The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Climate Of Skepticism

Both Sides in the Global Warming Debate Need to Back Down from Claims of Absolute Certainty

Reuters, the BBC, and other news organizations have run stories lately about a “drought” in snowfall at several prominent Swiss ski resorts. There has been no heavy snowfall since October, forcing several resorts to push back the start of the season. The stories include grim photos of snow-free slopes. Doctor David Stephenson, head of climate research at England’s Reading University, warns that in fifteen years time many Swiss resorts at lower elevations could have no snow at all. If snow-free Swiss Alps are not proof that something is amiss, what will serve to convince climate change doubters?

Unfortunately, global warming supporters pushing such stories are part of the problem. Doubters point to unrealized dire predictions as justifying their views. Much like the doubters, the supporters in this case falls into the trap of mistaking weather, the day-to-day meteorological conditions affecting a specific place, with climate, the long-term prevalent meteorological conditions of a region or larger area. Even extreme changes in weather ultimately have low impact because they are short lived. Conversely, even minute changes in climate have substantial impact because they persist.

Skiers overlook snow-free slopes at
the Swiss ski resort of Verbier

For the record, I am a supporter of global warming/ climate change and I also feel it is likely that human activities play some role in the observable trend. However, supporters must adhere to the same standards must as doubters. If a cool summer in a warm climate somewhere does not disprove global warming, a snow-free autumn in Switzerland equally fails to prove it. Meteorologists are already predicting December snows will break the drought.

A more relevant recent story is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2011 Arctic Report Card, which states “a new normal” for the Arctic, consisting of “less ice, thinner ice, younger ice.” The report has mentioned similar conditions in the past but this is the first time it declares them as enduring rather than transitory.

Even more germane are the recent findings release by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study. The project was established by University of California physics professor Richard Muller, an ardent doubter prior to his role in the study. Muller openly expressed suspicions that past studies, including those by NASA, the Hadley Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had “concealed discordant data.” Among his funding source were the Koch brothers, who have donated large sums to organizations lobbying against human-caused global warming.

BEST reviewed and assessed the accuracy of existing land temperature data from fifteen previous studies, amounting to some 1.6 billion records dating back to the year 1800. The warming of the Earth about one degree Celsius since the 1950s, their primary finding, almost exactly matched the findings of the earlier studies. BEST verified that global warming was real and disproved claims that climate scientists proposing it were engaged in an elaborate hoax/fraud.

However, this is far from definitive proof by supporters. First, while BEST’s results are the biggest, most comprehensive, and impartial study to date, their results are only as good as their data. Muller has said, “The [land based] temperature station quality is largely awful.” At least seventy percent of the stations have the potential for error between two to five degrees. “The margin of error for the stations is at least three times larger than the estimated warming,” Muller concludes.

Libertarian scholar, Peter Ferrara, writing in Forbes, takes exception with almost everything about the study. While BEST attempted to debunk criticisms of “urban heat island effect,” Ferrara points out the data still comes “from temperature stations on land, which covers less than thirty percent of the earth’s surface.” However, he is only warming up to his topic.

Ferrara notes that weather satellites show no warming in the upper atmosphere since their record began in 1979. Weather balloons independently confirm their results. The UN’s climate models project human-made global warming would result in a “hotspot” in the troposphere, about six miles above the Earth’s surface, in tropical areas. However, weather balloons and satellites actually show a slight cooling there.

Ferrara also holds the UN model’s assumptions up to doubt. Atmospheric temperature data from NASA’s Terra satellite demonstrates much more heat escapes back out to space than is assumed captured in the atmosphere by greenhouse effects under the UN’s climate models. A major experiment by the European Organization for Nuclear Research suggests the sun’s cosmic rays, resulting from sunspots, have a much greater effect on Earth’s temperatures than assumed by the UN’s model.

Mueller admits BEST’s warming trend is not uniformly constant but a majority decision, with fully one-third of all land-based stations reporting global cooling. Moreover, Ferrara argues their records do not show persistent warming following persistent growth of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Rather, it shows an up and down pattern of temperatures, more consistent with natural causes.

Ferrara’s questioning, while providing healthy skepticism to the debate, comes not from a dispassionate skeptic but a lifelong global warming denier. He engages in elaborate spinning of data to reinforce predetermined bias. Because error could exist, it must exist. If there is any room for doubt, dismiss the concept as worthless. There are a lot of babies lying next to bathwater on the ground at the bottom of Ferrara’s ivory tower. He accuses climate change supporters of “religious orthodoxy” and a “fading catechism” but smugly concludes that global warming is not merely over-hyped but entirely imaginary.

Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, deplores the absolutism this topic inspires in the scientific community. “Not only is it poor science to claim absolute truth but it also leads to the kind of destructive and distrustful debate we've had in last decade about global warming,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Botkin has been warning about the possibility of human-induced global warming since the 1970s. However, he raised hackles with colleagues in 2007, when concerns over global warming were at their height of popularity, by insisting, “Global warming doesn't matter except to the extent that it will affect life – ours and that of all living things on Earth. And . . . the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.”

I differ with Botkin, finding the impact more noticeable than him. However, I concede his take is more reality-based than frantic warnings issued by some ardent supporters. Despite disturbing trends, the polar ice caps have not melted, polar bears are not extinct, and New York City is not sitting under ten feet of water.

A new study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation stresses global warming is real and will have multiple serious impacts. However, it also warns that severe estimates, such as those put forth by a 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are unlikely. For example, the UN IPCC report estimated that Earth surface temperatures could rise from four and a half to eleven and a half degrees Fahrenheit. The new study suggests four degrees is actually the upper limit of the potential rise.

If climate change supporters want to build credibility with doubters, we need to be our own best skeptics and critics. Dire predictions are causing us to lose credibility and shore up the scoffing of global warming deniers. We need to end cherry picking data to find egregious but isolated examples of unseasonal warming. Likewise, no more doomsday prophesizing geared more toward eliciting donations than knowledge. On the other hand, doubters need to end cherry picking data to find examples at odds with models and stressing them exclusively as disproving the model.

What is needed is a climate of true skepticism, in which data trends are recognized as valid but not definitive. Science works best when all attempt unbiased analysis of an issue from the same vantage point, instead of taking sides around it. Unfortunately, there is as little of that in the air right now for climate change as there is snow in Switzerland. What is more, given this topic’s controversial and often combative past, the chance of any developing sometime soon has about the same chance as a snowball in hell.


MichaelRyerson said...

Too balanced. sorry. If we proceed from the assumption that global warming is a fact, and largely driven by human activity, we lose what? We gain more energy efficient cars and save some fresh water. If it turns out global warming is a natural occurance not appreciably impacted by human activity we're none the worse for wear and we've gained better cars and some water. If, however, we proceed from the premise that there is no such thing as global warming, continue to foul the air and the water, spew greenhouse gases to a fare thee well, only to find out, to our great disappointment, it is a fact and we're driving a significant part of it and we find this out as one tipping point after another has flown past, with one extinction after another, whole species lost, the great weather-making currents in the oceans disrupted, the death of the rainforests, and come to live under a Bejing-like pall, then I say we've missed the boat and, if I read you correctly, the sort of process-equivalency you're wishing for carries our death sentence.

Anonymous said...

I find this very balanced. I take the side of climate deniers. I don't beleive we are headed for man made climate catastrophe, though we are headed for natural climate catastrophe sometime in the future. We can build all of the wind turbines we want, it will mean nothing.


MichaelRyerson said...

So what? What difference does it make? My point is either you're right or you're wrong. If you're right and we respond to these factors with more fuel efficient cars and more wind turbines, what are you out? You get cleaner air and water in the bargain and, presumably more miles to the gallon. Win, win. If you're wrong, and the preponderance of actual evidence seems to indicate you are, you still get cleaner air and water, better gas mileage and we've perhaps saved the planet. Again win, win. Have you seen photographs of Bejing lately. And that doesn't disturb you?