Saturday, December 5, 2009

Science and climate change

I've been picking up on ripples of climate change denial in the news and the blogosphere lately.  There's been a kerfuffle of some sort (I'll be honest -- I haven't been paying much attention) over hacked e-mails and some research institute in the United Kingdom and climate change deniers trying to use it as evidence that all science is bunk.  I just looked at the timing and got immediately suspicious:  the big conference in Copenhagen is about to happen, policy makers from all over the world are going to be conferring, and the results coming out of that conference are likely to be ones that Exxon-Mobil et al are not going to be happy with.  It's pretty much standard operating procedure for the corporate spinmeisters to find something to use to color a process when they think they've got something to lose otherwise.

Still, two things struck me:  one is that most people truly do not have a clue just how messy science is, and the other is that the deniers' favorite claim ("People aren't changing the climate; it's all just part of a natural cycle") does not, as they seem to think, constitute an argument for the status quo.

Looking at the second point first, lots of things are "natural" or part of a natural cycle.  That doesn't mean we ignore them or pretend they don't exist.  Forest fires are natural, at least when they're caused by lightning strikes.  We still send out firefighters to try to stop them, encourage property owners to reduce fuel loads, and generally try to change the conditions that make fires worse.  We're not always particularly successful in those attempts, but for sure we don't go the other way either:  no one's out there encouraging home owners to use creosote bushes as foundation plantings or telling them to hose down their cedar shakes with kerosene.  People who live in earthquake zones now have to live with building codes that dictate how structures are constructed to prevent them from falling down, and folks in areas prone to tornadoes are  encouraged to have storm shelters.  So why, if climate change is natural and it's going to happen no matter what, do we have the deniers responding with the equivalent of screw it, it's natural, we'll just let whatever happens, happen?

It's a bizarre response.  It's the equivalent of hearing that a fire's coming, but it's not worth your time to bother hooking up a hose.  Natural stuff happens all the time and we don't react by pretending that there isn't a damn thing we can do about it; we prepare.  So what makes a warming planet different?

I don't know enough about the other issue, the controversy over the Climate Research Unit hacked e-mails, to say anything about it -- but I will note that the CRU is only one research institute at one university (and, oh Maude save us all, open phones on C-SPAN just got into global warming and deniers and New World Order tin foil hat sporting lunatics are crawling out of the telephone) . . .  In any case, the CRU may be an influential center, but it's hardly the only one on the planet that's concluded climate change is happening, and human activities may be influencing those changes.

I think the line graph above says it all -- we're in an upward climb when it comes to the planet as a whole.  Now the big question is how we respond to it.  The graph is from, which also has a long explication of the whole e-mail "controversy" and the MSM's usual horrible job of reporting on it.

Personally, I don't find the fact that scientists reportedly "derided climate change skeptics as idiots" particularly shocking, especially in informal communications like e-mails.  If the journal I work for, or its parent agency, for example, was to receive material from scientists who wanted to revive the miasmic theory of disease,* I've no doubt those people would be tagged in personal communications as "dolts," "morons," and "nut jobs" (or worse) unless they could provide really solid empirical evidence to support their claims.  Unfortunately for the skeptics, right now the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of the climate change accepters. The paradigm has shifted, and the deniers are now on the wrong side of the line. 

[*Miasmic theory -- the idea that illnesses such as yellow fever or malaria were caused by foul odors, like those from decaying vegetation or rotting corpses]


  1. They desperately want climate change not to be true so they can go on living their wasteful lives.

  2. Yes, science is messy, but I'll give it odds that it will save us over anything else.

  3. You definately can play with data in science to support your theories, but someone somewhere is going to repeat what you did and if you skewed the data, they will figure it out.

    So if global warming was just a big gag then I should hope that someone would have figured it out sooner.


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