Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Professor Carl Wunsch And "The Great Global Warming Swindle"

This is from Dr. Carl Wunsch, Professor at MIT in response to his appearance and statements in the British documentary film "The Great Global Warming Swindle." One can only wonder how much grief Dr. Wunsch received from opponents to his view. My personal opinion is that he sounds frightened and angry. He has obviously been severely chastised for daring to question how much faith we should put in predictions of future climate change. You would think he denied the existence of God, or Mom, The Flag, and apple pie.

I agree with much of what he says and I believe that his comments were taken out of context. However, he should have known better. It is unfortunate when people's public comments are taken out of context and "spun" for political reasons. A master at this distortion is that "great" documentary film-maker Michael Moore. Al Gore is pretty good at "spinning" a tall tale as well.

I also think we need to take these kinds of "documentaries" with a great deal of skepticism, whichever side of the political or ideological spectrum they originate from. I feel a bit sorry for Dr. Wunsch. You can be certain that in the future, if he speaks out at all, he will be very, very careful about what he says. One can only question global warming at great peril.

from: http://ocean.mit.edu/~cwunsch/CHANNEL4.html

Partial Response to the London Channel 4 Film "The Great Global Warming Swindle"
Carl Wunsch 11 March 2007

I believe that climate change is real, a major threat, and almost surely has a major human-induced component. But I have tried to stay out of the climate wars because all nuance tends to be lost, and the distinction between what we know firmly, as scientists, and what we suspect is happening, is so difficult to maintain in the presence of rhetorical excess. In the long run, our credibility as scientists rests on being very careful of, and protective of, our authority and expertise.

The science of climate change remains incomplete. Some elements are based so firmly on well-understood principles, or on such clear observational records, that most scientists would agree that they are almost surely true (adding CO2 to the atmosphere is dangerous; sea level will continue to rise,...). Other elements remain more uncertain, but we as scientists in our roles as informed citizens believe society should be deeply concerned about their possibility: a mid-western US megadrought in 100 years; melting of a large part of the Greenland ice sheet, among many other examples.

I am on record in a number of places as complaining about the over-dramatization and unwarranted extrapolation of scientific facts. Thus the notion that the Gulf Stream would or could "shut off" or that with global warming Britain would go into a "new ice age" are either scientifically impossible or so unlikely as to threaten our credibility as a scientific discipline if we proclaim their reality. They also are huge distractions from more immediate and realistic threats. I've focused more on the extreme claims in the literature warning of coming catastrophe, both because I regard the scientists there as more serious, and because I am very sympathetic to the goals of those who sometimes seem, however, to be confusing their specific scientific knowledge with their worries about the future.

When approached by WagTV, on behalf of Channel 4, known to me as one of the main UK independent broadcasters, I was led to believe that I would be given an opportunity to explain why I, like some others, find the statements at both extremes of the global change debate distasteful. I am, after all a teacher, and this seemed like a good opportunity to explain why, for example, I thought more attention should be paid to sea level rise, which is ongoing and unstoppable and carries a real threat of acceleration, than to the unsupportable claims that the ocean circulation was undergoing shutdown (Nature, December 2005).

I wanted to explain why observing the ocean was so difficult, and why it is so tricky to predict with any degree of confidence such important climate elements as its heat and carbon storage and transports in 10 or 100 years. I am distrustful of prediction scenarios for details of the ocean circulation that rely on extremely complicated coupled models that must run unconstrained by observations for decades to thousands of years. The science is not sufficiently mature to say which of the many complex elements of such forecasts are skillful.

Nonetheless, and contrary to the impression given in the film, I firmly believe there is a great deal about the mechanisms of climate to be learned from models. With effort, all of this ambiguity is explicable to the public.

In the part of the "Swindle" film where I am describing the fact that the ocean tends to expel carbon dioxide where it is warm, and to absorb it where it is cold, my intent was to explain that warming the ocean could be dangerous---because it is such a gigantic reservoir of carbon. By its placement in the film, it appears that I am saying that since carbon dioxide exists in the ocean in such large quantities, human influence must not be very important --- diametrically opposite to the point I was making---which is that global warming is both real and threatening.

Many of us feel an obligation to talk to the media---it's part of our role as scientists, citizens, and educators. The subjects are complicated, and it is easy to be misquoted or quoted out context. My experience in the past is that these things do happen, but usually inadvertently---most reporters really do want to get it right.

Channel 4 now says they were making a film in a series of "polemics". There is nothing in the communication we had (much of it on the telephone or with the film crew on the day they were in Boston) that suggested they were making a film that was one-sided, anti-educational, and misleading. I took them at face value---a great error. I knew I had no control over the actual content, but it never occurred to me that I was dealing with people who would deliberately distort my views.

The letter I sent them as soon as I heard about the actual program is below.

As a society, we need to take out insurance against catastrophe in the same way we take out homeowner's protection against fire. I buy fire insurance, but I also take the precaution of having the wiring in the house checked, keeping the heating system up to date, etc., all the while hoping that I won't need the insurance. Will any of these precautions work? Unexpected things still happen (lightning strike? plumber's torch igniting the woodwork?). How large a fire insurance premium is it worth paying? How much is it worth paying for rewiring the house? $10,000, but perhaps not $100,000? Answers, even at this mundane level, are not obvious.

How much is it worth to society to restrain CO2 emissions---will that guarantee protection against global warming? Is it sensible to subsidize insurance for people who wish to build in regions strongly susceptible to coastal flooding? These and others are truly complicated questions where often the science is not mature enough give definitive answers, much as we would like to be able to provide them. Scientifically, we can recognize the reality of the threat, and much of what society needs to insure against. Statements of concern do not need to imply that we have all the answers. Channel 4 had an opportunity to elucidate some of this ambiguity and complexity. The outcome is sad.

I am often asked about Al Gore and his film. I don't know Gore, but he strikes me as a very intelligent man who is seriously concerned about what global change will mean for the world. He is a lawyer/politician, not a scientist, who has clearly worked hard to master a very complicated subject and to convey his worries to the public. Some of the details in the film make me cringe, but I think the overall thrust is appropriate. To the extent that he has gotten some things wrong, I mainly fault his scientific advisers, who should know better, but not Al Gore.

In general, good scientists (unlike lawyers) are meant to keep in mind at all times that conceivably they are wrong. There is a very wide spectrum of scientific knowledge ranging from the almost certain, e.g. that the sun will indeed rise tomorrow, or that no physical object can move faster than the speed of light; to inferences that seem very plausible but for which one can more readily imagine ways in which they might prove incorrect (e.g., that melting of the Greenland ice cap means that sea level will rise); to fiercely disputed ideas (e.g., that variations in the North Atlantic circulation directly control the climate of the northern hemisphere). Most of us draw conclusions that seem to us the most compelling, but try hard to maintain an open mind about counter arguments or new observations that could prove us wrong. Reducing the extremely complicated discussion of future climate change to the cartoon level we see on both extremes is somewhat like making public policy on the basis of a Batman movie.

1 comment:

Aaron Baranoff said...

This shows to me the balancing act the enviromental movement needs to maintain. I used to live in Maryland and prior to that Virginia.

The same issue exists in other areas such as wind power. Wind power in some areas is being held up by some enviromental groups to protect birds versus the benefits of the reduced pollution.

Life is a balancing act I want us to make green progress without being caught up in green red tape and without spending the green on the wrong things.

(excuse the pun).