Climate Change Denial–Can Data Help?

17 Aug

We are in the midst of one of the hottest and driest summers on record in 2012. I don’t know how this compares to 1988 or 1995, but half of the counties in the US are disaster areas.

We’ve been told that “weather is not climate,” particularly during the cold winter of 2010-11. But some climate scientists are now claiming that global warming is responsible for this summer’s extreme weather. They are not claiming a process of causality but of probability–global warming makes extreme weather events more likely. This strikes me as sensible. Individual weather events cannot be predicted, but trends can.

British investment manager Jeremy Grantham  is quite pessimistic about the future, and thinks that we’re in pretty big trouble. He concludes that “we now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.” Although most of his analysis focuses on peak resources, he also thinks that “extreme weather will be a feature of our collective future” because of global warming.

On the other hand, climate change deniers claim that the whole thing is a hoax, that climate scientists have engaged in a massive fraud to tamper with the raw data, to run flawed models, and to draw biased conclusions. The deniers claim that this is all a giant fraud to keep the sweet, sweet research dollars flowing or to turn everyone into childless vegetarian hybrid drivers.

I’m a firm believer in the scientific method and the peer review process, so I have a hard time seeing how this scale of fraud is possible.  But that’s where the debate is at.

So let me throw out some questions for consideration.

First, can providing the raw data (like the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project provides) elevate the debate? Or are deniers operating from a nonscientific zone of ideology that evidence and models can’t penetrate? Conversely, how much credence should we give to the deniers’ critiques of the evidence and models?

Second, the Bush administration had a “one percent doctrine.” Even a 1% probability that a country hostile to US interests was developing nuclear weapons was enough to justify an invasion. Shouldn’t deniers accept the same standard for climate change? The consequences of global climate change are much larger than a nuclear armed Saddam Hussein.

Most importantly, what kind of scientific literacy should a Citizen Futurist have?  We can’t all be climate experts or petroleum geologists, but what kind of working knowledge should we have?  Or phrased differently, how can we develop a good bullshit detector?

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