Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Climate Quadrant

It’s hard not to get angry reading yesterday’s BBC Trust report by Steven Jones. Delingpole does a nice job of laying into it, but there are plenty more bloggers out there covering similar ground. Having read the report it’s pretty poor stuff, and Jones comes across as lazy, arrogant and clearly not interested in attempting to be even handed. But what lies at the heart of his argument is not just another unscientific appeal to consensus, but also a complete lack of understanding that there are endless shades of opinion on the topic of climate change. In his world there are only two camps – the consensus (as represented by the IPCC and supported by the Royal Society) and the denialists (his word). Climate change is a complicated topic, is it really feasible that opinion could neatly fit into two such simplistic categories?

At heart Jones views climate science in the same way that some people view politics. There is an out-dated and unsophisticated view the imagines that political ideas, and those that adhere to them, can easily sit on a single axis of Left vs. Right. All ideologies can be dropped somewhere on this axis. So, simplistically, Hitler is on the extreme right, Stalin on the extreme Left, and everyone else sits somewhere in between. Of course this is redundant in a time when our politicians no longer have much in the way of ideology. But even so, assume that this Left vs Right dichotomy still exists. Where do you place Anarchists on this line? And judged purely on economic policies, surely the BNP are on the Left, having much in common with the authoritarian left (economic protectionism, state control etc).

In place of this Left vs Right axis, a more useful model is to switch to a two dimensional view of politics. There are now two axes. On the first is the economic model - on the Left we have communism, on the Right we have capitalism. On the second axis we have a social scale, with Authoritarian at one end and Libertarian at the other. We now have a model that has four quadrants, and a richer way of categorising political ideologies. Classical Anarchism, for example, sits firmly in the communist/libertarian quadrant, whereas free-market libertarianism is capitalist/libertarian. Stalin is communist/authoritarian, whereas Pinochet is capitalist/authoritarian. The political compass website has more detail, including an online test to see where you stand.

In terms of climate change, a two-dimensional model would be of some value as well. Here we have a horizontal scale based on the view of CO2 as a determinant of warming, and on the vertical scale we have degree of warming. In this model, therefore, the IPCC sits at the extreme end of the CO2/warming scale. But the model leaves room for those who believe that CO2 is important but will not lead to massive warming (because of low climate sensitivity, for example), and to those who believe that warming is underway due to other forcings (so low on CO2 but high on warming). There is room also for those who believe that there CO2 is relatively unimportant (because cosmic rays are more important, for example), and who believe we are in for a period of global cooling.

This model makes clear that there are many more points of view than consensus versus denialism, and in fact points to the extremism of so much climate alarmism.


Anonymous said...

How can you label the IPCC's position as "extreme", when most Green groups seem to regard their projections as overly conservative? Surely those Green activists are the real "extremists"?

Contrarian said...

Because there are obviously degrees of extremism. The IPCC is prone to all kinds of ultra-alarmist pronouncements - remember the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers?