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Sep 04 2014
Doubt and Confusion over Global Warming
Published by Steven Novella under General Science
Comments: 15
Global warming (or global climate change) continues to be a contentious issue because of the political ramifications of the
science. When I talk to those who doubt human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming inevitably they express a strong
political opinion about the implications of AGW that it is being used to justify government take-over of private industry.
There are also those on the left who embrace AGW as a way of reinforcing their ideological economic opinions. None of this
makes AGW correct or mistaken. The political implications of AGW are irrelevant to the science.
I might be tempted to say that the controversy over AGW is partly being driven by the fact that the science is very abstract.
There is a ton of data that can be used to support just about any opinion you wish to defend, if you are willing to cherry pick.
The data is also somewhat abstract and is very complex.
While I do think its true that the nature of the data regarding AGW does exacerbate the controversy, I cant say it is a
necessary component, as there are controversies surrounding far simpler rock solid science, such as the efficacy of vaccines.
In any case, AGW does have a particular challenge in that the discussion is very statistical and graph heavy, two things which are easy to manipulate and sow confusion.
Several recent claims and studies serve as examples. One recent study seems perfectly legitimate to me, but has resulted in headlines that are a bit misleading until you dig deep
enough to figure out what they are really talking about.
99.999% certainty humans are driving global warming: new study
The number caught my eye, as scientific conclusions are rarely so solid. The IPCC has placed their confidence in AGW at 95%, which seems like a more realistic number. How,
exactly, did they arrive at three decimal places of certainty?
The study is a statistical analysis, not a measurement in the confidence of our current models of the climate. The authors looked at global surface temperatures for the 20th
century and evaluated two aspects, overall warming, and the short streaks of cooling (of which there were 11). They then used existing models of known natural drivers of
climate and calculated the odds that the observed temperature changes would result from them alone, without human forcing.
Their result was that, in each case, the chance of the observed data resulting from known natural forces was 1 in 100,000. That is where the 99.999% figure comes from.
AGW critics are almost certain to pounce on the fact that these numbers are based on known drivers of climate change. This is not a measure of confidence in our climate
models, but rather is based on the assumption that our climate models are correct.
This is more a matter of how to communicate science rather than the science itself. The study is extremely useful, and (assuming it stands up to further review and replication) it
does essentially rule out the hypothesis that recent global temperatures are just natural variation. Either humans are forcing global warming, or there is a source of natural forcing
currently unknown to science. It is not fair to criticize a study for what it isnt, rather than evaluate it for what it is.
Michael Mann Strikes Back
Michael Mann is the scientist originally behind the hockey stick data the sharp upturn in global temperatures starting around the beginning of the 20th century. He has
become a favorite target of global warming contrarians, who he says have picked him out of the herd like predators on the Serengeti.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute said of Mann:
Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of
politicized science.
Mark Stern from the National Review went as far as to call Manns work, fraudulent. Mann has since sued both for accusing him of fraud, and the trial is ongoing.
At this point in the trial, both sides are filing briefs on the scientific legitimacy of Manns work. It is always interesting when public debates are subjected to the rules of evidence
in a courtroom. As we saw with the Kitzmiller v. Dover Intelligent Design case, real science has a distinct advantage when there are rules of evidence.
As reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the CEI and NR briefs on the matter have not been impressive:
Whats missing, of course, from all their briefs, are legitimate scientific citations rejecting or refuting Dr. Manns work. Thats because those dont exist.
Since the original publication of his work, it has been not only validated but replicated extensively. It is no longer a viable scientific position to argue that global warming is not
Polar Ice
For the second year in a row, arctic sea ice has increased. That is the kind of statistic I hear all the time (dealing with any politicized issue) it superficially implies a certain
conclusion, but it does not provide enough data to really interpret it.
Phil Plait recently covered this issue nicely, so I wont rehash all the details. The short version is that arctic ice has been in a consistent downtrend for decades. The trend is
absolutely clear arctic sea ice is going away. Arctic ice hit a record low in 2012, and since then has regressed to the mean, so that the last two years have increased. The
overall downward trend, however, is unchanged.
This is a way of cherry picking data choose a starting point for comparison that is anomalously low, then point to the subsequent increase.
The situation in the antarctic is a bit more complex. Antarctic sea ice has increased recently. It is not clear why perhaps a combination of increased precipitation and other
factors. It is not because of decreased ocean temperatures, which continue to rise.
However, pointing to antarctic sea ice increasing as evidence against AGW is more cherry picking. Antarctic land ice is decreasing. This is also the ice we care about, as melting
land ice raises ocean levels, while sea ice has little effect because it is already displacing water.
Further, if we look at global sea ice, it has been decreasing by about 1.4% per decade. The overall trend is decreasing, even though there are local temporary increases.
The science is fairly certain at this point overall global temperatures, if you look at all the data, have been increasing over the last century. The trend is undeniable. Further,
natural known factors cannot explain this trend. The most likely cause is human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
However, this set of data is complex. There are many short term and local trends within the data, creating endless opportunities for cherry picking.
I can understand that people have different political perspectives on how to deal with AGW. I am not taking political sides here. I just think that the politics need to be separated
from the science.
First, we need to get the science right. Then we need to use that science to inform the political discussion.
We need to have the maturity and perspective to respect the science, even when it is inconvenient for our ideological position. Its OK to say, AGW is real, but I dont think
carbon taxes are the solution, or whatever is your position.
People desire simplicity and purity, however, and formulating nuanced positions incorporating competing facts and principles is hard work. Those who have political problems
with the implications of AGW want all the science to go in their direction as well.
However, the universe does not seem to care about our political values.
I also think you undercut your political position when you anchor it to bad science or science denial. This sucks the legitimacy out of your entire position. Get the science right,
then advocate for solutions in line with your values.
15 responses so far
15 Responses to Doubt and Confusion over Global Warming
1. # mumadaddon 04 Sep 2014 at 9:20 am
Thanks, Dr. N.
Hmm, I wonder if Will Nietzsche will show up again
2. # BillyJoe7on 04 Sep 2014 at 9:30 am
Im too tired to go another round with cherry-pickin, science ignorant, climate denialists dupes who glorify themselves as climate sceptics.
So someone else will have to deal with sonic this time round.
3. # BKseaon 04 Sep 2014 at 10:24 am
On the subject of cherry picking, we have this little gem from Judith Curry:
Is it cherry picking to start a trend analysis at 1998? No, not if you are looking for a long period of time where there is little or no warming
4. # mindmeon 04 Sep 2014 at 10:25 am
What may be either a new talking point or new to me is to claim theres no 95+% consensus.
Although when you ask so, could you point to what you think is a valid measure of the conesus? they seem to have none.
And it also seems to me there have been multiple studies that arrive at roughly the same figure. As well, Im not aware of one meteorological society that has published an
official position on AGW that comes out skeptical. I would think if a societys statement was so at odds with the opinions of its members, the officers of that society that
published such a statement would be quickly voted out. Its as if, say, the US National Academy of Sciences came out with a position that ID should be taught in schools
and we need to incorporate supernatural explanations more into science. One would imagine a revolt.
5. # evhantheinfidelon 04 Sep 2014 at 10:31 am
I have seen modern anthropogenic global warming deniers trying to frame the issue like the climatologist community is a cult. They use phrases like, drink the Global
Warming Kool-Aid and couch the issue in political terms. Then, they act like these is an uncontroversial premises and just ask why people would believe in such things.
I hate political slant so much. I realize that it is going to be present no matter what, and may even prove beneficial in areas not pertaining to science, but my visceral
reaction is one of disgust.
6. # Stormbringeron 04 Sep 2014 at 12:07 pm
I have coworkers that deny global warming or the fact that it can be caused by humans. They are smart people but dont seem to want to think to much about the
problem. They are willing to repeat denier facts and think that is fine.
When I hear statements like there is more sea ice or that the ice is covering a greater area they are meaning less. The amount of ice would be a volume not an area. If you
took a pile of sand and it covered an area of a surface you can always spread that pile out to cover more area and even take some away and still cover more area.
7. # Bill Openthalton 04 Sep 2014 at 12:19 pm
I have seen modern anthropogenic global warming deniers trying to frame the issue like the climatologist community is a cult.
The climate scientists most certainly are not a cult, but the politicians grabbing hold of the idea most certainly are ideologically motivated. Many of the journalists (who, like
politicians, are usually scientifically illiterate) are ideologically motivated as well (cf. the attitude of the mainstream European press on GMOs), and together they present
the public with a cult-like approach to the measures to be taken.
8. # Pugg Fugglyon 04 Sep 2014 at 1:05 pm
Driving through rural Pennsylvania the other day, I came across a billboard. It had a silly clown on one side, and the caption on the right said, I still believe in global
Id be interested to read more about how the deniers got such a strong foothold into this issue. Evolution aside, are there any other examples where this big a proportion
of people not only deny, but openly mock the science?
9. # Kieselguhr Kidon 04 Sep 2014 at 2:22 pm
I think its easier to talk about getting the science right in a way that informs policy than it is to actually do.
I have heard the arguments between very capable geophysicits on anthropogenic global warming, and I very much believe the scientific consensus on this one.I got my
PhD in p-chem at a university with a lot of Nobelians in the chem and physics departments. I had two advisors. One is a gas-phase chemist, and he very strongly does not
believe in AGW (it is always amusing to watch him hes long since tenured but politically savvy struggling to hold his tongue when the subject comes up at ACS or
somewhere like that). I arrived at my position by listening him debate the topic with other scientists one in particular whod advised Gore and who did a lot of
geochemistry was a big help.
But heres the thing. Most of the folks I knew were of course scientists and most strongly believed the consensus, as do I. My other advisor is a phenomenally brilliant,
much better known, significant scientist but a biochemist. Just for fun, every now and then, when the topic came up with him or other chemists in the lab, and they
couldnt believe my denialist advisors position, Id take his side and repeat his argument and theyd admit complete inability to answer. Its not enough to be a good
scientist or a good chemist even: unless youre highly specialized in this field, or surrounded by people who are, you simply arent equipped to judge those data (as I am
not, nowadays, and nor I imagine is Dr. Novella). The science isnt ever going to be _communicable_ in such an unambiguous way, for such a complex subject.
What one relies on is the goodwill and decency of the scientific community. That does exist! For example, I think both my advisors are decent people and honest scientists
(or Id not have chosen them) and the denialist will, if presented with very specific data on which hes chosen to hang his concerns, change his mind. (I think he got where
he did partly out of contrarianism and cussedness, and from being friends with some European scientists whod found some ice core data that havent quite been
reconciled with atmospheric models yet: those guys got death threats and stuff, and that alienated my advisor. Yes, I know thats not the ideal skeptical pose, and no that
does not preclude ones being a great scientist so long as one still holds statistically and scientifically solid standards for the stuff you actually publish and teach.) So that
case is OK. But the public is right to note that scientists in general havent, lately, covered themselves in glory with regards to honesty and impartiality, and as long as
thats the case, there is no making complex science unambiguous for those outside highly specialized communities. The cult accusation carries water because we have
done a poor job demonstrating our professionalism.
10. # Enzoon 04 Sep 2014 at 3:27 pm
In my opinion, scientists and science communicators have done a really poor job at attempting to communicate the actual science behind global climate change. All you
ever see is one or two graphs and someone usually not even a climate scientist going on about the consensus. If you want the information, you REALLY have to
make an effort. People outside of the skeptical community are not very likely to wade through the jargon-heavy IPCC report.
My point is the resources are pretty atrocious. They are not clear nor are they polished to be approachable to non-science literates.
The media is partly to blame because they seem to prefer covering the issue as a controversy. Why havent we seen better documentaries that really get into how the
climate models are created and how the data is collected? How about a Facebookable info graphic? I dont think Ive ever seen a clear climate presentation that bothered
to go over the basics of how we know CO2 affects global temperature and how we arrive at historical temperatures. Even Dr. Tysons Cosmos fell short in my opinion,
only glossing over the science in favor of attacking the politicization of the issue.
What does everyone think? Am I missing good resources?
11. # Steven Novellaon 04 Sep 2014 at 3:53 pm
This is a good resource:
12. # BBBlueon 04 Sep 2014 at 4:30 pm
he science isnt ever going to be _communicable_ in such an unambiguous way, for such a complex subject.
Not sure I agree. What I found most compelling is the simple, underlying cause. My first question to deniers is usually So the temperature inside your car is not affected
by whether or not the windows are rolled up or down? That often leads to a discussion of the hard data on increasing GHG concentrations, information about how one
identifies the source of GHGs, and the observations made of other planets that validate what we know about heat load and GHGs. Some people find that too sciency;
they want to know how it will affect them now and are frustrated by predictions that dont come true because they dont understand the uncertainties involved, but if one
is able to get the basics across, Id consider that a victory and reason for optimism.
13. # otistdon 04 Sep 2014 at 5:46 pm
However, pointing to antarctic sea ice increasing as evidence against AGW is more cherry picking. Antarctic land ice is decreasing. This is also the ice we care about, as
melting land ice raises ocean levels, while sea ice has no effect because it is already displacing water.
I wonder if you would consider changing the statement at the end of this paragraph, because it is not totally correct and could be easily misinterpreted? I dont think you
can defend no effect as a statement of fact- perhaps change it to sea ice has a much smaller direct effect because it is already displacing water. And, while I believe
you clearly mean that sea ice has no (significant direct) effect on the sea level rise- the paragraph you wrote seems to be concerned with AGW- so it could be
(deliberately) misconstrued- and quoted/paraphrased- as something like even Dr. Steven Novella, a noted skeptic and climate change defender, has admitted that we
dont care about arctic sea ice melting because it has no effect on sea level rises due to AGW.
Some quick points/assertions as to why sea ice has an effect on ocean warming and sea level:
- sea ice is fresh water which has a different density than salt water, therefore it will slightly raise the sea level, but less than the thermal expansion of water itself I think and
much less than the melting of land ice as you stated. Its an effect- is it negligible? Im not sure, but probably to the first order it is insignificant, though measurable and
-sea ice is highly reflective, while sea water is not- so melting sea ice will change the thermal emissivity of the oceans of the Earth, exacerbating the problem of sea water
temperature rise. Positive feedback. Cosmos made this point- but for the planet overall.
-Ice melts at a constant temperature, but the state change requires a large amount of energy per unit mass, so sea ice acts as a thermal reservoir/buffer that helps stabilize
the average ocean temperature. Another positive feedback. I havent researched this point much, so if you have some comment about it please fire away. Taken to its
extreme- if all the sea ice were to melt, the response of sea water average temperature rise due to global warming would become significantly bigger.
14. # tmac57on 04 Sep 2014 at 5:55 pm
Another good basic resource ( as well as in-depth coverage) on AGW is
Skeptical Science is an invaluable resource for understanding and countering any contrarian/skeptic/denier argument or new talking point that surfaces in the popular
press,TV,or internet blogs etc. These guys are really and doggedly on the case,and always include solid scientific references to back up their case.
15. # MikeKon 04 Sep 2014 at 7:01 pm
Just before his concussion Dr. Novella wrote melting land ice raises ocean levels, while sea ice has no effect because it is already displacing water. Change to
[melting] sea ice has little effect to be more accurate.
Consider an iceberg floating free in the ocean. By some kind of magic allow it to melt but keep its shape. The magically melted berg has a density less than the salty ocean
around it. The water than sticks up a little. It then looses its magic and water spills off the top thus the little but, non-zero, effect.
I dont deny AGW as much as question the mechanism.
From what I have read atmospheric CO2 now contains less C14 than it would if mankind were not burning ancient carbon fuels containing C12 as its only surviving
carbon atoms.
Certainly if the above were false then we need to reconsider the evils of CO2.
And then there is the fact that CO2 has a narrow absorption bands in the IR somewhat below the wide H2O IR absorption band that stretches slightly into the visible
range. Several hundred feet of atmosphere essentially stops all the energy in these narrow bands as our planet radiates other IR frequencies into the cosmos. Loose half
the CO2 and twice several hundred feet stops all the energy.
Ive looked at a site that might as well been titled 100 reasons why AGW is true and read the section devoted to CO2 IR absorption. My objections were not covered.
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