Jan 19 2017

2016 Warmest Year on Record

giss-1880-2016It’s official – 2016 is the warmest year on record, since we have been tracking global temperatures since 1880. This is the third year in a row that the current year has been the warmest, 2014 and 2015 were also the warmest years on record. In fact, 15 of the warmest years on record have all been since 1998 inclusive. The last time we had a coldest year on record was 1911.

That the Earth is warming is now undeniable, but that does not stop people engaged in motivated reasoning from denying it. The graph to the right shows temperature variance from average since 1880. It is visually very compelling.

Here is how motivated reasoning works, however. Someone without ideological skin in the game would fairly assess all the data, acknowledge uncertainty and complexity, but arrive at the fairest conclusion. Motivated reasoning exploits uncertainty and complexity to deny the reality which is causing cognitive dissonance brought about by a conflict between reality and ideology.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of complexity in determining average global temperatures. It’s not as if the Earth has a magical thermostat. There are various places to measure temperature, from surface temperature, high altitude temperature, and ocean temperature. You can also use various methods, including ground stations and satellites. Further, you have to correct for any potential source of artifact. For example, there is the heat-island effect. As cities grow they generate more heat, and if you have a temperature measuring station near a city it will measure this heat.

So, climate scientists have to take all this data, think about it really carefully, make adjustments, try to account for all artifacts, and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the various methods. They then hammer out a consensus regarding the best interpretation of all this data. Of course, debate and uncertainty remain, but at the core there is a solid consensus that global temperatures are truly rising.

If you accept that basic reality, but motivated reasoning (or a conflict of interest) still has a grip on you, then you can argue about the cause(s) of the temperature rise. The world’s scientists believe that the long term trend in the temperature anomaly is due to man-made release of CO2 into the atmosphere. You can simply deny this by obsessively pointing to the few scientists who dissent from this consensus. You can try to blame the temperature rise on other causes, even though they have already been systematically eliminated by climate scientists.

If you have to grudgingly accept that release of CO2 is having an effect, then you can still argue about the magnitude of this effect. You can also argue about what impact temperature rise will have. If you live in Canada, it might be a good thing. Finally, you can argue about the benefits of any proposed method of addressing CO2 release and global warming.

If you are dedicated to the conclusion that we should do little or nothing to address global warming, there is a great deal of complexity and uncertainty to exploit. And, if you find your back up against the wall because someone who is well-informed shuts down all of your factually-challenged objections, you still have the last refuge of scoundrels and deniers – conspiracy theories.

You can simply wave your hands and dismiss all the science as a grand conspiracy of (get this) researchers who are hoaxing the world and trying to change our economy just so that they can goose their funding. It’s brilliant, right? All they have to do is abandon everything that science and research stands for, all of their alleged principles, and risk exposure and utter professional ruin. Apparently a few decades ago some climate scientists cooked up this brilliant plan, and managed to convince almost every other climate scientist to go along.

They must know that eventually reality will win out, and science will uncover their fraud, but by then they will be living off their fat research lucre, probably on a beach somewhere. ¬†Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Here’s the thing – of course there is uncertainty in every link of the chain that says we should probably do something to mitigate global warming. Phil Plait had a great analogy for this. What if 97% of the world’s astronomers concluded that there was a 90% chance that an asteroid will hit the Earth in 30 years. The earlier we act, the easier it will be to deflect. If we wait too long, it will be too late to do anything. It will be very costly to deflect the asteroid, but that is what they recommend. They are still debating among themselves as to the best method to use, but there are various options available.

Would you feel comfortable listening to the 3% of dissenters who think the asteroid will miss? Would you agree with a politician who does not want to spend the money to deflect it because he thinks the asteroid won’t do that much damage? Would you buy the claim that the astronomers are all engaging in a world-wide-hoax in order to increase funding for astronomy and space flight? Would you listen to a crank who thinks that the science of gravity is all wrong?

There is uncertainty, but it is pretty clear that if the consensus of opinion of scientists is correct we would have to act decades before the real effects of climate change are felt, and decades before uncertainty is gone. We would have to act yesterday (but today is all we have).

This does not mean going for the worst of “hysteria” or dismantling our economy (which is anti-hysteria hysteria). This is where the debate should be. Our politicians should stop debating whether or not global warming is happening, and start debating about how best to minimize it. There are plenty of win-wins to focus on.

I am someone who thinks that technology will eventually solve this problem. Burning fossil fuel for energy is crude, and we are rapidly developing cleaner better methods. But, the real question is, will technological advance happen in time to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It’s uncertain. I think we should reduce that uncertainty by focusing our research and development into quickening the advancement and deployment of clean energy.

We also have to seriously consider the externalized costs of climate change and also the health care costs of pollution from fossil fuel. When we do that it becomes clear that clean energy is cost effective in the long run.

Unfortunately I think that motivated reasoning is running our country.

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