The #climate and GHG question I would have asked

In today’s Edmonton Journal/Calgary Herald on-line leaders debate (a great format, BTW), the leaders were asked the following question:

Do you believe in climate change? What should be the provincial government’s response to climate change, or should the provincial government wait for a plan from the federal government?

Unfortunately, the first part of this question, which boils tens of thousands of papers worth of academic research into 2 words, is useful only in that it allows those reading the answer to see exactly what they want to see.  Answer yes, you believe in climate change and you are either keenly aware of the state of scientific evidence or a sheep faithfully following along with the herd.  Answer anything other than yes, and you are a climate denier, someone with a true scientist’s level of scepticism or a brave critic of mainstream science.  In other words, whatever people thought you believed before you answered the question, they will find in your answer to the question if they try hard enough.

There are few questions which are more loaded in today’s energy and environment debates than, “do you believe in climate change?” If I were asking a question along the same lines, here’s what I would have asked:

First, a 2011 US National Academy of Science report states that, “climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems.” Do you agree with this statement? If not, with which parts of it do you disagree?

Second, given your views on the risks posed by climate change, as well as global and national geopolitics surrounding climate change, energy use, and GHG emissions, why is your GHG and energy policy package the best choice for Alberta?

This gets at the two key elements – do you accept that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests there are significant risks associated with anthropogenic climate change, and, since Alberta is an energy-producing, GHG-intensive economy, how do you plan to position Alberta to prosper in a world adjusting to deal with it?

If you think that you can hear a satisfactory answer to all of that in a one-word answer to a gotcha question, you’re far more insightful than I.

13 responses to “The #climate and GHG question I would have asked”

  1. Deep Climate

    You’re asking 2 questions, one on climate science and one on GHG policy, and so did the newspaper reader who posed those questions.

    First, let’s acknowledge that the reader got one thing right and pointed out a glaring omission in the discourse (including your April 4 post). To have a reasonable discussion on GHG policy, we must be clear on the scientific consensus that underpins the policy response. So it’s important that political parties answer that first question explicitly. It makes a big difference in assessing the sincerity and motivation of their respective GHG policies.

    So let’s look at that first question (on climate change science). Rather than focusing on one statement from a single national body (prestigious though it may be), the emphasis should be on the overwhelming scientific consensus as embodied in the U.N. IPCC and all the world’s leading scientific organizations. You summarized the question this way:

    “Do you accept that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests there are significant risks associated with anthropogenic climate change?”

    That’s pretty weak: “preponderance … suggests”. The scientific consensus is much stronger than that. How about:

    “Do you accept the scientific consensus, as put forth by the U.N. IPCC and all the world’s leading scientific organizations, that contemporary climate change is primarily anthropogenic and poses a significant risk?”

    In fact, I’d say “Do you believe in climate change?”, while vague, does capture the essence of the real question better than your version.

    Danielle Smith answered this question a long time ago. She doesn’t accept the consensus. She doesn’t even believe that there *is* such a scientific consensus, confusing “consensus” with unanimity.

  2. klem

    “do you believe in climate change?”

    Wow, I can’t believe someone actually asked that in a televised debate.

    That loaded question is very revealing and sounds eerily similar to “do you believe in God?”

    And in many ways, it is quite identical.

  3. Deep Climate

    Andrew,
    It would be nice if you put half the effort in clarifying your own somewhat obscure views that you have put into deriding a vague question that at least had the salutory effect of raising an election issue that no one, including you, was discussing beforehand. Then maybe we’d get somewhere.

    For starters, let’s look at what you said to the Calgary Herald.

    ====================
    Andrew Leach, an associate University of Alberta professor on natural resources, energy and environment, said the scientific discussion about climate change has gone beyond whether it’s real.

    “There is significant uncertainty in climate science,” he said. “There are still many debates going on, but those are not at the level of whether there is any significant relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature change. They are at the level of to what degree.”

    ================

    Sure there is uncertainty, but with respect to “degree” of human attribution of recent global warming, the evidence is clear: Contemporary global warming has been primarily driven by anthropogenic causes, chiefly greenhouse gas emissions, and natural drivers are less important. In fact, the “preponderance” of evidence (your word) suggests *no* role for natural drivers in the warming of the last 30 years.

    So you are *still* understating the consensus when you posit only a “significant relationship”, which implies the possibility that natural influences might still predominate. The scientific consensus and evidence clearly points to the primacy of human influence. Is warming over say the last 30 years 100% attributable to human causes (as most climate scientists closest to the issue hold) or only 80%? Will doubling atmospheric CO2 lead to 2C or 4C rise in global temperature?

    These legitimate questions show the extent of uncertainty, but also put some constraints on it. Bottom line – if you do not clearly articulate the *primary role* of human causation in climate change, you have failed to properly express the scientific consensus.

    You have a responsibility as a self-appointed expert on GHG policy to get this right, especially since so many of your economist colleagues, such as Ross McKitrick and Jack Mintz, spew out misinformation on the topic of climate science.

    1. Deep Climate

      “DC, do you disagree with my quote?”

      I think you have misunderstood that IPCC figure (on climate sensitivity). To explain that will take a more time than I have right now, so I’ll return to that another time.

      “Is the science on climate change settled?”

      This is another vague question (usually invoked by “skeptics”, so I’m surprised that you even ask it). Obviously, I have quoted wide uncertainties on key top-line questions above, uncertainties that could be usefully narrowed. But it is also the case that the uncertainty bands are not as wide as you appear to be believe.

      On top of that, a lot of questions clearly need a lot more research – for example regional projections are very uncertain.

      Finally (for now), it’s fair to object to my “self-appointed” crack (although not necessarily for the reason you cite). So I will happily withdraw that and apologize. I should not have said that.

      I think you are a bona fide expert on GHG policy. But I think your understanding of climate science is weak, although not irredeemably so. However, I think it is well worthwhile to engage you on this issue, because you strike me as a good faith proponent for your point of view, as well as someone who is willing to admit mistakes when they are explained.

  4. klem

    Deep Climate, is your Deep Climate web blog still alive? It does not seem to be very active lately.

  5. richard

    Klem – asked and answered at DC’s blog.

  6. opit

    It’s interesting to see an attempt to push you around in your own comments thread. You seldom see the proper emphasis put on the name of the originating body for anthropogenic global warming and its intrinsic nature : intergovernmental is not the name of a science debating group.
    http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/18115/
    It’s been a while since ‘the penny dropped’ and I recognized the Christian epithet ‘Denier’ at work conflating scientific method at work with a ‘disbelief in science’ in a political positioning/framing exercise and Poisoning the Well Argument. You correctly describe it as a ‘gotcha’ setup.
    Roger Pielke Sr. is a climate scientist who derides the idea that a model has been made, let alone that we have the ability to project future conditions from any such.
    I suspect he might make an exception in this case.
    http://my.opera.com/oldephartte/blog/2012/04/24/23-april-keeping-global-warming-within-limits

  7. McDermott in NYC

    This is an interesting discussion – Science enters Andrew Leach’s blog.

    But there’s something funny going on here: The scientist and Andrew and talking apologies (where’s Alison and Dalton?), and Klem thinks various forms of met data are like a bible.

    Huh?

    The problem with the science is that people are talking about it. Ad nauseum. It might be right, it might be wrong (its probably right). But the opposite of Andrew’s null hypotheis of zero climate sensitivity, is the 100% sensitivity where VERY bad things start to happen. And the nature and magnitude of those bad things are generally less in dispute than are the temperature projections — and the athropogenic interference — underlying them.

    So this is a case of insurance and hedging against those very bad things. And the evidence suggests, that based on what we know, it makes sense to buy insurance, rather than engaging in endless actualialism over the probability the house will burn down. It it greater than 5% or 10%? Probably. If there was a 5% to 10% chance your house would burn down would you buy insurance? Probably.

    However, given that Alberta’s first real crack at insurance policy execution – a Transalta CCS facility – didn’t get done, suggests a lot more needs to be more on the insurance policy rather than jerking around with actuaries and people who think the insurance division are religeous zealots.

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