Monday, May 25, 2015

Heated Discussion

Climate change is one of the most maddeningly contentious issues of our times - maddening because it really shouldn't be any more controversial than whether owls exist. Of late I've been sidelined in an otherwise respectful online discussion by a couple of climate trolls. I know you're not supposed to feed them, but sometimes it can't be helped. 

I joined a Facebook community called "Remember the Silicon Valley Before It Was the Silicon Valley?" It's a lovely little group of folks indulging in deep nostalgia for my boyhood hometown, with posts like "Remember the old White Front department store? I used to bike over there to buy ten-cent candies with my brother" and so on. 

One day some dude posted a photo of a row of six-story apartment buildings in Santa Clara, noting "how sad" it was that there was high-density housing in our valley. It was creepy, he said, like some "alien land." And so I said: "On the contrary. Ordinary people can't afford to live there anymore. We need high density housing so teachers and policemen and nurses can live there. Density makes transit more efficient and walkable neighborhoods are good for the planet." 

And then we were off to the races. You would think I had proposed massive rows of kitten guillotines in every shopping mall. 

I was told that density is not good for the planet because it increases the number of people in a given parcel of land (which is, I know, a tautology) and that I was a liar for suggesting otherwise. I learned that lot of people really, really don't like living in urban environments - which is fine, really. Takes all kinds of people to make a world. Some of those folks, of course, were able to cash out the highly inflated value of their land thanks to the Silicon Valley tech boom, and then buy a mountainside up in the Sierra Nevada, from whence they can decry the urbanization impelled by other folks moving to the Valley, trying to make a buck. 

The discussion has been going on for nine months or so, off and on, and like I say, mostly respectful on all sides. I've been able to present a lot of information about how people in dense, walkable urban neighborhoods have about one-third the carbon footprint of folks in sprawling, auto-centric suburbs, and how density is as much a matter of economic justice as it is necessary for the planet.

The thread has sometimes spilled over into tangential discussions of related issues like immigration, overpopulation, water use, crime ratesincome inequality, taxation policies, and, of course, climate change.  I have been arguing that the climate crisis means that we need to move swiftly to reduce our carbon footprint, and that mixed-use development in walkable, urban neighborhoods served by public transit is one of the best ways to do that. And that, of course, is where the trolls come in. 

The first one is belligerent, screams in all caps that "there is NO HUMAN CAUSES GLOBAL climate change," violates Godwin's law but posts racist crap to his homepage that Hermann Goering would be proud of, and suggests that I'm motivated by increasing the value of my "investments" via the teachers unions. 

The second troll is more erudite, and has posted about a dozen arguments against anthropogenic climate change, ranging from the specious to the superficially plausible, all of them gleaned - directly or indirectly - from the extensive denialist propaganda network funded by the fossil fuel barons. He may concede that warming is occurring, but that its dangers are completely overblown and that people are overreacting, perhaps due to some irrational or "pathological" fear. Nobody who disagrees with him can possibly be rational, though he endorses the paranoid tinfoil-hat "Agenda 21" conspiracy theory that posits the UN will force us all onto bike paths

Like any troll, he's wasting a good deal of time and pixel space, but it's a free country and he can say what he wants. Still, this particular Facebook community has 5500 members, and his arguments deserve a coherent response, if only for the lurkers and onlookers who may be genuinely confused or undecided. Because he's been throwing so much sand in the umpire's eyes, there are a lot of points to respond to, and that's why I'm doing it here, where I can embed links to further information and take my time without dominating the discussion.

And maybe this will be useful to you in responding to trolls of your own, either online, or at your next family gathering. This is not a comprehensive guide to every denialist talking point (you can find a really good one at Grist magazine's site, or maybe use this flowchart in a pinch).  But herewith, a few responses to some of the most common climate change claptrap:

• Carbon dioxide is good for plants

  This complete nonsense is not the argument of someone who has carefully examined the scientific consensus and found it wanting. this the argument of someone who carefully prunes their news intake to avoid being exposed to anything that contradicts their comfortable worldview, and so is routinely
handed the talking points of the GOP donor base. This is like saying that calories are good for you, so you should pork out on fast food three times a day. In real life, not only are we dumping far more carbon into the atmosphere than the plants can absorb, but we've been deforesting the planet for centuries and removing some of nature's best carbon sinks. This also ignores all the other things carbon does, like trap the sun's radiation on the planet's surface. No matter how much plants love their carbon dioxide, desertification isn't their idea of a holiday.

• The climate is always changing
   "Droughts," I was told, "even long ones, occur all over the planet and predate industrialization." True enough, and some of them have led to civilizational collapse; ask the Maya and the Anasazi. And as the Royal Society put it:
All major climate changes, including natural ones, are disruptive. Past climate changes led to extinction of many species, population migrations, and pronounced changes in the land surface and ocean circulation. The speed of the current climate change is faster than most of the past events, making it more difficult for human societies and the natural world to adapt.
Or as Skeptical Science puts it: "It doesn't happen by magic. Climate changes when it's forced to change. When our planet suffers an energy imbalance and gains or loses heat, global temperature changes."

There are currently no megadroughts, says the erudite troll, and here he is technically correct, if we define same as lasting multiple decades. But the megadroughts are coming if we continue to heat up the planet at this rate. "None of the local precipitation patterns are historical anomalies in any way," he goes on, and here he is wrong again. California's current drought is the worst the region has seen in 1200 years, which certainly predates any history of a place called California by its inhabitants. We shouldn't have to wait a couple decades to find this alarming indeed - even if a superheated El Nino leads to significant rainfall later this year. 

• It's hubris to think we can affect the climate
   This is one I hear a lot from Rush Limbaugh - it's a big old planet, and there's only seven billion of us itty bitty people, so how could anything we do affect the climate? The erudite troll says that it manifests a "Superman/God complex" to think we can do anything about global warming, so naturally we shouldn't do anything about it. 

This conveniently ignores an obvious historical case of humans affecting the planet: the ozone hole that was caused by a buildup of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. In this case, the world's governments accepted the scientific consensus and actually agreed to do something about it (maybe because the freon lobby didn't have nearly the clout of the fossil fuel barons). So CFCs were phased out and the problem was mitigated, if not completely solved. 

Likewise, we have conclusive evidence that human activity is affecting our planet's climate. Let a climate scientist explain:
• We can accurately measure the effects of greenhouse gases on infrared radiation in the lab. From this we can work out what happens if we increase the amount of greenhouse gases (such as CO2) in the atmosphere. They reduce the amount of radiation the Earth loses to space so it has to warm up to compensate.

 • We can measure atmospheric CO2 concentrations accurately. Because CO2 is very long-lived (i.e. it doesn't quickly react with stuff and get converted to something else) CO2 measurements in one place are pretty much the same as every other place.

• We can attribute the CO2 increase to human fossil fuel burning because CO2 from these sources tends to contain more light carbon isotopes than CO2 already in the atmosphere. This is because plants (the ultimate source of fossil fuels) prefer to take up light carbon isotopes rather than heavy ones.

• We are aware of other factors that can affect climate: volcanic eruptions, solar activity, human aerosol particle emissions, and redistribution of heat from the atmosphere to the ocean on a range of timescales. We can quantify these effects and find they cannot explain recent warming. Likewise, we can quantify the effect of CO2 and other greenhouse gases and find they can explain recent warming.
• Severe weather events have declined
   Denialists are adept at cherry-picking data to try to wish away the reality of climate change, as this blustery piece in Forbes shows. They might argue that there are fewer deaths from extreme weather events (due of course to improved safety and forecasting tools). Or they might just focus on one type of weather, like hurricanes or tornadoes, and ignore other events, like heat waves  and flooding. Or they may use reports just from the US, or only from certain parts of the US to twist the picture around. One of the easiest ways to lie with statistics is to choose your base year as high as possible, and shut off your data set in a much lower year. Presto, "declining severe weather." 

Meanwhile, in the real world, record breaking heat is five times more frequent than it would be without our carbon buildup. Moreover, aside from the frequency of extreme weather, which varies widely over time, the intensity of high-precipitation events is clearly on the rise. This stands to reason, since a warmer atmosphere can holder greater amounts of water vapor, forming larger storms and blizzards. Thus, even in constant dollars, the financial hit from these events is also skyrocketing. According to peer-reviewed research cited here, there has been a "10-fold increase in extreme weather events." 

• That ice shelf is only 1% of Antarctica
   My esteemed interlocutor pooh-poohed reports of the imminent collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf named Larsen B. That ice shelf, he scoffed, is only 1% of the Antarctic land mass, therefore its melting is no cause for concern. And of course he'd be right (at least partially) if the way climate change works is that the ice shelves will melt one at a time, patiently waiting their turn. This is nonsense, of course, since the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is dumping twice as much melt as Larsen B, and its neighbor Larsen A is gone, and Larsen C, which is five times larger, has started cracking up. But even if ice shelves melted one at a time, he'd still be wrong, since the ice shelves are holding back Antarctica's glaciers, and once they're gone, the glaciers move much more rapidly into the sea. Meanwhilethe massive ice sheet covering Greenland is also melting at an alarming rateAll of this has been accelerating in recent years, which brings us to the next objection....

• Sea level rise is minimal

   Here is where the erudite troll shows himself to be math-challenged on top of everything else. He posted a link to a study on sea level rise, which notes that the increase has been approximately 0.6mm annually over the past 20 years.  His comment was "Ohh, .6 mm per, you're gonna drown!" First of all, that works out to about a half inch rise over two decades, which still doesn't sound like much, but if we continue at that rate for a few more decades, we have some serious problems for the billion or so humans who live in coastal areas. Except that we won't be continuing at that rate; the rate is increasing (see ice shelf data above). And here's the best part: we've already had nine inches of sea level rise over the past 140 years. And that works out to about 23 millimeters, or 0.164mm per year. So the paper he cited shows that the rate of sea level rise has effectively quadrupled in the past couple decades. Thanks, man!

Of course, if we don't do something soon, by the end of the century we could be measuring sea level rise in feet, not inches

• 400ppm is an arbitrary benchmark

   Of course it is; it's just a big, round number. Nobody is saying that we'd be perfectly safe at 399ppm. Of course actual climate scientists have been telling us for years that the safe threshold was 350ppm, and we just blew past that. The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, humans didn't even exist. As climatologist Peter Glieck points out, "never in the history of the planet have humans altered the atmosphere as radically as we are doing so now." But the erudite troll, who knows better than all those climate scientists, scoffs at "people that are all worked up over this measly 400ppm."

• We won't be feeling the effects in our lifetimes 
   Friends, even if this were true (which it most certainly isn't), this would be the most irresponsible and callous argument for doing nothing about the extremely expensive and catastrophic effects of global climate change. Rather than boosting the value of my vast teachers union holdings, what motivates me to be active on this issue is leaving a better world for my children and grandchildren. If we don't stop treating the atmosphere as a carbon dump for utilities and oil companies, the effects of climate change, according to the IPCC, will be essentially irreversible. Co2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries; look at the 400ppm graph above to see much we've dumped there already. 

Most of us reading this can expect to live to around midcentury; my kids will probably see the end of the century. But of course we don't have to wait that long to see the effects of climate change; they're with us right now. We're already seeing the effects of sea level rise as storm surges like Sandy and Katrina bring more devastating flooding. We can see the climate starting to affect crop yields. We can see the effects of ocean acidification on our fisheries. And of course we can see the more frequent heat waves. 2014 was the hottest year on record, and nine of the top ten are in the 21st century. 2015 is already on pace to bust that record. 

Denialists like to decry the staggering costs involved with switching over to renewable energy resources and a low-carbon economy. You'd think that true conservatives would pause to consider the costs of inaction: as much as $20 trillion by 2100, by some estimates. Of course that's not "in our lifetimes," so why worry?

• Wackos warned about an ice age

 The erudite troll helpfully posted a compendium of articles from the 1970s with suitably alarmist headlines about the impending ice age. Never mind that some of them were repeated two or three times and many were from podunk hometown papers. Most of these articles in the popular press were based on a few scientific papers which correctly noted a slight mid-century cooling trend, which was abated when aerosols and particulate matter were regulated out of our energy emissions. What I didn't see was any kind of prescription about what to do about it, much less the "increased government control over the lives of citizens, and more tax money." that the erudite troll insists is the motivation behind climate science. There was never anything like the overwhelming consensus we have now about climate change, nor was there a concerted international effort to address the problem. This isn't just apples and oranges; it's more like cherries and grapefruits. Even in the '70s, there were far more scientists predicting warming than cooling; the ice age scare was largely a media phenomenon. 

• James Hansen is a charlatan
   The denialists like to make this about personalities, rather than evidence. Or as the belligerent troll put it, "Al Gore has a carbon Footprint the size of Bill Clinton." The erudite troll chose to try undermining the credibility of NASA climate scientist James Hansen, by repeating an apocryphal story about how his historic 1988 testimony had been PR-enhanced by scheduling it for a hot day with the hearing room artificially warmed up. Even if that were true, it wouldn't have been Hansen's fault - and his opponents are not averse to some PR management of their own. He may have been wrong about some things, but his climate change predictions have held up pretty well. Which brings us to...

• Climate models are useless
     The challenge was, are there any climate models with predictive value? And the answer is - as this Quora thread illustrates - that while no climate model is perfect, climate scientists have a much better track record than the denialists do when it comes to accurate  predictionsHere I'm going to quote directly from Coby Beck at Grist:
• models predict that surface warming should be accompanied by cooling of the stratosphere, and this has indeed been observed
• models have long predicted warming of the lower, mid, and upper troposphere, even while satellite readings seemed to disagree — but it turns out the satellite analysis was full of errors and on correction, this warming has been observed
• models predict warming of ocean surface waters, as is now observed
• models predict an energy imbalance between incoming sunlight and outgoing infrared radiation, which has been detected
• models predict sharp and short-lived cooling of a few tenths of a degree in the event of large volcanic eruptions, and Mount Pinatubo confirmed this; 
• models predict an amplification of warming trends in the Arctic region, and this is indeed happening
and finally, to get back to where we started, models predict continuing and accelerating warming of the surface, and so far they are correct.
"Please provide any evidence," sneers the erudite troll, "of a valid 'climate model' that can even function properly when fed actual historical data. Let alone one that has been shown to have ANY predictive value whatsoever." Fine. Here is a simple explanation of how climate models work. And for the more scientifically literate among you, click on the "intermediate" link on that page for a more complicated explanation. 

• This is about power and control
   Well, we can certainly agree on that much; this entire debate is about power and control. But it sure ain't the teachers unions and climate scientists who control our economy. If 97% of the planet's climate scientists are engaged in a vast conspiracy to feather their own nests, they're not doing a very good job of it. Their funding in the decade from 1993 to 2004 stayed essentially flat. Research funding was cut under Bush, of course, but Obama hasn't exactly been dumping pots of gold on the researchers. Funding for clean energy technology has increased, certainly - and sensibly so, given all of the above evidence. But this is a drop in the bucket compared to global subsidies to the fossil fuel barons: $10 milllion per minute, every minute of every day. That works out to $5.3 trillion annually. 

That's where your power and control is. That's why Exxon and the Koch brothers and their allies have dumped a half billion dollars into a network of about 100 climate change denialist organizations, whose talking points are filtered through the conservative media. After all, that only amounts to about an hour's worth of their annual taxpayer subsidy. But that can still buy a lot of bullshit. 

Anyone who is the least bit openminded on these matters should see the documentary film Merchants of Doubt - or take your denialist uncle to see it. It describes the strategy and tactics of the PR professionals who have been hired to obfuscate this issue in the public mind, and stymie any action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Not only does the denialist network employ some of the same lobbying firms that used to shill for the tobacco companies - they feature some of the exact same "expert" con artists. Some of the same faces you used to see on TV telling you it was a myth that tobacco causes cancer, are now showing up on Fox News or in Senator Inhofe's hearing room, telling you it's a myth that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. 

And folks, that's the way the game is played. Their side, my side - we make our case in the court of public opinion. Their side has the means, motive and opportunity to cause confusion and delay. My side is hopelessly outgunned; we only have science to back us up. When you debate in public, or on the internet, you're free to act like a prosecuting attorney; pick and choose your best arguments, downplay or minimize the rest. Everybody does that. I've done it here, too - though many of the links I've posted will give you information the other side would like to stress. You know, why should I make your case for you?

But that's not how science works. Scientists test their hypotheses, consider all available evidence, and submit their research for peer review. If there are errors, they are corrected, and new hypotheses emerge. Scientists have been studying and predicting anthropogenic global warming since 1896. They continue to amass evidence, refine their climate models and subject their evidence and analysis to scrutiny. And 97% of the climate scientists - the people who do this for a living - are telling us that humans are heating up the planet and that we're in for a world of hurt if we don't stop. If 97 out of a hundred mechanics told you your car was in dangerous shape, you'd kind of be a fool to drive the thing, wouldn't you?

My esteemed interlocutor, the erudite troll, complains of the government "taxing you to death and imposing communistic controls on your society and your lifestyle." And recall, we're talking here about mixed-use development, more efficient land-use patterns, better public transit, renewable energy, that sort of thing. Yet he has no problem with the government taxing us to promote a corporate agenda, with far more extensive say over your society and lifestyle choices. And those choices will be even more constrained for our grandchildren if we let these legacy industries and their media acolytes continue to obstruct our collective response to the mess they've made. I say, this is the tyranny we need to resist.