That Precautionary Principle

October 10, 2018

football

Long ago, when it was still acceptable to voice doubts about computer projections of the climate apocalypse, people often answered critics who mentioned the uncertainty in the predictions by citing “The Precautionary Principle.”  This self-evident axiom of risk management means that if the consequences of a low-risk, uncertain event are so catastrophically awful, we are prudent to act as though the event will happen.  So, even if the predictions about climate change are not very certain, the impacts on us if they turn out to be true are so horrific, we might as well not argue, and just assume that they are correct.  Case closed.

When I first began to track the issues related to climate change more than twenty-five years ago, that was pretty much my point of view, but after a lot of thought, discussion, and experiences at conferences, I have modified my view to one of rather harsh skepticism.  I’m not going to discuss that process here:  I just want to dispose of this supposedly common sense precautionary principle (PP).

First, a little story:  My sister has an old friend that she has known for many years who suffered significant brain damage a long time ago when he fell and struck his head.  He is severely impaired these days, as though he had been the victim of a stroke.  He was quite robust and healthy when it happened; he just slipped on the ice one winter and banged his skull.  A fluke accident with terrible consequences.  Could happen to anyone, right?

Now, this sad event the befell my sister’s friend was forseeable.  After all, everyone knows that you can slip and fall on the ice, and many of us have done it, although with consequences that ranged more towards embarrassment than disability…but it could happen to us, even if we are not old and frail.  It happened to my sister’s friend!  The chances are not zero.  If you do research on it, you might find that they are not even considered trivial, so this is my question.  Given that the consequences of this accident, with a probability notably above zero, are so life-shattering, why don’t we all walk around wearing football helmets in the winter when there is ice on the ground?  It would seem to be a perfect and unassailable application of the precautionary principle.

The reason that we don’t wear helmets is that we all make our own calculations, knowingly or not, and assume that the risk is so vanishingly small that we need not worry about such a “fluke” happening to us.  We are totally unpersuaded by the logic of the PP.  Some people are so foolish as to never wear seat belts despite the much stronger statistical evidence in their favor.  We might think those people are nuts, but still not don the helmet in icy weather.

In the end, we are left with nothing but data, and our judgment about how powerful a case it makes for taking action.  The PP is simply a way of trying to shut down consideration of the data and the possible courses of action by asserting that only one alternative is possible and logical, but in practice, nobody reasons that way when they actually have to make a choice.


Soon, it will all be over..?

February 23, 2015

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Another day, another climate-science fracas!  This recent article in the NYTimes got me so irritated, I wrote a long letter to one of the authors.  The other author, Justin Gillis is so heavily invested in his role as “Scourge of the Deniers,” that I didn’t bother to include him in my correspondence.  Here’s my bit:

Dear Mr. Schwartz:

I read your recent article about Dr. “Willie” Soon, and I find it problematic on many levels.  It appears to me to be yet another example of the NYTimes’ editorial campaign to support, at any cost, their rather simplistic view of the scientific method and climate dynamics.  I want to focus, however, on one aspect of your article that is a recurrent theme in your paper’s reporting, the appeal to “The Consensus.” Reading this piece, and every other piece the Times publishes on climate change, I have to ask myself, “Do these people know what the consensus states?”
In your piece, you say that the Smithsonian has gone on record with a statement “accepting the scientific consensus on climate change,” and you are kind enough to provide a hyperlink to it.  The relevant bit of text from that document appears to be this:
Rapid and long-lasting climate change is a topic of growing concern as the world looks to the future. Scientists, engineers and planners are seeking to understand the impact of new climate patterns, working to prepare our cities against the perils of rising storms and anticipating threats to our food, water supplies and national security. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities. A pressing need exists for information that will improve our understanding of climate trends, determine the causes of the changes that are occurring and decrease the risks posed to humans and nature.

This paragraph is quite vague, and falls far short of the central statement of the IPCC in it’s statement for policy makers.  What can we glean from it?

  • Human society is concerned about climate change.  (They are also concerned about the weather… :-) )
  • Scientists (at least some) are worried, and are trying to think ahead.  They want to be ready for “rising storms” and “threats to our food supply”  (It speaks of threats and risks, not certainties.)
  • The earth is warming (or at least, it has warmed) as a result of industrial discharge of CO2.
  • More research is needed on the causes and the risks.
Not a very alarming statement, and one, I must add, with which I concur.  No mention about the actual controversy raging on the topic of climate science, the points of contention to which your colleague, Mr. Gillis may have been referring, in a previous piece on what to call deniers, as “the fine points,” to wit, just to cite a few:
  • Just how much has it warmed in the last sixty years due to CO2.  (The IPCC only says “most of the observed warming is due to human activity.”  Elsewhere, it speaks of multiple activities that are to blame.  Vague, vague…)
  • How much warming is due to deforestation and urbanization?
  • Why has the warming halted/paused/stopped  (whatever you want to call it) for seventeen years?
  • What conclusions must we draw if the warming does not resume, as predicted by the IPCC?
  • How reliable are the computer projections?
  • How is the IPCC “Best Guess” derived from the wide array of model ensemble output?  And why should we not place our confidence in those GCMs that have matched the global surface temperature anomaly for the last seventeen years?  The low-end of the projection range?
It is the nature of a consensus to be non-controversial, so yes, scientists all agree (never mind some right-wing congressmen) that the Earth has warmed, CO2 has caused some of it, humans have increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and if the IPCC predictions are correct, there will be some serious consequences.  This is not what the debate is about, but your article, your editorial board, and many deeply righteous organizations use the notion of The Consensus to quash any criticism of the ideas spun out beyond this agreed body of fact.
Let me say that I think decarbonizing society is a good idea for a lot of reasons, but doing the right thing for bad reasons, i.e. a belief that disaster is around the corner, leads to very bad policy decisions.  I see this all the time, including in my engineering work on, of all things, infrastructure resilience and climate change.
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It may be that Senator Inhofe is an anti-science, anti-intellectual, but even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day!lol   I’m sure he loves his mother and thinks murder is a bad idea, so there is no shame in agreeing with him now and then.  I shouldn’t have to say this, but such is the rabid politicization of this topic that I must say it:  I voted for Obama, Al Gore, and Clinton.  I don’t watch Fox news (or TV).  I know the Earth is round, and that Hitler murdered six million Jews, and I accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the best explanation for the development of life on earth that we have.  There, am I a rational person?

Mr. Soon may be guilty of breaking the rules on disclosure, and if so, he should be treated as any other offender would be. It is certainly no secret, however, that he has been funded by “fossil fuel” corporations.  Although I feel you must sup with such sponsor-devils using a long spoon, can you imagine a researcher with his views getting funding at any university these days?  And like politicians, sadly, professors are all in the fund raising game.

Your article does not deal with the ideas Mr. Soon champions except by innuendo that is rather disturbing.  No critics speak for the record, other than Gavin Schmidt, a warrior for the cause, who does not even say his ideas are wrong, only “almost pointless.”  He then provides a typically vague statement intended to close the argument, saying that  “the sun had probably accounted for no more than 10 percent of recent global warming and that greenhouse gases produced by human activity explained most of it.”  So, of the 90% not caused by the sun, Mr. Schmidt says “most” (there’s that IPCC diction) is caused by greenhouse gases.  (He doesn’t even exclude water vapor!)  To any unbiased observer, this would indicate three things:
  • We don’t have a very certain idea of what has driven the recent warming
  • The attacks on Mr. Soon’s ideas are dogmatic.
  • If Mr. Schmidt is speaking for The Consensus, they have a pretty weak case for alarm regarding CO2 discharge.
Your article includes the usual appeals to authority:  Mr. Soon has no training in “climatology”.  As if the sun is not important for climate!  And must I recall to you that James Hansen was trained as an astrophysicist.  Ms. Susan Oreskes gets in her usual licks to associate anyone who is not hysterical about global warming (or climate change) as a corporate stooge, if not a Holocaust Denier.  
 
I’ve been reading your paper’s articles on climate science for years now, and it’s a sad spectacle of dogmatic orthodoxy they present.  Recall what happened after the Times swallowed the Iraqi WMD lie without a peep.  What excuse will be offered if ten years from now the “pause” is still paused, and GCM modelers are pulling out their hair?  It could happen!  Are you certain it will not?