Climate change issue gets ugly (and we’re not referring to the politics of it, too)

Ever since my boss, DENR Undersecretary for Field Operations Eli Quinto, got elected as the Chairman of the Host Country Committee of the World Bank’s Carbon Finance Unit, I’ve been keeping more than a bit of attention on issues on climate change, since the work of the CFU – carbon trading – deals with that most pressing of issues.

Now, I’m not (exactly) a naysayer when it comes to the reality of environmental problems. Aside from my solid background in science – a deep childhood interest in it, cemented by four years of “special science” education in high school as a student of Manila Science High School – I ended up helping the Environmental Science Department of the Ateneo for a good two years or so. And if that wasn’t enough, its hard to be ignorant of environmental issues when you have regular traffic with our neighbor in Loyola Heights, which is Miriam College.

But something has disturbed me about all the high intensity debate over climate change. True, much of what I know of the issue comes from about the same sources as the general public, since my primary concerns as a Guardian are elsewhere, but partly because of my long experience in politics and public relations, and that solid grounding in science, parts of me have begun to question just how extensive the problem is, if not its existence.

It’s hard to deny that human activity since the Industrial Revolution (at least) has had a profound effect in the environment; surely, all those emissions for the last two centuries or so would do something, somewhere. But all these near-apocalyptic visions, like in the NatGeo show “Six Degrees Could Change the World”, has had me asking whether we’re going too far.

Since the political scene appeared relatively benign this sunny Monday of 21 July 2008 (Manila time), I decided to check a flag from the main site of WordPress, which was about the Shifting of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation from its warm mode to cool mode assures global cooling for the next three decades. But what caught my attention was what the blogger of Watts Up With That said about a controversy between the American Physical Society and a paper that ran counter to what the immediate cause of the “PeerGate” said as “in disagreement with the overwhelming opinion of the world scientific community.”

I’ve only done a surface scan of the issues, which means I haven’t read the controversial paper – controversial because of the way it had been treated, not by politicians, but scientists – by Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, nor have I tried to access the APS Forums (assuming I can even access them) to see what’s really going on. Still, the implications are profound. It’s already being called “PeerGate” in Watts because of the potential damage it could cause to the scientific community. If you understand the way papers are “graded” in the scientific community, and the importance of these papers, then you’ll know how important this whole rigmarole is.

Like our Chief of Staff has said, there are those who believe in the truth on climate change, and those who deny it. But like with another Gate thing here in the Philippines, I think that there are far more people in the middle of those poles that either camp would admit. And, yes, things aren’t as Black and White as some people would so conveniently label them to be.

I’m not so naive to dismiss that politics does not exist in science. Isaac Newton, after all, was known for destroying the life of a rival for the title of discoverer of Calculus. And I am not totally unaware of the… intensity that accompanied – accompanies? – the debate over climate change, which was largely “settled” with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the general public’s acceptance of it.

Still, I am also not as uninformed as the general public when it comes to scientific matters. Although my “specialty” in science rests with Astronomy and Nuclear Physics, the principles of the Scientific Method were deeply ingrained to us in MaSci over four years of rigorous scientific training. And four years of Jesuit education has taught me to not automatically accept something as true, even if the general public believes in it. I am, after all, also a Communications major whose specialization is in advertising and public relations. I know, after all, how information is processed.

I will say it again: I am not one of those who deny the truth of radical changes in our climate, and that we humans somehow have something to do with it. We have been burning large amounts of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, and we’ve only seriously begun talking about efficient and “eco-friendly” fuel consumption just at the start of this century. That’s more than two hundred years of inefficient and highly polluting utilization of fossil fuels, not to mention the attendant costs to our ecosystem, like the felling of whole forests and the contamination of marine biospheres. It shouldn’t take enough scientfic proof to beleive that something is wrong with the one planet we have.

But at the same time, I have something against a hysterical reaction to problems like climate change simply because some people feel so alarmed by it that they’ve been preaching apocalyptic visions coming so near if we don’t do this or that. Because the general public bases their reactions to these issues based on their scientific Strategic Constituents, and if the public is suffering from mass hysteria over what 2-3 degrees of shift in worldwide temperatures due to anthropogenic emissions would do, surely the politicians who “depend”, however nominally, on the votes of these people will have no choice but to pander to that hysteria, or at least try to appease it.

All’s fair if climate change was simply a political question. But, as Watts said in another post on the same topic, “when politics, emotions, and science mix, the outcome is never good.”

Because if climate change is true – and I would rather question the naysayers far more thoroughly what their proof is that it doesn’t – then there must be a thorough assessment of the issue, in order for it to be addressed properly and effectively. The discipline of the Scientific Method, of the processes and procedures of the various sciences that deal with climate change, must be applied, otherwise its like a misdiagnosis in medicine: the cure could kill the patient! The current debate on food-or-(bio)fuel should be a good example of what happens when a “cure” has far worse implications than the disease it purports to alleviate.

(Although, in my opinion, even that food-or-fuel debate is off-base given the Brazilian experience and the reality of the needs of Jatropha. These debates are not, again in my opinion, being left for specialists to decide but by people with vested interests, in both sides. So the debate gets muddled and all this misinformation flies all over the place. And since people tend to believe what conforms to their worldview, we’re all left in a bigger mess than the one we stated with!)

This “PeerGate” thing has the potential to reduce the debate on climate change into a highly-politicized and emotional battle even in scientific circles. Which is bad news for the rest of us. If the people with the knowledge and training to assess and address the issues facing our planet get into a free-for-all, who’s going to fix the mess? Or even tell us laypeople where the mess is, and how to help fix it?

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4 Responses to Climate change issue gets ugly (and we’re not referring to the politics of it, too)

  1. Hi,

    I’m just getting started with my new blog. Would you want to exchange links on our blog-rolls?

    BTW – I’m up to about 100 visitors per day.

  2. Evan Jones says:

    Excellent commentary.

    I am skeptical of the CO2 positive feedback part of the argument (which is the part which is said to require the mondo-expensive fix), but I agree with much of what you say.

    And even if I didn’t, your appeal to the scientific method and open debate is how one is supposed toresolve this sort of difference.

  3. Dodgy Geezer says:

    “If the people with the knowledge and training to assess and address the issues facing our planet get into a free-for-all, who’s going to fix the mess? Or even tell us laypeople where the mess is, and how to help fix it?”

    Funnily enough, I think that makes it easier!

    When this issue started I was as concerned about a possible ‘climate anomaly’ as everyone else. I didn’t look at the maths, the base data, or the arguments, on the grounds that this wasn’t my specialist subject, so I couldn’t be expected to understand it.

    Then, as the discussion progressed, and moved into the politican arena, it started to impact me, and so I started to examine it. I very soon discovered that this was not a cut-and-dried issue – there was something deeply wrong with the whole process. Leaving aside the nutters on both sides, the science seemed to consist of outputs from mathematical models, and occasional data sets which were hotly disputed by both sides. There didn’t seem to be any common ground of qny kind which was agreed, or any single findingr which both sides could agree would answer the question. It was much closer to a political discussion, for example, where both side have a differing view about what constitutes ‘crime’ and how to ‘solve’ it.

    As the years progressed, this debate changed into a kind of one-way battle, with the GW supporters claiming that they had won, but refusing to provide the data which proved it, while the GW opponents spent their time finding holes in what data was available. None of this, of course, proves anything!

    I believe that this is now, fairly clearly, a political battle, not a scientific study. In particular, the GW supporters do not seem to be doing science – they refuse to give their opponents complete access to the data they are working off. In those circumstances, I have no dificulty deciding that the GW supporters position is the least credible – I don’t need to do the maths to know who I trust!

  4. Tim Andrews says:

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