On Climate, Science and Politics Are Diverging

sea iceThe good news for global-warming alarmists is that they can pretty much be guaranteed that there will always be something happening somewhere in the world to get alarmed about. “It has been a really bad week for the ice shelves of the quickly warming Antarctic peninsula,” the Washington Post’s resident alarmist Chris Mooney wrote a week ago.  In a few years, a very warm summer will see the Larsen B ice shelf shatter into thousands of smaller icebergs, a researcher told him. However, Mooney did not report that the same team that had detected Antarctic warming also said that the warming had not been reproduced by climate models. “Until the past warming can be properly simulated, there is little basis for prediction that rapid warming will continue in future,” according to the British Antarctic Survey.

Neither does the alarm extend to the total area of ice floating on the seas surrounding Antarctic and the North Pole. There was a sharp recovery from the low recorded in 2012, and global sea-ice area is currently above the 1979–2008 average. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reckons that Antarctic sea ice has expanded at an average of 4.1 percent per decade since 1979. This slightly more than offsets shrinkage of the larger area of sea ice at the North Pole, which the NSIDC says has declined by 2.4 percent a decade.

Sea ice at the North Pole has long been a focus of alarm. Just after collecting his Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Al Gore jetted off to the Bali climate conference to declare a planetary emergency, predicting that the entire north polar ice cap would disappear in as little as five to seven years. The Arctic should have been ice-free by last summer.

Predictions of an ice-free North Pole are frequently accompanied by warnings of climate-change tipping points, tripping the planet into uncharted — and, by implication, scary — climate scenarios. A new paper by two scientists at the Scripps Institution suggests that previous concern about the irreversibility of the melting of the Arctic ice cap left out two key physical processes that had led previous studies to spuriously identify a tipping point that did not correspond to the real world.

Selecting isolated phenomena — an iceberg here, a typhoon there, even the disintegration of Syria into barbarism — is a substitute for the real thing, namely, the eighteen-plus years’ failure of average global temperature to rise in line with climate-model predictions. The pause, or hiatus, is a problem for climate scientists in the sense that nature is presenting them with something they had not anticipated and want to understand. For climate alarmists led by President Obama, it is a bigger problem than that. “The science is indisputable,” the president said Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy commencement address. “The planet is getting warmer,” he falsely claimed.

The non-warming is rattling alarmists who are adopting two distinct coping strategies. Nassim Taleb of black-swan fame argues that the less we understand about climate change, the more we ought to try and stop it. Climate models don’t need to tell us that pollution puts the planet into uncharted territories, he argues. Invoking the case for precaution, Taleb’s convoluted logic places the burden of proof with deniers to demonstrate absence of harm.

When the president of America declares climate change an immediate threat to national security and accuses skeptics of “negligence” and “dereliction of duty,” scientific skepticism becomes an enemy of the state.

Twenty years ago, the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky called the precautionary principle a marvelous piece of rhetoric: “It assumes what actually should be proved.” He cited Harvey Brooks, the senior statesman of the science, technology, and policy field, according to President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren. Brooks observed that the only proof of a negative is an impossibility theorem demonstrating that the contemplated action or reaction is contrary to the laws of nature. Far from buttressing a reasoned policy case, Taleb’s position, in requiring climate skeptics to prove a negative, merely underscores the weakness of current scientific understanding of the climate. If temperatures had been rising faster than climate-models prediction, nature itself would have provided a stronger rationale for action than does the precautionary principle.

A second strategy is to claim that the pause is a false artifact created by vested interests and political agents hostile to regulation. “Mainstream scientific discourse has inherited, and is now extensively using, a framing that was demonstrably created by contrarians,” argue psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes in a new paper. The skeptic meme of the pause has seeped into how climate scientists frame their research. “Pressures of climate contrarians has [sic] contributed, at least to some degree, to undermining the confidence of the scientific community in their own theory,” the authors conclude.

Their argument that climate scientists were researching the impact of natural variability at the behest of skeptics received short shrift from Richard Betts, a climate scientist at Britain’s Met Office. The observed temperatures in the 1990s were much as had been anticipated. In contrast, the trajectory of global temperatures in the last fifteen years or so had not been specifically predicted. “This time, there is an interesting puzzle to be investigated,” Betts wrote.

In the last chapter of her book Merchants of Doubt (2010), co-written with Erik Conway, Oreskes outlined a “new view” of science. It was certainly novel. History, she claimed, showed that science does not provide certainty; it does not provide proof; it provides only “the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.” Oreskes’s new science jettisons the standards and methods established during the scientific revolution. Indeed, it’s a view of science that could also be applied to the study of theology or any other body of knowledge.

Global warming is preeminently a political project. On Tuesday, the leaders of France and Germany met to set a goal for the December climate summit in Paris: to fully decarbonize the world economy by the end of the century. It required, Angela Merkel and François Hollande declared, “a profound transformation of the world economy and society.” The role of experts is to provide a scientific consensus to support the drumbeat of alarm. When the president of America declares climate change an immediate threat to national security and accuses skeptics of “negligence” and “dereliction of duty,” scientific skepticism becomes an enemy of the state. The shrillness of the president’s rhetoric draws attention to the weakness of the science. The true believers have given up trying to win over the undecided.

— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History (Quartet, 2013).

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