Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Climate Change Analogies: The Firefighter

Consider the following scenario.

A firefighter is invited to give a talk about fires. She is an expert in the field, with some fifteen years experience. She has been dealing with fires actively, and teaches others how to deal with them. She is widely considered to be very knowledgeable, and is very well respected by other firefighters.

At her talk, she discusses how fires get started. She details the kinds of fires that firefighters have to deal with. Wildfires, house fires, natural fires, and fires caused by arson. She discusses the ins and outs of fire prevention, and discusses the methodologies used by firefighters in combating blazes of all kinds.

When she is done with the main portion of her talk, there is a Q&A, and audience members are allowed to come up to a microphone and ask her questions. A man approaches the microphone and clears his throat. "How do you answer the fact that all fires are natural?"

She blinks, not understanding. "Excuse me… I don't think I follow your meaning," she says. "Fire is a natural thing, of course, but how fires start can be natural or it can be that someone caused it."

The man shakes his head. "No. That's just not true. All fires are natural. They just happen. There's no proof that anyone can cause a fire. People like you are trying to fool everyone, because you are trying to keep your job. But the truth is that fires start and fires go out, and nobody can explain it."

Nonplussed, she tries to puzzle out what this man is thinking. "Sir," she says, "People can and do cause fires. Surely, either you or someone you know, or maybe you've seen it in a movie,—you've seen someone light a fire in a fireplace, haven't you?"

"That's not the same thing," the man says. "You're trying to convince me that if someone lights a fire in a fireplace, that it's going to burn the house down. That's just a lie!"

Now, let's take a moment here. You are probably thinking that this is ridiculous. You know, like I know, that of course fires can be set. Some are safe, and some are not. Some are natural, and some are caused by a person or people. Some are caused inadvertently by people, like when a transformer blows out and sets a tree on fire.

Yet when it comes to climate change, some people insist that there's no possible way that humans could play any role in it. Some even insist that it's not happening at all.

"Sir," she says, "I am not claiming that any fire will go out of control. But some fires do go out of control, or start where they shouldn't have started."

Clearly frustrated, the man says, "Well, I don't believe you! I don't believe in your fire stories! When a building burns down, there's no proof that fire actually did it! It was poor building materials and lousy construction! Fire just happened to be there, but there's no connection! You just want to charge us more money for water to put out fires that don't have anything to do with why a building burns up! I was really skeptical when I came here, because I read an article by [redacted], and he says that fires are just natural variability and don't really burn anything. And then he links to some papers that show how firefighters like you are scamming the public into paying higher water bills!"

Incredulous, she says, "Did you say [redacted] wrote this article you read? Don't you know that he's a convicted arsonist?"

"He's doing lectures, now," the man says, a look of triumph in his eyes, "So you can't shut him up anymore about your hoax!"

It's painfully silly, isn't it? I know. Yet that is pretty much what climate scientists are dealing with. Climate change deniers literally flout the findings of climate science, citing cranks, fossil fuel industry spokespeople, crackpots, and anyone who will support their denial. But the fact is that it really is on the same level as our fictional character here, trying to discredit the firefighter with his specious, bizarre, and unhinged accusations. Worse, we have government officials who are abusing their positions of authority to harass and denounce scientists, when they don't even understand that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or what that means, or why it matters. They count on their constituents being ignorant of the facts as well, because it's easier to get re-elected when your constituents think you're fighting on their side. And the flow of cash into your coffers, or into your state, or into your campaign are a lot more robust when you've got the fossil fuel industry at your back.

Anyone who has taken a little time to consider the evidence, and to grasp the basics of climate science, can see why it's not a good idea to pump the atmosphere up with CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. As the temperature rises, little by little, climatic problems get worse and worse. Weird, unseasonal weather shifts become more common. Strange weather becomes the norm. That is, in fact, what we are seeing happening right now.

If you were in the audience when the man addressed the firefighter with his bizarre accusations, would you side with him? Would you expect the firefighter to have to answer all his questions? Or would you tell him to shut up and go sit down?

It is not merely the authority of the firefighter that matters to your answer, it's also what you know about fires. This is also true of climate change. You don't have to be a climate scientist to follow the basic statements about what's happening. You can see for yourself that weird weather is becoming a real problem for the world. Trusting what climate scientists say is a reasonable response. They are experts in their field the same way that the firefighter in this story would, if she was a real person, be considered an expert in her field. We trust such experts because they have put in the hard work of becoming experts. Further, we know that they actually are experts because we can come to understand what they know, and, as we learn what they know, it continues to make sense. In contrast, those who are attempting to undermine climate science continue to use obfuscation, misdirection, outright falsehood, and even death threats (yes, literally), to silence opposition to their denial. Which should be very telling, indeed.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Here's For The Cheap Seats

Weighing In On Matters of Importance

The peanut gallery is alive and well. Every day I hear them hollering about how this snowfall or that cold weather front disproves global warming. Even as Australia has recognized 2013 as the hottest year they've ever had, and northern latitudes continue to see unprecedented changes in the climate, the peanut gallery remain unmoved in their belief that "there's no such thing" as (anthropogenic, or man-made) global warming, that it's a hoax, or a non-sensical and faulty scientific conclusion, or a conspiracy by an amorphous and occult socialist cabal, or natural variation, or whatever.

One cannot even sensibly respond to the peanut gallery these days. Any attempt to explain where they are mistaken leads to the flamethrowers of vitriol being deployed. Snark grenades get tossed into the laps of innocent bystanders. Snipers shoot dumdum bullets at the heads of those trying to reason with the unruly mob of vociferous climate change deniers. Propaganda leaflets rain down on everyone, bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers and their ilk in the fossil fuel industry.

This ongoing cock-up, this slow motion disaster, this tragedy in the making, is given the appearance of a politically charged farce made for the media to parse and parcel out for the world's entertainment. This has been so effectively done, that many people have no idea what the whole truth is anymore, or to whom they should be listening, or why it really even matters. Nor has the media been responsible in its reporting of the facts. In its ostensible effort to promote "fair and balanced" news, the media have—in terms of journalistic integrity—thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and every time we bring the baby back in, they throw it out again.

Thus, the greatest gift to the deniers is the inevitable confusion or misunderstanding of the general public. As major media outlets flail about ineffectually, shooting themselves in the foot like the New York Times or kowtowing to their monied political backers like Forbes, the peanut gallery aims its scurrilous missives at the general public via the comments sections of science blogs and the like, Op-Eds in major newspapers, and articles in predominantly right-wing media. Where climate change deniers cannot undermine the actual science, they seek to undermine the public's perception of the scientists. Where they cannot undermine, they generally seek to obfuscate, to confuse, to deceive. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the order of the day. The fossil fuel industry's pals in right-wing think tanks are expert FUD producers, and the media, hamstrung by the belief that facts and opinions are created equal, are their preferred conduit.

So, what's the solution? The answer, as ever, is better education. This requires people who know what they are talking about to counter those who don't, and especially those who are purposefully attempting to derail educational and informative discussions of the matter. Those who have a firm grasp of the topic need to appeal to those who do not. By being a calm, rational, reasonable, intelligent voice, even as the deniers harangue, harass, and shout aggressively, more people will come to understand that the subject of anthropogenic global warming is not a political football. AGW is simply the most important topic of the era, with consequences to which the term "real world" applies absolutely.

The good news, if it may be called that, is that the science is firmly on the side of there being significant and escalating anthropogenic global warming. The consensus is established among climate scientists, and the IPCC has reported on the findings. While nay-sayers may flout the understanding of climate scientists, one may in turn dismiss their pronouncements as ill-informed or, in certain cases, as disingenuous. For example, the events that lead to very cold weather here or there do not in any way counter the fact that the globe is warming. This is demonstrable science; observation and data support the conclusion. This also applies to the spreading of ice in the antarctic, where, although the surface area of sea ice is seen to be growing, it's warming water in the Southern Ocean, coupled with wind around the Antarctic continent, that is causing it. As Skeptical Science puts it, "Antarctic sea ice is complex and counter-intuitive. Despite warming waters, complicated factors unique to the Antarctic region have combined to increase sea ice production. The simplistic interpretation that it's caused by cooling is false." (Source: http://www.skepticalscience.com/increasing-Antarctic-Southern-sea-ice-intermediate.htm)

It is also good news that so many organizations—from reinsurance companies like Munich Re, to the Pentagon, to mega-corporations like Siemens—recognize the importance of climate change and are actively pursuing strategies to address it. While some may feebly argue that all these organizations are simply seeing a profit to be made, it is not in the nature of any of them to commit so much money and so many resources to what climate deniers think a hoax or untenable hypothesis. It is their business to be prepared, to be savvy, to be aware, and their actions speak louder than words. This is not mere greenwashing we are witnessing; these organizations mean business. The general public would do well to understand this.

The fact is, there is no mitigating evidence against anthropogenic global warming. While there is yet a lot to learn, the basic understanding is on solid ground. Arguments in the science community center around details—for instance, how mitigating is the albedo of clouds vs the greenhouse properties of H2O? But the science community is not arguing about the reality of AGW, and they are certainly not arguing over the properties of CO2, or methane, or water vapor.

The understanding of greenhouse gasses stretches back a long way, and so does the concern over our role in climate change. "In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that the level of carbon dioxide was climbing and raising global temperature, but most scientists found his arguments implausible. It was almost by chance that a few researchers in the 1950s discovered that global warming truly was possible. In the early 1960s, C.D. Keeling measured the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: it was rising fast. Researchers began to take an interest, struggling to understand how the level of carbon dioxide had changed in the past, and how the level was influenced by chemical and biological forces. They found that the gas plays a crucial role in climate change, so that the rising level could gravely affect our future." (Source: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm) That so-called climate skeptics do not typically reference the robust historical record of this understanding should be telling. The fact of the matter is that we have known for a long while that something is happening, and that we, humanity, especially those of us in the developed world, are playing a role in its development. Climate scientists have been working for a long time to bring that role into focus, and to understand what CO2 emissions are doing to the climate. It has not been an easy course to follow. The climate is, as you may well imagine, a very complex thing. Teasing out the signal of AGW from the noise of natural climate variability has been difficult. Yet—we have accomplished that feat, and we do understand what's happening. What we see is not the result of the sun, not the result of a natural cycle, not the result of planets in or out of alignment, not the result of volcanoes, not the result of deforestation, not the result of changes in the sea, nor is it the result of any of these in combination or taken all together. What we see is the result of human beings putting tons and tons and tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Period. We are doing this.

We are beginning to make changes for the better, despite the peanut gallery's shrill remonstrations. This is happening in part because we are coming to understand, outside of any discussion of climate change, that we have an impact on life on earth. We are beginning to see that we cannot treat the planet as an infinite resource, a bottomless trashcan, a disposable commodity. This is, of course, a very good thing for us to understand. But simultaneously, we are continuing to pump massive amounts of greenhouse gasses into the air. This pollution is systemically inherent, kept in place by our habituation, by the infrastructures of our societies. And this is precisely where we need to press for changes in behavior. If we are to have any hope in overcoming AGW—and understanding that we are, even now, ominously locked in to a certain amount of climate change—then we must strive to implement systemic changes that drastically reduce our collective greenhouse output. We are called upon to actively petition our governments as well as our neighbors, to promote the changes that will reduce our carbon footprint and reduce methane emissions, on the one side, while increasing those practices that help reduce the greenhouse gasses now in the atmosphere, such as planting trees and and recycling paper products (thus saving the forests we already have), on the other side.

We also need to vote more intelligently. We cannot abide a government bogged down in partisan warfare. Our legislators must, absolutely must, represent our interests as members of a species interested in preserving its life. For the stakes are that high. The cost of not acting responsibly with regard to pollution and global warming is one we would never want our children to see, yet they are the ones who will live to see the real consequences of our actions now.

We insure our cars, our homes, our lives. We do so because bad things do happen. We don't drive our cars like maniacs, on sidewalks, through barricades. We know better than to risk our lives or to put others' lives in danger. So why would we gamble against the future our children will inherit? Why would we turn a deaf ear to the warning bells? Why would we ignore the fire alarm, and go about watching late night TV as the kids sleep upstairs?

You wouldn't. Would you?