Monday, May 29, 2017

The Cost of Doing Nothing

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” - Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

In the early 20th century, Glacier National Park in Montana had 150 glaciers. By 1966, there were only 37. Today, there are 26 and many of these have shrunk by as much as 85 percent since the 1970s. This is a fact.

Based on current trends, the U.S. Geological Survey now estimates that the last remaining glaciers in the park will be gone in the next few decades. This is a prediction, based on trends that have been well-nigh inexorable.

The New York Times recently hired a new columnist, Bret Stephens, who, while acknowledging that human-caused global warming is real, thinks that the case for doing something about it is overblown because, you know, scientists have been wrong before.

By way of example, he used, and I kid you not, the results of the 2016 elections, where the pollsters apparently got it wrong. Pollsters used statistical analysis. Climate scientists use statistical analysis. After all, if the geniuses at 538, Gallup, Pew, PPP, and Quinnipiac got it wrong about the last election, couldn’t climate scientists be wrong about the impacts of climate change?

If you saying to yourself “Huh?”, then you have just been introduced to the rhetorical device known as the “straw man argument,” where misrepresentation is used to make an opponent’s argument appear weaker and thus induce uncertainty in the minds of an audience.

There is a world of difference between political polling data and temperature data. People’s opinions can change from day to day. People lie. People you talked to one day are not there the next. Polling methodology varies between different organizations. People decide not to vote and vice versa.

In contrast, temperature data collected from say, the Blue Hill Observatory on October 21st, 1953 at 4 PM will not change to another value tomorrow. It will always be the data value collected on that day at that time. The size measurements of the Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park which were collected in 1966 and 2015 will not change either.

Apples are not oranges and political polling analysis is not climate science.
Something else Mr. Stephens said in his column was that the global average temperature change of 1.5 degrees F since the late 1880s is “modest”. Compared to the daily swings in temperature, that doesn’t seem like much, but the amount of energy required to make a 1.5 degree average global temperature increase is equivalent to 1.1 million megatons of TNT or about 71 million Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

Bottom line is that there is nothing “modest” about a 1.5 degree F increase global average temperature. Another fact Mr. Stephens fails to mention is that two thirds of the temperature increase, in the air at least, has occurred since 1970.

I suppose it’s all about how you present the numbers.

Brett Stephens does not think that addressing climate change is worth the cost, because climate science deals with probabilities and probabilities means uncertainty.

It’s highly probable that sea level rise will drown coastal cities in a couple of centuries. It’s less probable that it will happen in our lifetimes, but not impossible.

Even with the most modest estimates of sea level rise, about 3 feet by 2100, flood risks rise dramatically. Current projections are that just between now and 2050, the costs of flooding could be as high as $1 TRILLION per year in the world’s 136 largest cities, including New York, Tampa, New Orleans, and Boston.

This is the cost of doing nothing.

Published in the Westborough News, May 26th, 2017

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