A look at global warming written in a cooler and more skeptical day, giving us a better understanding of climate science

Introductory note:  If you have not already read them, I strongly recommend the previous posts in this series —

The hacked emails and papers from the UK’s Climate Research Unit reveal the underside of climate science (as the many bizarre conclusions do the same for the anti-AGW mob).  Spinning data to conceal contrary evidence, avoiding freedom of information requests, purging the profession of skeptical voices.  All familiar things to anyone familiar with the history of science.  All evidence of the most important step needed, and that most strongly opposed by most climate scientists:

Raise the standards when applying science research to public policy questions.   That means requiring full transparency of data and methods used in climate science research, and third party review of the data, analysis, and models.

The saddest aspect of the climate science debate is that this is a regression from the 1970’s, to varying degrees.  We had transparency and replication of climate science research — but lost them when climate science was politicized (which I somewhat arbitrarily date to the publication of “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions“, Carl Sagan et al, Science, December 1983 (for an analysis of this sorry spectacle see “Nuclear winter: science and politics“, Brian Martin, Science and Public Policy, October 1988).

Worse, the public debate — which sets public policy — is thoroughly corrupted.  Both sides misrepresent the facts, feeding feeding their zealot-like followers with a steady diet of lies and exaggeration.  This site has looked at both sides in the debate (albeit not with equal attention to both), finding both to be sloppy and often hysterical.

It need not be like this.  It was not always like this.  To survive, it must get better than this.

A look at science writing from the 1970’s — global cooling or warming?

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To understand important issues I recommend reading old reports and books, not just the latest best-sellers on Amazon.  Times serves to wash away the gravel, leaving the gold behind.   The best introductory work about climate change I’ve found is The Cooling by Lowell Ponte (1974).  The subtitle is suitably lurid (good marketing!):

“Has the Next Ice Age already begun? Can We survive it?”

But the content is comprehensive and balanced (e.g., he discusses the dynamics and prospects for global warming).  Perhaps its most important revelation to us:  climate science has changed remarkably little during the past 35 years.  We know vastly more, but the big questions remain unanswered (again, no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of science).

It’s a valuable lesson to us, showing that we can discuss these issues in a reasonable and open-minded fashion.  As Exhibit A, read this excerpt from the Preface by Professor Reid A. Bryson.  Bryson was an atmospheric scientist, geologist and meteorologist; Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the U of Wisconsin – Madison; designated Global Laureate by the UN Global Environment Program in 1990.

How many mass-market books about climate science begin with such a balanced perspective?

Preface to The Cooling.

The Cooling will be controversial, because among scientists most of the matters it deals with are hotly debated.

  • There is no agreement on whether the earth is cooling.
  • There is not unanimous agreement on whether it has cooled, or one hemisphere has cooled and the other warmed.
  • One would think that there might be consensus about what data there is — but ther is not.
  • There is no agreement on the causes of climatic change, or even why it should not change among those who so maintain.
  • There is certainly no agreement about what the climate will do in the next century, though there is a majority opinion that it will change, more or less, one way or the other.
  • Of that majority, a majority believe that the longer trend will be downward.

Nevertheless, it is an important question, as this book points out, and it is time for some of the questions to be settled. Lowell Ponte has summarized the data dn theories very well, and has reasonably concluded that a rapid change in Earth’s climate is possible, perhaps even likely, within the next few decades, and that this would have serious consequences for mankind.

There is surprisingly little argument among those who have actually studied climates over multi-millenial time scales that we will be in an Ice Age 10,000 years from now. There is, however, less agreement about how soon and how rapidly the transition from the present interglacial will take place. One extreme view envisions a “snow blitz” beginning of the ice-age climate, only a few years long, and a rapid growth of continental glaciers. If this were true, response would be almost impossible. The other extreme is the opinion that climates change gradually and almost imperceptibly over many thousand so of years, with plenty of time for adaptation by the ecosystems and man.

My own opinion is intermediate:

  • that climates change by relatively abrupt small steps;
  • that these small steps are important, for they can be disruptive to stressed ecosystems such as ours is now; and
  • that man can prepare somewhat for their occurrence.

… {Mr. Ponte} has put the map of climatic arguments into a reasonable perspective. He has shown that there are potential solutions I hope that scientists will read it as a challenge to set their theories and analysis in order. I hope that all will read it as a serious and thoughtful analysis of a real and pressing problem.

Recommendations about climate science

When reading about any politicized issue:  skepticism, skepticism, skepticism.

As for the public policy aspects of climate change, here are recommendations — things that must be done, whatever the cost — although it would be trivial compared, for instance, to global military spending.

  1. Raise the standards when applying science research to public policy questions.
  2. Provide greater transparency of data and methods used in climate science research.
  3. Provide third party review of the data, analysis, and modeling is necessary.
  4. Improve the various global climate data collection and analysis systems – satellite, radiosonde, and surface.
  5. Rationally apply the precautionary principle.

For more about these things see My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009.

For more information

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

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Posts about fears of global cooling:

  1. More forecasts of a global cooling cycle, 15 July 2008
  2. Good news about global warming!, 21 October 2008
  3. An important new article about climate change, 29 December 2008
  4. An important letter sent to the President about the danger of climate change, 21 October 2009
  5. About those headlines from the past century about global cooling…, 2 November 2009 — Exaggerations by the anti-AGW mob.

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5 thoughts on “A look at global warming written in a cooler and more skeptical day, giving us a better understanding of climate science

  1. Science is not just a question of logic; good science is data-based. That’s what distinguishes science from medieval speculations about “angels on the head of a pin”. The other thing about good science is that it makes explicit the assumptions / hypotheses that ground the research.

    The problem with all this is that data by itself / themselves is not enough. The data may lie there but may be overwhelmed by other effects or may not be measured correctly. Or the effect may be so small that its significance may not be understood. Unfortunately, the only way to guide the acquisition of data is through theory. (I am thinking here abot Einstein’s prediction about Mercury’s orbit).

    Unfortunately, the theory may err by assuming a static (time-invariant) model suffices when a dynamic model is required. An example of that type of bad science was the “Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth” report, which assumed a static model was appropriate.

    Another problem in modelling is distinguishing first and second-order effects. (If this is not clear, just remember what was taught in Introductory College Physics courses.) That is a key difficulty in social science modelling.

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  2. Yebbut data can be argued over in the same way as angels on the head of a pin . Modern statistical ways of expression do not help .
    The buzz words should be not CO2 and warming , but sustainable ( places and practices )and resilient ( people and possessions ).

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  3. The only agreement in climate science today seems to be ‘we need more money’. Every time something happens, good or bad, it takes more money to fix. If these ‘scientists’ would stop with the doom and gloom, the media might take a break. So many new industries are financed by global warming fear, it would cause a financial meltdown for many if the problem were fixed. Too many hands in too many pockets?
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    FM reply: It’s the way of the world. So many things become mired in politics. Everything becomes mired in monetary self-interest. That does not mean that the climate science issues are not important. I believe they are underfunded. But just as we do not have the fox guard the henhouse, we need a seperation of functions in climate science research — as we do in drug development.

    For more about this see My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009.

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  4. @ jamesglendinning

    You wrote “So many new industries are financed by global warming fear, it would cause a financial meltdown for many if the problem were fixed.”

    1) Could you give me examples of relevant industries that are financed by GW fear?

    2) I think you make a mistake. Even if you do not accept global warming and do not see the point of reducing the production of greenhouse gases, what is your solution for the peak oil problem? You ignore that to solve the latter you have to increase your energy efficiency, i.e. you have change your lifestyle. For me as citizen of a central European country, which heavily depends on energy imports, most of the solutions the proponents of AGW offer also perfectly make sense, if I am interested in a useful energy strategy. So I can support 70% of their solutions, without becoming a “believer”. Do not waste the useful aspects of the AGW discussion and do not use some of the scientific problems of this discussion as excuse for not doing anything.
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    FM reply: Great point! Alternative energy is worthwhile whatever the climate does, as a alternative to fossil fuels sources (and with lower pollution, to boot).

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