Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Climate and Secular Change

By Gary Berg-Cross

Some important topics like secular humanism and climate change are hard to get accepted by people for one reason of another. Secular humanism has its principles, goals and core ideas laid out in the various Humanist Manifestoes.  But to many it explanations and approach aren’t satisfactory.   Part of the reason is that is an inconvenient threat to biblical and older views of the world and a God who intervenes in natural phenomena and is indispensable for salivation.

Coming to grips with climate change is another one of those difficult topics where complex, scientific evidence and reasoning comes in conflict with simpler and perhaps emotionally satisfying non-scientific beliefs. People’s immediate experience is with weather and local weather at that.  This easy understanding gets confused with climate as it in entangled with common sense and verbal habits (always a factor in discussing atheism and concepts of God too).  So people say you “can’t change the weather” (or predict it well going past 10 days) and these seem to be powerful arguments against knowing about climate change with a needed degree of certainty.  If fact they are not good arguments at all. One may predict a green house will be warmer than its surroundings even on a cold day.

You can see and example of how particular issues, often statistical in nature, get resolved  such as how much warming is going on in Antartica  see- On Edge-Pushing Statistics and Climate Basics. Statisticians like Noel Cressie have directly investigated  "Uncertainty
Quantification for Regional Climate Projections in North America" by studying the various model projecting temperature change that is projected for North America 30 years in the future (2041-2070). Regional Climate Models (RCMs) projections are run up to 60 years into the future for "small", 50 km x 50 km regions in North America.

The results including degrees of uncertainty are analyzed statistically for all regions and all four Boreal seasons. The preponderance of results throughout all of North America, as shown in the pinkish figures below is one of warming, usually more than 2°C (3.6°F). As Cressie asked, "is this hot enough for you."


 OK so there is converging and ever increasing evidence and a scientific consensus on climate change exists.  What about regular citizen's beliefs?  It's a function in part of macro weather. Following a winter of record snowfall in 2010, the public’s acceptance of climate change fell to a low of 52 percent, according to the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (as published by the Brookings Institution). After 2011's mild winter, support jumped to 65 percent.  Still fewer think it human caused. 2012 polling conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that a greater number of people in the U.S. are accepting the reality of climate change. 67 percent of Americans said that there is now  "solid evidence" that average global temperatures have been rising in recent decades. That's a gain of 4points over 2010 and 10 points since 2009. Yet only 42 percent say this warming is "mostly caused by human activity," according to Pew.You know, the climate always changes.. Maybe we'll have an ice age...

Recently some scientific efforts have been directed at such phenomena and understanding why belief in climate change has decreased rather than risen as more evidence has been generated. It turns out there are a variety of complex psychological, and cultural reasons for this as well as scientific.

One obvious factor is complexity of space, time and factors. There are lots of facts to consider and models to integrate since almost every aspect of our planet influences the climate –

ocean circulation,

weather patterns,

plate tectonics (over long time) and ,

atmospheric dynamics are just a start.

A change in one of these affects climate and progress has being made in modeling each although the interaction of factors with each other and the climate is still a challenge.  But like the weather everyone has something to say on the matter even if the complexity is ignored in most opinions by laymen. Psychologically we like simple answers and simplifying problems down to familiar terms.  Still understanding is possible to the literate and astute who have the time to study it.

But there is a problem with space and time. The impacts are somewhat off in the future or impacting far away space like the artic now (Super Storm Sandy being an exception which did get our attention.) . But  these demand action and costly action now. So there is a mis-match and what is being asked (see recent blog on protests) for now is some sacrifice for some hypothetical gain. What is being asked for is deferred gratification. It’s not like cleaning up a park or a polluted river. There we can often easily track responsibility for a problem and results can be quickly seen and rewards such as return of fish in river a known reward. 

Handling climate change is new and the expected rewards far off and maybe beyond our lifetime.  No matter how much we slow the growth of emissions, we may not see the benefits in the short-term. Thus, climate change activists are asking fellow citizens to sacrifice something concrete (say my investment and retirement portfolio) now for potential benefits that may not be evident for many years to come.

In its own way this is a bit like what secularists are asking of religious people – sacrificing some comforting habits now to avoid down sides over time. We need to have the maturity to understand the dangers of climate change and the wisdom for that may translate as a useful skill for the advancement of humanist and secular thinking too.
The Psychology of Climate Change:

Noel Cressie ergional models of climate change:

Sacrificing investments:

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