Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm going with the Nobel Prize-winning economist and the scientific community on this one.

RedState's Vladimir has taken it upon himself to write another ignorant post about climate change. (This is what I had to say about one of his previous posts.)

His target: Paul Krugman. He quotes Krugman as writing the following:
While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.
Vladimir responds to Krugman as follows:
[H]aven’t we heard this all before?

“Gee, this is some crazy weather we’ve been having.”

I’m old enough to remember some pretty darn extreme weather, like Hurricane Camille, a monster Cat 5 storm that devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969. There was the Super Tornado Outbreak of April, 1974: a complex of 148 twisters that spun across hundreds of mile of the Midwest, killing 148, injuring 5,300, and wiping the town of Xenia, OH off the map. And lest we forget the record cold winter of 1977-78, when natural gas supplies ran low.

Many of our impressions of current extreme weather conditions have to do with the fact that 1) they’re fresh in our memories; 2) we have better communications and 3) higher population densities than in times past.

Complaining about extreme weather is part of the human condition. 
Vladimir then goes on to cite 19 stories about extreme weather dating back to 1888 (I am assuming that none of them were fabricated), and in some cases the extreme weather prompted speculation that the climate was changing. I take it that Vladimir considers that speculation to have been unfounded.

So, what's wrong with Vladimir's response?

Vladimir is attributing to Krugman the following argument:
  1. There have been recent outbreaks of severe weather. 
  2. Therefore, global climate change is real. 
Granted, Vladimir says nothing about global climate change, but there is little doubt that Vladimir's response is intended to convince his readers that recent severe weather is not evidence that the climate is changing. That is, Vladimir is arguing that the truth of (1) isn't sufficient evidence for the truth of (2).

But if you put the quotation in context and read the rest of Krugman's column, you'll find that Krugman's argument is much stronger than the one Vladimir attributes to him:
It’s true that growth in emerging nations like China leads to rising meat consumption, and hence rising demand for animal feed. It’s also true that agricultural raw materials, especially cotton, compete for land and other resources with food crops — as does the subsidized production of ethanol, which consumes a lot of corn. So both economic growth and bad energy policy have played some role in the food price surge. 
Still, food prices lagged behind the prices of other commodities until last summer. Then the weather struck.  
Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer. The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply. The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union. And we know what that’s about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for the first time ever.  
The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.  
The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?  
To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Niña — a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Niña events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.  
But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Niña was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.  
As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.
Clearly, Krugman is not making the hasty, crude inference Vladimir attributes to him. Krugman's reasoning is more sophisticated than that. Krugman is making what has been called an inference to the best explanation. The idea is this: we are justified in inferring the truth of what best explains what we observe or already know. The mere occurrence of extreme weather does not alone justify the claim that the climate is changing, obviously. But extreme weather, combined with all the other evidence Krugman mentions, does, because if the climate were changing, the phenomena we're observing is exactly what we would expect to observe, i.e., we wouldn't be surprised to make the observations we are in fact making. And that means that the hypothesis that the climate is changing is probably true.

Look at the argument Vladimir attributes to Krugman again. It's bad. Vladimir's post might leave his readers with the impression that those of us who believe that climate change is real accept bad arguments for our belief. But the evidence for climate change is much, much stronger than the argument Vladimir attributes to Krugman. And no amount of bullshit from non-scientists like Vladimir will convince me otherwise, much as I would like it to, because what we face is terrifying.

Perhaps you choose to ignore the evidence because you're not emotionally equipped to deal with the reality of global climate change. Perhaps you have an economic interest in ignoring it, like those Republicans who have been bought by the energy industry. Perhaps you are comforted by the lie that God won't allow global climate change to do serious damage to the planet and those who live on it; perhaps you turn to the Bible for scientific enlightenment. Maybe you're ready to simply continue leading your life as you have always led it because it is comfortable and familiar, and it is good to live in the adolescent haze of the belief that we can release as much carbon dioxide into the environment as we like without consequence. And even if it turns out that the scientific predictions are correct, maybe you won't have to deal with the worst of it, and what do you care if your children, and your children's children, have to live in a far less hospitable world? Why should you care, really?

Sorry, Vladimir. I'm going with the Nobel Prize-winning economist and the scientific community on this one.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson