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How hot is the shower?

As one increases the temperature of the water, the answer to this question becomes less and less subjective and more and more objective. Eventually, it becomes conclusively too hot, where cellular damage can be measured.

I mention this because on re-entering the blogosphere lately, I have found the comment threads are still awash with the “CAGW” acronym. Prove to me, they ask, that any warming that is due to human activity could be catastrophic.

Of course it’s a sign of weakness from the committed sceptic and I flag it to my reader in the hope they spot it for what it is and save themselves the effort in confronting the fellow seriously. They are not interested in a genuine reasoned argument. It’s a sideshow; a trump card played by someone needing attention rather than seeking clarity on a subject they indeed are open-minded to.*

I don’t care who mentioned the word “catastrophic” in what publication. Yes, I have been focusing on values of late, but here we have a great example (and warning) of poor communication that just will not die. It has played into the hands of the committed sceptic and has been something I’ve run into continually for the past three years as a blogger.

In truth, you cannot say with any great certainty that any amount of warming will be catastrophic until it becomes too hot. Venus is too hot, but we’re not likely to hit such temperatures until the sun is on the way out.

Would the committed sceptic find the previous ice age to be catastrophic if it reoccurred within a century from now? That was around 5oC cooler that today.

It is entirely up to ones judgement whether or not such a significant shift could be termed “catastrophic”. A half intelligent committed sceptic is aware of this.

Hence you have a stalemate position and a smug smile returned for your attempt at reasoned debate on the subject. It’s likely most of us would find a world 6oC warmer to be “catastrophic” to how and where we live and grow food and to biodiversity richness, but you cannot expect that to be acknowledged by others.

I’ve seen enough projections from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and research currently being completed by researchers within working teams I have been associated with (currently unpublished) to be concerned by as little as 2oC  additional warmth to South Australia, however projections as much as 4oC warming in Greenland might look good. How hot is too hot?

The projections for this coming century are within the realms of a subjective answer to such questions. You cannot hope to question the validity of “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” because the answer remains subjective. They know that. That’s why they hand it to you so easily.

The first suggestion to such a situation may be to ignore it, but this just doesn’t cut it. So what can we do to counter such a subjective question?

In my opinion, make it clear that the committed sceptic has posed a subjective question – they’ve asked you how hot is too hot. It depends on where you are and what you think would be too much stress to local systems. Ask them to dry a line in the sand; tell you what they would think is objectively too hot – what would they see as being “catastrophic”.

Either they’ll offer you something objective (ie. ice caps melted or frequency of extreme weather events) from which you can start to refer to the science literature on the subject or expose themselves to be ‘pissing in the wind’ for attention. That is to say if they refer to a “warmist” statement on what is “catastrophic” or of balmy summer holidays to the UK, they remain in the subjective. Tell them so and move on.

From my experience, such individuals that refer to “CAGW” are typically bombastic and avoid answering questions directly. They will probably cut-and-paste quotes from their favourite “sceptical” website and dart from one accusation to another.

Don’t try to keep up with them, for they are well trained to Gish Gallop and will leave you for dust. Continually press on this initial point and for their personal statement on what is too hot. You’ll probably find that, like a puppy, if you won’t chase them, they’ll grow bored of the game and either attempt a dialogue or (more likely) move on to greener pastures for attention, saving you time and effort.

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*I’m aware that, at this point, it is likely many of the committed sceptic have shut off and are darting towards the comment stream to complain noisily with terms like “warmist”, conspiracy theories and self-righteous claims of awareness in the face of my apparent arrogance or ignorance. I’d hope you can take the time to read the rest of the post and hopefully provide more thoughtful reflection.

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The more I reflect on what I have learnt regarding the inherent cultural values associated with factual evidence (such as that relating to evolution, climate change etc) and from discussions with others on the subject, I’m drawn to one point which I feel is potentially the most difficult to overcome by those who reject evidence to maintain a favoured view point.

This is a fear of a loss in control supposed by “committed sceptics” of a given subject.

With those who accept the high certainty of such finding, in general, I find they are happy to acknowledge their own shortcomings and prefer to embrace acquisition of high quality information over a need for absolute certainty. This of course can lead to flying off the spectrum entirely (especially where critical evaluation of information is neglected) and into the ether of “anything is possible and thus everything is really unknowable”, which I have also encountered.

On the other hand, I find a panicked reply when reasoned debate fails a committed sceptic.

A creationist once told me he would prefer to be evolved from a wolf then, when he couldn’t counter a reasoned look at the evidence. Most others claim that morality is meaningless if evolution is true.

A committed sceptic once told me that he welcomed the tropical summers of the UK then, when he couldn’t counter a reasoned look at the evidence regarding climate change. Most others talk about the end of the civilised world if it’s accepted as true (eg. initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will send us back to the Stone Age).

Listen to the language; morality would be lost… society as we know it – the hard won civilizations we have created – will be destroyed; the primary value at heart here is a sense of purpose, of meaning, both personally and communally. If this instinctive meaning to one’s life is “lost” absurd propositions are likely and fatalism inevitable. If X is true, well, all hell will break loose…

Of course it wouldn’t.

We have incredibly strong evidence to support the theory that the universe is more than 13 billion years old and of our genetic relationship with all other life on this planet; of evolved diversity.

We have conducted studies that conclusively demonstrate empathy and altruism in other species. Morality exists not due to divine implantation in our minds and/or soul, but due to increasingly well understood social behaviour which is not unique to our species.

What’s more, our morality is not a written and thus stagnant code hardwired on our brains, as unchangeable as they would be on stone tablets. Instead they are evolving – arguably for the better – with subsequent generations (read, for instance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

Likewise, climate change is true – it has occurred for reasons understood previously without human influence or consequence, however, this time is different only in that latter points.

Climate change is always punctuated with great changes to species abundance, distribution and regional weather patterns however, so far, life has persisted.

Fatalism and committed scepticism only reduces our potential for effective adaptation. And it is in this point that I feel the concern over a loss of control is unwarranted. It is a misunderstanding control entirely.

Surely we have given up the days in which a daily, weekly, monthly or other pivotal points in time required a sacrifice to ensure the gods favoured us with good weather (for our crops and well-being).

Sure we may laugh, but such events are written even into the stories of the god of Abraham and, within my own lifetime, people in developed countries have turned to rainmakers for help. It is laughable to think such devices enable control over the elements – giving up expected favour or assistance by the gods or other magical methods isn’t to give up control, only a delusion of it.*

On the other hand, we clearly do have control over the global climate. We’re currently and inadvertently conducting such geo-engineering. We have the control on how much heat we wish to trap and what kind of global climate we want.

Thinking about it in this way, imagine in the future that we knew that the axis of the Earth’s spin, the orbit around the sun or solar activity (or a combination of these factors) were to send us into another cold or warmer phase (science has given us the tools to make such prediction). We could alter the concentration of greenhouse gases to ensure we maintain a climate similar to the Holocene, ensuring food production, human well-being and species protection.

We also have the power to control how well we adapt to any unavoidable changes, in advance, if we so choose to acknowledge the projections. The results of our efforts may not even be evident until long after we have handed the keys on to future generations. This demonstrates not only control, but wisdom.

We truly are capable of being masters of our domain. However, we remain victims instead to our own delusions and preoccupation with fatalism. As stated above, the worst fears expressed by committed sceptics are simply unjustified and in truth masked the real fear; a fear in losing control. The reality is, as is so commonly the case, the very opposite. In letting go of false “certainties”, tied to a delusion of control, we can instead own our future.

While I believe if push came to shove, we would battle on under change and persist, however, I would like to think we could instead value real certainty and real control which is already within our grasp.

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*Even if there is a god(s) – which is not the point of this article – we always claim their ways to be mysterious, favouring or ignoring for their own reason, leading us back to same point; it is thus a delusion of control under such “mystery”.

Today, in the latest publication of Nature, I stumbled upon the article, Climate Science: Time to raft up, by Chris Rapley.

We are naturally good at finding patterns – perhaps too much so – and I found it interesting that I stumbled upon this article just after reading Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and at a point where I was ready to return to my online writing, but not knowing where to start.

I was drained from my previous efforts in science communication and welcomed all the activities that have, over the previous twelve months, kept me away (or, at best, mere status updates).

I have avoided the arena of climate change debate, for it seems in some ways doomed to the course of the evolution “debate”. So what was I to write about?

Both of the mentioned material are worth reading. However, I have to disagree with aspects of Rapley’s article.

On climate science advocacy, Rapley writes;

“There are dangers. To stray into policy-advocacy or activism is to step beyond the domain of science, and risks undermining legitimacy through the perception — or reality — of a loss of impartiality.

“However, as Sarewitz6 has pointed out, scientists carry authority “in advocating for one particular fact-based interpretation of the world over another”. So acting as a ‘science arbiter’ — explaining the evidence and contesting misinterpretations — is part of the day job.”

However, I feel this has been part of the problem with science communication on climate change and perhaps other topics such as evolution.

Later, Rapley goes on to write;

“The climate-dismissive think tanks and organizations have been effective because they have understood and put into practice the insights of social science. They deliver simple messages that are crafted to agree with specific value sets and world views. Their flow of commentary is persistent, consistent and backed up with material that provides deeper arguments.”

And:

“Regarding the vast body of evidence on which all climate scientists agree, we need to offer a narrative that is persistent, consistent and underpinned by compelling background material.”

But previously, he wrote;

“We need to respond to questions that go beyond facts, such as ‘What does this mean for me?’ and ‘What are our options?’.”

The article is right in many ways in my view, but Rapley is too tentative and maybe, in light of the previous when compared to the others, contradictory.

In chapter three of The Moral Landscape, Harris talks about belief. Rapley does in fact (under the subheading, Why don’t we get it?) talk about very much the same thing.

Belief, that is, the acceptance of certain evidence to be true, is not so strongly based on rational verification as we would like to think it to be. We’re not calculators after all. Belief derives from shared values that in turn derive from different factors, such as social norms, genes etc. We are far more likely to accept evidence presented when it confirms our already held values / the social norms of our community than those that challenge those values.

Sam Harris, in a presentation on Death and present moment, puts it in no uncertain terms (about 13 mins in);

“When we’re arguing about teaching evolution in the schools, I would argue that we’re really arguing about death. It seems to me the only reason why any religious person cares about evolution, is because if their holy books are wrong about our origins, they are very likely wrong about our destiny after death.”

Evolution thus challenges more than one idea (ie. that we were divinely created in recent millennia in our current form), but rather an entire outlook on life and a total way of living, not simply for the individual, but also the social group with which they associate themselves with. The wealth of evidence supporting the theory of evolution is simply not enough to counter such a wide scope of personally held values which are also attached to what we often mistakenly take as one, individual and isolated premise.

Likewise, I suspect the potential reality of anthropogenic climate change, based on very strong evidence, challenges a much wider scope of values that remain unaffected by rational debate over that one point (ie. whether or not our contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrate affects potential heat storage). We fail to move the “committed sceptics” because the evidence we provide challenged just one point of a wider range of related personal values.

Perhaps, for instance, it challenges the idea that a god is the sole force shaping the world and that we are incapable to such radical modifications (or that an intervening god wouldn’t allow us to harm ourselves in such a way) for certain religious individuals. Perhaps the idea challenges values associated with neo-liberal markets that ought to make us and future generations rich. Perhaps it’s something else.

Rapley was right about the success of climate-dismissive think tanks applying value to their message. He is also correct to argue that we need to go beyond facts and address questions, such as ‘What does it mean for me?’ and ‘What are our options?’ which are at their core really questions regarding a network of wider social and personal values related to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Maybe we need to be clearer which hat we’re wearing – that of scientific investigation or of advocacy – or, as Dana Nuccitelli once mentioned in a comment thread (that, if I can locate, I will link to), we should apply a “Gish gallop” approach, the favourite approach, successfully applied by Christopher Monckton in debate, because, unlike with Monckton, when reviewed, the evidence will support the statements we’ve made.*

I tend to agree with Dana’s idea as it allows more value based discussion intertwined with the evidence. You can say what the evidence supports and swiftly move into its personal and social ramifications. This latter arena does truly need debate.

We have done all that can be done to explain the science of climate change and there are many excellent reference sites to which people can venture if they so decide. What we need to talk about are the value question as it is the answers to these that will define who we will become and how our society will look and function.

It’s understandable that people would be uncomfortable with such unknowns. We need to be part of a community with shared values to feel content. In the “debate” over climate change, we hear predictions of how the future might look and how foolish “deniers” are for not understanding science proven over a 150 years ago.

This isn’t only counter-productive, it also dehumanises the issue completely. The global climate has changed many times before without human influence or consequence. This time it is personal. We need to make our  debates and communications just as personal if we are to do the best we can for future generations.

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* To further explain the point made by Dana, by Gish gallop, Dana suggests that instead of focusing on the evidence, do as Monckton does and just fire through the evidence points and get on instead with the value enriched story, which links to the evidence first briefly mentioned. Unlike Monckton, if reviewed, no errors would be found in the points made if one is presented the evidence honestly.

It isn’t an approach favoured in scientific debate, obviously, but it is effective in public debate – science communicators seem to miss this point entirely.

As is seeming to be my norm of late (in fact, probably as much as the last six months or more), rather than regular posts, here’s another sporadic update. My apologies, but work and personal commitments have squeezed much of my former free time.

Here’s a comparison of the carbon dioxide levels from my research site compared to the global averages (sourced from here – don’t you love free and easy access to such data? I know I do. But then again, I’m a fan of making graphs, clearly).

Click the image to enlarge it. I’m always keeping an eye out for NOAA updates. Our data heads back up in March, as it did the year prior, but I need to wait for more NOAA data to include that.

Recently, I have also been re-running our raw data through the EddyProTM software produced by Li-Cor to compare outputs against our in-house processes. So far, the results are promising, with less than ±5% difference between the output of both. Of course, as both start with the same raw data, this still needs explaining – an interesting project awaits.

What I really like about the EddyProTM software is that it includes some really interesting / useful outputs that are not included in our standard in-house analysis. The two that stand out are 1) quality flagging that indicates suitability of data for journal grade studies and 2) analysis of the fetch, that is, how far away from the tower the actual flux most likely occurred. The latter, combined with wind direction would be incredibly valuable, especially as the heterogeneity of the test area increases (we’re fairly lucky – looking at images from the top of the tower, it’s easy to see just how uniformed our test area is for many kilometres in any direction).

The following is some of the resulting analysis of my first run of the data through the EddyProTM software.

I mention the morning bias on CO2 uptake in the average 24hrs over the entire research period to date (the data covers from the beginning of Aug 2010 until the end of March 2012), however, if you look a the monthly graphs, you will also notice the same bias appearing in many of the warmer months (Spring through to Autumn). The entire research period so far has been over a wetter-than-average section of time (at least when compared to the preceding decade).

Does it mean that the vegetation is so evolved that it doesn’t rely on rainfall as an environmental cue; that it “knows” better than to trust rainfall as an indicator of a boom year? Does it rely on ground water deep in the soil rather than rainfall? Is it instead the timing of rainfall rather than the amount?

There are a whole host of questions worth answering and it just goes to show how amazing any ecosystem is; our humble woodland doesn’t have towering mountain ash or a mind boggling assemblage of invertebrates per square metre, but it does have it’s secrets and those secrets are of value and interest to know about.