Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Some additional thoughts about global warming

\Last night I had dinner with my daughter and son in law and some friends.  We began to discuss the issue of global warming.  I'm a skeptic.

My son in law made an argument that the over-whelming consensus on the issue is in favor of the climate change theories that most closely relate to those offered by Al Gore.   An interesting argument that made me think a bit.  But I wondered what would be his argument had he been born at the time of Gallileo.   Stephen Hawking, one of the brilliant minds of our time said about him "Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science."   Among his other insights was that our universe was not geocentric - rather it was heliocentric.   

Indeed, at the time, the scientific community and even the Catholic church argued that their existing understandings about the order of the universe made more sense.   My caution on this issue is borne by two concerns.   I look at the increasing political nature of scientific inquiry - which is in part driven by funding from government.  At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic a group of scientists used projections to argue that heterosexual AIDS would be a significant part of the epidemic.  I am not a biologist but I noticed that a number of prominent thinkers in the field argued passionately that the risks of extending risks of the epidemic to populations not at risk would slow progress on finding solutions to the disease.  In the end the incidence of heterosexual AIDS was only related to the presence of other risk factors.

In this case in the last few weeks some notable dissidents have begun to surface urging caution.  They include the Royal Academy of Science in the United Kingdom.  So while his conclusion remains correct - there is good reason for having a little humility on the dire predictions.  As one who is constantly concerned about the abuses of governmental power - when all the solutions impose more governmental regulations - I become skeptical.  Most supporters of global warming theory argue the only way to solve the problem is to establish significant new levels of government regulation.

Thomas Kuhn wrote an influential book (referenced above) called the Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he argued that inquiry goes through a series of waves - when new ideas are first proposed the existing scientific establishment tries to defend the current theory base - but increasingly new thinkers offer challenges to those ideas and structures eventually causing a revolution in scientific thinking.    

There is a second concern that I have about the discussions on global warming.  California will vote on whether we should continue the implementation of one of the most drastic laws in the country relating to the use of carbon based fuels.   AB 32 would be delayed until the unemployment rate drops below 5%.   For the past decade California has been a laggard in economic growth.  Our unemployment rate is among the highest in the country.  Our state budget has been in perpetual deficit.  

The proponents of AB 32 make two arguments - the first is the one of inevitability of the science - and from my perspective that argument is simply wrong.  The Royal Academy's decision to step back from the brink on climate change is but one example.  But the second argument that they make is that we cannot afford to wait on responding - even if the model is a bit off.  From my perspective the risk is that the state will continue in the very unenviable position we have been in for the last decade and could likely diminish the ability of our state to continue to prosper.  Ultimately, writers like the Swedish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg make a more reasoned argument.   Lomborg, in Cool It, makes two arguments.  First, he suggests as he did in his earlier book that the hockey stick hypothesis is simply bunk.  At the same time however he argues that we should not ignore the long term benefits of thinking about alternative fuels and in taking other efforts that will help to preserve and sustain the environment.

The extreme supporters of the Global Warming hypothesis make no room for more moderated responses.  In the end, if their science is right (and I believe it is not) the potential costs of adhering to their prescriptions may simply be too high a price.

Kuhn's book is an excellent opportunity to renew the natural skepticism about any observed truth - the best scientists, like Gallileo, are in a state of constant discovery.   Lomborg's is a great opportunity to think about an issue where the overwhelming consensus may want to impose too great a cost on the rest of us.

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