Watch “Degrees of Uncertainty,” an Animated Documentary about Climate Science, Uncertainty & Knowing When to Trust the Experts

We should just trust the experts. But wait: to iden­ti­fy true exper­tise requires its own kind of even more spe­cial­ized exper­tise. Besides, experts dis­agree with each oth­er, and over time dis­agree with them­selves as well. This makes it chal­leng­ing indeed for all of us non-experts — and we’re all non-experts in the fields to which we have not ded­i­cat­ed our lives — to under­stand phe­nom­e­na of any com­plex­i­ty. As for grasp­ing cli­mate change, with its enor­mous his­tor­i­cal scale and count­less many vari­ables, might we as well just throw up our hands? Many have done so: Neil Hal­lo­ran, cre­ator of the short doc­u­men­tary Degrees of Uncer­tain­ty above, labels them “cli­mate denial­ists” and “cli­mate defeatists.”

Cli­mate denial­ists choose to believe that man­made cli­mate change isn’t hap­pen­ing, cli­mate defeatists choose to believe that it’s inevitable, and both there­by let them­selves off the hook. Not only do they not have to address the issue, they don’t even have to under­stand it — which itself can seem a fair­ly daunt­ing task, giv­en that sci­en­tists them­selves express no small degree of uncer­tain­ty about cli­mate change’s degree and tra­jec­to­ry. “The only way to learn how sure sci­en­tists are is to dig in a lit­tle and view their work with some healthy skep­ti­cism,” says Hal­lo­ran. This entails devel­op­ing an instinct not for refu­ta­tion, exact­ly, but for exam­in­ing just how the experts arrive at their con­clu­sions and what pit­falls they encounter along the way.

Often, sci­en­tists “don’t know how close they are to the truth, and they’re prone to con­fir­ma­tion bias,” and as any­one pro­fes­sion­al­ly involved in the sci­ences knows full well, they work “under pres­sure to pub­lish note­wor­thy find­ings.” Their pub­li­ca­tions then find their way to a media cul­ture in which, increas­ing­ly, “trust­ing or dis­trust­ing sci­en­tists is becom­ing a mat­ter of polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty.” As he did in his pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary The Fall­en of World War II, Hal­lo­ran uses ani­ma­tion and data visu­al­iza­tion to illu­mi­nate his own path to under­stand­ing a glob­al occur­rence whose sheer pro­por­tions make it dif­fi­cult to per­ceive.

This jour­ney takes Hal­lo­ran not just around the globe but back in time, start­ing in the year 19,000 B.C. and end­ing in pro­jec­tions of a future in which ring seas swal­low much of Ams­ter­dam, Mia­mi, and New Orleans. The most impor­tant stop in the mid­dle is the Age of Enlight­en­ment and the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion of the 17th through the 19th cen­tu­ry, when sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy rose to promi­nence and brought about  an unprece­dent­ed human flour­ish­ing — with cli­mat­ic con­se­quences that have begun to make them­selves known, albeit not with absolute cer­tain­ty. But as Hal­lo­ran sees it, “uncer­tain­ty, the very thing that clouds our view, also frees us to con­struct pos­si­ble answers.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Map Shows What Hap­pens When Our World Gets Four Degrees Warmer: The Col­orado Riv­er Dries Up, Antarc­ti­ca Urban­izes, Poly­ne­sia Van­ish­es

Music for a String Quar­tet Made from Glob­al Warm­ing Data: Hear “Plan­e­tary Bands, Warm­ing World”

A Cen­tu­ry of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in a 35 Sec­ond Video

Cli­mate Change Gets Strik­ing­ly Visu­al­ized by a Scot­tish Art Instal­la­tion

The Pra­do Muse­um Dig­i­tal­ly Alters Four Mas­ter­pieces to Strik­ing­ly Illus­trate the Impact of Cli­mate Change

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • ralph ellis says:

    Re: Ice Ages were mod­u­lat­ed by ice-sheet albe­do, not by CO2

    This is cor­rect, CO2 not nec­es­sar­i­ly the pri­ma­ry con­trol knob — as I have demon­strat­ed in my peer-review paper. In real­i­ty, the feed­back agent mod­u­lat­ing ice ages is prob­a­bly ice-sheet dust-albe­do.

    Free down­load of peer-review paper avail­able:
    Mod­u­la­tion of Ice Ages via Dust and Albe­do.

    The first prob­lem with ice ages is:
    When CO2 con­cen­tra­tions were high the world cooled, and when CO2 was low the world warmed. This counter-intu­itive tem­per­a­ture response strong­ly sug­gests that CO2 is not the pri­ma­ry feed­back agent.

    The sec­ond prob­lem with ice ages is:
    Ice ages are forced by increased Milankovitch inso­la­tion in the North­ern Hemi­sphere (NH), but nev­er by increased inso­la­tion in the South­ern Hemi­sphere. If CO2 were the pri­ma­ry feed­back agent inter­glacials could and would be forced by increased inso­la­tion in either hemi­sphere, but they are not. The fact that inter­glacials are only ever NH events, strong­ly sug­gests that sur­face albe­do is the pri­ma­ry feed­back agent (the great land­mass­es being in the NH), rather than CO2.

    The third prob­lem with ice ages is:
    Dur­ing an ice age, many NH Milankovitch max­i­ma pro­duce lit­tle or tem­per­a­ture response. Again, this would be unlike­ly if CO2 was the pri­ma­ry feed­back agent, but it is to be expect­ed if sur­face albe­do was the pri­ma­ry feed­back. High albe­do ice sheets cov­ered in fresh snow can and will reject the increased inso­la­tion from a NH Milankovitch max­i­mum, result­ing in lit­tle or no tem­per­a­ture response.
    Unless, of course, the ice sheets are some­how cov­ered in dust, thus reduc­ing their albe­do. For­tu­itous­ly, the north­ern ice sheets do indeed get cov­ered in dust just before each and every inter­glacial. This is the top­ic of my ice age mod­u­la­tion paper — the counter-intu­itive method of dust pro­duc­tion, and its func­tion as the pri­ma­ry feed­back agent con­trol­ling inter­glacial warm­ing.

    The fourth prob­lem with ice ages is:
    The CO2 is a very weak feed­back agent indeed. Dur­ing an inter­glacial warm­ing era, the CO2 feed­back requires warm­ing from decade to decade, to feed­back-force tem­per­a­tures into the next (warmer) decade. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the CO2 feed­back is only 0.007 W/m2 per decade, which is less ener­gy than a bee requires to fly.
    Con­verse­ly, reduced albe­do ice sheets can absorb an extra 200 W/m2 every sin­gle annu­al year, when mea­sured region­al­ly. Clear­ly the albe­do feed­back is far stronger than the pro­posed CO2 feed­back, and could indeed dis­si­pate the vast north­ern ice sheets in about 6,000 years.

    All of the above points strong­ly sug­gest that ice sheet albe­do is the pri­ma­ry feed­back agent mod­u­lat­ing inter­glacials, rather than CO2.

    Increased dust is caused by low CO2 con­cen­tra­tions, because CO2 is plant-food, and the most essen­tial gas in the atmos­phere. Thus low CO2 con­cen­tra­tions cause the death of all C3 veg­e­ta­tion at high alti­tude, caus­ing CO2 deserts to form across the Gobi plateau. Dust from these CO2 deserts formed the huge dust deposits of the Loess Plateau, and also cov­ered the north­ern ice sheets in dust — which low­ered the albe­do of the ice sheets and pre­cip­i­tat­ed melt­ing.

    See peer-review paper:
    Mod­u­la­tion of Ice Ages via Dust and Albe­do.

    Ralph Ellis

    This is the ‘mon­ey-graph’ for ice ages.
    CO2 is direct­ly pro­por­tion­al to inv-log dust.
    The infer­ence being, that CO2 con­cen­tra­tions con­trol dust,
    …by mod­u­lat­ing high­er alti­tude veg­e­ta­tion.


    Sent from my iPad

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