Saturday, March 8, 2008

Convincing Doubters DOES Matter

I recently discovered that a good and long time friend believes that global warming is a natural phenomenon and that human activities are insignificant and not contributing to a natural cycle. As you no doubt have noticed, I have been convinced that humans are a leading cause of global climate change. Unfortunately I didn't have knowledge of some of his specific points, nor the argumentation skills to convince. At this point, given the sources that I use, I think that the evidence is pretty clear and that the majority of scientists researching in the climate space have weighed in that humans are definitely a factor.

The discussion moved to email where another friend shared some of wonderingmind42's youtube/manpollo videos that had helped her to come to the conclusion that doing something about human GHG emissions was necessary. In response, my doubter friend responded with a slew of links to counter explanations and theories about the causes of global climate change and attacks on a couple of the more well known human caused global climate change arguments and datasets. I haven't taken the time to review all of the materials that were included in the rebuttal message, though I did provide links to a couple of sites that provide counterarguments to every skeptic argument that my friend was using.

Any conversation that ends "we must agree to disagree" hasn't gone well, at least in terms of making a compelling point. In the end, my friend remains convinced that human caused global warming is a hoax, that carbon dioxide molecules in the concentrations found in the atmosphere are too insignificant to really have the impacts that are attributed, and the clincher for me, that a longer grower season as the world warms will be a good thing. I was disappointed that we were unable to persuade him of the preponderance of data and research available. That a college educated engineer and practicing software developer could put on such absolute blinders.

I was disturbed along the way that at this point anyone could still be a doubter, especially one who has been trained in a highly technical field and understands the nature of scientific method and practice. I had come to the decision that winning another believer is less important than taking action on human GHG emissions. It is my belief that action needs to occur now, not after more science is done, the position advocated by my doubter friend. At this point, enough people and more importantly enough scientists and organizations of scientists have said that the models indicate human activities are a significant contributing factor that policies will be implemented, getting another person to agree doesn't seem necessary. I'll expand why I said "had" more below.

In the course of the brief conversation, I found that I had problems dealing with these points:
  • There isn't a scientific consensus
  • Science doesn't operate on a consensus
  • There isn't significant counter climate science being published because no one will pay for non-popular scientific views. (the public consensus defines what science is performed)
Initially, I argued that there is consensus, that the majority of the science being produced is to the effect that global climate distress is happening and that it is being caused and/or accelerated by human activities. I pointed out that the IPCC reports aren't the work of the UN to present research of their own into climate change, but rather a survey and analysis of all of the science being done by climate scientists the world over.

I've since revised my opinion to be inline with his point, in part thanks to having the opportunity to read Joseph Romm discuss the topic of consensus in a post on Grist. Science doesn't operate as a consensus. Science is the examination of theories, data and the world and attempts to find explanations for the observed phenomenon. As an old text book I had said on the cover "Science says let us see, not this is how it is." However when the bulk of the research being published indicates a particular set of conclusions, it is tantamount to the same thing. How else would we have such things as the Newton's laws, a Copernican solar system, or even laws of electromagnetism, all founding bases of many human endeavors. Science allows for the possibility that something new will come along and change the interpretation of the data previously gathered and discredit the theories and models developed to understand that data.

As to the idea that unpopular science doesn't get funding, there are enough deniers, doubters, governments and big companies who will be adversely affected by climate change legislation, that funding for countervailing research shouldn't be difficult to procure for legitimate experts. Perhaps I'm disconnected from reality, but the only activity from deniers seems to be to criticize published research, a valuable process in scientific debate, but do not provide any new research or interpretations of the published data that endure scrutiny.

One of the other arguments that he was using was a disbelief that such a small particle as CO2 in such low concentrations as are measured today can have the huge impacts on global weather patterns. I'm not sure how to respond, other than to trust the scientists that say that CO2 is an important greenhouse gas, along with several others, including water vapor. Perhaps we should also doubt the science that says as few as 10 E. Coli organisms or a similar number of botulism spores can be deadly despite their relative insignificance in mass and number of cells to the the mass and cell count of a human.

The final shot in the conversation switched to specific policy decisions that are attributed to those trying to take action about human GHG emissions. On topic was the set of policies and the impacts that the subsidies for corn ethanol entail, and the research that has recently been published that corn ethanol doesn't make sense in terms of use of resources for growing the stuff, as well as the impact of diverting acreage and output of corn farms to making a minuscule amount of fuel (compared to current fuel needs). I think it is fairly safe to say that there is a large contingent of environmentalists who certainly now, and for a long time have decried the policy to increase production of corn ethanol. It is my opinion that the policy was 'greenwashed' when the real motivation is based in the security concerns over access to oil for transportation fuels as well as a way to fuel the various corporate interests involved with the production of corn (oil, agribusiness, seed, and fertilizer companies).

He extended this point by wondering why the UN and other bodies aren't advocating for simpler solutions, such as telling people not to eat meat due to the high GHG emissions involved in the production of this food source. I didn't bother to respond.

Returning to the opinion which I had formed that convincing one more person was unimportant, I had the opportunity to read something that changed my mind. Alex Steffen argues that it is the responsibility of those of us who are convinced to "
to guide millions of Americans through the progress of emotions -- awareness, horror, despair, resignation, engagement, chosen optimism -- that most of the people reading this site have gone through... and we have to do it in the next few years." You can read the whole article at WorldChanging.

And the final question sums up my difficulty in trying to convince my friend. How do we do it?

In the case of my friend, I don't believe that he is open to the possibility that he is wrong and that thousands of climate scientists and modelers know enough to define plausible, actionable theories. I had felt that wonderingmind42's videos were the most powerful summation of the case that its worth taking action now, irrespective of opinions on the state of the science. Am I wrong? Is it not that good a piece? Is there something better?