girlie jones (girliejones) wrote,
girlie jones

An addendum to the climate debate

A friend of mine just said to me that "both sides of the argument want me to believe you on faith."

This would appear to be the crux of the issue.

When we say "scientists" we should be clear in saying that very few scientists actually do not think that CO2 is causing the globe to heat. I tried to get the facts and figures from Al Gore's website, but amusingly, I can't access that from work. But in the movie he quoted the thousands and thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers that were distilled down into the IPPC reports. The world is presented with conclusions from this report because thousands and thousands of papers, that are consistent with their broad scale findings, have been compiled.

The skeptics would have you think that this debate is balanced. That scientists are at odds with each other. But the truth is that a decade or more ago science debated these facts. Scientists rigorously peer review each others work, that's how it comes to be considered science. It's not magic. You can't just say anything you like without facts, figures, experiments, observations and then reproduction of all of these by another scientist. Scientists are trained to be critical and skeptical. They are trained to pick holes in arguments and work, their own and everyone else's.

What is this science exactly?
Imagine trying to explain how everything that is on earth - you, me, the rivers, the wetlands, the ocean, the rain, the runoff from the rain, the humidity, the sunlight, the winds, the carbon in shells and on and on into a mathematical equation so that we can change one parameter (CO2 in the atmosphere) and see what happens next. That's this science.

Except, we haven't actually finished understanding all those other things yet - you, me, the rivers, the wetlands, the ocean, the rain, the runoff from the rain, the humidity, the sunlight, the winds, the carbon in shells and on and on. So what happens is, I'll say, well I know a bit about how wetlands work, I'll take that bit. And someone else says, I kinda understand how the trade winds affect the leuwin current, I'll do that bit. And someone else says, I understand how vector borne disease works I'll do that. Someone else says I understand how the sun's light turns into heat, I'll contribute that. And then we'll all look at trying to put numbers into our smaller area so that we can figure out these smaller equations and then we'll feed them up the chain to something called a Global Climate Change model and see if we can find out the answer.

Except how do we combine all these little things? And how do they relate to one another? And does scale matter? And so, we have several Global Climate Models which use different assumptions about how all the smaller aspects should be summed up.

And ... what should we be modelling? Should we try and figure out how things will change and adapt as the temperature slowly heats up? Or should we hot start it at the new temperature?

And one of the fascinating things is ... a bunch of things we thought about the nature of the world happened to only actually hold true at the previous (cause we've already had global warming since 1950) global temperature. You may have noticed that weather predictions have gotten worse and worse. That's cause humidity and the C02 (I think, not quite my area) are not linear or directly related such that the ability of the atmosphere to hold water changed, and that means you get more clouds but less rain (which may or may not then change global temp).

Imagine how every aspect of the nature of the world changes as you change something so that the way each of these parameters acts changes as well. Essentially all the input parameters need to be better understood too in order to build this giant global climate model.

And then imagine whilst you're trying to finesse it, people are looking over your shoulder at one bit and yelling at you cause the relationship between two parameters (CO2 and temp) are not linearly or directly related. And you look up puzzled cause, well, no. There's 150 or 3000 parameters in the equation.

I think one of the problems is miscommunication. Science operates through a series of scrutineering processes to question and audit and rework findings. Before something is considered to be a working theory that is applicable, many many series of work must be done, reproduced and questioned.

Note that science only ever has theories. Always up for being disproved. You can't really "prove" a theory in science so the constant questions of "prove to me that CO2 is causing temperature rise" won't really get you the answer that you want. Science is based on coming up with a theory and testing it. If it is disproved, it gets thrown out. If testing doesn't disprove it, well, it looks like it holds ... until ... until something disproves it. So the theory of gravity has held because every time we jump, we land back on earth. Every time. But ... it could be that at some point in time, some aspect of that is disproved such that, say, on a day when the sky is green and the wind is in a certain direction at 4 minutes past midnight, the gravity engine at the core of the earth switches off and has a cup of coffee. In which case, the theory of gravity will be amended to say it exists except for in the aforementioned case.

So I guess partly, if scientists come across as though they don't want to be questioned, that they want to just be believed, it's not because they've performed the magic and there is a rabbit being pulled out of the hat. It's because they want you to believe in the process - that theories being presented have been worked on and tested and then peer reviewed. You believe that when a drug makes it to the market that the science of it has been tested rigorously, and if it is for the disease you have, you take the drug.

I think that with climate change, the discussion being had in parliament and in the media is occurring out of step with science. Such that the questions being asked now have been asked and reasked a while ago and the answers have long been accepted. Being asked to consider things that already have been feels like spanners being thrown in to stop the momentum of the progress of the work now, since those things have already been established.

I hate being asked the questions because, whilst I have knowledge, mine is in a discrete part of the field. And when I don't know the answer it looks like the question has stumped "science" when all it's done is stump a wetland hydrologist whose field is in water quantity and flow in wetlands. It's like laughing at medicine when you go to a heart specialist to get a knee problem fixed. I long since looked at the evidence and read a lot of the papers discussed in the IPCC reports. At that time I satisfied myself that the science was rigorous and that the skeptics were out there loonies grasping at straws to maintain a status quo that doesn't work - plants and animals are becoming extinct, water resources are dwindling, habitat is being lost at an alarming rate, top soil erosion and salinity bring challenges of secure food sources for the future. but the actual in and outs of the atmospheric science? Well, that you should ask of an expert.

But the fact that *I* can't answer the question, doesn't make the questioner right.

And the fact that I believe in the theories underpinning current climate change but can't express them to you in a 5 minute spiel, doesn't mean I've drunk the koolaid and hopped on the bandwagon. It just means that the questions are complex.

But I guess it feels like an attack on me as a scientist because I don't know all the climatic science ins and outs and then it feels like an attack on science cause we've moved on, accepted basic facts and are building on that, whilst other (nonscientists) want to rehash the old debates.
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