A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Skeptimedia replaces  Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.

Keeping a cool head about global warming

"[C]onservatism ... has ruined the nation. Conservatives do not have ideas; they have interests. Conservatives are not "thinkers"; they are rationalizers who give an intellectual gloss to their belief that an alliance of predatory businesspeople and religious extremists should rule the rest of us." --Daniel Rosen (in response to Stephen F. Hayward:  "The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level...."

11 Dec 2009. A reader reacted to my characterizing climate change deniers as contrarians who challenge the evidence that human activities such as deforestation and human behaviors that result in more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are causing changes in our planet's climate that may prove devastating and irreversible. "Hang on!" he wrote. "I thought you were a skeptic! This issue is by no means cut and dried. If you have time I suggest you read the attached PDF file." Since I've addressed the issue of whether I'm a real or true skeptic elsewhere, I'll ignore that issue and get right to the defense of my characterization of climate change deniers.

First, let me acknowledge that scientists who produce scientific work that conflicts with the consensus of scientists on climate change are not necessarily contrarians. There is room in any complex scientific inquiry for a variety of opinions on how to interpret various sets of data.

That being said, let me address the PDF file. The file is a paper by Steven F. Hayward called "Scientists Behaving Badly; A corrupt cabal of global warming alarmists are exposed by a massive document leak." It was published in The Weekly Standard, a "neoconservative opinion magazine." Hayward's characterization of criminal theft as a "document leak" sets the tone, as does his characterization of the climate scientists whose e-mails were stolen as "a corrupt cabal of global warming alarmists." Hayward even speculates that the criminal theft might have been a leak by a "whistleblower from the inside." So, I'm not really in a trusting mood when I start reading his paper. I can't resist, though, and I jump right to the conclusion (my exercise for the day) and find that he writes:

I have long expected that 20 or so years from now we will look back on the turn-of-the-millennium climate hysteria in the same way we look back now on the population bomb hysteria of the late 1960s and early 1970s--as a phenomenon whose magnitude and effects were vastly overestimated....

Maybe Hayward thinks that an equivalent to Norman Borlaug will magically appear and solve the greenhouse gases problem the way Borlaug solved the population problem. I know; Borlaug transformed agriculture, but thanks to him billions of people got fed and bred. There would have been massive starvation on planet Earth had he not led the way to get more food from less soil, but there has been a price for his wonderful work in terms of water tables, amounts of pesticides and fertilizers in the soil and our food, and in population growth. If population growth is not halted there will be catastrophic consequences in the future. Some are hoping that genetic engineering or even synthesizing food products in the lab will enable us to feed an ever-growing number of eaters. The costs in pollution, water usage, etc., will not be trivial. Climate change could turn out to be much worse than current models predict.* When China, India, and Africa demand their place at the carbon emissions table, how will the world turn? Consider that every day in China more than 1,000,000 pigs are consumed. Much of the feed for those pigs comes from Brazil. Guess how the Brazilians are expanding their grain production? They destroy rainforest. Cabals and hysteria, indeed.

Hayward begins his article with a common ploy of climate change deniers: "Global temperatures stopped rising a few years ago, much to the dismay of the climate campaigners." Not true.

Calendar year 2008 was the coolest year since 2000, according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies analysis of surface air temperature measurements. In our analysis, 2008 is the ninth warmest year in the period of instrumental measurements, which extends back to 1880. The ten warmest years all occur within the 12-year period 1997-2008. The two-standard-deviation (95% confidence) uncertainty in comparing recent years is estimated as 0.05°C, so we can only conclude with confidence that 2008 was somewhere within the range from 7th to 10th warmest year in the record.*

Hayward doesn't address the two other main indications of global warming: worldwide loss of snow and ice, and rising sea levels, perhaps because his non-admonished thieves don't have anything in those areas. Anyway, Hayward admits that "the emails do not in and of themselves reveal that catastrophic climate change scenarios are a hoax or without any foundation." He also admits that "Climate change is a genuine phenomenon, and there is a nontrivial risk of major consequences in the future." He doesn't like the attitude of some of the climate scientists, however. The emails reveal scientists who are not "disinterested investigators after the truth" but are "advocates for a preconceived conclusion about the issues at hand." That's his opinion, but it has nothing to do with the science. I don't think it's fair, however, to characterize advocates for catastrophic climate change as having "preconceived conclusions" simply because they are engaged in a real-life polemical war with politicians, oil companies, and propagandists for the "expanding markets is God's will" party.

It should also be noted that whatever malfeasance is discovered, if any is discovered at all, it will not take away from the science that has been done at East Anglia or elsewhere in the world. Some of the emails should be considered in the context of this polemical war. There is not a scientific debate going on about whether there is climate change and whether humans are a major contributing factor to that change. There is a polemical debate going on, which might lead otherwise disinterested scientists trying to figure out ways to keep oil company shills from distorting the data to make it look like climate science is a scam.

Hayward writes:

In the larger world of climate science, the Climate-gate story is overwhelmingly about one small but very important subfield--paleoclimatology, the effort to reconstruct the Earth's climate during the vast sweep of time before humans began measuring and recording observations about the weather.

He then goes on to claim that the emails reveal a conspiracy to keep dissidents out of the debate over this data. Maybe so, but the facts are still the facts:

There is considerable debate centered on the cause of 20th century climate change. Few people contest the idea that some of the recent climate changes are likely due to natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions, changes in solar luminosity, and variations generated by natural interactions between parts of the climate system (for example, oceans and the atmosphere). There were significant climate changes before humans were around and there will be non-human causes of climate change in the future.

Nevertheless, with each year, more and more climate scientists are coming to the conclusion that human activity is also causing the climate to change. First on the list of likely human influences is warming due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Other human activities are thought to drive climate as well. As the ice-core data show, the increase in carbon dioxide is unprecedented and well outside the range of natural variations. The recent increase matches the increase calculated from the fossil fuel emissions. There is little doubt that these gases will contribute to global warming, and here too the paleo record provides invaluable evidence regarding how much temperature change accompanied changes in carbon dioxide over the past several hundred thousand years....

The best estimate is that about 50% of the observed global warming is due to greenhouse gas increases. (National Climatic Data Center)

Hayward devotes a good amount of heat and space to statistics. Remember the hockey stick? Remember the email by Jones that says he used "Mike's Nature trick"? Yes, the "trick" that was published in a science journal and was no secret. Rather than respond to Hayward, I urge the reader to go here and here and here and here for less biased evaluations of the "trick."

Probably the least intelligent comment  Hayward makes in his diatribe is this one:

Perhaps the most damning email from the CRU circle is this July 2005 message from Phil Jones to climatologist John Christy of the University of Alabama: "As you know, I'm not political. If anything, I would like to see the climate change happen, so the science could be proved right, regardless of the consequences. This isn't being political, it is being selfish." Jones's attitude may not be exactly political, but it is certainly unscientific.

Why would Hayward expect every statement by a scientist to be scientific?

Stephen Novella, in writing about "climategate", was reminded of the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks in response to the Duke Lacrosse team witch hunt:

Witch hunts go in stages. First frenzy, when everybody damns the souls of people they don't know. Then confusion, as the first wave of contradictory facts comes in. Then deafening silence, as everybody studiously ignores the vicious slanders they uttered during the moment of maximum hysteria.

In the case of climategate, however, the deniers are never confused and will never reach the stage of silence. They know what they know and they know they're right. Therefore, when they accuse a group of scientists of being a "corrupt cabal," it doesn't count as vicious slander. It's business as usual. If you push them real hard, they might even tell you that they do what they do in Jesus' name. Halleluiah!

further reading

  • Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble by Lester R. Brown From the introduction: Plan B is the only viable option simply because Plan A, continuing with business as usual, offers an unacceptable outcome—continuing environmental degradation and disruption and a bursting of the economic bubble. The warning signals are coming more frequently, whether they be collapsing fisheries, melting glaciers, or falling water tables. Thus far the wake-up calls have been local, but soon they could become global. Massive imports of grain by China—and the rise in food prices that would likely follow—could awake us from our lethargy.

But time is running out. Bubble economies, which by definition are artificially inflated, do not continue indefinitely. Our demands on the earth exceed its regenerative capacity by a wider margin with each passing day.

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