Climate Change: Facts, Pseudo-Facts, and Belief – A Tale of Two Professors

Don't bother me with the factsI am reminded at times of a childhood game that worked, if I recall, by the participants all standing in a circle, one person starts off by whispering something in the next person’s ear, then that person whispers what they think they just heard in the third person’s ear and on around the circle until the last person announces out loud what the first person had said – usually to the amusement at how different the last person’s version of the first person’s story has become in the process. The object being to demonstrate how muddled things get from one person to the next.

Welcome to the blogosphere.

Climate change is not a child’s game, and my analogy of the childhood pastime doesn’t hold up under the stress of such a hot-button issue – where deliberate misrepresentation, fear, and political agenda hover on the fringes. Or perhaps I’m giving to much credit for the innocence of childhood – but I digress.

Still, it is apparent in just scanning the news how things become muddled when repeated too often, and usually with an emotional or dogmatic bias influencing the repetition.

In a letter to the editor of the Stars News a gentlman took the newspaper to task for an article published on global warming. The writer, a denialist, stated that Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, and a “leader” of what he apparently sees as some sort of cult (most of the rest of us), now claims there is no correlation between hurricane frequency and global warming. Asserting that less frequency means no relationship at all (forgetting about the “intensity” part).

In any case, he’s only getting part of what Professor Emanuel has said, not very well, and twisting it to his own belief system.

Emanuel was interviewed on National Public Radio’s Science Friday recently and here is a synopsis of what he said, quoted from the Science Friday website:

In a noted paper published just weeks before the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, Kerry Emanuel of MIT said that there appeared to be a statistical link between global warming and hurricane intensity, with warmer temperatures leading to stronger storms. Now, using new models of the atmosphere, Emanuel and colleagues say the link may not be so clear after all.

"When applied to simulations of global climate with double the present concentration of carbon dioxide, this method predicts substantial changes and geographic shifts in tropical cyclone activity, but with much variation among the global climate models used," the researchers write. "Basinwide power dissipation and storm intensity generally increase with global warming, but the results vary from model to model and from basin to basin." However, Emanuel stresses that the work does not disprove a connection between hurricanes and global warming — it just means that the relationship is complicated. "The idea that there is no connection between hurricanes and global warming, that’s not supported," said Emanuel. In this segment, Ira talks with Kerry Emanuel about his work and what it means for hurricane and climate researchers.

Just Because It’s Complicated

Taking special note of the phrase “…it just means the relationship is complicated” and we see one problem in the public debate – it’s complicated. Therefore it’s easy to be confused, easily mislead, or to give up trying to understand it at all. Everybody seems to be saying something different. (Not really, but there are forces that work hard at making it so appear.)

How does a public, constantly buffeted by a daily barrage of propoganda messages and political agenda all packed into 15–second sound bites, understand “what we know and how… we know it”?

This is the struggle a particular scientist teaching a climate change course for non-scientists and the subject of a post yesterday by Harry Fuller on the ZDNet blog.

Says the scientist in an email quoted in the post:

It’s a more or less free country and people believe whatever they damn well please (as long as they keep it to themselves). The rejoinder, ‘You have no right to be so stupid’ is often correct and rarely effective at changing minds. High intelligence is often employed in defending silly opinion. Belief routinely triumphs over fact. The corruption of reason is the rule. But truth is hard to come by. In the long run, it is sometimes possible to identify truths. Most agree that the earth does orbit the sun. Sometimes physical reality does impact human well-being and it is helpful in those cases to act on the facts. Sometimes we do not have generations to puzzle out the reigning physical facts. Climate change may be such a case. We may need to choose the explanation for the recently observed warming and take action quickly. What do we say or do in this case? I say that the scientific narrative has the best chance of being right…

The email goes on at length discussing the inherent uncertainties of science – of any human endeavor – and how the very complexity of the issue of climate change is what denialists grab onto to assert that it is conspiracy and myth.

The devil is in the details, and the details are many, so why bother?  

He also proposes the question “And what if we’re wrong?”

If we tried to mitigate climate change and were mistaken about its reality, then we will have more efficient cars, homes and food systems. Maybe a little less golf will have been played and more taxes paid. Poor policies taken in the name of climate change (eg. corn ethanol) will kill innocent humans whether or not the science is correct. What if science is right and the deniers wrong? Heat, drought, increased severity of storms etc., etc. (see IPCC). I expect the difficulty to extend to resource and food wars and global chaos. But if I was that smart, I would be rich.

As if to prove the point, responses to Fuller’s post and his professor friend’s email illicits the time-worn diatribe of global warming as a liberal plot to usurp property rights (without a substantive discussion of how, exactly, that works) combined with the new-to-me factoid that the U.S. contributes only 1% to world carbon emissions. Where the commenter got that fact I’ve no idea – and how that would make any sense no matter what one believed about climate change is really beyond me – but it shows that there is a disconnect between fact and belief – and facts are often at the losing end of the proposition.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.



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