Sunday, September 19, 2010

Between the science and a hard place: The intellectual incoherence of lukewarmism. Part One: jimming the Overton window.

In recent years, the climate wars have witnessed the rise of a group of self-identified "lukewarmers," people who, to borrow Greg Easterbrook's self-description, believe that:

[G]lobal warming is scientifically confirmed but exaggerated as a threat; that greenhouse gas regulation is justified, but not an emergency need.


The first use of the term I have found was by David Smith, on "Watts Up With That" (a bit of foreshadowing, that):

I am a “lukewarmer” who thinks that the world is warmer than it would otherwise be due to anthropogenic gases (but doubts that the impact will be extreme).


Probably the most famous "lukewarmer" is Lucia Liljegren, a mechanical engineer (surprise!) whose blog, The Blackboard, can be found on the blogroll here. The Blackboard entertains many lukewarmers, along with a bunch of deniers and a smattering of pro-consensus folks, including myself.

Another self-described lukewarmer, Steven Fuller, has stepped into the giant floppy red shoes of Steven Goddard at WUWT, now that Steve has metastasized to his own blog. His self-description is the closest to providing a clear, testable proposition, as well as reflecting, by my reading, the central thrust of the comments by the "lukewarmers" on The Blackboard:

It’s because I am a ‘lukewarmer,’ one who believes that the physics of climate change are not by theselves controversial, but who believes that the sensitivity of the earth’s atmosphere to a doubling of concentrations of CO2 is not yet known, but is likely to be lower than activists have claimed.


Before I get into what the climate sensitivity might be, it's important to note who the lukewarmers are, which is slightly different from their self-definition. The lukewarmers to a person are critical of the IPCC, but when we take a look at the estimates of climate sensitivity cited by the IPCC, it's clear that thinking climate sensitivity is low is not enough to get on the outs with them:



Most estimates of climate sensitivity, regardless of how they are derived (and there are several lines of evidence including comparisons with paleoclimate, response to modern forcings like the Mount Pinatubo eruption, and climate modeling) include in their 95% confidence interval sensitivities between 1-2C. In some cases, the central estimate is between 1.2-1.5C for a doubling of CO2. So favoring a low number for climate sensitivity is not, by itself, enough to put you at odds with the "consensus." You need the other piece – the it's-not-a-big-deal piece. And that's where the trouble starts.

There is a half-full glass here, which is that a number of people who clearly identify emotionally and politically with the denialist movement have taken major steps towards the scientific consensus in order to maintain their credibility. While sharing the denialosphere's loathing of "activists" and its demonization of scientists like Hansen and Mann (whose unforgivable sin was to establish beyond a reasoned doubt that humans are causing a rapid and substantially unprecedented warming of the earth's climate) the lukewarmers avoid three major pitfalls of denialism:

1. They do not have to deny the basic physical laws which dictate that greenhouse gases cause warming.

2. They do not have to refute the massive physical evidence that the climate is warming.

3. They do not have to pretend that the vast majority of scientists who accept the theory of AGW are participating in a vast conspiracy to hide the truth about (1) and (2).

The lukewarmist position also allows one to position oneself as a moderate threading the needle between two extremes. Steven Fuller again:

The operation of CO2 as a greenhouse gas is one of the least controversial ideas in physics. The calculations that show a temperature rise of between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius if concentrations double is also widely accepted, including by all skeptic scientists without (AFAIK) exception.

We don’t know the sensitivity of the atmosphere to a doubling of CO2, so the effects of feedbacks are not know. Activists think it is 3 degrees or higher. Contrarians think it is very low–1, maybe 2, tops, some thinking it is even lower.
If activists are right we have a very big problem on our hands. If contrarians are right we don’t. If both are wrong, there is a lukewarmer’s way.


Note that the best science around puts climate sensitivity between 2.6-4.1C. It's not "activists" who put climate sensitivity at around 3C or higher – except as far as the activists are saying: Hey, those scientists that have spent their lives in this field probably are the best source of information regarding climate sensitivity.

The real contrast here is not between "activists" and "skeptics" but between deniers and everybody else – between the science and the right-wing lunacy. But lukewarmers are exploiting the shift in the Overton window brought about by voluble climate deniers to position their radical views as a sane middle ground.

Here's the problem. Lukewarmism doesn't get its adherents where they want to go – because even if we accept at face value their claims, the world would still require intense efforts to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to stave off disaster.

Scientists estimate a warming of 2C as the upper limit of what our civilization can adapt to, and not suffer disaster on a planetary scale. This is probably an optimistic number:

… even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, a target of 2°C seems almost cavalier.


The hard lower limit of climate sensitivity -- the lowest it can possibly be and account for our direct observations – is about 1.1C (the real number is very likely to be in that range of 2.6C-4.1C – but we are following the "lukewarmist" argument to see where it leads). The change in forcings expected from a "business as usual" 21st century are +8.5W/m^2 – about 2 1/3 doublings of CO2.

Hence with the lowball number – the number Steven Fuller attributes not to lukewarmers but to out-and-out deniers – put us on course for 2.5C of warming this century. In other words, the lukewarmers' own numbers belie their causal attitude to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Now the deniers – sorry, excuse me, the "lukewarmers" – may say the projected emissions are much too high; that the IPCC is way off with those numbers as well. Or they could take the bull by the horns and claim, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that warm can tolerate warming of 3C or 4C without any major problems (the last time the world was that hot was several million years ago; there were no ice caps to speak of and the sea level was hundreds of feet higher). The trouble with that position is that it undermines the whole thrust of lukewarmism – which is to acquire credibility (or, to be fair, possibly to exercise intellectual honesty) via the advantages (1), (2), and (3).

Disputing one point with the scientific community – climate sensitivity – is compatible with a reasonable, pro-science argument. Hey, it happens -- an idea becomes the established consensus, and it turns out to be, not completely wrong maybe, but off (this has already happened several times in climate science -- unfortunately, every time, to date, the majority of the mistakes have been in the direction of under-estimating the speed and magnitude of the effects of global warming.)

However, when you begin to argue that not only does science have climate sensitivity wrong but also emissions and maybe impacts to boot – well, you're going to have a hard time explaining why thousands of scientists have made not one but a series of mistakes, all supposedly exaggerating the dangers of global warming. Go down that road, and pretty soon you're right back in the tinfoil-hat camp lukewarmist rhetoric was supposed to deliver you from. If you allege not one but a whole series of gigantic mistakes by huge numbers of investigators, all tending to undermine a scientific conclusion (only rapid reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases can prevent a substantial risk of planetary disaster) to which you are avowedly hostile, the simplest conclusion is not that you are a genius and the rest of the scientific community are fools; it is that you are a partisan and you are attacking science with implications contrary to your political goals.

In Part 2, I'm going to give the "lukewarmers" even more rope, and show how even widely unrealistic lowballing of climate change fails to make a rational case for business as usual.

17 comments:

  1. Steven Goddard got again debunked for producing false data. All two of his graphs on his blog site "Real Science" (the name alone is a scam) were tampered. I could get him so far that he changed the first one. He called it "a small error", but it disproved his whole article.
    http://stevengoddard.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/last-october-through-march-was-the-snowiest-on-record/

    More about the whole story here =>
    http://www.politics.ie/environment/33041-climate-change-debate-thread.html#post3012723
    and following

    and here => http://stevengoddard.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/1000-comments/#comment-1182

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like the idea of calling Steve Goddard's successors SteveII, and SteveIII, etc. But Thomas Fuller would probably object.

    Steve Goddard articles were at least scientific in format and logic. Invariably the anomalous conclusion would indicate that there had been a wrong turn in the reasoning, and the search would be on to find what he had done wrong deliberately.

    Tom Fuller's luke-warmer, honest-broker, and non-scientist editorials don't induce the same mystery solving response. I miss Steve.

    ReplyDelete
  3. PolyisTCOandbannedOctober 12, 2010 at 9:54 PM

    I think there's a problem with the lukewarmers if they have a beleif or a semistrong belief that temp rise will be lukewarm. It sorta differentiates them from a more agnostic critic, who says, "I don't know". IOW, it is different to say, you're not convniced of the GCMs or a teensy bit worried from groupthink and politicization...to then say, we think it very LIKELY that temp rise will be small. What you end up having is wishful thinking in the latter case. Also, people like Lucia and Mosh have been more rational than most hoi polloi and less duplitious and evasive than McI. Yet, it's still taken years to get them to concede some basic points. And they are way to chummy and sided with some of the nitwits. I don't see them as thoughtful analysts.

    I want a new home for people like me, Ed and Hans. We can include Curry and Burger maybe too. Of course we all differ a bit in opinion and capability. But I think we make a good group. One that is willing to call McI or Watts on the carpet much more quickly (and Lucia and Mosh pat themselves on the back, for occasionally doing so, but I don't really see them as brutally fair to let chips fall where they may, when their side under attack.)

    I don't know what you want to call us.

    I want to get Huybers to join us too since he is wicked smart and both he and Ed are very good soldiers of brick by brick climate study. Like to have Annan too since he's smart and funny and bikes well, but he might be too liberal to hang with a babykiller like me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. So the question I have, PolyisTCOandbanned, is why call you anything? As I tried to draw attention to in the post, climate science is a big tent. If you don't have a strong emotional attachment to the "anti" tribe, and you like thoughtful analysis, you would appear to be within the rather elastic bounds of the consensus. How not?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Saying both that:

    (1) We do not know X.
    (2) X is likely to be Y.

    makes no sense to me.

    PS: TCO, if you're looking for some ice time, I've got a place for you as a fourth-liner in my fantasy draft. You'd play right wing, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The half-way point between the truth and a lie, is still a lie.

    ReplyDelete
  7. There's a great Toles cartoon on this.

    Caption: "He decided the truth must be somewhere in the middle"

    at http://www.climatebites.org/climate-communication-tools/119-Fall-Weather

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think I've just read this piece for the fourth time. It's one of my personal favourites of the climate blogosphere. You are nailing this thing from the first to the last letter.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yes, rapidly becoming a go to place for me as well. Thanks.
    (Susan Anderson)

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is great. I hope you don't mind me mirroring it on my own blog as a guest post - full credit given.

    http://reallysciency.blogspot.co.uk/

    ReplyDelete
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  17. "3. They do not have to pretend that the vast majority of scientists who accept the theory of AGW are participating in a vast conspiracy to hide the truth about (1) and (2)."

    You do not need a conspiracy to hide the truth. Scientists are fully capable of being collectively stupid without conspiracies. They are after all human. And with humans collective stupidity is ubiquitous owing to the way human beings rely on other humans to learn things.

    In Einstein's time most scientists believed there was an aether through
    which electromagnetic waves traveled. This isn't because there was any proof whatsoever that such a thing existed. But rather because they believed that all waves needed a medium.

    ReplyDelete