Blogs > Liberty and Power > Global Warming and the Local Weather

Mar 10, 2008 10:47 am

Global Warming and the Local Weather

In threerecentposts, I offered some thoughts about the parallels among environmentalism, religion, and authoritarianism. I want to continue that line of discussion for a moment with a weather report. It's been a very snowy winter here in Canton, over 100 inches actually, which is 50% above our average of about 66. Ottawa to our north has had over 400cm, or 157 inches. We are both nearing our snowiest winters ever. It has been cold, though none of those -30F nights that we usually have a couple of each winter. Still, it's been a "real" winter like we haven't seen for years up here. Thus it's tempting to make all kinds of snarky remarks about global warming. But I'm not going to do that because I'm always quick to criticize people who use every heat wave or warm summer to make claims about a phenomenon whose reality is a matter of decades or centuries, not weeks or years. However, this winter does raise another point that I will get to below.

First, I'll admit that I'm a global warming agnostic. I'm pretty convinced that the planet has become warmer in the last couple of decades (although recent controversies about measuring equipment and whether the warming is more localized keep me skeptical). I'm less convinced that the cause of the warming is human activity. I can't dismiss the possibility, but I'm not as convinced as fellow libertarian Ron Bailey. Here too, recent arguments about solar activity keep me skeptical. Finally, even if global warming is real and human-caused, that says nothing about whether it's: a) something we can do anything about; b) if so, what we should do about it; and c) whether any proposed solutions create more costs to humanity than benefits. It's a long way from a warming world to getting rid of the internal combustion engine. Whatever the reality of the science, the policy solutions will also require some social scientific thinking.

What is troubling me today though, and here's the connection with religion, is the change in the rhetoric by those who believe global warming is real, human-caused, and that it requires a major change in the way we live. For fun, start a discussion with such a person about the current snowy, cold winter and do make the joke about how it is evidence against global warming. My bet is that their reaction will be something like this: "Oh no, it's evidence in favor. You see it's not about 'warming' per se; it's about 'global climate change.' Thus the fact that some areas are having cold, snowy winters is something that 'global warming' would predict, just as it predicts more and stronger hurricanes and all other kind of things. We should expect a more varied climate."

One smaller observation about this line of argument is that it seems to fit the more general "fear of change" that we see among many on the left and right about all other kinds of issues, mostly economic. The earth's climate has "changed" for billions of years, long before humans walked it. Why would we expect it to stop changing because we're here (and as if "we" as human animals aren't part of the earth's ecology anyway)? And how much hubris does it take for us to think we can stop such change? George Carlin got this right years ago.

We've also seen the human costs of a similar hubris in 20th century "socialism." Why would we expect this to be any different?

But that's not the big problem here. The big problem with the "climate change" hypothesis is a very simple issue of the philosophy of science: is the hypothesis of global climate change/warming falsifiable? A much better question to ask your environmentalist friends is this one:

"What climatological or meteorological evidence would convince you that your belief in global warming is wrong?" (Of course they have the same right to ask this of skeptics - what evidence would convince you that the world is, in fact, warming?)

I've tried this and the reaction varies from indignation at having to answer it, to lots of hemming and hawing about possible answers, to serious and thoughtful replies. The point, however, is that those who assert the truth of the hypothesis of global warming have a scientific obligation to have a legitimate answer to that question. If they do not, or if they reject the idea that they must, they are ruling themselves out of the science business and into the religion business. Global warming becomes the equivalent of "it was God's will." The hypothesis that event X was "God's will" is unfalsifiable and is thus purely a matter of faith. Of course, in our best Seinfeldian voice, we might say "not that there's anything wrong with that." Indeed, faith and religious belief are fine, but they aren't science. (Note to my philosophically-inclined readers: I'm not advocating a full-bore Popperian philosophy of science here. I do, however, believe that falsifiability is a necessary condition for a statement to be considered a scientific hypothesis.)

If those who believe that the earth is warming and that humans are the cause want the claim to Science rather than Faith, they had best be prepared to show that their hypothesis (and, like everything else in science, it remains a hypothesis subject to being rejected) is falsifiable and what the evidence would be that would falsify it. When an increased frequency of cold and snowy winters is claimed to be evidence in favor of the hypothesis of global warming, the set of observations that could falsify it seems to shrink dramatically. And my agnosticism and skepticism expand accordingly.

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More Comments:

Keith Halderman - 3/16/2008

You have no sense of humor.

Gus diZerega - 3/14/2008

Your reference to The Day After as 'evidence' you have studied the issue settles any lingering doubts that we have no point in continuing the discussion.

Danny Shahar - 3/13/2008

Thanks! Feel free to check out the rest of my work on climate change here:

Gus diZerega - 3/12/2008

Seems like a really excellent article. I've saved it. I think it is very clear and fair.



Keith Halderman - 3/11/2008

I think the reason you do not want to engage me is because your blind faith cannot counter a simple statement of fact, your long term trend simply is not very long. As for your time you do not have time to engage me but you do have time to insult me. I have read quite a bit about global warming from both sides, I have seen Al Gore's movie, as well as The Day After, and in 1989 I studied it when I took a course in Physical Geography at the University South Florida before it became a widespread religious cult and rational discussion was still possible. It is just that I see it for what it is more fear mongering designed increase the power of government and the wealth of a few.

Danny Shahar - 3/11/2008


I enjoyed your article, and thought you might be interested in an honest discussion of the science. Hopefully it helps:

If you're interested, I've also been working extensively on the ethical aspects of climate change; you can find everything on my blog.


Gus diZerega - 3/11/2008

Keith, If you had taken any time at all to seriously consider the global warming debate you would not make such arguments as in your reply to Steve or in this one.

Until you do take the time to understand the arguments I see no reason engaging with you. Time is valuable and I need to use it wisely.


Francois Tremblay - 3/11/2008

"No, it doesn't. One year doesn't prove or disprove anything. That's precisely my point."

Then you're wrong, because this definitely disproves the position of Global Warming. It's been falsified now.

"Next year, when things warm up, will you then say "a-ha, global warming was right?" If not, why not, given what you say above?"

Temperatures change, and there are long-term trends. We know this from tens of thousands of years of climate data. It will always get hotter and colder. But the Global Warming movement is bogus.

Keith Halderman - 3/10/2008

I do not think you can sustain the argument that warming is a long term trend. The predictions of temperature increase all talk about the end of this century 90 some years from now. However a mere 30 some year ago when carbon into the air first became a hot topic we were in a cooling period and a new ice age was the coming catastrophe. If memory serves me here this particular warming trend has only been going on since 1998.

Keith Halderman - 3/10/2008

Why doesn't one year disprove it? We are constantly adding more carbon into the atmosphere, therefore if that is the cause of the warming it should be getting warmer each year.

Gus diZerega - 3/10/2008

Were you part of the usual crowd on this issue I wouldn’t be taking the time to respond. But I respect your judgment immensely, and so want to offer a counter view from what is arguably the greenest contributor to this list and one for whom nature IS in fact a part of his spiritual perspective.

Me in other words.

First, I have never heard any person concerned with global warming use the argument you make about “global climate change.” What some do suggest is that as a climate gets disrupted variability begins until a new stable point is reached,. This is not on its face absurd, but is not proven.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any who make your argument - only that they aren't an important part of the conversation. There are foolish arguments on all sides of every issue.

Ironically, the skeptics have used this kind of argument frequently but I’ve never encountered it in a serious environmental discussion.

Climate is always varying. To discuss a global phenomena you need to look at global data and long term trends. I cannot think of a rational rebuttal to this argument. Can you?

Then you bring out what you think is a heavy gun:

“What climatological or meteorological evidence would convince you that your belief in global warming is wrong?"

Well, I can think of several right off the top of my head.

1. Statistical evidence that there is no long term warming trend.
2. Evidence that there are powerful offsetting factors regarding anthropogenic CO2 production, such as significant increase in CO2 sequestration by plants.

3. New evidence that anthropogenic CO2 production is not increasing.

4. Evidence that C02 is not a greenhouse gas.

5. Growing scientific consensus that some other factor is the major cause in global warming – not consensus by ideologues – by scientists who specialize in climate issues.

I do not claim this list is anywhere near exhaustive.

I agree with you, Steve, that if something is not in principle falsifiable, it is not science even though it may be true. But these 5 factors all point to the fact that the thesis is most certainly falsifiable.

By the way – it is not implausible to argue that increases in snowfall could be a result of global warming – but only in certain areas and sure as hell not in Canton. An ice-free Arctic Ocean will evaporate much more water into winter winds than a frozen one. Steve lives near a small-scale equivalent called the “lake effect” where snow is heavy until Lake Ontario freezes over, where snow then becomes light and winter drives to Syracuse a lot more enjoyable. This does not apply to Canton – it is too far east. But it does apply not far west of there.

Currently much of the Arctic is climatically desert or close to it. With global warming that might change dramatically.

Many environmentalists are no more versed in any kind of science than many libertarians are in Austrian Economics. That lack of knowledge by the rank and file is utterly irrelevant regarding the truth of either atmospheric science or Austrian Economics.

Finally – as to whether we should do anything about it and whether our worries indicate a fear of change.

1. From a hard core libertarian position anthropogenic global warming is trespass on those who are injured by it. That some might gain is ethically irrelevant unless you are a utilitarian. Some people can make this argument but I think libertarians by and large cannot without contradicting their criticism of many government programs.

2. That change is sometimes a good thing and sometimes simply a fact of life does not mean that this is true for all change in any amount.

Many studies of the anticipated impact involve serious disruption of agriculture, major problems in dry areas such as the Middle East and American Southwest, etc. In a world where there is not a big cushion between food production and consumption this is unwise to say the least.

3. Very high gas prices benefit societies that are deeply anti-freedom by insulating their rulers from the economic impacts of their policies on their people – They can buy their populations off with oil profits. Examples: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Libya – need I say more? The lower the prices the better the resulting impact for the average member of those societies – and that can only happen by reducing demand.

4. If global warming is or partially human caused, the more CO2 pumped out the stronger the effect. Intelligence and prudence suggest stopping is a good idea. Even if a complete stop is impossible raising the costs of producing this pollutant (from libertarian principles) is a wise idea to encourage creative thinking about alternatives.

Steven Horwitz - 3/10/2008

No, it doesn't. One year doesn't prove or disprove anything. That's precisely my point. Next year, when things warm up, will you then say "a-ha, global warming was right?" If not, why not, given what you say above?

Francois Tremblay - 3/10/2008

Actually, world weather data for the past year has disproven global warming: