Monday, October 26, 2009

Global Warming, Polls and Know-Nothingism

Poll numbers go up and down. During last year's presidential elections, poll numbers could vary by ten points in the last six weeks before the election. In addition to fluctuations due to sampling size, polls can vary because of what candidates do, events in the world, what methods and questions pollsters are using and sometimes simply because of the contrariness of respondents. But most polls showed that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency. It's not hard to argue that in politics, polls matter.

Admittedly, when it comes to polls about such things as whether or not one believes in global warming, the truth is that the physical world doesn't pay much attention. The ice keeps melting, the average temperatures keep climbing.

Fortunately, although most scientists believe humans are causing global warming, they also have good reason to believe that humans may be able to do something about it. Here, polls matter. A majority of Americans still believe global warming is real. That's a good thing if we are to head off disaster in coming years. If you believe there's a problem, and you discover you have the capacity to deal with the problem, you might be able to stop it or at least slow it down. Of course, the longer we go without doing much, the more difficult it will be to deal with global warming.

So we ought to be concerned that a recent poll suggests global warming naysayers may be having an effect. Here's the story from The Boston Globe:
The number of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the earth is warming is at its lowest point in three years, and the number who see the situation as a serious problem has also declined, according to a survey released yesterday.

And the share of people who believe pollution caused by humans is causing temperatures to rise has also taken a dip, even as the United States and world forums gear up for possible action against climate change.

This is important news since it tells us Congress, President Obama, newspapers and various other news outlets need to find better ways to get the message across that global warming is a major threat and that it requires global cooperation and leadership. It is a fact, at least for a few more years, that the only leader out there that can provide world leadership is the United States.

But there's a segment of our population that wants to play ostrich on a wide range of issues, including global warming. Actually, one of the disappointing things about this era are the number of people who offer up trivial arguments or who clearly show they haven't done much homework before issuing an opinion. Here's an example that by the end borders on the silly:
If there is no arctic ice the Northwest Passage opens up for shipping, at least it will be open in the summer if professor Wadhams is to be believed. This will cut from one to two weeks off the travel time for shipments of material goods traveling between Europe and Asia. Rather than having to round the Cape of Good Hope or weather the Magellan Straits, vessels can sail a more direct and shorter route across the north pole.

The author has a point but the point ignores the larger picture. We'll get to that in a moment, but here's something the author said in an earlier article:
The news reports are full of it: arctic temperatures are the highest in the last 2,000 years – big hairy deal, and probably incorrect to boot.

I call this the Fox News style of argument: the news is not important and even if it is, it's probably not accurate. Technically, it's an example of two kinds of denial (with a little attitude thrown in) but mostly it's muddle. There are other kinds of denial and they are found frequently on the far right, and on Fox News.

Let's go back to the author's most recent article:
Oh but the alarmists say that sea levels will rise if the arctic ice disappears. Not really. The arctic sea ice floats on water. Any melting of this ice will have no effect on sea levels. You can check this out in your own kitchen. Put an ice cube in an empty glass and then fill the glass to the brim with water. Wait until the ice cube melts. Did any water spill out of the glass? No, so why should we expect different results from melting the floating sea ice in the arctic?

The problem with this argument is that it pretends to counter an argument that in fact does not exist. No reputable scientist and no one who has bothered to inform themselves on the arctic ice cap and its relationship to global warming say that the melting of the ice cap alone will raise ocean levels. But the melting ice in the ocean is direct evidence of warming, at least as it is measured over a number of years. Obviously, if the Arctic Ocean is warming, so is the atmosphere and the surrounding land.

When scientists speak of the risk for rising sea levels, the immediate focus is on places like Greenland. Three-fourths of Greenland is in the Arctic Circle. And it is generally growing warmer. The ice sheet on Greenland is enormous. If the glaciers melt and all that water ends up in the drink, it will raise the level of the ocean. That's a physical fact you can bank on.

Yes, the melting arctic ice appears to be giving the world a new ocean route, but the price will be extraordinarily disruptive if it also leads to Greenland losing much of its ice. Even if the ocean rises only two or three feet, tens of millions of people around the world will have to move. Trillions of dollars of damage will be done to economies around the world, including the United States.

One of the problem I have with global warming naysayers is that the evidence for global warming in the last three years has grown stronger, not weaker. If the models are correct, the last thing we need to do is throw even more carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But that's exactly what we're already doing. The world is turning increasingly toward heavily polluting heavy crude, tar sands and coal. We're at a crux and we need more people who can explain what's going on.

Here's an interview with Henry Pollack, a scientist who, along with others, shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. I'll end today's post with just one question and answer:
You talk at one point about the argument some have made that CO2 will boost agriculture, make winters shorter, and generally make life better. You call that argument "parochial and simplistic." It seems to me that many of climate contrarians' talking points similarly seize on part of the story to appeal to a kind of know-nothingism. How can complicated data win out over these efforts?

You have to create analogies that help people understand better. In the "contra" mentality, they see science as a long chain of evidence and that if they can break one link in the chain, the whole thing is going to collapse.

But it's not a chain with links in it; it's like a web hammock: Even if you snap one strand, the hammock doesn't fall apart, it's still filled when many other strands of evidence.

Some people say, "This must be part of a natural cycle." Well, that's true, there certainly was climate change in before there were people. But that doesn't mean that all climate change today is due to natural causes.

The analogy that I use is to ask the question, Were there ever forest fires before there were people? We know that lightning can cause forest fires, but that does not imply that all forest fires today are caused by lightning. And, just because there are natural causes [for climate change], it does not mean that today those are the only factors that are operating. There are almost 7 billion of us now; collectively, humans are the largest agents of geological and climatological changes. We're moving earth, we're clearing forests, we're changing ocean chemistry, and, incidentally, we're also changing the climate.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Dan Pangburn said...

All of the global average temperatures for the entire 20th century and until the present are accurately calculated with no consideration whatsoever needed of changes to the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas. The details are in a new paper at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true . There is no Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) (and therefore no human caused climate change) from added atmospheric carbon dioxide.

6:49 AM  

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