Some thoughts on Climate Change

A lot of people have generated a lot of words about the topic of climate change. An awful lot of them really probably shouldn’t because they don’t really know what they are talking about, and all they are doing is spreading misinformation (even if well intentioned) and/or further inflaming an already politically charged debate. Unfortunately, even some people who do know what they are talking about sometimes go beyond their areas of competence and, more importantly, convolve science, policy, and politics.  This is a long post, sorry about that, but complex subjects require thoughtful discussions, and short posts can’t cover the topic. Even this is abbreviated to the point of oversimplification. It is a sad commentary on our society that nuanced discussions are virtually impossible in social media, yet that is increasingly how views are expressed.  Even 24 hour “news” outlets tend to focus on short, sound-byte driven coverage.  But enough whining.

So why am I writing this, and why should you care what I think? A bit of background first … I’ve been involved in climate change research and policy since the mid 1990’s.  I participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change RA4, and was invited by both Republican (Bush 43) and Democrat (Obama) administrations to be on the US committee.  I declined both of those invitations, because I was uncomfortable with the political nature and overtones of that process, and preferred to remain in the international realm and not be overly associated with a single government’s viewpoints or policies.  That is not to criticize those who are on the US committee, but I must say was not alone in being uncomfortable with how the US conducts its process, and some pretty prominent scientists have quietly declined to participate in it.  This leads me to my first point.  The IPCC and individual government processes to study climate change were in theory a good idea, but got off track as they have moved further away from science into policy.  There are essentially three aspects to the climate change issues (or any technical issue for that matter):

  1. What are the facts?  In this case, is the climate doing, why is it doing it, and what is it likely to do in the future?
  2. What are the implications and impacts?  In other words, what are the potential impacts of any climate changes?
  3. Given the impacts, what (if anything) do we need to do about it, based on the causes?

(1) and (2) are essentially only science.  What you believe, your politics, your religion, have nothing to do with it.  It’s not simple, but it’s just data and the laws of physics and probability.  The third, on the other hand, is mostly politics.  Sure, science, engineering, and economics will tell you if the policies you want to propose are rational, or will do anything about causes and effects, but ultimately it is a policy question, and that’s a political question that (hopefully) is informed by the science.

In my not so humble opinion, one key problem is the current system tries to do all three in a single process. And that’s a Bad Thing.  Because climate is such a complex and technical issue, and because some scientists have not kept these three things separate, politicians and those who think in political terms have attacked the science because they no longer see it as science, but just another political tactic associated with an agenda. Lets be clear here: I could design a response to the worst projections regarding climate change that would make the ghost of Adam Smith write a new chapter in Wealth of Nations singing its praises, or Zombie Lenin to burst out of the mausoleum and cry Отлично! in the heart of Red Square.  Another key problem is that because the “left” (in quotes, there are no real leftist or liberal movements in the US, but that’s another discussion) has fully taken up the cause because if fits with their worldview, and allows many of their agenda points to be pressed under the rubric of “doing something” even if those things wouldn’t really do much about the underlying problem.  Likewise, much of the opposition on the “right” (and again, in the US, there are no politically conservative movements in the US) is based more on a reaction to the policy proposals of the “left”, and the false concept that anthropogenic climate change is a fake issue to promote those policies.

But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s take the three aspects above in sequence.  First, what are the facts?  While the technical details are complex, it’s really fairly simple.  Humans have in an extremely short time (geologically speaking) radically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, as well as the surface of the Earth.  These changes must, by the very nature of the Earth’s climate system, result in changes from historical weather and climate patterns because the system is interactive.  That’s the theory, and the theory is backed up by observations at the local level, going back to studies at the turn of the *last* century (late 1800’s) that rain patterns east of Paris began to depend on the day of the week, due to the dust churned up by the city. This is backed up by modern studies (PDF).  At the planetary level, changes are harder to detect, but are also becoming increasingly evident.  So while the details are complex, don’t be drawn in debates over minutia.  While there are scientists that have legitimate, credible concerns about various technical issues like cloud depiction in models, or sensor changes over time (I’m among those who feel tropical cyclone intensity changes are not within the ability of the quality of our historical data to detect), these concerns do not compromise the overarching conclusion:  human activities are causing ahistorical, “unnatural” changes both weather and climate, and those changes are increasing.  It is wrong of activists on the “left” to trash scientists with concerns (I’ve actually been called a “Climate Denier” because I expressed concerns over the hurricane data – and I’m a long time advocate of “doing something that works” on this issue!), just as it is wrong for those on the “right” to attack scientists from the other perspective.  Have no doubt: the science is never perfect, but it is solid, and actionable.

So, what about those impacts (aspect number 2).  That is a bit fuzzier, but again the data says there is a problem, and it is getting worse.   We are already seeing significant changes in agriculture, animal migration patterns, disease outbreaks, and a myriad of other indicators.  Note these reinforce point one, and show that this isn’t just a small group of climate specialists – multiple fields are seeing impacts.  So the second aspect is also clear: while exact nature of these impacts is somewhat fuzzy, the best science indicates that there are and will be increasingly negative impacts for both humans and the natural world.

OK, what to we do (aspect 3).  As noted above here is where things have broken down, largely because the politics (which should have been confined to policy decisions) has infected the science.  Much of the climate debate is focused on the IPCC and their periodic reports.  The problem is that this is a fundamentally political process.  The IPCC does not do original research.  It simply periodically compiles and synthesizes the latest research into a comprehensive report.  The problem is that process ultimately goes through review by the political levels of the participant governments.  Then it ends up in what is called a COP, or more formally, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The 24th such meeting is in progress in Katowice, Poland as I write this.  The current meetings (Sunday, 9 December 2018) have broken down over whether the phrase “welcome” or “takes note” will be used to receive the latest IPCC report. Yeah, seriously, that’s the hang up, although of course that’s just the excuse being used by some parties to sabotage the process.  Rather that let the process work by receiving a technical report (albeit one already tinged by politics), some national governments are using the process to avoid discussing the implications of the report on bogus grounds.  It’s insanity, but it’s the way things work.  But, to be honest, the IPCC/COP process has never worked.  The various agreements as agreed never had any chance of actually doing anything about climate change anyway.  Too many secondary issues involving wealth transfer from first to third world, economics, and so forth became convolved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

How do we fix this broken process?  As “long” as this post is, that would take a lot longer to even begin to discuss.  The first thing is to get the national governments out of the review process for the IPCC technical reports, and disconnect the policy creation process from the technical assessment process at both the national and intergovernmental levels.  People on the “right” need to realize that while the “left” may have been the first to jump on the bandwagon, and push their “solutions” (that, naturally, also address their worldview), there are a lot of options to address the problem, some of which would actually work, and give the average “progressive leftist” a serious case of hives.  Things like nuclear power, or free market approaches to energy production/distribution (the current system isn’t anything approaching a free market).  Another significant problem, especially here in the US, is the fact that some have confused religion into this.  I don’t separate in this discussion politics and religion, mostly because here in the US the two are somewhat inseparable since everything in this benighted land becomes about the two party political system.  But an unfortunate (and incorrect) view has developed particularly in the US that science in general and environmental and biological science in particular are “anti-Christian” in some way.  Again, long discussion involving theology as much as science.  But this also highlights another complex aspect of the problem.  People on the “left” or “right”, or “Christian” vs “Atheist” really don’t understand each other, and don’t communicate.  And it seems like they are more eager to score points and demonize the other than acknowledge the complexity of the discussion, take the time to understand why people hold the views they do, and reach some conclusion based on neutral facts that can be mutually agreed on.

The bottom line is that the climate issue highlights many of the flaws that are inherent in the present system of human governance and decision making at the national and nation-state level.  In the US, it highlights the dysfunctional nature of the media, educational system, and political party systems in particular.   I’m a scientist, not a politician, and I don’t have any good ideas on how to fix the process so that we can address issues like Climate Change in a way that has any hope of working.  But I know for sure we are headed for some really bad times ahead if we don’t.  It’s a pretty planet, with amazing places and wonderful people.  Let’s figure out a way to not screw it up …

Florida declares “state of emergency” over Alberto

There was a time when a “state of emergency” (SOE) meant something.  Nuclear war.  Major natural disaster.  Riots.  Devastation on a grand scale.  Dogs and cats sleeping together, that sort of thing.  But not any more, at least in modern America.  Election years seem especially prone to SOE’s and sober pronouncements by Those In Power that while the situation is dire,  under their beneficent leadership, It Will All Be Ok 😛 .  Politicians running for higher office love them – they get to “show leadership”.  But snark aside, what are some of the factors here?

Declaring SOE in advance of a potential disaster has become a normal way of doing business. It supposedly allows preparations for the disaster.  If the event actually happens, then a “disaster declaration” is made triggering further actions.  In one sense I get it, because the normal workings of bureaucracy have become so slow, convoluted, and constrained, that getting things done in a timely manner (or even at all, given the hyper-partisanship rampant in America these days) is difficult, and a streamlined process for preparing and ordering preparations is perhaps needed.  But there are also down sides.  For one thing, “emergencies” become the normal way of doing business.  In most states, an SOE allows the Governor to suspend the normal budgeting and contracting process, and this encourages abuses. It allows order preventing Price Gouging (which is a good thing, but I guess is OK the rest of the year, given Disney prices!).  It also often has civil rights implications with respect to Police powers and private property, something the US already has problems with.

Another issue is that over time it causes disaster fatigue – most of these “disasters” are  ultimately localized events, or events where there are widely scattered impacts but, in the great scheme of things, while they do hurt those immediately impacted, the events are really not that bad from a wider perspective. I worry that people don’t react with the urgency they should in cases where there really is a threat, when every inconvenience is treated as an “emergency”.

The economic impacts of SOE, watches, warnings, and disaster declarations go far beyond government operations. We are likely at a point where we spend more on preparing and anticipating disaster than if we did nothing except protect lives or when something truly catastrophic was imminent, and cleaned up later.   Many private firms are forced (either for the avoidance of liability, or other reasons) to follow the status of Government, which can be highly disruptive.  A major factor here is the insurance industry.  Now that Alberto is a “named storm,” many onerous insurance restrictions kick in such as restrictions in writing new policies, much higher deductibles, and so forth.  While linking insurance provisions to disaster response may seem to make sense at first cut, in fact it has had a significantly negative impact on consumers.

On the surface, it may seem that declaring an SOE for an incoming storm makes sense, but as with so much in the area of disaster planning, response, and mitigation, it’s a lot more complicated than it seems.