The three S’s of climate change: Simple, Serious and Solvable

Just after finishing last post, I found a link to a video of an actual debate between a alarmist and an skeptic.

denning 2016-08-31

The debate was between Scott Denning (from the alarmist side) and Jay Lehr (from the skeptical side). My respect for Denning who debated for the alarmist side. That is not the easiest thing to do in a room full of skeptics. The theme was the 10th anniversary of “An inconvenient Truth”. Although it was not a particularly thrilling debate and rather long (90+ minutes) I took it to task to watch it until the end.

There was however one thing that really caught my attention. Scott Denning said at 05:35 (after explaining that his disagreements with the movie are mostly on matters of emphasis rather than accuracy):

The way I prefer to talk about climate change, I call it the three S’s of climate change. Easy to remember, three words, they all start with the letter “S”:

  1. Simple
  2. Serious
  3. Solvable

He referenced a couple times to the three S’s throughout the video, so it seemed important to him.

With all respect, but I don’t actually agree with any of those three. I also notice some order in those three points and uncertainties will increase when advancing through this list.

  1. Simple

    He tells that the basic story is simple and gave two examples. One was a simple equation (heat inheat out = change of heat), the other a pot of water on a stove heating up. While I have no problem agreeing that the temperature of water in a pot will rise when heated on a stove or that heat in minus heat out equals the change of heat, I am not convinced that this accurately describes what is happening in the climate system. Those things are of course straight forward in a linear system, but is our climate system such a simple, linear system? In the line with his three S’s, I could say that I prefer to talk about climate as the three C’s:

    1. Complex
      It consists of thousands, maybe even millions, elements. Some known and accounted for, some not. Some investigated, some not. Some quantified, some not.
    2. Coupled
      They interact with each other. Change one and others will change too. That will give a not-linear response.
    3. Chaotic
      We can’t figure out how all these interactions works and therefor we perceive it as “chaotic”.

    But the real issue is not that temperatures went up, but that temperatures went up because of our emissions. The fact that temperatures went up since 1850 doesn’t necessarily mean that our emissions did it. The question is how much is the influence of the extra CO2? This is a different question than the one he claims is the “basic story” and it will not so simple to answer it knowing that:

    • The subject of study is the long term global trend in a complex, coupled and chaotic system
    • Only limited reliable global data has been gathered (and mostly after the supposed effect occurred)
    • Historical data is increasingly sparse and spatial coverage uneven when going back in time and prone to (re)interpretations
    • It is a subject that spans many disciplines in science.

    Another problem is that it takes experimental research to determine cause and effect. With one Earth that will not be possible. Mathematical models came to the rescue, but how on earth can we model an inherent chaotic system and then think that the outcome is somehow relevant to reality?

    In summary, I would seriously doubt that climate change is “simple”, especially if one wants to provide proof that human emissions are the cause and that is what he seems to assume looking at the next two points.

  2. Serious

    This is explained as:

    Less than 10% of the fossil fuels have been burned. The question is not how much climate change has happened until now, but whether we are to burn the other 90%.

    It builds on the previous assumption that climate change is simple and that human emissions from fossil fuels are to blame for the higher temperatures until now. Under those assumptions, yes, the issue is serious and, yes, we should stop burning fossil fuels, otherwise risk heating ourselves into oblivion. Problem is that this initial assumption was already based on a misrepresentation of the nature of climate change and this is sneaked in the next two points.

    Whether (catastrophic) (anthropogenic) change is dangerous or not will be hard to prove anyway. We have never been in a situation where CO2 levels went from 280 to 400, so we have no direct experience what will happen. Also here, mathematical models come to the rescue, but again, these are models of an complex, coupled, chaotic system. These are undoubtedly useful for research purposes, but I doubt that they represent reality well.

    Dealing with such uncertainty, we can not know whether or how serious this change (caused by this extra CO2) will turn out to be.

  3. Solvable

    This is again building on the previous assumption that it is serious (which we can not know at this point), which in turn is building on the assumption that it is simple (which is unfounded and based on a straw man).

    It is brought as:

    We know what to do, we have the technology.

    Sure, IF we know what to do and we already have the technology, then the problem is solvable. He also claim that economists calculated that it was cheaper to do something now than later: “replacing fossil fuels over the next couple generations probably reduce global GDP by 1%” while it “will cost 25% in the size of the economy by 2100” (meaning 5 times the great recession of 2008-2009) when doing nothing.


    I almost fell from my chair hearing that. So basically, we toss out the life blood of our current economy, replace it with something that needs buckets full of subsidies to keep it going and we then end up only needing 1% of GDP while we will loose 25 times more when we do nothing? I would like to see all the assumptions that went into this equation…

    Under our current uncertainty, it also possible we don’t have a problem to solve at all. When we want to advance with this “it is solvable” claim, it has to be proven that:

    • Temperatures are rising because of the extra CO2 from our emissions
    • This increase in temperature is dangerous enough to act upon
    • This increase can be undone using current technology.

    I think it will be hard to prove any of those three, let alone all three.

The three assumptions have the same foundation: they all ignore uncertainty. It is all figured out already. In reality we can not possibly sure of any of these things, yet these are presented as facts.

Hey, it is a simple story, it is a serious problem, but don’t worry, we already have the answers.

That sounds more like politics than like science to me.


2 thoughts on “The three S’s of climate change: Simple, Serious and Solvable

  1. manicbeancounter

    If the climate problem is solvable, why have the governments of the world collectively failed come up with a solution? By a solution, why do the the sum of all policies fail to even stop global emissions from rising, let alone get global emissions falling in a way consistent with the 2C or 1.5C pathways?
    The UNFCCC produced a graphic that clearly demonstrates the gap after the Paris COP21 talks


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      That is a very good question. If we know what to do, have the technology and to doing something now cost 25 times less than to do nothing, then why didn’t/don’t we do something?

      One possibility is that not all politicians believe this optimistic story or that in reality it is not that straight forward as proposed.

      But in the best case, in the assumption that politicians today believe those three arguments on face value, they are still working on the short time (the next 4-5 years), while the good professor is thinking on the long term (the next 85 years).

      This means that politicians see a cost today for doing the transition to another energy source (which is expensive) and on the short term doing nothing means no extra cost.

      Even if they believe that it costs less to do something, then the “advantage” (which is in fact a cost not to be paid, but in the far future), while the costs of doing something will need to be paid today.

      Just my 2 cents.



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