Where to Go for Answers

To all of our new readers, thanks to CBC and StumbleUpon, this is for you!

Most of us don’t read scientific journals. We read the newspaper instead. We read our news feeds. We watch CNN.

These sources, as we know, are fairly low on the credibility spectrum. But how are people like you and I supposed to understand the more credible sources? Scientists don’t seem to speak plain English. And you can’t even read most of their studies without a subscription.

Usually this isn’t much of a problem, because the popular press and the scientific journals say basically the same things – that there’s going to be a lunar eclipse on a certain date, that red meat increases your risk of a heart attack, that a new kind of dinosaur was just discovered.

However, when you start reading about climate change, the newspapers start going crazy.

The world is warming. The warming is caused from the world coming out of an ice age. The warming stopped in 1998. Glaciers are melting. The warming is caused by human activity. The warming is caused by sunspots. The warming is inconsequential. The warming is catastrophic and is going to kill us all. New York is going to be underwater. Scientists faked the whole thing.

As someone who keeps up-to-date with the scientific literature – that is, sources from the top few tiers of the credibility spectrum – I can tell you that it is not under the same confusion as the mass media. There are a lot of myths about climate change that go around the newspapers and the Internet, but were never in any sort of legitimate scientific study. I cannot stress this point enough.

For example, have you heard the one about NASA getting the Y2K bug, and later discovering that the warmest year on record wasn’t 1998, but in fact – whoops – 1934? Global warming must be fake!

Actually, that’s not correct at all. NASA discovered that 1934 was the warmest year on record in the United States. And that “United States” part got dropped in translation somewhere in the blogosphere. Contrary to what American media would have you believe, the United States is not the whole world. It makes up less than 2% of the Earth’s surface. And the warmest year on record globally is either 1998 or 2005, depending on how you measure the Arctic temperatures.

There are dozens of stories like that. So many of the explanations you hear for global warming being natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy are based on misconceptions, miscommunications, discredited data, or flat-out lies. They were never in the scientific literature. They are not endorsed by the sources at the top of our credibility spectrum. They are, shall we say, urban myths.

But how are we, humble non-scientists, scanning through the newspaper on the way to work each morning, supposed to know that? We need some kind of a link between the scientists and the public. Some journalist who actually knows what they’re talking about, and cites all of their claims with credible sources. Some sort of encyclopedia that will dispel all the myths about climate change.

Luckily, there are many of these encyclopedias. There are a lot of people out there trying to fulfill this very purpose.

One of my favourites is Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock of the Week video series on YouTube. He debunks common claims like “global warming stopped in 1998”, “global warming is caused by the sun”, and “temperature leads CO2 in the ice cores”. Sinclair is a professional journalist, so all of the videos are well explained, easy to understand, and fun to watch.

Another great source is Coby Beck’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic series. These articles cover just about every objection out there. Equally comprehensive is Skeptical Science. They’ve even compressed their explanations into “sound bites”, so you can answer your uncle’s objections in just a few sentences over Thanksgiving dinner.

Some of the sources from the top of our credibility spectrum have also chimed in. Environment Canada has created a fantastic FAQ document about climate change. It covers everything you need to know to wade through YouTube comments or online debates, along with citations you can actually trust.

Finally, Scott Mandia, a regular reader here at ClimateSight and a meteorology professor in New York, has just posted a copy of his presentation to the public about climate change. What I like about this document is that it’s very up-to-date. All of the graphs are the most recent of their kind. It also provides some philosophical perspectives to really sink your teeth into, like an analogy about medical advice, and some memorable quotes at the end.

We shouldn’t have to double-check everything the newspaper says about climate change. But the objections to anthropogenic global warming have such an awful track record that we really should, at least before we go and spread them around. These sources will cover just about everything you need to know.

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29 thoughts on “Where to Go for Answers

  1. the United States is not the whole world. It makes up less than 2% of the Earth’s surface.

    Although it might be noted the US has the best surface temperature record on the planet. The vast majority of well-sited thermometer locations that have a continuous record for, say, the last century, are located in the US. The US is practically *blanketed* in sensors, whereas most of the other countries in the world are represented by a smattering of sensors, many of them at airports. As a result of the US having the best sensor coverage, it’s also the best-studied and best-corrected network.

    Which makes it a particularly *important* 2%. Quite aside from the fact that I live there. :-)

  2. Some more resources to go for answers:

    Discovery Channel:
    http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/globalwarming/globalwarming.html

    NASA overview:
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/printall.php

    NASA FAQ:
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarmingQandA/

    NOAA FAQ:
    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/globalwarming.html

    UK Met Office (The Big Picture):
    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/myths/bigpicture.pdf

    UK Met Office (Quick Facts):
    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climatechange/guide/downloads/quick_guide.pdf

    Stefan Rahmstorf (Anthropogenic Climate Change, Revisiting the facts):
    http://www.pik-potsdam.de/~stefan/Publications/Book_chapters/Rahmstorf_Zedillo_2008.pdf

    Student’s Guide (Manchester Metropolitan University):
    http://www.ace.mmu.ac.uk/resources/gcc/contents.html

    Spencer Weart (historical perspective):
    http://www.aip.org/history/climate/

    NASA climate indicators:
    http://climate.nasa.gov/

    MYTHS:

    UK Met Office:
    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/myths/index.html

    UK Royal Society (Facts and fictions about climate change):
    http://royalsociety.org/downloaddoc.asp?id=1630

    NewScientist:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462

    OSS Foundation:
    http://www.ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths

    Pew Center on Climate Change:
    http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics

    Brian Angliss:
    http://scholarsandrogues.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/anti-global-heating-claims-a-reasonably-thorough-debunking/

    RC Wiki:
    http://www.realclimate.org/wiki/index.php?title=RC_Wiki#By_Myth

    Assessment Reports:

    IPCC AR4 WG I:
    http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_fourth_assessment_report_wg1_report_the_physical_science_basis.htm

    Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions (Copenhague):
    http://climatecongress.ku.dk/pdf/synthesisreport/

    Climate Change Science Compendium 2009 (UNEP):
    http://www.unep.org/compendium2009/

    Developments since IPCC AR4 (Pew Center on Climate Change):
    http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/Key-Scientific-Developments-Since-IPCC-4th-Assessment.pdf

    German Advisory Council on Climate Change:
    http://www.wbgu.de/wbgu_home_engl.html

    Climate Change 2009: Faster change and more serious risks (Australian Government, Department of Climate Change):
    http://www.anu.edu.au/climatechange/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/climate-change-faster-change-and-more-serious-risks-final.pdf?bcsi_scan_3701867909E479F5=kkMbJJlnZc/HE2EWfUQSb5r6lEUCAAAAGAV2AQ==&bcsi_scan_filename=climate-change-faster-change-and-more-serious-risks-final.pdf

  3. I am so impressed with you and your site, Kate! I am a former honours student of Dr. Danny Blair’s and he’s told me about you! (He raves about you, actually, as you’ve seen in the CBC news clip!) I agree with him, that I cannot believe you are “just” a high school student! I have taken a look at a fair bit of your site and find that it is comparable to those created by people with years, if not decades of experience in the area.

    I think you have a bright future ahead of you in climatology! Keep up the great work and all the best in the future!

    [Hey Stephen, great to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words. Are you pursuing studies in climate change – grad school perhaps? -Kate]

  4. Sigh.

    Nonetheless, thank you again Kate for chasing away my doubts about the future and whether kids can step up and get things done (as much as humans can get things done).

    Best,

    D

  5. One more to the list:

    The Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009: Updating the world on the Latest Climate Science
    http://www.copenhagendiagnosis.com/

    [Yes, I just saw that yesterday! Terrifying, isn’t it? Just goes to show how conservative the IPCC’s estimates were. Especially regarding sea level….yikes. Perhaps I will write a post on it soon. Then again, it was already covered by RC and DeSmogBlog. -Kate]

  6. It’s interesting to note two things about the Diagnosis’ tone: it dedicates sidebars to smacking down common denialist tropes (translation: the authors acknowledge denialism is still a problem, and tacitly endorse challenging it), and the terms used in their projections are almost uncharacteristically blunt (translation: when a group of scientists shows any sign of losing their cool, their patience is practically gone).

  7. Why have you censored my comment?

    [Please adhere to our comment policy – it’s clearly visible in the sidebar. -Kate]

  8. I didn’t want to mention this earlier, because (although trained in the physical sciences to some extent) I am not a climate scientist, but I’ve been collecting a mass of climate change discussion resources aimed at the lay audience – in other words, people with less of an interest in understanding why and more interested in understanding what, less interested in the Medieval Warm Period than in what climate policy will do to their finances, and similar. (While I adore collections like Skeptical Science or RealClimate, they’re aimed at countering pseudoscience, when in my experience most people lack enough scientific training to even *recognize* a scientific argument, let alone be persuaded by a proper scientific counterargument. I do link to some of the same resources above, though, for completeness.)

    The collection is, as a result, far from rigorous, but it did get some acclaim when I submitted it to high school students across the province in a virtual classroom initiative last June. It’s available for comment here.

  9. Kate,

    What is your take on the CRU e-mail hack and its fallout? Do you think that it hurt its credibility in the scientific community, or not? If anything, IMHO, the e-mails asking others to delete mail to they could not be sent to individuals who had FOIA was shocking!

    [I haven’t read the emails themselves, but I’ve seen a lot of news stories and blog posts about them. That said, all of the so-called fabricating data, the “hiding the decline” and so on, is obviously just a case of context and scientific jargon. Beyond that, the emails that seemed overly defensive against skeptics, skeptical journals, etc, seem to be just a case of internal politics, venting among friends and colleagues, and letting one’s guard down in private communication. I’m not sure about the FOIA email – it will probably have to be investigated more.

    CRU is quite embarrassing and regrettable, but probably not unusual among private emails anywhere. I may eventually write about this, but I want to first see Peter Sinclair’s video that he’s been promising. -Kate]

  10. @Scott A. Mandia,
    Just a minor nit-pick: I would label the talking point “CO2 Lags Not Leads Temperature” as misleading rather than fiction. Otherwise, an excellent and concise presentation.

  11. Lucas,

    Thanks for the kind words. I really wavered on that label. Yes, it is a misleading claim in the overall perspective but it is a fictional claim in the present. I decided to use “fiction” to make a stronger point.

    What do the rest of you think? Misleading or Fiction?

  12. CMS,

    Because you brought this up, here is what I have been pounding blogs with over the past several days:

    The news varies depending on the political views of the organization but some blogs and newspapers/television claim that this hack has revealed that human caused global warming has been faked. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here is my opinion:

    To date, there has not been a single credible journal article that shows a natural cause for the modern day warming while also showing how record high greenhouse gas concentrations are not significant.

    NOT ONE.

    Do people really believe that the scientists at CRU are able to squelch every scientist on the planet who tried to publish this landmark anti-AGW paper? Is there no sense of the low probability and the large scale of this conspiracy for this to be true?

    If one throws out the HadCRU data and all papers by these folks, there is still a mountain of evidence for AGW.

    Do the rapidly melting ice sheets and glaciers have access to these emails and joined in on the conspiracy?

    Do the various climate models that show GHGs as the dominant forcing mechanism have access to these emails and joined in on the conspiracy?

    Do the GISS, UAH, RSS data that show global warming of approximately 0.2C per decade over the past 30 years have access to these emails and joined in on the conspiracy? Certainly Spencer and Christy who run UAH and are well-known skeptics of AGW would not align themselves with AGW and yet their satellite-derived measurements track reasonably with GISS, RSS, and HadCRU.

    Does the ocean read these emails and magically increase its heat content?

    Does the cooling stratosphere (even accounting for ozone loss) read the emails and join in on the hoax?

    Do the plants and animals read these emails and decide to die off and/or change their migratory habits so that they can support the conspiracy?

    I could go on ad infinitum.

    For quite a long time, we have known that a doubling of CO2 will warm the climate at least 1C and there is fairly good certainty that the resulting feedbacks will produce at least 2C additional warming with 3C more likely. We are also measuring CO2 increases of 2 ppm and climbing (except last year where there was a slight decrease due to the global recession) and we have levels that have not been seen in the past 15 million years.

    Are we to conclude that these emails deny all of this evidence?

    There are many scientists from many fields that have published data that show the effects of global warming and why humans are the primary drivers of this warming. These scientists include some of the obvious: climatologists, meteorologists, geologists, modelers, and oceanographers. Some less obvious include: biologists, marine biologists, zoologists, chemists, astrophysicists, economists, environmental politics reasearchers, and others. I am quite confident that MANY of these folks have NEVER spoken to the CRU folks nor emailed them.

    It is obvious that pre-Copenhagen, the tried and true method of “if one does not like the message then attack the messenger or redirect the conversation” practiced by Big Tobacco and now ExxonMobil and their front groups (Heartland Institute, George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, etc.) is alive and well.

    Scott A. Mandia – Professor, Meteorologist, Concerned Citizen
    http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/

    [Well said. The emails may have been unprofessional, but they’re certainly not evidence of fabrication or fraud. -Kate]

  13. @Scott A. Mandia,
    “It is obvious that pre-Copenhagen, the tried and true method of “if one does not like the message then attack the messenger or redirect the conversation” practiced by Big Tobacco and now ExxonMobil and their front groups (Heartland Institute, George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, etc.) is alive and well.”
    Indeed
    “The nation’s biggest tobacco companies are demanding more than a half-century’s worth of documents, notes and personal files from 10 universities, setting off a debate over the limits of academic freedom and the confidentiality of scholarly research.
    As part of their defense in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against them, tobacco companies like Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds first subpoenaed the records late last year, trying to glean an inside look at government-financed research on smoking that goes back to the 1940’s.” [1]

    1- http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/20/us/tobacco-industry-in-fight-to-get-universities-data.html
    More here: http://lightbucket.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/tobacco-part-4-subpoenas-and-legal-chill/

  14. You hold strong and articulate opinions and will be a credit to science. However, please keep in mind that science is a human invention as is the math that supports it. You speak in very certain terms and absolutes which only exist because science says so. Science and scientists are not infallible, are certainly prone to mistakes, and have been proven to be erroneous many times through out history. Examples include the world is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, life can not exist on other planets amongst others. Also please remember that most world changing discoveries scientific or otherwise have historically been by those who think outside the box or against the accepted majority. And science has never been about credibility in and of itself, but rather credibility comes from the proving conclusively of scientific theory. Even Einstein had to support his theories regardless of his credibility. I guess what I’m saying is whether derived from a newspaper or scientific journal we should always approach it with even a small amount of skepticism.

    I like your site very much and enjoy all the links as they allow me to do what I’ve always believed and that is to form my own opinions and to never take everything someones says as absolute regardless of their stature or credibility. I find all your posts intelligent and thought provoking. My only advice is as you become impressed upon by the many profs you will have in university that you keep your eyes wide open and keep the ability to form your own thoughts, ideas and conclusions. Question everything! Something I learned from a great science teacher, Mr. Chalmers.

    [Of course the consensus is sometimes wrong, but that doesn’t mean we should always listen to the opposite of what it’s saying. Think of all the times the consensus has been right. -Kate]

  15. There seem to be some good, sensible comments here, but also some inflammatory posts that have been removed. I think this says much about this debate.

    In my own experience I have received inflammatory emails from individuals attacking my commentary on climate change (some years back now) in the Winnipeg Free Press (co-written with Danny Blair and John Hanesiak) and Brandon Sun newspapers. I occasionally contribute to blogs like this one, and also comment on the blogs for stories on climate change on the CBC website and the Globe and Mail newspaper. In my experience in these media, if there are inflammatory comments in reply to my posts or other pro-AGW posters, they are from the deniers. I don’t mean to say that all deniers are posting inflammatory comments or engaging in personal attacks, and I know some good scientist colleagues who genuinely don’t accept AGW (and who are not funded by big-oil or one of the propogandist anti-AGW organizations), but I am saying that when inflammatory responses do occur it is from a poster who is spouting denier opinions, not the other way around. To me this speaks volumes. And the lesson is clear. The more the deniers ‘play the man’ as they say in sport, the more they erode their credibility. We must remain civil, clear, and rooted in our science.

    I agree. Some of the hardcore activism, like dressing up as polar bears or climbing up coal plants, seems illogical and extreme to me. However, I have yet to meet someone supportive of the scientific consensus that is as disrespectful and unproductive as the many deniers who are common in these kinds of online discussions. I don’t want my blog to cater to or allow that kind of behaviour. It’s really quite unfortunate that we have to deal with it at all. -Kate

  16. Please let me say from the outset that I am a mechanical engineer, not a climatologist or psychologist, so what I have to say may not be posed correctly; I will gladly accept criticism and correction by those with appropriate backgrounds. I believe without a doubt that manmade global warming is happening and that action must be taken immediately! But I am also a denier and have done little to help avert this impending disaster. Therefore, I am a hypocrite.

    The scientific evidence that global warming is happening and why it is happening is overwhelming, but what isn’t clear is why so many are vehemently disputing the observations and conclusions of so many experts. I believe that climatologists and other global warming experts must become adept in a new discipline: The Psychology of Denial.

    As pointed out in the above article, it is likely that nearly every climate change believer, including me, is really a climate change denier. And the only difference between climate change “believers” and climate change “deniers” is how vocally we express our denial side of climate change.

    Let’s have a poll, climate change “believers”: What are you doing to help mitigate global warming? Be honest. Just getting the scientific-based global warming messages out is not mitigating global warming.
    Skeptical Science is a great website, but they delete every post I make on this subject as a waste of their time.

    The majority of people around the world believe that manmade climate change and global warming are real and potentially life threatening, but we can’t accept responsibility for our actions. We climate change “believers” either remain silent or whimper inaudible protests in support of our internal angst about doing little or nothing. We climate change skeptics and deniers, on the other hand, howl loudly or go violent, hoping that the messengers and messages will go away. As I interpret the above article, our perceived immediate suffering associated with acting now would be much more severe than our perceived future suffering associated with doing little or nothing.

    If you haven’t done so yet, maybe now would be a good time to switch over to Rising Tide for ideas on how to get started on the immediate 85-90% fossil fuel reduction needed to save the world for our offspring. Community Solutions, 350.org, and Richard Heinberg are other helpful sites. Please add other links that you may be aware of.

    I am fully convinced that climatologists have done their job in convincing the public that manmade global warming is real, but now they have to team up with psychologists and other experts to convince the public that the time for action is now, not 25 or 50 or 100 years from now. I believe that inventing viable ways to mobilize the masses to mitigate global warming must be the new technical challenge for the coming decade.

    The time to start is now!

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