Saturday, February 17, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

[disclaimer: it's late, and I've not reread this at all before posting it. there are likely grammatical errors and such in there. you'll have to deal with that.]

After spending the last several days working on the inconvenient truth that is taxes, I decided to watch Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming. As most of you know, I spent a whole lot of time digging through a whole lot of research over the last several weeks, and I’ve taken a good week off from reading it to give it some time to digest. I felt that I had a good scientific basis to work from when watching the movie, and as much as I didn’t want to give Al Gore any money by watching the movie, I wanted to see what all the talk was about.

Let me start by giving a few overall impressions.First, as you might expect, the movie is well done. It's not the greatest thing I've ever seen, but it's as interesting to watch as a good episode of Nova or a documentary on Discovery Channel. It’s not as though it’s made in some blatant Michael Moore propaganda method, and Al Gore does not come across as some kind of crazed lunatic or anything like that.

Second, I was surprised at the overall lack of real scientific content there was in the film. While I didn’t time it, I’d guess that well over half the film, perhaps as much as 3/4ths is spent on non-science issues: Al Gore’s home farm, his sister with lung cancer, anecdotes about this glacier here, or a woman’s house on the permafrost. Yes, these things are meant to be emotionally moving, and if I were making a movie like this, I would use the same sorts of tactics. However, there was a *lot* of that in the movie… a lot. It’s the amount that surprised me, no the mere presence of such emotional angles.

Finally, the movie, and presumably Al Gore’s underlying presentation, simply makes the assumption that, given a chart on CO2 levels and a chart of temperature levels, that I’m going to buy into the human CO2 production causes global warming concept. That is intended to happen in the first 10 min or so of the movie. After that, it’s all about what will happen when the temperatures rise, and providing evidence (much of it anecdotal), that temperatures are rising and that all these bad things are starting to happen.

I’ve already discussed what I found in researching the correlation between CO2 levels and global temperatures—that being that historically it’s temperature that moves first, not CO2 levels. Because of that historical relationship, there isn’t overwhelming scientific reason to believe that if CO2 levels move first, temperature will follow. It could happen, as I’ve said before, but jumping to that conclusion and then basing billions of dollars on what will happen if you are right is not a prudent thing to do. Spending some time and money proving, or disproving, your assumption would be the appropriate next step.

There are a number of things in the film that I could debate and discuss. For example, Mr. Gore says 40% of the worlds population depends on the Himalayan glaciers for fresh water, and that they are receding—but then I’ve read reports that only 0.5% of the glaciers in the Himalayas are even being studied. He claims that global species are being lost at a rate “1000 times greater than the natural background rate,” and some casual internet searching suggests that this is a whole other pandora’s box to explore, but the founder of Greenpeace thinks quite differently as commented in the Penn & Teller Bullshit episode Hawkins sent the link to. I don’t’ know who’s right, but everyone that talks about it, much like global warming, seems to throw information around without the facts they are pulling from. He talks about the importance of Antarctic ice and how it’s melting into the ocean, but just yesterday I read a report that says Antarctic temperatures are disagreeing with global warming models.

But all that, while it might be interesting to research and find out what is solid and what is a stretch, is beside the point. The point is that a clear scientific link between human CO2 production and global warming isn’t made in the movie. It’s assumed. And really, that’s a well known (and effective) way to get people to believe you. Right in the beginning of the movie, Al Gore says something like “I know you’re all aware of how greenhouse gasses warm that atmosphere, so we won’t spend much time on that,” --which is something right out of the debating class 101 handbook: establish your basis as indisputable common knowledge and build from there. No one, after all, wants to feel like they’re the only ones that weren’t aware of this alleged “common knowledge.”

To quote from the link I just gave:
In the 1990's scientists started to question the greenhouse effect theory, because of major uncertainties in the data sets and model outcomes. They protested the basis of the theory, which was data of global annual mean temperatures. They believed that the measurements were not carried out correctly and that data from oceans was missing. Cooling trends were not explained by the global warming data and satellites showed completely different temperature records from the initial ones. The idea began to grow that global warming models had overestimated the warming trend of the past 100 years. This caused the IPCC to review their initial data on global warming, but this did not make them reconsider whether the trend actually exists. We now know that 1998 was globally the warmest year on record, followed by 2002, 2003, 2001 and 1997. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990.
What Mr. Gore completely avoids stating is that the Greenhouse Effect is, in fact, a theory. It is not a proven fact. Certainly there is evidence to support the theory, and it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t play at least some role in the global temperature, but how much of a role, if any, is an open question. Ignoring this and passing the greenhouse/co2 theory off as hard-proven fact is grossly misleading, and is the basis for the entire movie.

My point being, again, that you can’t just ignore the fact that greenhouse warming is a theory still under debate, and then charge ahead without even alerting the viewer that that is the case, particularly when it’s alleged to have such significant consequences.

He uses statistics to establish consensus, and then consensus to provide credibility for the theory-which-isn’t-called-a-theory. He says that of 900-some-odd scientific papers reviewed, none of them disagreed with the concept of human caused global warming, but I’ve found published papers myself that do just that, and they date back into the 90s, so I’m not sure what the basis there is. In fact, the wikipedia entry on the global warming debate cites “when I checked the same set of abstracts, I discovered that just over a dozen explicitly endorse the ‘consensus,’ while the vast majority of abstracts does not mention anthropogenic [human caused] global warming.”

So the statistic is that zero of 900 said humans weren’t the cause, and so the implication is that 900 said it was. But that’s where statistics can lie. I could use the same body of work and say “Of 900 peer reviewed journal articles about the origins of global warming, only twelve—scarcely more than 1%--advocated humans as the cause of global warming.” Such a statement, while statistically accurate, is completely misleading, and is made in the same way using the same data as Mr. Gore used. The truth is that you’re using a lousy sample set to establish an opinion on either side, but again, this is great stuff for winning a debate. The thought process they want you to follow is:
  • These guys are scientists.They’re smarter than you, and they aren’t fooling around.
  • 900 peer reviewed articles might involved thousands of different scientists! That's a lot!
  • None of them think humans AREN’T the cause of global warming.
  • Only non-scientific morons would think otherwise, given all this evidence.

So that’s all good for winning your high school debate contest, and it’s inevitably going to fool a whole lot of people that either don’t know better or haven’t built up a base of knowledge on the issue, or both. I won’t call it an outright lie, because the idea of the movie is to ‘win the debate,’ and anyone trying to do that will probably use the same sorts of time-proven tactics. But, I am pointing out that these statistics to prove consensus are very misleading when the underlying data is examined.

While I’ve not looked (although I probably will) for websites that have analyzed this movie in great detail, because I’m really not interested in nit-picking the individual statements made in the film. Are sea levels going to rise 20 feet? Is Florida going to disappear under the ocean? Will 40% of the people die from lack of fresh water? I have no idea, and I don’t think it matters at this point in the debate. Anyone that’s making a film which is designed to get a point across will use anecdotes and statistics which support their point of view, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. The problem is that, in this case, the very core of the argument is presented in a casual “hey, you already know this is true, lets move on” sort of way, and I think it’s very misleading—particularly when you and I both know that a whole lot of people are going to take that information at face value, and it will be the only source they ever use for forming an opinion on global warming.

So again, for the umpteenth time, I’m not saying that humans are definitely not causing global warming. I’m not saying that the greenhouse effect is some kind of myth. What I am saying is that we should really try to get some more scientific proof via hypothesis and experimentation before we go dumping all kinds of cash into this. There are plenty of other scientific “theories” that I’m fully on board with, and they’re still theories too. But – if someone were to tell me that evolution proves that humans are on the verge of evolving into mindless beings that will destroy themselves, and that we need to suddenly spend a couple hundred billion dollars to stop it, I’d probably start by reexamining that theory of evolution to be sure that I really understood where things where headed, why, and what I could do about it before I busted out the checkbook and handed over that kind of cash.

There are *plenty* of perfectly good reasons to promote energy efficiency, less dependence on fossil fuels, and the like. For one, I’m not all that keen on coal power, given that, in the US, over 800 tons of uranium is spewed into the atmosphere each year from the burning of coal for power. I also find it pretty darn stupid to be using coal in that way when the energy potential of the uranium burned in doing so is greater than the energy produced by the coal power plant itself!

It may surprise you to find out that in the United States, where every garage is filled with a handful of automobiles, that electricity generation is still far ahead of automobiles as the leading producer of CO2 emissions. If you factor in the rest of the world, the spread would be even greater. Coal and natural gas represent nearly all of the CO2 emissions from electricity generation.

So I have an idea of Mr. Gore’s next move. I call it “A Convenient Solution: Nuclear Power.” The data suggests that choosing nuclear over coal and natural gas for power generation could cut the CO2 emissions of the US by over 50%. And you know what, I’d feel a lot better knowing that theuranium waste is either in a pebble-bed graphite ball, or in a barrel a mile under a mountain, rather than being spewed up into the air for me to breathe in, day in and day out, while I scratch my head wondering how in the world we could cut these pesky CO2 levels!

But, nuclear power continues to fall victim to pressure from environmental groups – probably the same environmental groups that are complaining about CO2 levels.How’s that for an inconvenient truth?


"The" Bucia said...

I do believe "Jeff is on a mission!"

Sheri said...

You really seem to be worked up about this.:) I have not seen Al Gore's movie yet, but since my focus was in science in college, let me just say 3 things. One - in science, especially atmospheric and ecological science, the systems you are working with are so complex that the best you can do is focus on one small thing per study and then usually take a sample. So, when you say that only .5% of Himalayan glaciers have been studied, I am not surprised. In fact, that seems like a lot to me. As long as a well spaced, or perhaps, random sample has been measured, it's valid to conservitively extrapolate from there. I don't feel it's realistic to expect scientists to have measured or have studied them all. Most scientists don't have that kind of time or money, and really, if 10 out of 100 are melting, and they are widely spaced over elevation, direction and so forth, is it really worth it to measure more? With so many people at risk, when is the balance of data enough to spread a warning? Also, it's usually only when hundreds of papers have been done on a topic that someone goes in and publishes a paper sumarizing and doing statistical annalysis on the results of all the studies to come up with some overall conclusion. This is often also where computer models come in.
Two - the bulk of the studies that are pertinent to this are not gonna be on the web. If you want the hard science you have to go to the Scientific Journals. I would suggest a starting point might be summary journals like Science or Nature. You might have to go to a library and look up some topics on a database like BIOSIS.
Three - scientists almost never go out on a limb and say something is proven fact. In fact, evolution is still "a theory" even though the evidence for it is overwhelming. It is almost impossible to "prove" something. It's more productive to try to disprove something. Debate is always present and a healthy part of the scientific process. Because of this, you will always find papers that seem to support one view or the other. It's only when the overall balance seems to tilt stongly in a particular direction that a view is given weight, and this may be after hundreds of studies.
That said, there comes a point when science has to meet policy, and that, I believe, is when things get hairy. Policy makers want "proven facts", these are hard, or impossible, to come by, so they go to the next best thing and try to get an overall statement from key scientists or papers and try to set policy from this. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that statistics can be fudged any way you like depending upon your sample set. Any politician wanting to see things either way can pick and choose facts however they like and make things seem to be the way they like. Now, I haven't been reading or keeping up with the science lately, but when I was in school, lets see, 8 years ago, the evidence was such that most environmental scientists were convinced that there were so many people on the planet and that so many things had been affected by our activities already, that SOMETHING was definitely going on. It's possible that we've all been hoodwinked into believing the Earth is flat and we'll find out later that we were all wrong, but I'm not inclined to think so when so many brilliant scientists are convinced and willing to go on record saying so. And really, if we are wrong, and we do end up spending millions for nothing, my view is that it's better to err on that side and be able to say that we tried, than to err with convienience and caution only to find out that we could have stopped a full-scale environmental catastrophe. We only have one earth.

Anonymous said...

Your right, it is easy to get caught by the chorus of voices (scientific and otherwise) describing observations that point to global warming, or observations that are caused by warming, or catastrophic consequences that will happen, if a particular computer model turns out to be correct.

The 2 key questions often take a back seat to this chorus:
1) Can a correlation between CO2 concentration and temperatur be observed ? (easy to answer)
2) Is CO2 concentration actually a substancial cause of temperature change ? (much harder to answer)

To me, it seems there's no consensus on either question yet. Depending on the answer to (2) we might either decide to apply the brakes on our CO2 production (if answer=yes, i.e. we can influence the warming) or choose to rather try and adapt our civilisation to the unavoidable (answer=no, i.e. we probably cant influence the warming). please for responses said...

Hey Jeff,
I like your organized way of putting things and love the way you pick the parts you dont like. Btw, this is not sarcasm. Pointing out the errors is curucial and sometimes you just need people who oppose it to be enough of a critic.

However, by no means does this mean i agree with you. I think the easiest way to judge whether Co2 effects temperature or not is to pump Co2 into a big secluded glass box of air then put it under the sun. Then also have air with almost no co2 or normal amounts of co2 in it, and see which one has higher temperratures.

Now this is very basic and does not prove anything but it does prove that co2 can warm up the athmosphere around it when theres enough of it. Whether there is enough now, or there will be enough in 10,100,1000 years is not known. THerefore, basing on what is known, which is that Co2 does really warm up the air around it even in minimal amounts, This is going to be an issue sometime. There is an old turkish proverb that says "A tree bends when its young." which means we gotta stop/slow down this as soon as possible. If this is going to cost billions of dollars, (the war on terror has cost trillions already, and endangers less people then global warming and sea level rising) it will cost MUCH more in the future. I believe that we need to cut the carbon emissions before they prove destructive, after all it is much easier now then later.

P.S. Gravity is still a theory as well yet the scientific consensus on it is clear.

P.P.S I do believe that the himalayas provide water for a lot of the worlds population seeing as they are around the countries with the top 3 ranks in population. I also recall seeing this somewhere before this movie came out but i do not really remember where.