A Pyrrhonist’s Global Warming
Let me start with a video from Cenk Uygur’s channel, The Young Turks.
This video is an amazing display of breakdown of intelligent debate. Everyone in this video seems to be missing the other person’s point (or at least pretending to do so). It starts with Bob Lutz saying that the temperatures have been stable in the past fifteen years, despite the fact that carbon emissions have gone up dramatically. This is, as far as I know, a well-documented phenomenon and climate scientists agree on it. Yet Bill Maher appears to be denying this fact in the video. But what’s more interesting is that the facts Maher cites in order to support his denial simply have nothing to do with what Lutz said. Maher quotes a study saying that the temperatures in the past decade are the highest on record. That is also well-documented and it is perfectly compatible with what Lutz said. Temperatures of the past ten years are both the highest on record and have been stable throughout the decade despite increase in carbon emissions. Cenk Uygur uses the same flawed argument to counter Lutz. So, I could conclude from all this that our best commentators in the public sphere, in this case ultra-progressives such as Maher and Uygur who claim that everything they say is absolutely scientific and that conservatives are just irrational ass-hats, would probably fail Logic 101 themselves. But I’m not going to conclude with that.
Then it gets more interesting. In response to Maher’s quote, Lutz says “Not so!”, to which Maher responds with “Not so? What are you reading that I’m not reading?”. So, Lutz doesn’t know what he is talking about either. He does not realize that Maher’s counterpoint was not a counterpoint at all because it is consistent with his own point. To sum up, so far everybody in this debate, progressive and conservative, seems to fail Logic 101. Maher completely misses Lutz’s point, and Lutz shows that he is either not listening or not understanding Maher’s point.
Then Cenk Uygur makes his own contribution to the breakdown of public discourse by some colorful graphs and some yelling. One study he cites reiterates Maher’s point that temperatures have been rising in an unprecedented way in the past two centuries and the past decade is the highest on record. Interestingly, the end of Cenk’s graph on the screen also shows that temperatures have not changed much in recent years, which Cenk is conveniently quiet about.
Cenk also points out that 97% of climate scientists agree that carbon emissions are to blame for global warming. Cenk’s explanation for that other 3% is that they are “working for Exxon Mobil and the car companies and all the other people that gain from pollution” (, minute 1:39). This is in my opinion the most disgusting show of partiality for a progressive. Stephen McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, and Richard Muller are, as far as I know, not working for Exxon or car companies, and the fact that Koch brothers donated to some of Muller’s projects (which concluded in favor of global warming to the Kochs’ dismay) proves nothing. If we were to go down that route, we would also legitimize conservative conspiracy theories to the effect that Michael Mann and NASA scientists work for the government and are using the climate change “hoax” to get money from the government (not to mention green energy companies and wind turbine producers like GE who benefit from this). The strongest environmentalist lobby in the US, the Sierra Club, received $50 million in donations from Michael Bloomberg. The situation is completely symmetrical.
The conservative side of this symmetrical situation is often mentioned by left-wing observers and activists as a catastrophe in our society. Big oil and coal industry owners, most notoriously the Koch brothers, are funding a variety of institutions that try to question climate science and in particular the role of carbon dioxide in global warming (see, e.g., Rachel Maddow’s report on this). Chris Matthews once called them “phonies”, “quacks”, and “pigs” for doing this. Now, I’m not aware of the exact nature of these research institutions’ work. There are two broad ways in which they could be operating. One way is by spreading unfounded doubt and fear and helping anti-climate activists with resources for bullying instead of arguments. In that case, I would join the camp of angry progressives and would call them pigs. Another way, however, is by doing research. If they are indeed doing research with the aim of proving global warming theory wrong, if that is indeed where that 3% dissenting scientists come from, I would not consider their work a catastrophe – far from it: I would be grateful to the Koch brothers.
I would be grateful to the Koch brothers for the same reasons that I’m grateful to those who took Ignaz Semmelweis seriously. Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor in the mid-nineteenth century who believed that diseases are transmitted through certain invisible material that could be carried on people’s hands and could be washed off by rinsing. The immediate reaction to Semmelweis’ work from the scientific community ranged from simple dismissal to outrage. Those who didn’t think he was simply repeating the British theory of contagious diseases believed that he was clearly out of his mind. What kind of lunatic questions the indisputable truth that diseases are internally caused, usually due to imbalance in the humours?
I would be grateful to the Koch brothers for the same reasons that I’m grateful to those who took Ludwig Boltzmann seriously when he said that there are tiny particles (“atoms” or “molecules”) that jostle around in gases and other material, causing their macroscopic properties. Many established scientists of the time, especially in the physics departments, considered his theory untenable (although he was certainly in much better shape than Semmelweis). In my first post, I talked about the current situation with Freudian psychology and Bohmian quantum mechanics, on which I do possess some expert knowledge. So you can see how much it means to me when 97% of scientists firmly agree on something.
This is not simply the result of a sweeping skepticism on my part. It is also for much more concrete reasons. I’m nowhere near being an expert on it (and neither is Bill Maher or Cenk Uygur, by the way), but I do know that global warming is a very complicated theory. Its subject matter (atmospheric processes) is about as complex as the subject matter of medicine (the human body), but its methods are far less rigorous. In medicine, there are controlled experiments. That means we are typically able to conduct experiments in which we hold all variables fixed except for the one whose effects we are interested in. By tweaking that one factor while everything else stays constant, we can see the effects of the varying factor and say with relative confidence that the changes are attributable to the factor in question. We cannot do controlled experiments with the climate. Most of the evidence comes from historical data that we cannot tweak to our liking. So whatever uncertainties are associated with medicine (which are plenty) should be associated multiply with climate science. We saw how models of the climate failed to predict the temperature of the past 10-15 years correctly (which, of course, doesn’t single-handedly prove global warming wrong). This failure is precisely because of such uncertainties.
Given the nature of the data, there are a number of assumptions that go into reaching the conclusion that carbon dioxide causes a rise in temperature. It is of course a very plausible hypothesis, given that the recent rise in temperature started just when industrialization spread throughout Europe and given the strong correlations between CO2 levels and temperature. But as anyone who studies science knows, a simple correlation, no matter how strong, is not enough. That is why climate scientists also draw on two further sources: dynamical theories about how carbon dioxide causes warming on the one hand, and reconstruction of the Earth’s temperature in the past millennium, of which we have no direct record, on the other hand. Things get complicated in both of these areas. A brief summary of some of these complications can be found in the Appendix.
The question I would like to ask is this: Are you absolutely certain that we are correct about every single theoretical and statistical assumption we have made in the face of these complications? Are you certain that we are not repeating what we did with Semmelweis or Boltzmann? If you are absolutely certain, then you have nothing to be afraid of. Those Koch-funded scientists will never be able to prove anything. In fact, it is a good thing that such strong interests are behind them, because when the dust settles and their failure is recognized, your argument comes away far more robust. But if you are not absolutely certain that the 97% are correct about everything, you must agree that someone should be trying to find our possible mistakes, in case they do exist. Otherwise you would be depriving us of truth. Therefore, either way, whether certain or not, you should be happy that someone is funding the deniers.
Now, in terms of what we should do in the meanwhile. I think we should pass legislation – whether in the form of cap and trade or in some other form – to reduce greenhouse gasses and phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible. I should emphasize for the logically-impaired that what I just said is fully consistent with what I have been saying so far. Of course it does violate the typical belief-packaging practices; the two statements are usually not found on the same blog.
But why would I say that we should act immediately to prevent global warming when at the same time I am defending its deniers? First of all, one needs to adopt a consistent attitude towards things on which one is not an expert. Either you decide to defer to experts on these issues, or you adopt some other strategy. If you decide to defer to experts across the board, then you should act as though raising taxes hurts economic growth, evolution is true, vaccines are good for children, and the Earth is getting warmer. The expert opinion might not be fully unanimous, but that’s the best a layperson can do beyond suspending judgment. One could of course adopt other attitudes towards subjects that one is not an expert on, but the attitude can’t be a simple pick-and-choose strategy that liberals and conservatives use – defer to experts when you like the conclusion (usually because it agrees with what you have been bred to advocate) but oppose expert opinion when you don’t like hearing it.
Another reason is a cost-benefit analysis. If climate scientists are indeed correct, too much is at stake. We are risking, if not our lives, at least our children’s lives, our planet and much of the natural environment. On the other hand, if climate scientists are incorrect, what will we be giving up? Hardly anything. We will be giving up oil and coal, which are limited resources and will sooner or later run out anyway; which make industrialized countries dependent on Middle Eastern countries and help create dictatorships in those countries; which pollute the air with toxins beside greenhouse gasses; and which harm the environment in the process of extraction. There is too much harmless wind and sunlight not to be using.
Besides, the economic argument against transitioning to alternative energy sounds quite weak. Yes, such transition would destroy some oil and coal jobs, but it would create other jobs in the alternative industries. In the short term some people will likely be out of work and without the necessary training to fill the newly opened positions. But this is what happens in every economic transition. It happened when industrialized nations went from manufacturing economies to service economies, and during the telecommunication boom, and even now, as natural gas replaces coal by the forces of the free market. The free market periodically does exactly what Republicans are trying to prevent by blocking alternative energy, namely transitional joblessness. In the meantime, we are so valiantly protecting certain workers and industry-owners whose children might not, for all we know, be there to enjoy the fruits of their parents’ work, as there might no longer be life on the planet.
The calculation seems pretty straightforward to me. Left-wingers, instead of calling climate deniers quacks, phonies, or pigs, should focus on this cost-benefit analysis. We don’t need to know whether climate science is actually correct or not. Leave that to the scientists – who are, by the way, already pretty closed-minded without being politicized. The point pundits need to focus on is that there is too much at risk if the current majority of climatologists are correct and very little if they are not. Thus, I am grateful to Democrats (and some Republicans) in the legislative and executive branches who push for and invest in alternative energy, and I am grateful to those who fund minority climate scientists to try to disprove global warming.
Appendix: Some complications in the CO2 theory of global warming
The basic idea of global warming is that CO2 acts like a blanket around the Earth, keeping more heat inside than it allows to be radiated out, thus warming the Earth. This is of course a fairly simple phenomenon and hard to question. However, estimates of how much it is effective in acting as a blanket might be trickier. Most importantly, there is the possibility of several other effects that we might be ignoring. If you need fuel for imagination, suppose we discovered that CO2 also acts as a mirror, or interacts with certain other agents to create a mirror effect that causes more reflection of the sunlight, thus cancelling the greenhouse (blanket) effect. One possibility is that while carbon dioxide increases reflexivity for some wavelengths, it decreases it for others, acting as a net coolant. (Mexian researcher Nasif Nahle has recently advanced such claims supposedly based on experimental data; he might be a “phony”, but for all I know he might be a wacko like Semmelweis and Boltzmann.)
Are you absolutely certain that no such cancelling effects could exist? If you are not absolutely certain, you must agree that someone should be trying to find those effects, in case they do exist. But if you are absolutely certain, then you have nothing to be afraid of. Those climate deniers will never succeed. They only make your case look stronger.
As for the reconstruction of past temperature: Direct records of surface temperature of the Earth only exist for the past century/century and a half. The rest of the data must be calculated from indirect evidence. That is, we need a method to find out the temperature of the Earth at times when no one was taking record of them. Methods “such as tree rings, corals, ice cores and lake sediments, and historical documents to reconstruct patterns of past surface temperature change”. There are complicated, theoretical assumptions that go into all of these calculations. The ice core method, for example, hinges on assumptions about the bubbles of air trapped in the ice and the workings of the atmosphere at the time, as well as about the methods used to determine the exact age of a given bubble. There are similarly several assumptions that go into estimating the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at the time. Geology is a very fragile science. Our assumptions often turn out to be wrong in light of new evidence. Moreover, reconstructing temperature graphs with decade-by-decade accuracy requires a lot of data processing and statistical analysis, which adds further complication.
Are you absolutely certain that these theoretical and statistical assumptions are correct? If not, then you must agree that someone should be trying to find the possible mistakes in them, if any. But if you are absolutely certain, then you have nothing to be afraid of and in fact you should look forward to their fiasco.
Here is another twist to the story. Once we reconstruct these old temperatures and plot them against our estimates of carbon dioxide at the time, it turns out that increase in carbon dioxide follows temperature rise by a few centuries, not the other way around. At first glance, it might seem that increase in temperature is causing higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, not vice versa. But scientists explain this by arguing that there is a feedback loop. First temperatures rise due to changes in the Earth’s orbit, then that causes the release of more carbon dioxide from the oceans into the air, and then this CO2 causes even more warming (, minute 9:10).
Are you absolutely certain that this complicated explanation for the apparent negative correlation is correct? If no, then you must agree that someone should be looking for alternative explanations, in case this one is wrong. But if yes, then you have nothing to be afraid of and you will benefit from their lack of good arguments.
Finally, there are anomalies. Some of the predictions from our models conflict with data. I mentioned the temperatures of the past decade (which climate scientists have other explanations for). But that is not all. To quote the IPCC, “Some qualitative inconsistencies remain, including the fact that models predict a faster rate of warming in the mid- to upper troposphere which is not observed in either satellite or radiosonde tropospheric temperature records”. There are other discrepancies as well. Now, these are small problems, right? The models mostly agree with data. Well, yes, but Newton’s theory of gravitation also agreed with astronomical data for the most part. It captured the orbits of all solar planets except for Mercury. To accommodate this little planet, the whole theory had to be fundamentally revised into General Relativity.
Are you absolutely certain that these anomalies are harmless and our models will one day account for them? If yes, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you are not absolutely certain, then you should be happy that some people are exploring alternative theories.