I have been offline for a bit of a holiday and as such am catching up on some very interesting posts that appeared in my absence. One of the most interesting was from Dr. Tasmin Edwards titled: The lukewarmers don’t deny climate change. But they say the outlook’s fine on the Guardian’s web site. Dr. Edwards has been a very welcome contributor to the climate change debate since the initiation of her blog (All Models are Wrong, now hosted by PLOS blogs). Dr. Edwards’ contributions have been universally civil, scientifically-sound and devoid of the partisanship that is often associated with the subject matter. While I have sometimes disagreed with individual points within her commentary, I have yet to be disappointed by any of her posts. This most recent post fits precisely into that mold. In it Dr. Edwards does a solid job of summarizing the views of one component of the Lukewarmer community but in doing so she conflates what I view as two divergent streams of Lukewarmers. You are probably asking yourself? Are there really two types of Lukewarmers? My response to that question is twofold:
- absolutely, and
- at least.
Just as a spectrum of views exist in other fields so one exists within the Lukewarmer community. There are Lukewarmers who believe that climate change will be mild and can be addressed through mitigative methods and others who believe that low climate sensitivity simply provides more time than the alarmists claim, to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. In the remainder of this post I will expand on this topic.
It was interesting, upon reading Dr. Edwards’ article, to do a few searches for the term “Lukewarmer”. To no surprise, most of the definitions were from people outside the community. The folks at Skeptical Science state that Lukewarmers ignore inconvenient evidence while Bart Verheggen apparently thinks they are total doorknobs. This is consistent with what I observed in an earlier post (Does the climate change debate need a reset? – on name calling in the climate change debate). As I describe, one way to damage the reputation of someone with a differing viewpoint is to label them using your terms. By relabeling “Lukewarmers” as some form of “denier” the “alarmists” attempt to reframe the debate to their advantage. As I presented in my original Lukewarmer post (My Lukewarmer post, or how to lose friends on both sides in the AGW debate) and further detailed in my post on the scientific consensus (About that climate “consensus” we keep reading about) being a Lukewarmer does not make you a denialist. Frankly, being a Lukewarmer doesn’t even require that you stand outside of the scientific consensus in the field of climate change. Rather, Lukewarmers fit neatly into the scientific consensus; they just exist on the lower end of the sensitivity debate. You see all it takes to be a Lukewarmer is a view that climate sensitivity is at the milder end of the range suggested by the IPCC. As Dr. Edwards points out, Lukewarmers are more apt to trust the instrumental record rather than simply relying on the outputs from the global climate models. In this regard Dr. Edwards asks the question:
Do lukewarmers believe ECS is low because they trust the instrumental studies more, or do they trust those studies because they give answers they want to believe?
I have argued previously that the former is clearly the case (although I don’t discount the possibility of the latter in a number of very limited cases). As I have argued in the past, I think it comes down to the types of individuals who make up the core of Lukewarmer community. I go into detail on this type in my posts “Type I and Type II Error Avoidance and its Possible Role in the Climate Change Debate” and “Does the Climate Change Debate Come Down to Trust Me versus Show Me? – Further thoughts on Error Avoidance”. Both emphasize that most Lukewarmers tend to come from the “show me” intellectual worldview (engineers and non-academic scientists) and most recognize that climate models, while the best tools we have to date, are still not able to make skillful predictions about future conditions. Ever week new information is uncovered to improve the science underlying the models but we are not there yet and until the models can show a better skill at predicting conditions, the instrumental record (and the underlying theoretical geochemistry) wins the day in my books.
Going back to the concept of a spectrum of Lukewarmers, this is where I disagree most with Dr. Edwards. In her post, Dr. Edwards presents a picture of “Lukewarmers” as being (as the title suggests):
“not convinced there’s a substantial risk that future warming could be large or its impacts severe, or that strong mitigation policies are desirable.”
The problem is that Dr. Edwards is portraying only one extreme Lukewarmer position as the sole position of the entire intellectual community. It would be like suggesting that all Christians believe in papal infallibility while ignoring the difference between Catholics and non-Catholics or that all Muslims share identical beliefs while ignoring the differences between the Sunni and Shiite practitioners of the faith. In this it is possible that her view is coloured by her geographic location and her position outside the community. As discussed in her post, Dr. Edwards identifies a number of prominent British Lukewarmers, most of whom indeed hold the positions that jibe pretty well with her description. Prominent writers, like Dr. Matt Ridley and to a lesser extent Nic Lewis, appear to hold a view that climate change could potentially be a relatively benign thing. I hesitate to say more as I do not wish to get bogged down in that discussion. I would merely point out that on this side of the pond there exist a different type of “Lukewarmer” of which I am one and I believe Thomas Fuller the author of “The Lukewarmer’s Way” blog is another (having mostly completed this post I now see that Mr. Fuller just added a new post: “The Myth of Mitigation Skepticism” which confirms my earlier suspicion).
Lukewarmers, like myself, recognize that too much climate forcing has the potential for consequences that cannot be mitigated without economic, environmental and social hardship. As for climate sensitivity and its importance in the debate, I bring you back to a post I wrote in January where I explained my view on the importance of climate sensitivity: (Why I think Climate Sensitivity is Essential for Developing Effective Climate Change Policy). While Dr. Edwards considers it from an academic position, a Lukewarmer, like myself, would look at it from a pragmatic perspective. If climate sensitivity is lower, it gives us more time to make the necessary changes to address the problem before it gets too late. We don’t need to take the manic actions suggested by the purveyors of the 350 ppm terror scenario. Instead we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels in a step-wise and reasoned manner hand-in-hand with reducing human misery and improving global quality of life. Thus, I view the Lukewarmer’s way (apologies to Mr. Fuller for misappropriating his blog title) as one of moving towards the elimination of fossil fuels as our society’s primary energy source in a pragmatic and humanist manner. In this position, I believe I am joined by Dr. Fuller who warns in his post: “Answering Tamsin Edwards’ Important Question” about overspending, spending inappropriately and concentrate[ing] on appropriate policy options.
I have written several tens of thousands of words on my blog on the topic of renewable energy and have tried to concentrate on the topic of “regionally-appropriate renewable energy” (On “soft climate denial”, regionally-appropriate renewables and marginalizing potential allies in the climate change debate). Like Mr. Fuller I agree that there are some low-hanging fruit that should be addressed ASAP such as those described at Fast Mitigation. The biggest early culprit I see is what he calls “black soot” and I call “black carbon”. I wrote a detailed post on black carbon (Black Carbon, a Climate Change Topic We Should all be able to Agree on) earlier this year where I wrote:
Looking at black carbon we have a major potential forcing agent for climate change; a serious risk to the cryosphere; and a human health risk of the first order. By targeting black carbon I feel we can get out of our mutual trenches and start working together in a way that will improve the condition of the planet. In doing so we can identify those people actually interested in having a perceptible effect on improving the planet and smoke out the rent seekers and hangers on who seek only to extend the debate for their own purposes.
I also see a need to move towards wind, geothermal and hydro in my home province of British Columbia, while moving towards a much greater reliance on nuclear and solar energy from a global perspective. I also believe that getting our kin in lesser developed countries out of energy poverty is a morally necessary goal and by doing so we can help protect a highly stressed ecosphere.
To go back to the spectrum of views. As I am only connected to the European Lukewarmers via the internet I cannot explain why the highest profile members of the community tend to be on the mitigative side of the spectrum. As a Western Canadian, I can only say that those of us on the energy-action side make up a larger percentage of the population in my neck of the woods. I would venture a guess (and only a guess) that the prevalence of Lukewarmers, like myself, in North America is a function of the more alarmist rhetoric and toxic politics we encounter here. Interestingly enough Dr. Edwards ends her post with the question:
If you agree with mainstream scientists, what would you be willing to do to reduce the predicted risks of substantial warming? And if you’re a lukewarmer, confident the Earth is not very sensitive, what would be at risk if you were wrong?
My answer to her first question is simple: we ARE working to reduce the risks. We are just doing so in a manner that doesn’t ignore our shared humanity or cause greater harm to our shared ecological heritage. We do not accept an approach that sentences billions to live in energy poverty, using scarce natural resources to build the open fires they currently rely on to cook their food and keep their children warm. We also do not believe that taking an action simply because you can do so quickly is the right approach. We have had too many monstrous failures (like our policies towards biofuels) that have actually increased our global carbon footprint and it is time to do this right. While I do not require the solutions to be perfect, I do ask that they be both well-considered and good. As for her second question, I would turn it around: if you are so confident that sensitivity is high, what are you doing to reduce your personal carbon footprint? Because as I wrote in a previous post: simply buying carbon offsets is not enough. Every time I am lectured by a high-flying celebrity I become more certain that I do not want them dictating how I should live my life.