One astonishing thing about laymen’s debates about climate science is the bizarre pro-AGW arguments from educated and intelligent people (AGW = anthropogenic global warming). This is one of the things that gives me the “debating folks distributing religious tracts at the airport” feeling.
For example, here is a comment by Oldskeptic, one of the most consistently sharp commenters on this site. I have learned much from his comments, including that I was wrong about the degree of social mobility in the US (see this post). But when it comes to climate science we get comments like this (shown below). Weird stuff. A grade school lecture on basic science, that he apparently considers sufficient to dismiss the work of the many eminent scientists who disagree with AGW theory. First you see my reply; Oldskpetic’s comment follows.
(1) Does high school science suffice to dismiss the work of scientists skeptical of AGW?
A frequent rebuttal by laymen to skeptics’ concerns is to describe AGW as an obvious result of high school science facts. In this vein, Oldskeptic provides his “BASICS PHYSICS (very simplified)” rebuttal; another example in the comments on the FM site is here. There are others on the FM site, but not as clearly expressed.
The “basic science” rebuttals tell us little about climate science, as the debate is far more complex. Solar forcing, limitations of the data inputs. feedbacks (higher temperature, more evaporation, clouds, lower albedo) … there is a long list of complex factors involved. But that is not an important objection. They are IMO a low grade of propaganda, the equivalent of disproving the Theory of Relativity by looking at your child riding a bike. No changes in mass or relative size! Einstein was wrong! But that is an insignificant objection.
What’s valuable about this logic? Such comments tell us much about the thinking of the pro-AGW folks who write them. Oldskeptic concludes his “BASICS PHYSICS rebuttal with this wonderful line:
As the greatest engineer in history once said “ya canna defy the laws of physics”.
He appears to believe that the many scientists on the other side of the debate are unaware of high school science facts. For a current example of a someone questioning many aspects of AGW theory, consider the work of Prof Roger Pielke Sr — see this post, from which you can go to his website and review his papers. Who is Prof Pielke Sr? From Wikipedia:
Emeritus professor of the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, he has served as Chairman of the American Meteorological Society Committee on Weather Forecasting and Analysis, as Chief Editor of Monthly Weather Review, … has served as Editor-in-Chief of the US National Science Report to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, as Co-Chief Editor of the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, and as Editor of Scientific Online Letters on the Atmosphere.
I suspect the Professor remembers much of his basic science, although it appears Oldskeptic disagrees (yes, email him also!). Stay with me please, because it gets even better.
Oldskeptic’s comment responds to An important new article about climate change, 29 December 2008. This post gives an excerpt from a new paper: “Solar Influence on Recurring Global, Decadal, Climate Cycles Recorded by Glacial Fluctuations, Ice Cores, Sea Surface Temperatures, and Historic Measurements Over the Past Millennium”, presented at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, San Francisco (15 – 19 December 2008). Presented by Don J. Easterbrook, Professor Emeritus in the Deportment of Geology at Western Washington University. His resume includes 8 books, 150 journal publications, and a long list of offices and honors.
Perhaps Oldskeptic should email Dr. Easterbrook, explaining how Easterbrook does not remember his high school science lessons. Perhaps offer to give him some lessons.
Rather than attempt a rebuttal to Oldskeptic’s specific points, here is a brief summary of the skeptics’ concerns — written by two scientists with considerable experience with these issues, see “A Critical Examination of Climate Change.” One of them is Douglas Hoyt:
Douglas V. Hoyt is a solar physicist and climatologist who worked for more than thirty years as a research scientist in the field. He has worked at NOAA, NCAR, Sacramento Peak Observatory, the World Radiation Center, Research and Data Systems, and Raytheon where was a Senior Scientist. He has conducted research on issues related to climate change, changes in solar irradiance on all time scales, and the sun-climate connection.
His most recent publication is the book “The Role of the Sun in Climate Change”. He has published nearly 100 scientific papers on solar irradiance variations, the greenhouse effect, atmospheric transmission, aerosols, cloud cover, sunshine, radiative transfer, radiometers, solar activity, sunspot structure, sunspot decay rates, and the history of solar observations.
He has received no funding from any fossil fuel entity or government entity. His work is influenced only by the data and the study of the scientific literature.
Perhaps Oldskeptic should email Dr. Hoyt, informing Hoyt that he does not remember his high school science lessons. Perhaps offer to give him some lessons.
These scientists are not exceptions, but some of many scientists skeptical about some or all of AGW theory. For more names see The Senate Minority report is out: “More Than 650 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims”, 12 December 2008.
(2) The not-growing sea ice
Oldskeptic says “Moving to an El Nino plus a rising solar cycle (average length 11 years) and these arguments will disappear … as fast as the Arctic Ice.” This is bizarre (and as such characteristic) given the data from the National Snow Ice Data Center. Jeff Id’s analysis of sea ice data showed no increase of ice coverage during the past 30 years. See here for more information.
Also it concerns one of the most important aspects of not just this climate science debate, but a large fraction of disputes in science: they occur on the margins of our instruments’ resolution. Which, of course, is where we should expect both new insights and debate. This is so for most of the key climate science data, such as…
- Global temperature — vast areas recorded to a fraction of a degree (for the surface network, using instruments not intended for climate science use).
- Small percentage change the cryosphere (ice caps, sea ice), which the recent corrections show is not easy to measure.
- Mass and thickness of the continental glaciers.
- Tiny changes in sea level.
All of these not only are often at the edge of the instruments resolution (or beyond it, in the case of satellite-based sea level measurement), but require adjustments for many factors. It’s not just, as many pro-AGW laypeople suggest, like reading a temperature. Hence the debate.
Global cooling? With 2008 one of the 10 hottest years on record? In a low solar cycle and a major La Nina? We should be back to the 1960’s on that argument.
Nice thing about these arguments, I only have to wait a few years until we go back to record temps again. Moving to an El Nino plus a rising solar cycle (average length 11 years) and these arguments will disappear … as fast as the Arctic Ice.
From the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) (source) Re: Temperatures from 1880 to 2007, Solar Cycle, La Nina see: To quote a couple of paragraphs:
The map of global temperature anomalies in 2008, the left panel of Figure 1, shows that most of the world was warmer than in the period of climatology (1951-1980). Eurasia, the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula were exceptionally warm, while much of the Pacific Ocean was cooler than the long-term average. The relatively low temperature in the tropical Pacific was due to a strong La Niña. La Niña and El Niño are opposite phases of a natural oscillation of tropical temperatures, La Niña being the cool phase.
Figure 3 compares 2008 with the mean for the first seven years of this century. Except for the relatively cool Pacific Ocean, most of the world was unusually warm in 2008. The United States, however, was not exceptionally different than its long-term mean.
BASICS PHYSICS (very simplified) ALERT
The Earths heat balance depends on: Energy in from the Sun. How much is reflected back into space (mostly a function of its albedo). How much is re-radiated back into space.
Greenhouse gases (CO2, Methane, NO2, etc) trap excess heat. Basically: high frequency energy (light, etc) hits the earth and is re-radiated back at a different (infra red) frequency. GGs stop that re-radiation, heating the lower atmosphere. This means more energy is trapped in the lower atmosphere. More GG, then more energy (=heat) trapped. School physics.
The only way this cannot lead to greater heating of the earth is that (1) The sun’s output decreases,  the Earth albedo increases (more gets reflected away as light, etc). Both of these we measure carefully now. The albedo is not increasing (as ice melts then it actually decreases). No notable increase in high altitude clouds (note: low altitude clouds don’t help). Note that there is a secondary effect of high altitude particles (volcanic, pollution) as well that is less well measured, but these are usually very short term.
Now look at the chart of solar irradiance from the 1st link. A nice steady cycle, and since we know this is correlated to sun spot activity, which has been followed since the days of Galileo, we know the cycle quite well. It will go up again shortly, peaking in about 5 years. How does that translate into surface temperatures, how long does the greater energy trapped take to impact them, what areas are most affected? This is what climate models are for, combined with a lot of climate history research.
The Earth should be named Water. Water has a very high specific heat content. We also have a complex series of sea water flows all around the world (the Gulf Stream is but a part of a much larger system), with hot and cold water moving enormous amounts if energy (heat) all over the world. These flows are subject to local forces that can alter them, some with wide ranging impacts. The Southern Pacific El Lino/La Nina cycle actually impacts as far away as western and central US (it impacts Australia massively).
But more energy (heat) trapped means that local (even global) SURFACE temperature oscillations will still follow an overall upward trend line. Sure there are quite large movements year to year, but the trend is the important thing.
However there is no free lunch in this. Cooler water from deep sea coming up (lowering low atmospheric and hence surface temps), means hotter water going down. Mixing means that inexorably the deeper waters (close to 0C in many places) slowly heat up (bit like your house heats up faster than your swimming pool). This process is poorly understood and we really have no idea about the long term impacts. Will certain flows stay the same, speed up or slow down (with potentially massive good/bad local impacts)? Will all the methane trapped in deep ocean levels start rising (if that happens we are in real trouble) .. again we don’t really know.
What we do know is that the heat eventually returns to the surface again, one way or another. And then we move into a hotter surface temp period, the “peaks” above the trend line. I’ll bet that 2012 will be a record year, only broken by 2013/14 (2010 won’t be nice either).
A simple ‘thought model’; imagine being in an insulated room with some heaters. There is a large block of ice. Turn on some of the heaters. It gets hot closer to the heaters, but if you stay close to the block of ice (and in the right air circulating spot) you can still feel quite cool. But the ice block is melting. When the ice is completely gone, turn on all the heaters … enjoy.
As the greatest engineer in history once said “ya canna defy the laws of physics”.
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:
- Posts about Science, Nature, and Geopolitics– this lists not only posts on the FM site, but also a wide range of other online sources.
- About Peak Oil and Energy – my articles
- About Peak oil and energy – studies and reports
Posts on the FM site about climate change:
- A look at the science and politics of global warming, 12 June 2008
- More forecasts of a global cooling cycle, 15 July 2008
- Update: is Solar Cycle 24 late (a cooling cycle, with famines, etc)?, 15 july 2008
- Solar Cycle 24 is still late, perhaps signalling cool weather ahead, 2 September 2008
- Update on solar cycle 24 – and a possible period of global cooling, 1 October 2008
- Good news about global warming!, 21 October 2008 – More evidence of cooling.
- A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
- Is anthropogenic global warming a scientific debate, or a matter of religious belief?, 22 November 2008
- Another pro-global warming comment, effective PR at work!, 1 December 2008
- Mystery solved, providing an important insight about the global warming debate., 2 December 2008
- The definitive rebuttal to skepticism about global warming!, 10 December 2008