New Age Prophet

January 4, 2015

28CONV-superJumbo

I rouse myself from my leisured sloth to comment on the latest pronouncement by the prophet of doom, Naomi Oreskes.  Today the New York Times, that newspaper “of record,” has seen fit to give her a lot of space to continue her attack on the scientific method:  Playing Dumb on Climate Change.

Ms. Oreskes has a Ph.D., and is a professor at Harvard, so she is instantly given credence as a reliable expert, but her work, on which I have commented extensively, is pretty much at the level of hack polemic as far as I am concerned.  From her sylvan altars – doesn’t she just look the part of the serious, concerned, and not to be trifled with Mother Nature? – she makes some of the most outrageous pronouncements to be heard from the academic realm on the topic of global warming.  Okay…let’s see what she said this time.

Her gripe is that scientists are too conservative about the risks of global warming – they should be ringing alarm bells, as she does, warning us of the horrors to come and pushing for the solutions that she supports.  Note that there is significant scientific controversy about many of the claims that Ms. Oreske makes, e.g. that recent extreme weather events are clear evidence of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, and that her argument is, therefore, neatly circular.  It amounts to this:  scientists who are not screaming about the coming End of Days are too conservative, period!

She goes on to discuss a central notion of the scientific method:

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence.

This is typical of her method.  She doesn’t say that correlations always indicate a clear causal chain, but she doesn’t want to rule it out, either. Who would?  But she wants to make it seem that scientists that won’t jump on the bandwagon of this or that theory simply because they are not more than 95% sure that the correlation is not chance are missing essential risks.  But how do you decide when to jump on, and when not to?  When she thinks you should?  When you’re scared enough to ignore evidence and jump to conclusions?

She’s very worried about Type 2 errors:   being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.  I would ask, too conservative for whom or what?  Here we are moving from the realm of science to that of policy and politics.  It is certainly true that when one creates policy, the scientific standard is too strict – policy makers cannot always wait for better information.  But then, one must make a case for the preponderance of risk warranting action now, rather than later.  Ms. Oreskes won’t do that:  she simply avoids having to make the case by attacking the scientific method.  Circularity again.

The dilemma that this opinion piece presents us with is obliquely indicated by Ms. Oreskes here:

When applied to evaluating environmental hazards, the fear of gullibility can lead us to understate threats.

Clearly, we can make the converse argument that lack of caution can lead to overestimating threats, wasting money, disrupting lives, ordering medical tests with high likelihood of false-positives…all sorts of bad stuff.  She doesn’t consider this.  When we face this obvious fact, we are back at Square One:  Ms. Oreskes, prove your case with facts!  This is exactly the discussion she seeks to short-circuit.  Because she knows she’s right.  She sees.  She is a Prophet.


The 97% Solution

July 18, 2014

roi_97_percent_4c

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.


Men of Green

June 24, 2014

Image

Mssrs. Rubin, Bloomberg, and Paulson have sponsored a new report on the economic impact of climate change:  These are all guys you can trust, right? Hmm… well, being green doesn’t mean just thinking about money, does it?

Actually, I have to hand it to them – they’re going to make lots of money no matter what happens, so I don’t believe that they have some nefarious financial scheme up their sleeves:  they really believe it!  Well, good for you, boys!

Rubin was heard pontificating about how climate change poses an “existential threat” to…us?  civilization?  the USA?  The nuclear standoff during The Cold War, now that was an existential threat!  Poverty, lack of sanitation, malaria, AIDS, those are existential threats to people in a lot of the world.  I’m not so convinced about climate change.

Paulson is certain that we are at a tipping point for the planet, something that has been heard repeatedly from different quarters for the last fifty years.   And then, there’s the money:  valuable assets may go south once the warming starts and people realize they don’t want to burn coal anymore, or so he thinks.  Seems also that millions of beachfront lots will be flooded and eventually destroyed.  Isn’t that going on now?  And farming will be disrupted, something that has happened before.  Anybody recall The Dustbowl?  We recovered.

Justin Gillis is the writer of the Times’ article, and this bit of his is so over the top, I’m wondering where his editor was:

Heat and humidity will probably grow so intense that spending time outside will become physically dangerous, throwing industries like construction and tourism into turmoil.

I don’t get that…if the climate of, say, NY, is going to shift south, i.e., become more like that of Georgia, are we to believe that the American South is currently a place where it is physically dangerous to go outside?  Even if you’re white?  C’mon, I mean Jim Crow is over, so even black people sit outside.

I could go on…


Alas, woolly mammoths are no more!

May 21, 2014

muir

I don’t quite recall where that phrase comes from:  perhaps a tag line from my surrealist days in school.  But speaking of the Ice Age, there was an article in the NYTimes Science Section headlined The Big Melt Accelerates.  It provides more grist for my mill on the topic of the Times’ incredible bias and sloppiness in its supposedly “for the record” coverage of climate science.

The article covers the topic of glacial recession worldwide, i.e., the shrinking of glaciers.  Not the “melting” of glaciers:  glaciers are always melting.  Whether they grow or shrink depends on how much ice and snow are being dumped on their upland regions.  Mass-balance, that sort of thing.

Of course, the point of the article is that glaciers are shrinking everywhere (although they do note that some are not, and some are even growing.)  The two images shown above are featured prominently at the headline, and the message is clear.  In 1941, plenty of glacial ice; 2004, the glacier is visible only in the distance. Global warming, dumbbell!  Clear evidence to confound those anti-science deniers!

The images show the Muir Glacier in Alaska, and it has indeed been receding for many years.  In fact, it has been receding since it reached its maximum extent in…1780.  It’s quite well documented.  In the map below, you can see that in the late 18th century, long before the industrial revolution got going bigtime, it reached the end Glacier Bay (see the red circle at the bottom of the map.)  After 160 years, it retreated to where the red circle near the top of the map is.  And in the intervening sixty years, it has continued its retreat.  Clearly, the bulk of the recession was not caused by the industrial revolution and its discharge of C02 into the atmosphere – it was hardly a major force then.  It doesn’t seem to have accelerated its backward movement in the 20th century either.

Why did this glacier retreat?  The Little Ice Age, which saw glaciers growing all over the northern hemisphere – to the point that there are engravings showing European villages being engulfed and destroyed by ice! – ended in the very late 18th century.  Things started to get warmer after that…

New-1

This bit of scientific context doesn’t prove or disprove anything much other than that the NYTimes is extremely sloppy in its reporting.  The governing attitude seems to be, “We know the issue is settled.  Let’s get the message out.”  Fellow bloggers, e.g. Troutsky, who otherwise are sympathetic to my views expressed in this blog, seem to think my doubts are the result of clever indoctrination by the radical right-wing. But this sort of graphic legerdemain and purposeful misdirection is, to me, reminiscent of the GWB years, and the WMD buildup to the Iraq invasion, which the NYTimes swallowed whole.  Not nearly so serious and destructive, but structurally, the same sort of trash.

I wrote to the author of this piece, asking him if it wasn’t “a tad bit misleading” to use those photos.  His reply was, “Short unsatisfying answer:  I don’t choose the photos.”  I guess that’s life as a journalist.  But then he went on, “That being said…,” it’s part of a widespread and well documented trend over the “last several decades.”  Last several decades?  I know he understood my point, so is he just evading the entire question?


Hand Waving on Climate Change

September 27, 2013


Many people think that those of us who are skeptical of the global warming crowd get all our information from the right-wing information bubble, such as Fox News.  Not I!  I just read the Statement for Policy Makers (SPM) that the UN Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts out.  Their latest Assessment Report (AR5) is out now.  Some good ones, with the translation by me in boldface:

Models do not generally reproduce the observed reduction in surface warming trend over the last 10–15 years.”

Our models have performed poorly over the last fifteen years, failing to match observed conditions.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951−2010.”

At least half of the warming that we claim has occurred ( 0.6°C to 0.7°C  from 1951 to 2010) is probably due to human activity, i.e., less than 3/4 of a degree F.

 ”The best estimate of the human induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.”

Ignore previous statement:  we think ALL of the warming is caused by humans.

Does this inspire confidence in you regarding their predictions of rapid ice melt of the Greenland ice sheet, rapidly rising seas, and general climate mayhem?


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?


NYC, Storms, and Risk

June 20, 2013

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg released his report on the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  There’s a lot in there:  so much, that it’s hard to get a handle on just what the plan actually is.  Some of it seems quite sensible (new regulations for building in areas that are vulnerable to flooding) and some of it seems like the same old same old (continuous beach nourishment).

The mayor took an aggressive stance on the issue:  in case you didn’t know, the report informs us that tough is a synonym for resilient, and NYC is a synonym for “tough”.  During the press conference, a chorus of “We shall not be moved,” would not have been out of keeping with the tone.

Bloomberg also threw down the gauntlet to all those skeptics, deniers, quibblers, and doubters who ask whether or not climate change had anything to do with Sandy (doesn’t matter – climate change will make future storms worse), and if our fears of climate change and sea level rise are perhaps a bit overwrought.  On that last point, he delivered one of the most remarkable policy statements I’ve heard recently

 “Whether you believe climate change is real or not is beside the point.  The bottom line is: We can’t run the risk.”

Umm… if we don’t think it is ‘real’, then there is zero risk.  Perhaps he means that we cannot run the risk that it is real (by acting as if it is not), but then, we have to discuss that.  He wants to foreclose discussion.

I’m not a fan of Bloomberg, but I am a fan of Paul Krugman, but on climate change, Krugman is the same way, despite his hammering of his opponents (justifiably) for their lax standards of evidence and logic.  Here’s his latest comment in a recent column:

Now, uncertainty by itself isn’t always a reason for inaction. In the case of climate change, for example, uncertainty about the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures actually strengthens the case for action, to head off the risk of catastrophe…Delaying action on climate means releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while we debate the issue…

Same sort of logic:

– We are  uncertain about the impact of carbon dioxide on climate, but…
– we must not delay serious action to reduce the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because…
– it will have a severe impact

The last point contradicts the first.  For an alternative view, I offer excerpts from a lengthy post by Dr. Robert Brown, a professor of physics at Duke University on the use of the label “denier” to tar those who are skeptical about climate change claims:

 …most of the skeptics do not “deny” AGW [anthropogenic global warming], certainly not the scientists or professional weather people (I myself am a physicist) and honestly, most of the non-scientist skeptics have learned better than that. What they challenge is the catastrophic label and the alleged magnitude of the projected warming on a doubling of CO_2. They challenge this on rather solid empirical grounds and with physical arguments and data analysis that is every bit as scientifically valid as that used to support larger estimates, often obtaining numbers that are in better agreement with observation….

…The issue of difficulty is key. Let me tell you in a few short words why I am a skeptic. First of all, if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures! Seriously. Not one human being on the planet would look at that complete record — or even the complete record of temperatures during the Holocene, or the Pliestocene — and stab down their finger at the present and go “Oh no!”. Quite the contrary. It isn’t the warmest. It isn’t close to the warmest. It isn’t the warmest in the last 2 or 3 thousand years. It isn’t warming the fastest. It isn’t doing anything that can be resolved from the natural statistical variation of the data. Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA and MWP restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

…Now let us try to analyze the modern era bearing in mind the evidence of an utterly unremarkable present. To begin with, we need a model that predicts the swings of glaciation and interglacials. Lacking this, we cannot predict the temperature that we should have outside for any given baseline concentration of CO_2, nor can we resolve variations in this baseline due to things other than CO_2 from that due to CO_2. We don’t have any such thing. We don’t have anything close to this. We cannot predict, or explain after the fact, the huge (by comparison with the present) secular variations in temperature observed over the last 20,000 years, let alone the last 5 million or 25 million or billion. We do not understand the forces that set the baseline “thermostat” for the Earth before any modulation due to anthropogenic CO_2, and hence we have no idea if those forces are naturally warming or cooling the Earth as a trend that has to be accounted for before assigning the “anthropogenic” component of any warming.

…This is a hard problem. Not settled science, not well understood, not understood. There are theories and models (and as a theorist, I just love to tell stories) but there aren’t any particularly successful theories or models and there is a lot of competition between the stories (none of which agree with or predict the empirical data particularly well, at best agreeing with some gross features but not others). One part of the difficulty is that the Earth is a highly multivariate and chaotic driven/open system with complex nonlinear coupling between all of its many drivers, and with anything but a regular surface. If one tried to actually write “the” partial differential equation for the global climate system, it would be a set of coupled Navier-Stokes equations with unbelievably nasty nonlinear coupling terms — if one can actually include the physics of the water and carbon cycles in the N-S equations at all. It is, quite literally, the most difficult problem in mathematical physics we have ever attempted to solve or understand! Global Climate Models are children’s toys in comparison to the actual underlying complexity, especially when (as noted) the major drivers setting the baseline behavior are not well understood or quantitatively available.

The truth of this is revealed in the lack of skill in the GCMs. They utterly failed to predict the last 13 or 14 years of flat to descending global temperatures, for example, although naturally one can go back and tweak parameters and make them fit it now, after the fact. And every year that passes without significant warming should be rigorously lowering the climate sensitivity…