George W. Bush reincarnated in Canada

I have an extremely low attention threshold for any mention of the small town of Inuvik, NWT, tucked away in the northwest corner of Canada's Northwest Territories. Not because it's a particularly beautiful place, or politically, economically or scientifically significant, but because I spent 14 months there back in the early 1990s as editor its newspaper, the Inuvik Drum. So when a former premier of one of Canada's provinces makes a speech there, I'm one of the few people outside of Inuvik who perk up. More so when the former premier is speaking about extracting more fossil fuels from beneath the Arctic Ocean. Even more so when the premier manages to invoke the thoughts of not one, not two, but half a dozen of the world's most notorious climate science deniers.

The premier in question is Newfoundland's Brian Peckford, a man with a reputation as a decent sort to whom governments turn when the need a personable and dynamic leader of commissions of inquiry into disappearing salmon and such. The date was June 18, 2009. To introduce his contention that we shouldn't be worried about the consequences of burning fossil fuels, he first disinters Michael Crichton with this quote:

"Most people assume linearity in environmental processes, but the world is largely non-linear: it's a complex system. An important feature of complex systems is that we don't know how they work. We don't understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don't. Sometimes spectacularly."

Which is true, insofar as it goes. The problem is Crichton never stopped there, but went on to conclude that the specter of non-linearity effectively prevents us from making any useful predictions about the future of the planet's ecosystem. Which is curious, because others, more familiar with the idea, make exactly the opposite case. Here's mathematical physicist Jacob Foster on nonlinearity:

Many skeptics are essentially betting that unknown feedback mechanisms are negative, and will miraculously conspire to drive our perturbed climate back into equilibrium, rather than conspiring to drive it into some new equilibrium that is perhaps not so hospitable to our current way of life. This is an incredibly irresponsible assertion. These skeptics may be ignorant of the subtleties of nonlinear systems, as in the case of many so-called 'experts' lacking advanced degrees in climatology or allied quantitative disciplines. Or perhaps their expertise is clouded by bravely wishful thinking and the support of those shortsighted corporations that still view the science of climate change as a danger rather than an opportunity.

That Peckford would chose to quote a science-fiction author who never conducted any actual research beyond his medical studies was perhaps just a misstep. But there's more where that came from. Peckford then turned to Bjorn Lomborg (who doesn't believe we can fight malaria and climate change at the same time), Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKintrick (who tried, unsuccessfully, to debunk the "hockey stick" reconstruction of millennial-scale temperatures), and Freeman Dyson (who has repeatedly demonstrated his failure to keep up with the last 30 years of climatology). He even mentions the discredited Wegman report, which is primarily a political product, not a scientific one.

It all brings to mind a review that appeared in the journal Nature of Crichton's anti-climate-science novel State of Fear

Is it just a matter of political taste whether to believe Crichton and Lomborg over, say, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? If the scientific community is to recover its standing in the world, we have to stand up to the pseudo-democratic vogue for treating everyone, regardless of expertise, as just another stakeholder. No science is infallible, but there is good science and there is bad science, and it is not just a matter of opinion which is which. A hallmark of good science must be the way it treats uncertainty. The IPCC said in 2001 that there is up to a one-in-three chance that the warming observed over the twentieth century might be "entirely natural in origin". If Crichton and Lomborg were equally frank about the chances of their basic premises turning out to be wrong, their scientific views would be a lot more credible.

On the other hand, maybe Peckford just knew that pseudoskeptical, climate-contrarian speaking points would go down well in a place that's pinning its future on a revival of the dream of offshore oil drilling. Maybe he just likes applause. So I called him.

"I read a lot," he said when I asked him how he came to doubt the prevailing consensus of the climatology community. "I made it my business to read the stuff." (And by the way, there's no such thing as a scientific consensus.)

For one thing, he said, too much climate science is based on modeling. "It's below the level of what's called theory ... to say that modeling is the last word is to do an injustice to the science."

I suspect that line was inspired recent comments from Freeman Dyson. They were put into context by Gavin Schmidt of Real Climate in an interview with Salon in response to fawning coverage afforded elsewhere to Dyson's dismissal of modeling:

That's the kind of thing somebody says when they've never met a climate modeler. We're the people who know how the sausage is made. I'm a climate modeler in one of the 20 or so groups whose work goes into the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report. We spend our all our time working out how we can make these things better. We can see the uncertainties and compromises one has to make in order to build a model. We're traveling the world to find interesting pieces of data, we're traveling back in time, as it were, back to the last ice age, to find samples to help us see if the models are any good. The idea that climate modelers go around saying, "Our ideas are perfect," is just nonsense.

Peckford also mentioned the alleged problems with the "hockey stick" (even though they've been confirmed independently, a dozen times), brought up the fiction that climatologists were enthralled with global cooling back in the 1970s (they weren't) and the absence of an increase in global average temperatures for the last six years (as if short-term variation is relevant). There's no way we should be making a serious irrevocable decisions based on the assumption that the world is warming, he added.

"But what if the climatologists are right?" I asked. The problem, he responded, is that the science isn't certain yet. We have to wait until it is.

Right.

So much for my applause-hog hypothesis. Then a friend of mine reminded me of the Sprung cucumber fiasco, in which Premier Peckford tried to rescue his province from economic doom by growing giant hydroponic cukes using the latest horticultural technology. When that failed, he turned to the petroleum industry, with which his province now enjoys considerable success.

Now it all makes sense. Once bitten by science, twice shy. And why make enemies with the fossil-fuel industry when it's been so good to you? It's quite understandable, really.

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"Is it just a matter of political taste whether to believe Crichton and Lomborg over, say, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)"

and of course the IPCC is composed of about 6500 people of whom 90% are not scientists of any stripe, let alone climate experts.

And the Hockey Stick has been debunked - nice little piece of Warmonger fraud.

Notice it is not being used by you much beloved IPCC anymore.

Really? Who says? Not the IPCC: http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/docs/WG1AR4_SPM_Approved_05Feb.pdf -- JH

By Fred . . . (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

Fred:"and of course the IPCC is composed of about 6500 people of whom 90% are not scientists of any stripe, let alone climate experts."

Do you know where the IPCC gets its information? How many scientists are involved in the preparation and publication of the peer reviewed papers that are the source of information?

By GaryB, FCD (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

Hey James, what the heck are you doing in North Carolina? Where did you see Peckford's speech by the way? He did have a couple of other things to say at the Inuvik Petroleum Show that I thought were very useful.

By Anne Crossman (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink