Tuesday, July 31, 2012

EDITORIAL >> A skeptic converts

It’s hot outside, and most of the state is in a drought and faces extreme fire danger. Even climate-change skeptics are jumping ship and looking for a place to cool off.

Richard A. Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, didn’t take global warming seriously until last year. But now he’s a self-described “converted skeptic.”

In a shocking op-ed column in Sunday’s New York Times — startling because he was commissioned to do a global-warming study funded in part by the Heartland Institute and the Koch brothers, both notorious climate-change deniers — Muller has concluded the globe is warming “and humans are entirely the cause.”

“Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years,” Muller writes. “Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”

And it will get much worse. Muller writes, “As carbon dioxide emissions increase, the temperature should continue to rise. I expect the rate of warming to proceed at a steady pace, about one and a half degrees over land in the next 50 years, less if the oceans are included. But if China continues its rapid economic growth (it has averaged 10 percent per year over the last 20 years) and its vast use of coal (it typically adds one new gigawatt per month), then that same warming could take place in less than 20 years.”

As part of their Berkeley Earth analysis, Muller and his research team used sophisticated statistical models that confirm many of the environmentalists’ worst fears, although Muller parts company with some of the most alarmist claims: “Hurricane Katrina,” he writes, “cannot be attributed to global warming. The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035. And it’s possible that we are currently no warmer than we were a thousand years ago,” when there was another warm period around the world.

Muller doesn’t even think this summer’s record temperatures necessarily prove global warming because it is cooler elsewhere. But as “carbon dioxide emissions increase, the temperature should continue to rise.”

“I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes,” Muller writes. “Then comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done.”

It’s unlikely politicians in this country or in China and elsewhere will heed the warnings. As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist, said in a recent interview, it would be “miraculous” if we made a commitment to stop global warming.

“Let’s suppose that the scientific consensus is correct: global warming is happening, and it will have some catastrophic consequences,” Kahneman told the British Spectator magazine. “By the time it becomes obvious to everyone that it’s a danger, it will probably be too late to do anything that will be effective in combating it. As a species, our brains have just not evolved to deal with threats whose effects will be felt in what, for us, counts as the remote future. We respond to them by ignoring them.”

Can’t scientists marshal evidence of global warming and convince a skeptical public that something terrible is going on? “The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless,” Kahneman told his interviewer, “because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments. They don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favor of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions coming from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.”

Here’s hoping a powerful communicator will step forward and convince a skeptical world that we’re in trouble. Rising temperatures are only a small part of a global crisis that’s unfolding before our eyes: Extreme weather is becoming the norm. Lakes are disappearing and fish are dying. Crops are wilting and prices will skyrocket. Oceans will rise and flood those living nearby.

Doing nothing is not an alternative. Our grandchildren deserve better. It’s time to heed the warnings of experts like Richard Muller and Daniel Kahneman.