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In which not all is as it seems: My engineering self and climate change

As some may know, I’m currently an engineering Master’s student, enrolled in a cross-disciplinary program. I have been focusing on energy policy for the last three years, and writing has been a primary activity in all of this, both in terms of technical writing for grade and pay, as well as a medium for engaging in debate (mostly on Reddit, admittedly). And something interesting has crossed my desk, which has galvanized my opinion on that twenty ton monster of the media, anthropogenic global climate change.

Now, after Dave Cullen commented on my review of his book, it made me realize that I get some nominal amount of traffic on WordPress, so there is a chance people will read this. I doubt what I’m saying is revolutionary, but the more eyes on it, the better.

Professor Paul Fischbeck, a leading risk analysis researcher at Carnegie Mellon (my alma mater) recently gave a talk to a class I’m enrolled in that was a version of an earlier talk of his called “Is the Hockey Stick Broken?”, an attempt to break through the political bullshit surrounding the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The short answer to the titular question is: yes. The model is broken. Some research methods and data used by Michael Mann (the original author of the article which first proposed the “hockey stick” temperature graph) and others is very questionable, and in some cases very flawed.

The important part though is that this is by no means the final nail in the coffin for climate change debate. In fact, it says almost nothing conclusive for either side of the debate. However, climate change has, because of the cost of carbon policy, become highly politicized.

This is the biggest problem.

If the politics surrounding the debate of climate change were a little gentler, or if less money was involved, chances are the errors in these reports would have been caught, corrected, and we would have gotten to the correct conclusion eventually. As it stands, we’re probably not there yet, but the “correct” conclusion is likely that we don’t have conclusive data from paleoclimactic records to draw any conclusions regarding the impact of climate change.

Now the critics can jump up and down about this, but the fact is that no conclusion is simply no conclusion. The propensity of people to point at global climate change being a hoax because of shoddy research is invalid. It simply means more research needs to be done. A failure to reach a conclusion means there’s no conclusion, it doesn’t mean that the exact opposite of the questionable prediction is true. However, a “middle road” doesn’t really exist in politics, and with possibly billions of dollars at stake from the energy industry as well as future risk, no one wants to table debate until we know for sure (which will be when something happens, too late for policy).

My policy take on this is a little more decisive (though admittedly not much). The atmospheric science behind the concept of global warming and the fact that atmospheric CO2 levels are rising are established facts. Even if we don’t know the extent of the changes that will be wrought, it ultimately makes sense to develop carbon mitigation policies now. The risks behind ignoring a potential problem as big as this one are huge, and most carbon reduction plans (excepting maybe carbon capture, which is economically questionable regardless) have large positive externalities that will help reduce energy dependence and other forms of pollution. A recent study even alluded to the non-climate change benefits of a carbon mitigation program being high enough to implement it regardless of climate change.

The most important thing to take home is that politicization of science is bad. It encourages bias into places where it shouldn’t exist, and meshes two sectors which act very differently. The careful analysis of uncertain data does not mesh well with politics, where decisions are either/or, right or wrong. Now, paleoclimactic research has been set back, and other legitimate sectors of climate science have been overshadowed by this scandal. “I don’t know” is not exactly an accepted answer in Washington, but when dealing with a system as chaotic as the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s usually the best one.

I know this is a departure from my usually pedestrian topics, but this is the intersection of politics and science in my field. Writing is the best way to convey rational thought, so by considering myself both a writer and an engineer, I feel obligated to write about these things that I feel I understand. And climate change is a good area in which to emphasize that even by understanding the science as it exists doesn’t mean you actually have an answer.

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