Crumb Trail
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Thursday, September 11, 2003

Ted Wong at Ramifications stumbles a bit trying to understand Hack the Spew. He accuses those who point out how little we know about any of the complex systems involved in our biosphere of using rhetorical tricks. I think that was aimed at me at least in part. But, it's not rhetoric and it's not a trick, we just don't know very much. Ted may not be aware of this though since he says "which most general readers don't understand in its [climate change] full complexity." Apparently he is under the impression that someone does understand climate change in its full complexity. If so then they have done a remarkably good job of keeping it a secret from everyone but Ted. I think we'd all like a chance to talk to this person.

Ted discloses some of his secret information and claims that:

we do know what's happening to the earth's climate. After decades of research there is overwhelming scientific consensus (a) that the world is growing warmer, (b) that the accelerating conversion of fossil fuels into carbon dioxide is a major cause, and (c) that enormous changes in the earth's energy balance, hydrologic cycles, climate, and ecosystem function must result.

I think that every part of this is false.

  • We do not know what's happening to the earth's climate. We have some theories based on sparse data but don't know much at all.
  • We do not know that the accelerating conversion of fossil fuels into carbon dioxide is a major cause. We suspect that increases in GHGs are the result of human activity, there's strong correlation, but we don't know which activities are to blame or to what extent.
  • We do not know that enormous changes in the earth's energy balance, hydrologic cycles, climate, and ecosystem function must result. We know so little about any of these systems that it's humbling.

    Ted's inflated opinion of human knowledge (or secret information) also leads him to believe that "carbon dioxide enrichment ... [is] a countervailing factor that has been part of the climate-change calculations since the very beginning." Unfortunately, it's a very immature field of study still. Several times a year new research is published with surprising new discoveries, not all of it in agreement. Usually this indicates lack of understanding of fundamental processes. We can't know the future but it seems more sensible to assume that this will continue than that we have already mastered the subject.

    Perhaps Ted's confusion is encapsulated in this remark:

    but he [back40] doesn't acknowledge that the complexity he invokes has been grappled with by thousands of scientists spending many millions of federal-grant dollars and has been built into the existing scientific consenses.

    Actually, I did note the volume of information and the army of grapplers...

    Though it would take a library of books to document what we know and an army of scholars to comprehend it all the most important fact of them all is that we only have the vaguest glimmerings of the entities and their relationships in this complex planetary system of complex systems.

    ...but have a more realistic and intellectually honest evaluation of the state of the art. It is very low. This isn't a criticism of the researchers. It's early days and we will know more in future.

    The significance of this is for policy. When we know very little and have very little confidence in our projections it is bad policy, bad governance, to set ambitious goals with high costs. It's what some call the 'home-run mentality', overreach inspired by wishful thinking. Governance is better when we stick to the knitting, when we have high hopes for good works but take frequent but smaller and surer steps.

    In the original post I said this and still think it's sound.

    It's silly to think that we know what the result of global acts will be. But that is not license to do as we wish with no thought for consequences. Spewing various smokes and stinks into the air is never something we should do when avoidable. Plowing up the land, spewing into rivers and setting off nuclear explosions should also be avoided. They are destructive acts done in bad taste. They fail aesthetic, ethical and biological constraint tests in ways we can immediately perceive whether they perturb major systems such as climate or not. We can't stop spewing wastes or digging the land, not yet, but we shouldn't do such things more than necessary to live and we should seek methods to reduce spew.

    Update: Ted's Excellent Friend

    Ted has added a few quibbles and snarks at Ramifications and revealed that his secret friend is a model.

    posted by back40 | 9/11/2003 11:15:00 PM


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