Sceptical voices, reflections

If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt!

I know that expression from my days as a private pilot.  It makes such obvious sense, especially in a single-engined light aircraft with one pilot on board.  It’s all about risk.

Frederick Herzberg, the famous American psychologist, coined the term ‘hygiene factor’.  It was the second part of a two-factor approach to the management of people.  According to Herzberg’s theory, people are influenced by two sets of factors, motivation factors and hygiene factors.  More background on this aspect here.

To me, as I reflect on the messages offered in the Sceptical Voices article, Part One and Part Two, the concepts of risk and hygiene seem totally appropriate to the topic of AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Whether or not AGW is a valid theory behind the rapid change in global warming is utterly irrelevant.  It is the risk to humanity that matters.  There is absolutely no harm done from assuming that AGW is happening and that feedback processes run a grave risk of tipping planetary conditions out of control, and getting that wrong.

On the other hand, assume that AGW is such an uncertain concept that it really isn’t wise to adjust our life styles, and getting that wrong would endanger the human species.

Think of being on a commercial airline flight and you become aware that one of the two pilots in the cockpit is incapacitated through food poisoning.  No doubt that you, with all your fellow passengers, would vote for an immediate diversionary landing.  It’s to do with risk.

From the perspective of Herzberg, a co-ordinated program by the world’s leading governments to tackle AGW might also improve the overall motivation of their peoples in a whole manner of ways.

Merci voiced this perfectly in her comment to Sceptical Voices, Part One, thus,

Yes, question all we want, yes, there are other important issues to resolve in the world, but WHAT IF “Climate Change/Global Warming“ is for real, what then?

Dan wrote also in that Part One piece,

And by “peel-back-the-onion”, I mean that any ardent, independent researcher should publish both sides of the story as a matter of course.  Especially in regards to global warming.

But publishing both sides of the story is not the argument.  The argument is the risk to humanity of doing nothing, and getting it wrong.

That well-respected weekly newspaper The Economist had a recent article about the melting of Arctic ice, from which is quoted,

Arctic sea ice is melting far faster than climate models predict. Why?

Sep 24th 2011 - from the print edition

ON SEPTEMBER 9th, at the height of its summertime shrinkage, ice covered 4.33m square km, or 1.67m square miles, of the Arctic Ocean, according to America’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). That is not a record low—not quite. But the actual record, 4.17m square km in 2007, was the product of an unusual combination of sunny days, cloudless skies and warm currents flowing up from mid-latitudes. This year has seen no such opposite of a perfect storm, yet the summer sea-ice minimum is a mere 4% bigger than that record. Add in the fact that the thickness of the ice, which is much harder to measure, is estimated to have fallen by half since 1979, when satellite records began, and there is probably less ice floating on the Arctic Ocean now than at any time since a particularly warm period 8,000 years ago, soon after the last ice age.

That Arctic sea ice is disappearing has been known for decades. The underlying cause is believed by all but a handful of climatologists to be global warming brought about by greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet the rate the ice is vanishing confounds these climatologists’ models. These predict that if the level of carbon dioxide, methane and so on in the atmosphere continues to rise, then the Arctic Ocean will be free of floating summer ice by the end of the century. At current rates of shrinkage, by contrast, this looks likely to happen some time between 2020 and 2050.

Re-read the sentence, “The underlying cause is believed by all but a handful of climatologists to be global warming brought about by greenhouse-gas emissions.”  In particular, “by all but a handful of climatologists”  Think of risk.

That article, which should be read in full, concludes thus,

A warming Arctic will bring local benefits to some. The rest of the world may pay the cost.

Indeed, the rest of the world may pay the cost!  As I wrote, it’s all about risk.

So whether or not one wants to believe every word of that Economist article is irrelevant.  Or whether one should have believed, or not, the article in New York’s The Sun newspaper back in 2007,

By SETH BORENSTEIN, Associated Press | December 12, 2007

WASHINGTON — An already relentless melting of the Arctic greatly accelerated this summer, a warning sign that some scientists worry could mean global warming has passed an ominous tipping point. One even speculated that summer sea ice would be gone in five years.

Greenland’s ice sheet melted nearly 19 billion tons more than the previous high mark, and the volume of Arctic sea ice at summer’s end was half what it was just four years earlier, according to new NASA satellite data obtained by the Associated Press.

“The Arctic is screaming,” a senior scientist at the government’s snow and ice data center in Boulder, Colo., Mark Serreze, said.

Last year, two scientists surprised their colleagues by projecting that the Arctic sea ice was melting so fast that it could disappear entirely by the summer of 2040. This week, after reviewing his own new data, a NASA climate scientist, Jay Zwally, said: “At this rate, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions.”

So scientists in recent days have been asking themselves these questions: Was the record melt seen all over the Arctic in 2007 a blip amid relentless and steady warming? Or has everything sped up to a new climate cycle that goes beyond the worst case scenarios presented by computer models? “The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming,” Mr. Zwally, who as a teenager hauled coal, said. “Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines.” [My emphasis, PH]

So, in conclusion, scepticism is healthy and is an important aspect of open debate within an open society, part of determining truth, however challenging that simple concept might be.

But eventually one needs to take a position, to take a stand on the really important issues in life and in the case of climate change the risk of being too sceptical, too cautious is to put the lives of future generations at stake.  For me, and I guess for tens of thousands of others, that is a risk too far.

2 thoughts on “Sceptical voices, reflections

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