A look at the science and politics of global warming

There are few more important global public policy issues today than if and how to address Anthropological Global Warming (AGW).  Not only might it require public investments on a scale not seen except in wars, but efforts to control AGW will clash with preparations for peak oil.  The combination of could be catastrophic, in many ways.  This post gives a brief review of the debate.


  1. An important new paper, well-worth reading
  2. Some comments on AGW, the process of the science
  3. Nuclear Winter
  4. The campaign to warn the world about AGW

1.  An important new paper, well-worth reading

I strongly recommend that you read a new paper on the issue, by one of the key participants in the debate.

Was 1998 the Warmest Year of the Millennium: What do We Really Know?“, presentation by Steve McIntyre at Ohio State University (16 May 2008).

It is somewhat technical.  Even if skimmed, it gives a flavor of the dynamics and politics of climate science.

2.  Some comments on AGW, the process of the science

First, like peak oil, the issue itself is often misunderstood.  Peak oil is not about “running out of oil.”  AGW is not about global warming (GW), it is a subset of GW.  If the world is warming, how much of this warming results from our actions?  This is a critical and often overlooked distinction, as we have little ability to influence natural climate trends.

Second, I believe that, as with nuclear winter, the social dynamics within the community of scientists plays a big role in determining how this research is conducted and presented.  Eventually the mills of science grind out the truth, but that takes time.  Science is a social process, not a divine mechanism, and works much like other community functions:  more or less well, in fits and starts.

3.  Nuclear Winter

Carl Sagan’s nuclear winter theory, and its associated campaign, were perhaps a key element and rehearsal for AGW.  It was in some respects a consensual fraud by the scientific community — propaganda to force changes in public policy.  

For example, the scenarios selected were represented as likely “base case”, but were actually a worst case — nuking of every medium- and large city on the planet.  Also, the calculations exaggerated the effects.  Most important, like with AGW, critical examination was discouraged in the scientific community as socially undesirable – encouraging nuclear war.

For a balanced discussion of the Nuclear Winter debate – and the intermixing of science and policy, read “Nuclear winter: science and politics“, Science and Public Policy, Brian Martin, Vol. 15, No. 5, October 1988, pp. 321-334.  It has an excellent background description and bibliography.  Martin is Professor of Social Sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong (profile).

4.  The campaign to warn the world about AGW

The campaigns to promote AGW has operated in a similar fashion but on a larger scale. 

First, the debate has been marked by frequent refussal to provide critics with supporting data and algorythms, making replication impossible except by known supports.  See this discussion about the IPCC:  UK Met Office, Climate Research Unit, Ammann.  Here is an even more stunning example:

“We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”
     (Phill Jones’ reply to Warwick Hughes, 21. February 2005; confirmed by Phill  Jones)

A slide Hans von Storch, GKSS Research Centre, presented to the National Academies of Science (see link below)

There have even been rumors of retaliation against scientists publishing data critical of AGW.  One of the best known examples of the latter is Dr. Lloyd D. Keigwin.  He published a climate reconstruction based on analysis of Sargasso Sea mud in Science (“The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period in the Sargasso Sea”, v274, 1996).  The backlash was formidable, especially when Exxon ran an advertisement mentioning his work.  Fortunately for his career and continued research funding, he wrote a public letter to Exxon rebuking them for using his work to criticize the AGW paradigm.   (No word yet if upon mailing the letter he muttered that “The mud does not lie.”).  For a brief description of this episode see the article in the March 22, 2001 issue of the Wall Street Journal (online subscription required):  “Exxon Mobil Uses Scientist’s Data As Evidence of Natural Warming“, Wall Street Journal (22 March 2001) — subscription only.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this story is the success of the propaganda campaign to convince the public of the danger and need for drastic remedial action — in which the public’s knowledge of natural climate cycles has probably decreased from that of a generation or two ago.  Ask a well-educated believer in AGW about past climate fluctuations and one will often get to watch their astonishment when learning about their magnitude and frequency.  The role of climate cycles in Europe, the medieval optimum and the little ice age, has been almost erased from the public consciousness.  Replacing it is the false idea of planetary homeostasis, in which even the small climate variations predicted for the 21st century are considered extraordinary.

Also indicating that the campaign has moved from education to propaganda:  warming is almost exclusively described as causing harm, seldom providing benefits.   It should have some benefits, even if the net effect is harmful.  This is esp. odd as warm periods of history have usually been considered benign, with cold causing famine and disease.

None of this affects the underlying issues of climate science, but has made the process of verifying current theories run slowly.  This is esp. unfortunate given the stakes.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information about global climate change

  1. SURFACE TEMPERATURE RECONSTRUCTIONS FOR THE LAST 2,000 YEARS“, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies, NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES (2006) — aka The North Report.
  2. Report of the “Ad Hoc Committee on the Hockey Stick Global Climate Reconstruction”, commissioned by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (July 2006) — aka The Wegman Report.  Also note this excerpt from the Q&A session of the Dr. Edward J. Wegman’s testimony.
  3. The role of statisticians in public policy debates over climate change“, Richard L. Smith, American Statistical Association – Section on Statistics & the Environment Newsletter (Spring 2007) — One of the too-few reports by statisticians on the climate change literature.
  4. A timeline of the science and politics of climate science.
  5. Bibliography by year of climate science research


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

14 thoughts on “A look at the science and politics of global warming”

  1. The data is all readily available, including outputs from the various models. I know, I’ve downloaded lots for my own analysis. Just go to the IPCC website and download the data youselves. Hard work though.

    I think there is some confusion amongst ‘the climate sketics’ about the depths and quality of data we now have about past climate. Some of this work is of the most superb subtlety but it gives us a fascinating insight to past weather.

    I recommend reading transcript about using midge remains from past sediment from hundreds of thousands of years ago: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2008/2260827.htm#transcript

    The results from the ‘paeloclimatology’ shows that the world and even regions are delicately poised on a fine balance. Even tiny perturbations can amplify (though non linear feedback mechanisms) into huge effects:

    From the link:
    “Basically what happened was that the last ice age was finishing, temperatures were increasing and that meant the that ice sheets were melting, but the effects of that was that there’s lots of fresh water going into the northern Atlantic Ocean and it was diluting the ocean current which drives the Gulf Stream, and the effect of that was to switch the Gulf Stream off. So although climate was warming, the Gulf Stream switched off because of the melt-waters and that plunged north-west Europe back into an ice age which lasted about 1,000 years, even though global temperatures were actually on an upward trend”.

    “This happened over just 10 years. Things got cold very quickly”.

    Even though (e.g) Australia was starting to swelter. Note: Europe is not the world and at that time was not even a tiny population centre (most humans lived in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia at the time).

    What worries the climate scientists (from just about every discipline: physics, chemistry, palaeontology, botany, mathematics, geology, geo-physics .. you get the idea) is that we now know just how delicately balanced the World’s climate really is.
    Since the present geology formed and the formation of the glaciers and ice sheets the World’s clime has been quite stable, going through (reasonably) regular ice-age/none ice-age cycles (caused by minor perturbation in the Earth’s axis and orbit).

    This is the period our species evolved in.

    To give an idea how delicately balanced it is consider the ice age cycle. Tiny changes in solar radiation hitting different parts of the Earth start positive feedback mechanisms (yes involving CO2 and methane) that turns Northern Europe and Northern America from being under kilometres of ice sheets into liveable, habitable areas. Then the cycle turns again.

    The impacts of human induced CO2 (and other) gases dwarf, by now nearly an order of magnitude, the impacts on climate that drove the ice ages.

    We are now at the point that basically the ‘worst case’ models predicted we would be in the late 90’s …. 20 years early.

    If anything our previous predictive models underestimated the speed that things happen.

    So we are in for bumpy ride since it is obvious we are going to do absolutely nothing about CO2 emmissions, except talk a lot .. which produces more CO2.

    If you live in some places it will be great. Siberia, the new holiday spot .. buy property now.

    So you ‘skeptics’ (I use the quotation marks because they are not real skeptics, skeptics examine the evidence, like I have done .. I’ve personally download all the megabytes of data and analysed it myself … and I’m convinced) have actually won .. we are actually going to see how the ‘great climate experiment’ really works out.

    Fabius Maximus replies: This comment is too long and off-topic. This site is not the place to debate neither the science of global warming nor the dynamics of anthropolical global warming. The carefully defined post of this was the conduct of the science and the dynamics of the public debate.

    You imply that since YOU have decided the issue, then anyone else having different opinions is not a “real skeptic”. This is one of the most arrogant statements I have read in a long time. I assume you make this statement on the basis having many Ph.D, covering most of the relevant fields.

    This is especially odd as the links I provide go to discussions of these issues by expert panels, which raise important questions about both climate science issues and the conduct of the research.

  2. OldSkeptic — how many non-skeptics are arguing for higher gas taxes? If not, why not? (I do, despite being a Warming skeptic, I agree more with “climate change” due to the increases in CO2, and the costs of such weather changes.)

    You and Fabian know why — the voters don’t like higher gas taxes, no matter what the science. It’s like, they are so ignorant they’ll support Windfall Profits Taxes on Oil companies AND expect those companies to provide more oil!

    Leftist watermelon (green outside, red inside) propaganda is attempting to create “unity”, no matter what the facts are or the truth is, but it is a dishonest consensus on a problem without supporting the obvious action to reduce the problem. Instead, most proponents of Warming (Alarmism?) support big new gov’t, and regulatory mandates, with the unspoken and factually wrong idea that regulations are costless.

    Personally I find this idea of getting “free” behavior modification thru gov’t to be the saddest aspect of Climate Change.

    But I’ll believe Greens think it’s really a huge problem when they support new nukes, today, until cheaper renewables are available. If CO2 isn’t a big enough problem to support more nuclear power plants, then it’s not yet that big a problem.

    Noting that there are likely to be benefits to CO2 increases is an excellent point — plants are likely to grow a little bit faster, too.

    Mitigation of water table changes is also very important.

  3. I found the original post fascinating and compelling. The first comment used reason and evidence to debunk the post. That was informative. (I must admit, I’m not going to analyze the raw data, and I doubt F Maximus will either. If you do, FM, I promise to read the whole analysis with calculator at the ready).

    I find FM’s claim that previous generations understood climatic cycles better than modern ones ludicrous. No general population remembers weather changes beyond it’s own living memory. Correct me with examples if I’m wrong.

    Tom Grey, the callowness of politicians isn’t going to prove or disprove the AGW models. The only insurmountable problem blocking new nuclear plants is creating a nuclear waste depository over New Mexico’s objections. That’s a systemic problem with our presidential politics. God bless you if you can enact a political solution to that!
    Fabius Maximus replies: “No general population remembers weather changes beyond it’s own living memory.”

    Perhaps you have heard of “writing”, allowing transmission of knowledge across generations. The Little Ice age and Medieval Optimum were real phenomena, taught in Freshman history courses in the 1970’s, almost erased from today’s general history texts, apparently to more easily stoke fears about climate change.

    “I promise to read the whole analysis with calculator at the ready.” Are you a member of some bizarre “do it yourself” society? Many important public policy issues have components requiring input from relevant scientists. The links I provided go to summaries provided by experts working for well-known institutions (e.g., the National Acadamies). That might be a better starting point than relying on summaries provided by people like Oldsceptic — about whom you know nothing, nor do you know about the material’s comprehensiveness or validity.

  4. The comments above and the emails I have received make me worry. Not about AGW, but about our schools. I link to several high-quality sources: congressional reports, the National Academies, the professional newsletter of statisticians, and several exhaustive and long-term bibliographies of the scientific literature.

    In response many people react as if I had referenced the National Enquirer, sneering that I should either research this myself or read the work of “scientists”.

    What can explain this? Were the alarmists correct about too many American children munching on lead paint chips?

  5. A note about the operation of this blog. Posts are generally 1,000 words or less, my guess as to the maximum length folks will read. This post follows a standard structure, suitable to a monograph of this length:

    (1) Description of an interesting new report by someone worth reading (interesting based on credentials, office, or record — or me).

    (2) Historical analogy, with link to a retrospective analysis by a reliable source.

    (3) Links to more information by reliable sources.

  6. Robert Petersen

    I believe in the existence of climate change, but it seems like it is mostly a fear of the left. Or used to be. One of the things that strikes me is how people’s world-views in general can influence what they are afraid for. For example left-wing or liberal people are not really scared by terrorists and see it mainly as a hype created by the evil military-industrial complex or the neo-cons. Instead they are scared of:

    1. Climate-change.
    2. Poverty in the world.
    3. Capitalism.
    4. The military-industrial complex and the National Security State.
    5. Peak oil (nemesis of the capitalist world)

    The right-wing is instead afraid of

    1. Terrorism (aka. immigrants or Moslems, I live in Europe)
    2. Rogue states.
    3. Weapons of mass destruction.

    Fear is a powerful force and it can easily blind you and stop a more relevant debate. Today it is simply heretic to debate what causes climate change. Just like the reasons behind terrorism are poorly understood. I honestly don’t doubt humans are causing climate change, but it should be obvious that we are not alone. The sun, a volcanic eruption and other things contribute. Besides that I am constantly amazed how similar fear is whether you are a leftish or a right-wing person. A person can be as much scared of terrorists or Islam as he is of climate change. Fear is remarkable similar. It seems like the left won a big victory by convicing even George Bush of the existence of climate change. Not a small feat.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Your comments are constistently among the best on this site, and that’s amidst stiff competition. Thank you for posting!

  7. Robert, you forgot Leftist fear
    #6: The Spanish Inquisition! (didn’t expect that, did you?)
    er, pro-life Christians, usually labeled fundamentalist.

    On the Right, you didn’t include:
    4. Gun control, taking away 2nd Amendment rights (including forcibly disarming innocents who may face crazed armed mass-killers)
    5. High taxes (or that more a strong dislike rather than a fear? Similar to Leftists against Capitalism)
    6. Inflation, and especially Hyperinflation (Weimar, Zimbabwe today)

    In re-reading FM’s opening sentence:
    “There are few more important global public policy issues today than if and how to address Anthropological Global Warming (AGW)”
    I fail to see why this is more important than Social Security reform and the demographic decline of the West — a slowly but steadily coming crises known for 30 years with extremely high certainty.

    There are few policy issues more hyped by the anti-Capitalistic Left. When you talk about social dynamics, you’re talking about science fashion. As you very correctly label it: “propaganda to force changes in public policy.”

    But what are the changes being promoted? How often has Al Gore called for a (Gary Hart redux) $0.50 increase in gas taxes?

    I worked for a couple years at the Electric Power Research Institute in the nuclear power division, just before Three-Mile Island happened (and then switched careers). There are huge problems predicting supplies and demands of oil in various computer models — predicting the weather at our current level of understanding is far too problematic.

    Predicting Social Security collapse is clear and certain, yet is not resulting in the system being fixed, nor even about a reasonable debate on the principles of a fix. The GW debate’s “importance” is crowding out other debate.
    (So why am I wasting my time? Well, it IS Friday the 13th now.)

  8. Well if it came across as arrogant I unreservably apologise, since it was not intended that way. Rather it was intended to (a) refute some ideas that data and results are not readily available to the general public, (b) encourage people to do their own research.

    Now not everyone may go into the detail level that I did (not everyone is a number nut) but the IPCC has many summaries of actual data and model outputs (they are a sort of clearing house for data). You can even download some climate models and use them yourself (e.g. at: http://www.giss.nasa.gov/tools/) including source code. The New Scientist (http://environment.newscientist.com/home.ns) is a also great place to start, including their special reports, with reports on data, forecasts, actual and potential solutions, new technology, etc.

    The idea is to move away from a political arguement to a scientific/policy one, and its great for people to examine data, results and possible solutions for themselves and argue the direct evidence (not third hand stuff). I personally find the politicisation and fear-mongering/dissmissiveness (depending on the party) of GW saddening. The UK’s Stern report (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm) was a superb attempt to put the arguments into persepective and deal with the issues and economics on a more dispassionate level, turning it more into a rational policy debate.

    Excessive fear (of anything) solves nothing. It just induces panic or passiveness, neither of which is conducive to analysis or solutions. Unfortunately as Robert correctly pointed out, various groups have their pet hobby horses that they push, which just clouds everything. “Use the Source(s), Luke”, avoid them and make up your own minds.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The problem with the IPCC is that, as the Wegman Report and others have shown, it has become a closed circuit for Climate Science — dominated by a small circle of scientists. They cite each other, review each other, often keeping their data and methods secret. Look at how often the lead author cites his own work, ignoring critics. Which is why I cited works that are expressly reviews by unaffiliated scientists.

  9. Another apology for the speeling erors, somehow my spell checker was turned off (que).
    Fabius Maximus replies: No complaints from me about these. WordPress has no spell checker on comments. Due to the volume, I rap these out at warp speed (never looking back, or I would cry at the grammer and spelling errors).

  10. Are you the same ass the deleted his profile due to your Google Analysis stupidity on Global Warming? if so, you were OWNED.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No profanity, please. I do not like to censor posts, but desire to maintain a civil discussion here. Nor does it add force to your comments.

    I have no idea what you are talking about. What profile? Where? Your comment is totally vague.

  11. OldSkeptic,

    Unfortunately, your claims do not hold water:

    1) Plenty of model OUTputs are available. Model outputs are not data. That’s analysis. Visit ClimateAudit and take a look at the many postings on unarchived/unavailable data. From tree rings to ice cores, the actual measurements have not been archived and are not available. Sadly, in an increasing number of cases, scientists are dying without ever having handed their data to anyone else. I have personally visited a university where this was true of three key scientists. What should be done with papers that have no supporting data? And what should be done with other papers that lean on those papers? It’s a sorry state of affairs. I have personally helped collect (tree ring) data that seriously calls into question the primary data sources used to support the “hockey stick” — not prove it wrong, but show that we don’t really know what they think we do. Data availability is a humongous issue.

    2) Your claim about fragility of the climate has not been demonstrated. For example, much evidence is emerging that it was warmer 1000 years ago than today, including less ice on much of the planet. Only 1000 years ago, not a million or 100k years. And we weren’t exactly mucking the place up with CO2. That’s just one example. If you really want to learn something, take a look at tropical storm systems. They are completely ignored by the models, yet are a large negative feedback factor: warm water leading to “blow out” of heat via storm systems.

    3) Your claim about being “20 years early” on worst case models has not been demonstrated. In fact, we’re now approaching a decade of no-warming, which is coming close to falsifying current IPCC climate predictions, even the lowest ones, for the next hundred years. See “Warming on 11 Year Hiatus? Not quite.” at Lucia’s blog The Blackboard: Where Climate Talk Gets Hot!

    No time for more right now. My point: we know a lot less than many people think we do. OldSkeptic, you’re too easily succumbing to easy-believism.

    Blessings, Mr. Pete
    Fabous Maximus replies: I agree with you on all points, but suspect (guess) that OldSkeptic has been influenced by a tidal wave of informed opinion — views of the Good and the Great, presented as fact in our media. The similarities to the “nuclear winter” story are too numerous to overlook.

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