Summary: Another post showing that we’re ignorant because we listen to journalists. Why do these people get airtime when the US has thousands of articulate experts on every subject? Today we look at the nattering that too often passes for debate about the important topic of climate change. It’s an important subject, deserving not just better coverage by the news media but also greater funding for more and better research. At the end are some simple if overlooked basics, and links for more information.
(1) Click here to see a video of A Global Warming Debate on “This Week”, ABC News, 7 July 2012. Here are remarks from it by two journalists (transcript here). We’re ignorant because we get information from people saying such ignorant things.
E. J. Dionne (Wikipedia):
It is a political issue because the question is are you going to do something about it or not? During heat waves, belief in global warming goes up, surprise, surprise, in the polls. But what we’ve really seen is wild weather, not only here, but all over the world.
And what I don’t understand is why people are so resistant — why my conservative friends are so resistant in taking out an insurance policy. There is a lot of evidence that human activity is changing the climate. There’s not a lot of dispute among scientists about this. Why wouldn’t we want to take out an insurance policy to protect ourselves? Because if we go wrong on this, we’re making an awfully big mistake.
George Will (Wikipedia):
You asked us — how do we explain the heat? One word: summer. I grew up in central Illinois in a house without air conditioning. What is so unusual about this? Now, come the winter, there will be a cold snap, lots of snow, and the same guys, like EJ, will start lecturing us. There’s a difference between the weather and the climate. I agree with that. We’re having some hot weather. Get over it.
Will gives only mockery, inappropriate for this serious subject. Dionne gives sophisticated propaganda, probably deliberate. Stopping the increase in CO2 — the only thing that consensus theory says will stop the future warming — would require a massive expenditure of funds and an even larger expansion of government regulation — both slowing growth (bad news for the world’s poor) and possibly diverting funds from important needs. This is nothing like an “insurance policy”; a better metaphor would be a home renovation to meet new building codes.
(2) Both ignore obvious facts.
(a) The world has been warming during the past two centuries, following the little ice age. This warming precedes the massive human-caused CO2 emissions (graph here). Hence the debate among scientists about the magnitude of the past and future anthropogenic warming. Hence the stupidity or malice of calling skeptics “deniers of global warming” (there are some, of course; every politicized topic attracts wackos).
(b) Temperature records for most areas (eg, North America) don’t extend beyond the little ice age. So even the longest temperature records (ie, the Central England temperature record goes back to 1659) will show current temperatures as the warmest.
(c) Warming has continued at varying rates (due to natural cycles, eg ENSO) since satellite measurements (the only source of full global coverage) began on 16 November 1978. For a summary see the June 2012 Global Temperature Report from the Earth System Science Center at the University Of Alabama At Huntsville.
- Average temperature in June 2012 was 0.5F (0.37C) above the 30-year June average.
- The trend since 1978 is +0.25F (0.14C) per decade.
- Neither of these provide any cause for panic.
(d) The propaganda disseminated by our news media typically describe regional warming as “climate change” and regional cold as “weather”. Both are weather; finding climate signals from the natural warming requires large datasets and sophisticated analysis.
(e) Large fires are natural and endemic to North America. See Wikipedia’s list of the largest forest fires in North America.
(f) Large forest fires are even more likely now as a result of the US Forest Service’s policy of fire suppression from 1905 until 1974, which left US forests vulnerable to massive fires that restore natural conditions. Current fires are neither unusually large or the largest on record. For more about this see this history of the 1910 fire season (over 5 million acres burned), this history of the Forest Service’s prevention programs, and the Wikipedia entry about the history of US fire prevention policy.
(3) More broadly, it is not yet clear if there are more climate extremes now — and how many of these result from humanity’s emissions of CO2
(a) There is relatively strong evidence that increased precipitation in some areas is linked to warming, although unknown as yet to what degree this is natural or can be attributed to our activities. Many of those confidently cited in the news media are exaggerations — or even blatant lies.
- About the increase in tornado activity. NOAA’s website: “little trend in the frequency of the strongest tornadoes over the past 55 years.”.
- About the increase in hurricane activity. See the global hurricane frequency (peer-reviewed version in GRL here); and a more US-centric version here.
- About the CO2-caused cold in 2008 (“Natural Variability Led to Extra-Cold 2008“).
- About the Russian heat wave in 2010 (NOAA study: “Natural Variability Main Culprit of Deadly Russian Heat Wave“).
(b) For a summary of the current state of research see the IPCC’s Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, approved on 18 November 2011 — Excerpt:
Confidence in projecting changes in the direction and magnitude of climate extremes depends on many factors, including the type of extreme, the region and season, the amount and quality of observational data, the level of understanding of the underlying processes, and the reliability of their simulation in models. Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios generally do not strongly diverge in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability over this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain.
For projected changes by the end of the 21st century, either model uncertainty or uncertainties associated with emissions scenarios used becomes dominant, depending on the extreme. Low-probability, high-impact changes associated with the crossing of poorly understood climate thresholds cannot be excluded, given the transient and complex nature of the climate system. Assigning ‘low confidence’ for projections of a specific extreme neither implies nor excludes the possibility of changes in this extreme.
(c) Update:A report about some current research about extreme climate: “Explaining Extreme Events of 2011 from a Climate Perspective“, American Meteorological Society, July 2012. Some of these articles do not distinguish between the natural warming of the past two centuries and AGW, or even assume that all recent warming is AGW.
(d) Look at the data and judge for yourself:
- NOAA’s U.S. Climate Extremes Index — excellent source of easy to review data
- The Global Weather & Climate Extremes Archive of the World Meteorological Organization — Note the list of extremes & dates on the front page.
(4) For more information about climate change
- What we know about our past climate, and its causes
- Good news! Global temperatures have stabilized, at least for now.
- Is it possible to debate climate change with true believers? See the replies to Thursday’s post. Comments welcomed!
- What can climate scientists tell about the drivers of future warming?
- What can climate scientists tell us about the drivers of future warming? – part two of two
- A famous scientists makes a startling admission about Earth’s climate, 26 April 2012