The 97% Solution

July 18, 2014


I often read that 97% of climate scientists agree with “the consensus” on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), so I decided to finally buckle down and read the article that has given the latest currency to this claim.  You can read it too, right here.  The heart of it is contained in Table No.3:

click to enlarge

You can see the 97.1% figure there, right in the first row.  Done deal!  But what does this really mean?  Read for yourself, but here’s a summary:

  • About 12,000 abstracts of papers on “climate” were culled from the Web, and distributed without names to twelve “citizen-science” researchers for rating.
  • About 9,000 expressed no position on AGW.
  • Of those that expressed a position, 97% “endorsed” the “consensus” view.  What does that mean?  Actually, the “endorsed” label was applied to any of three expressed positions to make the analysis simpler.  To receive that rating, the abstract had to take one of the following positions:
    • Explicitly state that humans are the primary cause of recent global warming
    • Explicitly state humans are causing global warming, or refer to anthropogenic global warming/climate change as a known fact
    • Imply humans are causing global warming. e.g., the research assumes greenhouse gas emissions cause warming without explicitly stating humans are the cause

Pretty broad array of opinion there all rolled up into that 97%, which is actually only 97% of the 1/3 that expressed a position.  Could it be that those that did not express a position, 63%, just think it’s a trivial affair, not worth discussing?    And of those that did express “affirmation,” it seems that just mentioning that CO2 does cause the earth to warm – no mention of how much, or over what period, or whether or not it is worrisome – puts you down with the “consensus” position.

So, we can state pretty definitively that those writers of published scientific papers who chose to express a view of AGW, do overwhelmingly agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that human activity – not just burning fossil fuels – is contributing to changes in the climate.  That’s a pretty safe set of propositions, but then, it is the nature of consensus to state the non-controversial.

NB:  There is absolutely no mention of the real crux of the controversy, i.e., what to make of the projections for the next fifty and one hundred years that are contained in the IPCC Assessment Reports and other publications.

Done Deal?

August 27, 2013

I have not been posting to this blog lately, and I am not sure why. Part of it is that I am taking to heart Nietzsche’s line:

And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

That is, much of the time my comments are critical attacks on things I notice day-to-day.  As for the positive stuff, appreciations of literature and movies, etc, I dunno:  who reads it anyway?

But I just have to set all this aside and comment on a story that has been featured in the NYTimes several times in the past few days, always with the picture shown above.

Environment: Climate Warming Confirmed

A new United Nations climate report — the fifth since 1988 — has concluded that the basic facts about global warming are beyond question: it is caused by human activity and if it continues it will lead to melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty in growing food, and dramatic changes in plant and animal life, including large numbers of extinctions. The new document is not final, but experts expect the essential findings will survive review.

(Empahsis added)

It’s all in, science is settled, and the heat is on!  The picture is clear…or is it?  I suspect that that ominous plume is actually steam, that is, water vapor, and not smoke or other effluent filled with heat-trapping gas.  Except that water vapor is, after all, the most efficient and common greenhouse gas that you never hear about.

The thing about this news snippet is that it is so great a distortion of what the IPCC 5th Assessment actually says (or will say, when it’s released).   Aside from the fact that the report is not much different in its statement of alarm from the previous, fourth, report, it does not make the statement that is highlighted in bold.  It does say that most of the warming that has been observed over the last fifty years has been caused by human activity.  What is the significance of this, and what does the statement leave out?

  • “Most” means more than half, 51% or more.  Not all.  Therefore, we can say that the warming has other causes as well.  (It does not say that the human causes are all the result of burning fossil fuels either.)
  • It speaks only of the warming that has been observed.  (It does not mention that there is much controversy over precisely how much warming has actually been observed.  Nor does it mention that the observed warming that is claimed by the IPCC is on the order of one degree C, and is, in itself, not alarming to anyone.)
  • The statement does not note the fact that there has been no observed atmospheric warming for the last fifteen years or so, an observation that the IPCC accepts.
  • The statement refers to dire consequences if the warming continues, but actually those consequences will come about only if certain extreme projections of the warming trend continue.  The IPCC documents a wide variety of possible outcomes for the climate, even at current levels of fuel consumption.
  • This statement implies a direct cause and effect relationship between conditions rife with uncertainty and projected conditions, when in fact, the confidence that scientists have in any single one of these projections is very limited.

Basically, the statement, as with all statements from the IPCC, is an interpretation of current scientific work – a policy statement based on negotiation, that reflects the dominant forces at work within the organization.  (The IPCC is not and does not claim to be a scientific organization.  It is a policy guidance group, a think-tank if you will, that reviews current scientific work.)  There is no more reason to accept the conclusions of the IPCC regarding the future of the climate than there is to accept the pronouncements of the Brookings Institution (liberal) or the Cato Institute (conservative) on questions of social or economic policy.  Those organizations both look a the data, or the parts they care to notice, and make their interpretation.  The IPCC is no different.

Finally, must one point out that much of the world has “difficulty growing food” now, and that human settlement and land-use patterns over the last century or so have introduced dramatic changes to plant and animal life, including an increased rate of extinctions, without benefit of global warming?  This is not a good thing, but how much worse will the anticipated warming make this situation?  If it only makes it worse than we have made it already, might we not ask if it is the most important element in these problems?

Climate Change & the Whitebark Pine Apocalypse

July 28, 2011

Today’s editorial in the NYTimes, Climate Change and the Plight of the Whitebark Pine is a fine example of how a scientific fad (call it a meme if you like) gains and keeps traction.  In this case, the fad is global warming.  The editorial describes how the whitebark pine, a crucial element of high altitude mountain ecosystems, is in danger of extinction, and what will be the serious consequences for wildlife and vegetation if that comes to pass.  The editorial clearly links the situation to global warming by way of the mountain pine beetle:

Historically, the pine’s defense against the beetle is living where conditions are too cold for it — at high altitude or at high latitudes. But as the climate warms, that defense has failed catastrophically… The tragedy is the ongoing demise of an ecosystem, one for which humans are culpable.

Looking into the scientific investigations of this issue, the link to climate change, not to mention climate change caused by human activity, is not at all clear.  A study by the Canadian government quoted in the editorial concluded:

[the threats] include an invasive, foreign fungus and the suppression of forest fires, which are important in establishing pure stands of whitebark pine. But the most important threat is the spread of the native mountain pine beetle, which tunnels into the tree and lays its eggs under the bark.

The fungus is ‘blister rust,’ introduced from Europe.  Note that climate change is not directly linked to the problem, and that the threats cited are well-known, long-standing, serious, and similar to threats faced by many ecosystems today:  exotic species; human intervention in the eco-dynamics; local pests.

A Google search for whitebark pine and climate returns a lot of hits, but most of them are from the popular, environmental press.  The logic of their statements is consistent and revealing.  Warmer winter temperatures during the last decade have supported a vigorous growth in the beetle population, and that has decimated the trees.  But what caused the warming?  And how much warmer has it been?  There is no discussion of this.  Only statements such as:

So as long as temperatures keep rising and the beetles continue to be driven to higher-elevation habitats, their assault on the trees will continue. To save the species, a massive and immediate reduction in greenhouse gases is necessary.  Source 

Certainly there were outbreaks of mountain pine beetle in Whitebark in the ’30s and ’70s, but nothing like what’s happened in the last decade. Moreover, Dr. Logan’s climate models predicted this outbreak long ago. Very simply, warmer winter temperatures and longer summers have created overwhelmingly favorable conditions for a widespread pine beetle infestation in a high alpine tree species that used to be able to rely on cold temperatures to keep beetles at bay. Source

So, what do we actually know?  We know that the whitebark pine is important for western ecosystems.  We know that the trees are dying at a great rate.  We know that they are dying because of a variety of factors, several of which have nothing to do with anthropogenic climate warming (AGW), and we know that one factor, the beetles, is extremely important and that it has been encouraged by warmer winters over the last several years.  The link to AGW is assumed, as usual.

Climates, local and global, vary.  There is no evidence that this forest catastrophe is more than a conjunction of several negative factors, several of them associated with human activity (importation of fungus, suppression of forest fires) and recent weather.  Simply because the events are consistent with the hypothesis of AGW, it is automatically assumed that the proof is given, and the press goes to work.  They are totally separate issues.

Consider the abstract to this article that is linked to this topic in many online searches (my emphasis):

Forest insects and pathogens are the most pervasive and important agents of disturbance in North American forests, affecting an area almost 50 times larger than fire and with an economic impact nearly five times as great. The same attributes that result in an insect herbivore being termed a “pest” predispose it to disruption by climate change, particularly global warming. Although many pest species have co-evolved relationships with forest hosts that may or may not be harmful over the long-term, the effects on these relationships may have disastrous consequences. We consider both the data and models necessary to evaluate the impacts of climate change, as well as the assessments that have been made to date. The results indicate that all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify as the climate warms. This reinforces the need for more detailed monitoring and evaluations as climatic events unfold. Luckily, we are well placed to make rapid progress, using software tools, databases, and the models that are already available.

The key statement has been underlined.  It is key to this abstract, and countless others like it, as well as the runaway assumptions made by popular journalism about the topic.  The statement should read this way:

The results of our examination of data and models, as well as our exploratory computer runs, indicate that if climate does warm, all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify.

The conclusion of the study is actually unremarkable and rather trivial.  If climate warms, bad things may happen.  If it’s hotter, more people will be uncomfortable, there will be more heat stroke, ecosystems will be disturbed and will change, etc. etc.  If, if, if…

Now, back to those statistics and models to figure out if the climate is actually changing as they assume it is, and to figure out why…

Global Warming Sinks Island Republic

July 19, 2011

The NYTimes had an OpEd piece today telling the sad tale of a tiny island republic, Nauru, that is doomed to obliteration, because of global warming, it would seem.  Reading the entire article closely, however, the cause is not so clear-cut.  The article is typical of many that appear in the news and advocacy press, so I am going through it point by point, my comments in bold.  The plain text of the original piece can be read here.

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country…

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years….an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits...  Yes, cultures that take root in locations with such limits are fragile.  Consider the vanished Easter Island societies. 

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on…  This is certainly the most serious ecological disturbance that was visited on the island.  If not for that, the people could live elsewhere on the island, and the state of the coastal zone would not be so critical for them.  Nothing to do with climate.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate…  Not clear why the rest of the world is taking the same path by burning fossil fuels.  Clearly, the industrial world has many things it can do better, but the problems of Nauru are not the problems of most of the world.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding  The sea level rise that is claimed so far, if it is accurate, is quite small.  Why would it be responsible for such damage to Nauru already?   More likely, the destruction of the natural land cover has led to a drainage situation in which the land is steadily and rapidly eroded.  The island is being washed away.  As for the three-foot sea level rise, that is a worst-case scenario that should be taken with many grains of salt.

…and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.   They may vanish, and they may not…  Hasn’t happened yet.  People are running from flooding, not ‘record tides.’  One reason they flee is that most urban development has been taking place in flood-prone areas, despite the advice of engineers and geographers.   In many of these places, the land is sinking, which makes things worse.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.   The usual litany, recited without any support.  Droughts, floods, and heat waves are always with us.  More people, more urbanization in the wrong place, better reporting – more disaster.  “Expected to become more frequent…” is simply a crystal ball prediction, not a proven fact.  Just pile on the horror stories…

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes….    There is always competition for scarce resources: which ones are at issue here?  Water?  That’s been a concern for decades, rightly so, and has nothing to do with climate change.  Food costs?  The subsidies for ethanol have more to do with global food riots than does climate change since they resulted in a reduction in food grain exports.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us...   Unfortunately for Nauru, if the global warming predictions are correct, it’s already too late to help the island escape the effects of climate change.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking.   Good show!  For such a small and vulnerable environment, that’s what is needed, especially forest restoration.

I wish the people of Nauru all the best with their efforts.

Global Warming Dud

April 30, 2010

I went to hear Dr. Alan Robock, a climatologist from Rutgers University, speak at a local organization in my town last night.  He gave the usual slide show:  light on the science; heavier on the ‘predictions’ and scare stories; heavier on what we should do about it, i.e., alternative energy and all.  I was pretty disappointed, as he seemed like a reasonable guy, polite and energetic, and I was hoping for something new.

Instead, he presented an example of why the controversy is so hard to discuss rationally.  His remarks were overtly partisan.  True, he was speaking to an avowedly left-wing group, and I happen to agree with his swipes at Kissinger getting the Nobel, and other rhetorical jabs at the right, but I would have liked to have heard that stuff separately from the scientific talk.  No, it was all mixed up.

I asked him a question about how the average global temperature was computed and what was his opinion on the issue of bias in the surface temperature record due to station locations.  His answer was remarkably lame.  There are lots of stations on the land, and the 70% of the Earth that is ocean is covered by bucket samples taken by roving ships.  Not exactly a homogeneous record in my book, not to mention historical problems.  Then he said the problems with the urban heat island are “well understood” and that each station is paired with a rural station, and if a bias in an urban station is clear, they “throw out that record.”  That’s news to me.

One woman gave him a really hard time in a rather disjointed way, bringing in a raft of accusations and questions.   She mentioned several scientists who disagree with AGW.  His response was to claim that each of them was not an expert in climatology:  this one’s an expert in atmospheric dynamics, that one in tropical storm formation, etc.  She mentioned Lindzen, a prominent critic from his alma mater, MIT, and he said, “Lindzen lies to you.  He should know better.  I could talk a long time about Dick Lindzen.”  How do we know Robock doesn’t lie to us?  And of course, he repeated the claim that the “deniers” are funded by oil and coal corporations.

His remarks on the published emails from CRU were enlightening as well.  It was a crime to publish them.  This from a man who certainly supports Daniel Elsberg’s filching and publication of the Pentagon Papers.  What crime, I wonder?  The standard line – no evidence of criminal fraud was found, that’s a lie, so there’s no problem.  Conspiracy theory contra conspiracy theory. 

Inadvertently, he let the real cat out of the bag during his discussion of the emails.  Remarking on the “hide the decline” fracas over tree-ring proxies and 20th century data, he said (from memory, I quote):  “The proxy data for the latter 20th century showed a decline, and this data was contaminated for some reason, by pollution perhaps, so they threw out the bad data.”  Ahem…bad data?  Because it didn’t follow the projected uptick in surface temperature?

Is this the best they can do?  When Bush invaded Iraq, I remarked to a friend, “They better find those damn WMD or there’ll be hell to pay!”  They didn’t find them, and there wasn’t much hell to pay, so I was wrong.  I predict again:  If these computer models are shown to be off target in fifteen or twenty years, there’ll be hell to pay – the standing of science with the public will be seriously damaged.

For the record, I am not paid by fossil fuel corporations, and I voted for Al Gore and Barack Obama.

Hatchet Job

February 22, 2010

Politics makes strange bedfellows.  Maybe the recent article by Jeffrey Sachs will bring some otherwise disagreeing fellow bloggers into an all-inclusive love in.  Sachs is a bête noire of the radical left – are you listening, Troutsky? – because he’s confirmed neo-liberal, beloved of administering economic shock therapy to poorer nations.  He thinks global warming is an alarming crisis, so they should beg to differ (if they’re going to toe their political lines correctly.)  Ahh…but global warming is the crisis of the day for the liberals and the lefties – blame it all on those coal-burning corporations! 

All those right wing libertarian, Tea Party types hate the likes of Sachs (and Paul Krugman, another liberal economist on the AGW bandwagon) and think global warming is a hoax!  Conspiracy theories abound, almost as profusely as secret Tri-lateralist skullduggery and corporate oligarchical string-pulling does on the Left.    Can we all agree that this article by Sachs is a piece of trash, or that he is a piece of trash…either will do to gain entry to my bed today!

Like Krugman, whom I admire, while I’m a bit leary of Sachs, Jeff weighs in with the tired old saw that the people who “deny” the conclusions of “climate science” are the same ones who thought smoking cigarettes had no bad effects on your health, or wanted you to believe that, not to mention the fact that Big Oil is behind it.  Like Krugman, he makes no argument at all about the science – that’s settled, of course.  Nevermind that most major corporations of all kinds seem to have caught the AGW train – it’s good marketing to be green!  Sure, at first, the industry had a stupid knee-jerk propaganda fit to try and discredit the AGW hypothesis before it could gain traction.  Dumb, dumb, dumb, but they’re only money men – whaddaya expect?  To review the arguments of intellectuals who critique the IPCC and not notice that a whole lot has changed requires willful blindess or dishonesty.    Not to mention the fact that Sachs doesn’t seem to have any interest in the science at all.  Just pick your team, and root for them, is all it is…

Hot times in the city

February 2, 2010

Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

One of the things I have persistently wondered about in the debate about climate change, is the role of the urban heat island (UHI) in all the models and calculations.  Heavily developed areas tend to experience higher temperatures than their undeveloped precincts – asphalt and concrete retain heat energy and release it slowly, while air conditioners belch it out constantly – particularly during the warmer months.  This has been noted for at least a century.  Could this be introducing a bias to the historical surface temperature record that supposedly demonstrates a century-long upward drift in surface measurements?

The AGW folks, the ones doing all the modeling, say that the UHI has been taken care of.  Hmm…is that like, “Heyaa, take care of him, okay….”  Or is that like, “We have accounted for that statistical element of the data record and compensated for it to produce an unbiased time-series…”  The latter, they would have us believe, but I have never been convinced, and I have never come across a good explanation of just how they corrected for it.  (This leaves aside measurements that might be flat out garbage because of poor siting conditions.) 

The IPCC often referred to a paper in Nature written in 1990 as demonstrating that the UHI effect was negligible, but now, it seems that there are some problems with that paper.  The GuardianUK is staunchly in the AGW camp, so the linked article above includes an increasingly familiar disclaimer:

The revelations on the inadequacies of the 1990 paper do not undermine the case that humans are causing climate change, and other studies have produced similar findings. But they do call into question the probity of some climate change science.


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