Monday, December 7, 2009

Settled Science?

A lot of my acquaintances are going to hate me for writing this. As far as global warming is concerned, I’m an agnostic. I’m not sure if it is, or isn’t. But a substantial number of the people I know are not only convinced, they’re nearly militant about insisting Al Gore is right.

I think he’s wrong. And now, with some of the “science” behind it falling apart, or at least coming under serious question, he’s strangely silent.

Do I think the climate is changing? Yes. It always changes. It apparently goes through long cycles.

One thing I do know for sure is that science is not at all about consensus. At the end of the 19th century, all his fellow scientists and surgeons thought Joseph Lister was bonkers. He’s the man who discovered bacteria, but when he talked about it, the scientific community of the day said it was settled science: high death rates in Glasgow hospitals were caused by an invisible, stinking miasma in the air.

Sound familiar?

Some of the biggest “names” in climate research are in trouble, after somebody hacked into the e-mail servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia northeast of London. The Washington Post says Phil Jones, the director of the CRU, is stepping down. US News and World Report says Penn State professor Michael Mann is in hot water with his institution.

Jones and Mann are two of the biggest names in climate research, and it appears that they are not very scientific in their methods. They’ve been caught trying to quash the work of anybody in the climate research community that doesn’t agree with them.

Science, like medicine, puts great faith in “peer review”. That’s so somebody’s wild, rogue speculation doesn’t become “settled science”. It has to be reviewed by a group of peers. And it appears very clear that when it came to peer review, Jones “peer-reviewed” Mann’s work, and vice-versa.

The e-mail flap has led to literally thousands of Freedom of Information requests from the media, to take a look at the data, methodologies, and supportive evidence behind CRU’s publications.

Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, has been excoriated by reputable scientists. Two minutes of doodling around on the internet will net you a whole mess of unsettled pseudo-science in the Gore presentation. I get the idea that Gore is in it to generate speaking fees and sell books. Really.

The capital-T Truth about global climate change is still very much unsettled. Truth in something so complex will not be easy to come by.

The scientists who were caught trying to stifle disagreement about climate research have done a huge disservice to their cause, and to the reputation of all scientists. It’s not a holy duty imposed by Al Gore. It’s science. It’s not consensus.


  1. I get the idea that Gore is in it to generate speaking fees and sell books.

    That's piddle-money.

    The REAL money is in his 'investment' in carbon-credit-trading schemes.

    See, e.g.:

  2. Leave us not get carried away by the sweet sound of our own arguments until we are debating the right question.

    Emissions trading is nothing new, and it works. Prominent politicians who have proposed emissions trading patterned after the success of European policies include Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia. Yep. Republicans.

    Another Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, complains that "Any way you look at it, a carbon trading system is a tax." He's being disingenuous. It is a tax policy (not simply a revenue grab) designed to provide incentive and progress toward a specific desirable outcome. This is the highest calling - indeed the genius - of our tax system.

    I reiterate: The tax-incentive approach works. The 1990 Clean Air Act was a cap-and-trade system to control sulphur dioxide emissions and thereby stem the problem of acid rain. In fact it has cut sulphur dioxide emissions by more than 50 percent. (Yogi says "Ya cud look it up.") Meanwhile the cleaned-up power plants that used to pump the stuff out of their smokestacks are still humming along nicely.

    You may recall another prudent and well-designed tax-incentive program gave Wisconsin "fishable, swimmable rivers" some decades ago. At the time the pollution-happy paper industry bawled about how it was doomed by the idea. But, lo and behold, the industry cleaned up the environment and actually thrived - thanks in no small measure to the process. Some of the mill owners created their own clean-up companies, which turned a nice profit on recycled byproducts.

    But I digress.

    Climate change does happen. It has happened before and is demonstrably happening again. Are we messy humans contributing to that change? Probably, but it also probably would have happened anyway, if perhaps a bit more slowly. The odd thing about this raucous debate is that it is irrelevant.

    We humans, that most invasive of species, do indeed produce prodigious amounts of greenhouse gases that would not otherwise be in the atmosphere. That's a measurable thing, not a matter of faith.

    So what is the "right" question? I'm not the all-around genius I pretend to be, but it seems to me that the first thing we should ask is what's the worst that could happen if we prudently set about cleaning up our act? New jobs and industries? Less reliance on setting fire to hydrocarbons to keep the car running and the lights on? A cleaner environment? Who would have a problem with that?

    Where some might see dark conspiracy and underhandedness in Al Gore's investment in emissions trading, I see a man who is putting his money where his mouth is. I'll trust that sort of action before I'll go bobble-heading along with the loudest naysayers.