What Should We Do About Climate Change?
This week, there will be much talk of climate change and many images meant to remind us that we face certain hell if we don’t reduce CO2 emissions. As an environmentalist, independent thinker, and student of decision science, I am only too willing to support any program I think is based on sound evidence and a rational setting of priorities.
The earth is warming. But not much, not quickly, and not lately. While it seems as though we are caught on the horns of a dilemma, my goal in this short essay is to make the dilemma disappear, so we can focus on things that need our attention now. Decarbonization will not change the temperature or climate picture for our planet. Decarbonization benefits one group: those whose livelihoods depend on your belief in their story.
It’s not easy to figure these things out. We’re not scientists. Who has time to read all the papers and look at all the data? We rely on others, usually experts, to give us their opinions. If we trust them, we believe them. Often unwittingly, we tend to trust people who are similar to us. So we believe people who look and talk the way we do, and we align ourselves with people who have the same political beliefs we do.
You may, right now, be nodding your head in agreement. You may believe that global warming is a hoax, another Democratic attempt to control our lives. I’ll talk to you first: Did you also believe Gen. Colin Powell when he showed mock-vials of anthrax to the U.N. General Assembly and grainy aerial photos of “factories” where “weapons of mass destruction” were being made “right now”? Did you believe the Iraq War was worth fighting, on the principle of “zero tolerance,” just in case it might be true? Do you believe that gun ownership makes us safer, as individuals and as a nation? Do you believe Obamacare is a disaster that must be repealed?
If so, I submit that you are voting along party lines, not thinking each situation through clearly, taking other people’s word that global warming is a liberal cause. This is a form of reality distortion. If we had good data and sound arguments for decarbonizing, you would be on the wrong team preventing the good guys from saving the world.
Of course, we don’t have good data or sound arguments for decarbonizing our energy supply. But it sounds like we do. If you read Scientific American, Science, Nature, National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and you take them at face value, you would have to agree that there is a strong likelihood that serious climate change is real and that decarbonization or geo-engineering are our only hopes. If you watch TED talks or YouTube videos, you will find a lot of “evidence” and a majority of people who think global warming is real. If you talk with MIT climate scientists, they will tell you we should be prepared, just in case. Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale -- all the research coming out of these institutions shows that man-made global warming is a huge problem. That’s a lot of people. I have friends in the decision-science community who have spent some time on this, and they conclude (citing Scientific American and Science magazine articles) that global warming is real. These are very intelligent people. These are the people promoting a myth that has become deeply ingrained in our society.
So now let me address those who think global warming is a serious threat, then I’ll come back to critical thinking at the end.
Early this year, I knew the Paris talks were scheduled for the end of November. Because I’m an independent consultant, I decided to spend some of my time learning what I could about the situation, and I was surprised to learn that climate change is a rabbit hole that goes very, very deep.
There is a clear consensus that the earth is warming. No one argues with that. It’s been warming steadily since the last ice age (the so-called Little Ice Age that occurred 600 to 400 years ago). But it doesn’t look like the pace of temperature or sea level rise is accelerating, even though CO2 accumulation is accelerating. All the “evidence” in favor of global warming is anecdotal: correlation, rather than causation. People take this “evidence” and use it to support their desired ends. I haven’t found a single institution -- research, government, educational, or journalistic -- that is neutral on the topic. This, as Matt Ridley has rightly pointed out, has resulted in extreme corruption of science. Unfortunately, as I have written before, science is on increasingly shaky ground, with more and more influences corrupting the results.
Despite being attacked by friends and people I have never known, I decided to publish an essay called “What I Learned About Climate Change: The Science Is Not Settled.” Here are my 10 general conclusions:
- Weather is not climate. There are no studies showing a conclusive link between global warming and increased frequency or intensity of storms, droughts, floods, cold or heat waves.
- Natural variation in weather and climate is tremendous. Most of what people call “global warming” is natural, not man-made. The earth is warming, but not quickly, not much, and not lately.
- There is tremendous uncertainty as to how the climate really works. Climate models are not yet skillful; predictions are unresolved.
- New research shows fluctuations in energy from the sun correlate very strongly with changes in earth’s temperature, better than CO2 levels.
- CO2 has very little to do with it. CO2 continues its relentless rise, yet our planet hasn’t warmed in 18 years now. (Despite talk of 2015 as the “hottest year on record,” there has been no average global mean temperature increase since 1997.) All the decarbonization we can do isn’t going to change the climate much.
- There is no such thing as “carbon pollution.” Carbon dioxide is coming out of your nose right now; it is not a poisonous gas. CO2 concentrations in previous eras have been many times higher than they are today.
- Sea level will probably continue to rise — but not quickly, and not much. Researchers have found no link between CO2 and sea level.
- The Arctic experiences natural variation as well, with some years warmer earlier than others. Polar bear numbers are up, not down. That has more to do with hunting permits than CO2. Antarctic ice is growing, not shrinking.
- No one has demonstrated any unnatural damage to reef or marine systems. Additional man-made CO2 will not likely harm oceans, reef systems, or marine life. Fish are mostly threatened by people, who eat them. Reefs are more threatened by sunscreen than by CO2.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others are pursuing a political agenda and a PR campaign, not scientific inquiry. There’s a tremendous amount of trickery going on under the surface.
All of this I back up with scientific papers and meta-studies, showing five “smoking guns” that make it very difficult for rational people to maintain their belief in catastrophic man-made warming. You will see them as you read through the essay.
Is it clear to everyone who reads my essay that I am right and that the evidence does not support global warming? No. Many people have a difficult time incorporating new evidence into their existing mental models. Rather than seek to understand, they seek to make themselves right and others wrong. In the spirit of a true religious war, a group of global-warming enthusiasts wrote a long rebuttal piece to my original essay. They mostly resorted to name calling and trying to discredit me, rather than addressing the science. Fortunately, two people who liked my essay came to my rescue and wrote their own rebuttals to the rebuttal.
You can see how polarized this is. For 40 years now, crusaders like James Hansen and Al Gore have been using climate change as a way to rise to prominence, raise funds, and try to destroy “big oil,” all while living on the grid, surfing on their laptops, and crisscrossing the globe in private jets to spread their message. The “inconvenient truth” is that cherry-picking the facts doesn’t paint the whole picture, and the world is far more resilient and complex than Al Gore thinks.
I hope you won’t trust anything you hear related to the Paris climate talks. Sound bites and summaries will be manufactured to get results and raise money, not to explain what’s really going on. I would like to encourage you to become an independent thinker and take each issue as it comes, without falling for the party line. Here are the key takeaways:
Global warming is real. There very likely is some very small degree of warming attributable to manmade CO2. But we’re just as likely to end this century down six degrees as up eight degrees Fahrenheit, and the general skeptic consensus says that this century will look very much like the last -- up about one or two degrees. Nothing we won’t be able to handle. People sounding the alarm believe in models that have poor quality inputs and far too many interdependencies and uncertainties to be “skillful.”
Freak storms are going to cause a lot of damage. Natural variation suggests that we will see quite a few very extreme weather events this century, as we do every century, but this century will be different. The damage caused will be tens or hundreds of times more. Why? Because this century we’re building many more luxury sea-front communities and high-rises around the world, and we’re setting ourselves up for disasters that will undoubtedly reach into the tens of billions of dollars in damage. Without global warming.
Most of the doom and gloom stories are predictions based on wrong assumptions. For example, the number of climate refugees -- once estimated to be in the hundreds of millions -- will probably be closer to zero. NASA and NOAA are relentlessly “adjusting” their data to fit the political need for warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which seems like a serious task force, is instead a political mob with a very serious agenda -- to decarbonize the world’s energy at any cost.
All the decarbonization we can do won’t change the temperature much. Many institutions have estimated that the best we can do is reduce future global temperatures by maybe a degree, and even that’s a stretch. No matter what you believe about future temperatures, making a huge effort to remove CO2 is the wrong place to put your bets.
Geo-engineering only makes sense if you are a true believer. If you’re even a mild skeptic of the science, you don’t need to worry about how we’re going to rid the atmosphere of all that extra carbon. It’s a non-issue.
We have much bigger real problems to pay attention to. Just as people worry about Islamic jihadists rather than average Americans carrying guns, we tend to be driven by sensational stories and imagery, rather than statistics. We should be paying attention to serious problems that are killing millions of people and destroying the environment each year: pollution, indoor smoke, poor water, topsoil erosion, shrimp farming, ocean fishing, rainforest clear-cutting, and much more.
Alternative energy solutions should evolve naturally, without subsidies. Over time, the economics of solar power will make it beneficial for many people. We’re not there yet, however. From the research I’ve read, 99 percent of wind-energy projects benefit only the companies that build and install them. Alternatives should win for the right reasons; they shouldn’t be treated as artillery in a religious war.
We shouldn’t penalize developing nations who burn fossil fuels. Large nations should not bully smaller countries into agreeing to decarbonize. Developing nations need power. Getting more people into the middle class should be a high priority. Better to disincentivize burning down their forests to raise cattle to sell back to us.
Nuclear is the future power source. Molten-salt and other fourth-generation nuclear power sources are developing rapidly. Yes, there are issues, but they are getting more and more manageable. I hope that by the end of this century more than half the power in the world comes from nuclear fission. We must include nuclear in the mix, and serious environmentalists should embrace and promote nuclear power.
In conclusion, I have become an antidecarbonizationista -- someone who wants to save the environment and improve the lives of people without wasting money trying to prevent a catastrophic warming that isn’t going to happen. It’s sad that climate science and environmentalism have been steered so far off track by people who have a political agenda.
My hope is that people will take each issue separately and look for as much evidence as possible before judging. We’re wrong more often than we realize. It helps to stay flexible and change our views when we get new evidence that disproves our beliefs. This is called Bayesian Reasoning -- I have created a YouTube channel devoted to it. You can learn much more about it at Lesswrong.com. From politics to science to business and religion, we should all try to see the big picture and be aware of our own biases.