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Reid Detchon

Reid Detchon

Reid Detchon is vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation. He also serves as executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a broad-based non-partisan public policy initiative focused on oil dependence, climate change, and global energy poverty. ALL POSTS

The Cost of Being Wrong

"If we can't predict the weather," one might ask, "how can we predict the climate?"

Let me answer with another question: "If we can't predict the waves, how do we predict the tides?"

It may seem easier to get the small things right than to discern a larger pattern, but it's not. In 1687, Isaac Newton used the theory of gravity to correlate the tides with the movement of the sun and the moon. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first suggested that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would affect the temperature of the Earth. 

It is the robustness of physical theory, tested experimentally over time, that underpins the science of global warming.  Certain gases in the atmosphere, like water vapor and carbon dioxide, demonstrably absorb heat, preventing its escape into space. 

Other ideas have been offered to explain global warming - most notably, the sunspot cycle.  None of them, however, has been strong enough to account for the changes that we have seen.

Even where there is much less certainty about an issue, the risk of error can weigh heavily on a single side.  The French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously argued that the existence of God can't be proved, but there's only one way to wager:  If there is no God, human faith is pointless - but the opposite is not the case. 

And so it is with global warming.  Moving to a low-carbon economy will have some costs and many benefits even if the Earth cools - but failing to act while we still have time will prove catastrophic if the scientists have it right.

By Reid Detchon  |  October 13, 2009; 11:40 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Mr. Detchon, did you mean to suggest that predicting the waves is as easy as predicting the tides?

Posted by: ForTruth1 | October 20, 2009 11:29 PM
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This is the most perceptive commentator about the uncertainty of the problem, and on actions in response.

It is not science itself which is called into question - it is the predictability of climate models. Both "sides" believe that there has been insufficient shouting about their own positions.

I read - "And so it is with global warming. Moving to a low-carbon economy will have some costs and many benefits even if the Earth cools - but failing to act while we still have time will prove catastrophic if the scientists have it right."

That's where we disagree. I'm all for reducing the CO2 emissions, even if the question of global warming is unanswered. But whose Ox is Gored?

And how much, how fast? Some people blithely offer a target of 1800 as the year we should strive for, in CO2 emissions. To attain that, we have to completely collapse the carbon-based economies of the world.

Unlike many other concerns, carbon production is easily addressed, for it is a symptom of economic prosperity. Starve an economy of oil for a year or two, and the carbon footprint will be suppressed for several generations.

Bombing economies into the stone age? We can do that.

Of course, the countries with the most weapons hold the pruning shears on whose economy is "too wasteful" and whose is "acceptably green." Developing economies have less capital for keeping their carbon footprints neat, that's for sure. We might just "vote them off the economic island."

So, blithe talk about "(m)oving to a low-carbon economy will have some costs and many benefits..."" Most of the benefits will go to People who look like Us, and the costs will go to people who are brown and washed by other seas.

Posted by: SteveofCaley | October 19, 2009 8:23 AM
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Ziczack says "Certainly, megalomaniac belief that the climate can be altered by Man is specious. Of course, we can POISON the Earth with a nuke war but even that would pass in time - a long time. But we're not going to control the climate."

TS: So smog is not caused by man? Pollution in the oceans? Man has caused rivers to die.

Have you thought to consult the top expert scientific organizations on global warming? The consensus IS in!

FACTS: "Since 2007 no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion. A few organisations hold non-committal positions."

Academia Brasiliera de Ciências (Brazil)
Royal Society of Canada
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Academié des Sciences (France)
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
Indian National Science Academy
Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
Science Council of Japan
Russian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society (United Kingdom)
National Academy of Sciences (United States of America)
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Academy of Sciences Malaysia Academy
Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

In addition to these national academies, the following institutions specializing in climate, atmosphere, ocean, and/or earth sciences have endorsed these conclusions:

NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
State of the Canadian Cryosphere (SOCC)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Royal Society of the United Kingdom (RS)
American Geophysical Union (AGU)
American Institute of Physics (AIP)
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
American Meteorological Society (AMS)
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS)

Posted by: truthseeker1 | October 18, 2009 5:52 PM
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JamesChristian says: Problem for this entire forum is that it ignores thousands of scientists who have as much evidence of cooling as the manufacturers of the "warming crisis" have of warming. Follow the money.

TS: No the evidence is in.
And if you look at the "thousands" of signatures of deniers -- typically the individual has no experience in climatology. For example in the the infamous "Oregan Petition at first claiming 31000 signatures -- you were called counted as a "scientist" if you were a "computer scientist" or an economist or a dentist. Not to mention the institute didn't have any quality controls for names like Micky Mouse since it counted all names submitted.

Senator Inhofe (Republican ultra conservative senator from Oklahoma) has put out a list purporting 400 scientists object to global warming -- but a close inspection shows he is counting scientists who say they don't know -ie don't think models can tell you one way or the other, else they are ulta-liberals who think pollution should be our #1 concern, not global warming because the dangers are more imminent.

There are numerous misinformation Right Wing sites on global warming (not to mention All the Rubert Murdoch owned newspapers and tv stations.)

The lies on global warming parallel how tobacco companies fought all efforts of regulation of cigarette smoking. The Right Wing and Libertarians view any regulation as evil, and therefore the science of global warming is anathema for them.

the science is in

"Since 2007 no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion. A few organisations hold non-committal positions."

Posted by: truthseeker1 | October 18, 2009 5:42 PM
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hofbrauhausde said "In the 1970s, scientists were absolutely sure that carbon emissions were causing global cooling, and were going to lead to a new ice age."

That is Myth number 7 on the site below debunking Right Wing FALSE claims on Global Warming


"The notion that the 1970s scientific consensus was for impending global cooling is incorrect. In actuality, there were significantly more papers in the 1970s predicting warming than cooling.
see graph at the site to put this in perspective:

Scientific studies in the 1970's re global cooling

Most predictions of an impending ice age came from the popular press (eg - Newsweek, NY Times, National Geographic, Time Magazine). As far as peer reviewed scientific papers in the 1970s, very few papers (7 in total) predicted global cooling. Significantly more papers (42 in total) predicted global warming due to CO2. ..."

Posted by: truthseeker1 | October 18, 2009 5:25 PM
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"In the 1970s, scientists were absolutely sure that carbon emissions were causing global cooling ...."

No, wrong. A few scientists had a hypothesis which was disputed by many and never found general support.

But a failed hypothesis has been turned into a big lie. I don't know if hofbrauhausde (which reminds me, I need to get to Huntington Beach next weekend for some Octoberfest beers) is a victim of the lie or one of the liers himself, but he's trying to raise the noise-to-signal ratio, and that's not in the public interest.

Posted by: j2hess | October 18, 2009 5:22 PM
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The set of comments above are the most appalling collection on climate change I have read in a long time. Statements are thrown around with absolutely no basis on facts, like the one that thousands of scientists have been predicting global cooling instead of warming or that scientists with no expertise on the matter are spouting about it. If they ever bothered to read scientific articles in Science, Nature or any journal on Atmospheric Science they would find hundreds of articles that show numerous warning signals that the climate is changing and the amount of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere is increasing. Part of the reason warming is not as large as one would predict by simply considering the CO2 released yearly is that a significant portion is absorbed by the oceans. This is not something we should take any comfort in since it implies the acidity of the ocean is changing with rather alarming implications for marine life. The scientists working on this subject are not paid huge sums for writing about it, but those raising doubts tend to be subsidized by the oil and carbon industry, which makes one wonder about their biases.

Posted by: serban1 | October 18, 2009 11:46 AM
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I refuse to be railroaded by climate change hysteria. I absolutely don't trust anything we have been told about climate change and the causes. I believe the proponents have an ulterior motive -- they don't like the way we live, and are determined to radically change it, and climate change is their latest vehicle for doing this. They really want to reverse the Industrial Revolution, and even the Agricultural Revolution, and return us to a pre-Civilization state of living in perfect harmony with a totally unperturbed ecosystem. I personally don't want to live this way, and reject the propaganda I have been handed. I'll tell you why:

(1) I have not seen, and don't know anyone who has seen, these "models" the proponents keep talking about. I myself have manipulated models to make the results come out the way I wanted, and so can biased "scientists." I understand from one report that the "models" ASSUME a human cause for climate change, instead of discovering it objectively. That assurances that the models are correct fall flat, and I think they just represent theories rather than revealing any objective truth.

(2) Alternative dynamics have not been explored to my satisfaction. For example, we do know that vegetation absorbs CO2, and that climate change has increased the volume of vegetation on the planet. So increasing vegetation absorbs larger amounts of CO2. How do we know that at point of equilibrium won't be reached, bringing the "global warming" to a halt? The failure to explore this, and other, possible non-catastrophic dynamics makes me very suspicious.

(3) I lived through the "Nuclear Winter" hysteria. In this theory, thousands of nuclear detonations would loft millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking the warming rays of the sun and plunging us into a cold darkness. But a year or two later, "Nuclear Summer" came out, whereby the nuclear detonations would blast away protective belts of the atmosphere that shield us from the harsh radiation from the sun and from outer space, frying the surface of the planet. Well, which is it? Make up your mind. Do they neutralize each other? We are seeing similar thin technical explanations for a phenomenon that is very poorly understood.

(4) The very smugness and arrogance of the proponents makes me very suspicious. Their persecution of the growing chorus of objections to climate change orthodoxy makes from equally qualified skeptics destroys what little credibility the proponents began with. I feel like I'm being railroaded by fanatics into policies that would turn our entire way of living upside down and bankrupt us even worse than the current economic disaster we're facing.

Sound public policy is not based on propaganda. But propaganda is all we've been given so far, and I absolutely don't buy it. You'll have to do better than that.

Posted by: alf_erikson | October 18, 2009 10:16 AM
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In the 1970s, scientists were absolutely sure that carbon emissions were causing global cooling, and were going to lead to a new ice age. Now, those same emissions are causing global warming. So, if science was so certain in the 1970s and it was wrong, why should anyone put any faith at all in the certainty of science today? Some scientists have told us, with the same smug certainty, that climate change is what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Putting aside the number of theories that the "certainty of science" has provided on dinosaur extinction, ask yourself something: how many SUVs or factories did dinosaurs operate?

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | October 18, 2009 7:38 AM
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I hate snow. I don't like to drive in it, shovel it, or even look at it. If global warming will mean warmer weather and less snowfall, I'm all for it!

Posted by: FrankMoss | October 18, 2009 7:17 AM
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ZICKZACK apparently got his model of climate scientists from watching Pinky and The Brain:

"I vill control the world! First I vill study obscure chemical interactions in the atmosphere and dig ice cores out of glaciers for 50 years, putting up with petty jealousies, academic committees, and disengaged students - then I will declare that the climate is changing and they will make me dictator for life! Hahahaha! And then, I will have all the girls I want, and won't you be sorry Mary Jane! Hahahahaha!"

Posted by: j2hess | October 17, 2009 7:15 PM
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MM Climate Change is total rubbish.__Much better to work on reducing global population.__Why would anyone waste his life on this nonsense?__Power and Control come to mind.__Certainly, megalomaniac belief that the climate can be altered by Man is specious.__Of course, we can POISON the Earth with a nuke war but even that would pass in time - a long time. But we're not going to control the climate. We can't even seed a cloud and get it to rain on demand. We'd be MUCH BETTER OFF spending money looking out for Earth orbit intercepting meteors and developing ways to thwart THEM - a MUCH better use of time.

Posted by: zickzack | October 17, 2009 5:00 PM
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"These cons don't care about science. Their main priority, all along, has been to scare everyone onto being good little stewards of the earth."

You mean there is something wrong with being good stewards of our household?

There are a few dozen genuine dissenters who have enough expertiseto knopw what they are talking about.

Then there are the hundreds who work in a lab or have a degree in chemistry, biology, or some other merginally-related field who can plausibly be called "scientists" and signed on to confuse the public about the state of the art in climate change.

Who signed them on? Lobbyists, Astroturf groups, and politicians in the pocket of the oil and energy industry.

Aren't you ashamed of letting these lead you by the nose?

But over there - "X" - he didn't need to be led by the nose, he came along willingly.

Because he likes the status quo, and fears change and the future.

Because he has an inbred hate for government and collective action.

Because he doesn't realize how much collective action in the past created the environment he regards as natural, which renders him dependent on the private interests who control his options, determining in significant but unseen ways his fate.

Poor fools.

Posted by: j2hess | October 17, 2009 4:32 PM
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Mr Detchon is the "vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation" and this is the analogy he comes up with? The tides are right there for all to see. They can be measured, they occur in repeatable patterns. We have hundreds of years of data that varies very little. You can almost set your watch by the tides. Compare that with the very uncertain conjecture associate with his claims. If this passes for science, I am very worried for all of us. The computer models that are relied on for the dire predictions are wrong over and over again. The same people who make the models the basis for their draconian solutions would never invest their own money based on similarly shoddy financial models. I don't care about the conspiracy theories on either side. I just want to see a public debate of the actual science. All we ever hear is "the debate is over," or "thousands of scientists say," or "the science is clear." When will the folks making the GWG claims actually address the seams in the "consensus" science??????

Posted by: phiggits | October 17, 2009 12:36 PM
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Show me the money. Where is the money in for people who are concerned about climate change? We know where they money is for the status quo folks, they keep the price of dirty energy lower than the cost of conservation, wind, and solar entergy, and there are billions in profits in that pot to be shared by just a few, but where are the billions in saving energy? The idea that this is socialist plot is the work of sick minds, fools, and people who cheer when they find out that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned an average of $575 million last year, and they paid off congress to get an $80 million tax break. There is a real conspiracy. The paranoids don't trust their own government, but trust George Bush who bailed out Goldman Sachs and AIG, the same guy that added about $8 trillion to our national debt, and kept the debt for the Iraq war off the books. Why would liberals try to trick you with science when you are so easy to tick into paying the share of taxes that hedge fund managers should pay but don't? Do you really not know that one person gets a tax break, someone else gets a large tax bill? Who is going to pay for all those nukes you want? You.

If liberals were tying to trick you they would organize a Ronald Reagan Club to visit George Bush in Texas, and them just run off with the money. Look at this way, both Clinton and Bush cut taxes on the super rich. Did you get a big tax cut? No? Well, then you have to pay what they did, or we have to cut defense department or college spending which your kids might need, or just add to the debt we owe China, and let your kids pay it off. That is the deal you voted for? I hope the global warming toy they gave you play with provides you with comfort when your kids ask, "Dad, why did you poison the world we have to live in." You can explain that you trusted a politician bought and paid for by big business, and figured a scientist with nothing go gain was a liar. Hey, maybe we can start a flat world club for you. Until we get one, don't get too close to the edge.

Posted by: harrisonppicot | October 17, 2009 11:46 AM
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Aha! Even if AGW predictions turn out to be exaggerated, or based on a poor understanding of global climate complexity - its still worth making all of these trillion dollar economic changes FOR OTHER REASONS (for the greater good). For the Green cause.

Now we start to see why skeptical scientists get ignored, shunned, or get their heads bitten off for sharing contrarian research.

The truth starts to come out. These cons don't care about science. Their main priority, all along, has been to scare everyone onto being good little stewards of the earth.

This panel is so stacked in favor of Green leftist "Warmists" that it reeks.

Posted by: Parker1227 | October 17, 2009 5:53 AM
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Problem for this entire forum is that it ignores thousands of scientists who have as much evidence of cooling as the manufacturers of the "warming crisis" have of warming. Follow the money. Every advocate of the warming theory draws his endowment, salary and political control from the warming side of this issue.

Perhaps if Al Gore wasn't shilling for the theory that's building a personal fortune for himself and his pals, not to mention introducing the Left-Wing control over our lifestyles the Left has desired for so long, it could be better believed. Every single contributor in this series is in hock to the side of warming, albeit with minor lip service to the degree of warming, without ANY explanation to the fact that warming halted in 1989 and in fact cooling is now in great evidence. Sorry, Gents. It's a sham.

You may now resume your regularly smug and self-serving lecture to the rest of us now.

Posted by: JamesChristian | October 17, 2009 4:00 AM
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Reid, how do you account for the fact that there is far more than enough "greenhouse" gas in the atmosphere (primarily water vapor) needed to capture all the available long wave energy radiation from earth? Adding more CO2 is like pulling down the 200th blind over a window - there's just no more light to be blocked. Can't you simply agree with the Copenhagen framers that it's about wealth transfer to developing countries with the UN as the middleman?

Posted by: RickW4 | October 16, 2009 8:59 PM
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