Sep 27, 2009

The Honest Broker

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
by Roger Peilke Jr., (2007, Cambridge University Press)

Pielke believes global warming is a problem that requires a response. As readers of his blog know, he's a moderate, pragmatic, sane voice who frequently disses extremism and foolishness on all sides of the global warming debate.

This book was no doubt partly written to serve as a textbook in Prof. Pielke's classes, so it isn't always the most entertaining of reads. But there's lots of thought-provoking stuff here about how scientists, the media, and the public might think about science when partisan politics become a major consideration.

Pielke argues that an "honest broker" scientist is one who presents a variety of options to the public, who expands our range of choices - rather than advocating a single course of action.

Below is a quick-and-dirty list of some thought-provoking lines/quotes. Page numbers refer to the US paperback edition:
  • "we are often very certain and very wrong" p. 23
  • "The scientific enterprise is diverse enough to offer information that can be used to support a diversity of perspectives on just about any subject" p. 89
  • "entrenched interests need not produce 'junk science' when they have a wide selection of credentialed scientists to choose from in support of their positions" p. 62
  • "one might develop numerous equally plausible theories" p. 69
  • "information by itself does not compel a particular decision" p. 54
  • "Battles take place over whether science is sound or junk instead of debating the value or practicality of specific policy alternatives." p. 126
  • "A decision may have unexpected consequences, including the opposite of those desired" p. 65
  • "there is considerable randomness or chance in the world" p. 75
  • "Science in the service of common interests is threatened as scientists and policy-makers have come to see science mainly as a servant of interest group politics." p. 10
  • "For some scientists stealth issue advocacy is politically desirable because it allows for a simultaneous claim of being above the fray, invoking the historical authority of science, while working to restrict the scope of choice." p. 7
  • "If a debate is really about science, then surely it can take place on the pages of seldom-read peer-reviewed journals. But if the debate is about more than science, then it would likely spill over into the media, the internet, and legislative chambers." pp. 88-89
  • "One reason for the high esteem in which science is held is its independence from overt political influence." p. 93
  • "If the public or policy-makers begin to believe that scientific findings are simply an extension of a scientist's political beliefs, then scientific information will play an increasingly diminishing role in policy-making" p. 95
  • "deciding a course of action and then finding information to support it is common across the political spectrum" p. 110
  • "In many instances science has become little more than a mechanism for marketing competing political agendas, and scientists have become leading members of the advertising campaigns." p. 117
  • "That some scientists engage in political activities is neither new nor problematic; they are after all citizens. A problem exists when...scientists implicitly or explicitly equate scientific arguments with political arguments" p. 120
  • "science alone cannot determine who wins and who loses in political battles" p. 121
  • "science cannot tell us what to do. Deciding what to do occurs through a political process of bargaining, negotiation, and compromise." p. 137
  • "Science has exceedingly little capacity to reconcile differences in values." p. 137
  • "For the protection of science..we desperately need organizations and individuals who are willing to expand the range of options available to policy-makers by serving as Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives" p. 141

Sep 26, 2009

An Appeal to Reason

An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming
by Nigel Lawson (2008, Overlook Duckworth publishers)

A concise, 100-page overview of the good reasons to be skeptical of the hype associated with global warming. The world might be a more sensible and informed place if journalists, politicians, and educators spent a few hours with this slim volume.

Adding this work to student reading lists would be a quick, inexpensive (US retail price: $20) way of ensuring that young people hear more than one perspective. (Isn't that what education is supposed to be about - an exploration of a range of ideas, the expansion of young minds beyond the confines of conventional wisdom?)

Below is a quick-and-dirty list of some great lines/quotes. Page numbers refer to the US/Canadian hardcover edition:
  • "the only practical effect of the Kyoto process has been to create what is fast becoming one of the biggest scams on the planet" p. 77
  • "doing nothing is better than doing something stupid" p.95
  • "to describe the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as pollution is as absurd as it would be to describe the clouds as pollution" p. 11
  • "It is time to take a cool look at global warming." p. 1
  • "I am not a scientist. But then neither are the vast majority of those who pronounce on the matter with far greater certainty than I shall do here." p. 1
  • "science is only part of the story. Even if the climate scientists can tell us what is happening and why, they cannot tell us what governments should be doing about it." p. 2
  • "scientific truth is not established by counting heads" p. 5
  • "While peer review may be a useful process, all it means is that the author's peers consider that the paper which advances the hypothesis is worthy of publication in the journal to which it has been submitted." p. 6
  • "It is not immediately apparent what real-world evidence could shake the faith of the true believers and overturn the conventional global warming wisdom" p. 6
  • "in a number of important aspects, the IPCC's processes have become seriously flawed" p. 12
  • "There is something inherently absurd about the conceit that we can have any useful idea of what the world will be like in a hundred years time" p 23
  • "you start with the uncertainties of long-range weather forecasting, add to these the uncertainties of long-range economic forecasting, plus the uncertainties of long-range population forecasting, feed them all into a powerful computer and supposedly arrive at a sound basis for serious...long term policy decisions" p. 24
  • "is it really plausible that there is an ideal average world temperature, which by some happy chance has recently been visited on us, from which small departures in either direction would spell disaster?" p. 27
  • "The IPCC Report claims to take into account both costs and benefits, yet it devotes large amounts of space to the costs and almost none to the benefits. It is difficult not to sense a lack of even-handedness, leading to a bias in the overall assessment."
  • "natural disasters such as hurricanes, monsoons, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even pandemics (the vogue word for what used to be known as plagues), have always occurred, and no doubt always will; to attribute them to global warming is not science but political propaganda." p. 37
  • "I suspect there are few people...who regard the huge improvement in living standards, including a substantial reduction in infant mortality and a substantial rise in life expectancy, that cheap, carbon-based energy has made possible, as an unwelcome turn of events." p. 45
  • "The idea that anything sensible can said about the likely state of the world thousands of years ahead, still less that we can make rational policy decisions on that basis, is mind-boggling." p. 52
  • "stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations is not the same as stabilizing the global temperature" p. 65
  • "Feelgood measures in the western world, from driving a hybrid car to the abolition of plastic bags, to not leaving our television sets on standby, are trivial to the point of irrelevance in this context" pp. 65-66
  • "there still remains the political problem of the widespread public hostility to nuclear power, which is as often as not fomented by those who profess the greatest concern about man-made global warming" p. 70
  • "The African peasant, desperately seeking to replace his renewable [animal] dung with an electricity supply, may not be amused to be told that, is produced by a carbon-fired power station, the electricity generated is dirty...and should be discouraged." p. 71
  • "We care about the welfare of our children and grandchildren, but we do not normally lose sleep over the welfare of our grandchildren's putative grandchildren, nor make financial provision for them." p. 85
  • "Without risk-taking there is no human take policy decisions on the basis...of the worst possible case, is not rational precaution, but irrational alarmism." p. 88
  • "Reliable prediction is impossible." p. 91
  • "the issues surrounding global warming are so often discussed in terms of belief rather than reason" p. 101
  • "Throughout the ages, something deep in man's psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings: 'the end of the world is nigh'. And almost all of us are imbued with a sense of guilt and a sense of sin." p. 102
  • "We appear to have entered a new age of unreason...It is from this, above all, that we really do need to save the planet." p. 106

Sep 21, 2009

The Age of Regret

The Age of Stupid premieres in New York city this evening. Celebrities of various descriptions will be on hand. The film, while described by some as a documentary, is a fictional tale set in the future. Its premise is that the present crop of voters and politicians are too dumb and self-absorbed to do the right thing about the alleged threats posed by global warming. Ergo, some years later, bad things happen on planet Earth. People from the future appear in the film pointing accusing fingers back at our generation.

Admittedly, this is an interesting thought experiment. But more than one scenario may be explored in this manner.

As a feminist, former journalist, photographer, and civil liberties advocate I believe in freedom of expression. I believe in questioning authority. I believe voters are entitled to decide who makes the laws that govern our lives - and that we're also entitled to influence what those laws say. In short, I believe in freedom and democracy. Lots of other people have believed so fervently in these things that they've sacrificed their very lives to ensure liberty for the rest of us.

But principles like free speech are not valued highly by many global warming activists. Some of them say that merely asking questions is "immoral". Others believe that elected officials who don't promote their specific agenda should be jailed.

All sorts of intrusive, privacy-invading measures are being proposed in the name of saving the planet. All kinds of authoritarian ideas are being floated in the name of avoiding a highly speculative future catastrophe. (It's worth remembering that, in 1970, the media warned we'd all be wearing gas masks outdoors by 1980 due to air pollution. Environmental experts were wrong about that - and a great many other things in recent decades.)

So here's my thought experiment. Let's call it The Age of Regret. What shall I say to my grandchildren when they ask me why I let freedom slip away? When they ask why I did nothing as every facet of daily life became assessed, inspected, and tightly regulated by eco authorities.

How shall I explain that I took the word of Al Gore that dramatic changes in ordinary people's lives were necessary even though Mr. Gore himself continues to fly around in a private jet and continues to live in a 20-room mansion that consumes several times more energy than the typical American home?

What shall I say to a granddaughter who isn't permitted to study abroad because she doesn't have enough carbon rations? How shall I explain to my grandson that I have to miss his birthday party because the rules say I'm entitled to only four hour-long drives a month and I've used all of mine helping to care for a dying friend?

How shall I defend myself against accusations that, year after year, I said little while environmentally-driven policies became harsher, while ordinary folks' personal freedoms were steadily eroded, and while ever more decision-making power became concentrated in international bodies that any one country's citizens had faint hope of influencing?

The future is not yet written. But let's be clear: there's more than one nightmare scenario to be frightened of.

[an unflattering review of The Age of Stupid appears here]


Sep 15, 2009

Predicting the Future: Zero Visibility Possible

Yesterday I began collecting examples of the outrageous hyperbole that now dominates the topic of global warming in the popular media.

What strikes me most is the tone of certainty with which people are making pronouncements. These folks sound as though they have access to a crystal ball whose reliability has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt.

They know what the future holds. They know how a fundamentally unpredictable system such as Earth's climate is going to behave if we fail to reduce C02 emissions. They know the results will be catastrophic. They know, well before it has transpired, that humanity will have a last chance to avert disaster. They know, before future generations are even born, that those generations will be powerless to affect their own fates.

Right. And if the fortune teller down the street could actually predict the future, she'd buy a lottery ticket, collect her winnings, and abandon her tacky storefront.

Far too much of what is being published about global warming is utter nonsense. It's a waste of readers' time. The media needs to get a grip. Wild-eyed, apocalyptic predictions about the future are not news. They amount to overwrought speculation - nothing more.

So here's the list I compiled yesterday, as I worked my way through a few days' backlog of reading:

  • “We are rapidly losing time and options to save ourselves from the worst effects of catastrophic climate change.”- Canadian politician, Bruce Hyer

  • "If we have a catastrophic failure to reach an the end of that process there will be full climactic destabilization." - Tim Flannery, Chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council

  • "To maximise our chances of preventing runaway climate change...we need a binding international treaty and the last chance we have to get that within the timescale of the physics of the planet is the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in December." - Franny Armstrong, UK filmmaker

  • "Two degrees is where we trigger runaway climate change: two leads to three, three to four, four to five, five to six … by which time it’s about over for life on earth. In other words, our elected leaders are giving us -- at best -- a coin-flip chance of avoiding catastrophe." - Franny Armstrong, UK filmmaker

  • "The people who came before us didn’t know about climate change and the ones who come after will be powerless to stop it." - Franny Armstrong, UK filmmaker

  • "...which gives us, at best, only a 50/50 chance of avoiding runaway global warming....CO2 levels must be reduced to below 350 parts per million to avoid climate catastrophe...required to avert catastrophic climate impacts..." - Amy Atwood, Center for Biological Diversity

  • "I write about the human migrations that will result from future environmental collapse of our continent in my forthcoming book, North American Ark, but most people, I believe, already share a vague sense of some overwhelming danger...My main point is that climate change is very real and is already causing disastrous, irreversible and extensive environmental change right here in North America." - Giles Slade, author

  • "A deal is not just desirable, but an imperative...on a par with the fight against terrorism...the effects on the planet could be catastrophic. Worse still, there is a sharply increased risk they will create vicious cycles that cause runaway climate change..." - David Miliband, UK Secretary of State

  • ..
    [hat tip to a gent named Tom Nelson, who collects these stories from far and wide and shares them here]