Thursday, June 15, 2006

Not for Gore's Sake, but for Your Sake (Updated)

Kate has quoted Tom Harris's critique of Al Gore's movie (An Incovenient Truth). Not having seen the movie, I can't say whether this critique presents Gore's arguments fairly, but I'm not concerned about defending Gore. I'm concerned about defending climate change science from the skeptical bias that builds up when people read only the critiques - only the articles that point out various apparent problems with climate change science - and not the science itself.

"Defending climate change science" sounds too grand and dramatic. I don't mean it that way. I have no delusions about saving the world, but I do have a sense of responsibility to speak up when the discussion comes around to me, and to stand up for the priorities that I have come to believe in after much thought and consideration of the range of arguments.

I say "the range of arguments" because I don't like to think of this topic in terms of two sides. Harris presents it as a choice between extremes: ". . . either the end of civilization, if you believe Gore, or a waste of billions of dollars, if you believe his opponents . . ." Statements like this create the illusion that there are two and only two theories about the planet's future, each one clearly defined, and each one totally incompatible with the other. This illusion can harden into a belief that there are actually two well-defined models of the planet's future, both models strongly supported by a body of science, but one model containing some fatal flaw and the other (quite naturally) being true.

If you come to this topic in search of evidence to help you choose a side, you may find exactly what you are looking for: a lot of information that seems to pull strongly one way. You may also find a lot that seems to pull strongly the other way. You may get frustrated, or cynical; you may simply choose whichever side makes you feel better; or you may just go back to what you believed in the first place.

There is another alternative.

Instead of looking at each piece of information as evidence to be assigned to a side, try looking at it as a jigsaw puzzle piece to be fitted into a picture of a landscape.

Your picture. Your map, with paths for you to choose (or forge alone) across it.

Take the pieces of information that Harris mentions in his "small sample of the side of the debate we almost never hear." These are not nuggets held by one side and unknown to the other. They are pieces of information seen differently by different people. One by one, then, let's have a look.

Harris quotes Tim Patterson saying that "when CO2 levels were over ten times higher than they are now, about 450 million years ago, the planet was in the depths of the absolute coldest period in the last half billion years."

This piece of information is new to me. I will keep an eye out for direct comments on it from people who know more than I do. However, I did try a Google search of "450 million years ago" together with "CO2," and the first result was intriguing. This date is given as the approximate time when the ozone layer had developed enough to allow the beginning of terrestrial life. Clearly, we are talking about a time when the influences on Earth's climate were vastly different than they are today. Why should I assume that CO2 would have played the same role at that time as in more recent climate cycles which included feedbacks with terrestrial plant cover? If it didn't play the same role, then why should it show the same relationship with temperature? Just because there wasn't a relationship under those circumstances doesn't mean there can't be a relationship under current circumstances.

While looking for a place to fit this first piece into my jigsaw puzzle, I read an article at Spencer Weart's website on the Discovery of Global Warming, which gives a historical overview of the development of climate change science. I happened upon some information that addresses Harris's next point. Harris mentions Patterson's further testimony that "on all time scales, there is very good correlation between Earth's temperature and natural celestial phenomena such changes in the brightness of the Sun." Weart's article discussed these same correlations, which involve tiny cyclical changes in solar radiation reaching the Earth. I was surprised to discover that much of early climate change science had focussed on a perceived problem with these correlations. How could these tiny changes be translated into large changes in climate? When scientists hit on the idea of CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas, amplifying small changes in climate due to solar radiation, it was the missing piece they were searching for. It made Patterson's preferred explanation plausible. Isn't that interesting? We are not looking at competing theories at all, but rather at complementary explanations of the workings of different parts of a single system.

Next, Harris explains how "Dr. Boris Winterhalter . . . takes apart Gore's dramatic display of Antarctic glaciers collapsing into the sea." Was Gore trying to pass off footage of a natural, millenia-old process as evidence of global warming? I don't know. Whether he was or not, his tactics are not the topic of discussion here. The fact that glaciers have been calving icebergs for millenia is not news to global warming theorists, and it doesn't present a challenge to their theories.

Staying on the topic of glaciers in Antarctica, Harris refers to Dr. Wibjörn Karlén's assertion that "the 'mass balance' of Antarctica is positive - more snow is accumulating than melting off." An extremely detailed recent feature in Physics World gives a much more uncertain picture of the mass balance, with different techniques of measurement giving results that range from positive to negative. The uncertainty discussed in this article is in sharp contrast to the figure given in Harris's article, which, although qualified with the word "possibly," nevertheless gives the reader the impression that mass balance is well understood.

In his next point, Harris alludes to this uncertainty. He calls Gore's assertion about "a precipitous drop-off in the amount and extent and thickness of the Arctic ice cap," "misleading." I would have to agree. Harris then quotes Tim Ball, discussing a difference in methodology between two surveys of Antarctic ice. Without more context, it is impossible to use this little bit of commentary as evidence for or against global warming theories. It may be evidence against getting your science from Al Gore. So?

Harris moves on to a discussion of temperature changes in the Arctic. He cites Karlén citing another scientist, Igor Polyakov, to argue that there is "no overall temperature rise" threatening polar bears in the Arctic. I read the article by Polyakov and got a very different impression. Polyakov wasn't questioning whether there was warming. He was questioning whether there was "polar amplification of global warming." In the scattered and incomplete temperature records available for the Arctic, he did not find evidence that the Arctic is warming more than the rest of the planet. One thing he did find, though, was "a general warming tendency over the entire record."

Harris also quotes Dr. Dick Morgan discussing ice thickness in the Canadian Arctic. Notice that, while Morgan says there is "no melt down," he still acknowledges "some decrease in ice thickness." If you're still trying to take sides, where will you slot this piece of information?

Harris gives another quote from Morgan, claiming that the IPCC's use of the Mercator projection to calculate global average temperature "doubled the area of warming in Alaska, Siberia and the Antarctic Ocean." I haven't heard this argument before, and I find it very hard to believe that in all the fine tuning of temperature calculations to compensate for things like urban heat-island effects, scientists would unanimously overlook something so simple as this. I spent some considerable time combing through Google search results for more information, but got tired of finding only repetitions of Morgan's claim and no discussions of its validity. I'll keep my eyes open.

UPDATE: Like I thought: of course the global average temperature calculation allows for differences in area between grid squares at higher versus lower latitudes. From the FAQ's regarding temperature datasets available from the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK:

Why do global and hemispheric temperature anomalies differ from those quoted in the IPCC assessment and the media?

We have areally averaged grid-box temperature anomalies (using the HadCRUT2v dataset), with weighting according to the area of each 5° x 5° grid box, into hemispheric values; we then averaged these two values to create the global-average anomaly. However, the global and hemispheric anomalies used by IPCC and in the World Meteorological Organization and Met Office news releases were calculated using optimal averaging. This technique uses information on how temperatures at each location co-vary, to weight the data to take best account of areas where there are no observations at a given time. The method uses the same basic information (i.e. in future HadCRUT2v and subsequent improvements), along with the data-coverage and the measurement and sampling errors, to estimate uncertainties on the global and hemispheric average anomalies. The more elementary technique (used here) produces no estimates of uncertainties, but our results generally lie within the ranges estimated by optimum averaging.
Emphasis mine. Note that although the IPCC technique is different, it uses the same basic information, and gives results similar to those of this "more elementary technique." [End of update.]

Finally, Harris says that Gore made a misleading point, "that 200 cities and towns in the American West set all time high temperature records." I don't know if Gore gave any context for that point; if he did not, I'll agree that it is misleading. If he was using it as an example of things to come, I might give him some latitude, but generally, discussions of local or regional high temperature records are a distraction. There will always be regional fluctuations. More convincing evidence for global warming is in the fact that overall average temperatures show warming, in spite of these fluctuations.

According to Harris, Gore is predicting "the end of civilization" on the basis of "junk science." Maybe so. But the existence of a bad argument for an extreme scenario does not in any way weaken the good arguments for reasonable - and still serious - scenarios of global warming.

It doesn't weaken the arguments, but it can certainly weaken their influence. Just look at all the bloggers linking and quoting Harris's piece.

Harris says:
We should listen most to scientists who use real data to try to understand what nature is actually telling us about the causes and extent of global climate change.
I could not agree more.


Anonymous said...

And you read an article published by a right-wing website and you believe it's the Gospel.
How lame is that? Can't you think for yourself or what?

Read about these so-called climate experts here:

An embarrassment to Australian science

How many of the quoted "climate experts" dare to publish their contratian views in peer-reviewed journals?
0. Show me one paper that any of these so-called skeptics wrote and had become accepted science?
But what happens when you take a look at the peer-reviewed papers?


The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

And what happens if you ask climate scientists who are not getting money from the fossil-fuel industry?


Al Gore’s movie
by Eric Steig

"How well does the film handle the science? Admirably, I thought. It is remarkably up to date, with reference to some of the very latest research. Discussion of recent changes in Antarctica and Greenland are expertly laid out. He also does a very good job in talking about the relationship between sea surface temperature and hurricane intensity. As one might expect, he uses the Katrina disaster to underscore the point that climate change may have serious impacts on society, but he doesn't highlight the connection any more than is appropriate."

Eric Steig is an isotope geochemist at the University of Washington in Seattle. His primary research interest is use of ice core records to document climate variability in the past. He also works on the geological history of ice sheets, on ice sheet dynamics, on statistical climate analysis, and on atmospheric chemistry.

In other words those few guys who are quoted in this dishonest article are losers and they just can't take it.

Everything that Gore says about anthroponegic climate change in the movie can be backed up by peer-reviewed research.

Like his claim that IF the Greenland ice sheet melted or broke and slipped into the sea sea levels would rise by 20 feet.

Polar melting may raise sea level sooner than expected

The red and pink areas in this image of the coasts of the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island indicate the areas that would be submerged if the sea level rose about 20 feet (six meters). Courtesy of Jeremy Weiss and Jonathan Overpeck, The University of Arizona.

If the current warming trends continue, by 2100 the Earth will likely be at least 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than present, with the Arctic at least as warm as it was nearly 130,000 years ago. At that time, significant portions of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets melted, resulting in a sea level about 20 feet (six meters) higher than present day.

Here's the paper:

Paleoclimatic Evidence for Future Ice-Sheet Instability and Rapid Sea-Level Rise
Jonathan T. Overpeck,1* Bette L. Otto-Bliesner,2 Gifford H. Miller,3 Daniel R. Muhs,4 Richard B. Alley,5 Jeffrey T. Kiehl2

Sea-level rise from melting of polar ice sheets is one of the largest potential threats of future climate change. Polar warming by the year 2100 may reach levels similar to those of 130,000 to 127,000 years ago that were associated with sea levels several meters above modern levels; both the Greenland Ice Sheet and portions of the Antarctic Ice Sheet may be vulnerable. The record of past ice-sheet melting indicates that the rate of future melting and related sea-level rise could be faster than widely thought.

Science 24 March 2006:
Vol. 311. no. 5768, pp. 1747 - 1750
DOI: 10.1126/science.1115159

But these industry funded shills are too coward to "refute" anthroponegic climate change in peer-reviewed journals.
Yes despite the lie in the article Bob Carter is one of those shills:
The Lavoisier Group distributes the work of geologist Bob Carter, Ian Castles, William Kininmonth, Ian Plimer and a few other Australian sceptics.

Hugh Morgan convenes the Lavoisier Group – described by critics as ‘Australia’s funniest corporate front group’. Set up to challenge what it calls ‘environmental extremists’, the group declares: ‘With the Kyoto Protocol we face the most serious challenge to our sovereignty since the Japanese Fleet entered the Coral Sea on 3 May, 1942.’ It gets better. Morgan views discussion papers from the Australian Government’s Greenhouse Office as Nazi propaganda, labelling them ‘ Mein Kampf declarations’. Like several others in the Lavoisier Group, Morgan is connected with the mining transnational WMC – he only resigned as its Chief Executive in January. In recent years WMC’s greenhouse-gas emissions are reported to have risen sharply, from 1.62 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 1994-95 to 2.99 million tonnes in 2001.

Bob Carter
Professor, Marine Geophysical Laboratory, James Cook University
former Director, Australian Secretariat for the Ocean Drilling Program Contributing Writer, Tech Central Station)

Tech Central Station is primarily funded by sponsors that include AT&T, The Coca-Cola Company, ExxonMobil, General Motors Corporation, McDonalds, Merck, Microsoft, Nasdaq, and PhRMA.

This tells it all about the scientific intergrity -- or lack thereof -- of these nuts:

Someone like Bill Gray seems to be a fully credentialed authority figure. But when you press him on his theory of how thermohaline circulation has caused recent warming of the planet and will soon cause cooling, he concedes that he hasn't published the idea in any peer-reviewed journal. He's working on it, he says.

Huh? Gray has denied anthroponegic climate change for years but somehow he couldn't find a way top write a paper about it. (Not to mention that his 2005 hurricane season prediction was the mother of all understatements. Probably he forgot to calculate global warming into the picture.)

Here's what you should do. Call the National Academy of Science and ask them: is anthropogenic climate change happening because of man-made GHG emission? And ask them whether it's a good thing.
You will not like the answer.

Highlights of National Academies Reports:
Understanding and Responding to Climate Change

indicates that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming. Records show that surface temperatures have risen
about 1.4oF (0.7oC) since the early twentieth century, and that about 0.9oF (0.5oC) of this increase has occurred since 1978. Observed changes in oceans, ecosystems, and ice cover are consistent with this warming trend.
The fact is that Earth’s climate is always changing. A key question is how much of the observed warming is due to human activities and how much is due to natural variability in the climate.
In the judgment of most climate scientists, Earth’s warming in recent decades has been caused
primarily by human activities that have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
(see Figure 1). Greenhouse gases have increased significantly since the Industrial Revolution,
mostly from the burning of fossil fuels for energy, industrial processes, and transportation.
Greenhouse gases are at their highest levels in at least 400,000 years and continue to rise.

Global warming could bring good news for some parts of the world, such as longer growing
seasons and milder winters. Unfortunately, it could bring bad news for a much higher percentage of the world’s people. Those in coastal communities, many in developing nations, will likely experience increased flooding due to sea-level rise and more severe storms and surges. In the Arctic regions, where temperatures have increased almost twice as much as the global average, the landscape and ecosystems are rapidly changing.

If you are too lazy to read scientific papers watch this video where Peter Cox, a truly leading climate expert at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, explains why the speed and scale of warming over the last 120 years cannot be explained by natural variations.

And you look really dumb when even Bush's own environmental advisor agrees with Gore:

Bush aide touts administration's policies, plugs Gore film

Connaughton also surprised some by praising Gore’s new film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” as well as the recent Advertising Council campaign sponsored by Environmental Defense and the Robertson Foundation. In both cases, Connaughton said the messages presented on both campaigns’ Web sites mirror the Bush administration’s themes of better consumer practices and development of new technologies.

“I encourage you to go to them,” Connaughton said. “They’re giving the same advice I’ve been giving for years.”

By the way who are those "hundreds of highly qualified non-governmental, non-industry, non-lobby group climate experts"? Where are the names and their papers? Could you show me the full list?

These idiots know they are in the minority and they have the arrogance to call themselves "leading climate scientists" and
ridicule the thousands of climate scientists who disagree with their views. The entire IPCC is wrong but Bob Carter -- who is not even a climatologist but a geologist -- is right? You bet.
And they call Gore an "embarrassment to US science" when they choose to argue in right-wing media outlets instead of peer-reviewed journals?

Only a fool takes these jerks seriously. They will deny anthroponegic climate change until the hell freezes over no matter what the facts are.

madcapmum said...

Well. That was certainly rude. And hiding behind "anonymous", too. That takes some guts and gonads.

To quote,

How lame is that?

It's amazing to me how many people expect to slam their points home couched in abuse. I never took Communications 101, but as my granny says (and probably his/hers too)...

"More flies with honey than vinegar."

Laura said...

Anon - thanks for all the links. I think you missed my attempt at an ironic twist. I don't agree with Harris. I agree with that one statement I quoted at the end, that we should listen to the scientists. Not to Harris, and not to Gore, except to get us thinking and looking for our own answers. And - as you put it - we should think for ourselves.

I wrote this piece in a hurry, to get it posted in response to Kate's little dig, before all her crowd of readers moved on to something else. I guess I didn't say enough about my intentions in writing it. You say "only a fool takes these jerks seriously," but I know many people who do take them seriously. People who vote. People who think. People who read. But if these people always read the critics, they only hear one side. That was my point. My article was simply an attempt to give them something else to hear, without slamming them as fools. They're not fools.

And they're not going away. They're talking, they're blogging, they're lobbying, and they're voting.

I take them seriously.

Laura said...

MCM - thanks for being here!

Wayne said...

Very thoughtful article, Laura, thanks.

Here's two websites that let you examine the paleontological climate, geography, biology and atmosphere:

Just taking a small part of your post, you're right that comparisons of today's climate vs CO2 can't be made with the climate and CO2 conditions 450 million years ago (or at least they must be made very carefully). The continents were in very different positions and a lot of other aspects of the atmosphere besides CO2 levels were different. The land, for instance, was barren of life. The sun itself was somewhat dimmer.

Most of the land area was concentrated near the South Pole as Gondwana - thus the extensive glaciation despite high CO2 (8-20x today's levels). The average global temperature was nonetheless similar to today's, about 12C.

And this extensive glaciation "only" lasted about 50 million years, sandwiched in-between 470-420 MYA when the global temps were 23 degC, much much warmer than today.

It's a little disingenuous for Harris/Patterson to pick out that 50 million year period and conveniently ignore the much longer surrounding times which were much much hotter. CO2 levels stayed as high until 340 MYA, when they began to approach today's levels, and during that entire 130+ MY period the temperatures were 20-24 degC, except for that convenient 50 MY period.

The CO2 levels then are no valid objection; something else was happening, probably continent placement, to cause this Ordovician glaciation.

Laura said...

Thanks Wayne! Disingenuous - what a useful word.

Wayne said...

"Disingenuous" is a word with a lot of possible uses, but the one I put it to most is when someone cherrypicks to "prove" a point. I like the word :-)

In this case, the "proof" struck me as a fallacy because of the enormous number of differences any or all of which could have explained the claim that CO2 is not to blame.

By the way - my comment didn't do your entire post justice by any means, but it wasn't because the meat of it wasn't nourishing. I'm still thinking about the other aspects of it. You make a lot of sense to me.