The Pendulum

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A few years ago, climate change mitigation became a major political issue. Before 2005, governments certainly knew that human-caused climate change was a serious problem – but the public knew next to nothing about it, so there was no incentive to act. However, between 2005 and 2007, a perfect storm of events splashed the reality of climate change onto the world stage.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finally came into force in early 2005, after years of negotiation. The United States refused to sign, and Australia signed on a little late, but every other developed nation in the world agreed to emission targets. Here in Canada, the Liberal government enthusiastically pledged its support for Kyoto. My local newspaper ran editorials exploring the different ways we could meet our targets, through combinations of clean energy, green infrastructure, and efficiency standards.

The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for the United States, as Hurricane Katrina mercilessly demonstrated the amount of damage that extreme weather can bring. It’s impossible to say, at least with our current technology, whether or not Katrina was caused or even worsened by a warming planet. However, such devastating storms will become the norm as climate change progresses. Scientists aren’t sure whether or not hurricanes will become more frequent in a warming world, but the average hurricane is expected to become stronger and more damaging, and we are already beginning to see this rise in storm intensity. Katrina gave us an example of what we can expect from climate change – even if it wasn’t a direct effect in itself – and the world was shocked by the suffering that ensued.

2006 marked the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. For scientists studying climate, the film was an admirable, up-to-date example of science communication, albeit with a few minor errors and oversimplifications. However, for citizens new to the issue (I particularly remember my classmates in grade 9 social studies discussing the film), An Inconvenient Truth was a disturbing reality check – scarier than any horror movie, because it was real.

The major scientific event of 2007 was a drastic, unexpected drop in Arctic summer sea ice. That season’s melt was exacerbated by coincidental weather conditions, so the next years weren’t quite as bad, but the trend was still worrying, to say the least. The research community had assumed that summer ice would stick around for at least a century, but this timescale was soon halved and quartered as ice melt exceeded even the worst projections.

By 2007, lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election was underway, and political awareness of climate change was obvious. It was no surprise that Democrat Barack Obama had ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but even the Republicans seemed to be on board. During his time in office, George W. Bush had insisted that, since climate change could be natural, any mitigating action was not worth the economic risk. Republican presidential candidates seemed to realize that continuing to adopt this attitude would be political suicide. The most extreme example, John McCain, who would eventually win the Republican presidential nomination, had emissions targets only slightly less extensive than Obama’s. As he said in 2007,

The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God’s creation…The problem isn’t a Hollywood invention nor is doing something about it a vanity of Cassandra like hysterics. It is a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge.

However, McCain, once an author of a bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would soon completely change his stance. By 2010, he was asserting that cap-and-trade legislation was unnecessary and carbon dioxide posed no harm to the American people. He even went so far as to question the political motivations of science he once wholly accepted:

I think [global warming is] an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There’s great questions about it that need to be resolved.

The story of John McCain isn’t too surprising. Politicians frequently base their statements on public sentiment rather than personal opinion. They say what people want to hear, rather than what they truly believe is important. This aspect of our political system is depressing, but persistent. The real question, though, regards what changed public sentiment so quickly. Why did politicians like McCain feel compelled to denounce the importance of action on this problem, or even the existence of the problem itself? What happened since 2007 that made the pendulum swing so far in the other direction?

Strike one was the economy. The global recession that began in 2008 was the largest since the Great Depression, and concern for all other problems promptly went down the drain. It’s understandable for citizens to not worry about the environment when they don’t even have the means to feed and clothe their children properly. However, for governments to not realize the long-term economic implications of allowing climate change to continue, along with the potential job-creating benefits of a new energy economy, was disappointing, even though it wasn’t surprising.

Strike two was the all-out war on climate science, spearheaded by the fossil fuel industry and the far right. This PR campaign has been underway since the early 1990s, but was kicked up a notch just over a year ago. Since public understanding of the causes and effects of global warming was growing, and the science was becoming more solid by the month, the PR tactics changed. Instead of attacking the science, they attacked the integrity of the scientists. The most extreme example occurred in November 2009, when private correspondence between top climate researchers was stolen, spread on the Internet, and spun in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientists’ motives. This event, known as “Climategate”, spurred a great deal of anger among the political right, and everything from bitter editorials to death threats against scientists ensued. Perhaps most distressingly, by the time investigations found that the scientists involved were innocent, and the reality of climate change untouched, Climategate was old news and media outlets failed to adequately follow up on the story. Citizens heard the accusations, but not the exonerations, so political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions slipped even further.

Strike three – well, there has been no strike three, and a good thing too. Strikes one and two were so bad that some are hoping the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how the situation could get worse. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year, and the Copenhagen meetings failed to create a replacement. As it was, many developed nations failed to meet their targets, and the Canadian government backed out completely.

The possibility of federal climate legislation for the United States is laughable now that not a single Republican Senator thinks action is necessary, and most doubt the reality of the problem, choosing to believe that the entire scientific community is out to lunch and/or an agent of conspiracy. President Obama’s director of climate policy, Carol Browner, recently left her position, although none of her major goals had been met. Obama’s recent State of the Union address included lots of hopeful statements about clean energy, but absolutely no mention of climate change, as if merely acknowledging the most pressing reason for a new energy economy would be political suicide. The time-honoured tradition of saying what the public wants to hear has even reached Obama, the man who promised change.

In Canada, legislation to simply set targets for emission reduction passed the House of Commons (made of elected representatives), but the Senate (composed of appointed politicians) chose to use their newfound Conservative majority to strike down the bill with no debate whatsoever, in a blatantly undemocratic move that has not happened since the 1930s. The Canadian government is all for a new energy economy, but not one based on environmental and social responsibility. The Alberta tar sands, which are substantially more polluting and carbon-intensive than traditional oil, continue to expand, and both federal and provincial governments are worryingly enthusiastic.

From 2005 to 2007, politics was high on promises of mitigation, but low on delivery. Since then, it has been devoid of both. It’s starting to seem as if it will take a major global disaster that can be unquestionably tied to climate change for governments to get their act together.

This would all be very well if there was no lag time between cause and effect in the climate system, but it doesn’t work that way. It takes several decades for all the warming in the pipeline to show up. If we waited until climate change became unbearable, and then cut off our emissions completely, the situation would still get worse for decades before it stabilized.

The worldwide failure of governments to take action on climate change is baffling. It seems that the best they can do is occasionally promise to fix the problem, but never actually get started. If this continues for much longer, we’re all going to pay the price for their mistakes – and so will people for generations to come.

Storms of my Grandchildren

I hope everyone had a fun and relaxing Christmas. Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to review for a while.

The worst part of the recent book by NASA climatologist James Hansen is, undoubtedly, the subtitle. The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity – really? That doesn’t sound like the intrinsic, subdued style of Dr. Hansen. In my opinion, it simply alienates the very audience we’re trying to reach: moderate, concerned non-scientists.

The inside of the book is much better. While he couldn’t resist slipping in a good deal of hard science (and, in my opinion, these were the best parts), the real focus was on climate policy, and the relationship between science and policy. Hansen struggled with the prospect of becoming involved in policy discussions, but soon realized that he didn’t want his grandchildren, years from now, to look back at his work and say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”

Hansen is very good at distinguishing between his scientific work and his opinions on policy, and makes no secret of which he would rather spend time on. “I prefer to just do science,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s more pleasant, especially when you are having some success in your investigations. If I must serve as a witness, I intend to testify and then get back to the laboratory, where I am comfortable. That is what I intend to do when this book is finished.”

Hansen’s policy opinions centre on a cap-and-dividend system: a variant of a carbon tax, where revenue is divided evenly among citizens and returned to them. His argument for a carbon tax, rather than cap-and-trade, is compelling, and certainly convinced me. He also advocates the expansion of nuclear power (particularly “fourth-generation” fast nuclear reactors), a moratorium on new coal-generated power plants, and drastically improved efficiency measures.

These recommendations are robust, backed up with lots of empirical data to argue why they would be our best bet to minimize climate change and secure a stable future for generations to come. Hansen is always careful to say when he is speaking as a scientist and when he is speaking as a citizen, and provides a fascinating discussion of the connection between these two roles. As Bill Blakemore from ABC television wrote in correspondence with Hansen, “All communication is biased. What makes the difference between a propagandist on one side and a professional journalist or scientist on the other is not that the journalist or scientist ‘set their biases aside’ but that they are open about them and constantly putting them to the test, ready to change them.”

Despite all this, I love when Hansen puts on his scientist hat. The discussions of climate science in this book, particularly paleoclimate, were gripping. He explains our current knowledge of the climatic circumstances surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (usually referred to as the PETM). He explains why neither of these events is a suitable analogue for current climate change, as the current rate of introduction of the radiative forcing is faster than anything we can see in the paleoclimatic record.

Be prepared for some pretty terrifying facts about our planet’s “methane hydrate gun”, and how it wasn’t even fully loaded when it went off in the PETM. Also discussed is the dependence of climate sensitivity on forcing: the graph of these two variables is more or less a parabola, as climate sensitivity increases both in Snowball Earth conditions and in Runaway Greenhouse conditions. An extensive discussion of runaway greenhouse is provided, where the forcing occurs so quickly that negative feedbacks don’t have a chance to act before the positive water vapour feedback gets out of control, the oceans boil, and the planet becomes too hot for liquid water to exist. For those who are interested in this scenario, Hansen argues that, if we’re irresponsible about fossil fuels, it is quite possible for current climate change to reach this stage. For those who have less practice separating the scientific part of their brain from the emotional part, I suggest you skip this chapter.

I would recommend this book to everyone interested in climate change. James Hansen is such an important player in climate science, and has arguably contributed more to our knowledge of climate change than just about anyone. Whether it’s for the science, for the policy discussions, or for his try at science fiction in the last chapter, it’s well worth the cover price.

Thoughts from others who have read this book are welcome in the comments, as always.

The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

Party Line

Brad Johnson from The Wonk Room recently released a comprehensive list of what Republican contenders for the U.S. Senate understand about climate change, inferred from their public statements. The result? 47 of the 48 deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change and/or oppose mitigating action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Take a look – many of the statements are what you would expect from trolling YouTube commenters, not politicians aspiring to run the most powerful country in the world. Through a combination of framing science as personal opinion, promoting artificial balance, and re-iterating the same misconceptions that people like you and I have been fighting to correct for years now, the Republican party has adopted a position that, frankly, terrifies me.

“There are dramatic environmental changes happening the Arctic region – whether one believes they are man-made or natural.” – John McCain, Arizona

“While I think the earth is warming, I don’t think that man-made causes are the primary factor.” – Ken Buck, Colorado

“The climate is always changing. The climate is never static. The question is whether it’s caused by man-made activity and whether it justifies economically destructive government regulation.” -Marco Rubio, Florida

“[Scientists] are making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught them doing this.” – Rand Paul, Kentucky

“There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the Earth.” -Roy Blunt, Missouri

“I don’t buy into the whole man-caused global warming, man-caused climate change mantra of the left. I believe that there’s not sound science to back that up.” -Sharron Angle, Nevada

“There is much debate in the scientific community as to the precise sources of global warming.” -Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania

“It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle’.” -Jim DeMint, South Carolina

“If you have one volcano in the world, that one volcano puts out more carbon dioxide than everything man puts out.” -John Raese, West Virginia

“I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.” -Ron Johnson, Wisconsin

Who are these people to make statements about what the scientific community knows and does not know about climate change, when organizations like the NAS are quite capable of doing that themselves, and tell a very different story to these prospective Senators when they do?

Who are they to make informal analyses on the attribution of recent temperature change – assessing the likelihood of different causes via gut instinct, rather than looking at fingerprints like stratospheric temperature and tropopause height?

Who are they to spread around blatant mistruths like “a single volcano puts out more CO2 than people do”? Who are they to make damaging accusations about scientific fraud and false data, especially when these accusations have already been investigated multiple times, coming up completely clear?

I had hoped that politicians would be slightly more informed than the general public on scientific matters that have implications for policy. However, I must now change my mind, and hope instead that the American public realizes how off the mark this position is. If they don’t, there could be consequences up to millenia from now.

The Celebrity Phenomenon

It is a very small subset of people that actually reads the scientific literature on climate change.

Even publishing scientists don’t usually follow research outside of their field. Few of us climate science enthusiasts read about the role of low hepatic copper concentrations in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, so why should we be surprised when medical researchers, flipping through Nature, don’t stop to read about the sea level during the last interglacial and its relevance to today?

For the 99% of us who are not publishing scientists in any area, and do not have a subscription to Nature, and don’t really find it too riveting anyway, we get all of our climate science news from the media. The mainstream media is generally mediocre when it comes to reporting science, but when it comes to climate science they do an abysmal job.

Many people know this – you shouldn’t trust the media, especially when it comes to stories of impending disaster.  You should take every such story with a grain of salt. However, it’s no good to stop there, and never do any research into its validity. Because what if it’s actually true? Then you’ll just be shrugging it off and going “maybe, maybe not” for no reason.

This happens a lot with celebrity climate science communicators, like Al Gore, or, in Canada, David Suzuki.

I’ve written about Al Gore before, and the important thing to stress is that he doesn’t matter. In general, his communication of climate science is very accurate – he has a few minor errors in his book and movie, but the overarching message that humans are causing dangerous warming of the planet is fully supported by science.

But it couldn’t matter less if Al Gore was or wasn’t telling the truth, because absolutely no scientific research rests on him. He hasn’t published any peer-reviewed papers about anything even remotely related to climate. He is purely a communicator.

A lot of people don’t like Al Gore, and therefore think that global warming is bunk. This kind of reasoning is very unfortunate. They recognize that they are hearing scientific information from a partisan source, so they assume that it’s wrong without researching what credible, nonpartisan sources say about it. All you need is a credibility spectrum, and you’re good to go.

There’s somewhat less of a problem when it comes to David Suzuki – after all, he’s not a former politician, he has more scientific training (a biology doctorate) than Gore, and according to a Reader’s Digest poll, Canadians trust him more than any other celebrity. It’s still easy, though, to find people who don’t like him for one reason or another. If it comes from David Suzuki, it has to be an extremist environmental craze, so they brush off what he says without looking at more credible sources.

Celebrities like Gore and Suzuki don’t matter. What matters, though, is people with severely limited knowledge of the scientific process, access to credible sources, or motivation to do a little research. What matters is the factors shaping society that have allowed so many of us to be this way. Why do schools frame science as answers, not questions? Why is literature vital to public communication hidden behind paywalls? And why do so many people assume that entire fields of science are dependent on one or two celebrity communicators?

A Better Credibility Spectrum

It’s been over a year since I wrote The Credibility Spectrum, my first post ever. Since then I’ve learned a lot, and have altered the credibility spectrum in my own mind – so I thought I’d alter it here, too.

This credibility spectrum is sort of split into two: the scientific community, and the non-scientific community. The scientific community starts with scientists, and I want to stress that this category only includes scientists with experience in the issue at hand. Just because someone has a PhD in one area of science doesn’t mean that they are an expert in all areas. For example, it’s very easy for a computer scientist to go through ten years of university without studying any biology at all.  Treating them as an expert in evolution, therefore, would be illogical.

These scientists write peer-reviewed papers, published in journals like Nature and Science, which are another step up the credibility spectrum. Instead of just having the name of an expert attached to them, their methods and conclusions have been evaluated for robustness and accuracy. This is the minimum level of credibility from which I recommend citing scientific claims.

However, as thousands of papers are published every month, and they’re generally studying the frontier of their field, it’s inevitable that some of them will be proven wrong later. As Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann wisely said, peer review is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

That’s why there are scientific organizations and assessment reports, like NASA or the IPCC, which compile peer-reviewed knowledge which has stood the test of time into consensus statements. Even the top level of the credibility spectrum isn’t infallible, but it sure has a low error rate compared to other sources.

Everyone who isn’t a scientist, which is most of us, falls into the lower half of the credibility spectrum. The category I refer to as “communicators” includes the mainstream media, projects like Manpollo or 350.org, high school teachers, politicians…….They’re not part of the scientific community, so you should always always always check their citations, but they’re held more accountable for what they say than just any random person on the street. If they make glaring errors, people will be more upset than if the same errors were made by individuals – comments on YouTube, discussions with your neighbours – which make up the lowest rung of our credibility spectrum.

Something that I found really interesting  when I put this together was the general flow of information between different sources. In the scientific community, research starts with scientists, and the best research is published in journals, and the best journal articles are picked up by major organizations. As the scientific knowledge progresses through the different sources, the weaker assertions are weeded out along the way. The flow of information is going up the pyramid, towards the narrower part of the pyramid, so that only the best is retained.

However, in the non-scientific community, the flow of information goes the other way. Communicators present information to individuals, which is a much larger group. Information travelling down the pyramid, instead of up, allow rumours and misconceptions to flourish much more easily.

This isn’t to say that, when they come head-to-head, organizations are always right and individuals are always wrong. But given the history of such disagreements, and the levels of credibility involved, you’ll know where to place your bets.

We Have Slides!

After a marathon PowerPoint-session yesterday I finally got my 63 slides out of the way. Here is the presentation for anyone who is interested. The script is written in the notes beneath the slides.

I like to have things fading in and out of my slides, so sometimes the text boxes and images are stacked on top of each other and it won’t make sense until you view the animation.

Researching the median lethal dose of arsenic during my spare at school was really awkward. I had to do a lot of hasty explaining to my friends about how it was a metaphor for small concentrations having large effects, and no, I wasn’t planning to poison anyone.

Anyway, enjoy.

Mind the Gap (12 MB)

The Best Satire Ever

A few days ago we covered analogies, and Dan Olner pointed me to a great one that has sparked this post.

It was written as an April Fools’ on RealClimate, and reads in part:

A “consensus view” amongst climate scientists holds that the Northern Hemisphere will be warming this month, as spring is coming. This is thought to be due to the Earth’s orbit around the sun and the inclination of the Earth’s axis, tilting the Northern Hemisphere progressively towards the sun throughout March and April and increasing the amount of solar radiation received at northern latitudes.

In a new novel, State of Euphoria, bestselling author Michael Crikey uncovers major flaws in this theory and warns against false hopes for the arrival of spring.

This is not merely fiction: Crikey underpins his thesis with numerous scientific diagrams. He presents measurements from over a dozen weather stations in the Northern Hemisphere where temperatures show a cooling trend in March. He further cites scientific results which show that in some places, snow and ice have increased in the past weeks, counter to climatologists’ claims that they should be melting away in the spring sun. He further argues that even the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere has not increased steadily; during one week of March, it showed a slight cooling despite the increase in solar radiation.

“This casts a grave shadow of doubt on the theory of the seasons”, says Crikey. “Consensus science is not good science.” He says we should not trust computer models projecting that June will be much warmer than March in most of the Northern Hemisphere. “These models cannot even predict the weather in two weeks time – why should we believe what they say about temperatures in two months?” He also says that only six months ago, scientists were predicting a cooling.

This wasn’t the only time that RC wrote a satirical post for April Fools’ Day. One of their most popular posts is the Sheep Albedo Feedback:

The hypothesis begins with the simple observation that most sheep are white, and therefore have a higher albedo than the land on which they typically graze. This effect is confirmed by the recent Sheep Radiation Budget Experiment. The next step in the chain of logic is to note that the sheep population of New Zealand has plummeted in recent years. The resulting decrease in albedo leads to an increase in absorbed Solar radiation, thus warming the planet…..There is in fact an important destabilizing feedback in the system: as climate gets warmer, there is less demand for wool sweaters and wooly underwear. Hence the sheep population tends to drop, leading to even more warming. In an extreme form, this can lead to a “runaway sheep-albedo feedback.”

The Christian Science Monitor did an April Fools’ article of its own, which never fails to cheer me up, unless I make the mistake of reading the comments below it. Anyway, it begins:

In an unprecedented move Wednesday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee rescinded the Peace Prize it awarded in 2007 to former US vice president Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, amid overwhelming evidence that global warming is an elaborate hoax cooked up by Mr. Gore.

A press release from the committee quotes a chagrined Rajendra Pachauri, the UN climate panel’s chair, who claims that he was the victim of a “cunning deception spanning decades”:

“I am deeply ashamed for having unwittingly perpetuated such a massive fraud on the governments of the world,” said Mr. Pachauri.

“It turns out that all that data from satellites and radiosondes, surface temperature readings, borehole analysis, measurements of rising sea levels, melting glaciers and permafrost, phenological data, and proxy reconstructions of paleoclimatic conditions were all fabricated out of thin air by my former friend, Al Gore. Now that I think about it, I suppose that we should have instituted some sort of peer-review process before publishing such alarming conclusions. Once again, I’m very sorry.”

If we’re going to talk about satire, we can’t forget DenialDepot, a great example of Poe’s Law. The “About” tab on the home page reads:

I believe that one day all science will be done on blogs because we bloggers are natural skeptics, disbelieving the mainstream and accepting the possibility of any alternative idea.

We stand unimpressed by “textbooks”, “peer review journals” and so-called “facts”. There are no facts, just dissenting opinion. We are infinitely small compared to nature and can’t grasp anything as certain as a fact.

Nothing is settled and we should question everything. The debate is NOT over Gore! When so-called “experts” in their “peer reviewed journals” say one thing, we dare the impossible and find imaginative ways to believe something else entirely.

Be sure to check out the posts on snowstorms, exponentials, the Oregon Petition, and the new theory of climate.

Anything I’ve left out? Share your favourite climate change satire in the comments below.

The Antithesis to Nitpicking

Sometimes we have to step back and look at the big picture. We have to remember that not everyone has heard or believed the one about global warming stopping in 1998. Denialists centre around nitpicking and ideas that global warming is a “house of cards”, so we respond the same way: countering all the “mistakes” they claim to have found.

In reality, climate change is an incredibly robust phenomenon that we’ve known about for decades – and the basic physics behind it, for over a century. It’s not some new, shaky discovery. It’s not going to be overturned because scientists at CRU do not always say nice things about their critics.

So I was very pleased when I opened up YouTube today to see that Peter Sinclair’s latest video was all about this big picture. If I had to choose just one of his videos to share with everyone I knew, this would certainly be it. This is the kind of message we need to get out there; this is the kind of angle we need to take.

How to Prove Global Warming Wrong

Over the past twenty years, vested interests and political lobby groups have done a fantastic job confusing the public about anthropogenic climate change. To many, they seem to have proven the whole theory wrong.

But how could you actually prove global warming wrong – not just in the minds of the public, but through the established scientific process? What scientific discoveries – if they held up through peer-review, further criticism, and replication – would render climate change a non-problem?

One of the surest ways to stop all this cap-and-trade discussion would be to disprove the greenhouse effect itself – the mechanism by which the Earth absorbs and emits the same energy multiple times, due to the presence of greenhouse gas molecules that “bounce it back”. This keeps the Earth substantially warmer than it would be otherwise. Additionally, if the concentrations of greenhouse gases increase, so will the temperature of the Earth. This process was first hypothesized by Joseph Fourier in 1824, and was experimentally confirmed by John Tyndall in 1856. The first prediction of eventual man-made global warming came from Svante Arrhenius, in 1896. It wasn’t a theory as much as a logical result of a theory, one that was deeply rooted in physics and chemistry.

Unless our understanding of entire fields of physical science is totally off base, we can be sure that our greenhouse gas emissions will cause climate change eventually. But hey, if you could overturn all of thermodynamics, you wouldn’t have to worry about carbon taxes.

  • Cheap-out option: Svante Arrhenius was Swedish, but his name sounds sort of Russian, and 1896 wasn’t very long before the Russian Revolution. Therefore, Arrhenius was a Communist, and none of his scientific work can be trusted.

Knowing that something is sure to happen eventually, though, is different from knowing that it is happening right now with substantial speed. We know that the Earth is warming – even if you found some statistical way to disprove three separate temperature records, the physical and biological systems of our planet still stand: 90% of observed changes in the natural world, like the blooming of flowers, the peak flows of rivers, and the spawning of fish, are in the direction expected with warming (Rosenzweig et al, 2008).

But how do we know that the warming is caused by us? Climate change has been caused many times in the past by factors unrelated to greenhouse gases – like solar influences, whether they’re direct (a change in solar output) or indirect (a change in the Earth’s orbit). How do we know that’s not happening now?

If the warming was caused by the sun, the atmosphere would warm uniformly at all levels. However, if the Earth was warming from greenhouse gases, the troposphere (the layer of the atmosphere closest to the planet) would warm while the stratosphere (the next level up) would cool. This is because more heat is getting bounced back to the surface by greenhouse gases, and is subsequently prevented from reaching the stratosphere.

A cooling stratosphere has been described as the “fingerprint” evidence of greenhouse-induced warming. And, in fact, the stratosphere has been cooling over the past 30 years (Randel et al, 2009). Therefore, if you could somehow show that something else was causing this pattern of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere, and that the significant, anthropogenic rise in greenhouse gases was somehow not affecting it, you would have a case for global warming being natural.

Update (18/2/10): About half of this cooling can be attributed to ozone depletion, and the other half can be attributed to greenhouse gases (NOAA, 2006). The flat trend in stratospheric temperatures from 1995-2005 (see the Randel citation above) can be explained by the recovery of ozone, which is temporarily offsetting the greenhouse gases. Interesting how the temperature of the stratosphere has just as many factors as the temperature of the troposphere…..but in both cases, you can’t explain the temperature trends without including human activity. Scott Mandia has a great explanation here.

  • Cheap-out option: Omit the explanation of why greenhouse warming causes stratospheric cooling. Just point to the graph that goes down and say, “The atmosphere is cooling! Therefore, the IPCC is a hoax!”

Finally, even if you couldn’t disprove that global warming is expected, observed, and anthropogenic, you could still show that it isn’t very significant. The way to do this would be to show that climate sensitivity is less than 2 C. Climate sensitivity refers to the amount of warming that would result from a doubling of carbon dioxide equivalent, and 2 C is generally accepted as the maximum amount of warming that our society could endure without too much trouble. The current estimates for climate sensitivity, in contrast, average around 3 C (a range of 2-4.5), and it is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 C (IPCC AR4).

However, a climate sensitivity of less than 2 C only means that climate change isn’t a problem if our greenhouse gases stop at a doubling of carbon dioxide equivalent from pre-industrial levels. Even without taking methane and other greenhouse gases into account, this brings us to a CO2 concentration of 560 ppm, which we are well on track to surpass, even with cap-and-trade. So you’d have to argue for a climate sensitivity of even less. Seeing as we’ve already warmed 0.8 C, it doesn’t leave you with a lot of wiggle room.

  • Cheap-out option: Build a climate model that does what you want it to, without any regard for the laws of physics. ExxonMobil will probably sponsor the supercomputers. Widely publicize the results and avoid peer-review at all costs.

Daunting tasks, certainly. But if you really believe that global warming is natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy, this is the way to prove it. If you managed to prove it, and change the collective mind of the scientific community (not just the public), you’d probably win a Nobel Prize. So it’s certainly worth your time and effort.