Global warming

The experience with my car (below) made me think a bit. In fact, I often get asked about my position on global warming, now that I’m a ‘public scientist’. I don’t know about ‘position’ – but I do know something of how science is done. Meaning that scientific discovery is based on evidence, evidence that is interpretetd by PWKs (people who know what they’re talking about). So if the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists tell us we have something to worry about, we have something to worry about.

The key discovery was in the 1970s, when it was first realised that global climate might be an unstable system, i.e. a system where a small perturbation could easily result in a large effect. (There is a very nice description of this discovery in the book ‘The Discovery of Global Warming’ by Spencer Weart).

Nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that

(i) the atmosphere is heating up (the part near the earth, that is)

(ii) the rate is unprecedented

(iii) the phenomenon is almost certainly due to human activity (e.g. carbon emissions)

These results have been confirmed by the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, an unprecedented global coalition of scientists. Despite much debate over details, there isn’t much debate about the overall trend (except among a tiny minority of scientists, some of whom who have an industry bias). Of course there are also genuine scientific doubters, but the consensus is pretty clear…

The debate now more concerns what action to take – in other words how to reduce emissions without triggering a recession. There is certainly sharp disagreement here, but on close inspection it is more between scientists and economists. For example, it’s worth noting that Bjorn Lomborg, the prominent skeptic, is not in fact a scientist at all. Lomborg, and several other economists and political scientists, claim that tackling emissions would be very inefficient and essentially a waste of money that would be better spent elsewhere. However, scientists point out that many such commentators have two things in common –

1. They tend to play down the evidence of warming (Lomborg’s infamous book The Skeptical Environmentalist is a prime example of this)

2. They ignore the possibilty of a tipping point. What scientists worry most about is that a threshold may exist, beyond which there may be no going back as positive feedback mechanisms kick in … a frightening scenario

So the great global warming debate is beginning to look like a debate between scientists (who don’t really understand economics) and economists (who don’t really understand science). For my part, I find Lomborg’s grasp of scientific uncertainty highly suspect (economics can be spectacularly wrong in a way science never is)..pretty worrying in a man who was recently voted one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time Magazine…

What happens if Lomborg’s wrong? I often wonder if those who make a career out of questioning the consensus ever doubt themselves. If we do sail past a tipping point, thanks to delayed action due to the skeptics, they will have a lot to answer for…


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6 responses to “Global warming

  1. Cormac,

    Global warming is just a crazy, alarmist notion dreamed up by lefties, failed string theorists and crackpot science haters. If you want proof, go to Lubos Motl’s blog.

    But seriously, Cormac:

    (i) Why not have more identifying yourself on this blog – where you teach/live, a mug shot, etc.?

    (ii) I remember your father, Professor Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. He was the external examiner for my doctoral thesis “Quantum Field Theories of Arbitrary Spin” in June 1984. Luckily, he liked it. The other examiner (the internal one) Chris Llewellyn Smith – had little clue about what I was talking about, so it must have been on the strength of your dad’s recommendation that I was passed. Actually, the research in my thesis only amounted to about three months’ work … the Penrose group in Oxford were way ahead of the physicists in terms on understanding and using the group SL(2,C) and all I was really doing was using their techniques to try to clean up some of the nasty messes that physicists tend to make when they think that no mathematicians are watching – in this case for higher spin field theory. I did not linger on the topic, though, as I was more interested in interacting field theory. Anyway, I came over to Dublin a few months later (early 1985; I had a rented van to help my Gran move to Dublin), and dropped in on your dad. I don’t think he was pleased to see me. My post-doc applications went nowhere basically because I did not have a sponsor (not one who was prepared to better than a lukewarm recommendation, anyway) & furthermore, I had lately banished myself to the Lunatic Fringe by saying that renormalization was a Bad Thing. However … after a long (2h plus) session in front of his blackboard, your dad finally conceded that, yes, MAYBE I might be on to something … he was perfectly polite, but I did not see him again after that.

  2. cormac

    Hey Chris, thanks for the comment! The site’s gone v quiet recently..yeah, I must get a mug shot organised (at the moment I don’t have a single digital photo of myself…a psychologist would have a field day with that.) Also I’m thinking of broadening the blog for my fledgling science and society group, rather than just me…

    Btw your name is familiar, have we met on Lubos’s blog? Nice to hear memories of Dad – I think he was always very fair, but hated being put in a position of ‘judging’ people or their ideas. If you can spent 2 hrs at the blackboard with Lochlainn you must be pretty sharp!

    Re “global warming is just a crazy, alarmist notion dreamed up by lefties, failed string theorists and crackpot science haters. If you want proof, go to Lubos Motl’s blog”
    I can hardly agree! Of course there will be always skeptics (Lubos is the extreme end), but that’s normal – it’s human nature to differ, and there will always be gw skeptics just as there are relativity skeptics and quantum skeptics.I think all the rest of us can do is have confidence in the vast majority of ‘do-ers’ – there’s no obvious reason to assume that the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists are gullible fools,knaves or blind followers…it’s a lot more likely they are simply reporting what they see, but we don’t like bad news (plus the message is distorted by the media)….Cormac

  3. cormac

    Hi Chris, I just realised you were probably being sarcastic! Doh! If so, I can’t figure Lubos out at all. Such a good blog in other ways…plenty of physicists (like Freeman Dyson) raise questions about climate models – but Lubos is at a whole different level of questioning…

    Bet you didn’t know Penrose nearly came to DIAS. Mum claims Lochlainn had persuaded him to take up a position at DIAS, but Penrose came over on a visit, took one look at Dublin traffic and decided no thanks! What a loss for Ireland- subsequently, I think Dad’s group had relatively little contact with Britain, it was nearly always continental Europe (Julius Wess and Louis Michel etc)….Cormac

  4. Erm, yes, I may well have been being sarcastic about Lubos’s blog.

    Having said that I don’t believe in the “tipping point” hypothesis for climate change – there are too many CO2 sinks – mainly the sea.

    Lubos is surprisingly touchy for one so eager to pour scorn on others … for example, when I corrected an error on his blog (he claimed that Lord Byron used to refer to his daughter Ada Lovelace as the “Princess of Parallelograms” – this cannot be true as (a) he hardly knew her and (b) the epithet was one he actually used for her mother Annabella Milbanke) – the correction got deleted.

  5. cormac

    Actually those two things often go together – journalists, for example, are notoriously thin-skinned, liable to sue at the slightest hint of slander…

    Re tipping point, while there is much that is not understood about the ‘missing carbon’, I think that fear of a tipping point is based on a number of known feedback mechanisms that could easily kick in – a process that is thought to have ocurred before…ouch

  6. thanx for excellent content!