Food Science, Climate Science and Politics

02/27/2012 05:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2012
  • Chris Ladd Republican Precinct Committeeman, Illinois

As I kid I liked to get up early with Grandma and sit with her in the kitchen while she cooked breakfast. She'd give me coffee, southern-style -- thin, sweet and creamy. It was a treat because it was so wrong. Coffee, as any medical professional could have explained at the time, stunted your growth. Breakfast, by the way, was always the same; sausage and bacon with eggs, biscuits and gravy. My grandparents lived into their eighties and nineties respectively in daily defiance of scientific wisdom.

I grew at a reasonable pace.

You can still find medical websites repeating the advice that gave rise to the 'stunt your growth' myth. Coffee drinking was once believed to cause calcium deficiency and bone loss, a tie that is generally discounted now. Rummage through your pantry or refrigerator and you'll find a whole host of items that might be regarded as either a superfood or a health threat, depending on the results of the latest study. Butter, margarine, wine, chocolate, eggs, bread, potatoes, any of them have been shunned or prized at different times based on different research.

Our struggle to make well-informed food choices can shed light on the political challenge of climate change.

Science is a process we use to establish objective facts. Science takes a question like, "what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow" and finds an answer through observation and repeatable experiments. While science is very good at answering a specific question like "how much fat is in this doughnut?" it has a harder time answering complex matrix questions like, "What should I eat?"

Whether this egg is a good choice for me for breakfast this morning depends on a galaxy of variables almost impossible to model adequately in an experiment. My genetic profile, the type of egg, how I cook it, what I ate yesterday or will eat today, my lifestyle, along with innumerable other factors affect the result.

The more variables that affect the outcome, the more difficult it is to construct a meaningful experiment. The farther you get from any experimental capability, the farther you get from reliable scientific results.

Climate science is a matrix of millions of factors interacting in ways that we scarcely understand. Determining how a change in one of those variables will affect the whole is no small challenge. Scientists have been able to build computer models that simulate historical climate patterns with some impressive accuracy, but that is not the same thing as having a genuine experimental capability.

Scientists have successfully established that the Earth's climate is warming. There is almost universal agreement that human carbon emissions represent a factor in that warming. Unfortunately, that is limit of what science has been able to establish with demonstrable precision at this point.

How much warming can we expect, precisely? When? How much of the warming is due to human carbon emissions? What else may be driving up temperatures? What, exactly, would a reduction in carbon emissions to say, 1990 levels, do to our climate if anything? What will warming mean, precisely, in five, eight, ten years to this particular glacier?

Fine research by outstanding scientific professionals has produced answers to these questions that are quite literally all over the map. We're learning how immature the entire field of climate science is and how difficult it is to accurately test their hypotheses.

Along the way we're being reminded that climate change is always occurring. The dramatic warming we've seen over the past century is not unprecedented. According to EPA and IPCC research, global temperatures remain relatively cool compared to their 5,000 year average. We're discovering new forces that shape our climate, like Criegee biradicals that may counter warming in ways we've yet to ascertain. Researchers cannot tell us with confidence that even the most radical proposals will actually bring down temperatures.

The complexities involved in matrix problems such as this help explain why our annual hurricane estimates are utterly useless, why you can't get an accurate weather forecast for next Thursday, and why no one can tell you with scientific precision what you should have for dinner tonight. You don't have to be a mental giant like Einstein, Hawking, or Rick Santorum to recognize that science, for all its value, has some weaknesses. Those weaknesses can be addressed with time and energy, but we have to factor them into present-tense decisions.

If the fix for climate change was as simple as changing a light bulb then the disagreements over these details might not matter much. However, we're being asked to undertake the wholesale re-engineering of the entire global political and economic order.

The left's giddy enthusiasm for climate change makes their position sound just as politically driven and scientifically suspect as Michele Bachmann's support for intelligent design. The solutions proposed by the left seem influenced less by science than by the desire to establish an economic order they have failed to achieve by other means. The competing climate freakouts on the extremes of the left and right are undermining everyone's efforts to formulate sensible policy.

Climate change is a scary prospect, but a highly ambiguous one. We should not undertake an expensive, wholesale economic re-engineering aimed solely at carbon reduction. While we work to understand the true scale, shape, and meaning of climate change we should embrace reforms with powerful secondary benefits, like fuel-efficient technologies, power grid improvements, and exploitation of strategically reliable fuel sources.

Building a vast global bureaucracy for monitoring and rationing carbon is an exceptionally bad idea that in the eyes of future generations is likely to make us look ridiculous. Worse than parachute pants.

Enjoy your coffee, chocolate, red wine and carbon dioxide in moderation and await further scientific bulletins.