Asking the Right Questions About Global Warming

By David L. Brown

What are the right answers to global warming and climate change? It depends on what questions are asked — and even more important, how the questions are structured. Vague or what might be called partial questions can bring forth what may seem to be correct answers that are still far off the mark.

To illustrate this, let me weave a little story borrowing some familiar characters (apologies to J.K. Rowling).

It is a fine Tuesday morning at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Professor MacGonagall, dressed in her long green robes, is standing before an attentive Transfiguration class of fourth year students.

“Successful transfiguration requires a clear knowledge of how things are put together,” she says. “To test your knowledge of human anatomy, here is a question for you: How many spaces are there between your toes?”

“Blimey,” says Ron, sticking up his hand. “That’s an easy one.”

“Yes, Weasley?” Professor MacGonagall recognizes him.

“There are four spaces between my five toes,” Ron announces with a grin. But his face falls as Professor MacGonagall shakes her head and tells him that his answer is incorrect.

Smirking, Harry raises his hand and provides what he is certain is the correct answer. “There are eight spaces between my toes,” he asserts triumphantly, elbowing Ron in the ribs and whispering “You’ve got two feet, you moron!”

But MacGonagall is shaking her head again. “No, Potter, that is not the correct answer.” Harry’s jaw drops as Ron elbows him back with a snicker.

Now Hermione raises her hand, giving Ron and Harry a superior glance.

“Yes Miss Grainger,” says Professor MacGonagall. “What is your answer?”

“There are nine spaces between my toes,” Hermione says. The class reacts with looks of surprise and a few giggles that travel around the room; Draco Malfoy snorts loudly. But the room grows quiet again as Professor MacGonagall smiles and nods.

“Please explain how you arrived at the correct answer,” she asks Hermione.

“It’s simple, Professor,” replies Hermione proudly. “There are four spaces between the toes on each of my feet, and one space between the toes of my left foot and my right foot. That is a total of nine.”

“Very good Hermione,” says Professor MacGonagall. “Ten points for Gryffindor.”

The lesson in this little story is that to get the right answers, you need to ask the right questions because Hermione won’t always be available to see through the confusion and straighten you out. The broad spectrum of mistaken ideas about global warming seems to suffer under a Confundus Charm (to continue our analogy) because people keep asking the wrong questions, asking confusing half-questions, or asking questions that completely miss the point.

Consider how little trouble it would have been for Ron’s answer to have been spot on if Professor MacGonagall had asked: “How many spaces are there between the toes on your left foot, the toes on your right foot, and your two feet? Simple addition would provide the one and only answer. Instead, a vague, partial question led to three possible answers, only one of which was strictly correct. And yet, because the question was not specific, the two incorrect answers from Ron and Harry seemed at once to be logical and correct responses.

Something like that happens when ordinary folk try to understand what is happening in the field of global warming and climate change. They might pose to themselves a vague, simplistic question such as: “What will happen if the global temperature rises by two degrees?” Then, being unaware of the complexity of weather patterns, feedback effects, tipping points and a myriad of other factors, they will jump to the conclusion that the average temperature at any given location will be on the average exactly two degrees warmer than at some comparable time in the past. Nothing else will change, they think in their blissful ignorance.

“Blimey,” they might say, channeling Ron, “that’s nothing! When it used to be 10 degrees in the Winter, it will be just 12 degrees. And in the Summer instead of being 75 on a nice day, it will be 77. Piece o’ cake!”

A vague question combined with a considerable gulf of ignorance leads to an answer that is way off the mark, making the person think that global warming isn’t really anything to be worried about. He or she may even fantasize that higher temperatures would actually be advantageous, for example by reducing the chore of shoveling snow in the winter. “Just think, it could be just like Florida, right here in Minnesota,” they could tell their friends. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

Well, no, it wouldn’t be great at all and for a number of reasons. For one, all the native trees and plants that presently grow in Minnesota are completely ill suited to a Florida-like climate. Most of them would die, leaving nothing but a wasteland. The loss of vegetation and warming would in turn almost surely affect rainfall patterns, possibly resulting in drought, or torrential rains with devastating floods, or even alternating periods of devastating drought and floods. In short, Minnesota would be nothing at all like Florida should its temperatures rise to a similar level, and in fact might even become uninhabitable.

And what of Florida itself should temperatures rise that much? Well, you would have to give up orange juice, for sure. Alligators would be catching the next bus out to extinction and most of the Floridian Peninsula would be under water, its remaining portions swept clean by regular Category Six and Category Seven hurricanes. Not so good, not at all.

And so it is through misleading answers to flawed questions that the average Joe Sixpack and even many academics, professionals, and others with advanced educations remain oblivious to just how serious a problem global warming really is. In fact, even the two or three degrees of warming now in the environmental pipeline due to greenhouse gas that has already been released will have unknown and perhaps devastating effects on locations such as Florida, Minnesota, and the place where you live.

Answers, as you can see, can be quite misleading even when they respond perfectly to the questions that were asked. That truth of that is embodied in two old sayings: “Ask a stupid question and get a stupid answer” and “Garbage in, garbage out.” Deniers of global warming play on this every day, demonstrating once more the truth of Mark Twain’s bon mot: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” (Twain also once wrote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”)

So we must focus our attention not on answers — which are likely to be of doubtful provenance or even crafted deliberately to deceive — but on the questions that are asked. Only when we can be satisfied that the issues at hand are framed through carefully worded questions, ones based on a thorough understanding of the complexities of the subject, can we give any credence whatsoever to the resulting answers. Unfortunately most questions about global warming are not nearly good enough and there are too many misleading, incomplete, or downright wrong “answers” floating around in the world.

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