Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth of Sensationalism

I always think it is important to put things into proper perspective. In some cases this can be critical as without it serious mistakes can be made and an improper approach can be taken which will end up doing more harm than good. This may be the case with any so called Climate Change Policy. To prevent potential problems it is perhaps best to keep things in perspective.

A number of years ago, even before I was born, people were worrying about the impending ice age that would overrun humanity and force us to live in or on the edge of vast tundra fields. I even remember reading a book bout ice ages which was part of the Planet Earth series published by Time Life. A section of the book was dedicated to how we would handle living in a ice age, and they even had a picture of an experimental green house placed on the tundra to figure out how to grow crops in very cold climates. This was not the late 1800's or even the early 1900's, this was in the 1970's.

As our ability to observe, record and analyze data increased we started to see a certain trend in the average global temperatures. Up until the 1970's all the data seemed to point towards a cooling trend but with the perfection of many other methods and the proliferation of accurate historical data, the cooling trend started looking more like a warming trend. As good scientists those that studied these things started looking into what would happen if the average global temperature really did go up. As the temperatures continued to rise there was a sense of urgency especially after the publication of the now infamous hockey stick. There were problems and uncertainties with the hockey stick graph, as the authors of the paper thought they had clearly pointed out, but after the press got a hold of it all those uncertainties had disappeared. Thus started the great global warming debate. The scientific debate had been going on for years, but now the political debate started, and that is where people lost perspective.

In the political arena the global climate change debate reached a climax with the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It was this act that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is potentially this act that may doom the political movement of environmentalism. I will strongly point out that what I have just said is a very qualified statement (I used "potentially" and "may" for a reason). The reason for this is that in making the film, and writing the book, Al Gore committed a logical fallacy normally used by the detractors of global warming, that is confusing weather with climate.

So now to understand what I am talking about we again need to put things into perspective, weather is not climate. Climate is something that happens over a 20 year period at the least. Climate is more often something that happens over a 100 or 1000 (or even 10,000) year time span. Weather is something happens on a day to day, or month to month basis. Weather can even stretch over a period of a year, or even come in cycles of several years. For example El Niño is a weather phenomena that lasts several years (you might say that El Niño affects climate, and I will come to that, but first weather). The point is weather is short term and climate is long term. Now there is a connection between the two but this connection is a little hard to establish some times, and it is precisely this connection that causes so much misunderstanding.

To explain further, climate is the collection of all weather events averaged over a sufficiently long period of time to override temporary fluctuations. This is why the minimum time needed to determine what a climate is is 20 years. I stress the minimum for a reason. Usually it takes longer to establish what a climate is. The reason why I say it takes 20 years to establish a climate is because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses a 20 year average to compare current daily temperatures to "normal" daily temperatures. This gives sufficient time to smooth out abnormal weather events. So the 20 year mark may be arbitrary but there are sufficient and convenient reasons to use it as a standard to measure climate. What this means is that it takes at least 20 years to establish any change in a climate. The reason why I am stressing this point is because it is the source of the logical fallacy that besets not only the detractors of climate change but unfortunately also the proponents.

Up until the release of An Inconvenient Truth most of the fallacious arguments surrounding the climate change debate came from the detractors. There were some legitimate criticisms raised by the scientific community but most who disagreed with global warming did so with no scientific basis (I should point out that this does not mean that there is no scientific basis to disagreeing with climate change, it's just that most of those who opposed it did not use scientific arguments). The most frequent accusation against global warming comes in the form, "It's cold outside, therefore global warming is a hoax." With the advent of An Inconvenient Truth the main argument for global warming became, "It's warm outside, therefore there is global warming." The inherent logical fallacy in both arguments is a confusing of climate with weather.

Because of An Inconvenient Truth the debate became one centered around weather instead of climate. Remember climate is something that it takes at least 20 years to establish and at least that long to observe a change. While the current warming trend has been growing over the past 100 years, An Inconvenient Truth presented the argument that climate change would be something that would bring about immediate devastation, as in increased severe weather, increased flooding and drought and a complete disruption of all things. The point is that in their excessive zeal to promote the idea of climate change they fell into the trap that had been the almost exclusive purview of the detractors before and substituted weather for climate.

The assertion that global warming would have drastic changes surely caught people's attention. Unfortunately by misrepresenting weather phenomena for climate change the proponents of global warming opened themselves up to an attack that may very well come, and will doom their movement. All it takes is a particularly quiet spell from the sun, a slight decrease in the upward trend of global temperatures, or a stretch of a few years with below normal storm activity and people will stop believing all the sensationalist arguments surrounding global warming. The ultimate irony may be that in trying so hard to convince people of global warming that when the earth does something totally unexpected, as it always will, all the excessive hype surrounding global warming will have soured the political climate and induce a massive backlash against the movement. In the new soured political climate it will take at least another 20 years to convince people again of the reality of global climate change.

Now as a final word of wisdom to put things into perspective again. I find it odd that most of the "supporters" of governmental policy on climate change whose avowed purpose is to "help" people use as their main tool of motivation an excessive amount of fear. They are for ever talking about all the bad things that will come about because of climate change and they never stop to think that it just might be a good thing.


Jared said...

They can't believe that it could be good (like people do in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJUFTm6cJXM) because human activity is bad in most of their minds. Humans are only incidental on the earth - the earth was not created for humans - so the less impact people have on the earth, the better. Thus, it doesn't matter that global warming might actually be good, people who belong to the Global Warming church cannot believe that. They often are the same people who worry about "overpopulation" of the earth.

Cartesian said...


It seems as well that we are anyway in a period of warming due to the change of position of the Earth. But do we pass the limit of an not normal warming?


Anonymous said...

Hey - way ahead of you...