A televised red-blue debate on climate change?

One of the topics that came up while I was on the road for the past month. Haven’t seen anything more on it this past week, so this post may be “kicking a dead horse.” (In any case, this horse deserves to die.)

A bit of world news from July 11:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the early stages of launching a debate about climate change that could air on television – challenging scientists to prove the widespread view that global warming is a serious threat, the head of the agency said.

The move comes as the administration of President Donald Trump seeks to roll back a slew of Obama-era regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and begins a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement – a global pact to stem planetary warming through emissions cuts.

“There are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered (about climate change),” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.

“Who better to do that than a group of scientists… getting together and having a robust discussion for all the world to see,” he added without explaining how the scientists would be chosen…

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Dictionaries tell us that debates are public discussions involving opposing points of view, or formal contests in which affirmative and negative views of a proposition are presented by opposing speakers. Google the expression “famous debates,” and you’ll be treated to a host of links, mainly reserved for presidential campaigns (think Kennedy-Nixon or Bush-Gore), with the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate thrown in for good measure.

Not bad! Debates are best reserved for topics where there is no single right answer, or where audience judgment matters – like “I’d make a better president than that person.” As for those formal contests, such as high-school and college debates, the rules for judging and scoring these over the years have grown progressively more arcane .

But when it comes to questions such as “What will nature do next?,” where the answer matters, and where nature, not any human judge or audience, is the final arbiter, then a common search for truth is a better approach than debate.

Meteorologists have long known this. A fixture in the profession is the so-called map discussion, dating back to a time when meteorologists in a weather bureau office at the start of a work-shift would take the latest analysis of weather conditions and/or a numerical forecast, spread it over a table, and hold a group discussion of what it portended in terms of weather challenges and impacts. For example, will today be that one day in a hundred that will spawn a tornado in the afternoon? Where will that hurricane bearing down on the coast make landfall, and will it be at high tide or low tide? Will the coming winter storm intensify or dissipate? (Today such discussions might take place in front of computer monitors but the idea holds and the routine followed.) The goal was (and remains today) less about winning or losing and more about collectively preparing to provide the best-possible life- and property-saving forecasts to a range of users – from the general public and emergency managers  to farmers to air traffic controllers, state departments of transportation, and water resource managers over the next several hours.

Map discussions aren’t one-off! They’re necessarily ongoing. Weather and climate are inherently chaotic and uncertain. Thus the tornado outlook based on conditions at 8:00 a.m. may have changed substantially by 9:00, as new information comes in. Throughout the day, forecasters will be regrouping and revisiting the discussion hour by hour. In the same way hurricanes will be continually monitored as they approach landfall, with forecasters looking for each slight shift in direction, any slowing or acceleration of the hurricane along the track, sometimes every few hours over as much as a week or two.

The process scales up. A morning tornado outlook? By the end of same work-shift, nature will make it apparent how insightful the meteorologists (considered as a team) had been. Meteorologists may see a hurricane or winter storm coming days or even a week or so in advance, and revisiting its progress every several hours. Put the ocean in play, and the outlook for a coming cold- or warm season comes into focus: its likelihood of being colder or warmer, or wetter or drier, than the norm. Introduce human behavior in the mix – fossil fuel use, level of economic activity, consumption of resources, modification of landscapes and ecosystems, etc. – and it’s possible to draw inferences about changes in climate over decades or centuries. Each forecast on each time scale prompts its own, commensurate map discussion. Each takes longer to verify (or come a cropper), but in each instance, nature, not any human or group, is the ultimate arbiter.

Even that lattermost one – the prospects for, and the nature of, natural and human-induced climate variability and change.

Climate change has triggered a map-table discussion of truly global proportions – conducted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Thousands of scientists from all over the world build their data and models and carry out research to contribute. And the world’s peoples, though their leaders, and through their respective governments (hence Intergovernmental), run the show and sign off. Of course, it scales up from that tornado discussion. There the forecasters might be huddling in a group of no more than a dozen. Each meteorologist speaks for minutes or seconds in turn; the whole conversation is over quickly. Climate offers more time, and demands more attention. And it can’t be done just once, any more than that tornado forecast. In the climate case, each iteration takes a few years, not a few minutes. That’s enough time for learning, not just time for the accumulation of new data. The “map discussion” was started in 1988 with the first IPCC assessment provided in 1990. The sixth IPCC assessment is scheduled for completion in 2022. (The IPCC has held 45 meetings over the same period.)

U.S. leaders are free to shape American participation in and review of the process in any of a number of sensible ways. The process certainly doesn’t need to be reinvented – or for that matter thoughtlessly and blasphemously trivialized, by a brief, necessarily superficial televised debate.

“…a group of scientists… getting together and having a robust discussion for all the world to see?” That’s exactly what the periodic UN/IPCC Assessments already provide. Let’s not settle for less! Let’s not belittle nature and her vital role in human affairs, by attempting to reduce climate change to something no more consequential than another episode of The Apprentice.

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