"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

John Holdren On the Climate "Skeptics"

John P. Holdren, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard and the director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, summarizes effectively in an op-ed that appears in the International Herald Tribune.
First, they have not come up with any plausible alternative culprit for the disruption of global climate that is being observed, for example, a culprit other than the greenhouse-gas buildups in the atmosphere that have been measured and tied beyond doubt to human activities. (The argument that variations in the sun's output might be responsible fails a number of elementary scientific tests.)

Second, having not succeeded in finding an alternative, they haven't even tried to do what would be logically necessary if they had one, which is to explain how it can be that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong.


The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.
It's an effective short opinion piece. But for copyright I'd paste the whole thing. There's more here; nothing surprising but very well put.

Update: In comments to this article, Richard Reiss sent along another excellent article by David Sington about the skeptics. An excellent point that I had about given up trying to make, made very well:
In fact, only three factors determine the planet's energy balance: the sun's output, the Earth's reflectivity, or albedo, and the thermal properties of the atmosphere, which are affected by the level of certain trace gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor. Reduced to its essentials, the greenhouse effect is a problem in 19th-century classical physics, and the basic theory was worked out with pencil and paper in the 1890s. To say that increasing CO2 levels leads to more heat trapped in the atmosphere is really no more scientifically controversial than saying you'll feel warmer if you put on a sweater.

The difficulty arises when you try to work out what this extra heat energy will do. Will it lead to increased rainfall, or more cloud, or higher winds? It will raise temperatures, but by how much? This is where the complex computer models and the (legitimate) scientific arguments come in—accompanied by the occasional science filmmaker!

Update: See also the follow-up at Dot Earth.



Dano said...

The only thing I'd add is an insistence that Holdren put it as Republican "skeptics", and to mention that such "skeptics" will NEVER be convinced.



bernie said...

That doesn't help.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

The only thing I would argue with is "early action". The time for early action was 30 years ago (or 20 for the more conservative amongst us). We are way past the time for "early action".

David B. Benson said...

Secoond what Rattus Norvegicus said.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the tip to the Holdren piece, which should be glued to gas pumps and included with electric bills.
After reading some exasperating posts on DotEarth I relayed it there.


Richard Reiss

Unknown said...

btw, another interesting take on skepticism:


Michael Tobis said...

Thank you Richard. An excellent link.

bernie said...

Sington's article is nicely done. I particularly appreciate "The difficulty arises when you try to work out what this extra heat energy will do. Will it lead to increased rainfall, or more cloud, or higher winds? It will raise temperatures, but by how much? This is where the complex computer models and the (legitimate) scientific arguments come in..." This is a major source of the differences between skeptics and non-skeptics.
I think his distinction about the US and Europe is roughly correct, though I think it boils down to psychological predispositions of optimism and pessimism, abundance and scarcity.
A fourth source of skepticism in my mind and one that he alludes to is trust in those who hold the opposite point of view. Many skeptics immediately question any position taken by those who have a strong and visible agenda where that position supports that pre-existing agenda. This is why the best way to reduce opposition to massive changes in the way we use and produce energy is to persuade existing energy producers. If you chose bi's strategy of focusing simply on the politicians you will reinforce the skepticism of your opposition. The reactions to Hansen's ill-chosen comments about energy executives is illustrative of this point.

Bloefeld said...

Interesting, so because Holdren says that a poll of scientists says that climate change is caused by human activity, that is to be held as the same as a scientific 'proof?'

There is no doubt in my mind that climate change is happening, and it is obvious that a big part of it is a result of making big carbon molecules into smaller ones, it is less than obvious about can and should be done about it.

Reality is; there has never in the entire history of human-kind been a better time to live on the planet. How is that all bad?

The issue that is most clear to me though, is that all of the alternative energy proposals are not as carbon neutral as their proponents claim.

One rarely hears about the consequences of, as an example; less intensive farming on a global scale. Is that because it will result in the death of perhaps billions of humans as a result of starvation?

This is bad science, and Holden isn't as much a scientist as he is a politician. An argument that is based on the belief that sceptics are Republicans and therefore stupid isn't much of an argument.



Michael Tobis said...

Collapses are like that; there was never a better time to live on Easter Island than a generation before the disaster there. There will never be a better time to eat fish than, oh, about ten years ago.

Also, "reduced intensity farming" is not an energy proposal, whatever it is. If you have something to say around here, please say it with some precision. And when you criticize someone else, please try to understand what they are saying.

Holdren spoke approvingly of McCain's understanding of the situation, and he might also have spoken of Gingrich. I am sure he didn't say Republican therefore stupid.

Most of the people who are betting on the non-science horse at this point are Republicans at this point. They should try to separate their ideology from their science.

While I prefer people writing in to be insightful and smart, I will put up with clever.

If you want to play yell-at-the-liberals at a high school level, there are a thousand teenage geek sites where you can put your two cents in, piss off and be pissed off, just how you like it. I'm, more interested in making some progress.

In short, I'll quote Bernie. That doesn't help.

N Gibson said...

Now that he's the presidents scientific advisor, I'm interested in seeing what he's actually going to do about this. I have my ways to watch his actions in the media and I will be doing as such. I don't really know who to believe as I do not have the proper tools to do any tests myself. The only thing we have as far as political science goes is our beliefs... unless they actually show us all of their work, and how they performed these tests they talk about.

Anonymous said...

As soemone who has been obliged to look into this subject for the last two years as part of a UK organisation I have found the 'skeptics' more persuasive than the the 'global warmers'. The evidence appears slim and the theory is based on questionable mathematics. I have also found that supporters are rather intolerant and dismissive of skeptics whereas the latter are quieter and willing to study the 'warming' theories and question them in detail.

Michael Tobis said...

The demeanor problem described above is real, but its origins are in frustration at obtuseness and anger at outright intellectual dishonesty.

The sensitivity is in the neighborhood of 3 C per doubling. There isn't actually any substantial room for doubt on that score. People still wailing about it are simply wrong. How they manage to look right and what can be done about it is the central organizing theme of this blog.

Anonymous said...

As a skeptic, I am not convinced by Holdren's strawman arguments.

Firstly, he says that skeptics have to provide an alternative culprit for climate change - why is this? If my doctor tells me I have a serious illness, requiring drastic treatment, I can question the diagnosis and find problems with the evidence (or lack of evidence) without having to make a definitive diagnosis myself. There are some things we simply don't know!

Secondly, skeptics don't think that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong - they think that the climatic effects increasing CO2 are exaggerated.

Holdren won't be persuading anyone with this article.

Michael Tobis said...

No, we have a coherent theory for what sets the
temperature of the surface of a planet. You don't.
It's not the diagnosis at issue, it's the whole edifice of human knowledge.

You must come up with a theory as to how and why the greenhouse effect would fail to be operative in the present case even to outweigh the marginal evidence of fifteen years ago. After fifteen years of everything falling pretty much into line with a 3 C sensitivity, you need a pretty compelling story to explain how we could possibly be as deeply wrong as we would need to be on several independent lines of investigation.

Regarding your analogy, suppose you came to the doctor with symptoms, say a severe cough and shortness of breath. The doctor said the symptoms were consistent with a certain toxin, say tobacco, and advised you to quit. You find this inconvenient.

Accordingly you argue 1) a particular study regarding tobacco had some particular flaw, as did a second one 2) some thirty year old "research" published by tobacco companies showed that the effects of tobacco are overstated and on the whole it is good for you 3) it's possible that your cough has some other cause and accordingly 4) you are going to go to a homeopath instead.

Of course, in your analogy it's only yourself you are hurting.

As for what "skeptics think", you are presenting an impression that there is a coherent body of belief. Perhaps you believe in such a thing, but you are incorrect; there is, in fact, no such thing. That is the point. There is only a pose, not a defensible position.

Convincing the "skeptics" is not the issue anymore.

Convincing the public to ignore the denial camp is the issue. It is much too late to be constantly refighting battles that have already been won.

I don't care that much what you believe; you may be a victim or a sociopath. In either case I regret it but I no longer have time to waste in a futile effort trying to convince you that you are wrong. I care that others understand the pretension behind your illogical polemics.

gn0sis said...

You people are sick. You are all so brainwashed that you are almost biologically invested in this pathetic group think. Holdren is the man who advocated forced sterilization via additives in food and drinking water, forced abortions, stealing children of single mothers to have them raised by "suitable" foster parents and the list of horrors goes on. What you mindless sheep don't realise is that HE ISN'T JUST TALKING ABOUT DISTANT BROWN PEOPLE IN 3RD WORLD COUNTRIES, HE IS TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE. Meanwhile, you you stupid yuppies thinking you are part of the elite rub your hands together and advocate depopulation. You are all stuck on the Hegallian Dialectic merry go round, destination HELL.

Hank Roberts said...

I'd rate that as contentious and boring.

Michael Tobis said...

I thought it went over the line into self-parody.