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Global Warming, or Climate Change if you prefer, is quite political, as this very sentence demonstrates. It is political in that the more hierarchically oriented (i.e. Conservative) politicians (in the US, at least) saw it as appropriate to debate whether climate change was even happening, rather than what to do about it.

Of course, there is a reason why, and it is to do with hierarchy.

Warm planet

Image from NASA.

 

In my post, Moral Epistemology, pt. 1: Learning from the Environment, I mentioned this quote from Kahan, et al. (2007), “relatively hierarchical persons […] perceive assertions of environmental catastrophe as threatening the competence of social and governmental elites.” In other words, those who have been in politics for long enough (like James “snowball” Inhofe) take claims of global warming as accusations of personal failure. The admission of which would be political suicide, so it is not admitted (or even considered), even to (or by) themselves. Those who have not been in politics long may be currying favour with the old guard, or merely rescuing their worldview by supporting the hierarchy, and going against scientific consensus.

The earth has been warmer in the first five months of this year than in any comparable period since measurements began 130 years ago, and the higher temperatures can now be attributed to a long-expected global warming trend linked to pollution, a space agency scientist reported today.

That seems like the usual scaremongering, as certain people would have it. For those who take this threat seriously, it’s depressing to note that the above quote is nearly 29 years old. Here is the next paragraph, as it was reported in the New York Times, on June  24, 1988:

Until now, scientists have been cautious about attributing rising global temperatures of recent years to the predicted global warming caused by pollutants in the atmosphere, known as the ”greenhouse effect.” But today Dr. James E. Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration told a Congressional committee that it was 99 percent certain that the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.

 

In early 2015, that is 26 1/2 years after the above testimony was given to a congressional committee, the Senate finally agreed that global warming is happening… but that it is not the fault of man. Twenty-six-and-a-half-years to accept almost half of a robust scientific claim!

So we see that we have a distinct epistemological issue here. Scientists are conservative in their estimates, and hold off on making pronouncements of imminent disaster until they’re sure. (And if they went off half-cocked, I know which segment of society would be scoffing at the validity of science.) Meanwhile non-specialists, who happen to be higher up the hierarchy (as some see it) are conservative in their estimates, and hold off on accepting pronouncements of imminent disaster until it’s affecting them (as the aforementioned “snowball” stunt makes obvious).

In the case of most politicians, it is abundantly clear that these delays have nothing to do with individual conscience – though the argument would be made that they were – but the perception of the weight of public opinion. The same process of osmosis of (non)acceptability can be seen in the books that made it onto the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. It took 73 years for Nicolaus Copernicus‘ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be banned in the first instance (from when it was first published in 1543, to when it was banned in 1616). It was of course Galileo that brought the offending nine sentences to the church’s attention in the first place. Copernicus languished on the Index until 1758. In Galileo’s own case, it took the church 359 years to admit that it was incorrect about heliocentrism.

In the case of Climate Change, we don’t have 359 years (nor 73), as this must-see interactive infographic (released six months after the Senate vote mentioned above) makes abundantly clear.

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 19.26.37

See the rest of this infographic at Bloomberg.

 

Post-2015 we seemed to see an increasing number of individuals adopt a somewhat scientific air (not Jim Inhofe), pointing out that the climate is a dynamic system, that there are lots of elements that both heat and cool the planet, that there have been numerous temperature fluctuations in the past, and so on. Which, on the one hand indicate a refreshing preference for skepticism, but on the other, encourages a great many people to accept the 2015 Senate vote as reasonable, by the expedient of Occam’s Broom (which is to say, present the facts that support the desired stance, and artfully hide those that only experts would notice are missing). The above infographic takes each of the primary contenders that the conveniently skeptical individuals tend to prefer and shows exactly how much impact each has had, or is having.

 

Is it the earths orbit?

No. In fact, in 1982, when the orbit should have caused the biggest temperature spike, the reverse happened.

 

Variances in solar radiation?

No. In fact in 1956 when that was it at its most recent peak, observed global temperatures were low.

 

Particulates and gas from volcanoes?

No. You could maybe attribute the spike in 1958 to geothermal activity, but the reverse is true in 1950.

 

All three of these natural factors?

No. Since 1950, with some occasional swings that seem to mimic the impact of these natural factors, the observed temperatures have significantly outpaced what you would expect from these factors.

 

So, deforestation rather than fossil fuel (killing live trees rather than releasing the “animating” CO2 from already dead ones)?

No. Deforestation makes the planet less dark green, thus lighter over all, increasing the albedo effect and thereby bouncing solar radiation. This would also reduce the absorption of CO2, anyway. So deforestation is actually (partially) an argument for CO2-based global warming.

 

Ozone pollution?

Nope. There’s a not-so-small matter of an ozone hole, detected in the late 70s.

 

Aerosols?

Nope. In fact aerosols reduce the ozone layer. This is the hole in the presumption that it’s ozone pollution. Though aerosol use is decreasing, so the impact of Ozone effects may be increasing.

 

Greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gas levels account for the vast majority of climate change seen since 1945, and the vast majority since 1953. All of the above issues may account for fluctuations (such as the spike in temperaures in 1953), but none of them individually, nor even all of them together, account for the increase in global temperatures (and the increase in global temperature fluctuations – the piece of the puzzle that Inhofe doesn’t seem to understand).

 

But MIA/LIA(R)?

The last ditch effort seems to be the old saw about the fact that we’re coming out of a Mini Ice Age/Little Ice Age, but Ice Ages don’t happen by magic, and no mechanism is given that is not accounted for by the above. Wobbles in the earths orbit, perihelion/aphelion, variances in solar output, and particulates/gas from natural events, such as volcanoes and space debris, all go into the MIA/LIA argument, and all have been accounted for.

 

Relying on direct personal experience, or the general feeling of the populace at large, are not, in and of themselves problematic paths to truth. Certainly these are entirely sensible for politicians whose positions rely on popularity. The problem arises, however, when these are relied upon as the only paths to truth. When the hubris of hierarchy convinces some that we don’t need experts, or indeed this nebulous and ill-defined “elite” (that is notably not the political elite), we have a problem.

 

Imagine if the human population doubled every 20 years. You can think about that at the level of the city you live in, or the entire globe, it doesn’t matter much. After the first doubling, some people will start to complain that things aren’t how they used to be – there are too many people, and not enough personal space. And say that, after this first doubling the population is one-sixteenth of the available resources (space, water, food, sanitation, etc.). During the next doubling, and another 20 years, the population is approaching one-eighth of capacity. So, is one-eighth capacity a problem? Most people would, of course, say no. But some, a few, from population scientists to civic planners are concerned. Then, during the next 20 years, as the population approaches a quarter of capacity, a larger number of scientists would be concerned. From one quarter capcity to completely full only takes another 40 years.

It’s unlikely that 100 years out, at one-thirty-second of capacity, that anyone foresees a disaster. Nor at 80 years out, at one-sixteenth capacity? Then 60 years and one-eighth? Forty years and one-quarter of capacity? Twenty years, and half? No, it takes experts to foresee disaster, and now, apparently we don’t need experts.

Triangulate your failure

 

A phrase that I have mentioned a few times recently is part of the problem, at least in America. Consider how many Republican supporters are ‘never-Democrat’, now consider how many scientists are (politically) conservative. It’s not so much that science is political, but that people are. When the standard of discourse is such that an ad hominem passes for an argument (sad), then we can discount expertise by “othering” the actual, bona fide experts. With Trump as President we have rewound back to pre-2015. Where Climate Change-as-hoax is an “acceptable” position.

It seems that the only hope at this point is that renewables may soon be seen as the better business decison that they always were, and we can expect that soon, conservative capitalists will be all over renewables.