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Matthieu Miossec

Doctoral Student - Genetic Medecine (Congenital Heart Disease),

TEDCRED 100+

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Has the global warming debate been settled?

It is clear that the issue of anthropogenic global warming is still not fully accepted by a wide part of the general public and a select few academics. In light of the available data on global warming, is it safe to declare the debate settled or are there reasons to be intelligently sceptical?

The question is not so much whether we should be having a debate about specific aspects of global warming, that much is obvious, but whether we can factually speak of anthropogenic global warming.

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    Feb 19 2011: I think the better question is, given the facts we have, what action is crucial now. (Granted, it would be nice to know what human activities lead to warming, to enable accurate prediction of how different global development scenarios will play out)

    For me (as a product designer trying to understand how I can help) I don't care whether humans are implicated or not -- I can act based on well established facts:

    1) Average warming is happening.

    2) CO2 (a known greenhouse gas) levels are higher than recorded previously by humans.

    Both points one and two are well documented (on TED.com and elsewhere), and not contested by the scientific community.

    3) Oil consumption is increasing, while oil supply is simultaneously decreasing. There is some question as to when peak oil production will occur, and what effect this will have. However, there is little disagreement that oil is finite, and that we are using it up.

    4) Using up oil tends to produce CO2 -- particularly because we burn it directly, or turn it into by-products (solvents, fertilizers, and lubricants) which tend to be burned or decompose into CO2.

    5) On top of that, an oil-fueled world tends not to develop the sorts of biomass-heavy ecosystems (like prairies) which naturally sequester carbon.

    My job as a product designer is to provide tools which give customers the resiliency to thrive despite changes to their situation.

    My customer's situation is changing: Oil-fueled, oil-manufactured products will be increasingly difficult to afford (3) and will in all likelihood, lead to bigger, harder problems for my customer to respond to (1,2,4).

    Therefore, I should be working to create products which not only actively reduce the need for oil in their production or usage, but also foster the sort of ecosystems that can reduce atmospheric carbon. I think this strategy can be applied broadly.

    I am writing and researching at Humblefacture.com to give designers the tools, materials, and frameworks to meet this need.
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      Feb 19 2011: That's a good attitude to follow. It reminds me of some of what Naomi Klein said about what our strategy should be faced with global warming in her TEDtalk.

      Maybe the word 'issue' would have been better than 'debate'.
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    Feb 21 2011: Perhaps we could narrow (or make more precise) the meaning o the word 'debate' here.

    Climatology is a science dealing with a complex system. It is by no way settled or complete. We are learning
    new facts, launching more satellites, getting better computers. In this sense, it still starting to getting hold on its subject.
    There are aspects, or mechanisms, which are understood and settled. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. That is known and understood since beginning of 20th century. See http://www.aip.org/history/climate/summary.htm

    What is not settled at all is what (if anything) to do about it. Do we need geoingeneering, now or soon?
    Do we need ETS aka cap&trade and how high tax on emission should be? That is economy &politics, and
    politics is hardly ever settled (except in a totalitarian regime :-)
    I would say, that there is well established fact (settled fact) that certain fossil fuel companies are funding disinformation campaign, to minimize public perception of likely negative impact of climate change on our life and life of future generation.
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      Feb 22 2011: Yes sadly that's almost certainly true. One can draw many parallels with the tobacco industry which for a long time tried to downplay the risks associated with smoking.

      We're talking about science here so when I mean settled I mean to ask: is there a rock solid foundation to our understanding of the climate crisis. Obviously one does need to know the devil in the details to begin taking action. What we should do about it, as you said, definitely isn't settled and I worry that as long as the general public is divided on the issue we can't expect much in terms of preventive action.
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    Mar 1 2011: It seems that the short-sighted political propagators of the greed machine must find incentives to expand their visions to include the melting icebergs and drowning polar bears, if sustaining our planet is not motivating enough for them.
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    Feb 28 2011: so long as science is improving all current conclusions are tentative and subject to change. yes, science has given us good models that help us think about the world constructively, but it is inherently a speculative sport.
  • Feb 17 2011: The debate is by no means settled. The only thing everybody agrees on is the fact that climate is changing. From that point on, there are differing views as to where and why it is changing, what if anything we should do about it, and even whether the changes are of net benefit or net detriment. Sadly, the whole discussion has become so politicized it has been turned into a religion, and arguing about the existence of someone's god is an exercise in frustration. Both sides in the climate change debate cherry pick factoids -- in and out of context -- to bolster their argument.

    Put me in the "I don't know" camp. But I do know that whether or not climate change is partly or completely anthropogenic and whether the net effect is positive or negative, I don't trust governments to "correct" the "problem" any more than I trust them to manage the economy or to deliver efficient healthcare. And if the corrupt and unwieldy United Nations is involved, look out!
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      Feb 19 2011: I would agree with two of your statements:
      -The debate has become way too politicized. I would like nothing more than for it to be treated as a scientific question such as it is. Obviously one can understand why it has became so politicized in the first place as the potential implications of global warming could affect people's lives directly.
      -Having a disscussion about global warming that takes into account people's theological beliefs is a futile exercise as its not based on any natural source.
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    Feb 17 2011: by definition a debate is on going. besides no it has not.
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      Feb 17 2011: please elaborate...
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        Feb 18 2011: as you said, "In light of the available data on global warming, is it safe to declare the debate settled or are there reasons to be intelligently skeptical?" so by settled you mean, the data is certain right?

        Seeing as how there are so many people on both sides I take that as a good indication that the data isn't certain, thus the debate continues. however, I may err in drawing such a conclusion.

        So it comes down to examining the data it's self. and from what I've seen it's all very very uncertain - some data points too it some data doesn't.

        So the debate is not settle and the data isn't certain. thats what I meant.
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          Feb 19 2011: Your position assumes that all people's opinions on matters of scientific evidence are equally valid, that they have looked up all the available data and have the means to understand this data. It's a dangerous assumption to make. To use one example, science has settled the issue of how species arise and change over time; the theory of evolution, but at the same time, there still is a large amount of people in the US who reject evolution and embrace creationism instead.
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          Feb 19 2011: Matthiew's point is well taken here, and I think addresses Jordan's statement that a debate is ongoing.

          However, I think the real issue that Jordan may be alluding to, is whether a "debate" is the proper mechanism to determine if global warming is anthropogenic or not. Debates are fundamentally subjective -- they are designed for questions to which quantitative data cannot be obtained. This is why they are done in front of audiences, who act as detectors of the direction in which the debate is swinging.

          Science, unfortunately, is also incapable of definitively proving hypotheses -- only disproving alternative hypotheses. Disprove enough alternatives, and you can assume the plausible remaining option is correct.

          Evolution is a great example. Yes, it cannot be demonstrated definitively that every orderly transition between species which we observe within the fossil record is the result of arbitrary accumulation of genetic traits over massive spans of time, and millions of generations of selection and re-selection. But this is the most compelling hypothesis which is not disproved by all available hard data. So we hold it as correct.

          Luckily, we may not need the debate "settled" to pursue prudent, reasonable action -- see a more thorough explanation above.