April 1, 2017

Dear Rural South, Can We Talk?

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 2:41 pm

Dear rural South, can we please talk?  I don’t mean “I want to lecture you.”  I do mean “talk.”  Because, despite the fact that I’m frustrated with you and occasionally have very dark thoughts about you (I won’t deny it), the situation still grieves me.

You see, I used to be one of you.  Very recently, in fact.  I spent my early childhood in what is now a busy suburb of Memphis, TN, but at the time was a small town with plenty of outdoor spaces.  I remember climbing a grassy hill and picking wildflowers, then returning to my own backyard where there was a small grove of trees on one side.  My family moved, and I grew up several miles from a community that was not even incorporated.  I lived on 10 acres of former pasture land and played with my sisters along a creek bank.

I went to the Gulf Coast for vacations almost annually.  I wept when a hurricane devastated it, and I ground my teeth and cussed the perpetrators when an oil rig explosion defiled it.  I had many a sleepless night when a tornado outbreak killed over 300 people in the South here, in the United States, in the 21st century.

Jimmy Buffett makes me hum along.  Marshall Ramsey makes me laugh.  John Grisham provides guilty reading entertainment.  I know about all the SEC college football rivalries.  My degrees are from one of those colleges, in fact.

For those to whom this is very important, my ancestors were all settled somewhere in the South by the early 19th century, and some much earlier.  I have a couple of Revolutionary War veteran ancestors.  I have Confederate veteran ancestors, too.

My point is, you should not consider me an outsider, “the Other,” the type of person to be despised and scapegoated as the source of the economic and personal problems in your life—and yet, I know many of you do.

You see, I’m also a Ph. D. atmospheric scientist (a “so-called, self-proclaimed climate scientist,” in the words of Rep. Lamar Smith—words that I am not entirely sure he understands, given that scientists are “proclaimed” by our degree-granting institutions after years of study), an ex-staffer for former Secretary of State Kerry (from his time as a Senator), and, now, a “liberal government elite in the swamp of Washington, DC.”

It’s true that my political views are moderate-liberal.  However, why must this mean that we can’t talk?  Why does it have to make me evil in your eyes?  It wasn’t always this way.  As ugly as politics might have been as a profession, as vile as the conduct of professionals sometimes was, regular people used to be able to agree to disagree about politics.  It was just another thing to have friendly disagreements about, not a deal-breaker for any sort of amicable relationship.  You could think your best friend was wrong, but not think they were literally destroying your community.  You could have spirited arguments about FDR and Huey Long, but at the end of the day, you would shake the hand, slap the back, or offer the last swig of beer to your quirky liberal friend before heading home for the evening.  You didn’t think that your friend was out to destroy your way of life or personally ruin you economically.

What happened?

Do you really choose Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Steve Bannon—who do not know you and likely never will—over the people you grew up with?  If this is about “elites” who “don’t understand your way of life,” do you really choose them over the person who does share that same background and life experience?  Do you really choose the millionaire media personalities over your middle-class old schoolmate (or relative) who lives somewhere else now?  That’s your prerogative, but if you do choose them with eyes open, please be honest about why you are doing so.  It’s not because your friend is a “coastal elite” or suddenly no longer understands the culture of rural America.  It’s because of political ideology.

Now, while I would respect that degree of honesty, I can’t say it wouldn’t make me sad anyway.  So may I say a bit more first?

I don’t understand why you have a problem with my educational and career choice.  Yes, I accept the validity of anthropogenic climate change.  I’m in the 97% of my own profession, because I’ve examined the data myself.  Yes, I think that something should be done, policy-wise, to mitigate the effects, both as-yet still avoidable (by reducing emissions) and unavoidable (by community resilience against climate and weather extremes).

I don’t want you to be directly, personally hurt economically in any of those policy decisions, however.  Truly, I don’t.

And in fact, I’ve run up against some progressives on this very subject.  I bet you didn’t know that!  I don’t support any consumer carbon taxes unless they are demonstrably non-regressive.  I don’t support instituting them unless an existing tax that everyone (or almost everyone) pays is reduced correspondingly.  I support local and state control of matters such as vehicle emissions and home efficiency mandates, and when they create a hardship (for instance, when a family cannot afford to replace a polluting car or better insulate a leaky home), I don’t think that the state should apply punitive measures.  On the whole, when it comes to individual household responsibility in carbon reduction, I favor “carrot” measures rather than “stick” ones.

The reason I break with the most “activist” of environmentalists is because I grew up in the rural South.  I get it.  I’m on your side.  I am also on the side of the Earth, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

I think the market has the capacity to innovate its way out of this crisis, too.  Clean power is burgeoning, and vehicles are more efficient by the year.  It won’t be too many years before substantial parts of the country are majority electric car, and this is not because “government is killing fossil fuels” or “regulating the auto industry to death.”  Government has provided a push, yes, to make the innovation happen faster than it otherwise might have—believe it or not, the free market can stagnate too, especially sectors where entry is incredibly expensive and a small number of very large companies dominate—but after that, the market took off on its own.  I believe this will continue to happen.  In fact, personal solar is much more competitive and small-business-driven than traditional utilities.  It’s why a coalition of environmental groups and Tea Party groups allied in Florida to defeat a ballot measure last November that would’ve crippled personal solar in the state.

Yes, that happened.  See?  We’re not all your enemies.

And I have to say, I really don’t get why you would hate me for being a scientist.  We’re not as different as you might think.  In fact, in some ways my philosophy of the world is more similar to yours than it is to that of your “ivory-tower academic progressives.”  I am an empiricist.  I reject postmodernism, the usual philosophy of that set, because I think it is incorrect (i.e., I don’t think the universe works that way), nihilistic at the core, and on a more selfish level, it completely opposes scientific thinking.  I don’t think there is “my truth” or “your truth,” just truth.  (Sorry, Obi-Wan Kenobi, but that whole “ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader”?  That’s not true.  They’re the same person.  You lied.  Luke was correct.)  In the view of a scientific empiricist, things are either true or not.  There is objective reality separate from our senses and our brains.  It doesn’t matter what race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion the person presenting a datum is; that piece of data is either correct or it isn’t.

You probably see the world in the same way, just through a fundamentalist or evangelical religion.  That’s your philosophical framework.  Things are either true or false, right or wrong.  Since I’m a scientific empiricist (though I am not an atheist, actually), I do think that the scientific method is the proper way to learn about morally neutral objective facts of the world rather than a religious text.  I’ll be honest (this piece is an exercise in full honesty); I think you’re incorrect about many things you say regarding the operation of the natural world.  I also think you’re incorrect about some human issues that society has instilled with a moral dimension but that do have a connection to the natural world (such as sexual orientation, which is biological and immutable).  I don’t think your views on all “social issues” are wrong, though.  I agree with you about monogamy, two-parent homes, and opposition to unserious relationships or hookups, and it is because of empirical scientific data.  But my overall point is, although we differ on the details, we really don’t see the world that differently philosophically speaking.  We have worldviews that hold to the existence of objective, immutable truths.  In that regard, we have much more in common than either of us has with postmodernists.

So, back to the first question I asked.  Why do you think I am “the Other” who doesn’t understand you, lives in an elite bubble, is indifferent to your lives at best and possibly outright hostile?

We have different points of view about politics.  I have an advanced degree in a scientific field.  I happen to live in an East Coast metropolitan area right now and make a middle-class living.

That doesn’t mean I don’t understand you.  It certainly doesn’t mean I hate you and wish you harm.  To the contrary, I care deeply about you, because I grew up with you.  Why do you think I would want the land where I grew up, and where most of my family lives, to shrivel up and die?  It upset me when tornadoes plowed through it, when a hurricane flooded it, when an oil spill contaminated it.  Why do you think I would shrug indifferently if the economy of your town or your state gets caught in a death spiral and you lose hope?  If you struggle through life paycheck-to-meager-paycheck at menial jobs?  Accept public aid with embarrassment and shame, because you have to take “charity” to feed your child?  Maybe die at 50 of opioid overdose?

I get it if you don’t consider me “one of you” anymore.  Arguably, I’m not.  I don’t want to pretend to be something I am not.  However, I do know you.  Your region is, metaphorically speaking, in my blood.  I may not be “one of you” in the true sense, but “you” are part of me.  How could you think I would wish you ill or not care?

You can hate me and hold me in contempt because we have political disagreements, if you wish.  You can consider Donald Trump your friend and consider the middle-class former schoolmate with the Southern accent in DC to be your adversary if you so choose.  But if you decide that, I ask that you recognize and acknowledge the reason:  political differences.

I don’t wish ill on you.  I don’t shrug indifferently when I read about the decline of rural America.  I don’t think that if a community is mostly white, then it automatically follows that it is mostly racist.  I don’t think that the despair that many of you are feeling is caused by depression from “loss of privilege,” but rather, from real trauma in the spheres of finance, career, and family.  When I read about this kind of situation, I don’t spout off platitudes like “they could just move” or “just go to college,” because I understand these things cost a lot of money and that matters.  I don’t call you bigoted for not knowing the latest “intersectional” term to avoid “microaggressing” someone; I probably don’t know it either, because I don’t take a lot of interest in thought-policing.  I don’t think you’re wrong to believe that there are things in this world that are true and things that are not true.  I may disagree about what is or is not true, but human history is about searching for those answers, and I, like you, believe that they can be found, and they can be found regardless of who you are.

I’m not your enemy, and I hope that someday you can see that.

June 7, 2016

The Conduct of the House Science Committee Chair Should Horrify Climate Scientists

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:25 pm

It should be apparent that I’m an independent thinker and that, as a scientist, I stick up for the interests of scientists when they are being shamed and harassed by political leaders and activists.  That is why I called out progressive groups that are uninvolved in (and, I suspect, uninformed of) the extreme difficulties of acquiring funding for research and conferences when they attacked the American Geophysical Union for accepting a small amount of ExxonMobil money to help pay for its annual conference.  There undoubtedly are instances for which ExxonMobil, and others in the fossil fuel industry, can be attacked—for actually influencing research in an improper fashion—but that is not one of them.

That said, I also have mixed feelings about the large legal case that involves ExxonMobil potentially defrauding its investors and the public about climate change, because it also involves atmospheric scientists at certain institutions who are climate skeptics and have apparently been funded by the fossil fuel industry.  In the first place, as a scientist, there’s a part of me that is troubled by the thought of the legal system being involved in matters of scientific misconduct rather than the scientific peer process.  I realize that this case involves much more than that, and that ExxonMobil is the party actually in the hot seat, but this is a visceral “do not like” moment nonetheless.

I also don’t like the implication that any scientific researcher who takes money from certain industry sources is automatically suspect.  I was funded by the fossil fuel industry.  While working on my Master’s degree, I did a side project that was funded by money from BP in the Gulf oil spill aftermath.  The purpose was to determine the atmospheric impact, if any, of the oil spill along the coastal wetlands.  I was unable to find an effect.  I suspect now that the reason for this is that the dataset we had available was grossly insufficient for the purpose, and that we simply didn’t have enough money to set up a new, high-resolution network of sensors along the wetland areas.  Detecting atmospheric boundary layer changes in a small area is virtually impossible without a high-resolution sensor network, not that I knew that as a beginning Master’s student.  The work was “put in the file drawer.”  Is it possible that BP knew that we wouldn’t be able to find anything without that superior sensor network that we didn’t have?  I suppose it is, in retrospect.  However, if such a thing is the case, that does not implicate me or any other person working on the project.  I had no correspondence from anyone in BP and no pressure from anybody to find a negative result.  It is possible for someone to have funding from a “suspect” source and come up with negative outcomes and yet for no research fraud whatsoever to have taken place.

If I hadn’t had the BP money, I wouldn’t have been able to get my Master’s degree—or begin a doctorate.  (Although it didn’t fund any part of my doctoral research, without an existing degree, I wouldn’t have been eligible for the Ph. D. program.)  This is the part that, I think, many political activists don’t get.  Funding is hard to come by and we take it where it is to be found.  The overwhelming majority of atmospheric scientists do not allow their funding source to hurt their integrity.

So this is why I have misgivings about political figures questioning scientists about scientific research outcomes that they don’t care for, even when the scientists being questioned are diametrically opposed to me on an important research and policy issue.  I’m not going to comment on the substance of this court case, because I trust that the court can handle it, but if I didn’t have a visceral concern about a court case that involves climate-skeptic atmospheric scientists, I would have to consider myself the worst sort of hypocrite to object to what is being done to non-skeptic climate scientists by the Republican majority of the House Subcommittee on Science.

And that is the actual topic of this piece.

Atmospheric scientists who are not aware of what is going on should be, because it is chilling and could very easily involve them at some point.  There aren’t that many places that will employ atmospheric scientists to work in their actual field of study, but NOAA is one of them.  And the Chairman of the House Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), has been doing nothing short of libeling the agency, threatening its employees, and impugning the scientific integrity of every climate scientist who works for it.  That is not an exaggeration.

Last year, Smith sent threatening letters to NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan.  He has also gone to right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and claimed that NOAA climatologists tampered with temperature data, presumably at Dr. Sullivan’s behest, to advance the Obama administration’s, quote, “extreme climate agenda” (his words).  Scientists have all sorts of valid reasons to revise early data, especially from sources such as satellites.  Satellite data calibration is literally an entire sub-field of meteorology, not that Smith understands or cares to understand that.  Needless to say, this despicable assertion places him in the category of climate skeptic that I can have no respect for whatever:  those who think that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to commit research fraud.  Like most making this baseless, slanderous assertion, Smith seems to either have no concept of the gravity of his accusation (proven research fraud is a career-ender in science), or he simply doesn’t care.

I suspect it’s the latter.  Extreme climate-change deniers actually do want to put every scientist who disagrees with them out of a job and destroy them personally.  It’s gotten to that point.

Smith has also seen fit to insert himself into the aforementioned court case involving ExxonMobil, which is a state-level matter and over which the House has no jurisdiction.  He has demanded communications from state attorneys general that consulted with environmental and climate-realist nonprofit organizations (as if it’s somehow unusual or corrupt for political figures to talk to nonprofits), as well as from employees at the nonprofits themselves.  He has demanded communication from climate scientists.  For two years he has been conducting his own little version of the Benghazi Committee’s unending witch-hunt, but instead of it being about an event in which a United States ambassador was killed, he has been abusing his position to harass climate scientists—most of whom have had no involvement whatever in policymaking (not that that is an indicator of lack of integrity)—who produced research that has a conclusion he and some of his Committee majority don’t care for.

Think about that.  A Member of Congress who heads up a committee has been summoning scientists to testify and provide him with e-mail correspondence, simply because his committee oversees NOAA and he doesn’t like the conclusions that researchers within NOAA have been finding.  He apparently believes that his role includes making sure that NOAA produces data that the current Congressional majority likes.

If that doesn’t horrify you, it should.  And he is not the only politician to conduct himself like this and abuse his authority.  The former Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, did the same thing to climatologists at the University of Virginia while he was in office.

It’s pretty apparent why climate-change deniers don’t talk about the sun anymore, and don’t usually talk much about nebulous and undefined “natural cycles,” but instead accuse climatologists of producing fraudulent data to further a political agenda.  The thought process, such as it is, seems to go like this:

  1. Scientists receive salary and/or research funding from the government.
  2. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, which is in the executive branch.
  3. The President accepts the science of climate change and has promoted emissions reduction and clean energy throughout his term of office.
  4. Therefore, all climate science conducted by governmental agencies must be done expressly and exclusively to promote the President’s policy agenda.
    1. Corollary: Therefore, the only reason the scientists could possibly have to revise early data must be political pressure.

Obviously, the fallacy is in drawing a link between a source of funding and the outcome of a scientific research project (or, for that matter, its purpose).  This is why I don’t like it when activists from any side go after scientists’ integrity because of who pays their expenses.  If it seems that I go after my own side harder than I do my opponents, that is because I am more disappointed when my own side engages in shaming, and also because I know that people who already think my field is fraudulent aren’t going to listen to anything I say in defense of it.  Those who are indeed defending scientists from people like Lamar Smith might be willing to hear a scientist’s perspective.

Not all scientists are going to have the stomach for jumping into the maelstrom of politics.  I get that.  I get that viscerally.  It’s actually been a source of—not alienation, exactly, but something close to it, between me and many fellow doctoral students in my department.  They’re pure researchers who don’t want anything to do with politics or policy, while I am not.  But there is another class of scientists out there, scientists who do have an interest in the policy implications of their work, but who think that somehow it undermines their integrity as scientists—or that it presents a conflict of interest—to jump into the fray.

It doesn’t.  An opinion is not a conflict of interest (or if it is, then everyone has one), and an actual conflict of interest does not mean fraud.  Climate scientists who do want to have a say in this sort of thing need to stand up and be heard.  Their 3% of colleagues who are climate-change skeptics may largely be polite and respectful (or passive-aggressive, at worst—and scientists of all stripes have refined that into a fine art).  They may propose some combination of natural climatic cycles that partially account for one source of temperature data, while not really attempting to challenge the enormous mass of data supporting anthropogenic climate change.  But their adversaries in politics are not going to play nice.

They are going to disgrace the dignity of their offices by going to racist conspiracy-theorist media outlets, and baselessly accuse entire governmental agencies—and every scientist in them—of making up data, the very worst thing one could say about a scientist in the professional sphere.

They are going to demand private correspondence from government scientists for open-ended witch-hunts.

They are going to inject themselves into legal cases over which they have no jurisdiction and demand private correspondence from attorneys general and nonprofit organizations.

They are going to call scientists up to Congress and harass them for hours about their research findings.

And sitting back and hoping that they won’t touch you because you’re a pure researcher, not involved in policy, no “conflict of interest”—so very good—won’t stop them from doing it.  It just tells them you won’t fight back.

September 8, 2015

Decoupling Climate Science Acceptance from Political Beliefs

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 6:30 pm

As readers of this blog are very aware, the radicalization of American politics is one of my personal pet issues.  Social scientists and other observers have studied it in greater detail by far than I have, and their findings bear out my own anecdotal observations.  Increasingly, self-identified conservatives and progressives do not only hold diametrical political opinions, but they also identify with diametrically opposite non-political positions and make opposite lifestyle choices because they believe that is what good conservatives/progressives ought to do.  The rural/conservative-urban/liberal association is only becoming stronger, for instance, and part of that is that there is increasing migration to communities for political reasons.  This particular phenomenon is, I think, creating myopia on both sides about how to deal with large-scale problems, because what works for one type of community might not do at all for another.  More on this later.

It goes deeper.  Rigid conservatives and rigid progressives enjoy different types of entertainment:  The progressives want to feel “global” and “multicultural” and so they partake of foreign art films; the conservatives want to feel “patriotic” and seek out military-themed movies; neither side wants to watch what the other side likes.  They make certain dietary choices based on what “their people” are “supposed” to eat.  They engage in different hobbies.  And they do it on purpose, for reasons of political identity, rather than because of natural preferences.  It’s “the personal is political” taken to the nth degree.  If that sounds like cliques and social interaction in junior high (“cool kids don’t like X; they like Y”), well, that’s because it pretty much is the same thing.  It’s incredibly toxic, and it has expanded to many other aspects of life.  What I’m going to discuss here in depth, however, are climate science acceptance/denial and opinions on climate change mitigation policies.

I’m an atmospheric scientist.  I have written on many occasions about how it feels like a personal attack for someone to deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place, because in almost every instance now, the claim is not that something else is causing climate change, but that climatologists are engaging in mass data forgery.  Accusing a scientist of research fraud is character defamation of a very serious degree.  Those few (but loud) skeptical climatologists also like to beat the drum of “advocacy” every time one of their non-skeptical colleagues expresses a political opinion about what should be done.  This is a less overt, non-explicit insinuation of misconduct, because it is empirically irrelevant if a scientist holds a given opinion about their research as long as the methodology of that research is sound.

The skeptics’ shift in recent years from proposing alternate testable hypotheses (the sun’s causing it all, interactions of atmospheric-oceanic teleconnection patterns are doing it, etc.) to accusing 97% of climatologists of research fraud is, I think, yet another manifestation of ideological polarization.  No longer is it okay on the hard right to accept that the climate could be changing, even if one doesn’t accept that we are causing the greatest part of it.  And it is certainly not okay to accept that we are changing it.

Why is that?  I think that for many people, unfortunately, it’s just an emotional reaction to side with their “team” in any circumstances.  But for some, probably especially those who are the most articulate and influential on their side, I think there’s something else going on.  After all, if we accept that the climate is changing, then at a bare minimum that calls for community resilience measures.  If we accept that we are doing it, that calls for us to cut back on what we’re doing.  Hardening and mitigation call for the government to regulate private-sector activity.  The concepts are linked and can’t be taken apart.  Right?

Actually… wrong.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.

It is absolutely possible to believe that the climate is changing due to human activity and also to hold the political opinion that we shouldn’t regulate anything relating to that change.  “Freely choose to adapt or die” is a position I have seen at least one very politically conservative meteorologist advocate.  This is not my own position, of course, but it is one I can at least respect, because it accepts empirical scientific data.  This scientist correctly recognizes that he can hold his chosen political ideology without believing that his colleagues in climatology are engaged in mass scientific misconduct.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.  That does not just go for general policy prescriptions, or (in the above example) the political opinion regarding whether anything at all should be done as a matter of regulation.  It also goes for specific policy prescriptions.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on the purchase of animal products (food or otherwise).

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on home energy consumption.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive emissions penalties for cars.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating “smart fuel pumps” that read one’s odometer, check it against a database, and assess a tax based on miles traveled.

There is a reason I have mentioned those four policy ideas, by the way.  It is because I am an atmospheric scientist who accepts anthropogenic climate change and I am against every single one of them.  A couple of them I’m against in any circumstance, and the other two, I’m against as one-size-fits-all national policies.  I generally do not favor using the heavy hand of government on private individuals in this situation, for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s not politically pragmatic.  It is arguably counterproductive, in fact.  People respond much better to the carrot than to the stick, and I do support measures such as tax credits for making the choice to get a green car or to upgrade one’s home.

Second, it is large-scale industrial operations that have a greater effect on the global carbon dioxide balance, and private citizens do not often have much say-so in broad corporate policy.  Not even through their buying choices, at least when we are talking about the power sector or the automobile industry, which are almost impossible for new competitors to enter that are not already very well-funded (and even then face difficulties, such as the determination of some states to lock out Tesla Motors from selling to people because they do not use a dealership model, but sell directly to drivers).

Third, consumers often have limited choices, especially for big expenditures.  Not everyone can afford a new, highly efficient car.  Prior to the new standards requiring 35 mpg, not that many cars even were highly efficient, let alone affordable ones.  Not everyone can afford a home renovation to become greener.  Not everyone has access to public transportation or carpooling options, and not everyone can afford to move closer to work.

And finally, the fourth reason I’m against the broad application of this sort of regulation is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that is utterly inappropriate in some situations.  For instance, on the subject of personal energy consumption, it is not even safe to forego heating or cooling in some regions during winter or summer.  A limited-AC-usage efficiency prescription that isn’t that onerous for San Francisco would be a major public safety hazard in Atlanta in the summer.  (Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the US.)  The same thing is true for car usage:  If a municipality wants to have strict emissions standards for privately owned vehicles, that is defensible when reliable public transportation is available in the area and perhaps they want to discourage driving when other options exist.  It is potentially quite onerous in areas where your options are generally to drive to work or not work at all.  And even in those cities where it is defensible, it makes sense to offer exemptions in cases where people cannot afford new vehicles or vehicle modifications.  We were able to implement mandatory health insurance coverage without imposing a harsh burden on people who can’t afford it, after all.  Even in large cities with good public transit, there are some situations when people need to use a car instead.  Public transit may take you to work, but it generally can’t take you everywhere you need to go unless you happen to live in a place like New York City.

Sustainability must be fine-tuned to localities, in fact, because areas will have different needs.  In fairness to right-wingers who complain that “liberals” always think in terms of how things are in “liberal cities” (San Francisco, Portland, New York, etc.), I’ll even grant that some of these suggestions, when considered for the entire country, do appear that way, since they work so poorly outside of such areas.  But this cuts both ways.  For instance, I will argue down anyone who is against any emissions testing at all in large cities.  I have been in East Coast cities where, even leaving aside carbon dioxide emissions, particle matter and ozone can create truly oppressive—and hazardous—health conditions.  I have felt my chest constricting on “code orange” ozone days.  I’ve coughed up blood on high particle matter days.  If your own experience is limited to medium-sized towns and suburban communities where this does not happen, then you too should remember that other types of environments have different needs, and your community’s situation shouldn’t be the blueprint for policies everywhere any more than the communities that your political adversaries often live in.

I know that it may be difficult for people accustomed to thinking in terms of “us versus them” politics to consider that “mixing it up” is even possible, but it is.  It is possible to accept climate change science without supporting the entire hard-left policy package… or even any of it.  It is possible to think that some things should be done without believing that they should all be done exactly the same way everywhere.  From my own admittedly biased perspective, I think it’s not just possible, but preferable to think that.  This us-versus-them, with-us-or-against-us, no-gray-area form of politicking benefits nobody, not even those who do it, except in the very cynical way of perpetuating their own existence by always having an “enemy” with whom common cause is impossible.  It certainly doesn’t achieve anything concrete for the issues themselves.

July 21, 2014

Types of Climate-Change Skepticism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:03 pm

As a meteorologist, I’ve obviously got some thoughts about anthropogenic climate change.  Let’s get those out of the way first, so that it’s clear exactly where I am coming from.  (Also, there is an increasing trend, with political polarization, for people to simply name-call in “response” to a viewpoint with which they disagree.  To the point of view of a typical grassroots activist conservative/tea party type, anyone who disagrees with that ideology in any point whatsoever is a “lib” or some such.  To the viewpoint of a typical grassroots activist progressive, anyone who disagrees with anything in that ideology is a “bagger.”  With us or against us, ally or enemy, no nuance.  It is pathetic and utterly contemptible.  But I digress.)  I do not question the science of anthropogenic climate change.  I take extreme offense to one particular form of skepticism of this hypothesis, in fact… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I accept the science, but I have issues with some of the usual prescriptions for addressing it.  I don’t think that it is even viable to demand that everyone give up their cars, stop eating meat, reduce a first-world standard of living to a less advanced one, and move to “sustainable” urban box apartments, let alone that it would be a horrendous overreach to make such demands.  Keep out of my garage and thermostat!  Furthermore, at this point, even if the developed world dropped emissions to 0, climate change would still continue because of the gas that is already in the atmosphere.  It takes a very long time for it to filter out.  I think the real solution to the problem is a combination of geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and improvement of technologies to limit emissions (without sacrificing quality of life).  Technology caused this problem and I think technology is going to have to solve it.  And in the meantime, we need to have very sound research on what local and regional impacts are to be expected so that areas can prepare and shore themselves up.

Anyway, that’s the viewpoint I’m coming from.  It’s not an exceedingly common one.   There is strong resistance to geoengineering in the environmental community, for some reason.  Maybe one of these days I will go after the hardline activist left, who are largely deeply opposed to geoengineering, for their belief that control-freak government intervention into people’s private lives will even fix anything (climatologists say it won’t anymore), but that’s not the subject of this post.  This post is about the other side of the coin:  the climate-change skeptics.  It is, let us say, a taxonomy of the types of skepticism currently out there, from least anti-scientific to most.

“It’s the sun” and other alternative, but disproven, hypotheses about the cause

You don’t see too many of these people anymore, but they were abundant a number of years ago.  They did not dispute the data indicating that warming was taking place, nor that carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was on the rise, nor—in many cases—that weather events were becoming more extreme as a result of the changes.  They just disputed the primary hypothesis about the root cause, namely, man.  Instead they offered other suggestions, the most common one being the idea that the sun was increasing its radiation output.  The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was proposed as an effect of warming rather than the cause (which is scientifically plausible).

The solar hypothesis was scientific.  It was clear, defined, and testable—other effects, such as warming of all layers of the atmosphere, would have been observed, and the radiative output of the sun can itself be measured quite minutely—and therefore scientifically respectable.  Adherents of the anthropogenic hypothesis owe these types of skeptics gratitude for proposing it, in fact, because it was an idea that needed to be either validated or disproven before the anthropogenic hypothesis could move forward.  It was a rational thing to suggest.

It was just incorrect, as we now know.  The sun’s radiative output isn’t on the rise, and all layers of the atmosphere are not warming.  The warming/cooling pattern of the entire atmosphere follows the prediction of the anthropogenic hypothesis instead.

I have focused on the solar hypothesis, but if some other scientific hypothesis were to come forward that might explain the data, what I have said would apply to it also.  I respect this type of skepticism, and so should every scientist.  It has a fine tradition in the history of science and serves a great purpose even when the skeptical alternate hypotheses turn out to be incorrect.

“It’s a natural cycle,” a pseudo-scientific excuse that sounds scientific to people who don’t know better

You might have noticed a stark difference in tone between that heading and the previous one.  There’s a reason for that.  The second group of climate-change skeptics are more respectable than the third (which I’ll get to) because they don’t deny the climatic data record, but the explanation that they propose for it is not scientifically legitimate.  “It is a natural cycle” is essentially a tautology to science, which is about the predictable—i.e., cyclical with the same circumstances—workings of nature.  Taken literally, it is an acknowledgment that the phenomenon belongs in the domain of natural science, which we already know!  With the context and connotation specific to climate change, this non-explanation amounts to little more than saying, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t believe it’s what they say it is.”

Natural cycles in meteorology and climatology obviously exist.  However, in order for a proposed cycle to be accepted in the scientific canon, actual details about it—with supporting observational evidence—must be provided.  Otherwise it is not testable, not defined, and simply not a scientific hypothesis.  It is an excuse for saying “I don’t know and I’ve got nothing.”

Any proposed explanation, or hypothesis, for a set of observed data should be testable.  That means an additional set of observations can be gathered that either confirms or refutes the hypothesis (within a statistical confidence interval).  Granted, within the past few decades, the rise of progressive ideology in academia has caused postmodernist relativistic philosophy to—I’ll say to contaminate discourse about science, because I, along with almost all scientists I know, remain firmly an old-school empiricist.  If the methodology is sound, there’s no relativistic “catch” about the data gathered.  Postmodernist philosophers of science can debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but we empiricists will consider the radius of the pinhead and the Planck length and give an exact number, in the meantime. 😉 In the domain of actual scientific experimentation, especially in the realms of natural science, empiricism still rules the roost.  This means that data rule the roost, and the claim “it’s a natural cycle” with no additional explanation of what the supposed “cycle” consists of is not something for which data can even be tested.  There is no specific claim made, so there is nothing to test.

The deniers and defamers:  “They’re all making up their observations to get grant money!”

This is the type of skepticism that I said I took extreme offense to, and I am not going to be charitable toward these people.  They are attacking the integrity of my entire discipline with no supporting evidence, and I do not owe any politeness to people who are calling my people a bunch of frauds.

It, unfortunately, seems to be on the upswing.  I suspect this is because of the political polarization that I mentioned in the very first paragraph.  The people saying this crap tend to be complete scientific illiterates, most commonly political talking heads/columnists and their legions of trained keyboard warriors.  They have a conspiracy theory mindset in which only their approved sources of “information” can be trusted and everything else is in on the conspiracy to undermine their ideology.  If the trusted people—the columnists and talking heads—say that climate scientists go to the Arctic and make up data because they love living high on the hog with their grant money, well, the keyboard ignorati will believe that without question and repeat it.

There was a scandal in the UK about climate scientists saying suspicious-sounding things in e-mails.  “Climategate,” as it was dubbed, was investigated thoroughly, and no scientific misconduct was found.  The infamous phrase “hide the decline” referred to minimizing the contamination of a climate data set by a poor source of historical data.  Why use poor data?  Well, because when it comes to any period before the Enlightenment in any area of the globe other than the West, there really aren’t human-recorded weather observations to speak of, and we use what we have in nature.  We know that some are better than others.  It is scientifically sound to discount less reliable observations in a data pool.

A character defamation suit by climatologist Michael Mann against a right-wing magazine and a writer for it is (to my knowledge) currently underway.  This rag apparently alleged that Mann falsified his data.  Again, there was a very early (late 1990s) Nature article with Mann as lead author that had some historical climate graphs of dubious statistical quality.  He has done work in the field since then, and in any case, a poor article in a borderline pop-sci magazine (as opposed to a journal of climatology, which would have higher standards) is certainly not the final word in climatology.  To hear these deniers say it, though, it is the underlying foundation of a house of cards that they clearly believe is anthropogenic climate change theory.

In sum, the skeptics who propose alternative, but scientifically testable, hypotheses about the data are respectable.  They are carrying on a long tradition of contributing to the scientific enterprise, and it really isn’t fair for ideological keyboard warriors on the other side of the aisle to bash them.  The skeptics who propose the excuse “theory” of some unspecified “natural cycle” are at least respectful of the data, but they are not operating within a true scientific framework, and they are probably further muddying the understanding of laypeople of just how the scientific profession works.  However, the skeptics who deserve no respect whatsoever, the ones who are actively undermining science by claiming that it is just part of a grand conspiracy to suppress their political ideology, are the ones who make unfounded accusations against the character of researchers.

I’ve said before that proven research fraud is a career-ender in science.  The ironic thing about these jerks is that their stream of offensive character defamation might actually make it harder for actual frauds to be rooted out in any area of science.  People have a tendency to protect their own “tribe” when they are under attack, and it is conceivable that the calls of “fraud” from people with a political agenda could harden even empirically minded scientists against the idea of appearing to cede anything to a pack of rabid dogs who are clearly not motivated by a desire for integrity within science.  Why give them fuel, one might reason.  Distrust of the first type of skeptics, the ones who are respectable, might be a casualty as well, and that would be unfortunate.  These are yet more possible outcomes of the vast and destructive reach of political polarization.  Not all climate skeptics are created equal, and it’s important to sort out the ones worth listening to from the ones who deserve the back of your hand.

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