Friday, February 03, 2012

Andy Revkin in NY Times DotEarth: Two Nobelists, Two Views (or, the Story of Cooking)

From Mr. Lalloobhoy Battliwala

Some say the earth is cooking. I say look at the debate on cooking.

The two Nobelists are Mario Molina and Burton Richter, mentioned in Andy Revkin's DotEarth entry farther down. The two in turn are responding to a statement by a third Nobelist - Ivar Giaever - mentioned in a WSJ letter by other scientists.

First below, a WSJ letter on 27 Jan, signed by 16 "concerned scientists" and titled "No Need to Panic About Global Warming". The headline is acceptable; the letter asks "what, if anything" needs to be done about global warming, and is an appropriate answer to "do something, anything, no matter the cost and no matter who pays" mindset. It concludes, "Every candidate should support rational measures to protect and improve our environment, but it makes no sense at all to back expensive programs that divert resources from real needs and are based on alarming but untenable claims of "incontrovertible" evidence."

Of course, science is all about 'incontrovertible' evidence that should be challenged and can be overturned. The letter only says, "There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy." Leaving open the question whether there is sufficient evidence ('balance of evidence', not 'guilt beyond a reasonable doubt') for significant but non-drastic (minimally invasive surgery, not replacement of eight joints plus kidney) action to decarbonize some parts of the world economy.

The letter maintains a Giaever, a Physics Nobel Laureate who resigned from the American Physical Society because he couldn't stomach its policy statement, "Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth's physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now." As policy statements go - and APS has designated it as such - what is there to disagree with? "If no mitigating actions..", but that is evidently not the case; mitigating actions are being taken, just that some think they are not adequate. The statement says nothing about WHEN "significant disruptions" are "likely to occur", nor whether "we must reduce emissions.. beginning now" at the rate of 10% or 0.1% (besides, world GDP is getting decarbonized anyway, considering all carbon emissions).

Do scientists pause to think how irrelevant their storms in their tea-cups, fist-fights in their sand-boxes are? A few hundred million dollars of research funds may be at stake, but peanuts considering the stake.

But of course there was a fanatic reaction. Because the claim of 'incontrovertible evidence' was challenged. So the WSJ published a letter on 1 February (nice advertising success!) by not just 'concerned scientists' (which also included a former spacenaut, a couple of engineers) but annointed, credentialed "climate scientists". The college of cardinals (with R K Pachauri as the pope) squeaks, "Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition?" Well, who is to tell I have a heart condition and not a tooth condition, and what if cardiologists keep saying I need a quadruple bypass but ignore that I also have a rare blood disorder that would kill me the moment somebody cuts me up for heart surgery?

And, "In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work." Ah. Of course. Big Deal for those with reputations, and only reputations, to protect.

"Climate experts know that the long-term warming trend has not abated in the past decade." Ahem.

"The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases." Nothing new here. Move on, guys. Nor in the pompous claim "The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases." Yeah, heard that so often, Rio+20 will sound like Rio, Rio, Rio, twenty times over. A broken record.

"Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused." Well, 97% of the politicians actively seeking election or re-election, or 97% of the horse-cart drivers, may agree that sky is blue, sometimes, and will remain blue during many days.

What really is their advice? None, except a stupid finding, "there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered."

THIS IS UTTER SPECULATION. Even nonsense. There is undeniable evidence that the industrialization of the Third World - based on high-CO2 power and transport - has driven decades of world economic growth. Oh, well; they only say "could" drive; nice hedging there.

Do scientists have no shame, cluttering the intellectual space with specious arguments and infantile squabbling? Or, are they prima donnas who take objection to an innocuous policy statement or another? What do they think they are - as if their policy pronouncements matter more than a couple of hoots, especially when couched in such modest language as to have any meaning at all?

What has all this to do with cooking (i.e., other than the earth)?

There're similar arguments there. The advocates of GACC have been running around like chicken littles, claiming that IAP from home cooking is killing 1.6 million children and women per year; that's 'science', even if folks don't have a clue as to what 'clean cookstoves' are (in the absence of cleaner fuels), or what they would do. Some others come in and talk about losing forests and causing erosion; more 'science'. Then opponents of 'stoves' work squabble with combustion practices, emission rates, exposures, epidemilogy; more 'science' again.

What is lost in all this is that humans have known for centuries that excessive smoke is bad. Even if they don't know that even smaller amounts of smoke can cause short- and long-term damage, they have learnt to live with it until they can escape the fuel poverty - enough money to hire someone else to collect/prepare fuel and/or to cook, and better still, to move to cleaner stove/fuel combinations. The real challenge is in developing cheaper, more reliable alternatives and getting them in the market place where it matters. The 'science' argument is valuable but immaterial.

Same with the so-called climate debate. The 'science' argument over extent and causes of change, and long-term prospects, is immaterial so long as there is a de-carbonization trend.

Repeat after Kirk Smith - "If one is going to put carbon in the atmosphere anyway, CO2 is the least harmful of all." And accept that all emissions and all impacts considered, the decarbonization trend will accelerate somewhat but not at the rate some scientists demand. Tough. Live with the climate, whether or not it changes and whether or not some scientists say this thing or that.

Even Andy Revkin says, "Meanwhile there are many things we can do that have multiple benefits." Keep one cause - human well-being - in mind; the rest will follow.


Links to the articles discussed above

Wall Street Journal, January 27th, 2012
No Need to Panic About Global Warming - There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy.

Wall Street Journal, February 1st, 2012
Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate.

NY Times, Dot Earth Blog, February 2nd, 2012
Two Nobelists Offer Views of Human-Driven Global Warming.

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