Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 10: Environmental Issues are Rarely Definitive

This is one of the principles that that describe my pragmatic environmentalist beliefs.

Principle 1 states that almost all environmental issues have two legitimate sides. Because that is a given that means that two people can look at the same data and come up with opposite conclusions. This corollary principle asserts that as a result there are two legitimate arguments based on how each side interprets data. As a result environmental issues are not usually definitive.

For an example of this failure, consider “How to use critical thinking to spot false climate” claims by Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, Director of the UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland. The author states:

Despite scientists’ best efforts at communicating with the public, not everyone knows enough about the underlying science to make a call one way or the other. Not only is climate science very complex, but it has also been targeted by deliberate obfuscation campaigns.

His post describes a paper that describes a “critical thinking approach to climate change denial”.

He describes six steps to evaluate contrarian climate claims and the post provides an example how it can address the following example:

    • Premise one: The climate has changed in the past through natural processes
    • Premise two: The climate is currently changing
    • Premise three: If something was the cause of an event in the past, it must be the cause of the event now
    • Conclusion: The climate is currently changing through natural processes.

In order to prove that this is incorrect he states that “Current climate change is much more rapid than previous climate change” and concludes that they are not the same phenomenon so the argument that climate is changing due to natural processes is wrong.

This argument fails to note that the historical data record for climate rate change is very limited and ambiguous at best. Ideally in order to evaluate climate change you would want to measure a parameter using the same instruments with the same techniques at a location that has had no nearby changes over as long a period of time as possible. Clearly this limits your available data quite a bit so you have to make compromises to get a long period of record. In order to get really long climate change records you eventually have to substitute instrumentals records with proxies. Even if you can find a proxy that has the same accuracy the problem for rate of change estimates is that the observational time scale differs. For example, if you are using coral growth rates, the temperature signal is measured over years whereas thermometers measure over days. As a result, comparison of different rate of change trends are difficult and may not be appropriate due to the classic apples to oranges comparison issue.

The premise in this paper to prove the contrarian argument wrong is that current climate change is much more rapid than previous climate change. The failure to acknowledge that any data used to estimate the rate of climate change is ambiguous weakens that premise considerably.   Pragmatic environmentalism is all about science based decision making that acknowledges both sides of arguments.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and ( reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative ( Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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