In many households tonight, we’ll be sitting down with loved ones with whom our political opinions, and perception of the facts, are at odds. In the interests of family peace and in the spirit of the holiday, here’s a dose of humility.

We may have our convictions on complex technical issues of public importance, such as climate change. Those convictions may even be correct. But ultimately, our positions on these issues come down to trust and elite signalling.

It’s possible that some of you out there are climate scientists that have stayed current with the peer-reviewed literature. But for the rest of us, our opinion on this matter is dependent on someone we trust telling us what the scientific consensus is. Maybe for you it’s the Sierra Club or Al Gore, or because it’s the opposite of what the oil industry says. For me, when The Economist — a source not partial to environmental panics — was convinced about 10 years ago, it finally routed my initial skepticism.*

Someone who’s chosen the wrong entity to trust — perhaps because they share values on a completely unrelated issue — can always find reassurance by being presented with an undue emphasis on remaining skeptics, exaggerating either their numbers or their credentials, or focus on data points that don’t support the theory.

I don’t mean to excuse those elites who are doing the signaling. A legislator that focuses on these sectors, or a national reporter trying to cover the debate, has access to actual experts and a duty to educate themselves in an open-minded way. But let’s spare a little empathy for the denier across the dinner table.

*For the record, my support for reducing carbon emissions extends beyond what a magazine told me 10 years ago. For example: I’m scientifically literate enough to know the theory of the underlying mechanism is plausible; the circumstantial evidence I’ve seen seems persuasive; the likelihood of it happening, and the seriousness of the consequences, warrant action even without absolute certainty; and the externalities involved in fossil fuel consumption, aside from climate change, make a strong case for curbing it.

24 Replies to “A Little Understanding on Thanksgiving”

  1. Interesting post, Martin, with two distinct edges. It’s hard to believe that anyone is certainly correct when both sides have solid numbers, good logic and firm convictions. Sure, one side makes ridiculous claims I don’t agree with, but the other side often makes ridiculous claims I do agree with. Both claims are ridiculous. It reminds me of the old joke about medical research that “this week, dark chocolate and wine is good for you, next week it will give you cancer”. Thanks for this.

    On the second edge of your post, I actually do agree with Mr. Gore, despite all the numbers and charts he throws at us. I agree with him because I believe in the principle of least impact–maybe from Albert Camus, maybe from the Sierra Club. Rebuilding a modest house and driving a small car are all part of making sure that my presence on the earth won’t leave a huge scar. Logically I should be a vegetarian aesthetic living in a dense, unheated hi-rise located next to my work, but there’s only so much I’m willing to give up :)

  2. I believe that human caused global warming is real. I also believe the situation is hopeless, it will pretty much continue unabated. That said, I do support reducing carbon emissions and the politicians that support these reductions. I try to minimize my personal carbon footprint, as well.

  3. Thanks to all the bloggers here that donate countless hours towards our society, with little expectation of personal benefit. Societies are built one brick at a time, by the masses over many years. Undoing some of the faulty construction done with best intentions will require time and effort, and some compassion for others viewpoints.
    Thank you STB, and for reasonable dialog on important issues that face us all.
    Thank you Martin.

  4. Martin, I applaud your reference to climate change and never mentioning “global warming”. The first thing skeptics will point out is that global temperature drifted wildly before mankind was even roaming this planet and more recently but before the use of fossil fuels. It could be argued that we are saving the planet from a new ice age.

    Even better would be atmospheric change. People were able to rally around the acid rain issue. Government regulations on pollution controls were eventually successful despite whining and the auto companies stubbornly adding crap systems to decades old designs instead of building efficient cars. Right now one of the scariest things is pH change in the worlds oceans. Indisputably caused by burning fossil fuels (just like acid rain) but far more devastating with possibly irreversible consequences.

    Al Gore, or because it’s the opposite of what the oil industry says.

    Al Gore has gone on record admitting that not only was gasohol a bad idea at all levels but his decision was steered in great part by the political influence from the mid-west farm lobby. This grand scheme guaranteed a huge new profitable market for corn and drove up prices of corn still sold for food (animal and human). The oil companies loved it because they got a healthy subsidy for every gallon of ethanol used and since gasohol reduces gas mileage it increased sales (like a drug dealer being paid to cut the potency of their product). So is it any wonder people are skeptical about the government’s wealth redistribution schemes in the name of “solving global warming”?

    1. Ocean acidification is, indeed, one of the most dangerous results of fossil fuel burning. It’s also rather easier to get under control than the global temperature change, with quicker response time.

      It should be emphasized.

      The Gasohol business… sigh. Environmentalists called it a scam *at the time*.

  5. New cars — particularly new electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, which gets the equivalent of about 100 mpg — are much more energy-efficient, and much cleaner than transit. And federal legislation ensures that the energy efficiency of new cars sold in the U.S. is going to increase dramatically over the next 15 years or so.

    So, if you are concerned about global warming, and want to reduce greenhouse gases, you should be encouraging very energy-efficient forms of transportation, which currently means motor scooters, motorcycles, van pools and high-efficiency cars, which are all much better for the environment than any form of transit in our area. All of those forms of transportation are far less expensive than the transit in our area, also.

    In our area transit is not energy-efficient, and it is harmfully expensive.

    1. I support all the things you suggest, and hope to encourage them through higher taxes on fossil fuels. I also support transit investment; there’s no reason they can’t be mutually exclusive.

      “Transit,” of course, has varying levels of cleanliness based on the fuel source and the composition of the power grid. I’d like to lay much more trolleywire and electric rail tracks to make transit cleaner, wouldn’t you?

      For starters, every highway and major arterial that doesn’t have an HOV lane should have one general-purpose or parking lane away to do so. You support that, don’t you?

      1. I’m buying an electric car, myself.

        It is, however, crazy to use that electric car to:
        (1) Drive through New York City (or any other big city, yes, including Seattle). It’s too crowded, so one should either walk, bicycle, or take electrically-powered trains.
        (2) Drive vast distances across the country (thousands of miles). I’d have to have a huge battery or spend a very long time recharging — I should be taking long-distance electric trains.

        Electric cars are a *complement* to electric trains, not a substitute.

      2. And a comment especially for John Bailo :-)….

        …my utopia would make it possible for people who want to, to live out in the countryside, drive their electric cars to the train station (Kent?), catch an electric train (Sounder) to Seattle’s main train station, and then catch an frequent electric train (Link) to the neighborhood they were trying to reach in Seattle, from where they could walk. People who chose to live in villages like Kent could skip the first step and walk or bike to the train stations, and people living in a city proper could skip the first two steps and get directly on Link. For visiting another city, any of these people could hop an electric train (Cascades?) to that city’s main train station, and so on.

        This isn’t a ridiculous idea; it’s how most cities have been organized since the industrial revolution, except that now we can do it without the choking clouds of smoke from fossil fuels.

  6. I agree with Rod N. that global warming is real and not realistically stoppable. We need to focus on coping. The real issue is no longer greenhouse gas emissions – that ship has sailed – but the fact that we are running low on fossil fuels and other resources such as minerals and need to conserve/substitute as soon as possible. The right wing thinks we should wait till “the market” is ready for transition, but by definition markets are reactive, not proactive. For an economy dependent on the availability of energy at a reasonable cost, reaction may well take too long and create a dangerous crash. Just my two kopeks worth.

      1. Bernie, what “goal horizon” do you think was in the minds of the BP officials who ordered their crews to ignore the company’s own procedures in the Gulf of Mexico not long ago?

        And am I wrong that people in the income bracket of both management and investors in British Petroleum and companies like it, it’s a reasonable calculation that decisionmakers and their families will be able to avoid for generations the consequences that create disaster for millions of other people?

        And finally, you and I are both part-owners of the governments of the United States and our respective localities. Whatever faults these entities have, it’s within our power to fix. I don’t know your income or portfolio, but your participation in Seattle Transit Blog would be unusual for anybody in “Top 1%”.

        Why are you willing to take on faith the competence and good-will of people over whom you have no control whatever, but completely write off the character and abilities of entities which you partly own?

        The people who founded this country had firsthand experience not only with hereditary royalty. Our independence was won in a bloody civil war against Europe’s only parliament- which was comprised of lawfully elected people who happened also to be representatives chiefly of wealth and power.

        I doubt that people in the realm of the British North America Company and the British East India Company would have had your trust in concentrated private hegemonies. They lived in the Age of Reason.

        Happy Thanksgiving

        Mark Dublin

      2. OK, you may have a point. I was trying to counter Glenn Beck. In his book he castigated the government for subsidising green technology like the Chevy Volt, saying that “if the market wanted electric cars, the market would make them” (not an exact quote). Personally, I don’t think electric cars are foolish, just ahead of their time, and that means there needs to be a non-market “push” (the government in this case) to bring them into being. This doesn’t mean the government is the end-all and be-all of Truth. Just watching _60 Minutes_ on TV proves otherwise….

    1. There are different degrees of disaster which are caused by different levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

      Some of them are “baked in” and cannot be stopped. Others of them *still can* be stopped, and are much, much worse. For instance, it is critical that we cut down CO2 emissions to zero fast enough that we don’t break the entire ocean food chain. (By making it too acidic for certain plankton to form their shells.)

      Breaking the entire ocean food chain is something which humanity cannot realistically adapt to; mass deaths of billions are the only way to adapt to it. We can, however, quite realistically end fossil fuel burning and start sucking CO2 out of the air (with plants) before we break the ocean food chain, and without killing billions.

      So we need to stop greenhouse gas emissions *even though* we also have to adapt.

  7. I am not a denier a lot, I am just sure it’s going to happen and no one will do anything about it.

  8. New Study Suggests Climate Change May Be (Slightly) Less Severe Than Feared

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    New Study Suggests Climate Change May Be (Slightly) Less Severe Than Feared
    Posted by Bryan Walsh Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 2:00 pm
    7 Comments • Related Topics: Climate Science , climate change, climategate, climate skeptics, climate models, climate sensitivity, Ice Age

    Research on the Ice Age is giving us a better picture of climate change. Credit: Photographer’s Choice RF / Getty Images

    Earlier this week unknown hackers—following up from a similar attack two years ago—released a cache of stolen emails from climate scientists. Climate skeptics—just as they did two years ago—jumped on the emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit as Britain’s East Anglia University, claiming that they show a conspiracy to hide the lack of evidence for global warming.

    That’s wrong—not that they’ll ever change their mind—and to my eye and others, the emails do little to change the overarching conclusion that the climate is warming, that much of the warming is due to manmade carbon emissions and that warming poses very serious dangers to the planet and the human race. It’s not a hoax and it’s not a lie—climate change is real.

    But that doesn’t mean that climate science—or climate solutions—is anywhere near as fully formed and final as some researchers and advocates like to make it out to be. Newsflash: predicting the future is really hard, and trying to predict how something as complicated as the climate system will change in the future—without even being able to be sure of how inputs into that system like carbon emissions will change—is really, really hard. It could turn out that the climate system is much more sensitive to carbon buildup than we’ve thought—as some scientists have suggested—and that a doubling of the carbon in the atmosphere from pre-industrial times could lead to a temperature increase of as much as 10 C over the next century, which would mean an altogether different planet. Or it’s possible that the climate system may be more resistant to carbon than we think, and warming could proceed relatively slowly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for its part, has estimated that temperatures would rise by about 3 C after a doubling of carbon concentrations.

    What this means is that it’s not quite true when environmental advocates say that the “science is settled,” as Al Gore has. The basics absolutely—but beyond that, there’s a whole lot of science left to do, as a new paper shows.

    More from TIME: Climategate 2: A Weak Sequel

    In this week’s Science, researchers led by Andreas Schmittner of Oregon State University looked at how the Earth’s climate reacted to changing conditions in the past, and they’ve come up with a surprising conclusion. It turns out that the climate system may be less sensitive—and therefore slower to warm—than the IPCC has predicted. That means the scariest predictions of near-double digit warming by the end of the century would be unlikely, buying us more time to slow the growth of carbon emissions and shift the world to a more sustainable energy economy.

    Read more:

    1. The problem is, “we are the experiment!” and if this bit is wrong we are in a huge pile of do-do.

      When faced with a possible alternative of huge disaster, it’s better to hedge one’s bets against it. The cost of burning less fossil fuel is not negligible but it’s not without long term benefits, one of which is a better balance of payments between the USA and oil supplier countries. The second could be cleaner air if we also include a reduction in coal burning. The third could be healthier fish to eat from less mercury from less coal burning. The fourth could be a healthier population which walked or bicycled some of those short trips rather than drove. Fifth could be a better world leadership position rather than wars for control of a resource we don’t own.

      1. The ancillary benefits of getting off fossil fuels are indeed huge, and you haven’t listed them all! Hell, coal mining and oil drilling are dirty operations; solar panel manufacturing, comparatively, isn’t. Insulation and other heating-efficiency improvements just make people’s lives better, as well as reducing fossil fuel burning.

  9. I’m not normally a commenter on this blog, but I am an atmosphere scientist who studies global warming (and other climate changes), and an occasional STB reader. I just wanted to greatly thank Martin for posting this. So often among those who are aware of this problem, there’s a tendency to angrily call *ordinary* people who disagree idiots or deniers, or worse. When I point out that this disagreement ultimately comes down to trust, not personal knowledge, it seems to really help! So thanks very much, Martin, for being a voice in the wilderness here.

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