With Superbowl weekend somewhat eclipsed by the immense media coverage
of the latest IPCC Summary Summary which was released on 2 February, I braced myself against Gotham's recent tundra-like winds and ventured out in the hope of a good debate on whether we face catastrophic climate change or not. A friend had emailed me about the discussion which was hosted by American Council of Science and Health (ACSH) publications director Todd Seavey (who hosted in a personal capacity unrelated to his job). It was cold, but the cellar of Lower East Side bar Lolita was full to capacity for the debate, "Do We Face Catastrophic Climate Change?" If only we could all vote "no" and know that it were true.
The Climate Change Foundations' AndrewMcKeon kicked off arguing for the motion by saying that the science from the IPCC latest summary was 'ninety to ninety-nine per cent' certain. McKeon, who trained as an engineer and then went in to finance was keen to reiterate throughout the discussion that he was not a scientist and did not understand much of the specifics. He believed though that the 'scientific community' had resoundingly endorsed the view that we must act now before it is too late. From the Innuits to Australian farmers, from the situation in Darfur to Bangladesh he declared, we are facing the 'evil of darkness that could come'. Sombrely he concluded with a double reference, quoting Al Gore's address address to the Clinton Global Initiative. He told us we 'faced a bitter cup...until we woke up.,' borrowing from Winston Churchill's rebuke of Parliament in 1938 for not challenging Hitler - declaring 'Katrina is the first sip, the first taste, of a bitter cup that will be proffered to us over and over again'.
Wow. Mr McKeon had managed to cover everything from our grandchildren to the spectre of Fascism. Yet I felt somewhat uneasy as it became almost like a sermon - we must act now or else there will be...Armageddon. But did Katrina, or the 2004 Tsunami actually have much to do with global warming? Many say not and others have made the point that the deaths in the Tsunami have been used to argue for 'nature's revenge' against human hubrisrather than better housing and communications and development for people in the developing world. What struck me, is how when figures started flying in the debate, the audience seemed to get simply more confused.
Chuck Blake argued against the motion. Blake's background at MIT was in statistical analysis and though, like his opponent, he now works in finance, he made his case by continuing to refer to the incongruities he believed existed between what the IPCC figures actually state and the subsequent proclamations in the media and elsewhere that have occurred. He believed that the political climate has become highly charged over this issue and that when scientific research indicated other possible outcomes it did not receive the mass coverage within the media. He suggested that climatology is a nascent science and that there were too many media driven speculative stories on issues, such as Africa and drought with global warming. He told us that he IPCC Summary actually 'cut the sea level rises in half' from their last report and that while Mr Gore suggested a 6 metre increase, the IPCC was 'nine to twenty centimetres'. He raised some other points, such as the trajectory the earth is on towards an ice age rather than warming, every 15,000 years, meaning in 8,000 we could face another Ice Age. He also questioned why it is automatically believed that these changes in temperature will necessarily make things worse. He also encouraged all of us to go read the statistics of the IPCC Summary ourselves.
Phew. That is the thing about a debate like this: Even for scientists and statisticians it can be enormously complex. Indeed, Mckeon made the point that 'there is always uncertainty...but we should not confuse that with disagreement.' Just a week before the Summary Larry Kinghad opposing speakers on the issue and many are attempting to grapple with this. One woman in the audience asked why scientists would seek to promote an agenda, in challenge to Chuck Blake's assertion of a politicised debate. Another audience member referred to James Hansen's work and that his research seems to have been corroborated. I was feeling very uneasy about the idea that this debate often occurs in shrill tones.
I raised my hand. Surely, what ever the problems may be, humans have the creativity and ingenuity to come together to resolve them? I asked Andrew Mckeon why he thought the discussion often sought to silence questioning of the issues. Terms like 'global warming denier' which he has usedseem to be used to ridicule doubt (because we all know that Holocaust deniers are crazy). I asked him why he did not address all the specific points Chuck Blake had made and he said that he did not understand them at that level of detail. He said that his role was to popularise the idea that we needed to all act now.
As it happens, Chuck Blake's comments on the water level statistics were somewhat off: The IPCC Summary actually states that if there was no curbing of greenhouse emissions, by 2100 the increase in water could be between 18 to 59 centimetres. While this was closer than Andrew's view of 6 metres, this is the problem with much of the debate. When we cherry-pick the results to 'prove' an argument it defiles science. That said, consistently Blake seemed to have a far more comprehensive grasp of the issues than his counterpart. Besides all that, though, what we most need is for the debate itself to be intelligent: Hysteria, name calling and panic do not resolve anything. Rather than being about science - where peer to peer experts can review and address one another's complex and difficult work incrementally and detached from the need for quick strap lines or http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/02/01/news/warm.php?page=1">interfering - it often seems as though we are moving further towards a fear-based outlook that things are out of control and something must be done now. Doubting is unfashionable but even highly respected commentators have indicated their concerns
While increasingly this is an issue that is on everyone's everyone's mind, it did not seem to me that people were won over to a position in the debate. Funnily enough both speakers agreed with me. While Andrew Mckeon overwhelmingly won the vote in favour of the motion (by at least 80% of the audience - vote for climate change!) he said he thought the audience had made up their minds before arriving and he wanted to get the message out to others. His message though was one that took uncertainty - that we do not know what the outcomes will mean but then went on to declare that 'we are going to be very sorry'. I was left feeling unconvinced of much other than the fact that there is a great deal of complex analysis alongside a broader view that humans are often seen as being the problemrather than the solution to situations these days. While various cities and states implement measures that are based on environmental thinking, a greater critical relationship to all conventional wisdom is surely something we should aim for. It may be seen as heretical by some, but I am pleased that there were many young people keen to argue over this issue and I very much hope that more will join in the debate.