Ethical Implications of an Argument by Richard Lindzen

Have you read Richard Lindzen’s talk to the Irish Climate Science Forum posted at WattsUpWithThat? If not, please do. As the title, “The Imaginary Climate Crisis: How can we Change the Message?” indicates, the subject is not climate science as such, but what we sceptics should be doing in order to get our message across. 

The beginning is fun to read:

For about 33 years, many of us have been battling against climate hysteria. We have correctly noted 

– The exaggerated sensitivity,

– The role of other processes and natural internal variability,

– The inconsistency with the paleoclimate record,

– The absence of evidence for increased extremes, hurricanes, etc. and so on.

We have also pointed out the very real benefits of CO2 and even of modest warming. And, as concerns government policies, we have been pretty ineffective […]

In punching away at the clear shortcomings of the narrative of climate alarm, we have, perhaps, missed the most serious shortcoming: namely, that the whole narrative is pretty absurd.

When I say this, I get accused of suffering from the Dunning-Krugers. It’s a bit more difficult to level that charge at Professor Lindzen. 

He’s right of course, but you don’t win an argument by starting from the position that the opponent’s position is absurd. (There is no argument, I know, because the defenders of the official position refuse to engage, but by describing their position as absurd, one provides them, retrospectively, with the excuse for their refusal to debate with us.) 

Lindzen’s talk also contains a comparison with the early twentieth century fad for eugenics, and the sketch of an analysis of the sociological origins of climate hysteria based on the scientific ignorance of élites, which I’ll come back to another time.

But the meat of the article is a most useful demonstration of why the obsession with a rise in the average surface temperature anomaly is absurd, illustrated with four graphs of different ways of looking at temperature change: in terms of the tiny changes in global average temperature anomalies compared with annual temperature anomalies at individual stations; the same thing compared to seasonal temperature anomalies; and an amusing look at the temperature fluctuations experienced from morning to afternoon and from summer to winter in a number of American cities, compared to the average temperature rise experienced over the last 120 years. 

These graphs, and the accompanying argument, ably demonstrate that climate hysterics have a lot of explaining to do. But there’s another implication which I don’t think I’ve ever seen spelled out, which has a logical and an ethical dimension:

  1. Logically, the argument from the premiss that “we only have one planet” is null and void.

2) Ethically,any attempt to tamper with the planet’s average temperature (e.g. by reducing CO2 emissions) is indefensible, since, if you believe the theory of catastrophic climate change, it will result in death and untold suffering for millions. Governments attempting to implement the terms of the Paris accord, if they succeed, may be guilty of crimes against humanity.

I’ll explain.

I read somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember where) that at any given time, given the zigzaggy nature of secular temperature rise, temperatures are rising in about two thirds of regions and falling in a third. Lindzen makes the same point by looking at the temperatures at 3000 sites of official weather stations. He says: “While the average [of global annual temperature anomalies] does show a trend, most of the time there are almost as many stations cooling as there are stations warming.”

It’s obvious when you think about it. The finer the grain of your view of things, the smaller the difference between the number of data points where temperatures are rising and the ones where they’re falling. When you look at thousands of weather stations, the ratio approaches 50-50.

You can do a similar trick with any graph of secular temperature change. Year by year, you may find that, say, 70% of years are warmer than the previous year. Look at temperature anomalies on a monthly basis however, and the ration is likely nearer to 51%-49%

This is a statistical commonplace of course, similar to the difference between tossing a coin once or 3000 times. Toss it once, and the result is binary, heads or tails. The planet survives or it doesn’t. Toss it 3000 times, and the number of heads and tails is unlike to deviate much from 50-50 (the planet will likely be much as it is now, with an infinitesimal chance of it disappearing (3000 tails) or turning into an earthly paradise (3000 heads.) The slow rise in temperature means that we’re tossing a penny that’s very slightly biassed. 

Now the point of choosing One Planet as one’s reference frame or shibboleth or whatever is that it reduces our fate to something nice and binary. But we don’t all live on One Planet in any sense that’s remotely helpful for making rational decisions. We live in hundreds or thousands or millions of different places, (depending on the sort of decisions you’re making) in 51% of which temperatures are rising at any given time, and in 49% of which they are falling. So if you believe the catastrophic narrative, then any action taken to reduce the risk of death or disaster or forced migration or whatever for 51% of the population will likely increase the risk for the other 49%. 

This ethical problem is well known to philosophers, and is usually expressed in terms of a railway signalman who sees a train hurtling towards a precipice, with the certain death of hundreds of passengers, and has the choice of shunting it on to a siding where it will only kill a couple of dozen repairmen working on the line. What should he do?

It’s insoluble of course, as all the best philosophical problems are, but there’s a difference between it and the current situation. The signalman has to act, because he’s a signalman. His hand is on the lever and he has to move it one way or the other. We don’t have to. If we don’t act, (or don’t act fast enough for your liking) and you take us deniers and our Big Oil funders to court because of deaths from hurricanes in some global hotspot, we shall point to the lives we’ve saved in some other spot that’s not warming and where no hurricane happened. Unless it did happen, in which case we shall point out that your causality is up the creek. 

It’s swings and roundabouts, which means that you win some and lose some. Which is why some would like to pretend that there’s Only One Roundabout. It’ll be Lord Deben’s main line of defence when he ends up at the International Court of Human Rights on charges of genocide.

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April 9, 2021 at 03:53PM

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