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A short essay on risk - why I find AGW deniers frustrating


Stratos Ferric

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Posted
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL

    Walking back from the bank to the car this morning, I mulled over one of my side-lines of interest; disaster theory.

    History is littered with catastrophes, many of which were, on review, avoidable. Townsend Thoresen, Hillsborough, The Bradford City fire, The Lockerbie Bombing, Chernobyl, the Mont Blanc tunnel fire, the Kings Cross disaster, 9/11 and 7/7. Similarly corporate failures: Northern Rock most recently, PanAm, Barings; and within that individual technologies; the original high speed train built by BR, the failure of the laser disc, and of the Betamax video format.

    In all of these instances it was perfectly possible, after the event, to plot a trajectory that suggested that this was a disaster waiting to happen, had anyone bothered to look. Many of my corporate clients call on me and my colleagues only when things are going wrong, fortunately, as a rule, with enough time for comfortable corrective action to be taken, though not always. Whilst sudden catastrophic failure can and still does occur (e.g. the recent BA incident at LHR, and in the natural world major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), this mode makes up but a small proportion of failure.

    I am going to be frank around why I find the AGW deniers frustrating – quite apart from the fact that the weight of evidence is now against them, but let me start with the Herald of Free Enterprise which sank in the channel 20 years ago with huge loss of life. The routine on the ferry that night was no different to how it had been for a while. The ferry left port before the bow doors were fully closed. The inner barrier was up but the outer door was still open. In the operational desire to turn around quickly, and make time, corners were cut, but they had been cut before without any particular evidence of potential hazard. This is a critical first point: the fact that something has not yet happened, doesn’t mean that it is not about to. There were a lot of people in responsible jobs on that ferry who were hoping for the best, carried along on a wave buoyed only by the fact that nothing had previously gone badly wrong.

    As regards climate change there are plenty on N-W who suggest that “we have been here before” and “nature adapts”. This is true, though not, I suspect in the way that some hope, or assume. Many man-made systems are inherently very very dangerous. I give you flying, and nuclear generation. And yet, with the exception of a few examples – the ones I give above just skim the surface of what is still, proportionately, a very rare chance of failure – they are rendered ‘apparently’ safe. Planes have double redundancy built it; Nuclear power stations (and subs) have more systems monitoring condition than you could care to imagine, and, like ‘planes, have a lot of computerisation nowadays to guard against human error or deliberate sabotage going unnoticed. That is, we have learned through our many failures (the history of ‘planes having multiple redundancy is very short in the history of all flight) to guard against catastrophe.

    The earth is not like that. We do not have an overall monitoring system. Furthermore, nature will react to forcing, but the reaction – as with all systems – is not necessarily towards a specific and permanent equilibrium. The heat and crap that we pour into the biosphere does not simply disappear down some universal plug-home, conveniently never to be seen again. Instead it becomes a part of the greater whole, and that whole, by degrees, slowly changes character.

    Does it matter. Man-made systems have expensive fail-safe modes built in ONLY when the consequence of failure might be catastrophic. That is, a critical run-away might occur leading to substantial loss of life. Thus proportionately more effort goes in to keeping a ‘plane in the sky than goes into stopping shoplifters in your local Tesco; and hospitals have special wards for individuals closer to the edge of life than those with minor ailments.

    What matters is, in sequence, whether a failure situation will have dramatic effect; then, whether the situation in any case is recoverable – is the cost of correction lower than the cost of prevention (this is a risk that many people face – though arguably don’t weigh up very well – when considering insurance); and finally, how much lead time is required from the first indication that something might fail, to the situation becoming fail critical – i.e. beyond correction.

    And this is why those who deny AGW bother me. If I’m in the kitchen, making a bacon sandwich, whilst also reading the Telegraph, and I smell burning, I may choose to wait a moment whilst I grapple with a cryptic clue. It might just be fat on the element – not the bacon singeing. No bother than the bacon burns to coal. Just put on another piece and start again.

    The earth isn’t like that. There are no more strips of bacon to get out of the pack. If we burn this one we’re done. And there is no co-ordinated condition monitoring; no hard wired red light that will flash to tell us that things are going wrong. Nature didn’t see fit to provide that (actually, she did, but we overlook the signals that she provided – the glaciers and ice, the fauna and flora, all of which chatter to us about what is happening to the planet). And there is no catastrophic failure mode: the world will not suddenly stop spinning, the sun will not suddenly go out. The march towards potential catastrophe is slow, but sure, if we choose to ignore the signals.

    Of the examples I cited at the head of the page, there is not one where the bulk of the perpetrators wanted disaster to happen (even acts of sabotage have perpetrators beyond just those who initiate carnage), yet it ensued. In many cases there were plenty of people who believed everything was alright, often because emotion overrode reason. We hope, we believe, we have faith.

    And whilst we’re hoping we’re giving ourselves reason not to check that the bacon isn’t burning and to turn the grill down; not to check the screen to see that the bow door is closed and the vessel secure; not to invest in screening that keeps our fragile systems safe.

    We cannot know for sure that AGW will scorch the earth; we cannot know for sure that this amount of CO2 or that is too much; we cannot know for sure that there is a tipping point from beyond which the situation might not be recoverable. However, what if? There is only once chance with earth because there is only one earth, and all of our history of meddling should tell us, if it tells us nothing else, that when you have one of anything you take absolutely no chances, particularly when you have very little certainly of knowing what the actual position is. Whilst people, albeit I suspect a minority, are denying the risk we are, like the Herald of Free Enterprise, sailing out to choppy waters with our bow doors open, simply because we are miscalculating the risk.

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    Posted
  • Location: Lincoln, Lincolnshire
  • Weather Preferences: Sunshine, convective precipitation, snow, thunderstorms, "episodic" months.
  • Location: Lincoln, Lincolnshire

    Excellent post IMO- well worth taking a good look at.

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    Posted
  • Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent
  • Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent

    Interesting read

    Given that man has about a 50/50 chance of surviving as a species by the year 2200 and an almost zero chance of not being extinct by 2500, just how relevant is the AGW issue?

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    Posted
  • Location: Lincoln, Lincolnshire
  • Weather Preferences: Sunshine, convective precipitation, snow, thunderstorms, "episodic" months.
  • Location: Lincoln, Lincolnshire

    Just a question there, where do those stats come from? I can't remember seeing anything like that about human species extinction.

    The other question, why the high likelihood of extinction, does AGW have anything to do with those predictions in themselves?

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    Posted
  • Location: Coalpit Heath, South Gloucestershire
  • Location: Coalpit Heath, South Gloucestershire

    Stratos, correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to be saying that so-called "deniers" are quite happy to go on plundering and polluting the Earth with no thought to the consequences of such action.

    Speaking for myself, whilst I consider that warmings and coolings are all part of a melee of natural cycles and variations, this does not go hand in hand with a disregard for our planet and it's resources. I have said many, many times that we must respect these bounties.

    I have to say that the tone of your essay is somewhat pompous and "holier than thou" and not a little offensive.

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    I am going to be frank around why I find the AGW deniers frustrating – quite apart from the fact that the weight of evidence is now against them,

    And what 'evidence' would this be then?

    I'm not talking about any of the politically funded reports, speculation, theory or just plain spin. I'm talking hard evidence that humans alone are responsible for the warming trend of the Earth and that there are no other factors what so ever that could possibly be contributing to this effect.

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    Posted
  • Location: Lincoln, Lincolnshire
  • Weather Preferences: Sunshine, convective precipitation, snow, thunderstorms, "episodic" months.
  • Location: Lincoln, Lincolnshire

    That's a straw man argument- challenging a grossly exaggerated version of Stratos's position which could be refuted in five seconds flat.

    There is a considerable amount of evidence that humans are contributing to the warming. As well as the atmospheric-greenhouse gas-CO2 feedback thing, there's deforestation in various tropical regions, changes in albedo from land use, release of methane, all sorts of pollution etc. It is undeniable that there are natural factors at work too, for instance the exceptional global warmth of 1998 was caused mainly by a strong El Nino, but the existence of natural factors doesn't disprove AGW, as it's perfectly possible for human activity to add to the 'natural' factors that assist changes in climate.

    As for "denialists", I don't think SF is trying to imply that all those who deny AGW don't care about the consequences. But there is a sizeable portion of the population who like to bury their heads in the sand and adopt a "wait and see- everything happens for a reason- what will be will be" kind of approach, assuming that everything is alright because of blind faith that it is. And, from that, concluding that we should just leave things as they are and let the status quo reign for the foreseeable future. I personally find this attitude annoying across life in general (it leads to many injustices in the world not being addressed when they could be).

    I realise the end of the last para may cause offence- few people like having preconceptions that they use as a "comfort zone" challenged, but in the AGW case, unless we can get more people to see past it, we may well be headed in an unpalatable direction.

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    Posted
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
    And what 'evidence' would this be then?

    I'm not talking about any of the politically funded reports, speculation, theory or just plain spin. I'm talking hard evidence that humans alone are responsible for the warming trend of the Earth and that there are no other factors what so ever that could possibly be contributing to this effect.

    Aaaah, but isn't that my whole point. The majority of scientists with expertise in the field, I would say, are now of the view that global warming is to some extent at least a function of man's activities. There are varying views on extent. The longer we continue to warm the stronger this argument becomnes, particularly as there is no other material forcing evident with anything like the energy required to explain the global changes.

    In seemingly arguing from a position which is "show me definitely", you are sat in that mataphorical chair, dismissing the whiff of singeing bacon. And that's why I dislike those who blatantly dismiss AGW, and who with it eschew any efforts to take potentially corrective action whilst we can.

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    Posted
  • Location: 4 miles north of Durham City
  • Location: 4 miles north of Durham City

    Good post SF.

    I am very much concerned about AGW and the degree in which we have added to the natural system, future lag times and the uncertainty of the affects. I am doubtful about the extent of negative impacts AGW will have because we just don't know the details yet but judging by the data I have come across things could get pretty damned unpleasant in areas with existing natural pressures....Bangladesh being one example.

    I like the 'better be safe than sorry' approach when it comes to this. And when the MAJORITY of those 'in the know' are arguing for AGW then its time we bleeding well did something about it. I'm doing my bit or trying to.

    What are you doing?

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    Posted
  • Location: Coalpit Heath, South Gloucestershire
  • Location: Coalpit Heath, South Gloucestershire
    I think one or two of you need to read what SF put again before reeling out the same old lines.

    Could you elaborate please, OON?

    My reading of Stratos' piece is that unless we do something to "mend our ways" we may well be heading for doom. Is that how you read it?

    Genuine question, BTW.

    PS I have just realised that I typed this whilst eating a (grilled) bacon sandwich!

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    Posted
  • Location: Doncaster 50 m asl
  • Location: Doncaster 50 m asl
    We cannot know for sure that AGW will scorch the earth; we cannot know for sure that this amount of CO2 or that is too much; we cannot know for sure that there is a tipping point from beyond which the situation might not be recoverable.

    It is clear that human beings are not very good at assessing chances of things happening. Even though this paragraph from the OP is the best example of fence-sitting that I have read, it does not make our ability to understand probability any better.

    I do not profess to be an expert here but this seems appropriate. "It is a truth very certain that when it is not in our power to determine what is true we ought to follow what is most probable." — Descartes

    However, as long as people continue to believe that they have a good chance of winning the lottery (14,000,000 : 1) I think we have a problem.

    This is a little enlightening but also perhaps a little distracting from the OP.

    Perhaps SF's frustration is with the human condition of ignorance? Even if the entire climate and science industry agreed and then set the chances of passing a tipping point at 3:1, people would still continue to turn the grill up!

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    Posted
  • Location: Nr Appleby in Westmorland
  • Location: Nr Appleby in Westmorland
    Could you elaborate please, OON?

    My reading of Stratos' piece is that unless we do something to "mend our ways" we may well be heading for doom. Is that how you read it?

    Genuine question, BTW.

    There's that element to it I think, but I was meaning that I couldn't see where SF was saying any individual who didn't subscribe to AGW also didn't care about the environment.
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    Posted
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
    It is clear that human beings are not very good at assessing chances of things happening. Even though this paragraph from the OP is the best example of fence-sitting that I have read, it does not make our ability to understand probability any better.

    I do not profess to be an expert here but this seems appropriate. "It is a truth very certain that when it is not in our power to determine what is true we ought to follow what is most probable." — Descartes

    However, as long as people continue to believe that they have a good chance of winning the lottery (14,000,000 : 1) I think we have a problem.

    This is a little enlightening but also perhaps a little distracting from the OP.

    Perhaps SF's frustration is with the human condition of ignorance? Even if the entire climate and science industry agreed and then set the chances of passing a tipping point at 3:1, people would still continue to turn the grill up!

    SS, indeed.

    Those who have pfollowed my postings for any time will know that I hold strongly the view that it will take a genuine catastophe that can without any reasonable doubt be attributed to GW to make the world sit up. We can but hope that the first such instance occurs before we go critical (if that is where, ultimately, we would otherwise be headed) rather than after.

    These are interesting times because there has NEVER in the history of mankind been an experiment like this played out globally in the social science space. Resolution will require concerted global effort, and that requires agreement on the real threat and how to share the cost of aversion. The fact that effects will vary in space - some could actually benefit locally in the short-term - only serves to make this resolution more unlikely.

    It's a sad dilemma given, as you correctly infer, the human condition of parochialism and limited reach of reasoning (most people don't think very far, in time or space or extension of possibility).

    I am always amused by each publicised lottery winner saying "I knew I would win", as if their belief is somehow more valid, more correct, than precisely the same view held by, as you say, the tens of millions of others with precisely the same thought, but who weren't lucky enough to have their numbers come out of the machine.

    Fate is fickle, and throws out all sorts of events quite randomly, like chaff distracting linear reasoning.

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    Posted
  • Location: Ashford, Kent
  • Weather Preferences: Anything
  • Location: Ashford, Kent

    Until now I have refrained from nailing my colour to the mast when it comes to AGW. Partly because I didn’t want to get involved with the bickering (at times) that goes on in the many and varied threads on the topic in this forum, and partly because I really hadn’t made my mind up on this subject and I can see flaws and counter arguments everywhere I look.

    If I felt the need I would probably have placed myself in the sceptics camp rather than the deniers. I’m sure I’m not alone in this stance. However, enlightening posts such as SF’s at the top of this thread help greatly when it comes to seeing through the muddy waters, it took a couple of reads (something which I advocate for anyone who is reading a post of someone who has taken time and effort when posting, especially when they feel the need to comment), but I feel I’m starting to get it at last.

    Put simply- I can smell the burning bacon, someone has to do something. The trouble is (and where the analogy falls down) it’s gonna take the concerted effort of the best part of 6 billion people to turn off the grill. Personally I will now be reaching for the off switch and hope that the rest of humanity follow suit. Just in case…

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    Posted
  • Location: Rochester, Kent
  • Location: Rochester, Kent

    Personally, I prefer PIE to bacon (probability, impact, estimation) OK bad joke ...

    The risks, here, are blatantly obvious. If the world gets too hot it's a bad thing. If the world gets too cold its a bad thing. Changing climate that is measured by orders of magnitude is a bad thing. For humans - yup, that's right, you and I.

    How can we perceive the risks so that we can judge whether or not the opinion we hold will turn out to be a good one? Some people prefer to offset such a situation and defer to experts. That's a good thing, that's what experts are for. Especially when an awful lot of them hold a scientific consensus. There are issues with such a consensus, but that shall wait until another time - briefly, lack of evidence to the contrary does not imply there isn't any evidence to be found.

    There is another way, that most of us can easily postulate, and follow. Define the parameters of risk. OK, that sounds an awful lot like hokey-pokey sub management speak (and in a way it is) but generally it means this: At what point would your opinion change?

    I'll use extreme polarised views to illustrate (and this is indicative of no-one)

    (i) For those who think that the Earth is just about to turn into the Sahara. At what point would you be convinced that AGW is not happening? A reasonable hypothesis would be when the world cools for a long enough period. Can you put an anomaly figure on it? Perhaps, say, when the climate settles within 0.2C of a generally accepted mean?

    (ii) For those who think the snowball Earth is just about to hit the UK at the February. At what point would you be convinced that AGW is here to stay? How long does the climate have to warm before you agree that something needs to be done.

    There is always the convenience and luxury of setting such limits way off to a windowed period in the future - the 'we shall see in ten years time' set of people. That's not meant to be derogative, that's simply the way people like to manage risk - the 'I'll look at it later'

    In, evidently, a climate of uncertainty, we need to judge those risks now. We cannot afford to waste time waiting for statistical evidence to be certain. To be without a reasonable doubt. For sure there are serious flaws, in my opinion, in a minority of the work being done on both sets of papers, scientific or otherwise - this means the argument, both academic or pragmatic in nature, and, of course, political, can go on and on and on and on and on ....

    Meanwhile the climate is changing. If one was to rationally and dispationately cogitate on this issue, even the simplest of risk strategy spells out the answer - mitigate all forms of human pollution. One doesn't even need a consensus, a scientific paper, lay-science facts, or evidence to agree that. It is, quite simply, self-evident.

    You only need to agree, for the very first smallest of steps, that dropping litter is, actually, quite a bad thing to do.

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    Posted
  • Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent
  • Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent
    Just a question there, where do those stats come from? I can't remember seeing anything like that about human species extinction.

    The other question, why the high likelihood of extinction, does AGW have anything to do with those predictions in themselves?

    The 50% is a scientific evaluation - this is published in a book - I will try to find a link for you.

    The 100% is my own guess, given that none of the threats in the next century will lessen and new threats will emerge.

    AGW is mentioned, I believe however it is not a high risk. The highest risk of our extinction comes about from the threat of AI becoming dominant developed via nanotechnology

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    Posted
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
    ...The 100% is my own guess, given that none of the threats in the next century will lessen and new threats will emerge.

    AGW is mentioned, I believe however it is not a high risk. The highest risk of our extinction comes about from the threat of AI becoming dominant developed via nanotechnology

    Stu, is your cup ever half full? I'm sure there's a career out there for you penning doom ladened novels you know, lol.

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    Posted
  • Location: Upton, Wirral (44m ASL)
  • Location: Upton, Wirral (44m ASL)
    As regards climate change there are plenty on N-W who suggest that "we have been here before" and "nature adapts". This is true, though not, I suspect in the way that some hope, or assume.

    Excellent post - regardless of one's individual standpoint. Most have commented more generally. I have a more specific point regarding the above extract and before I say it I admit that I have no links to proof etc this is just my take on things wrt the above quoted excerpt. ( my guess is that one or two meteorologists on N-W might think along similar lines though.)

    The point is that the Earth will adjust and maintain an equilibrium BUT that we do not fully understand the consequences of this. I am basing my assumption on the fact that the Earth and particularly the climate and weather patterns are in a very delicate state at all times. Unlike a heavily damped system, I believe that the Earth is critically damped wrt to atmospheric physics and in the long-term any natural corrective action will not be gradual and simply lagging the input but rather will oscillate wildly before returning to the 'norm'. It is these oscillations that are concerning and I suppose will manifest on time scales far greater than we currently have reliable data for.

    Yes nature will adapt but I am concerned that some of the 'AGW deniers' on the whole seem to take a very 'here and now' view and aren't over bothered by what legacy the 'here and now' leaves for future generations. As we increase our understanding of long term climate change we should really be using our new-found technology to build in protection and fail-safes just as is done on aircraft and nuclear installations. We cannot ever hope to truly mittigate a freak natural disaster but we can be much better prepared for the aftermath with a little thought and commitment.

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    Posted
  • Location: Cambridge (term time) and Bonn, Germany 170m (holidays)
  • Location: Cambridge (term time) and Bonn, Germany 170m (holidays)
    Could you elaborate please, OON?

    My reading of Stratos' piece is that unless we do something to "mend our ways" we may well be heading for doom. Is that how you read it?

    Genuine question, BTW.

    PS I have just realised that I typed this whilst eating a (grilled) bacon sandwich!

    I personally do not read the essay as such and I think this is exactly where your mistake lies. He is not simply saying that we need to "mend our ways" - he is revealing the downright folly in taking the AGW risk by failing to adopt the "better safe than sorry" scenario. Why not do all we can to reduce emissions if it has the potential to prevent a wipe out of vast populations of humans and other animals in the future? The overall cost to us would be small, but in the long run it could pay us back fifty times over.

    I see it as similar to insurance: it would be ridiculous not to insure a house because all dwellings have risks attached to them which could leave one almost bankrupt. The cost of insurance is relatively small, but nearly all of us pay it in the knowledge that it could be our salvation on another day.

    Why not exact a similar insurance with our planet? It seems highly sensible. Seeing as though neither AGW supporters nor its deniers can be entirely sure, why not assume that the former are correct and thence take as many preventative measures as possible to eliminate the risk, however small?

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    Posted
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
  • Location: Steeton, W Yorks, 270m ASL
    ...

    I see it as similar to insurance: it would be ridiculous not to insure a house because all dwellings have risks attached to them which could leave one almost bankrupt. The cost of insurance is relatively small, but nearly all of us pay it in the knowledge that it could be our salvation on another day.

    ...

    Very much my point Yeti, bang on.

    Interestingly, I suspect the figures for people not taking out insurance for house / life / car are probably surprisingly high. I haven't checked but I'd wager that at least a quarter of the population don't all three of the above. I would also hasard that a good proportion of those people have at some time accepted the warranty on a freezer / TV / DVD / kettle / hairdrier.

    As a rule individual's perception of risk - return is very poor in these types of assessment.

    I am also reminded of Chris Tarrant's old Birthday Bong game on Capital (for the uninitiated the game involved a contest listening to an ascending count of numbers, that ascent being random, and potentially topping out at £1000 if I remember correctly. To win you had to say stop before a bong sounded, or else reach the £1000. I was endlessly amused at just how often the sequence went something like...'ninety-five pounds, ninety-six pounds, one hundred and twenty pounds, one hundred and seventy-four pounds, two hundred pounds, two hundred and one pounds, three hundred and forty four pounds, BONG, "stop"').

    There's no prizes for saying "stop" after the bong has sounded, just like you can't insure against a disaster in the past.

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