Global Warming – A Matter of Degrees

One of the factors in the vehemence of many political debates is the insistence on a simple yes-no answer when the issue is truly a matter of degree.  A binary choice (yes-no, either-or) forces people to pick one answer or the other. But, on many issues, there is a valid range of opinion.

Chris Mooney, in a recent Washington Post article, inadvertently shows how this works. He tries to tell scientists that in order to reach the public, they have to start listening. But, in the article, he equates either-or knowledge with “belief in Global Warming”. He talks about decisions to vaccinate children (yes-no) and the public’s beliefs about whether the Sun or the Earth (either-or) is at the center of the solar system.

Then he discusses Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) as if it is an either-or decision. It is not. It is, pun intended, a matter of degree. The idea that human activity could somehow affect the environment is not really doubted. The questions, however, are many.

Are warming and cooling a natural part of the cycles of the planet? Has human activity exacerbated the problem? If so, how much worse has it made it? If we’ve made it worse, how much do we have to change to counter the damage?  What will it cost us to make those changes? Are there other ways to get the same benefits? Are there more important goals and needs for humans?

George Bush was criticized for a statement about the “war on terrorism”. He divided the world into two groups, those “with us” and those “against us”. This was described as simplistic. Yet, if you believe the world might not end next week from worldwide rises in the oceans’ water levels, you “don’t understand science”.

Pollsters can play the same game. The question “Is it important to save the planet by reducing Global Warming?” is likely to get a high percentage of “Yes” answers. But, try putting it as a “how much” question.  If we ask, “Are you willing to spend $7.00 a gallon to stop global warming?” the “Yes” answers will drop dramatically.

Bjorn Lomborg has done a lot of research on trade-offs about global warming. In Cool It, he talks about meetings he arranged where economists and other specialists worked together to analyze various alternatives and consider the costs and the benefits of different actions. 

Obviously, it is possible to work at the issue diligently and reach different conclusions. Lomborg’s groups put global warming pretty far down on the list. Even if you disagree, reading the book gives a good idea of the tradeoffs and possible considerations.

There is a conflict among climate researchers over “fear-mongering” or what is needed to “wake up” the public about the dangers of warming. It is clear that grant-seeking is also affected by the needed to show a clear danger which must be addressed by more research money.

The average citizen understands there may be a problem but it is not the only thing they are worried about. People are also worried their jobs, the stability of their country’s currency, oil spills and other things. Their primary concern is the physical and financial wellbeing of their family.

“Cap and trade” legislation is moving through Congress. People understand the proposals involved will cost them money, if not jobs. This would have had been difficult to pass in good economic times. The public will demand more information (facts, not hysteria) to be convinced to take these steps in hard or uncertain times.

We live in a high tech environment. Many people without the “scientist” label or credentials work with systems and logic rules every day. A credentialed scientist spouting the word “consensus” is not going to impress these people. They know a good theory or a new fact can destroy a scientific “consensus” overnight.

Short of nuclear war, I don’t think humanity is that big a threat to the world. I am ready to be convinced and I will spend the time to look into it. I have three suggestions – Stop name calling, stop using unscientific terms like “consensus” and show me facts – not computer models .Then we have something to discuss.


    1. One needs to be careful what the scale of the axes are that are used. Taking very small scale divisions and the data is overly exaggerated, taking very large scale divisions and even significant changes in the data look to be of no concern. The real test of the appropriateness of the scale is where one can reliably and objectively demonstrate a discernible impact.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s