Tuesday, December 30, 2008

human-caused climate change?

Putting science into climate science.

I did some interesting reading this weekend. I had been under the assumption that climate scientists were basically competent at their science (I don't know why I keep making this assumption of competence mistake). I had assumed that there was some kind of resounding undeniable proof that we are going through an unprecedented rapid rise in global temperatures. I didn't believe that CO2 is as important a factor as is commonly assumed (I think clouds and forests deserve more credit). But I operated under the assumption that there really was some kind of unique, confirmed global warming.

Now, I'm not so sure.

As it turns out, the most important papers on the subject - the papers that caused the Kyoto protocols to be created, endless hands to be wrung, and millions of poisonous light bulbs to be distributed - the papers upon which all discussion of the matter since has been based - were wildly unscientific in very basic and important ways.

Being a fourth-tier science discipline*, a certain amount of fudgery is normal and expected. But to make giant assumptions with no basis - knowing full well that hundreds of billions of dollars depend on the outcome - should be a capital offense.

The basic, untested assumption: that tree rings are accurate ways to measure historic temperatures. I won't go over the details (see the link above), but the general idea is that all old temperatures were measured using tree ring samples while all new temperatures were measured using thermometers. No tree-ring measurements show frightening rising temperatures, all thermometer measurements do. Nobody took the time to do modern tree ring measurements to confirm that the tree ring temperature measurement system is accurate.

I had a chiropractor who did this kind of thing. Each time I went to them, they measured the condition of my back using a different method, never repeating the same test. It allowed them to show that I was constantly improving under their care without ever exposing them to the possibility of actually figuring out what was going on. It should be obvious to everyone that data collected using different procedures cannot be compared to each other in any meaningful way.

I'm not denying that the climate is changing, nor that humans are responsible, nor that there are many other very real environmental problems caused by humans. I'm denying that anyone has ever done an even marginally reliable study of the matter. I am suggesting that it is a very reasonable thing to be more than a bit annoyed about. So many resourced ineffectually tied up attempting to address a problem that hasn't been properly proven to exist is sickening.

I maintain my skepticism towards the reliance on atmospheric CO2 as the sole explanation for why temperatures are rising. If we cannot reliably prove that temperatures are rising above historic levels, how can anyone imagine that we can accomplish the exponentially more difficult task of explaining why they are rising?

That being said, I still think planting trees is always good idea. They're good carbon sinks, help clouds form, and generally reduce surface temperatures by being more reflective than soil and by functioning as evaporation coolers.

* The tiers of science, according to me: tier 1: Physics. tier 2: Chemistry, tier 3: biology, geology tier 4: climate science, ecology, economics, forestry, most engineering, tier 5: civil engineering, stamp collecting. The basic idea is that as you move down the tiers, you make more assumptions and can make less reliable predictions, because each tier relies on the results of all of the previous tiers. This is not a value judgment, just part of my framework of understanding. I function in tier 4 and wouldn't be happier anywhere else.

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