not at least potentially important? The dismissal he offers strikes me as rash.

Ron Paul

While it is evident that the human right to produce and use energy does not extend to activities that actually endanger the climate of the Earth upon which we all depend, bogus claims about climate dangers should not be used as a justification to further limit the American people’s freedom. — Speech on House floor opposing cap-and-trade legislation, June 4, 2009

This trickily-worded statement is Dr. Paul’s attempt to mollify his Libertarian supporters’ ideals of individual liberty (“the right to produce and use energy…”) with reality (we stop individual’s activities only when they harm others (“that actually endanger the climate…upon which we all depend”). It’s a tricky row to hoe, but that’s the Libertarian stance on where the limits of law lie. Ditto the final clause, where he invokes limits on Americans’ freedom. The scientifically-relevant meat of Dr. Paul’s comment, however, lies in the phrase “bogus claims about climate dangers.” What is he referring to here? Certainly there are plenty of claims about the dangers of climate change. Are some of them bogus? My experience suggests the answer to this question is “yes,” but the claims I would put in the “bogus” category are those proffered by woo-woo hard-core liberal Democrats who are unversed in science, to whom anthropogenic climate change is a given, a fact, and whose minds are not open to change on that issue. Some of these people have suggested to me that climate change could have caused the Japanese earthquake last spring, or that carbon dioxide is poisonous or somehow inherently evil, or that climate change will be The End Of The World. Such people are talking on Michelle Bachmann’s level – they are equally scientifically illiterate, and are merely taking on the same issue from a similarly ideological and factually uninformed foundation (and in the opposite direction as Ms. Bachmann). Though their motivations may be “good,” the same could be said for Ms. Bachmann. There is no reason for us to pay attention to either of them. The problem with these folks — should I call them hippies? — is that by making pro-climate-change-legislation statements coupled with their falsely-dire pronouncements, they damage the cause they wish to support. They damage the reputation of empirical, rational people by attempting to scare everyone into acting their way. People like Dr. Paul can hear their bogus claims, and may then make the assumption that ALL climate change hazard predictions must be similarly bogus. That’s a shame.

The legitimate claims made by climate scientists about the potential problems associated with climate change include: melting glacial ice, warming oceans, rising sea level, fiercer hurricanes, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, water resource scarcity, enhanced transmission of some communicable diseases, and species migration towards higher latitudes or higher elevations (a problem because habitat destruction and fragmentation leaves them with fewer options for places to go). None of these claims are “bogus.” It remains to be seen how pronounced each of these effects will end up being, but these are potentially very serious problems, and they are all rooted in physical reality.

Mitt Romney

I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course. But I believe the world’s getting warmer. I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And No. 2, I believe that humans contribute to that … so I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you’re seeing. — Reuters, June 3, 2011

Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that, but I think that it is. I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans … What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to. — Campaign stop in New Hampshire, August 24, 2011

Two different tunes being hummed here. Regarding the first one: Mr. Romney’s belief is irrelevant. The thermometers show us that the world is getting warmer; no one’s belief is in any way relevant to their measurements. Ditto for Mr. Romney’s belief in the human contribution to the issue. The anthropogenic component has been shown to be a valid physical phenomenon; no one need “believe” it one way or the other.

I’m pleased to see Mr. Romney acknowledge that the issue is real. Reality-based candidates are qualified, in my view, to run the United States of America. Not only that, but in the first quote, he advocates action on the issue: reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Bravo.

Quibble: “pollutants and greenhouse gases”? The EPA has found the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to be a pollutant when produced in excess by human activities. (As I mentioned in my critique of Ms. Bachman, it’s about the concentration, not the substance itself.) So why do those people whom we have charged with protecting our nation’s environment deem it “a pollutant”? Because it indirectly creates danger when accumulated to sufficient levels — see the comments on Ron Paul’s “bogus” claims above, or Michelle Bachmann’s dismissal of it as “harmless.”

Regarding Mr. Romney’s second quote, he now is talking money, and is more circumspect about the emission reductions he discussed in Quote #1. He makes a legitimate point – which is that we should not spend huge amounts of money on measures for problems that have a scope we aren’t sure about. But again the Precautionary Principle comes into play – what is the cost of not acting? Does it have the potential to be catastrophically expensive? Yep. What is the probability of it being catastrophically expensive? We don’t know. I think this is a fair point for Mr. Romney to make, but I think it misses the point that if we don’t take action, there is a plausible scenario that could play out which would be very damaging (and very expensive). Assigning the cost of (unspecified) action as “trillions of dollars” is a straw man argument – He’s pretending that’s the approach of some other candidate (I guess Obama), and contrasting that expensive (unspecified) program with his own “approach” as a pragmatic assessor of risk.

Rick Perry

I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. — Campaign stop in New Hampshire, Aug. 17, 2011

Some background: With the use of the word “manipulation,” Mr. Perry probably refers to two things: (1) the widely-publicized but hideously-named “ClimateGate” pseudo-scandal of 2009-2010, and (2) the allegations by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, who used to work at the University of Virginia. In the first incident, a bunch of emails between climate scientists (mostly from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, U.K.) were stolen by a computer hacker, and published on the web. In these written documents (more than a thousand emails, plus a few thousand other documents), a few words stood out as fishy-sounding, and anti-science climate change denialists trumpeted these cherry-picked phrases as evidence of a vast conspiracy by climate scientists. The main charge is that the climate scientists in question were accused of was fraudulent manipulation of data (i.e., making it appear that something untrue was happening). All scientists “manipulate” data, of course. When I enter numbers into a calculator or plot a graph, I’m “manipulating” the data. The difference here is that the word “manipulate” is used with sinister, insidious overtones. It’s an implication of deceit without saying so directly. Six subsequent independent investigations found no fraud or wrongdoing, but the reputations of the scientists in question were already smeared in the public mind, so these official vindications made little impressions on those who had already decided how they felt on the issue; people like Mr. Perry. The second issue is a particular and sad one for the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state where I am employed. Our attorney general, a Republican elected in late 2009, has made being anti-climate-science central to his reputation in office. As a conservative rising star who is a plausible future candidate for national office, Mr. Cuccinelli has sought to establish his bona fides with his Republican constituency. “Climategate” provided him with a very visible opportunity for making political hay. Days after he took office, Mr. Cuccinelli asked the University of Virginia for all documents related to the work of one particular professor who was part of the Climategate e-mail chain (and previously renowned for his construction of a climate graph called “the hockey stick”). This professor is Michael Mann. Cuccinelli says that he would like to check for himself about the possibility of alleged fraud committed by Mann. Mann himself was investigated by the National Science Foundation based on similar red-flagging by conservatives, and was again found innocent of any wrongdoing. Yet Mann has a distinctly nefarious reputation among conservatives and climate change “skeptics” that I’ve spoken with. I’m not familiar enough with his work to comment directly on its validity myself, but I guess I’m more inclined to go with the results of the multiple independent investigations into the whole affair rather than grandstanding by a politician who wants to make a name for himself. Bottom line, in regards to Mr. Perry’s statement? It has been shown that there was no nefarious “manipulation” of any climate science in these two very public events, but Mr. Perry continues to repeat the mantra that there was. In so doing, he is spreading rumors, but he’s doing it in a clever way – without naming Mann or the Climate Research Unit specifically, he avoids getting himself sued for defamation of character.

The second implied allegation in Mr. Perry’s first sentence is that climate scientists are somehow gold-diggers. That they did it “to have dollars rolling into their projects” makes it sound as if they went into science for the money. This is a ludicrous assertion: no professor I know is rich by American standards. Every research scientist has to fund their work, and there are multiple sources of funding that they may seek. Private industry is one source, but most extant fossil fuel industries are interested in preserving the status quo, not undermining their own economic paradigm, so they don’t fund much in the way of climate research. Government funding is another source, with most of it coming to climate science in the United States from the National Science Foundation, which is funded by taxpayers. The NSF funds research in many fields, some of it basic and some of it applied. Our society benefits from the discoveries made by these researchers, and their science improves the quality of our transportation, sanitation, infrastructural safety, health, and protection from geologic hazards (including earthquakes, flooding, volcanoes, and climate change). That climate scientists seek funding for their research is wholly unextraordinary. So does every other scientist, in every field. Mr. Perry is not singling out geneticists or chemists, particle physicists or ethnomusicologists, because he doesn’t disagree with the implications of those fields’ research. He is singling out the essential, mundane activity of grant-seeking as nefarious only when it comes to climate scientists because it is  their conclusions that imply that his state of Texas, which leads the nation in energy production, is doing something “wrong.” Climate science reality and the the short-term economic well-being of Texas are not clearly compatible, and so Mr. Perry has to choose a side. It’s natural enough for him to prioritize the near-term economic well-being of his constituents in the fossil fuel industry over everybody and everything effected adversely by climate change. But that doesn’t make climate change wrong, and it doesn’t make studying it somehow magically lucrative – it just means he’s siding with the money-makers rather than the tree-huggers.

The final part of his quote implies that there is some sort of onslaught of scientists coming out of the closet to question the purported orthodoxy that human emissions of greenhouse gases are driving global warming. But nothing could be further from the truth: research shows that the more you know about climate science, the more likely you are to accept the validity of the anthropogenic warming hypothesis. And, as a new study from Yale & GMU showed yesterday, the more conservative you are, the less likely you are to accept the validity of the anthropogenic warming hypothesis.

The thing of it is, there could hardly be a greater incentive for a climate scientist to disprove the current consensus that (a) climate change is real, (b) it’s being driven by human activities, and (c) it poses a clear and present danger to much of the world’s biota, a significant portion of the human species, and the United States of America. The reason that you haven’t heard about this renegade scientist is that he/she does not exist: those who practice science go with evidence, not ideology, and the evidence supports the consensus. Those who go against the consensus are likely ideologically motivated (maybe not all, but most), and regardless of their motivation they do not have convincing evidence that the consensus is wrong. Most climate change denialists are crackpots, and certainly none is in possession of conclusive data that suggests our understanding of climate is fundamentally flawed. Whoever Mr. Perry is referring to, they ain’t scientists.

Newt Gingrich

Oh, sure … I was trying to make a point that we shouldn’t be afraid to debate the left, even on the environment. That was obviously misconstrued, and that’s one of the things I probably won’t do again. — On WGIR-AM in New Hampshire on July 26, 2011, when host Paul Westcott asked if he regretted appearing in a 2006 television ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the “We Can Solve It” campaign against global warming

This quote strikes me as of a fundamentally different character than the others on the list. It’s a fairly typical example of a politician backpedaling on a previous move that is now unpopular. But it doesn’t say anything about science, so don’t know why NPR included it in this otherwise damning compilation. Perhaps they were not able to find anything more on-topic. I’ll not say anything more about it.

Rick Santorum

I believe the Earth gets warmer, and I also believe the Earth gets cooler. And I think history points out that it does that, and that the idea that man, through the production of CO2 — which is a trace gas in the atmosphere, and the man-made part of that trace gas is itself a trace gas — is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd when you consider all the other factors, El Niño, La Niña, sunspots, moisture in the air. … To me, this is an opportunity for the left to create — it’s really a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the Earth is gonna cool and warm. — The Rush Limbaugh Show, June 8, 2011

Mr. Santorum is correct that the Earth has changed its average temperature in the past. It has been both warmer and colder than it is now. While that fact is interesting, and gives us mental parameters as to the limits of climate change (Snowball Earth comes to mind), it is not actually relevant to the novel situation we find ourselves in: a tremendous store of geologically-sequestered carbon is being liberated at rates far more rapid than geologic processes produce or re-sequester it.

Mr. Santorum makes a critical mistake in his second sentence: he points out that CO2 is a “trace gas” in our atmosphere, and that the anthropogenic component is a fraction of the total of that trace. Two thoughts here: First, just because it is a small absolute amount of the total atmosphere, this does not mean it is unimportant. You may get a small absolute amount of arsenic or botulinum in your bloodstream, but your relatives won’t consider it to be unimportant as they bury your dead corpse.

Current concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of planet Earth are ~390 parts per million. This is an increase of almost 40% over the pre-industrial levels, which were around ~280 ppm. Having an increase of +40% is not “a trace” component. That’s a lot. Another point is that not all of the CO2 that we’ve put into the atmosphere stays there. A lot of it (around a third) drops back out again – some is absorbed by the ocean, other molecules are captured by plant photosynthesis, others react with the continental crust. For a compelling narrative about all the places it could possibly go, read Tyler Volk’s book CO2 Rising.

Mr. Santorum then makes the point that there are other factors that are also contributors to (both warming and cooling trends in) climate change. This is a legitimate point to make: El Niño, sunspots, clouds, water content in the lower atmosphere, water content in the upper atmosphere, albedo, weathering rates of the continental crust, deforestation and re-vegetation, changes to ocean chemistry, changes to ocean circulation – there are a lot of factors involved. The climate system is complicated. No one sane would argue that point. But Santorum takes the point too far – by going from “it’s complicated” to “therefore CO2 is not important.” Au contraire, Mr. Santorum: the people who pay attention to the relevant contributions of all these factors have concluded that rising carbon dioxide concentrations are in fact the major driver of the changes we’re seeing. Science has considered the possibilities you listed (and the other ones I’ve tacked on) and ruled some out and been equivocal on others (clouds, for instance) but zeroed in on the one which shows a plausible causative role, and has the temperature correlations to match: carbon dioxide.

The liberal “scheme” he mentions is either personal paranoia, or propaganda to motivate his base of voters. Science doesn’t start with the conclusions and work backwards from there to the data. As I mentioned earlier, the plaudits and praise a motivated scientist could earn by disproving the global warming hypothesis are HUGE. The flimsy structure of the “scheme” could be dismantled by a clever scientist in a single afternoon, if only there were data of sufficient heft for them to lob at it. The allegation of a “scheme” or conspiracy holds as much validity as the moon landing hoax or the Roswell UFO crash cover-up conspiracy allegations. All three of these ideas lack the same thing: a shred of supporting evidence.

Jon Huntsman

I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy. — Twitter, Aug. 18, 2011

The minute that the Republican Party becomes the … anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people that would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. — ABC News’ “This Week,” Aug. 21, 2011

Bravo. I applaud Mr. Huntsman for being the a Republican presidential candidate who embraces the scientific method, though again I take issue with the use of the word “believe.” As with Mr. Romney, Mr. Huntsman earns my approval to apply for work at the White House, since he is a person convinced by empirical evidence and logic. He is grounded in the reality that science reveals for us.

On the second quotation, I think that ship has sailed. The rest of these statements from top G.O.P. politicians suggest that, Mr. Huntsman and perhaps Mr. Romney aside, the Republican party has embraced anti-science as a modus operandi. The reason for this is that these politicians want the votes of the large number of pro-corporation (anti-climate change science) voters or fundamentalist religious (anti-evolution science) voters who self-identify with Republican party ideals.

Overall comments:

I’m an independent voter, though I’ve recently registered as a Democrat because I feel like their candidates are more frequently appealing to my priorities (science and the environment), and I wanted a chance to vote for the candidate of my choice in the primaries. (I reserve the right to vote for whichever party I feel like in the general election, so don’t go getting the impression that I’m a “toe the party line” kind of feller.) On some levels, I regret this move, because it means that I can’t cast a vote for the most pro-science candidate in the roster of Republican candidates. But: oh well, you gotta pick one if you’re going to play the primary game.

I think the Republican party has a lot to offer the American people, including an important role in keeping the other party, the Democrats, in check. I think it’s healthy for multiple interests to spar in the court of public opinion, when information and logic are the weapons employed. (I’m not as big a fan of hyperbole, insult, theater, backroom wheeling and dealing, or tribalism.) But their “good stuff” is getting swamped by a disgusting gravitation towards anti-science fake-thought propagandizing. While I’m all for low taxes, individual liberty, limits on the size of government, and the right to bear arms, I could never vote for an anti-science candidate. Such a move would be antithetical my understanding of reality.

I see the anti-science flavor that’s coming to dominate the Republican party as a sad state for America. With the Republicans out of the picture as a viable choice, voters like me are stuck with ‘the other guys’ (and gals) as the only option. The Democrats become the default, and that means less competition, and more of everything that goes along with a one-party system: less diversity, less integrity, less innovation. Blech.

Our country ceases to be a viable democracy if there is only one reality-based party available for reality-based voters. A Republican party which rejected the current anti-science, anti-reality trend would likely be attractive to rational voters like me. They would be a real asset to a country that could use a reality-based approach to future governance.

What do you think about the anti-science trend that’s dominating Republican discourse these days? When did science stop mattering? Why is it this way? If you’re a Republican primary voter, tell us what you think of these candidates, and how much their embrace of science weighs in to your consideration of who you’ll vote for. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to resolve this situation.