Sunday, March 25, 2007

Climate Change Response to Jonathan Last

A columnist named Jonathan Last, who writes for both the Philadelphia News and the Weekly Standard, published a pretty disingenuous take on the "debate" over climate change (printed here and here).

On some level, it seems an exercise in futility to take these arguments on. The assumptions, logic and analytical frameworks each of us use in advancing our respective arguments are about as far removed as two people arguing abortion, religion, the death penalty or American Idol winners. But in the spirit of intellectual debate, I thought I'd try. Taking his argument in order.

The post-Oscar attacks on Al Gore for living in a mansion that consumes 20 times as much energy as the average American house were enjoyable, but unfair. Gore's consumption of fossil fuels has nothing to do with the arguments he has been advancing about climate change. After all, his thesis is empirical, not subjective. It doesn't matter a lick whether Al Gore is a hypocrite. What matters is whether or not he is right.
Last is completely accurate in leveling charges of hypocrisy at Gore. Although Gore offsets his electricity through mechanisms that alleviate carbon-emissions, it's really beside the point. However, while any demand-side efficiency arguments that he advances should thus be viewed within that context, this in no way diminishes the veracity of his argument about climate change.
Gore proposes essentially four assertions, which build conditionally: (1) Earth's climate is getting warmer; (2) man is responsible in substantial part for this change; (3) this change will result in net harm; and (4) this change can be reversed by man.
His breakdown of the climate change argument into 4 conditions is suspect. #1 and #2 are correct. He defines "net harm" in #3 by focusing on storm activity, hurricanes and a mention of sea level change, which I disagree with at length further on. And as far as #4, most climate change scientists, and related policy makers argue that man is responsible for reducing emissions, NOT directly impacting weather patterns (such as wind, cloud cover, etc). Again, more on this later. If you accept #1 and #2 (as climate change scientists do) you focus only on change the man-made inputs that are having an impact on climate change.
Here is what we know for certain about climate change: In the last 100 years, the average temperature on Earth has risen 1 degree Fahrenheit.
There are actually three distinct periods within the past 100 years - a period from 1900 to WWII or so, where temperatures warm, a following period of 30 years where temperatures drop from the previous 50 years, and then a period of 30 years beginning in the mid-70's where temperatures rise dramatically. The 700% increase in global fossil carbon emissions begins about 1950. Therefore, it's disingenuous at best to consider a temperature rise in the past 100 years without noting that fact. Moreover, I think the fact that eleven of the last twelve years have been the warmest since 1850 may account for something.
This is not unprecedented. Throughout history, the planet has gone through temperature cycles. There have been "warm periods" and ice ages. To take just one example, Swiss climatologists believe that the glaciers in the Alps have melted into near nothingness 10 times in the last 10,000 years.
Absolutely agree. The Earth has always had periods of warming and cooling. However, these periods have occurred gradually over many hundreds and thousands of years. Even the recent "Little Ice Age" took hundreds of years to achieve a 2-3 degree F change. The big fear of climate change scientists/policy makers/proponents is that the changes will take place over decades and that natural systems, animal/plant habitats etc. will have no chance to respond. By the way, this Swiss "evidence" is for a guy's doctoral THESIS, and hasn't even been PUBLISHED yet.
As recently as the 1970s, global cooling was considered by many scientists to be a major imminent threat, with the book The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age doing the work of today's An Inconvenient Truth.
I disagree with the phrase "many scientists". There was a momentary blip in the mainstream press with a few scientists positing the question. Moreover, no scientists (reputable) made any comments about a "trend". To compare this to the huge concern with current global warming theory, studied by thousands of scientists, responsible for thousands of peer-reviewed papers, is again, disingenuous at best. And the "Weather Conspiracy" is described as "popular" only by those who disagree with global warming theory. An Inconvenient Truth is the second most popular documentary ever, spawned an immensely popular best-selling book and is a cultural touchstone. "The Weather Conspiracy" was trite and unsubstantiated. The two are not comparable.
Given the history of fluctuations in temperatures, to what degree is man responsible for the current rise? That depends on whom you ask and when you ask them. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it believes that human activity has been a primary driver. But this verdict is not final: The IPCC recently explained that its initial work on climate change overestimated man's impact by as much as 25 percent. Who knows how it will change its estimates in the future.
The IPCC, knowing that skeptics would seize on this data, specifically stated this was only a refinement of existing data, due to improved data collection. To take one line in the report which corrects its previous misstatements, (to the detriment of its main thesis by the way), and lays out precisely why it does so, and thus conclude that the report's entire thesis is called into question is to akin to taking a one quarter reduction in the growth rate of GDP and claiming that the entire economy is now in depression. The IPCC put its certainty level of man-made impact at 90%, which was an increase compared to previous reports. Climate science is complex and incorporates hundreds of factors. Hundreds of scientists spend six years putting together this report, still managed to return a 90% certainty. Despite Bjorn Lomborg's WSJ op-ed critique, I'd invest a lot of money behind that kind of 90% certainty.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany note that the sun has seemed to be burning more brightly for the last 60 years, which may account for the increase of 1 degree.
What he neglects to mention is that this same institute also released a report on the increased sun activity where it concluded that this increase in sun activity played little to no role in the overall temperate increase during the last few decades! The director of the Institute also publicly states that the recent temperature increase is due to a rise in man-made greenhouse gas emissions. I assume Last has read the report in detail, and has counterfactuals that will explain why they are wrong and he is able to make this assertion.
But as British scientist Nigel Calder notes, theories about climate change that don't finger man as the culprit are met with hostility or blank stares in the parts of the scientific community most heavily invested in Gore's theses, such as the IPCC.
Oy - he might want to note that Nigel Calder has a theory using cosmic rays to explain climate change, which simply isn't born out by the data. The "hostility or blank stares" he speaks of may come from the bunk science he's pushing. Also, the IPCC is "heavily invested in the data" because hundreds of its scientists have spent thousands of hours to confirm or deny the existence of human-influenced forced climate change, and seem to have come to a 90% conclusion. Newton was "heavily invested" in the gravitational theory, and I believe Einstein was "heavily invested" in theories about black holes.
Which brings us to the third part: If global warming is real, what would the net effect be? Gore says it would be very bad indeed. Taking his cue from the former vice president, the announcer of the Academy Awards telecast gushed that "Davis Guggenheim and the cast were scheduled to shoot in New Orleans the night before Hurricane Katrina hit, an event that brought home the threat - and the impact - of global warming." If global warming causes more storms like Katrina, that would be trouble. But as a recent piece in Slate acknowledges, "the hurricane-warming link isn't settled at all. Rather, it's a very contentious debate between two groups of scientists - computer-modeling atmospheric scientists versus meteorologists."
I don't know if I'd call it "contentious". The IPCC put it at "likely" - or 66% certainty. It's one of a myriad of possible climate change effects. The scientists aren't having the debate, interested third-parties are. There are many other negative outcomes of climate change that have a lot more scientific credibility attached, which he could have used in discussing "net effects" in global warming.
Gore, however, goes further. In promoting the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, he told the press, "I hope this movie will provide many opportunities for in-depth conversations about what this issue is really all about." The movie depicted a series of super storms that cause a near apocalypse and bring about, in a matter of days, a new ice age. Given this promiscuous doomsaying, it's no surprise that some scientists have begun to quietly complain about Gore. A number of them went on record with their complaints to the New York Times last week. Kevin Vranes, a University of Colorado climatologist, worried that Gore had been "overselling our certainty about knowing the future."
NO ONE argues that the science of The Day After Tomorrow was sound. Come on, Gore was attaching himself to a movie which attempted (in a tres Hollywood way) to use global warming as a backdrop to a plot twist. The New York Times article in question points out that the complaints from scientists are not about the science of climate change, but that Gore may be overselling some of the negatives in an attempt to motivate change. Last is writing an article telling us climate change isn't happening, and he quotes from a NY Times piece (that bastion of leftist liberal ideology) that states Gore is right on the big issues and he uses a quote from a scientist that agrees with the basics of Gore's presentation. This isn't disingenuous?
Gore warns about a 20-foot rise in sea level; the IPCC panel estimates "that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches - down from earlier estimates."
Sigh. The IPCC presents a series of estimates from a number of models. As the report states, its models do not take into account any non-linear threshold type events in either carbon-cycle feedback or ice sheet flow. Why? Because its models simply can't predict it yet. They don't have the capacity. The 20 foot estimate is a worst case scenario (which Gore admits) if the Greenland ice sheet melts. In the past, this has happened, and sea levels rose several meters. There are dozens of papers concerning this topic, and all go far beyond the IPCC estimates. However, IPCC has no scientific modeling proof that take it beyond its 23 inch estimate and until it can model out what happens with ice sheets, the IPCC is ignoring them, and responsibly so. One final point, the reason for the decline - the previous IPCC sea-level increases included ice sheet melting. He might have wanted to include that.
Ever apocalyptic, Gore says that "our civilization has never experienced any environmental shift remotely similar to this." But Don Easterbrook, a geology professor from Western Washington University, notes that within the last 15,000 years there have been shifts up to "20 times greater than the warming in the past century."
Seriously? Gore speaks of our civilization - which I take charitably back a thousand year. And that's being very charitable. Easterbrook's one large temperature shift is during the Medieval Warm Period, which has drawn serious scientific scrutiny, due to the absence of global measurements, the confusion of climactic change with temperature change, and the use of a baseline sample from the 1930's to the 1960's. And even if we look at the rest of Easterbrooks data, it's ALL GATHERED IN GREENLAND. There is simply no other climate data. It's a complete case of apples and oranges - a 1 degree difference on the equator can lead to a 5 degree difference on the poles. Greenland's proximity to the poles means it will necessarily feature much greater temperature volatility than general global temperature data.
What's more, some broad historical evidence, such as that presented by Thomas Gale Moore in his book Climate of Fear, suggests that Earth's "warming periods" have been accompanied by advances in human civilization. As the saying goes, past performance is not an indication of future gains. But if the climate were to warm gradually, it's not obvious why man wouldn't adapt and flourish again, as we have in the past.
Good lord man, Moore's book is almost TEN years old. He was an economist who wrote a book stating that agricultural production will increase (he was an economist mind you, and this theory has yet to be proved) and that switching from fossil fuels would be too expensive to consider, so therefore, we should continue business as usual. No discussion of the developing world, nothing of the changes in weather patterns, nada on the drastic evolution on natural habitats. This is what he's using to posit global warming might be positive?
Of course, none of that matters if the final condition of the Gore hypothesis doesn't hold. Can man stop the changing of the climate? Again, the science is conflicted. Gore certainly believes we can. Others are less certain. Climate-change alarmist Paul Hellyer, a former Canadian minister of defense, recently said he believed advanced technology from extraterrestrial civilizations offered the best hope to "save our planet" from the perils of climate change. Art Bell and Whitley Strieber take a backseat to no one in their worries about climate change. They wrote the book The Coming Global Superstorm, on which The Day After Tomorrow was based, and they, too, fear it may be too late. Bell is host on a radio show about UFOs and the paranormal. Before hooking up with Bell, Strieber wrote five nonfiction books about having been abducted by aliens. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. We all have to believe in something.
As I said above, man doesn't need to stop the changing of the climate. Climate WILL change naturally, and there's nothing we can or should do about it. But these changes have occurred over thousands of years (with smaller changes occurring on "hundreds of years" time frames). We are advanced enough and bold enough to evolve with that. But what we CAN do, and what Gore and others argue, is change our IMPACT on the climate, which will occur on a drastically reduced time scale. That's a completely different argument, and again, its completely disingenuous to conflate the two. And using quacks like Hellyer, Bell and Strieber in connection with this idea is a cheap rhetorical ploy that is absurd on all levels. Don't equate these extremists with more mainstream figures in the environmental movement - and we'll ignore Tim McVeigh's, Eric Randolph's and Ted Kaczynski's connection to the conservative movement.
But when you compound the probabilities, the claims of environmentalists such as Gore begin to look less and less certain. In fact, in their unwillingness to brook dissent or countervailing theories, they seem less like scientists and more like the fundamentalists they otherwise scorn.
This, ultimately, is the worst part of the article. By taking fringe evidence, scientists, articles and books, and equating them to the most mainstream of scientific theory and thought, he lends them a legitimacy they simply do not deserve. The debate he trys to engender in this piece is a false dichotomy. There is no debate. You can quibble on some details, much like Einstein's and Newton's theories have hazy moments on the edges. But the core remains. Global warming is a reality, as is man's impact on it, and his attempt to question either fails completely.

[seeing as half this article relied on the NY Times hack job, I invite you to visit this link for a much better dismantling of that article than of the one I attempted here.]

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