Lies, Damn Lies, and Global Warming.

There are two facts that I think everyone can agree on when it comes to global warming.  One: human beings are putting more CO2 in the atmosphere then they (humans) did 100 years ago and two: recent history has shown an increase in global temperature  (although that one is debated on the fringe).  Where the  real debate happens is whether A caused B, or at least whether A causes B in any meaningful way.   Now, unfortunately, we don’t have an extra Earth to do a controlled experiment, so all we can do is look at the correlations.  Some researchers point to the data and say that the trends match extremely strong






Whereas others will point to the data and say there is no correlation:






As a lover of science, but no real background in climatology, I cannot say why these graphs, which purporedly measure the same thing over similar time periods (the bottom right actually demonstrates a much longer time scale than the top right, but both examine long trends), give completely different results.   However, as someone who uses statistics to make a point, I know the power of ‘shaping’ your data to conform to your hypothesis, but I am unable to say which graph did that (arguably both did and the truth is somewhere in the middle).

Because the statistics (hence the title of the post: for those who don’t know the original quote is Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics – Mark Twain) are difficult to untangle, I find it best to focus on process.  The why something happens is a much better guide to understanding the causative properties.  It is because of the why, that I would argue the evidence supports the man made global warming hypothesis (I refuse to use the word believe to define my thoughts on something that I’ve concluded based on evidence).

Within the realm of science, there are 3 ways you can do research; Demonstration, causation and explanation.   Demonstration is usually a function of correlation and is descriptive.  All one has to do in demonstration is show a relationship; e.g.  there is a relationship between rain and depression.  Causation shows that A–>B, e.g. this drug prevents hair loss, but we don’t know why.   Explanation is research that tries to explain the causation.  Now as mentioned, causation is impossible to do here, but we can still explain the results.   Since, even when statistics are uncontested (not the case here) it is impossible to make a causative statement, those who want to make the case for global warming should focus on process and explanation.

For those who don’t know why CO2 makes the world hotter, it is quite a ‘simple’ process: Solar radiation comes in, which is absorbed by the Earth (some of it is reflected).  The part that is absorbed, then radiates the heat back out some of it gets ‘trapped’ within the atmosphere because of greenhouse gases, one of which is CO2.  The reason solar radiation can come in, but has difficult going out is because solar radiation  has a lower wavelength ( 0.2 to 2 microns ) compared to when the earth radiates it back ( 4 to 40 microns with most popular at 10) and the greenhouse gases block wavelengths of mostly 8-14 microns so solar radiation comes in but it doesn’t leave as easily.  The more greenhouse gases there are, the more heat gets trapped inside, making the world hotter. (The more you know…..)

This process, while complicated in terms of the actual methodology, is a simple one to grasp.  And because this process is the reason why life is possible at all, it would be virtually impossible to deny it.  If scientists wanted to convince those who out-rightly deny global warming, they should be focusing on the process, not the correlation.

However, there is a problem with this as well.  The problem is that man made green house gases make up a small fraction of total greenhouse gases,  less than .5% of all the atmosphere or 3-4% if you don’t include water vapour.  So CO2, theoretically should make the world hotter, but while we know the % of CO2 we are adding compared to all other gases, the numbers presented may appear to be so small to some as to have little affect.   Here is where most of the ‘real’ debate happens, with some saying that the small increase will have devastating consequences and others saying there will be little to none.  It is difficult to create an appropriate model between additional CO2 and change in temperature since all models will be build off estimations of the two and confounded by other natural processes.

So there are those who think that while we are adding to global warming but at a rate that is negligalbe and then even those that say it’s a good thing in that it will delay another ice-age (a bit of a stretch, but some researchers have suggested it).  However, even those who are staunch supporters, harsh effects are still decades away and they are currently faced with more immediate concerns getting a job/raising a family, hunger and poverty, or protecting human rights.

But there are immediate effects to the same causative forces of global warming, for example smog and pollution; and there are very immediate and related problems, for example, sustainability of our resources and rising oil prices.  These are immediate and salient concerns and thos who want to change our behaviour should be focusing on obvious and immediate results.  People don’t want smog and they are tired of paying $60 for a fillup.

We are creatures of immediacy.  We will take $1 now even if it means losing $2 later.  It is not instinctive, at least, for us to care about the future and even less so about other species, no matter how important it may be. As such it does little good to focus on our future or on saving the planet.  As George Carlin once quipped “Save the planet?….there is nothing wrong with the planet. Nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked. ”  It’s time for climatologists to read up on their psychology and realise the only way to get through is to make those selfish and immediate connections.