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(Somewhat) skeptical science finds evidence for global warming

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | October 23, 2011

The press release is dated October 20, just this past Thursday. In two succinct pages, it summarizes work by a group of Berkeley scientists. It starts:

Global warming is real, according to a major study released today. Despite issues raised by climate change skeptics, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study finds reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1° C since the mid-1950s.

The final paragraph leaves some wiggle room for those who think the debate should be about the degree to which global warming is due to human actions, saying “What Berkeley Earth has not done is make an independent assessment of how much of the observed warming is due to human actions.”

While it will be interesting to see their estimates of the human contribution to the rise in global temperature, what we already know is that humans are in the position of addressing the negative effects from the rise in global temperature. Nature, however you think about her/it, is not likely to be endowed with self-consciousness, will not recognize if she/it is doing something that raises temperatures, and won’t be taking steps to address any contributions she/it is making to the deadly trajectory.

And, thanks to something called “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”, which took the internet by storm in 2007, we already have an excellent argument for why the risk of humans doing nothing is too high, making doing something now simply the sanest position to maintain human life and quality of life for everyone on the planet.

First the new science:

As summarized by the BBC, the reasons why this report (which, after all, simply confirms every other serious scientific study) is significant include:

• it was set up after the so-called “Climategate” incident, when stolen emails from a group of British scientists were used to argue that scientists were falsifying data– a conclusion, of course, that was refuted in later investigations

• it “received funds from sources that back organisations lobbying against action on climate change”, specifically the Koch brothers

• it “examined claims from ‘sceptical’ bloggers that temperature data from weather stations did not show a true global warming trend” due to the “urban heat island effect”

The graph resulting from the research analyzing data from 40,000 weather stations, is virtually identical to those produced by previous studies.

The amount of data is reportedly five times the data sources of previous research, eliminating the possibility of one criticism of previous researchers, the claim that they had selected only the stations that supported their perspective. The data from urban stations did not unduly bias results because only 1% of the earth’s surface is urban. About 1/3 of the stations, especially in the northern hemisphere (the US and Northern Europe) reported cooling; the remaining 2/3 of the stations showed warming.

(Remember that global warming is a world-wide phenomenon, and changes in climate that are produced need not be uniform around the world, and probably won’t be. The Union of Concerned Scientists has some of the best objective descriptions of the many and varied effects already being created by this global process.)

One of the project members is quoted in the press release as saying

“The large number of [weather stations] reporting cooling might help explain some of the skepticism of global warming…Global warming is too slow for humans to feel directly, and if your local weather man tells you that temperatures are the same or cooler than they were a hundred years ago it is easy to believe him”.

Global warming may be too slow for humans to feel directly, but as I have previously noted, archaeologists around the world are seeing its effects archaeological sites as long-established ice melts. Studies showing that weather broadcasters are a highly skeptical group may be explained by the global patterning in where global warming– a planet-wide effect– is seen or is not seen as a rise of temperature, instead of in other signals, like the failure of polar ice to cover as much of the Arctic ocean as it previously did, potentially changing weather systems in more complicated ways.

And that brings me back to the argument for taking action now, because human beings can take actions before the situation is irreversible.

The video arguing that the risk of doing nothing was not worth taking was the product of a man named Greg Craven, a high school physics and chemistry teacher. He produced a second video in response to comments on his first, called “How it All Ends”, and most recently, a book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate. As Craven says, “I may not be right, but no one can say I’m not excruciatingly thorough”.

What interests me the most is how he produced this series of exceptionally effective arguments. He says on his website that his

main qualification for proposing a layman’s approach to climate change is having borrowed the 30 brains in his classroom every period to mull questions of science and critical thinking for the last ten years. He’s found there’s no better way to refine a thought than to toss it out in front of a roomful of critical teenagers.

In other words, Craven got to these arguments by encouraging critical thinking. That is, after all, the highest calling we have as teachers, something we anthropologists have recently had occasion to emphasize in response to Florida’s governor calling for the elimination of our discipline as a college major in that state.

And here’s the tricky part: critical thinking includes exploring ideas you don’t think are true.

The coverage of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperatures study over the last three days seems mostly to be unable to grapple with that truth about critical thinking, the academy, and science.

It isn’t an accident that I drew on the BBC for my summary of the science in this study. Most of the coverage so far in US media (for instance, a story Thursday in the LA Times) takes the peculiar approach of personalizing the skepticism that led the researchers to undertake this study in the first place, as if skepticism– or better, critical thinking– were not something that should be cultivated in the academy.

I (as is no doubt obvious to readers of this blog) find the evidence for global climate change that is directional (warming) and threatening to our species and other species convincing enough that the risk of not acting is too high for us to wait to take action.

But that conviction drives me to conclusions about what policies governments should endorse, what actions businesses and individuals should take. It in no way means that serious scientists should stop trying to refine our knowledge, should stop being critics of whatever is the common wisdom.

As long as our public media insist on reducing serious analysis and debate to contests between individuals, whether in science, politics, or other spheres, we are not well served. What we need in our complicated, challenging world is more thoughtful exchanges between people with differences in understanding, like those pinpointed as effective by scholars of “public deliberation”.

I don’t have the solution to this; but maybe Greg Craven — or the 30 high school students in his classroom– have shown us that there can be light at the end of the tunnel of ignorance if we undertake serious engaged debate about issues, not personalities.