Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Climate Change - get real

This is a guest post by InMyHumbleEtc in response to The Pedant General

I don’t reckon the recent snowy weather has been kind on the Heresiarch’s standards. In particular, the recent Guest Post by the Pedant General was so wrong-headed that I couldn’t let it rest. What follows is mainly my original response, with some extra detail addressing the longer post on Devil's Kitchen by the General. For me the General’s post is a horrible example of how little Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt the climate change deniers need to spread in order to stymie public action on complex scientific matters. I am sure it took me longer to counter it (lacking, as I do, immediate access to the correct scientific data, and only a passing knowledge of proper climate science blogs) than it did for it to be written in the first place.

Most of us simply lack the time and specialist knowledge to disprove the climate deniers’ bullshit, and for many people climate denial suits their prejudices and political persuasion, so they won’t even seek it out. Think of the Pedant General as an intelligent human being who has swallowed just enough bullshit from various sources to convince himself that there isn’t a problem, and that the solutions will make things worse, in line with his political leanings.

The General claimed that


The fact that we are noticeably warmer than we were 5, 50 or 150 years ago is not remotely interesting. We were and are emerging from a (non-man made) little ice age.
The vital question is whether we are warmer than we were 1000 years ago, and that is very definitely not settled science in any way shape or form.

And… even if we are warmer than we were 1000 years ago (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is denied – the historical record is pretty clear that it was indeed significantly warmer – one reason the science isn’t settled BTW), it is not at all clear whether this change is man-made to any really significant degree.


It actually extremely interesting that we are warmer than 150 years ago, considering the small matter of industrialisation. But the claim here is that we should be looking at longer terms trends and whether we are warmer than 1,000 years ago. So lets:

Temperature trends in past centuries and the so-called hockey stick

The graph is from RealClimate.org, which is well worth reading for the extra information, especially the comments (and other pages here, here and here). Basically it shows the reconstructed data on long term climactic variation from various sources and methodologies, and against several computer simulations – it’s Northern Hemisphere data, incidentally.

The different coloured lines show the trends suggested by the different studies, and the grey areas show the different outer limits for the uncertainty on two of the studies (Mann & Jones and Man et al). If we go back to the year 1000 all of them are below the 1961-1990 baseline, with the possible exception of the green line (Mann et al). The green line is crossing the baseline around that point, heading steeply downwards – the previous short spike above the baseline is the only time it rises above it in the whole series.

The outer limits of uncertainty do show that it’s possible that the temperature in the past may have been above the baseline, but the likely trends are universally below the baseline, as are all the other data series, except for a brief spike in the yellow line (Crowley and Lowery) around 1200, and the early progress of the Bauer et al simulation. None of the data trends, or the extremities of uncertainty exceed 0.4 above the baseline prior to the era of industrialisation. Our current position is significantly above +0.4. The long term data does show us emerging from the ‘little ice age’ in the mid 19th century but it also shows a completely anomalous rise beyond previous norms. We are much warmer than we were 1,000 years ago, and the Pedant General is talking bollocks. And before you even start with the confected ‘Hockey Stick controversy’, have a look at the Q&A here.

Delving a little deeper into the other post by the General (which has lots of great flow charts, incidentally), the crux of his argument for disregarding the entire field of climate science is as follows:

The Harry Read Me file shows just how badly knackered the HadCRUT temperature series really is. HADCRUT is one of a tiny number of recognised (“peer reviewed” even?) global temperature sources. All of them feed off each other and the people implicated in the emails are linked to some of the others. RealClimate’s Gavin Schmidt, for example, is a protege of the team, is extensively mentioned in the audit trail of shame and works for NASA’s GISS – one of the other of this tiny number of recognised (“peer reviewed” even?) global temperature sources.


In other words, because all of the scientists have professional links and their work is informed by each other, they must be in league together in a great global conspiracy to distort global temperature records. This is Dan Brown fiction, not scientific critique. Actually, as RealClimate points out here, the data discussed in the ‘Harry Read Me’ file is not the HadCRUT data, so actually the PG’s whole argument, and the chart that flows from it is shot.

Similarly, the claim made elsewhere in his post that the Hockey stick data is based on a single tree in Siberia is also nonsense. The different lines on the graph above come from different sources and methodologies, and are aligned with the temperature record as far as it goes back. Sadly, none of the people engaged in talking up ‘climategate’ are remotely interested in actually finding out the scientific context, or attempting to engage with the data, they just want to muddy the waters enough to prevent action.

The Pedant General continues:

And, even if:
-we are warmer than we were 1000 years ago and
-we are causing it to some significant degree and
- we are really able to influence it the other way

it’s not at all clear that doing so is necessarily necessary. Do the benefits of warmer temperatures outweigh the costs? The historical record suggests that yes, they do. Humans do better when it’s warmer. The numbers dying of unseasonal cold far outstrip those dying of unseasonal heat.

Y’what? Y’WHAT? So “it’s not at all clear that we are really able to influence it the other way”. This witless assertion is so lacking in substantiating information that it’s very hard to dismantle. The mechanism by which CO2 makes the world warmer is such old hat that even I learned it in school. The correlation between CO2 and temperature is very well documented in Ice Core data, and the ‘lag’ is well explained. Essentially, other factors begin warming events (output of CO2 from the earth’s fauna & flora having been fairly static until the age of industrialisation), but this warming stimulated release of CO2 which then droves the warming even further.

Granted, if we don’t reduce emissions soon, the feedback loops (several of which involve the same CO2 release as in non-anthropocentric warming events), will reduce our ability to reverse this human-caused warming. But that is an argument for urgent action now, not for prevarication.

As for the claim that the historical record suggests that “the benefits of warmer temperatures outweigh the costs” – this has got to be the most stupid one of the lot. El General really hasn’t taken the time to understand what climate change means, has he? Cimate Change means more increased extreme weather events, disruption of the water cycle and decreased agricultural productivity, not sunglasses and the occasional hot flush. The 300,000-odd estimated deaths a year (pdf) from climate change didn’t die of heat stroke.

The General claims that it is "not at all clear" that trying to combat climate change is "the best use of our money right now":

There are (pace Lomborg) stacks of really actually pressing problems that would benefit mankind massively more proveably right now if a tiny tiny fraction of the sums being bandied about were to be devoted to them. Eradicating malaria for example.


Because of the feedback loops mentioned above, we have a window of effectiveness after which we will not be able to lower average global temperatures by reducing our carbon emissions, and will be locked into a much greater warming event. This means we don’t get to wait around until it’s a bit too warm for our comfort, and then start to do something about the problem.

Bjorn Lomberg’s major contribution to fiddling while Rome burns involved getting a load of economists into a room and getting them to assess a competition of global projects for the benefit of mankind, using a budget too small to make a difference to global warming. At $50 billion US, it was actually less than half the annual estimated costs (pdf) of climate change. On the basis of that, global warming was deemed to not be cost effective, never mind what the real scientists said. I don’t think Dante was sufficiently forward thinking to reserve a place for hell for contrarians who look on global catastrophe as a chance to launch a career in denial punditry, but part of me wishes he had.

PG also claims that it is:

not at all clear that the best way to do this is to subborn all our freedoms to a putative world government in the form of the monstrously corrupt UN who will then proceed to tax us all into oblivion in order to give all our money to the most corrupt and incompetent governments on the planet (who are more likely to squander or nick it rather than use it – incompetently – for whatever it was supposed to be for).


I quite agree, this would not be a very good course of action, even when stripped of the demented right-wing hysteria. We need something much more radical – centrally coordinated, but properly democratic and involving everyone. And fast.

Thus, the claim that “the weather/climate is changing and it is necessary for governments to act upon it ” is a monster fallacy of well known form:

- something must be done (which is denied)
- A is something (A is not shown to be effective)
- therefore A must be done (logical fallacy)
with the added knobs on that
- A must be done by the government.

Or is that akin to being a young earth creationist?


As it’s quite obvious (for those who care to see) that something does need to be done that tackles climate change, I think it’s not unreasonable for people to look to the existing political authorities to take action. Obviously, what is to be done, and by whom is a proper political debate, instead of this head in the sand bullshit, and I rather look forward to having it.
I agree that the policies so far announced will not make enough of a difference, but we need to do more, not less. In any case, surely the fact that the oil is going to run out means that we need to de-carbonise our economy anyway? For me doing it now and possibly saving the environment into the bargain is a no-brainer.

Given the alternative of climate change, I’d happily settle for meaningful (inter) governmental action. Personally I harbour serious doubts about the ability of liberal capitalism to deliver a fully sustainable zero-carbon economy, because of the necessary element of continued material growth. However, we don’t have the luxury of holding out for the perfect political system, what we need is for the existing political authorities to take action to cut carbon emissions now. While that process is beginning, we can continue to debate what our society should look like in 2050, given what the science tells us about the emissions cuts we need to make.

There is a huge issue of justice here, in that the industrialised world has primary responsibility for cumulative historical emissions, and that people living marginal lives in the developing world will mainly suffer the consequences, at least in the beginning. To decide that we should do nothing because our political system is not up to the job, or because cuts are politically unpalatable is morally indefensible.

I’m afraid that wanting to stimulate ‘debate’ about climate science at this juncture places you somewhere on a continuum between irresponsibility, and extreme malevolence. That isn’t an attack on anyone’s freedom of speech, or to shut up people who have uncomfortable truths to articulate, honestly. For over a decade proper political action on this issue has, particularly in the US, been prevented by a vocal and well funded lobby whose only purpose has been to portray the science as less fixed than it actually is. They make no attempt to really engage with the science holistically, only to snipe at little bits of it by distortion, outright lies and highlighting the few remaining areas where there are uncertainties.

Obviously it is bad democracy to blindly trust the scientific authorities to know what’s best for us, but if people want to debate the issue, I think they really need to put in the hard graft necessary to understand and critique the science in a meaningful manner. Unfortunately, for a complex issue such as this, the debate will necessarily be over the heads of most people, unless we’re going to have a very radical mass education programme right now.

The stakes are high, and the scientific opinion has come down squarely on one side – those of us who have better things to do with our lives than taking a crash course in climate science ought to trust them. Climategate was a well-timed and malicious leak with the most damming items highlighted in an attempt to undermine that trust. There are a few shocking things in there, but not enough to undermine an entire scientific discipline, and if you cleave to that opinion, you are being played. Simple as that.

And actually General, you’re much worse than a young earth creationist. They are considerably less harmless.

InMyHumbleEtc

Note on sources:

These are both good one-stop shops for countering climate change sceptics
The real gem for me though has been RealClimate.org. I stayed away from it for ages because I found it impenetrable, which is a shame. You need to get to work with the search function, as most of the posts assume a lot of knowledge from the beginning, but perseverance pays off.

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