The wait-and-see approach to climate change

RickA graciously responded to my calling him a denier:

I would like to avoid the term denier however.

It should be reserved for people who do not believe that the Earth has warmed since 1900 – which does not describe me.

I actually agree that the Earth has warmed since 1900 and even agree that it will warm an additional 1.3 degrees C by 2100 – assuming the current temperature trend continues.

So I do not think I am a denialist.

I merely question the additional feedback driven warming.

Unlike you, I do not agree with “experts” simply because they are experts.

The appeal to authority is a commonly used argument technique – but just moves the argument to a higher plane – namely argument among the experts.

The problem is that in advocating change – the experts are now trying to convince the public to spend trillions of dollars changing our energy production over to a carbon free form – and some of their arguments devolve to “trust me – I am an expert”.

Because of the amount of money and potential harm to others (caused by more expensive energy, food, fuel, taxes, etc.) I would like to wait for 25 to 30 years to gather better, more accurate, widespread data.

The world has now begun the process of rebuilding the temperature data from source records – with an open process so every adjustment to the data can be viewed, understood and critized.

This is a good thing – and will give us a lot more confidence in the data, which has been tweaked in a number of ways which are questionable.

With better data going back to 1900 and better data gathered in the future – we will be in a much better postiion in 25 or 30 years to answer the question of how much warming we will experience by 2100.

In addition to insisting that he is not a denier, Rick raises two issues with respect to expertise.  First, he doubts scientists’ judgments on the effects of additional feedback-driven warming.  Second, he disagrees with their proposed solution (change energy production) because of potential costs and disruptions.   These two doubts taken together lead Rick to argue for a wait-and-see approach.  That is, let’s collect better data for the next few decades and then decide what actions to take.

As far the word denier goes, I define it to be someone who doesn’t believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are largely responsible for the post-industrial revolution temperature rise.   In that sense, I’m still not sure of Rick’s position.  It’s possible to agree with the warming while denying human agency.

It’s important to note that Rick’s beef with the experts is qualitatively different on the two issues he raised.  In the first, Rick questions what is (or should be) a purely scientific question.  Given our understanding of the basic physical mechanisms, what will the amplifying feedback be?  As I’ve said before, I don’t think I’m qualified to answer.  People like James Hansen and Steve Schneider should be answering this.  I’ll simply accept Rick’s skepticism on the matter.

In the second case, determining that we should change our energy supply necessarily involves value judgments.  Someone decided that it’s worth spending money today to prevent warming tomorrow.  This calculation inevitably assumes a certain relative and subjective worth for present and future lives, mathematically expressed in terms of the social discount rate.  The overtly normative dimensions of this analysis makes it easier for me to understand Rick’s opposition when it’s presented as objective and obvious.

I believe this raises an important point.  Is it possible to accept the basic thesis of ACC while still denying that any action is needed?  Why isn’t wait-and-see more widely discussed?  Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society does offer it as one of four basic approaches to ACC, but I haven’t heard of it anywhere else.

I can’t help but wonder if ACC denialism has increased precisely because wait-and-see isn’t viewed as a legitimate perspective.  Those instinctively opposed to regulation and taxation, e.g., then have no choice but to reject the basic science.  Perhaps including wait-and-see at least would offer them a way out without forcing them to distort the next IPCC report.

This approach almost certainly will not end debate.  We will still have to contend with those who do not want to risk broad changes.  Cap-and-trade is politically difficult for the same reasons all major legislation is difficult:  it runs against deeply vested interests.  No amount of science can fix that problem and those who think otherwise are denying the evidence.

*I’ll also point out that these same experts identify benefits to decarbonization, which Rick doesn’t account for.


  1. Praj:

    I believe that the post-industrial revolution temperature rise is partly natural and partly caused by humans. I am not qualified to say exactly what the proportions are.

    Because the temperatures started rebounding after the little ice age, but before CO2 levels went up, I see some part of the temperature increase as naturally occuring.

    You also ask – Is it possible to accept the basic thesis of ACC while still denying that any action is needed?

    My response is that it depends on how much the temperature will rise (which is the great unknown).

    Although there is some question about the temperature records – which are being reconstructed presently – it appears that the average global temperature has risen about 1.5 F or about .8 C, since around 1900.

    Has this .8 C temperature rise caused problems over the last century?

    Not to my knowledge.

    Mostly, I read about the future problems caused by a more than 2 degree C rise, which some anticipate – but not so much about the problems due to the temperature increase we have experienced in the past.

    Again – if global average temperature increase is going up 1.3 degrees C by 2100 (which is the linear trend from 1978 to present – projected to 2100) will this further increase cause massive problems or will we even notice it.

    It seems that since quite a few people want to hold the increase to 2 degrees C – that anything under that is considered acceptable and will not cause massive problems.

    Of course, I don’t know whether that is the case or not – but based on what I read – I don’t know that 1.3 degrees C is going to be a big problem.

    Now if the temperature is going to go up by 6.5 degrees C by 2100 – that would be different.

    So that is why I say the answer to your question is – it depends.

    Here is where we have to rely on science to tell us what will probably happen.

    This is where I feel we have a great deal of uncertainty – in exactly how much the temperature will further increase by 2100.

    To me – climate science is a very new field.

    Up until 1975 or so – we thought another ice age was coming (which is true over the longer time scale – because we are right about at the middle of an interglacial).

    We have noticed this uptick in temperatures over the last 30 years or so – but there is reason to believe that temperatures cycle over a 60 year period – caused by ocean currents.

    I would feel more confident about our data if we obtain accurate temperature data over the next 30 years (potentially a cooling cycle) – clean up our past temperature data – and then see where we are.

    After all, look how much we have learned over the last 30 years – is there reason to believe we will not learn just as much over the next 30?

    So I do think there is a case for wait and see.

    Some will say we cannot wait 30 years – because if we don’t act now – it will be to late.

    However, I think that is panic talking – not rational thought.

  2. Praj:

    Here is a question for you.

    It seems that based on the last three interglacials, that the peak Antarctic interglacial temperature was at least 6 degrees C above the present day temperature.

    I am basing this off this letter to Nature:

    Nature 462, 342-345 (19 November 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08564; Received 9 October 2008; Accepted 5 October 2009
    Evidence for warmer interglacials in East Antarctic ice cores – which indicates: “that the available evidence is consistent with a peak Antarctic interglacial temperature that was at least 6 K higher than that of the present day — approximately double the widely quoted 3 +- 1.5 K.”

    We are currently in an interglacial.

    What if it is normal to warm up to 6 degrees C above our present temperature during an interglacial?

    Might we be fighting a losing battle to slow down the temperature increase?

    If that was the case – what a waste of money.

    Why should this interglacial be different than the last 3?

    What are your thoughts on this?

  3. RickA I am no more impressed by your position than I was when you presented it in the comments thread on this post on Cruel Mistress.

    To me, you accept the scientific results grudgingly and to the minimum degree necessary. This approach masquerades as skepticism, but is too biased to deserve that name. On that thread you said (I presume it was the same RickA)

    “So, some part of the CO2 increase is caused by the temperature rise and some part is caused by manmade emissions. What the relative proportions are I have no idea.”

    Well, a whole bunch of scientists do have an idea, quite a good idea, actually, and if you are not competent to criticise their arguments, surely a rational position would be to accept that they may well be right. The fact that the rise in greenhouse gases over the last century or two is unprecedented over the last several hundred thousand years has to make you suspect an anthropogenic cause, and, in the case of CO2, this suspicion has been confirmed by several lines of evidence and called into question by none.

    As I said in that other thread, we have very good reasons to believe we are subjecting the climate system to an unprecedented forcing. Why do you propose as a rational default position that this *might* be having an effect (but how much we really don’t know, etc)?

    As for the “wait and see” strategy on continued greenhouse gas emissions, this might make sense if the time scales of greenhouse gas accumulation were not so long and the effects so slow to manifest themselves. On the other hand. “wait and see” on the *costs* of mitigation might make more sense.

    Now you make a rather alarmist suggestion “We are currently in an interglacial. What if it is normal to warm up to 6 degrees C above our present temperature during an interglacial? Might we be fighting a losing battle to slow down the temperature increase? If that was the case – what a waste of money.” Maybe. I am no palaeoclimatologist, but I suspect we are already past the point in this interglacial where that is a possibility. However it is an interesting question. Why don’t you do some reading about it and get back to us? In the meantime, I continue to believe that if the climate system really is as capricious as some believe (including you, apparently) perhaps we shouldn’t be poking it quite so hard.

    Why should this interglacial be different than the last 3?

  4. That last sentence in my comment “Why should this interglacial be different…” was pasted in by mistake from RickA’s comment.

  5. Mark:

    I don’t mean to be alarmist.

    I am just trying to understand why so many are so certain that the current warming is caused by CO2.

    I admit that it is possible that the current warming is caused by humans.

    However, I look around and see that past warming, greater than the present warming, was not caused by humans – and I ask myself if it is possible that our current warming is natural.

    I understand and accept the physics of CO2 as a greenhouse gas – but that doesn’t mean that all .6 or so degrees C of the current warming are caused by CO2.

    Some amount of it is due to humans and CO2 – and some amount is due to natural processes.

    Just because of a correlation between increased CO2 and increased temperature, doesn’t mean scientifically that the CO2 caused the increased temperature.

    I just don’t think we can be so certain.

    Now – if there was a way not to poke the system so hard that was cost effective and didn’t cause more harm than good – I would be all for it.

    I personally suspect that our efforts will raise the price of energy, fuel, food, taxes and produce no measurable result.

    But that is just a personal opinion.

  6. I do intend to reply to your comment, RickA, but it will take a while.

    I think part of the issue here is a disconnect between most climate scientists, on the one hand, and 98% of the public, on the other, about the case for why AGW is a concern. I will explain further when I get around to it, but perhaps in the meantime you would like to look at this short blog post by Michael Tobis

    and this comment by ClimateSight

    which I quote:

    “It’s all a question of whether scientists 1) knew that our emissions would eventually cause warming, and then watched it happen; or 2) saw that it was warming, realized that it correlated with our emissions, and accepted it as causation.

    The scientific community knows it is 1. But most of the public thinks it is 2.”

    You appear to think it is 2.

  7. Mark:

    I see that it is warming, see that the warming correlates with our emissions – but do not yet accept that as causation. It is possible that both warming and emissions increase together – but the warming is caused by something else (in part or in whole).

    Otherwise, each prior interglacial (warming) could only be caused by emissions – which is not correct.

    I think it is more complicated than that – and we do not yet understand the climate enough to say with absolute certainty why we have warmed suddenly since 1975.

    It just doesn’t seem that the 35 years of warming we have experienced is all that unusual – so I want to await further data before concluding that the recent warming is human caused and not naturally occuring.

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