Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Climate change: a challenge to skeptics

Over at Conservative blogger Greg Staples' pad, I got into a bit of a spat the other day with some hardline Tories about climate change. I was told that "the scientific process is still not settled," that "advocates use every weather formation as an example," and that "when everything is climate change nothing is." When I asked for specifics on what environmentalists are saying that they think are based on spurious scientific conclusions, hecklers on the sidelines informed me that the entire premise of the question was faulty, and that my mind had been "polluted" by environmentalists.

Greg himself finally addressed my question by saying that it's a simple matter of the scientific method, and that until there's a single agreed-upon "Theory of Global Climate Change," then nothing is settled. At this point I agreed that they hadn't reached that stage in environmental science, but added that reaching that stage in any science is awfully rare. (I mean, by that standard, science "isn't settled" on the notion that fossil fuels exist, either.) So I asked whether he really believed that our public policy should wait until that stage to act on scientific findings. His response was as follows:

You act on the best information you have. But something [sic] the best action is to wait for more information. It is vital in this public policy example that we have confidence in the models and projections. They are not robust enough (in my opinion) to decide whether we need to adapt, try to get back to 1990 levels or even 1900 levels or somewhere in between.
All of this sounds superficially quite reasonable, of course. But what concerns me most about this discussion is the lack of specifics. What kind of information do we not have, which the Conservatives think we would need in order to act? What, precisely, is it about the models and projections that inspires a lack of confidence? What would make them "robust enough," and how do we get there? And perhaps most importantly, in the absence of that kind of detail, how can I not believe that these Conservative bloggers are just trying to muddy the waters on purely ideological grounds?

So I'd like to issue a challenge to anyone who's willing to address this lack of specifics and argue for the position Greg Staples and his commenters are trying to represent. This challenge has two parts: one, answer the questions I ask in the last paragraph, and two, address the findings environmental scientists are presenting as consensus (here's a nice summary from the David Suzuki Foundation) and detail why they're not. You can address either or both of those parts of the challenge, but in either case I'd appreciate any responses to be backed up by cited scientific data (either quotes from scientific articles or links to websites), since that is, after all, the point.

Now, I admit that the last time I issued a challenge like this, I stacked the deck--I know an awful lot about electoral systems, after all, and have a ready response for just about any argument someone might make. This time is different, though: I'm far short of being even a well-read amateur on the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment. I've read the overly simplified discussions in the newspaper, I've read the occasional essay on the topic and seen the occasional lecture, and that's it. I haven't even seen Al Gore's movie yet. Even if I were trying to trap you, I don't have the knowledge to do so, so go ahead and give it all you've got. I'm not saying that you'll convince me, but it's not impossible.

I look forward to the discussion.


M@ said...

You know, it's a pretty simple logical trail that supports the idea that we should be doing something about global warming.

1. Increased CO2 levels historically correlate with increased global average temperature. This is well-supported by archaelogical evidence worldwide.

2. CO2 levels are at incredibly high levels and rising. They currently surpass any level measured for the last 150,000 years. Again, plenty of objective evidence for this.

3. Global average temperatures are at the highest levels in modern history and rising. Again, this is really beyond dispute.

You know, even if we were disagreeing about the cause of the changes in the global climate, you'd think we'd all be working together to at least find the cause and the solution. Skeptics would rather sit on their hands.

There's a lot more evidence to support the positive effects of reducing human-generated CO2 than there is to support, say, the idea that the war in Afghanistan is doing anything for the Afghan people. Yet some people seem more than willing to throw Canadian lives into that fire. A lot easier, I guess, than selling the ol' SUV.

M@ said...

Btw, I know that I'm using the term "global warming" as though it's synonymous with "climate change", and it isn't. It is, however, the effect that both sides of the debate can most easily come to an agreement on, I hope.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


There's a lot more evidence to support the positive effects of reducing human-generated CO2 than there is to support, say, the idea that the war in Afghanistan is doing anything for the Afghan people.

You know, that had occurred to me as well...

Andrew said...

We ought to be cutting down on pollution in order to stop poisoning ourselves and our natural resources. For example, smog accounts for thousands of deaths a year - I'll bet it also contibutes fairly heavy to our medicare burden (i.e. treating those sickened, but not killed).

While it is nearly impossible to dispute the fact that the planet is warming, I think that the jury is out on how much of an impact that human activity is having on it. We're a fairly egocentric race, however we barely understand things like macro weather patterns, let alone how fluctuations in our sun impact the planet. (Mars is warming too, and Jupiter is exhibiting signs of it as well.)

So, my position is: cut down on pollution of all types, but don't do so ONLY using climate change as a pretense.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

I think that the jury is out on how much of an impact that human activity is having on it.

Evidence, Andrew, evidence! Come on, you don't get to say something like that without showing me the money.

Canadian Tar Heel said...

Hi IP,

I thought the issue of Global Warming was already settled. Yikes !

Anyway, it might be helpful to look at it from the other angle. Rather than trying to build an illusory air-tight case, turn the conservative argument on its head. Essentially, the conservative argument uses the scientific method against itself. In any scientific study, there is a margin of error. In this way, there will never be a clear stance by the scientific community.

I vaguely remember the American study on Global Warming in the 1990s, one of the more comprehensive ones ever done, to which the Bush administration applied this same sort of logic. I'll try to track it down along with the admin's commentary.

Olaf said...


I'm a conservative so... ahhh... the earth used to be warmer than it is now and... ummm... left-wing media anti-business scare tactics... annnddd.... some sort of hockey stick theory... therefore... um.. shit, I got nothing.

I loved The Weather Makers, and was completely convinced by it (although I hardly have a mind for science, and Tim Flannery probably could convince me that biologically I'm actually a hippo). In any case, I think it's worth a read, if you haven't yet.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I haven't read it, but ironically I just ordered it, and it should be winging its way to me as I type. Flannery spoke at the federal NDP convention in September, and I was quite impressed, and I hear his book is even better. They tell me it's right up my alley, too--more about building a case with evidence than about ideology.

Anonymous said...

Global warming is undeniable. Its catastrophic consequences on New Orleans, the Netherland and other low-lying areas are undeniable.

What is debatable is its effect us. 90% OF CANADIANS WILL BENEFIT FROM GLOBAL WARMING. The other 10% who spent a fortune on seashore property will eat their hat and move.

Canadian Tar Heel said...

Hi IP,

I think that the following will interest you regarding climate change and the conservative strategy.

1) Exerts from Frank Luntz's commentary (Republican Strategist),
2) The UN's study on global warming (2001),
3) The opinion of the NAS on global warming, as requested by the Bush administration (See appendix A).

Basically, the Republican Party requested information on global warming from the NAS, which was provided to them. This information asserts that there is global warming similar to the UN report. And finally, the Party's response mimicks the strategy provided by Luntz. Although this information relates largely to the Republican Party in the US, it may be useful with respect to Conservatives in Canada.

I don't know if this helps.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, I'm no expert, but that's certainly not what I hear. "Global warming" is more than just the temperature going up a few degrees (which is why environmentalists have started to use new terminology for it). I live in Alberta, which is already rather poor in water--if we have droughtlike weather conditions for an extended period of time at the same time that they're using all the water we do have to develop the tar sands, my beloved Edmonton may well be up a pretty dry creek without a paddle.


Not the debate from skeptics I was anticipating, but definitely verrry interesting. That Republican memo sounds astonishingly like Rona Ambrose in Question Period. Thanks for the links.

One question, though: is the bit about "climate change" sounding less bad than "global warming" really true? The former sounds far more catastrophic to me. Maybe that's because I live in Alberta rather than Florida, though. *grin*

Anonymous said...

To Idealist Pragmatist, Re. Alberta drying up.

Running out of water in Canada? Man, did you ever travel?

But your argument is familiar. What you mean is Alberta will run out of CHEAP clean soft water. Canadians are very resistant to pay a higher price for water but we have to balance this cost with :
1. the opening of Canada's GWN to agriculture and (normal) human life,
2. the opening of the Arctic seaway, and
3. the massive immigration of climate refugees, many Europeans.

When this happens, the cost of water in Alberta will become insignificant.

BTW, what is true in the West is not true elsewhere. I live in NB. Climate scientists predict that, as Canada is warming up, the rain that will not fall on the prairies will fall on the East. Eastern Canada will become wetter and cooler. Where's the catastrophe?

James Bow said...

Of course we are having an impact. Think of this: we are pulling billions of tonnes of plant material that had been out of the active environment for hundreds of millions of years, we are making use of this material mostly once, and we are sending the byproducts into the atmosphere.

If you move your car into a garage stand inside while you leave it running, you will kill yourself. The Earth is similarly a closed system. It is ludicrous to suggest that human activities over the past century haven't had an impact on the climate. We have reversed in one hundred years a process that took millions of years to establish.

Anonymous said...

Idealist, I found the document I alluded to in my last comment. It is called "Canada Country Study: A Window on Climate Change in Canada". Here it is, paid by your taxes:

Very short summary:

Coastal areas: flooded by 30 cm increase in sea level by 2050.

West coast: more snowy winters, dryer summers, more fish.

Arctic: rapid melting of permafrost & change in vegetation, more water in rivers, longer shipping season.

Prairies: hotter, drier in South, longer growing season in North. Less wetlands for birds.

Ontario: shorter winters, hotter summers, less water in Great Lakes & hydro dams.

Quebec: shorter winters, less water in St-Lawrence seaway & hydro dams, positive effects on agriculture.

Atlantic: cooler, less fish.

My conclusion: sure, there will be change, but at a slow pace. Its cost will not be much higher than maintenance cost. Overall, unlike other countries, Canada is poised to benefit from global warming.

My positions:

.Warming skeptics are idiots.

.Kyoto is designed for theft and corruption.

.Canadians are lucky.

Anonymous said...

Interesting study Manny. But saying Canada will mostly benefit from global warming is a little too much optimistic in my opinion. Canada is not a closed system. Instability elsewhere in the world, and particularly in the United States, will affect us, both in good and bad ways. It'll probably be difficult to keep full sovereignty over our natural ressources if the pressure becomes strong enough. (And it can be argued if we still have control over that since NAFTA.) That said, we should prepare for it: global warming cannot be avoided at this point.

The hole in ozone layer over Antartica is bigger than ever this year, despite the ban on CFCs almost 10 years ago. In ten years a complete ban has only slowed down the problem. How many more years until it is stabilized? or until ozone returns to normal levels? Probably a couple more decades.

If that's any indication of what we are facing with global warming, the consequences outlined in the study are probably unavoidable. The real question is "what beyond that?" Global warming isn't going to stop in 50 years unless we start doing something serious now. And I think everyone agrees that Kyoto isn't enough to stop global warming, it will only slow it down a little. (Global warming began well before 1990, but Kyoto only aims at returning to the carbon emission levels of 1990.)

So we need new technologies, but not only that. We need pressure at the right place to help develop and implement these new technologies rapidly. And that's economic pressure; that's the aim of the Kyoto protocol. The more we delay the implementation of these technologies, the longer it will take before the warming begin to slow down.

Sure the Kyoto protocol isn't perfect, and I'm pretty sure some parts of this carbon market are completely wrong (tree plantations to compensate for gaz emissions for instance), but at least it gives us an environmental trade system. Given some time, the rules of these trades and the value of environmental measures should, and will, be revised and improved upon. But we have to start somewhere.

I note that the study you're showing us date from 1997. No doubt we know more 9 years later.

KevinG said...


I see [stops to count on his finger] ... exactly zero responses to your challenge.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, what's up with that? Andrew came close, but backed off when I asked him to back things up. It was a good discussion, but not at all the one I was hoping to have.

Anonymous said...

There was a news report on French tv the other night that was giving stats on environmental problems. The only one that stuck in my brain was about water - the severity of water pollution in France was down by something like 20%, but the amout of bodies of water that were contaminated was up by the same amount. Basically, the pollution that is out there isn't as concentrated, but it's still all out there. There are less and less places touched by pollution.

That likely doesn't help with anything, or maybe it might solidify a point in someone's brain, and they can write a thorough response.

I don't know what people who are waiting for conclusive proof of human induced climate change are waiting for. Conversely, I don't know what has convinced me, as a believer that human induced climate change is real and can be stopped if we only put our minds to it, to believe in that so strongly.

I think the only possible reasoning that might convince people is the final stage of extreme climate change, that would be complete desertification of the planet. Global warming is a bad term because you will be hit with people telling you that while, for instance, our summers are getting hotter, our winters are getting colder, so doesn't that all even out? Manny, above (who I see you have strategically ignored) is a good example of such reasoning. But the thing that should be worrying in such descriptions of climate change are the extremes. Nature doesn't balance like a chequebook with money in an money out (hmm, does anyone even use chequebooks anymore?), and while it might be great for your tan and better for your skiing that summers and winters are getting more extreme, in the long run it's not going to be good for, say, oh I don't know, biological survival on the planet. You know when you buy a plant at the store and you forget to water it for a few days and it starts to wilt, so you think, oopsies, I'll just fix that right up and you try to stick it under the tap at full force? Ok, I admit I just did that (again) and, though I try and try and try, I know that it will never work. A small scale desertification has set in in the soil of the (near dead) plant, and no matter if I immerse it in water (done and done), the soil is too dry and any water runs off it like a rock. So back to extreme weather... drier, hotter summers will do (eventually) the same thing to the earth, and no matter how much water might fall on it (likely in big clumps because of disrupted water cycles), it's not going to absorb it. No soil, no crops. No crops, no food. No food... well, it doesn't exactly take a genius.

But this is all just pseudo-scientific knowledge and speculation, coupled with common sense and experience and I don't know how to back it up. I've seen rain in Russia in January and snow in Calgary in May. Maybe doubters just need to get out more? Maybe they actually need to have to try to grow their own food instead of believeing it grows in the freezer section of the supermarket. Oh, and before you try to come at me with Manny's 'more fish' thing, polluted water is not the best for fish to thrive in... I would have to go back and look at my biology notes as to why, and I don't have those here, sorry. Not that it's good for humans to be eating poisoned food, either, because the higher up the food chain pollutants go, the more concentrated they get, so that you get massive amounts of phosphates or heavy metals or CFCs hibernating in your fatty tissues, which you can't get rid of no matter how much exercise you do, and voila cancer (this is also why sciency types speculate breast cancer rates have increased, because what are lovely breasts if not just deposits of fatty tissue? ok, a quick search reveals that is NOT the case - breasts are not all fatty tissue, they're not even MOSTLY fatty tissue, but I will make the bold conjecture that you can't have breasts without SOME fatty tissue - and fatty tissue, as I should have stated above, doesn't actually get the cancer itself, but, I will assume, and yes, only 'assume' allows surrounding tissue to develop cancer... I'd really better stop here because this is becoming very speculative). I think I'll go have a talk with my sciency med friends and get back to you...

And now I think I've rambled enough for a bit. And I apologise for not actually answering your question, either.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I ignored Manny because he was off-topic. That's fine--I'm not going to go all totalitarian on you guys and start deleting comments for being off-topic--but I was too busy girding my loins in case anyone actually responded to the challenge.

No one did, though. A little disappointing, really.

Dulcie said...

Here's something fun: How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic. Could be useful. :D