Friday, December 4, 2009

Comments on the East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU) Emails

I'm hoping to put this together with other thoughts on other topics but I think something needs to be said now since it's on a lot of people's minds.

Basically, several emails were hacked from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU), which has been the source of a lot of climate history research. What this means is the reality TV cameras have been turned on for the scientists in that their private emails have become public, with all the politics clearly exposed, and some data presentation discussions. Does the data presentation become data distortion? Are they trying to hide some of their research to put forward what fits with their theory?

So if the camera adds ten pounds, I think it also takes away 10 IQ points. Some of the stuff that's said is just plain tribal and I'm sure there's sociologists of science talking about how it show "groupthink." There's two responses: 1.) This proves climate scientists are frauds and 2.) This proves climate scientists are just human but it has no effect on climate science.

Of course, I'm going to come down firmly between those two straw men. (What else are straw men for?)

There is a deep problem here, with the authority of science. When scientists want to use the authority of science, they emphasize how it's monolithic, how those who disagree must have other interests, that the science is somehow neutral. When the scientists themselves are revealed to have non-scientific interests ... the monolith falls over.

Look, if you spend your life's work on something you will want to defend it. Just because someone is defensive doesn't mean they're wrong.

The fact of the matter is, the science is not monolithic. There are some things that are near 100%: old earth, evolution, HIV causes AIDS. Then there are some things that are more 75%/two-thirds, where you have a clear majority and then some reasonable dissent. Climate change is in this category, and the most reasonable argument I've heard on it is the "driving in fog" argument: we're not sure if there's a cliff out there, but just in case there is doesn't it make sense to put on the brakes?

Another analogy may be cancer. We've found a lump. It could kill us. But hacking off the limb with the lump could hurt us too. So this is the time for reasonable prevention and "watchful waiting." (See recent mammogram advice shift!)

So I'm in favor of inexpensive, straightforward solutions to this problem. The rubber-meeting-road conclusions are:

1.) Cap-and-trade as it stands now seems too close to a shell game. Let's get something simpler on the table. I'm not usually for taxes but a gasoline tax may be in order. That's better than a convoluted system that seems more like medieval indulgences than a true solution. The point of the tax is not to generate money but to let other things that are now more expensive cost less relatively ... which can lead to lower costs in the long run.

2.) Research, research, research into solar/hydrogen cells and build, build, build nuclear. Also work, work, work on transportation with alternate fuels and try some geoengineering on a small-scale basis. It's not time for geoengineering yet, but if we get a decade of data that suggests it's time let's get ready. There's positive things to do with energy that as a chemist I'm really excited about.

3.) Stop pretending there's a 100% consensus about the future. Instead argue that a clear majority of scientists think there's a problem and that should be enough for now -- try inexpensive or innovative options now and keep a close eye on temperatures and weather patterns and species extinctions. There may be a cliff out there in the fog, but if stomping on the brakes causes a 15-car pileup I may still end up hurt. Instead, can we slow down and at least try to watch things like this recent cooling?

What's really needed is probabilistic thinking. I still think there's a majority chance that we have a problem but we need to watch more to be sure. There are simple ways to try to cut down -- I've noticed that car miles are down and bus miles are up. This is important enough that all the stops should be pulled out for low-impact, low-cost solutions. I don't see a clear justification for drastic costs yet.

Let's watch this lump and see if bad stuff happens; in the meantime, let's "eat healthier" with our energy choices and try to see if energy research hits the jackpot.

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