Dec 06 2009

Climategate and the New Space Age

The Climategate scandal involves “some of the world’s leading climate scientists working in tandem to block freedom of information requests, blackball dissenting scientists, manipulate the peer-review process, and obscure, destroy or massage inconvenient temperature data — facts that were laid bare by … disclosure of thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit…” (Wall Street Journal, 12/1/09; B. Stephens).

Climategate connects with prospects for near-term space colonization in at least 3 major ways. One is financial.

Anything that weakens the potential for re-ignition of the major economic boom — actually the greatest global boom ever — that was interrupted by the Panic of 2008, might delay the near-term development of widespread affluence-induced ebullience that has powered each of the spectacular Maslow Windows (e.g., the 1960s Apollo Moon program) over the last 200 years.

One such potential factor is Cap and Trade. “The Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution and the National Black Chamber of Commerce all found that the bill will have devastating economic impacts … (including) significant losses in employment and GDP.” Republicans are not shy about characterizing it as “”the largest tax increase — about $ 400 million USD per year — in the history of America.” And according to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (WSJ, 11/27/09), in response to a question from him, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated it won’t significantly reduce global CO2 emissions.

As countries like the U.S. struggle to recover from the current great recession, major new taxes are considered unwise government policy by most economists. This is especially true in the U.S.’s current deficit situation.

According to former Congressional Budget Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin,

The federal government ran a 2009 deficit of $ 1.4 trillion — the highest since World War II — as spending reached nearly 25% of GDP and total revenues fell below 15% of GDP. Shortfalls like these have not been seen in more than 50 years.

Equally threatening to the next Maslow Window which, based on 200-year timing, should open near 2015 and extend to around 2025, is that there is no relief in sight.

Our national debt is projected to stand at $ 17.1 trillion 10 years from now, or over $ 50,000 per American …

Regarding the potential upswing (characteristic of a Maslow Window), Holtz-Eakin comments that,

The planned deficits will have destructive consequences for both fairness and economic growth … Federal deficits will crowd out domestic investment in physical capital, human capital, and technologies that increase potential GDP and the standard of living.

Mr. Holtz-Eaking concludes that the president’s “policies are the equivalent of steering the economy toward an iceberg.”

The deficits are also taking a political toll as President Obama’s poll numbers decline. According to Karl Rove (WSJ, 11/27/09),

Anger over deficits was picked up in a late October NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll which asked voters if they’d rather boost “the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits” or keep the “budget deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.” Only 31% chose boosting the economy; 62% wanted to keep the deficit down.

This is consistent with Gallup polls (9/17/09) indicating Obama’s lowest marks on his handling of the deficit; only 38% approved and 58% disapproved.

The good news for Obama’s popularity and the deficit — as well as the 2015 Maslow Window — is that Climategate has weakened the prospects for Cap and Trade. According to Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (WSJ, 11/27/09),

Cap and Trade is dead … Ninety-five percent of the nails were in the coffin prior to this week. Now they are all in.

The second way Climategate connects with prospects for near-term space colonization is psychological.

Over the years Global Warming has been presented as a near-certain chamber of horrors including sea level rises of 3 feet or more resulting in devastating, global coastal flooding, huge temperature increases of 5 or more degrees producing plant and animal extinctions, increasingly intense hurricanes and extensive ecosystem damage … and on and on. All because humans are commiting the sin of releasing too much carbon into the environment. And we much stop now before it is too late.

Even the wildest claims about the dangers of global warming are routinely trumpeted by much of the media, including that giant Burmese pythons will migrate as far north as San Francisco and take over one-third of the U.S.. I heard the python story on local radio one day in Southern California and was very amused, but not everyone is. For example, many young children — who are much too young to evaluate the political and scientific issues involved — are frightened. One recent survey shows that 1 of 3 children aged 6 to 11 fears that our planet won’t exist when they grow up, and over one half believe that the Earth will be “a very unpleasant place to live.”

The usual solution to global warming fears is an anti-growth, anti-technology message. The “science is settled” so all we can do is dramatically cut back our use of fossil fuels, submit to trillions of dollars of taxes, and end our hopes of increasing prosperity due to crippled economies.

Even before Climategate, the public was not buying it. For example, in 2006 Gallup found that the percentage saying global warming will “pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime” was only 35%; 62% thought it would not. And earlier this year, Gallup reported “the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.” The Climategate scandal is likely to accelerate this trend among the public.

A number of scientists have proposed innovative technological approaches to mitigation of global warming if it were to become a serious problem in the 21st century. Perhaps the most interesting examples are from Roger Angel, the discussion in March/April, 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, and the distinguished Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson.

This trend toward a more positive and realistic approach to climate change — being accelerated now by the revelations of Climategate — is very consistent with historical trajectories of public attitudes at comparable times over the last 200 years. As I pointed out in a previous post:

As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, two other effects will increasingly come into play: 1) the fact that Maslow Windows are characterized by unusually optimistic (even ebullient) public attitudes, and 2) the increasing global fascination with large, international technology programs and space colonization — expected during the 2015 Maslow Window — will suggest to many around the world that solutions to key global challenges (e.g., the environment, energy) will benefit from space technology and resources.

The third way Climategate connects with prospects for near-term space colonization is through science.

Science is special. It is the only objective way humans have of probing physical reality and learning about the Universe. Scientists collect data about a natural system and then propose a model for how it works. Scientists use the model to make predictions about what should be observed in the real world. Those predictions are checked by observations of the natural system; any deviations from physical reality are used to change the model and thus improve it. Repeatedly using this process — making observations, sharing data, openly discussing issues — can result in a convergence of the model with physical reality.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But the scientific method can break down, even for major questions. And when it does it shakes the foundations of what we know about the Universe, including potentially the public’s belief in our ability to expand human civilization into the cosmos, or even just to prosper on the Earth.

Here are some examples:

1. “The fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” Dr. Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
In his email, Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of NCAR, acknowledges privately a key point: In 1998 climate models did not predict the cessation of global warming that has occurred — despite continued increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide — over the last dozen years, and no one can explain why it happened.

MIT climate scientist Richard Lindzen (WSJ, 11/30/09) points out that articles by climate modelers attrribute “the failure of these models to anticipate the absence of warming for the past dozen years was due to the failure of these models to account for natural internal variability …” like El Nino and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. “Thus even the basis for the weak IPCC argument for anthropogenic climate change (i.e., human-caused warming via CO2) was shown to be false.”

The bottomline is that: 1) modelers are admitting that something other than carbon dioxide can drive global climate change (e.g., natural variability), and 2) because the climate models cannot explain even the current lack of global warming, their predictions for warming 10, 20, or more years into the future are unreliable. And thus while global warming might indeed become a major problem at some point in the future — as astrophysicists assure us it will within a billion years when the Sun’s luminosity predictably increases and evaporates Earth’s oceans — we cannot accurately predict even near-term warmings or coolings with current climate models.

If the scientific method had been operating normally, these and many other secret conversations would have been shared with other scientists and the public in real-time. Instead, sadly we had to wait for Climategate to reveal them and clarify important issues.

2. “Science is not always what scientists do.” J. Allen Hynek (d. 1986), formerly Professor and Chair, Department of Astronomy, Northwestern University.
Scientists are people first and scientists second. They are subject to the same fears, greed, jealousies, ambitions, anger, etc., as anyone else. In fact, scientists are only being scientists when their professional activities conform to the scientific method as sketched above.

Sometimes scientists behave with almost quasi-religious attitudes. Religions are atrractive to the vast majority of people because they involve belief systems and world views that give meaning to life. Plus challenges to their beliefs do not usually disturb the believers because they are based on faith. In essence, while religions may be supported by historical or physical evidence, they are not fundamentally driven by it, as science is.

For example, in August 2009 more than 60 prominent German scientists — including several UN IPCC scientists — declared that global warming has become a “pseudo religion” in an Open Letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They noted that rising CO2 has “had no measurable effect” on temperatures and that the “UN IPCC has lost its scientific credibility.”

Sometimes scientists behave more like politicians than scientists. In real democracies the people often vote to make decisions on important issues. In science, voting or authority figures do not determine our picture of physical reality, only data does. Today we especially admire Galileo for standing up to the authority of the 17th century Roman Inquisition and not disavowing his then controversial telescopic observations of the Sun, Moon, and planets. This idea of the primacy of observational data has penetrated deeply into modern life, even beyond the natural sciences. For example, the British economist John Maynard Keynes — father of Keynesian economics — once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Sadly, the Galileo Principle of the primacy of observational data in science is not reflected in the private emails of Climategate. For example, Professor Phil Jones, who has stepped down temporarily as head of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia while Climategate is investigated, speaks privately of modifying temperature data sets to “hide the decline” in global temperatures. According to John Lott of FoxNews.com (12/1/09), another CRU professor,

Tim Osborne, discusses in emails how truncating a data series can hide a cooling trend that would otherwise been seen in the results. Professor Mann (of Penn State) sent Professr Osborne an email saying the results he is sending shouldn’t be shown to others because the results support critics of global warming. Time after time the discussions refer to hiding or destroying data.

When ideology trumps science, some scientists act like politicians. They secretly modify data to conform to their party-line beliefs. I am not surprised that some scientists are dishonest; they are regular people and that’s to be expected. My concern is the way the scientific method has been deliberately ignored for many years by many scientists around the world, who definitely know better. This, including the destruction of the original temperature data sets by Climategate scientists, has obscured our view of the details of real global climate change. And certainly, as Professor Lindzen points out, “Claims that climate change is accelerating are bizarre.”

3. Is science dying?
As a planetary scientist who’s worked in the aerospace industry and in academia, and has been thrilled by the idea of space colonization since a very young age, my major concern is what Climategate means for science. Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal recently asserted (12/3/09) that “science is dying.” Henninger continues,

I don’t think most scientists appreciate what has hit them … For years, global warming and its advocates have been the public face of hard science. The public was told repeatedly that something called ‘the scientific community’ had affirmed the science beneath this inquiry … Global warming enlisted the collective reputation of science. Because ‘science’ said so, all the world was about to undertake a vast reordering of human behavior at almost unimaginable financial cost. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons.

But because of the Climategate scandal — an “epochal event” — the public’s view of science is about to change.

The average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and “messy” as, say gender studies … If the new ethos is that “close-enough” science is now sufficient to achieve political goals, serious scientists should be under no illusion that politicians will press-gang them into service for future agendas. Everyone working in science, no matter what their politics, has a stake in cleaning up the mess revealed by the East Anglia emails. Science is on the credibility bubble. If it pops, centuries of what we understand to be the role of science go with it.

For some, global warming politics and ideology are all that matter; you can recognize them by their lack of interest in the details of climate science and their attempts to ignore or divert attention from the science-related content of Climategate.

Science should be quite different from politics in both methods and goals, and certainly needs to move farther away from politics so that the scientific method can flouish again. As long as politics and ideology dominate science — as they have in the climate change field — we can never know what really exists in the Universe and how it works.

If the universities and governments affected by Climategate take appropriate action against those who stifled the free and open discussion of scientific data and issues in Climategate, the essence of science and even science’s public image can recover.

In a best-case scenario, Climategate could ironically help stimulate the New Space Age by strengthening our global financial picture, helping people everywhere regain a positive, even ebullient feeling about the future, promoting 1960s-style pro-technology, prosperous attitudes, and reaffirming that science is indeed a reliable tool for expansion of human civilization from a vibrant Earth into the cosmos.

If the last 200 years of Maslow Windows are any guide, that’s what we should expect will happen.

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