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Weekend reflections …

December 9th, 2007

… is late again.

Comment on any topic of interest, and feel free to make posts a little longer than ordinary blog comments. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language .

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  1. Ikonoclast
    December 9th, 2007 at 11:05 | #1

    The Climate Change debate is now won by the weight of empirical evidence. The IPCC report is conclusive. The intellectual and diplomatic battle to beat global warming now has to be won, hopefully, in the political economy arena. Then we have to take real actions. We have lost thirty crucial years and the need for action is now critical.

    I can’t leave the Climate Change debate itself without some parting shots at the climate change deniers. It is instructive to look at how they misunderstood and misrepresented the science. Some did so quite wilfully. Leaving aside the issue of funding by the fossil fuel lobby in some cases, the intellectual dishonesty of the climate change deniers is revealed by their rhetorical tricks.

    It is not too difficult to uncover the various fallacies they use. These are generally of a semantic, logical or definitional nature. Not only do facts need to be marshalled in debate but also we need to be aware of the rhetorical tricks of opponents of our search for objective truth.

    I was intrigued not so long ago to come across some climate change denial videos on YouTube. They were presented by Professor X. I won’t name him. His arguments initially left me flummoxed. I am an informed layperson on the issue but certainly no climate scientist. Was it possible I was wrong? Was it possible that the current world scientific consensus was wrong?

    Prof X had a forthright though somewhat smug delivery style. The graphs he presented seemed to support his position as he poured derision on the notion of global warming. I left my PC, made a cup of coffee and sat on my veranda looking out at the trees. I felt there was something wrong with his arguments but I needed to put my finger on it. I knew the basics of the climate change argument but thought that without doing a lot more research I could not debunk his presentation.

    I thought again and then the first point hit me. Right up front Prof X says the CO2 debate is “not about pollution�. He states categorically that “CO2 is not a pollutant� and it’s “not like sulphur dioxide�. He makes absolutely no qualifications. I am sure this is a common claim by the climate change deniers. The phrase “not a pollutant� is clear but what does it mean to say CO2 is “not like sulphur dioxide�? It could just mean that CO2 is not a pollutant like SO2 is a pollutant. Yet SO2 is a gas of some toxicity. If the extra phrase adds to the meaning of the first phrase it can only mean in total, “CO2 is not a pollutant and it is not a toxin.� One has to be on the alert for such rhetorical suggestion even though a lawyer would probably get him off the technical “charge� that he said CO2 was not a toxin.

    The unqualified claim that CO2 is not a pollutant needs some examination. We need to get some things clear in our mind and these are the definitions for “waste�, “pollutant� and “toxin�. Prof X seems to be conflating these concepts and denying by direct statement and suggestion that CO2 can ever be a waste, pollutant or toxin. If we take this argument to its logical extreme, then we must accept that CO2 is harmless in all concentrations in all situations. I mean other than by the obvious danger of suffocation caused by its displacing oxygen. Prof X seems to be suggesting this kind of harmlessness for CO2. Now, it’s very handy for some people to believe that CO2 is not a waste product or a pollutant or a toxin in any circumstances and to convince others of this fallacy. It means they then have carte blanche to emit as much as CO2 as they like from exhausts and smoke stacks.

    The American Heritage Science Dictionary contains the following definition for pollutant.
    ‘Pollutant – A substance or condition that contaminates air, water, or soil. Pollutants can be artificial substances, such as pesticides and PCBs, or naturally occurring substances, such as oil or carbon dioxide, that occur in harmful concentrations in a given environment. Heat transmitted to natural waterways through warm-water discharge from power plants and uncontained radioactivity from nuclear wastes are also considered pollutants.’

    What are the relevant facts about CO2? At levels above 5% (50,000 ppm) concentration, which might occur in a confined space under certain industrial conditions, CO2 is directly toxic to humans due to acidosis of the blood and other physiological effects. Down to 1% concentration we may see negative effects due to a reduction in the relative amount of oxygen absorbed rather than a direct toxicity effect from CO2. At much lower levels in the open atmosphere, as exemplified by the anthropogenic rise in atmospheric CO2 from 250 ppm (pre-industrial) to 350 ppm (today) we can already see clear evidence of it causing harmful global warming. This highlights that CO2 most definitely can be a pollutant and a toxin.

    Wastes are the “useless remains or by-products of a process�. This is a standard definition. By this definition, CO2 is a by-product of combustion for energy production so it is a waste product. Waste products may or may not prove to be pollutants and pollutants then may or may not prove to be directly toxic or indirectly damaging. It depends on concentrations and other factors. We see from this formulation that “waste�, “pollutant� and “toxin� are quite separate concepts though there are relationships between them. Each requires a precise definition for use in scientific discussion. To conflate these concepts wilfully or carelessly or to ignore their definitional differences is a clear warning sign that says “More Fallacies Ahead�. I am surprised a professor would be so sloppy.

    Prof X was very insistent that the current warming be seen in the context of the long run geologic climate record. It is true that things should be seen in context. However, it is also true that location in context is critical. Prof X ignores the issue of “location in context�. By making his context too broad he in many ways actually “de-contextualised� our current position. I am referring to a graph he used which purported to show that warmings were rare (and were “climate optimums�) and that for most its history the earth had been glacial. I had some doubts about this graph but did not initially research it. I simply kept in mind that how you draw a graph can distort the data the graph is showing. If for example you boldly put a “boundary line� just below the few highest blips and then colour the high blips red and the large slabs beneath in blue then you can (a) hide the possible arbitrary nature of the boundary line and (b) convey an emotional impression by red (for warmth) and blue (for cold).
    There is a definite emotional response in seeing all that dangerous glacial blue hanging below the boundary line like icicles and sheets of rime and above the line just a few tiny blips of safe warm red. This emotional response in the audience can be heightened by the speaker’s urgent delivery style and suggestions. I could feel my emotional response until my intellect kicked in to moderate it. The emotional response was “Oh my goodness, the main danger to us is of the earth freezing on us again. Holy mackerel! Let’s keep burning lots of coal to keep the earth warm.� See, that’s exactly what he wanted you to feel. LOL.

    I thought well let me assume that the graph is factually true even though it may not be. If it is true, do all the past glacial periods mean our main danger currently is of the climate getting glacial again and not of the climate getting hotter? Strictly speaking we can’t determine that without more data than the graph gives us. Also, is the distant frozen geologic past contextually significant when civilization arose just 10,000 years ago and when today’s civilization faces a possible danger of excess warming in the next hundred years? Which danger is more contextually significant?

    A rough analogy would be to think of two Neolithic hunters in a “hot-cold� predicament. Let us assume they know (because they migrated south) that to the far north glaciers are slowly stretching south across the continent. Right now there is a forest fire just south of them and the fire front is moving rapidly towards them. Soon they will be engulfed. Do they run south to avoid the danger of cold? Or do they run north to avoid the danger of being burnt? I think we have our answer. Context is important but position in context is crucial.

    As an aside, even little kids playing word games know that precise location in a broad context is crucial. “I’m in the middle of the ocean.� “Bad!� “But I’m in a boat!� “Good!�

    To conclude, Prof X presents a sort of syllogistic argument which can be summed up as follows;

    1. The full climate record shows vast tracts of glacial periods.
    2. Human cannot live or cannot live optimally in glacial periods.
    3. Therefore the warm periods are all good and you can’t have too much warmth.

    Points one and two might be fine but point three still cannot be logically derived from them. Maybe my wording of point three sounds a little sarcastic but it is what Prof X is saying if you render it colloquially.

    Moral of the story? Beware of dodgy logic and dodgy rhetoric as well as dodgy science.

  2. observa
    December 9th, 2007 at 12:24 | #2

    “The intellectual and diplomatic battle to beat global warming now has to be won, hopefully, in the political economy arena. Then we have to take real actions. We have lost thirty crucial years and the need for action is now critical.”

    Well Ikonoclast, some are beginning to take real actions, or perhaps I should say real positions
    http://sg.news.yahoo.com/rtrs/20071207/tbs-bali-carbon-7318940.html
    whereas having lost thirty crucial years (or perhaps only 11 and a half years) Rudd and Co will be waiting for Ross Garnaut’s valued input next August before deciding to adopt any real targets. I’m not sure where that leaves them on the scale of skeptics/denialists, but let’s just say they’re not exactly your evangelist, crusading types.

  3. December 9th, 2007 at 13:19 | #3

    quite right, observa, i’m hoping to see radical action, and i buy lottery tickets, too. about equal bets, probably.

    still, it’s better to be sliding slowly into the abyss than running blindly towards it. gives more time for the fairy godmother to put down her knitting and intervene, which is by far our best hope.

    and that’s just global warming. then there’s population, resource exhaustion, and the wars and extinction of liberty likely to follow from them. well, already following from them.

    sry, kiddies, not my fault. i told them repeatedly the sky was falling, they just laughed.

  4. Hermit
    December 9th, 2007 at 15:03 | #4

    The academic sounds like geologist Ian Plimer who doesn’t appreciate that large numbers of us are now too wussy to adapt like Neanderthals. Come to think of it they’re extinct. If I understand correctly ice ages may recur in long cycles unless we permanently overheat like Venus. Another recent conundrum is predicted effective depletion of all fossil fuels including coal within two generations. Then what?

    Unfortunately the new cabinet is showing all the signs of having their strings pulled by Big Coal. I guess we have to give them more time but I’m not confident they will get it right early on.

  5. Persse
    December 9th, 2007 at 20:31 | #5

    Personally I wouldn’t bother engaging the denialist community. The mindset is not open to being shifted, and a result of the internet denialist tropes circulate from one to another in the form of factoids that can never be asphyxiated. If I hear about the mediaeval warm period one more time….

    Which is not to say that I can’t appreciate and respect skepticism. I just think that it has to as equally rigorous in being applied, as any new conjecture or proposition.

    Turning to what I see as the central problem of the issue as it stands today, and that is getting a broad consensus understanding in the community of the consequences of GW.

    People say to me. Oh yes, but nature will adapt, and will it be so bad growing pineapples in Wangaratta.

    Few people don’t seem to grasp that it is the rate of change that is the biggest problem. You might as well say that life will adapt to being shot.

    And that is the problem. While science is getting better everyday at describing GW as a phenomenon, accurate predictions of the future are still tenuous and debatable.

    On the one hand I would agree that the Rudd government is wise to seek detail about the consequences before acting, on the other it leaves me deeply uneasy that the urgency is such that we may not have that luxury.

  6. Ikonoclast
    December 9th, 2007 at 21:56 | #6

    “The (denialist) mindset is not open to being shifted, and a result of the internet denialist tropes circulate from one to another in the form of factoids that can never be asphyxiated.”

    I like that sentence, a damn fine sentence! :)

    Now if you don’t mind I’ll go look up “tropes”. It’s one those words the meaning of which keeps sliding away from my doddering old mind.

  7. observa
    December 9th, 2007 at 22:27 | #7

    Perhaps we should finish the weekend with an amazing good news story that was initially broken on the KG and Cornsey 5AA sports show with an interview with one of the rescuers. The printed version doesn’t do the rescue justice and it could have been a QUADRUPLE tragedy, but for the little 3 yr old with the big boys that trotted off to the parents to raise the initial alarm http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,22893210-2682,00.html?from=public_rss

  8. P
    December 9th, 2007 at 23:05 | #8

    As written above, denialists seem impervious to logic and disregard the potential impact of global warming:
    * if it is whether it is happening: Yes/No
    * what are its causes: anthropogenic or not
    * what will be the result of global warming: severe economic disruption, extinction of species …
    * can we do anything to mitigate the impact: …

    A common denialist response puzzles me – if it is not anthropogenic then it is OK and we don’t have to do anything.

    To me the results of global warming whatever its causes requires a response to mitigate its impact.

  9. O6
    December 10th, 2007 at 09:00 | #9

    Thanks observa. Restores one’s faith a little.

  10. David Allen
    December 10th, 2007 at 09:08 | #10

    I’m sure denialists on the Titanic were spinning the line,as the lifeboats were being launched, that the in-rushing water was ok because water is not a pollutant.

  11. gordon
    December 10th, 2007 at 09:51 | #11

    Prof. Garnaut might be excused for some unprofessional language over the Christmas break, brought on by critiques of the Stern Review methodology by a couple of US economists, W.Nordhaus and M.Weitzman (acknowledgement to Prof. DeLong’s website).

    I haven’t found the Weitzman paper, but the Nordhaus paper concludes (.pdf):

    “…[the Stern Review] depends decisively on the assumption of a near-zero time discount rate
    combined with a specific utility function. The Review’s unambiguous
    conclusions about the need for extreme immediate action will not survive the
    substitution of assumptions that are more consistent with today’s marketplace
    real interest rates and savings rates. Hence, the central questions about globalwarming
    policy – how much, how fast, and how costly – remain open. The
    Review informs but does not answer these fundamental questions”
    .

    It’s a bit technical, but it seems that the implication is that Garnaut won’t be able to take the Stern Review as accepted, but will have to do some theoretical work to defend it against Nordhaus and (I suppose) Weitzman. And just when it was looking like an easy contract, too. *&#!%&#!!!!

    But perhaps Prof. Garnaut could just note that the current Maya Great Cycle ends on 23 Dec. 2012, at which time the world will be consumed in a fiery apocalypse. Coincidence? Who knows?

  12. gordon
    December 10th, 2007 at 11:02 | #12

    Ikonoclast, if Prof. X is an American the emphasis on whether or not CO2 is a pollutant could refer to US environmental law, eg. the cap and trade arrangements for controlling SO2. This in turn reflects a main aim of denialists – to prevent action by Governments. If CO2 comes to be thought of as a pollutant, there would be obvious US precedents for Govt. action.

  13. John Greenfield
    December 10th, 2007 at 11:22 | #13

    The most dangerous force on the planet today are those preposterous Luvvies who think we can cool the planet by changing our light-bulbs and giving prizes to Al Gore!

    It is the crime of the century.

  14. Jill Rush
    December 10th, 2007 at 20:35 | #14

    Thanks Observa,
    The story sums up a lot about the Aussie character. Three men who were strangers went to the rescue of people who couldn’t speak the language but needed every bit of help that could be found. That those strangers rose to the challenge is one of the reasons it is so great to live in this country.

  15. alan
    December 11th, 2007 at 06:14 | #15

    John Greenfield is correct, as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go far enough.

    Plants need carbon dioxide. Millions of the world’s people live in climate zones that are unnecessarily cold. We have the capacity and the right to improve the world for our comfort and to increase its productivity. Relying on global climate enhancement as a side-effect of economic growth is too slow. We should be deliberately torching forests.

  16. observa
    December 11th, 2007 at 07:34 | #16

    Yes Jill if you want to hear the story it’s on podcast here
    http://www.fiveaa.com.au/podcast/index.aspx
    on this spot-
    “FIVEaa Sports Show with KG and Cornesy 05.12.07
    MICHAEL VOSS – Triple Premiership Capt on his role with the AFL – AIS academy – LLEYTON HEWITT- on coming back from injury, and new business venture – DAVE KELLY – Redbacks Selector saves children in freak accident”
    It’s about 3/5 the way along the progress bar, just after the Leyton Hewitt interview. It was actually the fourth five yr old that raised the alarm but he might have had some help from above according to Dave Kelly.

  17. gordon
    December 14th, 2007 at 08:10 | #17

    Further to my comment above on the Garnaut contract, the Prof. may now be able to benefit from Arrow’s defence of Stern – but I doubt whether he will be able to just dismiss Nordhaus and Weitzman, even with Stern on his side.

  18. gordon
    December 14th, 2007 at 08:11 | #18

    Sorry, should have been “…Arrow on his side.”

  19. jquiggin
    December 14th, 2007 at 09:53 | #19

    Gordon, you’ve misinterpreted Weitzman. He certainly has technical disagreements with Stern, but he comes to much the same position in the end, if anything a stronger one.

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