Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Global Warming Debate: Over?

I tend to avoid commenting on the science of global warming. I keep as up to date with the arguments as I can and am reasonably happy that I've done what I can to understand the state of play. For now, I'm happy to take the 'consensus' view, with a few reservations, and then analyse policy on that basis.

I'm not a scientist and I honestly doubt I can add any value to the scientific debate. Fortunately the intellectual argument over policy will not be settled by scientists but, as usual, by economists. That is a debate I can be a part of. Neither myself, Sir Nicholas Stern or Richard S. J. Tol are scientists, however, the other two are as important as any IPCC physicist to the debate over our policy response to climate change. Tol's assault on Stern's review is a decent introduction to why.

DK isn't so reticent about the science of climate change, has done a lot of reading and is convinced that the mainstream opinion is entirely wrong. He is understandably frustrated that Sunny Hurndall has written the entire debate off as settled, anthropogenic global warming won apparently.

What I found odd about the opinion that Sunny, and Ben Stewart of Greenpeace who started this argument by refusing to debate Dominic Lawson on 18 Doughty Street, advance is that they seem to be calling and end to the debate so quickly.

It seems understandable that Richard Dawkins has gotten somewhat tired of rehearsing arguments for and against evolution that have been much the same since 1859 when the Origin of Species was published. After 148 years it seems quite plausible that most of the interesting arguments have already been deployed. Unless some radical new evidence or theory comes up I'd say it is fair enough to put research and argument testing the basic theory of evolution by natural selection on the back burner. That Dawkins wishes to stop debating those who still want to rehearse the same arguments after well over a century in order to satisfy their own religious imperative seems understandable.

But global warming only became an object of serious debate in the late 1970s. Why should we believe that in that relatively short period of forty years all of the relevant arguments and important studies that will shape the 'final' scientific conclusion have seen the light of day? Surely it is quite plausible that new evidence or logic that might change the debate will emerge?

It worries me a lot that those who lobby for policies to curb emissions are so keen to end the debate early. Presumably they think it strengthens the political case for taking action, perhaps it does, but intellectually it is a shabby and arrogant way to behave.


Devil's Kitchen said...

It's not that I necessarily think that the mainstream opinion is entirely wrong (although I do, pretty much); it's more that I believe that the evidence is far from conclusive and therefore the debate should not be shut down by those who a) have political motive, and those who b) know stuff all about it...


edmund said...

i think your defence of Dawkins goesa bit far. aFter all his quite happy t arge for atheism whic has been argued about a great deal longer.

However your general paralles is a good one- the sceinfic debate was still pretty open twenty years after the oos , both in terms of major detials (lamarksim vs Darwinsim) and even intersm of whether the theroy worked. And that was a theory about the past not the future.

Alien Anthropologist said...

'Global Warming' is the last, best hope for socialism; which is funny, given that it originally began as a means for Thatcher to justify closing down coal mines. That's precisely why they want to claim the argument is closed when practically every day brings new evidence that it's a load of old bollocks.

I have looked at the evidence for 'global warming' (i.e. human-induced warming over and beyond what we'd expect to occur naturally after the end of the Little Ice Age), and it's nonsense. The surface data is intensely flawed (e.g. a large amount of the claimed 'global' warming since 1980 comes from about half a dozen thermometers in Siberia), and natural variability is far higher than any contribution humans could make.

BTW, it's interesting that you mention the 1970s, because back then 'global cooling' was the scare story because the planet was cooling at that time. Now it's warmed a bit again, it's 'global warming. NASA are now predicting that the sun is going to cool over the next twenty years, so I guess the 'global coolers' will be back shortly.

Gracchi said...

Matt- I'm not sure about whether the debate should be closed or not- to be honest I don't read the refereed journals enough and they are the only places I'd trust on this. I do think its worth though realising that there are plenty of scientific theories which have only been around twenty or thirty years but are pretty accepted- for instance DNA which was discovered in the 1960s or even various unseen particles discovered into teh eighties say the quark which are generally accepted now. It depends on teh state of the evidence- and to be honest I don't trust anyone on that at the moment who I've heard apart from those people I know who have read articles in refereed journals who all unanimously beleive in it. They may be wrong- but they are less likely to be wrong than I am.

Like you I avoid posting on this purely because I know so little.

Keith said...

Let's not get mixed up here. The 'debate' over climate change is not a scientific one, it is a political one. There are very particular rules for conducting a debate in science, and what I have seen so far violates nearly all of them. Political debate about the implications of climate change is absolutely legitimate and necessary, but let us not confuse that with a scientific debate over the evidence or theories of the phenomenon. Outwith science, this is an emotive issue (Kitchen Devil is not the only ranter), precisely because the conclusion effects all our lives. The real question is not whether the scientists are certain (that is not the way of science), but rather - is this important enough to justify the precautionary principle. I think it is.