The Earth Debate: Part 1


(note: Paul Krugman said more-or-less the same thing as I am about to do so in his NY Times Column this morning)

The trouble with the Earth, is that it is our home. Because it is our home, it is exceedingly difficult to treat any policy decisions to do with the earth in a completely impartial way. We are inescapably drawn into emotional debates about this and that, and the raw data – the truth, if you would go so far as to call it that, is prone to being manipulated and misrepresented for all manner of reasons. Also, because this pale blue dot is the only home we’ve ever known, the issue is important and affects us all, making a detached unemotional analysis impossible.

The debate itself also has an interesting history. All manner of people have championed all manner of causes under the banner of “saving the planet”, some of these causes being very different from each other. Recently the urgency of the matter has reached new heights with the introduction of “man made climate change” as a concept, and, as is typical when a very serious and important issue presents itself before humankind, the divisive stakes of hate have been raised, obscuring the facts, and ultimately diluting and delaying the process.

The distinguishing feature of the various different groups which interact in this debate is their motives and their means. Most have seemingly noble motives, and by seemingly I am implying that it is seen as acceptable to pretend to have altruistic motives in order to get their way. At the end of the day, public opinion matter a lot, and the public’s perception of one’s motives can count for a great deal when the common people are deciding on who to “align” themselves with. I don’t use the word “align” lightly – the debate has taken on almost religious proportions with the accompanying hypocrisy flying thick and fast from both sides.

Take for example the big oil companies. I would not say that any individual working for an oil company is evil per se (although, having met a few, I sometimes question this belief). But they don’t want to loose their jobs, the executives don’t want to loose their bonuses, and suppliers don’t want to loose their political influence. However, collectively these forces sum to acts which truly are evil – the deaths of innocent people and irreparable damage to ecosystems. But even they have to bow to public opinion, and are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns to make common folk believe that they care about the environment. Don’t be fooled, actions speak louder than words, and the sum of their actions speaks very clearly – they care only for profit.

Closer to home, Federal Senator Steve Fielding of Australia is the lynchpin in many important government decisions including ones to do with the climate. He is thoroughly unqualified and misinformed, his arguments and position papers betraying a complete non-understanding of the issues he is affecting legislation on. I believe his motives are noble, and that is admirable, but owing to a complete incapacity to think he consistently makes very bad decisions. His mistakes are the Senate’s which are, in turn, Australia’s. He has no business being in government.

The real problem with the Earth Debate (I’m deliberately being broad here, I will be more specific shortly) is that, since the problem concerns everybody, everybody should have a say. The trouble is that the problem is highly complex, requiring the understanding of many different fields of the natural sciences. The terms of the debate, however, are largely determined by the news media who have made something of a dog’s breakfast of explaining everything properly. Politicians, large corporations, environmental groups, and others have scrambled to selectively display information, sometimes unknowingly but often with deliberate intent, to mislead and misinform the general public about what could be one of the most important challenges of our time.

So where do I stand in all of this? I believe that we are grossly mistreating our planet. I believe in man-made climate change. I believe that we are slowly poisoning the biosphere with chemicals. I would identify with being fairly liberal in most political thought, and in economics some would probably call me neo-keynesian. First, and foremost though, I am a mathematician. Numbers will make me turn on a dime in terms of my beliefs, and have done so on a few occasions. However, this also makes it very difficult to fool me with dodgy numbers, and I will be one of the first to make my objections known if anyone tries it (and it happens a lot).

Let’s begin with the biggest catch-phrase of the so-called skeptic’s camp. That the “climate is always changing”. Obviously, this is true, but it is not the whole truth. The climate is always changing, and has done so for all of the earth’s history. In the past it has been much hotter, and there has even been much more CO2 in the atmosphere. The crucial difference in very recent history is that it is exactly that – very recent history. The speed at which the temperature is changing is many orders of magnitude faster than what the earth is used to.

So what? You may ask. Well, let’s think about what a rise in global temperature really means. If it was a degree hotter tomorrow than it was today, you would  barely notice. Let’s think about this a different way, if you woke up tomorrow and all the farmland, desert, and forests in the world had shifted their boundaries several kilometers, would you notice? The climate is a very sensitive and finely-balanced system, indeed one of the first large-scale statistical analyses of climate was an attempt to understand the Indian monsoon. Even a small temperature shift can disrupt the climate system in a very chaotic and unpredictable way.

The Earth's climate zones would shift drastically with even a small change in global temperature.

The Earth’s climate zones would shift drastically with even a small change in global temperature.

So what? You may continue to ask. Put simply, when the climate changes slowly and gradually over hundreds of thousands of years, ecosystems have time to adapt, to change, to shift, and so on. But when change happens this quickly, these very delicately balanced systems can no longer keep up and we have mass extinctions.

There may still be some who, at this point, continue with “so what?”. As far as the Earth is concerned, that may be a valid thing to say. We are in no danger of destroying life as we know it, and perhaps the slogan of “save the planet” is somewhat misleading because the planet is not actually about to be destroyed. However, on the point of mass extinctions, it would be worth remembering that only a handful of species of plants and animals are used to feed us. Humans may not be one of the species to suffer extinction, but the extinction of any one of these species of crops or animals would drastically reduce the Earth’s ability to support humans.

Fair enough, some may say. But there are those who doubt that the Earth is warming at all. Aside from such extreme examples as “rapid warming of the earth’s climate is GOOD for us”, this is one of the more unbelievable claims of some climate skeptics. Indeed, it should be noted that many climate change skeptics believe the Earth to be warming but merely contend the point of human activity being the cause. The Earth has been slowly warming since the last glaciation and that warming has been especially rapid in the last thirty years. The evidence of this warming is well documented in temperature readings of the atmosphere and the oceans, as well as in ecology, in the shift of habitat in movement patterns for climate-sensitive life forms.

Patterns of overall warming aren’t always entirely obvious, and some may quip that last winter was unusually cold. This is merely a variation in a very squiggly line, which happens to have a very definite overall upward trend. Perhaps last winter was cold in the US, but in Australia (and at the same time, I might add) many regions experienced the hottest summers on record. Indeed, on the point of whether or not warming is occurring, the body of evidence is so especially compelling, I don’t feel that I would be able to convince you if you have already taken a view to the contrary in spite of all this evidence, and you can go back to watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh now.

In part 2: The science behind CO2 and the greenhouse effect

Don’t forget to read my other articles in the Earth Debate series.

3 Comments on The Earth Debate: Part 1

  1. For what it’s worth, this is a summary of both sides of the debate (with a bias of its own, of course):

    Global Warming: The Skeptic’s Handbook

    Correlation isn’t prove of causation, though in general it’s pretty tough to demonstrate causation… quite unfortunate that we don’t have a dozen planet earths to crash test (well, we’re already crash testing ours).

    But I like how David Evan’s sums it up here ( that this is fundamentally an issue of science, and “no amount of human arguing and can affect the actual effects of global warming”. So as we have more data in the coming decade, we would be able to make a more informed judgment.

    In another article, Evans points out that under a carbon trading scheme, carbon emission permits would be similar to central-bank created fiat base currency and modern bank money: “all are created out of thin air by some fortunate folks, get traded profitably by big financial institutions, then sold to the rest of us… Trading (carbon permits) would favour the well-informed and those who can move the market, so big financial firms would routinely plunder the pockets of smaller market participants. The rest of us, one way or another, would be paying for both the emission permits and the trading profits.”

    Businesses would have to confront artificial volatility due to fluctuations in the price of carbon permits (and under a fiat monetary system, there’ll probably be ‘booms’ and ‘busts’ in prices). So economically a straightforward carbon tax is much better – businesses would be able to ascertain how much the carbon tax would cost them in advance, and budget accordingly.

    Politically though it’s a much tougher sell – everyone knows that a carbon tax is a tax, and ETS scheme however doesn’t sound like one when it is in fact the worst sort of tax.

    • The Skeptic’s Handbook? Please…

      I’ve read it and it’s terrible. Admittedly it’s much better than a lot of stuff out there, and there’s really awful stuff out there from all sides. The idea of there being “two sides” to this is interesting and something that I will definitely write about later.

      For what it’s worth, I’m not a huge fan of an ETS and think that the idea of a carbon tax is a much better one. Carbon permits however, differ from modern money in many fundamental ways which I will probably touch on in subsequent installments of this series.

      Having said that, you rightly point out that a carbon tax would be a very difficult political sell, and I am of the view that doing a little (even if it not hugely effective) is better than doing nothing.

      As far as taking action on something about which uncertainty exists, that is another thing I plan to speak on later, mostly concerning the precautionary principle. Even though I am of the view that it’s about 95% certain that humans are causing climate change, I understand very well that many people still believe that there is a large degree of uncertainty.

    • Actually, I’ve changed my mind about the skeptic’s handbook.

      In writing subsequent installments of this series, I’ve been doing some more research, and I did some very thorough research into the “science” that is contained in the Skeptic’s Handbook.

      It is beyond terrible. It is absolutely appalling and moreso because of its blatant and deliberate dishonesty. I don’t know who this Joanne Nova lady is, but she clearly hasn’t the slightest hint of a scientific background and has even less of an understanding of the science behind what she writes about (if that is even possible).

      The book should be banned. That it was distributed to schools in the US makes me feel like vomiting. Exposing young minds to controversial viewpoints and opinions is all well and good, but to present incorrect information as true is to do them a great disservice. You might as well teach schoolchildren that 2+2=5.

      The fact that you introduced it to me as a presentation of “both sides of the debate” makes me question either your ability to reason, or your motives. In any case, I hope you have learned something from some of the subsequent installments of the Earth Debate series.

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