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We’re not extinct yet

imagesCAMC6NU0I was encouraged by Matthew Leitch’s taxonomy of bad behaviour to drag up a list of bad arguments I pulled together for a book that didn’t get published some time ago.  I thought it might contribute to the risk culture debate.  The abortive book was on climate risk and now I look back I see that the discussion was unsurprisingly climate-focussed.

Nonetheless the bad arguments are quite generic so I’m posting an excerpt that discusses the climate change issue from the perspective a risk manager who has to make sense of the climate debate in order to support adaptation in their organisation.  The list of good arguments which followed was much more specialist as well as being much shorter, like Matthew’s list of good behaviour.  So I’ve left it out.  Maybe we’ll return to climate risk in future posts.  Happy reading!

The Global Warming Debate

It’s fair to say that planning to tackle global warming does not show Enlightenment Man in his best light.  The gloomy picture painted in the previous section is not shared by everyone and differences of opinion have proved difficult to resolve, resulting in a debate which has become very heated, and ill-tempered.

This is potentially important for the risk analyst because they need to understand the complete range of possibilities, albeit many of them are very unlikely.  This section is intended to help the risk analyst by first setting out that range, and then doing two things:

  • asking what we can infer – what are the points of agreement? – what does not make sense?
  • asking to what extent it matters – does it actually affect decisions we are faced with?

I’ll begin with a very crude characterisation of three very idealised bodies of opinion – three unsavoury gangs with quite different viewpoints.  I’m afraid I’ll present them all in quite a negative light.  I’ll then concentrate on the points of agreement and some of the arguments which it makes sense to ignore.  We’ll also start on the question of whether it matters, though we’ll return to this in Chapter 5.

The Warmists

These are the people who adhere to the story set out in the previous section.  They comprise the environmental, scientific and political axis which asserts that ‘the science is settled’ and ‘now we need to act’.  We are asked to believe this because tens of thousands of climate scientists all agree and they have put together a consensus picture based on an academic culture of endless per review, citations, etc.  If you try to drill down into the science and understand something puzzling, you’ll find astonishingly poorly communicated material and a general attitude that unless you’re a highly qualified specialist you shouldn’t be worrying your pretty little head about how it works.  They see ‘climate change’ as an opportunity to develop a jolly green economy and are extraordinarily upbeat (in the circumstances) about the way ahead using renewable power, ‘wind turbines’ and so  on.

The Deniers

These people see themselves as doughty contrarians, fighting for common sense against a conspiracy of environmentalists, scientists and politicians who have an insatiable desire to bring in world government, raise taxes and generally control our lives.  The logic of this is unfathomable until you realise that the starting point is the inconceivability of taking the required emission reduction steps and wrecking the economies of both the developed and undeveloped worlds.  In spite their perception of being a persecuted and gagged minority, the shelves of Amazon are full of repetitive denialtribes, of various grades of vindictiveness, specious argument and politico-economic naivety.  They think that ‘global warming’ will turn out to be the biggest fraud ever committed.  The solution is business as usual, powered by fossil fuel, with the globalised free-market economy lifting the standard of living of the world’s poorest, just like it has up to now.  ‘Windmills’ and their poor load factors are an abominable waste of money.

It’s worth noting that whilst the warmists adhere to a fairly consistent narrative, there are many brands of deniers.  Some deny that the temperature is rising, some that carbon dioxide increases are caused by man, some that warming is due to increased greenhouse gas, some that warming will have the expected effect.  And some think we should still be worried about the next ice age.

The Gaians

This may be a gang of one, the great scientist James Lovelock who in the 1970s invented the concept of Gaia, variously described as the Earth Mother or a fundamental quasi-equilibrium of life on Earth arising from its special circumstances.  The Gaians are worth including because their position is one of concern about catastrophic climate change (and other changes) alongside contempt for the models which predict it.  Inevitably this attracts the ire of both the warmists and the deniers who both cordially consider Lovelock to be nuts whilst occasionally quoting with approval those points of his philosophy which suit them.  Lovelock thinks – with regret – that the only hope for humans is to live in concentrated cities, with high technology systems for food production, all powered by nuclear electricity.  Lovelock is astonishingly insouciant about the risk of nuclear pollution, mainly on the basis that there’s plenty of radioactivity on earth already: if the half life is short it won’t last long, and if it’s long it’s not doing much.  And no wind power please in my part of Devon.

These are ridiculously caricatures of well-intentioned (mainly) people, but nevertheless, a mess indeed for risk managers and the rest of world to pick through.

Let’s start by picking out some poor arguments that get deployed.  We can then ignore any conclusions which they have supposedly led to.

Bad Arguments

We’re not dead yet

One argument deployed by the deniers is that mankind has constantly predicted disaster, indeed has an atavistic urge to do so.  But they’ve always been proved wrong.  There are two things wrong with this.  One is that in the course of history many civilisations have been wiped out in a very short timescale – or undergone a fundamental remigration – because conditions, including climatic conditions, changed.  More fundamentally, if we had been wiped out we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.  It’s important to remember the anthropocentric point: because we here it’s no surprise if conditions are just right for us to be here event if that is in some way unlikely.

This leads us to a better argument, essentially Gaian.  One of the conditions for our survival over millions of years must be that at no time have we encountered such major changes that lead to our extinction.  This argues for an essential stability in our environment whether this is achieved through pendulum-like oscillations, or the more positive feedback mechanisms of the Earth Mother.

Mother Earth is crying

Talking of whom, it’s worth explicitly eliminating emotional appeals, of which this is a real one.  The same applies to its close cousin: we are being paid back for raping the Earth (environmentally speaking).  It may be true, but it’s not relevant to whether or not global warming is man-made or likely to persist.

It’s not a lot of carbon

It’s true that the volumes of carbon dioxide are relatively small, less than one in a thousand by volume as can be seen from the charts earlier in this chapter.  But anyone who argues this shows it cannot cause the temperature increases observed should eat a few grams of cyanide.

It’s been peer reviewed

Science has not been a matter for amateurs for more than a century.  Since this time an academic industry has grown up with its own disciplines and rituals.  These include publishing in academic journals not available to ordinary people, counting citations, peer review, applying for funding and awarding prizes.  Peer review is intended to ensure that what gets published is right, but it’s clear that there are some potentially conflicting incentives around and the science industry is increasingly compromised by this.

This is more of a personal view, but none of this impresses me.  Many times I have become involved in arguments with people who think that simply because someone is a Nobel laureate, or has published lots of papers they must be right.  I prefer to enquire into the coherence, the underlying principles, or ability to answer tricky questions credibly.  This might be an extreme example but I think about the total irrelevance of peer review to demonstrating the correctness of Einstein’s general relativity proposals in 1916.

So before I believe the science to be credibly settled I want to see exactly how the small nuggets of credible criticism which nestle in the denialtribes are dealt with.  And that’s a difficulty when the scientific-political establishment is putting together ‘consensus’ science reports – a nonsense – from thousands of papers condensed by a small number of – possibly conflicted – scientists.

Don’t believe him – he got something wrong once

The debate is characterised by personal attacks: on people’s motives, on people’s academic credibility and on what people think or said in the past.  Journalists gouge out a living by trying to discern a sliver of clear water between what someone says compared with what their colleagues say or compared with what they said in the past.  Or, better, turn up some evidence that they once did something wrong in the past.  It’s pathetic and we should take no notice (unless you’ve never got anything wrong).

It’s cold today so global warming’s a myth

As I sit writing this in July 2011 the weather is truly appalling.  It’s been pouring with rain for days and I’ve had to put a fleece on in the house.  So to get some coarse amusement I’ve googled ‘since records began’ and find:

  • that June was the wettest in the UK since detailed records began
  • that in June farmers feared the worst after the driest spring since records began
  • that April was the warmest since records began
  • that December was the coldest since records began
  • that the preceding autumn had been the wettest since records began
  • and, yes, the world is at its warmest since records began
  • not to mention UK manufacturing growth being at its highest in February – yes, really – whilst road deaths, marriage and tiger numbers were at their lowest, all since records began.

Truly we live in apocalyptic times – don’t we?  In practice individual events taken from a random sample do little to prove much about trends.  It’s very easy to see patterns – post facto – in almost any time series information.  I used to work in a department which did random simulations of neutrons in arrangements of fissile material to decide whether the arrangements were safe or not (in which case they could start a mild nuclear reaction).   People would stare at the graphical representation of neuron activity on yards of line printer output to pronounce on whether the key parameter had settled down to the true value or not.  It was tosh: a few experiments could easily show it had settled down to the wrong value.  In the even deeper past I was peripherally involved in looking at supposed patterns in quasar redshifts in an attempt to save the steady state theory of the universe.  In his book Fooled by Randomness, Naseem Nicholas Taleb explains how apparently talented traders are just ‘lucky fools’, enjoying careers fuelled by fortune until they hit a bad run.  We’ll say more about how to decide if something you observe is significant in the next chapter, but what’s obvious is that you need to predict in advance the unusual things that are going to happen.  It’s no good spotting the anomaly in hindsight.  So for the time being just ignore patterns, exceptional events and the like.  They tell you nothing about longer timescale trends.

They want to raise taxes

I guess some people are attracted by conspiracy theories, including me.  The deniers see a conspiracy driven between aligned objectives between environmentalists, anxious to reduce man’s impact on the planet, scientists, keen for renown and the next research grant, and politicians.  The first two you can understand but it’s difficult to see what politicians gain from imposing constraints on economic growth, raising taxes on emissions and so on.  The conspiracy theorists say they want to raise taxes and join in world government.  But I don’t think it makes much sense: their actions arise from genuine concern.

Technology will save us

It’s a denier article of faith that even if we drive global temperatures up we don’t need to worry because we’ll find some technological solution to reverse it.  The primary one is finding some way of controlling the weather by reflecting more solar heat.  Technology (including medicine) has given some of us longer and more comfortable lives.  This has of itself caused increased depletion of resources and will create unsustainable burdens for the younger people.  There is not much evidence this can be maintained, and there is not much evidence that attempts to control the weather will be successful.


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