This article is Part II of a series that begins with Bob Carter’s Mythology: Introduction. Bob Carter paper “The Myth of Dangerous Human-Caused Climate Change” must be one of the most cited climate change articles on the net. Google returns more than 22,000 links. So I decided to take on the project of reading and critiquing it.
Carter separates his work into a series of sections separated by named subheadings. The headings below correspond to headings Carters uses.
Theory of Climate and How Does Climate Work
Carter’s first two sections seem almost inseparably related to me, so I am addressing them as one unit.
In these sections Carter contends that “there is no established theory of climate in the sense that there is a theory of Newtonian Mechanics”. He may be right. We may not have a theory of climate in the sense that we have a theory of Newtonian Mechanics. We also don’t have a theory of ‘health’ in that sense, yet we still go to the doctor when we get sick. We don’t have a theory of ‘cancer’, yet we treat it and often treat it successfully. We don’t have a theory of ‘cognition’ in the sense Carter suggests, yet hundreds of thousands visit therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists, and at least believe that some good comes of it. We don’t know exactly how the brain works, yet we operate on it and do more good than harm. We don’t have a theory of ’society’ or of ‘politics’ or of ‘government’ as solid as that of Newtonian Mechanics, yet sociologists are gainfully employed, political consultants are not short of funding and various theories of government drive politics around the world.
The point? Carter’s focus on the ‘theory of climate’ and his comparison of it to Newtonian Mechanics is misdirection. It is a red-herring. We don’t have full and complete theories of a lot of things. In fact, we don’t have fully fleshed out and internally consistent theories for most things, yet we manage alright with what we have. In fact, we have no choice but to manage with what we have, and I’d say we are honor bound to make the most of what we have. How many people refuse chemotherapy because doctors don’t have a theory of cancer equivalent to the theory of Newtonian mechanics?
Carter seems to partially anticipate my objection since he begins How Does Climate Work with the question, “If there is no theory of climate, then how much do we know about how climate works?” He answers with ‘[we know] a very great deal, though not yet enough to to predict the future with any certainty’.
Again, Carter is misdirecting. A doctor can’t predict the course of a cancer with any certainty, except in extreme circumstances– and I think Carter would admit that in extreme circumstances we do what the climate will do– yet we treat the cancer. We make a best guess, and do the best we can. An engineer cannot predict whether or not a bridge will fall. If engineers could do so designs would be changed and bridged would never fall. Is engineering flawed for this reason? Is it unwise to listen to the advise of engineers, as they cannot predict the future?
Climate is a tremendously complicated system and its understanding stretches though numerous disciplines, as Carter rightly notes. Comparing such a thing, with hundreds of thousands(?) of parameters, to Newtonian Mechanics, which describes a magnificently simple system having a handful of parameters, is fundamentally flawed. We may never have that kind of understanding of climate. That doesn’t mean that the information we do have is unusable, which seems to be Carter’s (albeit veiled) point.
Come back for Part III.