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I was rude to Antony Watts a while back for misinterpreting the differences between different Arctic Ice measurements. Now, I am going to praise him. Well done to you, whom I know as a ‘climate skeptic’ (though not the wing-nut variety), for following through on the suggestion and contacting Walt Meier. Even better done to publish his responses, in full, on your blog.

Walt Meier is someone who took the trouble in the past to answer my own questions on sea ice, in the era before I dreamed of blogging, and he is, without doubt, a gentleman as well as a scholar of distinction. His work on the Cryosphere is literally world-class, and his patience in addressing the questions put to him on Watts’ blog is remarkable.

But I am not convinced, Mr Watts, that you are quite up to the mark on the issue of sea ice. This isn’t to say that I think I am an expert (am not), but your coverage of the ‘recovery’ as being ‘reassuring’ doesn’t seem to make much sense. The graphics to which the posts refer show recent sea ice development pretty much in line with the expected pattern, yet the underlying implication is that the current season’s recovery is in some way significant as an indicator that the long-term decline of the Arctic sea-ice is less serious than Dr. Meier’s responses clearly state.

Of course I respect your right to your own take on climate change and your own opinion on these matters, but I can’t help feeling that you’ve published Walt’s answers without reading them, or perhaps without understanding them. Maybe you simply don’t want to acknowledge them or the possibility of them being correct; I don’t know. But Meier has a long and distinguished career in the field, and a rational, dispassionate observer might, if required, conclude that the more credible witness in this matter is the specialist rathert than the commentator.

When I developed my own interest in the field, one place I found most useful was the open-access, peer-reviewed journal The Cryosphere . The paper under discussion are also of great value. Unlike the commenters on William’s blog, who seem to think that nobody outside a scientific field reads the journals or the papers, I have read much of this content and, whilst I do not in any way claim expertise, I do think I have a handle on the basics of Cryospheric science, enough to justify a belief that i can comment inteliigently on the subject, if not always accurately. Therefore I commend this short course of reading to your readers, who might as a consequence find many more subjects to question and challenge in the current scientific understanding of the state of the cryosphere.

My praise of you is not false in any way: I genuinely do respect anyone who is willing to publish both their own thoughts and contradictions to it in an open way, as you have. But my concern is also genuine: I still don’t think you have a grasp of the science or the processes.



Before getting on to the point in hand today, a hello to my correspondents, Eli, Paul, Students, and other occasional readers who have kept an eye on this space even when it appeared vacant; thank you for your patience.

I’ve been working for an engineering company for eight months now, having left the teaching profession. I’m still working towards the masters degree but the heart attack has slowed things down a bit. Fortunately, there may be the opportunity to study an area where there is a synergy between the job and the philosophical interests.

Since everyone is on the sea ice bandwagon these days, today’s comment is on the development of renewable energy in the UK. Comments, as always, welcomed.

There is no question that renewables are continuing to expand rapidly, though this has little, if anything, to do with climate change concerns. In my experience as a supplier of the technology, the vast majority of decisions are based on purely economic considerations. Developers are following the Merton Rule, in the belief that this will facilitate planning applications; in this case, the renewables are add-ons which are considered to be justifiable expenses against the gains to be made from a successful development. There are a few cases where companies express a concern with addressing climate change, but this is a contingent benefit, not a motive, and in most cases is a fortunate and marketable by-product of other forces.

There is also a real and rapid growth of interest in small-medium sized wind farms, often in the guise of Community Renewables Projects. Three motives appear to exist most strongly; such projects can get a degree of funding, reducing capital costs and increasing ROI; they can attract equity or bank funding using existing, tried and tested ‘bankable models’, making them lower risk, and, finally, they offer the prospect of medium-term energy security for villages and small towns and their businesses, in an environment of uncertainty over the National Grid’s ability to meet expected demand after 2014. For some areas, too, promoting wind energy projects is a marketing opportunity, promoting the ‘green’ credentials of an area and encouraging the all-important tourist/visitor numbers to continue.

The Private user/domestic renewables market is slightly different. Farms and isolated locations are still regular buyers of off-grid technology, though energy prices are critical motivators, too. There are a much greater number of private indviduals who are committed to thinking in the longer term and doing their bit towards reducing greenhouse gases, but even this commitment only remain robust where the economic realities add up: nobody wants to waste their money.

Being more energy efficient, in particular about heating, is still the biggest and most effective way of reducing a carbon footprint. On a commercial scale, replacing old oil-fired boilers, steam boiler systems, or inefficient old air-conditioning systems, are both cost-effective and successful greenhouse gas reducers. Of the renewable energy technologies in the UK, wind is the most efficient in both financial and productivity terms, in a large proportion of locations, but arguably still the most controversial, as it is visible in a way that solar pv, for example, is not. 

In very few cases do people in the UK opt for renewables purely on the grounds of contributing towards reducing our carbon footprint. Do I think this is a good or a bad thing? I feel that it shows that, in most cases, the climate change argument is known but not well-understood, or that people are unwilling or unable to look at our world and our problems on a large enough time or geographical scale, or probably both. There may be a parallel in the global leisure clothing market; many people express a desire to avoid exploitative practices in manufacturing, but this does not stop them from buying the product. There is an interesting moral comparison here; many people are keen to sypathise with the suffering of others (like the 200 million displaced Indians who hace barely hit the headlines this week), but their actions and decisions are in contradiction to their expressed desires. Perhaps this is a demonstration that, if there is a perceived conflict of interest between one’s own wealth/comfort and the very survival of distant and unfamiliar others, the others still lose out.

So, if there is to be a real change in the UK, a change which gives hope that the world is not sliding inexorably towards meltdown in the coming decades, we first need to have courage. People, commercial and private, need to actually do the things they think matter, rather than finding excuses not to, or waiting for someone else to pay the price. The British are well-known (even though this is a racial stereotype/cliche) for our pluck, phlegm or spunk. I’d like to see more evidence of it in the climate change and renewables debates.

Michael Tobis’ interesting post on the 28th May has provided an inspiration for some thoughts.

First thought is about the denialist/skeptic machine, the nature of the debate, and the significance of ‘educating’ the public. There is no question that the machinery of public communication is used more effectively by the ‘skeptic’ camp than by the ‘scientific community’ (inasmuch as these are the competing ‘camps’). Perhaps this has to do with a difference between the people who engage in science as a profession and those who qualify as ‘laymen’ (sic).

It seems that what has not been adequately grasped by too many scientists who blog about climate change is that the lay person’s attitude to the questions arising from the climate change debate are not derived from either fact or reason, primarily, but from belief and inclination to believe. This is not a criticism of the lay person; it is a reflection of the state of our culture, wherein we (the lay people) are obliged to take a great deal on trust in terms of what is or isn’t true about our world, since we lack either the training or the knowledge required to be able to determine for ourselves what specialists have laboured long and hard to work out.

This is why the process of changing social attitudes to issues deriving from scientific research or observation are very slow in coming. My personal observation is that most, if not all, the protagonists in online debate about climate change, come into the discussion, or their own enquiry, with their opinions already at least half-formed. Generally, the engagement with the debate reflects a desire to improve our own understanding, but we tend to be more accepting of the material which suports our predispositions than we are of that which contradicts it. Thus, the process of engagement serves to reinforce our original belief and ‘harden’ our attitude, rather than ‘open’ it out.

From research it appears that the proportion of laymen who are skeptical about AGW, whilst it is regionally different, is currently around 20-25% of the population. But this is too vague, for their skepticism covers a host of uncertainties and beliefs, rather than a simple question of fact. And this is one area where the do-nothings score highly; they are able to play on a range of insecurities and doubts to reinforce their skepticism, since the issues at point have two different fundamental natures.

The first type of ‘lay’ skepticism is the doubt about the facts. The issue is of ‘what’. Generally, more people are content to agree that climate does in fact change, and is changing now, than are inclined to have other doubts. Perhaps this is because we are well-trained to understand that science is good at questions of ‘what’, in other words, the recording and observation of fact and its reporting, of measurement and the observation of trends. Really, there shouldn’t be any debate about this at all, since either the climate is warming or it is not, and either it is being correctly measured or it is not, but even here, the lay reader can be drawn into doubt by skeptics or scientists who cast doubt on the reliability of observing systems or of methodologies.

We don’t understand the problems, but we do understand that the existence of a ‘problem’ in itself casts doubt on the reliability of the claimed facts. Thus, if we are already disposed to skepticism, our doubts are reinforced by the very existence of disagreement; we are able to say ‘See, it isn’t all that certain after all…I am right to have my doubts, since some scientists also have them.’ This skepticism can be challenged by reason and evidence, though people still tend to see only what they want to.

But the second type of issue is far more difficult to deal with. These are the issues not of what is happening to the climate, but of why. We are inclined to understand debates on causality as being more uncertain than issues of fact, since they are often not easily resolvable by purely scientific method, and they are, in our minds, ultimately ‘matters of opinion’. Of those who are skeptical about AGW, more have doubt about the causality than the observation. Here is where the do-nothings have their richest ground; there are many ways to reinforce peoples’ predisposition to doubt when the issue appears, on the surface, to be about matters of opinion.

So, is there a need for ‘better explanations’? Is there a point to having information sources somewhere between the ‘layman’s guides’ and the ‘science pages’? To what extent could these change people’s predispositions or opinions?

First of all, I’d suggest that most, if not all, of the decent blogs about climate change already exist in this ‘middle ground’. Moreover, there are blogs and websites suited to a whole range of levels of understanding, from the completely ignorant and credulous, to the almost completely academic. The ‘better explanations’ probably already exist, and their existence is necessary to counter the well-coordinated and funded subversion provided to the layman from people such as Inhofe and Morano, Spencer and Lomborg.

The question is, to what extent more needs to be done? Is it necessary to further win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Doubting Thomases, or is the majority already sufficient to ensure action/agreement? We already know that skepticism is more profitable than alarmism for the relevant protagonists, and this suggests that assuming that the battle has been won would be dangerous. But we should not expect to win many converts, or to see many examples of people ‘changing their minds’; we, the lay people, just aren’t wired that way.

Thanks for the inspiration, Michael, and all the others who are out there fighting the good fight…

Here goes another peculiar analogy. I notice that Uncle Eli has been thinking along related lines.

The doctor (and anyone else I speak to) tells me, unequivocally, that since my MI (heart attack), I absolutely have to quit smoking. No surprises there, then.

Why? Putting aside the derivative opinions of those who aren’t really qualified to know (most of the people who say this apart from the experts), what is the scientific basis of the nedical advice I am receiving? And what will the consequences of ignoring it be?

First, let’s look at the explanation I have been given. By continuing to smoke, I would increase the risk of further heart attacks, probably double it. How does the doctor know this? The cardiologists have a large information base, demonstrating a statistical relationship, historically, between smoking and heart attacks; the evidence is very strong that smokers are more at risk than non-smokers. This statistical probability is generated from real data, and expresses the likelihood/risk of future damage/injury on well-understood physical and theoretical principles.

I can be confident, though, that I don’t have to heed their advice; I could take up smoking again if I wish after all, it’s a free world (cough). For whilst I am told that I would be at an increased risk, it is, after all, only a statistical risk; there is no certainty that I would have another attack, nor can they specify a timescale, either for another prospective attack, or for my future mortality (which will come, its just a matter of when…).

So while I can reasonably assume that I would be at increased risk if I did smoke, I can also (apparently) rationally choose to ignore this advice, since it is speculative and not able to commit to a certainty that I will have a heart attack in the future.

What do you think? Should I take up smoking again? Am I trying to find an excuse to continue doing something which I enjoy and is a habit, even though I know that it is going to be bad for me eventually?

Likewise, I can (apparently) rationally choose to ignore the experts who have used real world data and have calculated the risks using statistical probability, to tell me that the climate is warming, that sea level will rise this century, that patterns of weather on which agriculture and food supply rely are likely to change. After all, their analysis is also ‘speculative’, and there are no certainties about the future of the climate/environment.

Here is the chance for you to give me some advice, then; should I adapt (smoke, but stop if I don’t feel well?), mitigate (stop and avoid the increased risk altogether?), or ameliorate (buy some chewing gum/patches, eat boiled sweets, whatever?). Perhaps I can just ignore it, and it will all go away eventually… ater all, we all have to die some time. 🙂

Surviving a threat has a way of focussing the mind. For the past few days, the question of priorities has been uppermost. What is important, what is not needed? What and who do I care enough about to invest time in, having been made aware that time is the defining resource limitation?

The heart attack has served to remind me of what might be considered my core philosophy, the essential, buck-stops-here points. Which, at the same time, serves to remind why I thought, a year or so back, that pursuing the questions posed by climate change, and switching occupations, were worthwhile.

Being enagaged in an enforced idleness at home, sat on a day bed contemplating the options of computer chess or daytime TV, I am reminded that, for me, the meaning of being, the purpose of existence, is tied intimately and inexorably to the well-being and happiness of others (you, if you like). A person’s life in and of itself, self-contained and complete (all false imaginings, I promise you), is a very little thing, of small significance. What makes a life big, what makes it full, what gives it meaning and value, is the manner and extent of its interactions with other people.

And here is the connection with climate change and the current state of discussions. Notwithstanding the few who insist otherwise, by and large we are aware that there is a sickness, a malaise, a problem with our world (our home). Whilst one or two will dispute the causes, of more concern is the disagreement over the solutions; how should we treat the patient?

I suspect that it is going to be difficult to decide the best treatments, though, unless we first establish the priorities for governments and industry. Beyond that, we need to establish the priorities for communities and social groups; beyond that, the priorities for families and micro-communities. Which also means establishing our own, individual priorities.

I have established, to my own satisfaction, my list of priorities for a happy and fulfilling life. It goes: People (here and now and present); people future; place/world (environment)[home] and all that it contains; the Future; the rest.

Here is an arrogant suggestion, then. Let’s try this as a template for good decision making about climate change, about adaptation and mitigation, about policy, ,investment and cost.

First priority goes to the problems which need dealing with now; Darfur, Timor, Zimbabwe, poverty, unnecessary death, AIDS, water, food…

Then there are the problems which need dealing with to secure the future for people; food, water, medicine, peace, justice, liberty…

The next priority are the problems which, if they have not already had to be addressed because of the above, relate to the environment, the world, etc; conservation, preservation, protection from exploitation, biodiversity… (though, not unsurprisingly, many of the problems of the first two sets of priorities also involve an attitude to the third set).

The next priority is to resolve the potential longer-term problems; sea levels, water supply, agriculture, resource exploitation…

And, finally, we can invest time, effort and money into to dealing with the other shit.

This set of priorities should be usable to guide us to making first decisions about where effort is needed and how important it should be compared to other issues.

More on that, later.


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June 2023