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Don’t know much ’bout climatology

Dan Farber, professor of law | January 22, 2015

Why should we believe the scientists about climate change?  Nobody — not even any individual scientist — understand all the details of the 1552-page “summary” of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). So why buy into the idea that tiny amounts of gases from beneficial energy production can cause devastating global harm?

Part of the reason is that scientists have had a great track record. We trust our lives to supercomputer calculations about wing shapes and aerodynamics, despite the obvious fact that a hundred-ton hunk of metal obviously can’t fly. We take medicines that rely on the absurd notion that illnesses are caused by tiny invisible creatures called germs. We convict criminals based on the bizarre notion that human beings are built from a chemical code recorded on tiny molecules scattered all through their bodies. I’m writing this on a laptop that relies on transistors which are based on quantum mechanics, a theory that even Einstein thought was too crazy to be true.

Believing in science has turned out to be a very good bet. Climate change isn’t just some fad among scientists. The basic scientific insight is over a century old. Scientists in hundreds of universities, and labs all over the world, have developed our current knowledge of climate change in thousands of studies. The evidence is truly massive — I recently strained my wrist when I carelessly picked up the first volume of the current IPCC report with one hand — at 1552 pages of tiny print, it’s a bit on the heavy side. And it’s only a summary of the evidence.

When you start looking a bit deeper, it’s remarkable to see how hard scientists have worked to confirm individual pieces of the puzzle and to test their theories. There’s lots of criticism of particular results and intense further research to investigate disputed questions.

Another thing that’s impressive about the IPCC report is that there’s an elaborate system to provide the probability for each individual finding — some are considered “almost certain” while others are merely “very likely” or “likely”; the evidence on some is considered to provide “high confidence” while others are only “medium” or “low” confidence. These folks are really being careful to tell us what they know and what they don’t know; when’s the last time you saw a politician do that??

Sure there are handful of dissenters, just as there were a few scientists in the 1950s who insisted that cigarettes couldn’t possibly cause cancer. But we’d be irrational — and I don’t use that word lightly — to ignore what climate scientists are telling us.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Don’t know much ’bout climatology

  1. My first car got about twelve miles to the gallon, my current car gets almost thirty. I live in Southern California, and I’m in the process of changing my yard from grass and shrubs to pebble and rock. My hope is that as long as scientists keep this in the public eye, things will continue to change for the better. I just hope they’re changing fast enough.

  2. Prof Farber, an L.A. Times Op-Ed — “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?” — by Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, made the following declaration last week:

    “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan …. ”

    Does UC have a contingency plan for California?

  3. Scientists are not all created equal. Psychology has an ever-changing number of schools of thought and practice, yet it considers itself a “science.” (John Horgan’s book “The Undiscovered Mind” is a devastating portrait of the state of psychology today.)

    Climatology is, like psychology, a fairly new field of study. The first two scientists to make the case for human-induced global warming (Sweden’s Arrhenius and England’s Callendar) welcomed the prospect of higher temperatures: they believed that another Ice Age might be postponed because of all the carbon added to the atmosphere.

    Today, we are subjected to lectures by scientists brandishing computer models that have failed to predict the current state of the planet’s climate. We are told that weather events that appear to contradict the gloomy forecasts are really confirmations of them. We are given no convincing explanations of the medieval Great Warming or the more recent Little Ice Age. Yet we must ready ourselves for a climate Apocalypse and transform our economy in a probably vain attempt to forestall it.

    I suggest that — rather than mock “climate change deniers” — people should read a book written by a Professor Emeritus of Energy and Resources at UC-Berkeley: “The Real Environmental Crisis” by Jack M. Hollander. Chapter 5 (“Is the Earth Warming?”) is only 24 pages and it contains a wealth of information, common sense, and humility. The last two traits are sadly absent from most the pronouncements on climate change that I have read.

  4. Prof. Farber, I most strongly believe in what you are saying, but the fact that so few scientists, professors and scholars are warning us about the immediate threats of global warming makes it far too easy for the deniers, politicians and other sophists to refute IPCC reports.

    We must produce a coalition of scientists, professors and scholars to speak out loud and clear in order to achieve the required actions today!

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