I have not been posting to this blog lately, and I am not sure why. Part of it is that I am taking to heart Nietzsche’s line:
And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
That is, much of the time my comments are critical attacks on things I notice day-to-day. As for the positive stuff, appreciations of literature and movies, etc, I dunno: who reads it anyway?
But I just have to set all this aside and comment on a story that has been featured in the NYTimes several times in the past few days, always with the picture shown above.
Environment: Climate Warming Confirmed
A new United Nations climate report — the fifth since 1988 — has concluded that the basic facts about global warming are beyond question: it is caused by human activity and if it continues it will lead to melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty in growing food, and dramatic changes in plant and animal life, including large numbers of extinctions. The new document is not final, but experts expect the essential findings will survive review.
It’s all in, science is settled, and the heat is on! The picture is clear…or is it? I suspect that that ominous plume is actually steam, that is, water vapor, and not smoke or other effluent filled with heat-trapping gas. Except that water vapor is, after all, the most efficient and common greenhouse gas that you never hear about.
The thing about this news snippet is that it is so great a distortion of what the IPCC 5th Assessment actually says (or will say, when it’s released). Aside from the fact that the report is not much different in its statement of alarm from the previous, fourth, report, it does not make the statement that is highlighted in bold. It does say that most of the warming that has been observed over the last fifty years has been caused by human activity. What is the significance of this, and what does the statement leave out?
- “Most” means more than half, 51% or more. Not all. Therefore, we can say that the warming has other causes as well. (It does not say that the human causes are all the result of burning fossil fuels either.)
- It speaks only of the warming that has been observed. (It does not mention that there is much controversy over precisely how much warming has actually been observed. Nor does it mention that the observed warming that is claimed by the IPCC is on the order of one degree C, and is, in itself, not alarming to anyone.)
- The statement does not note the fact that there has been no observed atmospheric warming for the last fifteen years or so, an observation that the IPCC accepts.
- The statement refers to dire consequences if the warming continues, but actually those consequences will come about only if certain extreme projections of the warming trend continue. The IPCC documents a wide variety of possible outcomes for the climate, even at current levels of fuel consumption.
- This statement implies a direct cause and effect relationship between conditions rife with uncertainty and projected conditions, when in fact, the confidence that scientists have in any single one of these projections is very limited.
Basically, the statement, as with all statements from the IPCC, is an interpretation of current scientific work – a policy statement based on negotiation, that reflects the dominant forces at work within the organization. (The IPCC is not and does not claim to be a scientific organization. It is a policy guidance group, a think-tank if you will, that reviews current scientific work.) There is no more reason to accept the conclusions of the IPCC regarding the future of the climate than there is to accept the pronouncements of the Brookings Institution (liberal) or the Cato Institute (conservative) on questions of social or economic policy. Those organizations both look a the data, or the parts they care to notice, and make their interpretation. The IPCC is no different.
Finally, must one point out that much of the world has “difficulty growing food” now, and that human settlement and land-use patterns over the last century or so have introduced dramatic changes to plant and animal life, including an increased rate of extinctions, without benefit of global warming? This is not a good thing, but how much worse will the anticipated warming make this situation? If it only makes it worse than we have made it already, might we not ask if it is the most important element in these problems?