Various finds and ruminations on … 1

Climate Change

Yes, I’m afraid so. And some are really basic things that have occurred to me as a layperson as I have pondered quite a few views since last posting on this. I’ve been storing my finds on Google. So before I purge the favourites, I’ll share a few with you

1. Repeat after me

Climate and Weather Aren’t The Same Thing

So easy, but there do often seem to be category confusion and blurred boundaries on this.

Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, and its short-term (minutes to weeks) variation. Popularly, weather is thought of as the combination of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, visibility, and wind. We talk about the weather in terms of "What will it be like today?", "How hot is it right now?", and "When will that storm hit our section of the country?"

Climate is defined as statistical weather information that describes the variation of weather at a given place for a specified interval. In popular usage, it represents the synthesis of weather; more formally it is the weather of a locality averaged over some period (usually 30 years) plus statistics of weather extremes.

We talk about climate change in terms of years, decades or even centuries. Scientists study climate to look for trends or cycles of variability (such as the changes in wind patterns, ocean surface temperatures and precipitation over the equatorial Pacific that result in El Niño and La Niña), and also to place cycles or other phenomena into the bigger picture of possible longer term or more permanent climate changes.


The difference is not unlike those Jim Belshaw refers to in Sunday Essay – too much information.

The response by Opposition leader Abbott to the suggestion is another matter. Whether driven by the need to respond instantly to the media or by the way in which the Opposition has been using border protection as an attempted political weapon, Mr Abbott instantly linked the question of population strategy (a broad issue) to border strategy (a narrow question). So far as a population strategy is concerned, the question of whether we get 2,000, 4,000, 10,000 or even 20,000 people is neither here nor there.

Climate is the broad issue; weather is the narrow question.

2. A degree of scepticism is reasonable

For example, I am sceptical about this.

Another problem solved by global warming

100324_talpatti From Africa to the Himalayas, everyone’s worried about global warming’s potential to drive world conflict. But what about the disputes it will solve? A long-running argument between India and Bangladesh over a small island in the Bay of Bengal has just been resolved: the island’s not there anymore:

New Moore Island [also known as South Talpatti] in the Sunderbans has been completely submerged, said oceanographer Sugata Hazra, a professor at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Its disappearance has been confirmed by satellite imagery and sea patrols, he said.

"What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming," said Hazra.

That the island has disappeared is a fact confirmed by a number of observations. That the whole thing is quite ironic, given the politics, is amusing. That climate change caused it is certainly questionable. For example, the island may have sunk because of geological factors.

3. Too much certainty is stupid – but so is an excess of scepticism

A good simple account of a fairly complex argument is When do we know that we know? by Tim McKay, Arthur Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Michigan.

On February 2, 2007, the New York Times published a remarkable headline: "Science Panel Calls Global Warming ‘Unequivocal.’" The language is pretty strong. It’s clear this panel intends to convince, to assert that this global warming is real. That it’s a scientific fact.

Scientists talk a lot about facts, about things that we know are true. And it’s true that most of what we know is so well established as to be beyond doubt. Dinosaurs once walked the Earth. Lightning is an electrical discharge. Continents drift. These things are true, part of reality.

It hasn’t always been so. Each of these facts, like every bit of scientific knowledge, began as a mystery. Early explanations often seemed preposterous and faced ridicule. But in each case the gradual accumulation of tested predictions grew until the collected weight of evidence became overwhelming. At some point, a key moment, almost all individual scientists personally endorsed these ideas, and new scientific facts were born.

How does this happen? When do we know that we know something?

The first thing to understand is that this process isn’t sudden or completely clean. Sometimes it happens fast, especially when new kinds of data become available. But usually it takes time and involves a lot of steps, both forward and back. This intermediate state, suspended between mystery and understanding, is where scientists spend their lives. We don’t work on what we know. That’s the stuff of textbooks. Most of us don’t work on absolute mysteries either, questions we don’t know how to address. Scientists work between these extremes, climbing toward understanding along a slope which continually recedes.

One sign of this gradual shift in confidence from meager to complete is the long standing tradition of scientific wagers. During the early days of a new idea, when it’s clear no one can prove their case convincingly, the bets between contending scientists almost always involve wine; a nice bottle, if the stakes are high, even a case.

But some facts are so well established, I’d literally bet my life on them, and you would too. Most of us think nothing of climbing aboard a plane, knowing that flight is well enough understood to risk being lifted 35,000 feet in the air.

This process of establishing scientific knowledge is a fascinating one, involving both technical issues and the sociological issues always present when people try to reach consensus…

The global warming debate is the stuff of headlines and the topic of daily conversation. Michigan students returning from winter break last year were all abuzz with tales of barren ski slopes and snowmobiles stranded forlornly in garages. Evidence of warming has been accumulating for decades, gradually growing in weight and certainty. Theoretical understanding of how climate works has advanced apace. This is important, because it allows us to learn not only what is happening in the climate, but perhaps also why it’s happening. Just now, the tide seems to be turning on this topic.

Why? What’s changed? Nothing sudden, really. On the technical side, among the scientists, there’s the gradual accumulation of more and more data, each bit more and more carefully checked. This wave of detail has become, for most who work in the field, irresistible. For the rest of us, the decision comes more from impression. We all compare what we’re hearing with our personal experience, weighing our limited exposure to the technical work alongside. Something about the last few years (the insistence of the experts, a couple of the warmest years on record, conversations with friends and family) has pushed many people over the edge. The general mood about this is clearly different. We have found new facts.

Science exists to establish facts. Doing so is a process; a technical, human, social process. Allowed to play out fully, it works great, and has established most of what we know. Unfortunately, the natural human desire for quick and certain answers often conflicts with this. The news media magnifies the trouble, focusing on the first announcement of the newest result, and rarely returning to follow the whole story.

Remember this when you read about something truly new in science, just announced and not yet fully digested. Think it over, weigh the evidence, make a bet if you’re excited about it. Then give it a while to settle. In six months or a year the situation will be much clearer.

Next time:

1. Cui Bono and global warming – a tactic used on both sides.

Cui bono ("To whose benefit?" / "as a benefit to whom?") is a Latin adage that is used either to suggest a hidden motive or to indicate that the party responsible for something may not be who it appears at first to be.

Commonly the phrase is used to suggest that the person or people guilty of committing a crime may be found among those who have something to gain. The party that benefits may not always be obvious or may have successfully diverted attention to a scapegoat, for example.

The Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his speech Pro Roscio Amerino, section 84, attributed the expression Cui bono? to the Roman consul and censor Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla:

L. Cassius ille quem populus Romanus verissimum et sapientissimum iudicem putabat identidem in causis quaerere solebat ‘cui bono’ fuisset.

So long since I studied Cicero in Latin!

2. Why do so many US TV weather forecasters seem to be in the “sceptical” camp?

…and perhaps more…


4 thoughts on “Various finds and ruminations on … 1

  1. Neil, you have not factored in the divine intervention angle in the Indo-Bangladesh dispute! the Indians believe that God taught the Bangladeshis a lesson and the latter are convinced that Allah in His infinite mercy has chosen to teach the infidels a lesson.

  2. Interesting use of my post, Neil. Your excerpt captures one of my key points well, and indeed you are right that the distinctionis very relevant to the point you are making.

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