The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hot Solutions, Cool Reasoning

Exposing the Questionable Evidence Behind Global Warming Doesn’t Disprove Its Premise

Fans of Sherlock Holmes know that when matters of discovery, deduction, and exposure did not preoccupy his formidable mind, the famous detective was prone to injecting himself with morphine or a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine. When admonished by his companion, Doctor Watson, for this practice, Holmes conceded that while it was probably physically detrimental, “I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.”

Thus, for all his brilliance as a criminologist, Holmes was no neural biologist with any understanding of the true impact of narcotics on his brain and nervous system. He does have sufficient insight to admit to Watson that his mind “abhors the dull routine of existence.” So perhaps, at some level, Holmes understood his drug habit was actually a means to escape reality rather than a tool to see it more clearly.

In today’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman passes over “seven percent solutions” in favor of the “one percent doctrine.” First coined by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and expanded upon in a book by Ron Suskind, the doctrine holds the United States must respond aggressively to “low-probability, high-impact events.”

For example, if there is even a one percent chance that terrorists may have acquired nuclear weapon(s), the U.S. government needs to “treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

Friedman then notes that Cheney and many other conservatives deny the concept of global warming or, at least, human contributed global warming. Yet University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein points out that the “one percent doctrine” endorses the same “precautionary principle” that motivates many radical environmentalists.

Per Sunstein, “According to the precautionary principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events such as climate change. Indeed, another Vice-President, Al Gore, can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over one percent).”

Conservatives believe they have lately found a fatal flaw in that comparison – Climategate.

On November 17, an unknown computer hacker obtained access to emails and data files belonging to the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, one of the leading climate science centers in the world, and posted them on the Internet. The leaked information showed a disturbing pattern in which climate scientists destroyed or manipulated data in order to support their hypothesis of global warming and conspired to silence any lack of consensus among themselves.

Suddenly, conservatives want to apply the “one percent doctrine” in reverse. If there is even a one percent chance that global warming is false or at least not due to human contributed carbon emissions, the U.S. should regard all science on the matter as politicized and untrustworthy. Such risk is now acceptable because the impact is nonexistent.

Sarah Palin uses an op/ed piece in today’s Washington Post to make exactly this argument.

“While we recognize the occurrence of natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.”

This sounds reasonable enough at first glance but, unfortunately, scientific empiricism holds us to greater rigor. Rather than supporting each other, Palin’s first sentence is at odds with her second. Palin correctly identifies the costs of climate change as uncertain. How then, in light of this uncertainty, can she state with sureness that increased energy costs outweigh environmental precaution? Simply put, she cannot.

Climategate should outrage anyone with a commitment to finding the Truth through empirical mean. However, much as conservatives might like to consider the matter settled and forgotten, its abuses only throw question on the certain impact of human contributed global warming; it does nothing to disprove the basic validity of its premise.

Cheaters caught in the act flunk their tests but not because they necessarily must have the wrong answers. The sin of cheating lies in using cheap and lazy means to find the correct answers and this is exactly what the climate scientists involved in Climategate are guilty. It is what Palin does as well, albeit ingenuously, by jumping to conclusions in her cost/benefit analysis.

In fairness, the defense offered to date by global warming proponents in light of Climategate’s shocking revelations have been no more rigorous. Interviewed today in Slate magazine by John Dickerson, former Vice-President Al Gore seems to believe that indignation is an equivalent substitution for evidence. “The basic facts are incontrovertible,” he sputters. “When we see all these things happening on the Earth itself, what in the hell do they think is causing it?”

The presumption is human beings but the certainty of this is exactly what Climategate has called into question. Further research is sadly now required in an area where time may already have run out to make any substantial difference.

This brings us back around to the conservative “one percent doctrine.” What scientists once presented as incontrovertible evidence has become highly circumstantial. Yet that circumstantial evidence strongly points to a lit and hissing fuse. The question is whether humans lit the fuse with a match or some natural means, such as lightning was the catalyst. Perhaps more germane, does this fuse lead to a thermonuclear warhead or a loud but innocuous firecracker?

Another fact we know is that the cost of energy supplied by fossil-based fuels is bound to increase over time due to finite supplies. Ignoring future costs in order to save money in the present is quite consistent with conservatism as practiced in recent years. But this only bring us back to Holmes and his “seven percent solution,” in which keen insight and clear thinking are mistaken as the byproducts of induced deliriums to escape the dull routine of existence.

The science of climate change has been held up to scrutiny and found wanting. Yet no matter how much its premise may bore us, we leave the path of wisdom if we think humans can forever ignore the evidence, both supportive and contrary, without peril. Hot solutions tend to be volatile, whatever their exact percentage of active ingredient. Cool reasoning is still our best hope.

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