Navigating the Climate Change Debate

October 1, 2013 No Comments »
Navigating the Climate Change Debate

In the wake of the most recent report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the debate over climate change has once again flared up. Both sides are finding something in the report to justify their positions on the issue, and some are simply mocking it as the product of a political body. In fact, the issue is so contentious that even the title of this article, which assumes a debate exists, is likely to rile some of the stauncher advocates. For technology companies and professionals—particularly in the data center industry—this debate is not without consequence. Money, credibility and much more are on the line; so how is one to navigate the shrill rhetoric, dogmatic claims and technical details of such a complex topic?

This discussion is by no means intended to resolve the debate or even present a possible resolution. On the technical side, complex systems like the Earth and its atmosphere and oceans are difficult to model, and as the number of variables increases, more simplifying (and potentially erroneous) assumptions must be made to make the problem manageable. Add in the various—and often devious—motivations of individuals and organizations, and you end up with a muddy situation that is difficult to penetrate.

Why does this matter to technology? In the case of data centers, much of the cost of running a facility is energy, and most energy produced today yields carbon waste products—the supposed major culprit in climate change. The likely outcome of a political consensus on the dangers of climate change, perhaps even regardless of the cause, is higher taxes and more regulations on consumers and companies, and that outcome would be a tremendous hit for data centers. Other areas of life, such as transportation and food production (even cows have been assigned blame), could also see major changes. So approaching the subject with a cool head is critical to planning for the future, whatever it might hold.

Watch Your (and Their) Language

A highly deceptive claim made in the climate change debate, as well as similar controversies, is that “science says X.” Apart from being loaded (if you disagree, you’re automatically unscientific), this statement carries the unstated assumption that science is some sort of authority that stands independent of human motivation and the character of scientists. Science says nothing; scientists make claims. And science by its nature requires that claims be tentative at best, since contrary evidence could necessitate reevaluation of a reigning theory.

Another specious term is consensus. A common assertion among proponents of the theory of manmade climate change is that a consensus exists among scientists in support of their position. This claim is patently false; not all scientists believe in manmade climate change, and among those that do, opinions on the degree to which human activity causes climate change vary widely. A typical response is to dismiss those that disagree as unscientific or otherwise prejudiced for one reason or another (a subject addressed later in this discussion). But this dismissal is seldom on the basis of a look at the analysis and is instead too often a blanket rejection, often accompanied by some form of ad hominem attack, simply for the fact of disagreement rather than for the reason for disagreement.

A powerful tool in this controversy, or in any, is to ask for clarification of the language in the discussion. If one party from either side makes a suspicious claim, a good response is to ask what is meant by (fill in the blank). What does one mean by “the climate isn’t changing,” or what does one mean by “real scientists”? Does a consensus mean what it usually means—everyone agrees—or is it just a rhetorical way to marginalize those with a differing view? And since when does a consensus imply that a view is correct, even in science?

Everyone Has an Angle

A favorite tactic of many proponents of the idea that human activity causes climate change is to question the motivation of dissenters. Often, this attack focuses on association with oil companies. True, some researchers who oppose this view are funded by oil companies and similar organizations. To be fair, however, one should also ask what those who support the view have to gain.

Much of the funding for this research comes from governments. Governments, as history—and particularly the twentieth century—has shown, are gluttons for power and wealth. And crises almost invariably increase the power of politicians. Furthermore, researchers who rely on government funding (whether national or international) have every financial motivation to produce findings that are advantageous to their benefactors. So, the tactic of guilt by association (or by research funding) is a double-edged sword that can easily undercut both sides.

The difficulty, of course, is separating motivation from the results. Even researchers working for organizations unaffiliated with governments and oil companies are still human, and they still are subject to the same influences that can affect their judgment—particularly on a contentious issue. Human beings are also loathe to admit mistakes; even if a majority of scientists agreed with the notion that human activity causes global warming, contrary evidence might fail to sway them. (See Lee Smolin’s book, The Trouble With Physics, for a discussion of how this phenomenon has existed throughout the history of science, right to the present moment.)

The Problem With Evaluating Climate Change Claims

The circumstances of the climate change controversy are bad enough: the debate is highly polarized, the language can be extremely deceptive and the tactics of adherents on both sides are sometimes underhanded. Add to this the technical details, wherein complicated computer models aim to describe and predict the behavior of a highly nuanced and complex system, and the issue becomes almost impossible to untangle. In addition, the stakes are high in either case: if human activity causes dangerous climate change, the risk to lives and property is real. On the other hand, if the theory is false, the risk to freedom and quality of life is just as grave.

Should one believe the proponents of manmade climate change theory because many scientists agree? Should one believe because the evidence points in that direction? Apart from diving into the technical details, that question is almost impossible to address. And even for experts, questions of the reliability of models, the accuracy and proper sampling of data, and numerous other concerns make the technical debate—forget the political debate—a challenging one.

So, how should the leadership of technology companies and operators of data centers approach the matter? Do you need to buy into the notion of manmade climate change to gain respectability? Do you need to take drastic action to do your part in “saving the planet”? Your position might or might not make a difference.

Regardless of whether human activity is causing climate change, increasing your energy efficiency and reducing your impact on the environment (through recycling, less water consumption or myriad other strategies) is helpful. It can also save cost and improve your image with the public. But going too far can be problematic, too: becoming a crusader for the cause of fighting climate change will certainly alienate some potential customers, but it can also make you end up looking foolish if the role of human activity is later shown to be negligible. The history of science is replete with reversals of the reigning dogma, so trumpeting the science of the day is not necessarily the wisest approach, especially if it’s not relevant to your business.

Conclusions

You can cite the IPCC’s conclusion that man is “extremely likely” to be the cause of climate change, despite the “natural fluctuations” in the trend that have caused doubt in recent years, or you can choose to focus more heavily on data such as the pause in warming or the increase in polar ice. That climates vary over time is certain; the role of human activity, however, is the heart of the debate—and to the victors go the spoils. Both oil companies and bureaucrats alike have dollar signs (or hunger for power) in their eyes, so neither side of the debate has a monopoly on virtue.

IT professionals and companies need not take sides on this contentious issue to nevertheless help steward the environment. In particular, they should remain wary of a false view of deified “science,” as well as the idea that skeptics are motivated by greed. All too often, government has used crises (manufactured and otherwise) to usurp power and property, so naturally, calls for government regulation and taxation in the name of climate change are suspect.

At this point, you may be disappointed that the present article offers no damning evidence of error or even dishonesty on the part of one side or the other. The technical details of the debate are too complex to discuss in a short piece. But for the layman—and even the scientist—the first step toward coming to a rational conclusion on this matter is to see through the underhanded tactics of both sides and to recognize that everyone has an angle on the outcome. Then, if we add a dash of civility, we can all look with fresh eyes at the evidence.

Image courtesy of Robert A. Rohde

About Jeff Clark

Jeff Clark is editor for the Data Center Journal. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Richmond, as well as master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech. An author and aspiring renaissance man, his interests range from quantum mechanics and processor technology to drawing and philosophy.

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