Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I Told You So

In so many debates, be it global warming, abortion, war, or other controversial topic, the approach among decision makers today appears to be to take a "side", then go as far out of the way as necessary to rationalize that side by discounting, misrepresenting, or ignoring contrary evidence. In most of these polarized debates, both sides use these same tactics. In fact, the "truth" appears to be uninteresting and irrelevant to the debates - it's just a matter of who can score points against whom.

Let's take global warming as an example.

I was reading about some new science that has measured a methane output from plants, and a follow-on blog post of how this "proves" that humans aren't responsible for global warming, and that the Kyoto Accords aren't necessary after all.

WTF?

The real questions are:

  • Is there evidence of a rise in average temperatures/average climate energy, either regionally or world-wide?

  • If there is evidence of such a rise, is this a negative impact upon society, either now or in the future?

  • If there is a negative impact, are there any steps society can take to mitigate either the rise or the impact?


Those who believe there is no global warming take various positions - the evidence is lacking or the measurements are wrong; there's some evidence but it isn't caused by anything done by humans; even if there is warming, there's nothing that can/should be done about it. What I think most people on this "side" in the U.S. are really arguing is whether or not there is any responsibility for the U.S. to do anything about it, and how much if anything should be spent. I believe that underneath all this puffery is primarily an economic argument, masquerading as an ecologic argument.

Those who believe there is global warming also take various entrenched positions - the evidence is overwhelming and any contrary evidence is wrong; the warming is primarily caused by humans as opposed to natural causes; the warming will be the end of mankind unless something is done; the U.S. bears primary responsibility in causing the warming and in spending to correct it.

For the record - an examination of evidence available to me cause me to decide "Yes", "Yes", and "Yes" to the questions above, but with some uncertainty regarding which steps society can take to lessen the impact.

Regarding the plant methane discussion above, logic dictates that if plants have been giving off methane now, they have probably been giving off methane since before we started to measure global climate change, so any change in the system isn't due to plants unless there are dramatically more plants now than there were in the past. Since almost the opposite appears to be the case according to global imaging systems measuring foilage cover, then increases in warming must come from some other source(s).

The plant methane discussion is only relevant to deciding which steps are important to mitigate negative impacts (if there is warming and there are effective steps society can and should take to mitigate these impacts).

Risk management is a practice by which you examine the probability of an event, as well as the impact if that event occurs. Risk mitigation says that a low probability event with unacceptable impacts should still be mitigated, even if it may not happen. (In fact, Alan Greenspan was noted for using this approach to managing the economy. Seems to work pretty well, overall.)

So what should decision makers be doing? Recognizing that increased drought or higher energy storm systems (hurricanes, tornados) all have a negative impact on society, and that regardless of the cause, identifying ways for society to mitigate these impacts. The two ways to do this are to lower the warming trend, or to change construction regulation to accomodate the changes in weather patterns.


Let's get on with it.

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