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devil duck

Politics and science

So NPR just interviewed Ted Cruz about climate change. Cruz's statements boil down to

1) The last 18 years of satellite weather data show no significant global temperature change at all, and more generally, there's no good scientific evidence that global warming is happening.

2) The whole "global warming" thing (like the "global cooling" thing of 35 years ago) is the result of liberal politicians who have already decided on big-government policies and have faked or cherry-picked the scientific data in order to support the policies they want to enact anyway.

3) People criticizing "climate-change deniers" are making a religious argument, not a scientific argument. They're calling us heretics rather than addressing the substance of our arguments.

4) Cruz and others in his political camp take their position in order to protect "the waitress working tables, whose wages have stagnated through seven years of the Obama economy, who's finding it harder and harder to make ends meet" from liberal policies that would slow the economy.

5) If alternative energy sources are developed to economic viability, they won't be developed in Washington, DC driven by political concerns, they won't be developed by Solyndra [dog-whistle!]; they'll be developed by the private sector in response to what actually works.

Item #1 is specific and more-or-less verifiable. I looked on NASA's climate-change web site (which is unambiguously on the "yes it's happening, it's human-caused, and we need to do something about it" side). The most-relevant thing I've found in a few minutes of searching is here: I'm not sure whether this graph is based solely on satellite data, or whether it merges data from several different sources. Anyway, if you look at the last 18 years, as Cruz says, it shows a lot of up-and-down stuff, with perhaps an upward trend, but not anything clear-cut. But why does Cruz say 18 years so specifically? Because 1997 showed a major temperature spike, by far the warmest year up until that time. If you look at the last 17 years, or the last 19 years, you DO see an upward trend. If you look at the last 40 years, you see a very consistent upward trend. If you look at the last 75 years, you see somewhat less upward trend, but still pretty clear. If you look at the last 106 years (to cherry-pick from a cold trough, as Cruz cherry-picks from a warm peak), you see a strong upward trend; if you look at the last 135 years, somewhat less but still upward. In other words, Cruz has very carefully cherry-picked the data to support his desired conclusion; almost any other way you look at the data does not support his desired conclusion.

#2 I think all sides can agree that politicians are quite capable of cherry-picking scientific data to support the policies they've already decided they want to enact, as witness Cruz above. That is, after all, a criticism commonly leveled at Cruz and other anti-AGW Republicans, and there's no reason to assume it happens on only one side. So let's remove politicians (particularly U.S. politicians) from the mix entirely and listen to the rest of the voices talking about AGW. The ones saying it isn't happening are mostly U.S. industry leaders, and the ones saying it is happening are mostly scientists, both U.S. and around the rest of the world. I'm inclined to believe the scientists over industrialists who have an obvious vested interest in one set of policies.

As for "global cooling", my recollection from 35 years ago is that it was about the effects of nuclear war, not the effects of the everyday economy, and that the "liberal policies" to avoid it weren't government intervention in the economy but rather attempts to avoid nuclear war. But let's work with Cruz's story that 35 years ago a lot of scientists and left-leaning politicians believed the economic status quo was causing global cooling and we needed big-government economic policies to prevent it. Would that invalidate current concerns about global warming? Not necessarily, because a good scientist changes conclusions when the data change, and the data really did change: global temperatures were fairly stable from 1935-1975, and rose steadily at least from 1975-2000. Does reaching "big-government policies" as a solution in both cases suggest that the scientific data were skewed to support that prejudged solution? Possibly, but there's a reasonable argument that local threats should be addressed locally, while national or global threats should be addressed at a national or global level, whether that threat be warming, cooling, pollution, economic depression, medical epidemic, asteroid strike, etc.

#3: OK, let's not call anyone a heretic. And perhaps "denier" is synonymous with "heretic" in some people's minds. What would be a good word for someone (left or right) who (like Cruz) ignores or cherry-picks scientific data to support a pre-judged set of policies?

#4: The waitress's wages have been stagnant for a lot longer than seven years. Inflation-adjusted median wages have been basically flat since 2000, and have grown only slightly since 1980. But the waitress is probably below median, earning minimum wage or a little above, and I think the minimum wage is substantially lower (after inflation) than it was in 1980. Anyway, it's not at all obvious that policies to fight global warming will slow down the economy or make life harder for ordinary wage-earners; as the NPR interviewer pointed out, they're policies to make the economy more efficient and save people money. And some of those policies would actively create jobs. (But I guess they're not "real" jobs, because they're inspired by government policies rather than the market, and their employees wouldn't be cashing "real" paychecks.)

#5: I agree that most of the innovation in the economy is outside the government sector, inspired by what works in the marketplace. But government (big or small) unavoidably sets the ground rules for the marketplace. A hundred years or more of government subsidies to the oil industry, the automobile industry, and the road-and-pipeline infrastructure on which they depend has given us the oil-and-car-dependent economy we have today; what's wrong with consciously changing the ground rules to encourage a cleaner and more sustainable economy instead?