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August 27th 2012 print

Michael Kile

Catastropharians give a hoot

After touching down at the UWA, New York University warmist and globe-girdling alarmist Professor Dale Jamieson treated local doomsayers to an exhibition of selective memory


After the Queen of Climate Consensus came the Prince of Climate Ethics: Dale Jamieson, Director (and Professor) of Environmental Studies and Affiliated Professor of Law from New York University.


An expert on the moral and political challenges of climate change, Jamieson’s lecture was on Climate Change at the Frontiers of Ethics. Introduced by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, School of Psychology, the event was part of a University of Western Australia Institute of Advanced Studies series on global transformation and public ethics. Its aim was to “stimulate considered debate about urgent issues in public ethics and policy”, while “reflecting on ways we can improve public discourse.”

Why, Jamieson asked, have we been so ineffective in taking action on climate change, “one of the world’s most complex collective-action problems”? He began with a quote from Hegel: “Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.”

It was from his preface to Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820):

One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

Dusk had fallen over the campus, but the owl of wisdom was nowhere to be seen, at least not by this member of the UWA Club audience. If there was a hoot, I did not hear it; unlike the bearded tree-hugger in front of me who nodded frequently.

Had Arthur Schopenhauer been present, there would have been more hooting. The German philosopher had “two main requirements for philosophizing”: one must have the courage “not to keep any question back”; and be able to comprehend as a problem “anything that goes without saying.” The mind also must be “truly disengaged: it must prosecute no particular goal or aim.” (Parerga und Paralipomena, 1851).

For Lewandowsky, and presumably the IAS, “improving public discourse” on today’s cause celebre seems to be about keeping questions back; avoiding tricky issues; selecting speakers who are invariably alarmist; and, crucially, discouraging debate that might question the “dangerous” anthropogenic global warming (DAGW) – now climate change (DACC) – orthodoxy.

No-one thought it relevant to inform the audience that Jamieson is listed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Annex A: Authors and Expert Reviewers for Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability). Not surprising, then, to learn his primary scientific reference on the night was its 2007 4th Assessment Report. 

Another thing that went “without saying”, was an IPCC admission a decade ago of the impossibility of climate prediction: “In climate research and modelling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible “ (IPCC 3rd Assessment Report; Section 14.2.2.2, p. 774).

Cause, n., An inference that one factor somehow exerts influence on another; one that not only asserts a predictable (causal) relationship between the factors, but also accounts for it.

No mention, either, that climate scientist Judith Curry’s paper in Climatic Change last year argued (as have others) the IPCC “had oversimplified the issue of uncertainty” in its reports, “which can lead to misleading overconfidence"; stressing that “our understanding of the climate system is hampered by myriad uncertainties, ignorance and cognitive biases.”

“Did someone say “settled science?”” asked blogger Doug Hoffman last week. “The most unsettling thing about climate change and nature is: the “facts” keep changing. Sometimes this is due to science improving and sometimes to nature changing. Those who talk about nature, science and climate change in absolutes, those who pretend to know what the future holds, are trying to fool the rest of us.” But let’s not go there.

For Jamieson, “the elephant in the room is [the risk of] abrupt climate change”; perhaps a surprise recurrence of the ten degrees of warming in a decade at the end of the Younger Dryas? Yet whatever caused that Big Freeze – a chilly 1,300 ± 70 year period between 12,800 and 11,500 years ago – to thaw, it was not “pollution” from anthropogenic camp fires or herbivore emissions.

Stephen Schneider (1945-2010) introduced the possibility of ‘surprises’ into global climate scenarios in 1995 – events with “perhaps extreme outcomes or tipping points which lead to unusually rapid changes of state” – while admitting that, “by definition, very little in climate science is more uncertain than the possibility of ‘surprises’ (my italics).

The notion was smuggled into the 1995 IPCC Working Group 1 Summary for Policy Makers as an abrupt non-linearity issue. Subsequent reports continue to promote Schneider’s (unproven) assertion that: ‘When rapidly forced [by increasing GHGs], non-linear systems are especially subject to unexpected behaviour” with, naturally, end-is-nigh outcomes for humankind. But let’s not go there.

Schneider’s “unexpected behaviour” is now entrenched in the orthodoxy. It is seized on by a lot of folk, including our Climate Commission, as a rationale for ramping up public concern – despite climate change, like God, being intrinsically unpredictable. For example, according to Commissioner Roger Beale, a government bureaucrat, last week: “leading climate scientists point to climate change as influencing more frequent and forceful extreme weather now, not at some remote time in the future”.

More disturbing for Jamieson, however, were the “underlying trends”. Annual global emissions were increasing at 4% with 550ppm carbon dioxide a “reasonably plausible target”; population growth at 1.2%, meat consumption (2 per cent) and energy use up a projected 44% between 2007 and 2030.

“Humanity has become a geological force. We’ve committed the future of the planet to rapid climate change at least for the next millennium,” he predicted, while showing a Gary Larson dinosaur seminar cartoon: "The picture’s pretty bleak, gentlemen.  . .The world’s climates are changing, the mammals are taking over and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut."

Little wonder, then, these problems are apparently overwhelming “the machinery of our moral consciousness”. There is now “a mismatch between our cognitive and affective systems”, producing “interest groups heavily invested in climate change denial.”

Ad Hominem adj., adv., Argument against a person; usually regarded as a fallacy if it replaces substantive argument with personal attack. [literally: to the man].

Jamieson and Lewandowsky are on the same page here, as they were in February this year over the Gleick-Heartland incident. Peter Gleik, head of the US Pacific Institute, admitted he lied to obtain confidential documents on strategy from the Heartland Institute, which he then leaked to the media.

Lewandowsky argued that “revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial…likely constitutes a classic public good against which one had to weight Gleik’s deception.”

Jamieson took a similar quasi-end-justifies-means position. While Gleick’s actions were “unethical”, “relative to what has been going on the climate denial side, this is a fairly small breach of ethics.”

He also rejected any suggestion that Gleick’s wrongdoing could hurt the orthodoxy’s credibility. "Whatever moral high ground there is in science comes from doing science," he said. "The failing that Peter Gleick engaged in is not a scientific failing. It is just a personal failure."

Ethical questions around DACC include the legitimacy of compensation (UN “climate debt”), adaptation and “participatory justice”. Jamieson’s focus here, however, was on “responsibility for individual action.”

“Do you,” he asked, “feel like the ruthless executor of two [future] people because of your actions? There’s a kind of disconnect here. We don’t feel it. We don’t feel that turning on a thermostat can have global effects far into the future, despite our interference in one of the fundamental planetary cycles.”

While the impact of climate change on an individual “may be inconsequential or negligible, and is in any case unknown,” an “agent can still be morally responsible by being at fault.” (When asked later how he, personally, had changed his life in response to DACC, Jamieson sidestepped the question, meditating briefly on the “problem of excessive moral seriousness people bring to these issues.”)

As “a paradigm of an act that is morally reprehensible”, Jamieson discussed this example: “Jack intentionally steals Jill’s bike.” “We can argue about how relevant this analogy is to the climate change problem,” he added, but instead went on to do some neat if P-then Q riffs and permutations on Jack and Jill and a bicycle.

Analogy, n., An inference based on resemblances: things that are alike in most respects are probably alike in the respect in question.

Formally, if A is like B, and if A has property P, therefore B has property P; if and only if A really is “like” B.  If, however, A is not really “like” B, the argument is invalid. Screws are like nails (size, shape, material), but try screwing in a nail.

There is some good news. Rats are not analogous to humans after all. WA researchers recently found no link between shift work and breast cancer; despite previous studies suggesting disruption of rodent sleep-wake cycles can cause it.

Professor Lin Fritschi of the WA Institute for Medical Research concluded this month that rodents are not an accurate gauge of how humans respond to shift work. “The thing we thought important to note was that humans aren’t rats and that we don’t completely change our system when we do night shifts,” she said. “We still have family commitments, we still have things going on in our lives, which means that people often don’t do the complete adaptation that mice and rats do.”

But how relevant is any analogy to the climate change problem? And why does the orthodoxy use argument by (false) analogy ad nauseum today?

Kevin Trenberth and 37 expert colleagues pushed a classic ad hominem argument by false (medical) analogy in their argumentum ad verecundiam, (argument from authority) posted on ABC Unleashed on 3rd February this year.

(It was Trenberth, incidentally, who circulated a poem celebrating the IPCC’s Nobel Peace Prize (Climategate 2.0 FOIA file), written by a group at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research’s 2007 Christmas party. A Distinguished Senior Scientist in the NCAR Climate Analysis Section, he was a lead author of the 1995, 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports.)

“Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition?” they asked.  “In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations?”

But is this a valid analogy? Have climate scientists performed a “large number” of global or regional climate modifications? If so, where are the KPIs confirming success?  Is our knowledge of heart attacks genuinely comparable to that of climate change?

Climate Commissioner Professor Will Steffen, Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, thinks so. He used a similar tactic when releasing the NSW state climate report in May. Trying to resuscitate declining public anxiety, he compared his colleagues – not to spin- or witch-doctors – but to the family GP. (Here he is on "Hug a Climate Scientist Day".)

Yet planetary health, however defined, is not analogous to personal health. The family GP fortunately knows – or should know – much more about medical pathologies, causation, diagnosis, prognosis, allergies, etc., than scientists do about climate change. A GP’s advice is based on experience and real evidence, not speculative “projections” from fallible models. They also have a formal code of ethics and no ideological agenda.

Cardiologists and GPs, then, have no more to do with climate change than does Jack’s thieving, or whether he fetched a pail of water before or after the theft, or if Jill’s bike was a Trek or Pacific Cycle. They should be, however, on standby to ensure apoplectic alarmists (or denialists) have a healthy ticker.

There was, alas, no opportunity to ask Jamieson this question: “Will the high priests of climate change be claiming soon that as well as being planetary physicians, they also double as cosmic conductors of the music of the spheres – but only when the moon is full?”

“Hoot! Hoot!”

©Michael Kile                                                                                               23 August 2012

Disclosure Statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. He has no relevant affiliations, except as author of the Devil’s Dictionary of Climate Change