16 September 2006

Scientific Basis

I recently read Michael Crichton's "State of Fear". As a thriller, it's good but not exceptional. As a contribution to climate debate, I'm not sure it's helpful - there's an obvious problem with claiming the media is drowning out the real science in a novel. I assume (and hope) that the claim in the author's postscript, "Everybody has an agenda. Except me." is not meant to be taken seriously.

What is a useful contribution is the Appendix in which Crichton draws an analogy between the global warming movement and the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. You can read it on his website.

There's one point in his argument which I think is interestingly wrong. He says, "there was no scientific basis for eugenics." Perhaps I'm quibbling over words, but if we're talking about the fundamentals, there was a very solid basis for eugenics. Evolution is real. Genetics is real. It is true that if a person who, for reasons stemming from their genes, would be unable to live and reproduce in a primitive society, is, in our advanced society enabled to live and reproduce, then the gene causing their inability will as a result become more common than would otherwise be the case. That's basis.

The problem, of course, is in the details, and in what is built on the basis. To what extent is failure in society due to genetic reasons? To what extent is failure of a society or a race as a whole due to genetic reasons? To what extent is the spread of genetic problems restrained by ordinary individual behaviour in the absence of a concerted policy? How long would it take for a change in selection pressures to have a noticeable effect on the human gene pool - decades or millenia? What can we do about changes that occur? Who is to decide which genes are superior? What are we giving up in exchange for genetic improvement?

Global warming has a very solid scientific basis, as I understand the word "basis". The greenhouse effect is real. Carbon Dioxide concentrations are increasing. The increase is almost certainly anthropogenic. The basis of the theory of global warming is completely sound.

And the details are less clear. What is the magnitude and speed of the change? How much climate variation is due to atmospheric constitution, how much to land use, how much to solar variation, how much to natural oscillation, how much is random, how much is due to causes we haven't even thought of? What will be the effects, how can we deal with the effects? Who is to regulate atmospheric emissions? What are we giving up in exchange for a cooler climate?

Where Crichton really hits the nail on the head is in his title. This is all about fear. I have worried in the past about the suspicious way in which my assessment of factual issues such as global warming always seems to support my political views. But the issues I have addressed are not purely factual. Fear is always part of the question. The question I have been dealing with is not "what is the matrix of costs and probabilities associated with climate change?", it is "how much fear should we have of climate change". And fears are (or should be) relative to other fears.

I have an agenda. My agenda is freedom. To me, the ideas that 10% of our land area might fall below sea level, and that we won't be able to grow the crops we currently grow, are worrying. The idea that governments could have the power to regulate CO2 is terrifying. When I disagree with the climate science mainstream, I'm not so much disagreeing with the science, I'm disagreeing with the fear. I have different fear.

And fear leaks into the factual assesments also. If science were done perfectly, it wouldn't, but it does. I think actually the factual disagreements, though they do exist as a result of the leakage, are less significant than they seem, because when they are converted into something meaningful to people, the fear has to play a part in the conversion.

If my terror seems a bit extreme, let me explain. After all, pollution regulations have been around a long time, and have resulted in huge environmental benefits. The difference is locality. The Clean Air Act was a response to local problems. The people who benefited from the act were either the same people as suffered its restrictions, or else lived among them - and we always have to compromise our interests with those we live among.

But the core assertion of the CO2 issue is that my emissions have effect on others independent of their distance from me. It is not enough, therefore, for me to compromise my interests with those of my neighbours, I must compromise with the whole population of planet Earth. That is a qualitative change from any kind of politics that has ever existed. The Kyoto Treaty, by seeking to restrict the essential private activity of burning fuel, is the establishment of a world government in a way that the creation of the UN, which sought to regulate only relations between states, originally was not.

Humankind has always faced environmental threats and problems, and has a good and improving record of coping with them. We have no such comforting record in dealing with overreaching government and tyranny - as Milton Friedman said in the old TV interview that has been going around recently, tyranny and serfdom are the normal state of mankind, and freedom is the rare and precious exception.

The eugenicists sold their participation in a common humanity for a lower incidence of genetic illness. My fear is of selling the existence of a private sphere within which the individual or group can be free for better weather.

The best source for mainstream climate science is realclimate.org. Their criticism of State of Fear is here.
A good source of purely scientific challenge to the mainstream is Roger Pielke Sr
A more obviously political critic of mainstream climate science is Patrick Michaels, who writes at TCS
Michael Crichton's main attack on global warming is Environmentalism as Religion

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