When accuracy doesn't matter

I recently read the Alternate View from Analog Magzine’s Nov 2009 issue “Lessons from the Lab” by Jeffery Kooistra. In it, he points out that a survey of surface-temperature monitoring equipment shows that the data has been skewed both by changes in the equipment and where the placement of the equipment violates the NOAA’s own guidelines.

He’s very correct in pointing out how deplorable this is… but then jumps (as he has before) to denouncing global climate change. In this, I think he errs.

There’s one big (scientific) reason for this, and several other (non-scientific) ones.

The scientific reason is pretty simple: The argument for global climate change doesn’t rely on only one set of data. What he reveals by reporting Anthony Watts’ research is, make no mistake, a huge blow to the accuracy of our models. But there’s more to the case than that. The very argument he makes – that manmade structures alter local climate – is a smaller version of the well-documented “heat sink” effect of our paved cities. We’ve seen effects on climate from man-made activities for quite some time (most dramatically, the changes in cloud cover during the no-fly time after 9/11) 1. We can debate exactly what, and how much, impact we’re having on the environment, but humans are having an effect on the environment.

The non-scientific reasons can be summed up by this:
We can talk about how Cleveland used to have a river that burned – but has a clean river now. Or the runoff that made the creek by my great-grandparent’s house a brilliant orange – but is now clean and clear. Or we can talk about upcoming energy crises – which may be closer than we fear. It’s ironic that in the very same issue, there’s a story featuring protagonists who explicitly talk about exponential discounting.

My life has been roughly as long as the modern environmental movement – and so I can just remember how bad things used to be. Maybe the effects of global climate change won’t be as big as we fear. But the actions we take to minimize them now are also good for the environmental health of the planet. That’s good, of course. But let me make this more clear: We are making the planet healthier for us.

On a very practical level, I don’t care2 – because the results are so desperately needed regardless of what motivates that cause. We are addicted to oil. We are addicted to pollution.

If a prior vice-president can help us break those addiction – which will be good for us – then I have a hard time finding fault with it.

1 It’s surprisingly difficult to find a decent article on such today, simply because there’s so much other crap when you look for relevant terms. This (non-peer reviewed) article has the study I refer to being called into question by a physicist who is comparing apples to oranges… but no direct citation. If you’ve got the citation for the original study, I’d love to see it.
2 Yes, in exactly the same way that I don’t care if a methhead breaks their addiction via a fervent belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.