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[personal profile] benveniste
First, a few ground rules. If your mind is already made up and doesn’t want to get confused, please don’t respond. I don’t care if you deny the basic science of the effects of CO2, expect a dues ex machina to fix it for mankind, or want to fine and jail people who disagree with a “set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on.” Please, move on.

Instead, I want to demonstrate why the debate over Global Warming/Climate Change is so badly formed by looking at a small part of it. Specifically, the tragic situation in a small atoll called the Carteret Islands. As the cliché goes, the islands may very soon “slip quietly beneath the waves.” At last count, somewhere between 1500 and 2500 people live on the islands.

If you’ve read about the Carteret Islands at all, you’ve probably encountered terms such as the inhabitants being “the first climate change refugees.” The vast majority of the articles assert that the cause of this tragedy is rising ocean levels due to human activity. It’s also the basic premise behind Sun Come Up, a recent academy award nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject.

But when I went looking for the data, I found myself in for a bit of a surprise. Outside of the current observable conditions, there just ain’t a lot of it to be had. Here’s what I did find:

• This has been a known problem since at least the early 1970’s, when a storm cut the island of Huene in half. In 1984 the government of Papua New Guinea started small-scale evacuations and relocations, but the families returned in 1989. There have been other attempts as well.
• Over the same period of time, ocean levels have been rising worldwide.
• A 2010 study of 27 Central Pacific Atolls showed that 4 had decreased in land area. The others had either increased in land area or stayed the same.

Here’s what I didn’t find:

• Any hard data on the ocean level at the Carterets. The nearest station I could find data for is Kapingamarangi, some 400 miles to the North. Since 1978, it showed an average rise in ocean level of about 2.6mm/year. This is not significantly different from the worldwide average and is not sufficient to account for the current rate at which the islands are “sinking.” However, some readings in the Solomon Islands, only slightly further away to the Southeast, show a rate roughly double that.
• Any hard plate tectonic data for the area near the islands. It’s clearly an active area in that regard; in the last decade there have been 3 magnitude 6.5+ within 200 miles, including a 7.5 just yesterday.
• Any hard data on the effects of human habitation. 1500-2500 people are a lot to squeeze onto less than 150 acres of land. That’s a considerably higher population density than places like Bermuda or Malta. There are reports of the Carteret inhabitants using dynamite fishing, resulting in reef destruction. There are also claims that increasingly intensive agriculture has depleted fresh water aquifers, allowing more salt water in, or may have interfered with coral’s natural ability to “create land” to compensate for ocean rise. Even if I had such data, I would lack the science to even guess at what contribution such human activity would have.

While facts are indeed stubborn things, so too are people with a cause. When, as is the case here, there are simply not enough facts to either verify or falsify any position, science yields to politics. People want easy, tidy answers. To put it more harshly, even honest people “cherry pick” the facts they like and try to fill in the rest with assumptions and unproved theories. If they are less honest, they simply make shit up.

There are few points to be gained by advancing a theory based on plate tectonics. The motion of the earth’s lithosphere isn’t something humans can control. While more monitoring capability would be welcome in this geographic area, our ability to predict shifts and quakes is so limited that there would be no choice but to continue the evacuation.

Papua New Guinea is a not a wealthy country – so there are few political points to be had by advancing a theory based on overpopulation and environmental mismanagement.

The theory which does have “legs” politically is climate change. Climate change activists point out, correctly, that CO2 and ocean levels have been rising. However, from their statements on the Carterets you’d never know that even their most aggressive models don’t account for the observed rate of erosion. Climate change skeptics point out, equally correctly, that either of the other theories can explain what we’re seeing and cherry pick their studies as well.

I feel this is a microcosm of the overall debate. Both sides of the climate change debate have strong financial incentives to “win” the debate. Climate change activists continue to push for immediate action based on non-falsifiable models, despite their inability to adequate explain the recent “pause” and the unreliability of data more than a few decades old. Their justification for this is that if we wait to be sure, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

Climate change skeptics, on the other hand, haven’t done any better at coming up with a falsifiable model, preferring to accuse the activists of “crying wolf” based on their own data cherry picking. They point out, also correctly, that many publicly stated goals of the activists aren’t currently achievable at any reasonable cost and that China is already publicly committed to a “last mover” strategy to reap short-term economic interests.

So what we end up is a controversy formed on emotion and short-term self interest instead of science. Rather working together to determine what steps make sense to take now, what research needs to be done, and come up with scenarios based on that research, each side is presenting conflicting absolute positions.

While the game playing goes on, the Carterets will continue to sink and CO2 levels will continue to rise, and I’ll continue to wonder if any of the players care about anything except “winning” or “losing.”
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