What's the Point of Climate Skepticism?

The AGW (anthropogenic global warming) opponents at WUWT posted a review of an article on RealClimate this morning. The gist of the post is that the author (who by the tone of comments is well-known and well-hated) was admitting that "modeled absolute global surface temperatures" are bogus. A closer reading of the article, I think, suggests that the modelers are aware of the shortcomings of models but still believe them to be relevant and useful in some situations. And that they're trying to refine the models and trying not to use them inappropriately.

I commented on a quoted passage where the RealClimate author says “no particular absolute global temperature provides a risk to society, it is the change in temperature compared to what we’ve been used to that matters.” This seems like common sense, if a global surface temperature number is an average. It is easy to imagine that plus 5C, for example, might not be as devastating to human society in the Sahara as it would be on the Himalayan glaciers.

 
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Responding to my comment, a "Jeff Alberts" said "Anyone who expects 'the temperature we’ve been used to' to never change, has no common sense. The question is, are changes we’re seeing due primarily, or even measurably, to human industrial activity. We simply don’t know. CO2 went up, but temps went up and down, and even remained static in many places. Therefore we have no evidence of any even minor impact due to CO2. We have no evidence as to whether today’s temps are unprecedented in any way, none."

But I wonder if that
really is the question? If mountain glacier systems at the headwaters of many of the world's most important watersheds are melting at an alarming rate, does it matter whether the cause is AGW or some natural process? Won't the billions of people depending on that water be equally effected either way? And if the natural processes of climate are as variable as AGW skeptics claim (to be the cause of all the observed changes), is there any reason to believe they'll bounce back right away and remain in a range that's comfortable for us?

If you were a nation depending on glacier-fed rivers, wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible not to consider the possible continuing reduction of glaciers and the concurrent possible challenge to your national water supply? Would you care whether the cause was AGW or nature? Yes, you would, because if it's AGW, there may be ways to mitigate or reverse the effects - not to mention the potential liability involved. But would you wait until the jury was "in" and nobody was arguing on the cause before starting to think about what to do? I hope not!

Does all this suggest that that one of the goals of AGW skeptics is muddying the water in order to prevent action? I don't know. My free-market friend Bob recently said the skeptics are frustrated because so much money as been poured into this -- in his opinion, down a drain. He mentioned "
$165 billion so far (CBO report)." The number I was able to find for 2014 was $21.4 billion, which is definitely a lot of money. But in perspective, the total federal budget is about $3.9 trillion, so we're talking about a half a percent. And that spending is spread across dozens of government agencies including Defense (the DOD believes climate change is a strategic concern). The DOD budget is about $457 million, out of a total package of over $600 billion. So I don't think studying the climate is bankrupting America.

Why Scientists and Regular People Disagree

I ran into this interesting chart today, describing a Pew poll comparing the opinions of scientists with those of the general public on "science issues." Here's the graphic (click image or find bigger original here) and AP/Huffpost's summary:

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Seth Borenstein: "The American public and U.S. scientists are light-years apart on science issues. And 98 percent of surveyed scientists say it's a problem that we don't know what they're talking about. Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country's largest general science organization. Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed. In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal." [AP/HuffPost]

So what should we make of this data? There are certainly some like evolution and climate where I read the scientists' position and think, "yes! thank you!" Other opinions like offshore drilling I'm less excited about. But am I cherry-picking? Is there some type of implied obligation in the way the information is presented, to either take it or reject it in total?

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I think the presentation does nudge the reader in that direction. But looking more closely at the different statements (and trying to imagine the questions that led to these answers), it seems to me there are two basic types of issues jumbled together here. First, there are statements of fact. "Humans have evolved over time." "Climate change is mostly due to human activity." Then there are statements that advocate taking (or not taking) a particular action. "Favor use of animals in research." "Favor more offshore drilling."

And not for nothing, the factual statements tend to be the ones I agree with the scientists on, and the action statements tend to be the ones I disagree with (although there are some I agree with). I think that's because it makes sense to me that when you ask a scientific question of fact (did we evolve), science -- and scientists -- are the source of the best answers. But on the other hand, when you're asking a social question like should we build more nuclear power plants, the answer doesn't rely solely on science. The costs and benefits, even the safety of a nuclear program depend not only on scientific data, but on economic and social factors that may be outside the competence of the scientists polled. For example, it may be possible to make a nuclear plant 100% safe, and we might still fail to do so through cost-cutting, shoddy oversight, terrorism, or any number of other factors not present in the scientist's assumptions about the future when she gave her opinion.

So the "what should we do" questions not only involve assumptions about the future, but these assumptions are much more ambiguous and political than simple scientific facts. Also, I chose nuclear power because the answer
I'd give might vary with the wording of the question. Generating electricity by burning coal kills many more people annually than nuclear. The potential for nuclear disaster may be higher, but the actual disaster that is coal is a fact we've chosen to sweep under the rug. So I'm not sure how my opinion on that issue would be recorded -- it would depend on the way the question was asked.

Postscript: There are also several statements I just set aside. "Safe to eat genetically modified food" is one of these. I think the question fails to encompass the whole issue. I suspect most GMOs are more or less safe to eat (relative to Big Macs at least, if not raw kale). But I object to GMOs for a host of other reasons including promotion of single-source monoculture, patenting of genomes, etc. So the question as it was apparently asked really doesn't do justice to the issue.