March 17, 2007
Inconvenient Truth wrecks spring break
Posted by Seth Chandler

So, my wife and I got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth over spring break. What a terrifying movie! I couldn’t sleep. Ignoring temporarily the effects on the rest of the globe, my job, home and family are invested, after all, in an area of the United States vulnerable to global warming. Having experienced Katrina derivatively and been toyed with by Rita, I have some appreciation of global warming’s consequences. And, as an avid reader of the insurance press, when I see the sober and stubbornly untrendy head of Lloyds of London starts saying that the phenomenon is real, I begin to worry about what sort of world I am leaving for my children.

So, I’ve been trying some left brain calmatives, trying to find and play with some data, even self-medicating through a viewing of the recent British documentary “” The Great Global Warning Swindle. I have to stay that, as of this writing, I’m still concerned, though I’ve gotten past fear of imminent catastrophe.

Here are some thoughts. First, to a large extent, the “debate” about global warming is irrelevant. There is global warming. Unquestionably. The only issue is the cause. But for a lot of issues, the cause is irrelevant. The polar bears could care less, so could the hurricane heading for my house. And this thing about whether it is man-made only matters to the extent man actually could undo it. While the last few minutes of An Inconvenient Truth contain some convenient graphs showing how it could all be done, I remain very skeptical given the giant prisoners dilemma in which each nation state or large corporation finds itself, the ever growing population of humans, the failure of “democracy” to count very heavily the preferences of the not-even-close-to-born, global economic development that demands ever more energy, and the problematic effects of serious regulation of laws regulating CO2 emission. Nuclear power is no picnic; neither is life with less electricity. Maybe we should just relax and let the usual complex of economic forces (like higher insurances in coastal regions) move us away from the worst consequences of warming. (I bought a plot of land in Alaska several years ago). Not that this will help poor people or species less adaptable than humans.

Second, determining causation is very difficult. I’ve learned from books like A New Kind of Science that even systems that look complicated, such as weather temperature data, that one might think must be caused by the complex interplay of multiple phenomena, can actually caused by the repeated application of very simple rules. Moreover, one has to be very careful distinguishing causation from correlation. Without a good physical model, one doesn’t really know whether it’s CO2 driving temperature or temperature driving CO2. The Swindle movie claims the latter and says the fact that warming has been greatest at the surface rather than in the upper atmosphere contradicts the alleged villainy of greenhouse gases. They say sunspots are the fiend and have their own persuasive (though apparently flawed) glitzy correlation graphs to prove it.

Third, it turns out that, as in much of life, hunch and trust are very important. That’s a little scary for left brain types. I’m never going to know enough science to know for sure who’s right and, try as I might, I doubt I’ll ever find time thoroughly to examine the data myself. I’m unlikely to develop the sort of interpersonal relationships with the relevant scientists that might persuade me of their credibility even if I couldn’t follow exactly what they were saying. Maybe I’ll just be lazy in the end and sign on with the anthropomorphic consensus that human generated CO2 is the villain. In one way, I hope they’re right because at least then there will be a reward for what I suspect will be rather unpleasant sacrifices. In another, I hope they’re wrong, because fighting human nature and nationalism in a prisoners dilemma is not a conventional recipe for success.

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