Obligatory post on climate change

The Institute of Physics is weighing in on the issue of climate change, so I thought I would take the opportunity to try to dumb things down as much as possible. The basic science behind climate change is well-understood:

  1. The mean temperature is increasing, with significant variation superposed from place to place and year to year.
  2. This is caused largely by the anthropogenic increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the very well-understood and uncontroversial physics of the carbon-dioxide molecule.
  3. Significant further increase would be societally bad for many people.
  4. Lowering our greenhouse-gas emissions can slow or halt the increasing temperatures.

At this coarse level, both the data and the theory underlying these conclusions are almost incontrovertible and ought to be uncontroversial, although each of these has been questioned by the politically-motivated or ignorant deniers sceptics. Significant questions remain at a more detailed level, of course: what is the precise correlation between greenhouse-gas emissions and temperature? How much of the increase is due to emissions, and how much to other effects (e.g., solar irradiance variations)? Most importantly, what will the temperature increase be in the future, for various amounts of future carbon emission. These are important details, but the main point — the earth is warming due to our activities — is settled.

(Scientific American has an excellent rebuttal of the main points raised by the so-called sceptics.)

What I’ve never quite understood is the politics of climate change. It is an observational fact that climate change deniers tend to be from the (mainstream and libertarian) right. I can certainly understand political differences regarding the solution to climate change — a true free-marketeer wouldn’t want a carbon tax or even a cap-and-trade system (although, of course, either of these attempt to estimate the true cost of future emissions, rather than their purely short-term economic benefit). But why do politics trace our opinion of the science? The only explanation for this I can come up with is the right’s longstanding association with big business — in particular the oil business — which, even today, retains a vested interest in denying the simple truth of climate change.

2 responses to “Obligatory post on climate change”

  1. Canada Guy avatar

    Yes, science is just about facts not ideology. It doesn’t make sense for the right to reject it. I would expect the left and right to argue over the best way to *solve* global warming, that’s reasonable. But for one side to deny it’s even happening is just crazy.

  2. Carter Brooks avatar

    Unfortunately, denial is a completely natural part of the unfolding of climate change. Just like any other great loss, climate change implies a loss of the world we thought we knew, the ecology we studies as kids, for example. All the emotions one goes through in any other loss, denial, anger, bargaining (“maybe 450ppm will be safe”), despair, etc. are going to happen. The level of denial is some indirect evidence that climate change is humanity’s big challenge.
    Why has it become a political question? Because it has such huge implications for civilization and civil society. It affects our food, our settlement, our health, etc. So naturally, since the issue is tied to so many consequences, it becomes a larger social issue, and eventually simply a social metaphor. Already, “global warming” is abstracted enough that when talking heads drop it into their conversation they could easily be saying any other abstract political issue.
    My own observation about the drive behind the hard core deniers is that they are having a different conversation. That is, their primary concern is about the threat of “world government.” At least that is what I observed once watching Michael Crichton speak. The biggest cheers were for “… and government will not control our lives.” To my mind, this is not much different than someone whose whole life is consumed by sports. It’s the conversation they are having, and everything gets filtered through that conversation.
    Of course, the general dumbing down of the population, and the general lack of critical thinking in our mainstream media irritate the problem. Collectively we could focus more on “carbon” than “temperature” and that might help, but in the end, I expect we’ll just have to live with it until Mother Nature makes it just too obvious. Oh, and also stand up a little more firmly for our priorities.
    As I said recently in a blog post:
    If you’ve got a hole in the boat, how much time do you have to waste with someone who is disrupting the discussion of what to do now, by someone who doesn’t believe the boat has a hole, or is listing …when you’re already having the conversation standing at an angle? (http://12daysofcopenhagen.com)