Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Climate Change and Apocalypticism

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I’ve never really considered myself an environmentalist. I don’t live a particularly “green” life, though I recycle, don’t litter, and don’t leave lights on or other electronic devices running. But I increasingly find opposition to climate science (I don’t think they are skeptics as much as scoffers) infuriating.

I don’t even know quite what is motivating this post at the moment. But I have a family member with a science based Ph.D. who consistently raises his opposition to the findings of climate scientists every time he sees me. He argues that he’s “read the science” and that his work has always been about modeling and that the models they use cannot hope to capture the complexity of the phenomenon of climate change and that ultimately belief in anthropogenic climate change is nothing more than belief, even religious belief. This last point resonates with those who often compare the dire predictions of climate scientists and environmental activists to the apocalyptic speculation that has occurred so frequently across western history.

Now, apocalyptic speculation is something I actually know about. I can take you through Joachim of Fiore’s tripartite division of history and the ensuing distinctions between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalisms. I’ve read Carion’s Chronicle and the Testament of Elias, which blended Jewish and Christian eschatologies in the 16th century and can hold forth on the role of the Fifth Monarchy men and Menassah Ben Israel’s The Hope of Israel in 17th century English politics. I can explain the kabbalistic underpinnings and talmudic calculations of Nathan of Gaza and Shabbtai Tzvi, and then the subsequent anti-nomian movement of Jakob Frank. And I can testify that climate science has nothing to do with these imaginative extrapolations of prophetic texts into particular historical contexts.

Climate science isn’t about applying authoritative religious texts to historical contexts in apocalyptic, i.e. revelatory ways. It’s based on the best interpretations of observable phenomena and employs the scientific method. Sure, predictive modeling is not as precise an application of the scientific method as the diagnosis of cause. It entails more inference. And if the scientific method never claims to be beyond the possibility of error, predictive modeling is an application with even more potential to get it wrong until it self-corrects. And yet, if 97% of cardiologists agreed that I needed a surgical procedure or my cardio-vascular system would blow itself out within a short time, and that this situation was already one they would classify as an emergency, would I hesitate? Would you? It wouldn’t mean that they were correct beyond any doubt or that the procedure would succeed. It would mean that they were far more likely to be correct than not and that the procedure would be far more likely to engender health than impair it. Would any of us dismiss them as a self-interested and/or self-deluding community of mystics?

I accept that global climate history is an exponentially more complex system even than the body’s cardio-vascular system. And I don’t think any form of science should be accepted uncritically or without true skepticism. For the scientific method requires a healthy skepticism as constitutive of the mechanism of its process. I don’t suggest anyone accept authority blindly. But if 97% of cardiologists told me I needed that procedure immediately, would it be wise to say “hold on, I’m going to med school and then do a cardiology fellowship and read all the journals and analyze the methodologies of every article on the subject and then get back to you”? Science entails humility, the humility to admit that we may be wrong on this or that point and that we are certainly going to be wrong on some points. It entails respect for the scientific community, even as we acknowledge its fallibility. Healthy skepticism among lay folk within a democracy means not accepting the findings of a particular researcher, no matter their reputation, on its own. It means listening to more voices within a community of authorities.

So let’s go back. And let’s get a bit more dramatic. If 40% of cardiologists were to tell me that my son’s heart murmur was dangerous and required an invasive procedure, I would certainly be concerned, to hazard an understatement. And I would have to consider the minority opinion as significant. I might not have the procedure done. But I certainly would begin to consider it. If 51% were to tell me that, I’d consider it seriously, even knowing that almost half the community of authorities, of trained experts, believes otherwise. If 60%, I’d have trouble gambling on the 40% being right, even as I’d acknowledge the healthy possibility. At what point would I sign the consent form without hesitation? 65%? 70%? 75%? Would anyone in this situation really require 97% before consenting, even if consent entailed hazard and even if the procedure required significant sacrifice?


  1. Strummerson

    And apologies to all the old-timers and admins who remember me.  But I needed a choir to preach to and this is always my preferred one.

  2. princesspat

    Your analogy re global climate history and the cardio-vascular system is very good. I tend to get short tempered in conversations with “skeptics” ….a personal connection is always more productive.

    Ideology has overcome rational thought for too many people.  

  3. bfitzinAR

    Most of the people I talk to about climate change/global warming tend to have already noticed whatever I using as my “evidence” – usually it’s the fact, hard, in-your-face fact, that 30 years ago we put our tomatoes out on June 1st.  Now we put them out mid-April.

    But the absolute hypocrisy of the RWNJs who are willing to bomb Iran on the off chance that they might be building bombs instead of power plants but refuse to act on the much more serious climate change until they have the proof of it happening is just evil.  I can’t think of a more accurate term than evil when you consider the number of people who will die because they have blocked any action to respond to it.

  4. Portlaw

    The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the disintegration, two groups of scientists reported Monday.

    The finding, which had been feared by some scientists for decades, means that a rise in global sea level of at least 10 feet may now be inevitable. The rise may continue to be relatively slow for at least the next century or so, the scientists said, but sometime after that it will probably speed up so sharply as to become a crisis.

    “This is really happening,” said Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”

  5. Shaun Appleby

    Now, apocalyptic speculation is something I actually know about.

    An increasingly valuable skill given where we are headed; you might be invited to sit in on the Sunday morning shows in future. Host: So, Dr Strummerson, given your lifelong eschatological erudition, what chance have we got now?

    Welcome back, Doc.

  6. bubbanomics

    well, i can’t resist jumping in with my two pence.

    I tell my young math and science students that physics is for wimps.  biology is way harder, and the social sciences harder still.  No newton’s laws, no simple constitutive relationships, no well worked out quantitative theories. Planetary motion is simple compared to that of a hummingbird or even a flagellum.  The unit of analysis in “small” physics is the atom.  A yeast cell is way more complex. More complex still is a society of interconnected decision makers buying, selling, and voting.

    Modeling complex systems is hard.  Making predictions harder still. Fitting the parameters of the very basic physics (gravitational constant, mass of an electron, etc) for the high res prediction models contained therein gives way to coarser grained phenomenological models that have to aggregate many small effects into “statistical averages” and “moments.”  Inference, however, can still be conducted.  Trends can be detected.  And, as Sherlock Holmes pointed out,

    Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.

    It’s absurd to think that the same level of fidelity that arises in problems suited to reductionist approaches of science (approaches that have been very fruitfully applied) can be had in problems with too many interconnected and multi-scaled components.  On the other hand, that is not permission to give up, nor is it an argument that scientific inquiry is invalid.

  7. … are going to kill those of us who feel something compelling about the 97% number.

    And those climate change deniers have a political party that holds control of Congress and a lot of billionaires who have a vested interest in doing exactly nothing about this serious problem.

    As Bubba said, here is the complexity we have to deal with:

    … a society of interconnected decision makers buying, selling, and voting.

    You can’t fix it on your own by turning off a few lights. Even if a million of us turned off our lights, it would not be enough. We need to vote people into office who have a willingness to address the issue and to stop the sellers from selling us the cheap energy we are addicted to buying.

    Sadly, we have known about effects of carbon emissions on our planet since the 1970s and we have gotten very good at ignoring it.

    Excellent piece, Strummerson.  

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