Friday, 24 July 2009

Hot Under The Collar

So, naturally, I'm delighted to hear today that apparently "if you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life".

Hooray! I'm 29! The system works! Of course, I was somewhat puzzled by the comment, because everyone keeps telling me that global warming is, like, really bad, and one day I'll be in a dark alley and Climate Change will show up and beat me up and steal my wallet and my woman, and I wish I'd listen to my mother and eaten my vegetables and reduced Europe's carbon footprint.

So I went investigating. Everyone's talking about George Will saying the above, but lets be fair, he only quoted it as his only piece evidence that skepticism of "alarmist" evidence for climate change is on the increase. In other words, he didn't say something absolutely goddamn retarded, he quoted something goddamn retarded, and then used it in a goddamn retarded way. It's important to lay the right crimes at the right doors.

The guy from whom the quote actually originated was Mark Steyn, so I dutifully padded over to National Review Online to see what he had to say. Mostly, he argues that the changes to economies and industries necessary to do what scientists say needs to be done is impossible, which is an interesting point. Because he can't resist it, though, Steyn has to use the same formulation every intellectually vacuous commentator does when discussing global warming, "Change is hard and we don't need it anyway." [1] After all, if global warming were real, Steyn would have to consider whether the current solution is worth the hit, or look for alternative options, or just shrug and say: "Fuck it, humanity's had a good run". If ever there was a time when we've got to go for the lesser evil, it's now, but that would involve thought, and a rational decision making process, and recommending sacrifice, and those are all, like, really hard and really depressing.

So, from where is Steyn getting his information? From a study by Alan Carlin from the Environment Protection Agency. Steyn doesn't bother to link to it, so I tracked it down.

Now, let's be fair. It's entirely possible Steyn had no motive for not linking to the paper, he might just be that lazy of a worthless hack (always be generous to your opponents). If he did intentionally leave out the link, though, it's not hard to see why. I've only looked through the first half of the report, so (to paraphrase Will Self [2]) I can't be sure it doesn't turn into Tolstoy on page 50, [3] but what I've seen so far is dodgy on three immediate levels:
  1. The majority of the charts only consider data for the last ten or twenty years, which in the context of long-term climate change is a sure sign that someone is trying to fiddle the data; this is something I taught 15 year old children when I worked as a maths teacher, so I am surprised to find it employed here;
  2. The various (and many) reasons for the scientific consensus on global warming are all treated separately. This in itself is in no way unreasonable, but far too many of the conclusions include phrases like "other variables seem more important" or "not necessarily relevant". These might be persuasive in isolation, but if you have fifty symptoms of cancer and a doctor tells you there are fifty different other conditions that you might have instead, each one contributing one symptom, what is the more likely conclusion?
  3. The actual presentation of the paper is very concerning. Phrases like "there is no way" that a variable can be within previously predicted bounds set my academic language alarm beeping, but that in itself is far less concerning than the fact that this assertion is made without any explanation, save a graph that is not explained in any way, and further that only a paragraph or two later we learn the reason there is "no way" said variable can exist within said interval is that some of the contributing factors for calculating that interval do "not necessarily" apply. That's it. There may have been a mistake in the calculation (more precisely, the possibility there was such an error cannot be ruled out), so there's "no way" it can be right. This disconnect between arguments, and between graphs and their discussions, is a recurring problem; my favourite comment on a graph occurs on page 47 of the pdf "The important thing is not [the graph's] accuracy..." There's a pretty major warning sign, if you want to try and use a graph to build an argument that the graph may not support, you're in trouble. Certainly, attempting to use inaccurate graphs in order to bolster an argument on multiple fronts is a strange thing to do whilst simultaneously ignoring the fact that the evidence for global warming is more compelling as a whole than in isolation.

So, Carlin looks an awful lot like a hack. He's also an economist, as a 10 second Google search demonstrated, so whilst I would be hypocritical beyond measure were I to suggest he cannot be expected to comment on anything outside his field of expertise, he is a strange choice to lead the charge against thousands of people who are experts in the field and all of whom agree (of course, those trumpeting his report simply refer to him as an "EPA expert").

In fact, that same Google search revealed various websites in which the evidence he presents is debunked, and the accusation that this report is "supressed" (the Right is always "supressed", remember, it never simply fails to persuade people) is countered (apparently the EPA wasn't any more impressed with his writing style than I was). In fact, I think I've been hearing about this report for a little while now, but this is the first time I've seen how dumb it is up close.

I got all of this done in an about an hour, whilst my computer was thinking about maths. Steyn didn't bother. George Will didn't bother, and he won a Pulitzer. Is it really too much to expect someone who actually gets paid for this stuff to put the work in?

Oh, and the reason why Steyn (and implicitly Will) think there's been no global warming since 1998 (the year I became an adult)? Average temperatures last year were lower than in 1998. That, quite literally, is it. Kevin Drum, who has far more sexy charts than I do, punches that one in the crotch pretty fast. In short, you might as well claim that if you cooked a chicken yesterday, and let it go cold overnight, if today is colder than yesterday then the chicken is still raw. Put another way, this is the same logic vacuum entered by those people who laugh when climate change conferences are cancelled due to snow and claim it proves the whole thing is a waste of time, only at least that bunch don't pretend that science has their back.

I also wonder where Steyn was in 1998 itself, when temperatures jumped upwards from previous results. Sure, it only did so because of a mid-decade slump, but if short-term variation can be confused with long term trends, why wasn't Steyn screaming that we were only a couple of years away from our own faces setting on fire?

[1] This is a more general conservative trick (the small c is entirely deliberate, though there are plenty of conservatives who don't play such games); argue that the solution to a problem is really hard, and then go on to argue the problem doesn't exist in any case. A lot of the reasons the Democrats are so wretched at getting anything done are entirely their own fault, but in this at least they start with a disadvantage, claiming a problem isn't there is much, much easier than trying to solve it.

[2] Who was putting the boot into Richard Littlejohn at the time, a point I mention just because I don't think I've been mean enough to the dough-faced poltroon recently.

[3] Or whomever the climate change equivalent of Tolstoy is. He might have written Anna Karenina, but I'm not sure I'd look to him for advice when we start running out of lakes.


Gooder said...

Do this mean I'm boned? Do I need to be super-eco friendly until december?

Senior Spielbergo said...

Well you’re less boned than me apparently!

SpaceSquid said...

You're both fine. The argument is that, say, Dr L has suffered global warming in her adult life time, having turned 18 in 1997. You see? Since 1998 is the hottest year on record, there has been no global warming since then. The fact that eight of the ten hottest ever years occurred between 2000 and 2008 (the tenth also being in the 90s)doesn't matter, you see. Global warming only happens in years that are the hottest ever.

Gooder said...

That's what you say, old man!

SpaceSquid said...

Don't make me shake my fist at you, young whippersnapper!

Pause said...

Poltroon! An excellent word.