You Ought to Have a Look: How to Properly Worry about Climate Change, aka, Lukewarming

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

In our last episode of You Ought to Have a Look (which was prominently quoted in an editorial in Nature magazine this week), we looked at reasons why folks who are wishing climate change mitigation should be the driving force behind most federal regulations should be very worried about what the incoming Trump Administration has in store. Most of his announced agency heads, etc., don’t share their vision (unlike those currently running the Obama Administration).

This week we start off with a guide to how folks should worry about climate change in general. Is it really true that, according to President Obama, “No challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change”? The short answer is no. The long answer is provided by Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass is his recent piece for National Affairs called “How to Worry about Climate Change”.

Oren describes how climate change is different from typical political policy questions:

Climate change is a different kind of problem from health-care reform, gender equality, or almost any traditional subject of political attention and action. Its relevant effects are still decades or centuries away. Scenarios with the most extreme effects, rather than the most likely ones, provide the sense of urgency and the rationale for policy responses. Those extreme outcomes are often distant ripples from the initial effect of a warmer climate, transmitted outward through multiple steps of causation and combined with other factors to produce or amplify the damage. By the time actual impacts arrive, the time for action may have long passed. But if climate change is not a typical policy problem, how should policymakers approach it?

…Yes, climate change is a problem. But what kind of problem?

He then sets out to answer that question:

Climate change—forecasted, irreversible, and pervasive—might therefore be called a “worrying problem.” Here, “worrying” does not mean “concerning” (though it is that as well), but rather something tailor-made for worry. Its effects exist primarily in the imagination and have poorly defined bounds that encourage speculation; a point of no return looms. Yet the contours of those bounds and that point may become clear only after it is too late to correct course.

Other worrying problems exist. They tend to emerge where clear long-term trends in technological or social change produce concerning side effects.

Oren provides other examples of “worrying problems” such as a global pandemic caused by international travel and urbanization, overuse of antibiotics, nuclear weapons, interconnectivity of financial systems, democratization of communications technologies, computer viruses, superhuman computer intelligence, weaponized nanotechnology, and many more, including social ones, as well as the sustainability of the Western welfare state itself. As Oren says there is “much to worry about,” but reminding everyone that “we should heed the well-known warning: ‘What worries you masters you.’”

He continues:

We need to choose and calibrate our worries with care. If, at least, climate change is a worrying problem but not the only one, what makes it most worrying of all?”

Throughout the rest of his well-reasoned essay, Oren makes the case for why climate change is nowhere close to the “most worrying of all.” It is well worth a complete read through.

Oren astutely concludes:

A more dispassionate placement of climate change alongside a range of worrying problems does not mean there is nothing to worry about. But it points away from sui generis mitigation at all costs and toward an existing model for addressing problems through research, preparation, and adaptation. It suggests that analytical exercises that would never be applied to other worrying problems, like assigning a “social cost” to each marginal unit of carbon-dioxide emissions, are as inappropriate as estimating a “social cost of computing power” as it brings humanity closer to a possible singularity, or a “social cost of international travel” as it elevates the risk of a global pandemic. Taxes on any of them are closer to political statements than efficient corrections of genuine externalities, and each would be more likely to stall meaningful economic and technological progress than to achieve a meaningful reduction of risk.

Lessons might run in the other direction as well: We are not focusing as much on other challenges as we should. And perhaps, if climate change were consigned to its rightful place in the crowd, some additional attention might be available to concentrate elsewhere. If the level of research support, policy focus, and international coordination targeted toward climate change over the past eight years had gone instead toward preventing and managing pandemics, imagine the progress that could have been made. For a fraction of the cost of de-carbonizing an industrial economy, it could be hardened against cyber attacks; with a fraction of the attention corporations pay to their own purported climate vulnerability, they could make real strides in their own technological security.

A little bit of worry provides healthy motivation. Too much is a recipe for paralysis, distraction, and overreaction.

Next up is an article from the Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch that pours a healthy dose of context onto the climate announcement of the week that the “pause” in global warming since the late 1990s was nothing but a figment of poor observational data. The study by published in Science Advances by a team led by Cal-Berkeley’s Zeke Hausfather seems to corroborate the data manipulation used by NASA in its latest version of its global surface temperature data compilation (which has been the subject of a contentious Congressional inquiry led by Rep. Lamar Smith). As we pointed out when NASA unveiled its new dataset back in 2015 (and which we reiterated to the Daily Caller), although we were skeptical of some of the methodologies involved, that even if they were all correct, the observed rate of global warming remained considerably less that that anticipated to be taking place by the world collection of climate models. This remains the case. Lukewarming, rather than high-end alarming warming, continues to gather evidential support. Further, we’ll note that as with any scientific paper, it’s not likely to be the end of the issue. Rumor has it that an announcement of other interesting, relevant and perhaps somewhat contradictory findings is afoot. So stay tuned.

And finally, we’ll point to this little curious tidbit in the form on an announcement from the Royal Society of an upcoming lecture by Oxbridge Physicist Tim Palmer titled “Climate change: catastrophe, hoax or just lukewarm?” While the title sounds promising to lukewarmers like us, reading through the description as to what the lecture will contain, we come to this:

With some emphasis on the lukewarmist perspective, he will explain why none of the three perspectives above is consistent with the risk-based scientific consensus about climate change.

Palmer has a track record of authoritarian exaggeration on climate change (see here) so we don’t expect much different here.

We’ll point out that lukewarming isn’t a full reflection of “consensus” science (for more on what lukewarming is, see our new book Lukewarming: The New Climate Science That Changes Everything) so it’s hardly surprising it doesn’t fit with into a risk-based “consensus.” It seems that this talk will be a dud from the start. We suppose that we ought to have a look just in case, but until then, we’ll stop short of recommending your time with it.