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?

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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.

A Well-Documented Strategy

Exhibit A:

“There is no experimental data to support the hypothesis that smoking causes lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis………any number of things can influence the onset of a disease. The list includes genetics, diet, workplace environment, and stress…….we understand public anxiety about smoking causing disease, but are concerned that many of these much-publicized associations are ill-informed and misleading……….the media continue to uncritically accept and vigorously promote an anti-smoking agenda…….after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on clinical research, and decades of screaming headlines, we have no more certainty today about smoking causing disease than we did decades ago……….if even a small part of the time and money spent trying to link smoking to cancer were spent instead on studying the other causes of cancer, millions of lives could be saved.”

Exhibit B:

“The claim that human activities cause climate change has not been scientifically proven……….it is a reductionist error and not keeping with the current theories of climate science to attempt  to assign each temperature change to an exclusive single cause………..the use of results from flawed computer models to frighten people by attributing catastrophic future change to current human activities may be misleading and is highly regrettable……..that emotionalism can override objective analysis is illustrated by the headlines………..despite millions of dollars spent by the government on climate modeling and research, many questions about the relationship between human activities and global temperature change remain unanswered……….indeed, many scientists are becoming concerned that preoccupation with anthropogenic global warming may be both unfounded and dangerous – unfounded because evidence on many critical points is conflicting, dangerous because it diverts attention from other suspected hazards.”

Now read the originals.

Exhibit A

“There is no experimental data to support the hypothesis that increases in hydrocarbon use or in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing or can be expected to cause unfavourable changes in global temperatures, weather, or landscape…….any number of things can influence earth’s temperature. The list includes volcanic eruptions, variations in the amount of energy received from the sun, El Niños, and La Niñas – all of which are natural………we understand public anxiety about climate change, but are concerned that many of these much publicized predictions are ill-informed and misleading……….the media continue to uncritically accept and vigorously promote shrill global warming alarmism………after hundreds of millions of dollars spent on climate modeling, and decades of screaming headlines, we have no more certainty today about global warming prediction than we did decades ago………..if even a small part of the money spent trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions were spent instead on fighting hunger or disease in Third World countries, millions of lives could be saved.”

-from the various articles on the Heartland Institute’s global warming page

Exhibit B

“The claim that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer has not been scientifically proven………..it is a reductionist error and not keeping with the current theories of cancer causation to attempt to assign each cancer to an exclusive single cause…………the use of results from flawed population studies to frighten people by attributing large numbers of death yearly to smoking may be misleading and is most regrettable……….that emotionalism can override objective analysis is illustrated by the headlines………despite millions of dollars spent by the government on smoking and health-related research, many questions about the relationship between smoking and disease remain unanswered…………indeed, many scientists are becoming concerned that preoccupation with smoking may be both unfounded and dangerous – unfounded because evidence on many critical points is conflicting, dangerous because it diverts attention from other suspected hazards.”

-from Smoking and Health: 1964-1979: The Continuing Controversy, published in 1979 by the Tobacco Institute

If I hadn’t told you which set of quotes was unchanged, and which I had replaced words like “smoking” and “cancer” with “human activities” and “climate change”, or vice versa, would you even have known the difference?

A Fun Quote

“Although the most extreme environmental zealots may be relatively few in number, they have managed to gain undue influence by exploiting the gullibility of scientifically illiterate people who are only too willing to believe the planet needs saving from man’s excesses. Perhaps this phenomenon is a psychological throwback to earlier civilizations that offered human sacrifices to the gods to assuage their sins and spare them from punishment in the form of drought, flood, famine, or disease. There are certainly many parallels between modern environmentalism and ancient religions.”

The Heartland Institute

Falling Short

I recently created a multi-genre document which explores discrepancies in the way the media reports on climate change.

Falling Short

Apologies that the visual quality isn’t too great. I conveniently lost my digital copy of this file and all I had was a hard copy, which I scanned, losing some of the quality in the process.

Enjoy!