How Do We Know (Global Warming for Example)

By on October 3rd, 2013 in Ethics, Human Impacts, Societal Impact, Topics

There has been a thread in the SSIT LinkedIn group with a dispute about the question of Global Warming. Needless to say this is an issue with much noise (contributing to global warming?) triggered in part by corporate interests (alternative energy folks vs. folks who might have to pay the bill for carbon sequestration), academic reputations (worse than US Congress deadlocks IMHO), and funding for research.  The initial issue of the posting raised the question (paraphrased) “Can technologists ethically ignore global warming?

Let me dispose of a red-herring point up front: “Human caused” is not the question. If global warming is occurring, and if it creates problems for humanity, then it is something to consider — and this is the scientific basis for taking action.  So we can assume that all persons who focus their dispute on “human cause” agree that global warming is occurring and that it represents a problem for humanity or they would not be focusing on that subordinate point.

Here is the question I see — how does a technologist (presumably not a climate scientist) make decisions in the context of such controversy?  The recent UN Report (2200 pages, complete with a focused Summary for Policy Makers provides a solid, authoritative,  multinational (albeit controversial) set of conclusions.

The controversy raised by Murdoch media holdings (Fox News, WSJ, etc.) focuses on the last 15 years of overall warming data (see that chart set) where the overall upward trend since 1910 does not reflect the same rise.  They accuse the UN of abusing the data by not focusing on this aspect.  Other data (see other charts) such as snow cover, arctic sea ice, ocean heat content and sea level change do not show the same change in trend, they all reflect the impact of climate change.  So, picking your favorite charts, or authorities, or media outlets provides an excuse for your prefered course of action.  But is that ethical?

Lets take a practical engineering example (close to my heart) — rebuilding the river beds in Colorado after the recent flooding.  The “official” perspective was that the 1976 flood was a 100-year flood (worst to be expected every 100 years) and the 2013 flood was a 1000-year flood.  Historically  this might be true, but if climate change is a factor, then the action plan might be different.  Restoring the river bed (for flood control) to the 2012 state assuming the next event is a 100-year flood, is likely to be a different objective than restoring the river bed to address an additional 1000-year event in the near future, or perhaps a 10,000 year event if we hold to a historical model.  This same engineering question (and flood insurance question, and zoning/building permit question) surfaces in every weather triggered disaster over the last few years.  Lives and property will be  impacted by the decisions that the relevant engineers make.

No doubt similar, and unfortunately more subtle, examples can be raised with many of our technology design decisions. Should we maximize the useful life of a device (presumably minimizing it’s environmental impact), or make it ‘disposable’ (with the added increase in future replacement sales?)  What energy generation investments are the most ethical (as opposed to the lowest cost)?  What should the next generation car have (max power, max weight, max MPG, etc.)  These decisions surface in many fields for many technologists and in some cases are decided by these technologists (in some cases management, or marketing makes the calls — although this does not reduce the ethical obligations involved.)

Some salient quotes from the UN report include:

  • “evidence of climate change based on many independent scientific analyses from observations of the climate system, paleoclimate archives, theoretical studies of climate processes and simulations using climate models”
  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased”
  • “Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0-700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971. “
  • “Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent “
  • “The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m”
  • “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times…
  • “Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions”

Needless to say this last conclusion has a direct tie to my flooding example.

So how do technologists decide what “facts” to consider?  Is it ethical to pass the buck to those who are supplying the bucks?  Or to pick your prefered research study or media outlet?  How do you make this decision on the job?  Or in your decision on the location for your home?