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Global Warming and the paralysing conflation of science with politics

October 4, 2013

In today’s Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli writes about the need for conservatives to ‘come in from the cold’ (Let’s be honest – the global warming debate isn’t about science). He makes the same points I’ve tried to address: while contrarians conflate science with ideology, they disenfranchise themselves from a debate about that which they care about most – the socio-economic impacts of mitigation or adaptation. So mired are they in futile attempts to change the laws of physics, they don’t actually have time – and certainly lack the credibility – to discuss the issues that actually motivate them in the first place.

One of the most ironic aspects of this entire debate about climate change is that I share some of the key concerns of ‘sceptics’.

How can we solve the problem of generating energy sustainably on a scale that doesn’t destroy a nation’s economy? Which mechanisms will really work? What’s right and what’s wrong with the current attempts? Will governments raised money on the back of environmental taxation, only to use it to buy new nukes or fund yet another murderous foray into a distant land? What will be the economic impacts of pre-emptive mitigation, and how can we deal with them? How can we protect developing nations, help them continue to build vital infrastructure, and share in the fruits of the industrial revolution that even now have not yet reached them, or the two billion people said by the UN to be suffering malnutrition.

Of course there are many more socio-economic issues than I’ve listed, but my point is this; through the relentless conflation of ideology with the science of climate change, and the largely irrational foundation on which such conflation depends (esp. conspiracy theories), the contrarians disenfranchise themselves from any debate about the subjects dearest to them. It’s a really stupid, counter-productive strategy. They marginalise themselves through attempts to attack the science, instead of embracing the valuable and credible work of climate scientists, and concentrating all their effort on what and how we deal with it.

Any answer is necessarily political, ideological and up for grabs – one opinion in that sphere is as valid as any other, short of blaming immigrants or lizard aliens, but until the contrarians stop being so confused between cause and effect, their voices will not be heard no matter how loud they shout, and the ice will carry on melting just the same.

*****

Elsewhere in the thread that follows Dana’s article, a blogger makes an interesting, if accidental observation:

“…the evidence comes from a political source, the IPCC. How much more biased can you get than that.”

While I’m sure his objective is both clear and unfortunate, on the subject of bias, he is quite right – more by luck than judgement perhaps.

Nuccitelli makes an important point about probabilities that deniers like to steadfastly ignore; things could be much more damaging than the IPCC reports, as well as less so (rather like the warnings to potential investors that stocks can go down as well as up).

To illustrate this point, and the concerns of climate scientists that the IPCC reports are far too conservative, there’s an article by Fred Pierce that discusses the political influence exerted on the IPCC, not to exaggerate claims, but to downplay them:

Some of those involved in the report process believe the natural caution among scientists — coupled perhaps with a wish not to repeat some exaggerations that marred some previous IPCC reports, and the effect of politicians looking over their shoulders — has created a report that is overly conservative, even biased, in its conclusions. Rather than lowering its expectations of warming, these scientists say, perhaps the panel should be raising them.

Source: Has the U.N. Climate Panel Now Outlived Its Usefulness?

Some of the most contentious arguments over finalisation of the IPCC report were raised by political voices. As Pierce reports, there were several attempts to downplay certain ‘politically uncomfortable’ aspects of the report:

“Agreement was only reached at the end of an all-night closed session at which delegates from governments cross-questioned the scientists and at times sought to put their own spin on the findings. It is not called an “intergovernmental panel” for nothing, and every last nation had to agree to the text before it was published…

…Some “scary scenarios” arising from possible positive feedbacks — in which nature amplifies man-made warming — have been left out of the model projections on which the IPCC’s headline forecasts are based. Surely, some critics say, it is the scary scenarios that politicians need to know about if they are to do their duty under the UN climate change convention and act together to prevent “dangerous climate change.” Even the U.S. signed that, under George Bush senior in 1992…

Some researchers are angered about the marginal reduction in predicted warming. They say that may be justified by the outputs of the climate models, but that those models do not include some worrying positive feedbacks that could accelerate warming in coming decades. Other critics say that, even though the report has upped its estimates of sea level rise this century to as much as one meter, the lead authors did not accept findings from reputable researchers suggesting that a rise of as much as two meters was possible.(Same source)

So yes, there is indeed a political dimension to the work of the IPCC. This should not be surprising, since its remit is to produce synthesis reports on climate science for legislators, politicians, NGOs and decision-makers. What is surprising is that the political bias appears to be entirely at odds with the way climate change deniers like Portentious would like to portray it.

Far from exaggerating the dangerous potential of anthropogenic climate change, the IPCC may be doing nobody any favours at all by acceding to political influence by which its reports are neutered, made palatable to those who are terrified of the true significance of both the problem, and any potential solutions.

Deniers may wish to see the IPCC disbanded. If this happens, the IPCC could easily be replaced with a far more militant body outside of political control, free of pernicious influence, and whose work may give administrations far more of a headache than the current incumbents.

In this scenario, I hope the deniers get their way. Maybe then they’ll join the rest of us by being part of the solution, rather than being such a monumental part the problem.

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