Debating Global Warming: Lines in the Sand

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Oct. 25, 2010, — I don’t think we are having the right discussion about climate change. I didn’t want to go there, but here I go — “global warming”. There, I said it.

Can there be a more divisive political issue than this? It’s right up there with Obama-care, deep-water drilling, baby seal clubbing, gay marriage, admitting you like Dancing With the Stars and immigration reform. It is, to some, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind” to talk about our impact on the global climate. Others emotionally defend the premise that we are warming the world with little real understanding of what the climate science is actually all about, and both of these opposing views are equally adamant. To most climate scientists it is accepted, after looking at all of the available data and modeling results, that we are warming the planet. Others believe that the data are inconclusive and maintain that we ought to be really certain of what the science tells us before we enact expensive and, in all likelihood, ineffective legislation. This is countered by saying that the resident time of CO2 in our atmosphere is long enough that even if we outright stop it today, the effects will be felt for decades, possibly centuries ahead. This is the third rail I didn’t want to touch in this blog. Ironically so too, because it is, after all, called Adventures in Climate Change and what could be more adventurous than touching the third rail?

By supreme coincidence, the very day my first blog came online, where I mentioned the Mann et al. Hockey Stick, the International Tree Ring Databank (ITRDB) internet forum erupted with a renewed and heated discussion about it, after quite a hiatus (at least on that forum, where participants don’t often delve into contentious issues). Global warming in general, and the Hockey Stick in particular, are interesting topics from the tree ring standpoint, since tree rings make up the bulk of the annually resolved proxy (indirect) temperature records for the past two millennia. The way these reconstructions are produced is, therefore, of great importance to this debate. The nasty, smear-filled debacle surrounding the so-called “Climategate”, however, took the place of intelligent discourse, and just about killed any chance for sensible dialogue across an unnecessary ideological divide. Between climate scientists we are having such discussions, as we work on ways to improve the methods to extract climate information from tree rings and other proxy sources, and we work on ways to improve our models. All proxy data have their limitations and their associated uncertainties, and it is important for people to be aware of them, and present them clearly and openly. But it is not valid to embellish and exaggerate them either. The unfair and horribly partisan hackery that has passed for dialog since Climategate has served to denigrate dendrochronology to the point where it risks becoming like that proverbial baby in the bathwater, and this is patently unfair. This is a discourse worth engaging in, and as much as I would like to avoid it in this blog, I find it unavoidable.

Regardless of what ensued following the meteoric rise in the Hockey Stick’s profile, it was in fact a cautiously presented reconstruction of temperature in many ways, and the error bars presented with the reconstruction illustrates its associated uncertainties. This aspect seldom gets mentioned, and I think this landmark work deserves a less emotional place in our collective thinking. But there is no turning back from where we are today, for better or worse.

hocky stick graph

The hockey stick graph as shown in the 2001 IPCC report. This chart shows the data from Mann et al. 1999. The blue lines are temperatures estimated from proxy indicators, red lines are temperatures from thermometers, and the gray shaded region represents estimated error bars.

We often find ourselves on “sides” of a debate, and we are often personally invested in identifying with believing in one side or the other, and we become staunchly entrenched as though our very lives will end if we give an inch to the “other side”. It is in our nature, and in many ways this is visceral and not based on reason. In the unfortunately polarized political environment we Americans currently find ourselves in, we have pretty clear divisions across the political divide between party and viewpoint on the global warming issue. This is unfortunate, because a truly honest discussion on the subject is warranted and I believe this divide is killing the discussion we need to be having. I meet expats all the time who, upon finding out what I do, roll their eyes and quote one of the “greatest hoax” diatribes, and I see that their minds are made up. This is discouraging because they don’t have a real basis for their belief in The Hoax, similar to the way many others just believe in global warming on some sort of faith. I read the comments sections of news articles these days and I am amazed by the raging and wholly ignorant name-calling sessions that pass for debate, and I am alarmed at the sheer numbers of believers in the Great Hoax (by the way, thanks for these commenter’s term “libtard” which I have readily gathered into my vocabulary).

Let me just say it, I believe we are warming the planet. But I don’t think that is the most salient point to argue. Through our activities we are damaging nearly all of our ecosystems in myriad ways, regardless of what the temperature does. Earth’s atmospheric chemistry has been substantially altered by our activities — there is no denying that — and we don’t fully comprehend what the consequences are. Waters are becoming more polluted with giant rafts of petro chemical-derived plastic garbage that roam the Pacific Ocean like ice floes. When we have big oil spills like the one we just had in the Gulf, it affects the food we all need to eat, and the livelihood of millions. I have witnessed air so foul in Delhi and Beijing that I thought I would suffocate on the spot. All of these things will cost us, each of us, directly in our own wallets, in our state of physical health, and in generally lower living standards. Is this not a better message? I truly don’t know how anyone believes we can continue on the course we are on without having some consequences, and perhaps a warming global climate may be among the least of these consequences. At the core of it all, there are just too many of us, and all 6 billion and counting of us, want a better, easier and more enriched life, and who can blame us? We don’t seem to be talking about this.

We got to this point by using the incredible and abundant energy supplied by fossil fuel burning, and unfortunately it has unleashed some effects we actually did see coming, but ignored. For starters it allowed us to flourish, meaning even more of us to feed, house, clothe and educate. I am staggered to think about the rapidity in the rise of the global living standard over the past century, coincident with the ramp up in our use of fossil fuels. The green revolution was made possible because of the petrochemical fertilizers that allow us to grow abundant amounts of food on land that may have otherwise lain fallow. Isn’t this a good thing? The amazing advances in materials sciences allow us great comforts and conveniences in our lives. These are truly marvelous things we have done with our abundant energy production, and it all comes with a price.

I guess I don’t think that “global warming” is the best way to package our need to change the way we conduct ourselves on planet Earth, because to many it is too intellectually remote of a subject. We’ve got to toss out a more concrete set of reasons for the general population to see why they should change. The average person hears things like “well it was warm in the past without our help, so why do we think we are responsible for it now?” and that sounds like a pretty good point. It really was warm during the Medieval Warm Period, and we don’t know why. It was really warm 35 million years ago too and we weren’t even around, so what about that? The fact that these processes are completely unrelated to the anthropogenic warming debate is lost on people, and is used to smokescreen real discussion.

I met Steve McIntyre a few years ago at AGU in San Francisco (AGU is the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting, always held at the horribly intimidating and agoraphobia-inducing Moscone Center). As much as Mike Mann’s hockey stick has drawn fire, Steve, best known for his no-holds-barred Climate Audit blog, is perhaps even more divisive a figure on the other side of the debate. I had a civilized discussion with Steve about tree rings and climate, and I liked him personally (my apologies to all of those offended by my admitting that). I don’t really know what motivates the anthropogenic-warming skeptics like Steve, but I do think much of it is sincerely believed. Personally, what I believe is that the evidence overall, and particularly our understanding of the atmospheric physics regarding heat-trapping gasses, is solidly in support of an anthropogenic influence over our global climate. Perhaps the “deniers” are as incredulous at my believing that as I am by their denial of it. And this is where the lines are drawn in the sand, and where the dirty politics of it all get warmed up.

I believe that, regardless of what his motivation may have been, McIntyre presented the tree ring community with what has become a missed opportunity by challenging us over the way we have reconstructed temperature from tree rings. Unfortunately as a community we were wholly unprepared to answer the challenge and the onslaught it would bring. Particularly galling because it came from such an outsider whose motivations were questioned from day one. We didn’t see it coming, and we were in effect “sucker punched” and the rest has become an ugly history to this point. And yet, I think most tree ring scientists would agree with me that there actually are some real potential issues with temperature-tree growth relationships, owing mostly to non-linearity in the relationship between temperature and photosynthesis (the reason for the relationship) and the linear scaling we use to reconstruct past climate, and also the methods we use for standardization of tree ring series. Many of the criticisms are fair, and many are not. Among the dendro community, things fell into disarray and even defensive posturing by some. Then there was the ugly pushback from those whose political and moneyed interests are threatened by the very idea of changing our fossil fuel driven economy to accommodate people that they see as obstructionists for progress, and the politicians ran with it on both sides. It was a kind of perfect storm scenario for ugliness. And it became a lot like the old longhaired hippy tree-huggers versus the redneck beer swillin’, Bambi killin’ logger debate (remember the snowy owl?). This kind of objectification of the other side as some villainous, agenda-driven sub-human species was never going to produce a real dialogue. It never does.

I never thought of myself as a “libtard”. My most liberal friends criticize my carbon footprint because I fly to Asia on gas consuming commercial jet airliners several times a year, I wear synthetic fiber fast drying travel clothing produced from a Vietnamese sweat shop, and I actually prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (no, really!). They give me a very rigid formula for living a life devoid of using excessive energy, eating locally, crapping in a bucket and eating vegetarian (maybe not in that order). I remind them that I have no children and therefore my carbon footprint dies with me. I can pretty much do whatever the hell I want, because I have no real vested interest in tomorrow’s world. (I say this just to mess with them, because I do care.)  When I say things like this they think of me as a conservative, shorter version of Bill O’Reilley, in spite of the fact that I see myself as rather liberal in many regards, and mostly centrist to conservative in others. My conservative friends on the other hand, just think I am a libtard. So I don’t think we are having the right discussion about climate change. Not even close.

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