2007-12-14

The importance of cold, hard, facts

What drives you? Ideology? Pragmatism? Or maybe a bit of both?

When it comes to issues of faith - which arguably could be defined as ideology - there is much that can't be tested or prodded scientifically. God can't be proven to exist in a lab, or via some form of empirical testing. Of course the fact that God can't be proven to exist in this manner does not mean he doesn't, since there are limits to what science can achieve (although it can achieve quite a lot).

It's when ideology (not faith) hits the real world that its advantages and disadvantages are shown up. Imagine ideology like a tyre built for motorcycles in the MotoGP - if built correctly it serves brilliantly, but one small mistake could end in a crash.

Communism is a classic case of ideology driving a society into poverty. Soviet central planners, in their desire to remain ideologically pure, instituted economic processes that fitted with their ideology - namely, that supply, demand and price is set by the planner rather than the horrible "market" that those dreaded capitalist countries used. The problem was that central planning just didn't work. Too much of one thing was made, resulting in warehouses full of unused products (like spare parts for steam trains), while too little of other things were made, resulting in shortages, and prices were set by committee, resulting in queues and black market profiteers.

Soviet Communism worked quite well from about 1950 until 1970. But from 1970 onwards, it was obvious that a limit had been reached. Economic growth stagnated, people's standard of living drifted downwards and ordinary Russians began to quietly grumble. It took the Soviet Union about 15 years to realise that its ideological practices were simply not working. A change was needed. Then Gorbachev arrived, Perestroika was introduced, and the rest is history.

Ideology that is unsupported by cold, hard, facts becomes useless. One of the reasons why economic neoliberalism (a freeing up of markets) has become so popular over the years is that it has worked. Yet, even now, free market ideology is blinding many people as to its limits. Facts - cold hard facts - need to be assessed and digested in order for ideology to work. Ideology itself needs to change by the presentation of objectively sourced facts.

Back in either 1981 or 1982 a group of Greenies came to Epping Boys High School. These greenies were worried about oil. Our teacher allowed them into our class where they presented their facts and got us to discuss them. The facts were obvious - oil was running out and there may not be enough oil to power our cars by the year 1990. They presented graphs and gave compelling evidence that this was occurring. Of course, I was about 13 at the time so I wasn't really looking ahead to 1990 and the international calamity that was going to befall us.

It was in 1990 that I vaguely remembered those strange greenies. "These guys said we were going to suddenly run out of oil" I said to myself, "What a bunch of losers! There's plenty of oil out there". And so was my opinion - my ideology - created out of cold, hard, facts.

So when in 2004 my friend Dave emailed me about this thing called "Peak Oil" that the world was running out of oil, I was scarcely in the mood to listen. I had read in the Economist magazine that the world had about 100 years of oil reserves left in the ground. While Dave was going psycho, I was just nodding my head and telling him what I knew.

In hindsight, Dave's refusal to give up his argument was the best thing to happen. The reason was (and still is) that I am a firm believer in cold, hard facts. So rather than just dismissing Dave as a raving looney, I sought to discredit his argument. I read up about Peak Oil. I visited the ASPO site. I eventually came to grips with the science behind Hubbert's Peak.

And, armed with all this information, what did I do?

I changed my mind.

Why? Why did I embrace the idea of Peak Oil when my first experience of oil doomers was so negative? Well, first of all, was the removal of an important assumption - that these people were saying that the world would suddenly run out of oil. No. After looking at Peak Oil and understanding the concepts behind it, I realised that the world was never going to suddenly run out of oil - it was going to slowly run out of oil.

It was then that I realised that those greenies back in 1982 were actually correct in theory, but wrong in their predictions. The reason why their predictions were wrong was that the facts they relied upon were going out of date. These greenies were looking at proven oil reserves and average oil consumption at the time - both of which changed drastically during the 1980s (oil reserves grew, oil consumption dropped). These early peakniks may have left me (and others) with the impression that oil was going to suddenly run out, but, the truth was, that they were early adopters of a real problem, but had not been given the correct information. In other words, cold, hard facts.

These days it is different. Peak Oil has entered the mainstream. Moreover, there are cold, hard facts behind it. Oil production levels worldwide have been at a plateau for the past 12-18 months while the price of oil has skyrocketed - proof that something is preventing oil supplies meeting demand. Then there's the cold, hard facts about American oil production, which peaked in the early 1970s and has been in decline ever since - empirical proof that Hubbert's Peak is good science.

This same phenomenon - cold, hard, facts - is what has also turned me into a "believer" in anthropogenic global warming.

The thing is, I was interested in global warming and its potential effects long before it became a political issue. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s I remember examining all the potential explanations - that warming was a cyclical phenomenon, that sunspots were to blame, that "urban heat islands" were distorting temperature measurements. I looked at them all and still came away convinced that, while world temperatures were affected by exogenous phenomena (sunspots, Milankovich cycle), there seemed to be very clear evidence that a) CO2 levels in the atmosphere affect global temperatures (the more CO2, the warmer it is), and b) that CO2 levels in the world's atmosphere have been rising substantially since the industrial revolution. Years before Gore did his film, I was a believer.

And it wasn't as though I didn't go through doubts - I did. For a time I became a denier - but, again, this was before the whole issue became political. Talking to science teachers helped too. In fact, one science teacher in a science staffroom spoke out in favour of global warming, arguing that it was a good thing and created life - much to the surprise of the rest of the staffroom, who couldn't believe that the guy's arguments were anything but bunkum. But all this was before it was political. The science teachers who were "believers" so many years ago were not left-wing communist greens, and the science teacher who was a "denier" was not a free-market, small-government conservative.

These days it is much more difficult to maintain a position on global warming without somehow siding on one side of the political fence, or at least being accused of doing so.

One problem, of course, is the Green movement itself. Back in the 1990s, Greenies had a broad environmental agenda. They were more cognizant of global warming than the rest of the population, but they also focused upon the Ozone layer, the extinction of plants and animals, as well as encouraging people to become vegetarians. So, as global warming became more part of international consciousness, those who spoke up about it were generally greenies - which meant that they automatically alienated a significant portion of the population to the message since it then became political. These days greenies focus very strongly on global warming.

Back when John Howard came to power, I was very much a hater of greenies and lefties, strange as it might seem. This view was backed up by my very limited exposure to university politics at Macquarie University. In the late 1990s, Australia was definitely moving in a conservative direction, and all the whining, bleating, feminists and environmentalists and political activists were yelling the most at Uni. For a while under John Howard I became quite politically conservative as well (and I voted for him).

It seems strange now that I vote for the Greens when I have such bad memories of them. There is something quite uniquely distasteful about leftist political protesting. I remember when a bunch of feminists protested against the introduction of the GST by complaining that tampons would be taxed - they turned up at a political meet wearing women's underpants on the outside of their jeans, with red paint smearing the nether regions of the underwear as they claimed that the GST would make tampons less affordable, thus making the GST anti-women. It was a very low point in my opinion towards lefties.

But the reason why I vote Green these days is not because of these strange anti-GST feminists, or the freeway protester who flipped her middle finger at me as I rode by on my motorbike (they were protesting against the freeway's existence on a pedestrian bridge. As I rode closer to them I waved and the woman flipped me off in response). No. Even though I don't like their choice of clothes or even the fact that their economics is too left wing for me, they were right about global warming. They were convinced by the cold, hard facts and came to the same conclusion that I did.

I'm not a "greenie". I eat meat, I drive a car, use disposable nappies and think that capitalism is not all evil. But I can't get away from cold, hard, facts.

I contacted a friend of mine last week. He's a godly man from my old church. He's just completed his M.Div and is currently looking to join a missionary organisation. The idea is that he go to a developing nation as an academic and become a tent-maker. What sort of academic is he? He has a Ph.D in earth sciences, specifically in studying the effects of tropical cyclones in flooding Fiji. Not only is this guy a conservative evangelical who knows his Koine Greek and has an M.Div from Bible College, but he is also a climatologist with a doctorate. When I asked him about anthropogenic global warming, he comes down firmly on the "believer" side. I don't know what party this guy votes for, or whether he considers himself politically left or politically right. What I do know is that his opinion on global warming matters, and his expert opinion matches the opinion of my own - "informed amateur" I may be.

Let me finish by talking about Al Gore quickly. Al mentioned in his film that there were no peer reviewed scientific papers that disagreed with anthropogenic global warming. This statement is based upon a paper released by Naomi Oreskes (link, pdf, 71.2kb), in which she examines every single peer reviewed scientific paper on climate change between 1993 and 2003 - a total of 928 articles by climatologists and other experts - and finds that none of them expressed any doubt whatsoever that the current phenomenon of global warming has human activity at its basis. Moreover, reputable scientific bodies all over the world have released statements affirming their belief in anthropogenic climate change (read more here).

Al may be a Democrat. Al may have his own political ambitions. Al may even have ulterior motives behind his film. But he is right. Global Warming is a truth that is very, very inconvenient.

21 comments:

BLBeamer said...

Cold hard facts are good things. Precision is also a good thing. If one is enamoured of them, one will not use Michael Moore as a source for one's arguments and one will stop using the "99.9% of scientists agree" meme.

I agree not to. How about you, Neil? ;)

One Salient Oversight said...

Fine, I'll be more accurate then.

100.00% of climatologists (based upon Orestes' study).

One Salient Oversight said...

BTW - have you watched any of Moore's films?

BLBeamer said...

I prefer his TV shows. He has a certain talent and can be quite funny. I saw "Roger and Me", but the rest of his movies I've not seen.

It's hard to take him seriously as a documentarian when, confronted with evidence that contradicts his thesis, he threatens to sue. I almost saw "Sicko" until I watched an interview with him on the TV show 20/20. That interview convinced me he's a fraud. That and his churlish manner, his contempt for "the little guy", and his nasty remarks after the 9/11 attacks put me firmly in the non-fan camp.

I'm interested in accuracy, too, by the way. I'm not trying to be flip. What is it that 100% of climatologists agree on? "Global Warming" is an imprecise term, as I believe I've pointed out here before.

Nearly the only thing 100% of scientists agree on regarding the term "Global Warming" is the spelling.

Dave Lankshear said...

Beamer, my understanding is that there are retired hack climatologists that go around presenting the top 26 myths perpetrated by sceptics, but otherwise most agree. There are 1 or 2 that disagree and express concern about the accuracy of our ability to model climate systems but to my knowledge they haven't published credible papers in credible peer reviewed reports.

Occasionally "dialogues" are published, usually rants from self-promoting outsiders, but they are debunked fairly easily.

Your tropical anomaly has attracted some more attention lately, but is being comprehensively addressed by a variety of climate organisations. It attracted attention because the authors attempted to sell it as "Global Warming debunking" when it's looking like compromised instruments and procedures.

Take a long hard read of that "Scientific Opinion" wiki Neil linked to, as it's very important to see the level of unanimous agreement in the field. (Which in the USA is just not reported.)

And don't watch Mike Moore films. Although I agree with his goals, how he gets there is appalling. (Fabricating evidence, lies and slander, and ruining a perfectly good story that would sell itself if he just told the FACTS).

Dave Lankshear said...

Forgot to add: you can read all about the naughty claims of this tropical anomaly pseudo paper at Realclimate.org

BLBeamer said...

When you say "Global Warming", what is the first thing that comes to mind? Ten meters of sea water in Manhattan due to melted ice caps? Extinct polar bears? Famine, drought, flood, devastation?

Or do you think of mildly increasing temperatures which may have a partially human cause?

Or do you think of localized phenomena with no real effects globally?

Or do you think of something else? I believe this is one of the main causes of argument: failure to define terms or presuppositions before sharing views.

Secondly, are there no non-retired hack climatologists? Interesting, that.

Dave Lankshear said...

Beamer, when someone mentions "Global Warming" the idea that comes to my mind is a vast game of Russian roulette or dice, where the fate of water supply for even first world nations like America, entire ecosystems (not just individual species), and the stability of El Nino patterns are being played.

It's a game of dice. It's probability, not certainty. It's risk mitigation. It's the "Precautionary principle". It's insurance, not absolute certainty!

So any/all of the scenarios you mention could happen to varying degrees of severity — or not. The climatologists talk in terms of probability. It's funny how Christians have a real problem with it when it comes to climate, but not when it comes to their insurance or medical advice. Insurance will charge a penalty on you if you happen to live in a high crime area. We pay that, understanding why it's got to be that way, even though we hope nothing happens. Christians take the advice of medical doctors. "Sorry sir, but without this procedure there's a 60% chance you'll go blind." We get medical advice from a second doctor, who says there's a 50% chance. We get the procedure.

But when it comes to climate... NO! We demand absolute certainty, even though the climatologists are talking really high probability of some really nasty scenarios. If you insist on absolute certainty before action is taken on climate, I wonder how you can take out insurance or get medical advice?

BLBeamer said...

Dave - Like nearly any human endeavor, we deal with probabilities, cost, benefits, priorities, etc.

I don't believe your analogy using insurance or medical advice is entirely appropriate, and here's why: who suffers or pays if we guess wrong?

If I don't buy insurance, and something happens to me, then the losses are suffered primarily by my family and friends, if they choose to help.

Not so for many of the massive non-voluntary governmental programs I've seen prescribed.

Dave Lankshear said...

The main point was probability. For Christians the main point in Global Warming risk is that it affects the poor. The North dropped most of this Co2 on the south.

We're playing Russian Roulette, but pointing the gun at those nations most incapable of adapting.

BLBeamer said...

I'm all for aiding those most incapable of adapting, but crippling ourselves hardly seems like a prudent way to go about it.

And further crippling those most incapable of helping themselves through draconian trade or industrial policies makes even less sense.

Dave Lankshear said...

As Neil often says...

"Sir, the Panzer division has invaded, they are already storming our beaches!"

"Don't worry Captain, let the market sort it out."

If Global Warming is as bad as the scientists say it is, we have no choice. We MUST address it. Avoiding addressing it in the name of economic imperatives gets it exactly the wrong way around. As Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond states, "Economic rationale is precisely the reason we should take care of the environment, because environmental problems are far cheaper to fix earlier rather than later — if the damage later can be fixed at all." (Speech on Scientific American.)

He refers to New Orleans where a few hundred million could have prepared New Orleans for Katrina by reinforcing the levies, but now the damage bill is how many billions?

The stern report also recommends action now. Obsessing about a few percent of world GDP now ignores the potential damage to our kids and their economic future.

For example, the insurance industry is terrified of Global Warming.

As Wikipedia says...

"In a summary of economic cost associated with climate change, the United Nations Environment Programme emphasizes the risks to insurers, reinsurers, and banks of increasingly traumatic and costly weather events. Other economic sectors likely to face difficulties related to climate change include agriculture and transport. Developing countries, rather than the developed world, are at greatest economic risk.[70]"

BLBeamer said...

If Global Warming is as bad as the scientists say it is, we have no choice.

The potential severity is one of the things on which the scientists do not agree.

He refers to New Orleans where a few hundred million could have prepared New Orleans for Katrina by reinforcing the levies, but now the damage bill is how many billions?

Many millions were spent for the purpose of fixing the levees, but the local governments did not spend it on its intended purpose due to corruption. New Orleans was more a victim of politics than nature. Why do so many believe that things will change now? The possibility of a large hurricane damaging a city built mostly below sea level was a more real threat than hypothetical climate-related catastrophes based on flawed (but improving) models. Yet, with decades of opportunity, look what happened.

How confident are you that the governments of countries like Zimbabwe would spend any aid money on climate related efforts? Zimbabwe is probably the worst scenario possible, but not the only example of my point.

One Salient Oversight said...

Beamer,

I know it's hard for you to understand, but when we non-Americans actually benefit from our government programs and see them as essential, and then when we look at the United States and see how people suffer over there from a lack of these programs, you can sort of understand why it is that we find anti-government rhetoric so empty.

This is a thread about cold. hard facts. The cold, hard facts are that here in non-America was have bigger and more competent government that America does, which has led to a more equitable standard of living.

Check out the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI). America is at no. 12 (meaning 11 other countries have better outcomes) but its position is almost entirely due to its GDP per capita levels. Since the collapse of the dollar, the US would probably now sit at between 20 and 30 on the list.

Equal weight is given to three aspects of modern life that make up the index number - GDP per capita, average life expectancy and educational attainment. All of the nations who "beat" the USA have bigger and more competent governments who provide public "safety nets" that the US does not.

Government is not the enemy. If it was there'd be no US Constitution. The framers obviously sought to limit the power of government, but that was in comparison to corrupt monarchies of the time.

Cold, hard facts mate.

Dave Lankshear said...

Beamer, the effects of Global Warming could be closer to home than you imagine in timeframes faster than you imagine. Economies ravaged by a sudden need to build enormous desalination plants everywhere, crops collapsing due to shrinking melt-water, the list goes on.

One of my concerns is that El Nino doesn't get stuck. If that body became permanently fixed over off the coast of Brazil instead of north of Australia and Indonesia, then the Amazon would collapse releasing even more Co2, and Australia would hardly ever receive the rain we need to grow our own crops. Let alone our tourism shrinking with the death of the Great Barrier Reef. But hey? Tourism's a gonner anyway if airline prices rise due to peak oil... lots of fun coming our way over the coming decade.

See the "Effects of Global Warming".


Thing is Beamer, would you still get that eye surgery if one doctor said there was a 40% chance you'd go blind and another said 60%? Would you abandon the procedure because they "disagreed?" We're back to those probabilities again.

Dave Lankshear said...

For instance, something that could affect the USA economy quite dramatically is Glacial Retreat.

Check out this map of the world, and see where the USA's glaciers are in significant retreat.

See America's great drought

"A lot of people think climate change and the ecological repercussions are 50 years away," Thomas Swetnam, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told The New York Times a few months ago. "But it's happening now in the West. The data is telling us that we are in the middle of one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States." Across the West, farmers and city water consumers are locked in a perennial battle over water rights - one that the cities are slowly winning. Down the line, though, there are serious questions about how to keep showers and lawn sprinklers going in the retirement communities of Nevada and Arizona. Lake Powell, the reservoir on the upper Colorado River that helps provide water across a vast expanse of the West, has been less than half full for years, with little prospect of filling up in the foreseeable future.

According to the NOAA's recent report, the West can expect 10-20 per cent less rainfall by mid-century, which will increase air pollution in the cities, kill off trees and water-retaining giant cactus plants and shrink the available water supply by as much as 25 per cent. In the south-east, the crisis is immediate - and may be alleviated at any moment by the arrival of the tropical storm season. In Georgia, where the driest spring on record followed closely on the heels of a devastating frost, farmers are afraid they might lose anywhere from half to two-thirds of crops such as melons and the state's celebrated peaches. Many cities are restricting lawn sprinklers to one hour per day - and some places one hour only every other day.





According to the Wiki,

"Of particular importance are the Hindu Kush and Himalayan glacial melts that comprise the principal dry-season water source of many of the major rivers of the South, East and Southeast Asian mainland. Increased melting would cause greater flow for several decades, after which "some areas of the most populated regions on Earth are likely to 'run out of water'" as source glaciers are depleted. [37]

According to a UN climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow - could disappear by 2035 as temperatures rise.[38] Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers.[39] India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.[40][41][42]"


Also see this report by the IISS

"Overall, it said 65 countries were likely to lose over 15 per cent of their agricultural output by 2100 at a time when the world's population was expected to head from six billion now to nine billion people.

"Fundamental environmental issues of food, water and energy security ultimately lie behind many present security concerns, and climate change will magnify all three," it added."

BLBeamer said...

Neil, I would not characterize government per se as the enemy. Government is necessary. I'm not an anarchist. Far from it.

Why is it so hard for some of you to imagine that solutions to problems can be found and ought to be encouraged that do not require the actions of a powerful government of over 300M people?

Any solution to problems as massive and widespread as the "Global Warming catastrophe" can't possibly be imposed on a country as diverse and dynamic as the US.

The solution any democratic body such as the US Congress comes up with will be less than ideal if for no other reason than the nature of democratic governments: they represent a wide spectrum of views and numerous factions, some with diametrically opposed views. Democratic laws and policies are the result of compromise. Throw into the mix the inevitable human factors of corruption, errors, incompetence, etc. and I don't understand why you seem amazed that I am skeptical the answer lies in government action.

I have to run some errands now, but I will return later this evening to complete my response to both Neil and Dave. I am enjoying this sharing of views, gentlemen.

Dave Lankshear said...

Excellent, so am I. I look forward to your response.

BLBeamer said...

Gentlemen - I hope you will understand. The season has certain obligations which are unavoidable. This will be lamentably brief, mere talking points.

then when we look at the United States and see how people suffer over there from a lack of these programs,

Which programs are lacking that you feel are causing the American people to suffer, that are not available in the private sector?

The cold, hard facts are that here in non-America was have bigger and more competent government that America does, which has led to a more equitable standard of living.

You'll get little argument from me regarding the competence or lack of same in our government. We have some states with excellent governments and others with appallingly poor ones. I'm not sure equitable standard of living is all that popular here, if you mean income leveling.

Since the collapse of the dollar, the US would probably now sit at between 20 and 30 on the list.

Equal weight is given to three aspects of modern life that make up the index number - GDP per capita, average life expectancy and educational attainment. All of the nations who "beat" the USA have bigger and more competent governments who provide public "safety nets" that the US does not.


As we've discussed elsewhere, you and I agree on the ruinous inflationary policy the US has been following for decades. I'm afraid the worst isn't over, either.

Avg. life expectancy is more a function of obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, stress, and genetics, than it is to government safety net. Americans' life expectancies are lower because they live unhealthy lifestyles.

As I've said before, at the current rate of govt. "help" for education, the entire country will be illiterate in a generation. The decline in our educational standards correlates very closely to the dramatic increase in spending per student by local and federal govts.

Neil, I'm all for the government doing those things it can do, but it can't do everything. Many things are best left to the states or individuals - especially given the enormity of our country. I know you have never been here, but does it make sense to expect a solution mandated out of Washington, DC to work as well in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in NY as it does in a Scotch-Irish town in northern Alabama?

BLBeamer said...

Dave, I'm out of time tonight (it's nearly 10 pm here). Talk to you tomorrow.

I'm terribly sorry.

Dave Lankshear said...

Hi Beamer,
hoping you have a great Christmas. If you get time when you get back to blogging....

As I've said before, at the current rate of govt. "help" for education, the entire country will be illiterate in a generation. The decline in our educational standards correlates very closely to the dramatic increase in spending per student by local and federal govts.

Correlation does not prove causation. There could be other factors involved to explain poorer educational standards, such as large cultural shifts away from reading for entertainment to TV and video games.