Monday, September 23, 2013

A loss for the atmosphere

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, climate change, argument

Jonathan Swift wrote, "You cannot persuade a man out of a belief that he wasn't persuaded into."

"Answer not a fool according to his folly, Lest thou be like to him -- even thou. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes." – Proverbs 26:4-5 Young's Literal Translation

Let's take up the Bible passage first. It is akin to a koan, seemingly self-contradictory, and is best understood in the context of political disputation. The first sentence warns against letting your opponent (fool or not!) set the terms of the debate. For example, to answer either 'yes' or 'no' to the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" leads you into a trap. The second sentence is wiser. It is best understood in a paraphrase: "Don't be reasonable with an unreasonable person." If you suspect your opponent is crazy, you must be crazier.

That leads us to the other quote. Cases of religious conversion are but one example of experiences that people describe in very emotional terms. The most frequent phrase is, "Once I was blind but now I see." This also happens in other arenas, and in particular in the science of climate change, this is what Anna Rose was hoping for when she embarked on a month-long odyssey with Nick Minchin, a retired member of the Australian Senate, to interview scientists and others engaged in the debate over climate change, global warming, or whatever you may call it. The journey was sponsored by ABC in Australia, and led to a program aired in April, I Can Change Your Mind About Climate.

Anna Rose is chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. As we find from reading her book Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Skeptic, nobody's mind was changed. And as I saw at the ABC website, a poll of those who viewed the documentary TV program shows that few minds were changed at all. If anybody changed their opinion, it was probably in the direction of skepticism. Of 29,900 poll responses, 56% were either doubtful or dismissive of climate change ("Dismissive" alone was 48%) and 40% were concerned or alarmed. That leaves but 4% in the middle. This is to be expected. Even if a majority of people have no strong feelings about the subject, they are the least likely to watch a documentary with an argumentative format. The rest already had their minds made up, and probably watched to either cheer or groan as one side or another made telling points.

To tell the truth, from reading Madlands, I didn't see hardly any telling points made by the experts chosen by Ms Rose. It was clear from the outset that she was trying to bat way out of her league. She writes midway through of feeling that she was following the rules, while Nick was not. Well, of course not. He is a politician. From the beginning his agenda was winning over people who would watch the program, not answering any of the arguments made to him. He chose only one (formerly) respected scientist, and several more telegenic spokespeople.

The month of travel covered all the continents except Antarctica (I suspect ABC producers quailed at the cost of getting a film crew to the Ross ice shelf). Fairly early on, they visited the scientist most likely to make a dent in Nick's skepticism, Professor Richard Muller of UC Berkeley. A profound skeptic, Muller thought that the famous "hockey stick" graph of warming in the 20th Century was based on faulty measurements. Climate skeptic web sites abound with pictures of standard recording stations located near air conditioning equipment, or in the midst of concrete covered areas. Unwilling to believe NASA or NOAA or anybody else, Muller gathered all the data used for these calculations over the past century or so, billions of measurements, and had a team re-analyze them, eliminating the ones that were the most likely to be compromised. His team produced a temperature graph almost identical to the "hockey stick". He changed his point of view, at least to some extent. Prof. Muller now declares that the climate is warming at a surprising rate, and that our emissions of carbon dioxide are largely responsible: "…we are dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we're working in a dangerous realm."

Nick was not swayed. Maybe nudged just a tiny bit, but at that point, Anna should have seen the light herself, and called off the rest of the project. Muller was not one of her picks, but had a better case to make than any of them. The basic story is that Anna picked a series of reasonable and very qualified experts, while Nick picked primarily pit bulls. He didn't bother to try to convince her. He was aiming at the TV audience. The documentary provided him with a platform on which she had at most a cameo presence.

Madlands is her attempt to salvage something from a disaster. She makes point after point in the text, and in each case, I asked internally, "So why didn't you say that for the cameras?" It proved much too easy for her to be shocked speechless.

The climate debate is not about science. The science has been known for 150 years. I replicated Arrhenius's calculations more than 50 years ago. The modern refinement is to pin down feedback effects and nonlinear transitions. "Pin down" is not quite accurate. The greenhouse effect alone can account for at most a rise of 4°C if we increase carbon dioxide to 5-10 times its current level. That is bad enough. But recent (since 1980 or so) measurements indicate that changes in water vapor in the atmosphere, aerosol production, and so forth, might multiply greenhouse warming by a factor of between 1.5 and 4; the consensus is "about 3". That is the basis of the IPCC prediction of warming by a further 1.2°C to 4°C by 2050. Greenhouse effects alone would add less than a degree.

To effect a change in policy, one must convince policy makers, not just of the truth of your propositions, but that a cost-effective solution can be had, one that does not threaten to end their career. Rule Zero of Politics: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." Anna Rose's book and further work are intended to shift public opinion. She does, at least, understand that to turn a policy maker's stance it is necessary to change the stance of the constituency. Too bad it takes so long, because Rule One is "Moses in the Wilderness": it takes 40 years for the old generation and their old ideas to die out and a new generation to rise up.

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