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.

6 Comments

  1. I’m a bear with a very small brain, but this article touches on something that has long puzzled me – given that the temperatures on our planet and each and every day probably vary in all the millions (billions? Trillions? Zillions?) of locations imaginable, anywhere between roughly -50C and +50C and all points in-between; and also given the impact of the UHI; how on earth do you measure the average temperature of the planet and state it with certainty?

    Which locations do you include and why? Which locations do you exclude, and why? If some interesting places don’t have measuring equipment, and are therefore excluded, or their temperatures are “calculated” by computer programmes assessing their likely temperature based on the known temperatures at other weather stations, how can you safely declare your calculated mean temperature for the planet is accurate? Ditto with the UHI effect. Are your adjustments really big enough? Are they too big? As urban areas grow rapidly, are your UHI adjustments keeping pace?

    Is there any point to all this at all?

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  2. MARK HODGSON
    There was an awful lot about this at WUWT and Climate Audit when I first got interested circa 2007. It was a serious scandal, with dozens of thermometers which used to stand on grassy aerodromes now on tarmac surrounded with jet exhausts. There were many funny incidents too which someone should work up into a book, if they haven’t already. Anthony Watts mentioned a town in Siberia which had a weird warming pattern and a reader who’d been there supplied the solution. The entire town was centrally heated, with a gas pipe running down the main road with burners to keep the street warm. Steve McIntyre spotted a Harbour in Alaska that mysteriously disappeared from the temperature record at the time that Gavin Schmidt took over. Steve remembered that Gavin is English, and had entered the data with an English spelling of “harbour” which threw the computer. And Doug Keenan (is that his name?) called out Phil Jones and a certain professor Wang as frauds over supposed pristine data from China during the Cultural Revolution which came from a certain Miss Liu who could no longer be traced… (Hope I got the details and names right there.)

    These are the kind of mishaps that could happen in any large data collecting scheme I suppose, but never has the entire world decided to change course because of some minute changes in measurements of dodgy data.

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  3. There was a link to the vid of the lecture at WUWT so I watched that. Lindzen noted that refuting (or trying to refute) particular alarmist points is a waste of time. I think he’s right, although I engage in it a lot. There is an element of Brandolini’s Law here in terms of the effort required to counter a simple assertion. There is a bigger problem than that, which is that the initial assertion gets far more exposure than any subsequent carefully thought out rebuttal or ultimate correction. And there is the squandering of energies that could have been profitably used elsewhere.

    One tiny battle that I have been determined to win was about an article on the BBC in December 2019, titled: “Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise.”

    I think I fired off a complaint to the website within 45 minutes asking for a correction. However, I heard nothing. Then I wrote an actual letter after about 6 weeks. Then (Feb 2020, but they didn’t bother to date them) I received two letters apologising for the lack of a response, with promises re: something substantial in due course. In the year of WuFlu I let the matter lie. Then I wrote again in January this year. My latest response is a letter, about 6 weeks ago, which said that “although we had referred your complaint to the relevant people, we regret that it may be a little longer before we can reply.”

    “We apologise for this and have been in touch with the relevant staff again. We therefore ask you not to contact us further in the meantime.”

    Of course I have wasted my time on this. And yet I could not let the original just slide by and disappear. All I wanted was a correction to a small, relatively unimportant, but wrong, news story, and nearly 18 months later, I’m no nearer to getting it, while no-one is ever likely to see that page ever again. The automatic response was here an ineffective use of a sceptic’s energy in terms of supporting the “resistance.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Over the years Professor Lindzen has written numerous discursive and informative articles (commonly based upon his talks) about the stupidity of parts of climate change “science” and those pushing it. Often it would appear he was a lone voice amongst senior scientists and thus a considerable thorn in the side of those pushing a consensus. Yet again he has produced a discerning summary of issues that are worth discussing and deserve wider distribution. Yet apart from places like Cliscep, they won’t. Shame really.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Maybe we should start pointing out, at every opportunity, that CAGW is incompatible with the Gaia Theory?

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