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The Poker Player's Guide to Climate Change

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Friday, the National Academies (the nation's leading scientific body) released a study that dug into source data for graphs like the following:

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The study's getting attention because graphs like this are Exhibit A in the argument that temperatures have spiked in the past few decades. The National Academies' conclusions boil down to this:

  • The temperature line is correct (based on data currently available).
  • The band around the line (i.e. uncertainty) gets thicker as you back in time, especially before 1600 and again before 900 - because we have less data and the data we have is less reliable.
  • We need to keep working to get better data - especially before 900.

    In other words, no news - not to the scientific community, anyway. Needless to say, Sen. Inhofe (OK-R) and his cabal have tried to spin this study as proof that global warming is a "hoax."

    There are plenty of reasons why Inhofe's claim is absurd and this whole issue is a red herring. RealClimate does a terrific job of explaining why, much of which the press has picked up (NYT, WSJ, the Huffington Post. But there's an important point that coverage seems to have missed: this study is basically a reminder of uncertainty (i.e. the band around the line) and, as our inner poker player knows, when stakes are high (i.e. the whole planet), uncertainty isn't our friend, it's our enemy. The pre-1850 band extends up - and down. When more data comes in, the comparison's as likely to make our situation look worse as it is better.

    So is uncertainty an excuse for inaction, as Inhofe would argue? Let's see ... You're driving up a mountain with the cliff's edge ten feet to the right, drifting towards the edge. Scenario 1: it's daytime. Scenario 2: it's dark and foggy, the edge may be 20 feet away - or inches. How, Senator Inhofe, is Scenario 2 an argument to keep drifting to the right?

    For me, that's a takeaway from this study that's missing in the press coverage:

  • Science's best estimate remains unchanged: the cliff's edge is probably ten feet to the right (and we're drifting to the right).
  • It's dark and foggy, so let's be extra cautious. The edge could be twenty feet away - or inches (turn left, now).
  • Let's do more work to get better visibility on the cliff's edge (but with stakes this high, uncertainty isn't an excuse for inaction; we can't afford to keep drifting while we figure it out).

    One more thing. We expect idiocy from Sen. Inhofe. But it's sad when a thoughtful journalist like Antonio Regalado (WSJ) plays into Sen. Inhofe's hands. Let's compare two articles - Regalado's and Andrew C. Revkin's (NYT).

    NYT Headline: "Panel Supports a Controversial Report on Global Warming"

    WSJ Headline: "Panel Study Fails to Settle Debate on Past Climates"

    NYT lead: "An influential and controversial paper asserting that recent warming in the Northern Hemisphere was probably unrivaled for 1,000 years was endorsed Thursday, with a few reservations, by a panel convened by the nation's pre-eminent scientific body."

    WSJ lead: "An expert panel called on to resolve a politically charged scientific debate said that the key conclusion of a widely cited study of past temperatures is "plausible" but not proved."

    Regalado then gives plenty of airtime to Sen. Inhofe and other skeptics, who - wrongly - spin this report as a triumph, and he doesn't point out the absurdities of their claim. He also makes liberal use of the "hockey stick" reference - using it six times. To the WSJ's audience, used to looking at financial projections, "hockey stick" is code for "dubious."

    Innocuous case of glass half-full versus half-empty? Not when the glass is a distraction from the real issue, which happen's to be a cliff's edge. Regalado should know better than to take a sip while the car keeps drifting, for a bunch of reasons. Not the least of which is that anyone writing for a financial journal should think in terms of uncertainty vs. size of the stakes. If he doesn't think that way, I'd love to get him across a poker table. But I sure wouldn't want him chauffeuring me up a mountain on a foggy night.