Taking On Global Warming “Skeptics” (Alas, It’s Still Necessary)
Despite the overwhelming and ever-strengthening scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), many otherwise rational people still refuse to believe it. And if one is not well versed in climate change science, some of their “skeptical” arguments might seem reasonable. As an example, below is just such a specious argument put forth by a “skeptic” with whom I have been engaged in an exhausting email spar:
- The theory of man made global warming is just that- a theory. Theories must be proven through experimentation and data.
- The data and experimentation that have been done fall into two areas: computer models, and temperature measurements that go back a relatively short time
- The computer models are necessarily much simpler that the actual climate, and are totally dependent on the assumptions that have been fed in to them by scientists who are trying to establish that AGW is real. There are very competent scientists who have done serious peer reviewed work that raise serious questions about the validity of the models and the assumptions that drive them.
- The temperature measurements go back a very short time, and are of questionable use in demonstrating trends that span millennia.
- Techniques that are used to try to show longer term temperature trends by ice coring or tree ring measuring have produced mixed results, and there are many responsible and intellectually honest scientists who have raised serious questions about the methodology used by the believers.
- The believers try to discredit all of the scientists who have presented opposing explanations by demonstrating that their results are different than the results achieved by the believers, therefore their results are invalid. This echo chamber of criticism always comes back to the same small groups of scientists who created the models and produced the temperature data. And this small group of scientists have been discredited by their own words in thousands of emails that demonstrate that their motivations are not to do good science. The skeptics’ arguments do not “fall apart when scrutinized,” they fall apart when they are compared to the work of the believers. And if your view is that the work of the believers is the benchmark of truth and excellent science, then it becomes automatic to disagree with opposing views, because they HAVE to be wrong.
- Therefore, there is sufficient doubt in my mind about the effects of man’s activities on the climate that I do not want to see the US economy destroyed, and all the rest of our jobs moved to China, in order to solve a problem the very likely is not a problem. And if you don’t believe that the proposed taxes and carbon trading and other actions will severely damage the ability of the US to produce goods and attract business, then you are getting economic advice that is as bad as your climate advice.
At first glance it’s pretty convincing, is it not? So allow me to spell out how it falls apart when scrutinized, just like the skeptics’ arguments always do.
The data and experimentation that have been done fall into two areas: computer models, and temperature measurements that go back a relatively short time.
But that is a false statement. Climate models and past temperature data are but two of multiple, mutually reinforcing lines of evidence for AGW. You could throw out all the climate modeling results and the case for AGW would still be rock solid. Here is a partial list of the directly observable evidence, compiled from the awesome debunking site Skeptical Science:
- Satellites measure less heat escaping out to space, at the particular wavelengths that CO2 absorbs heat, thus finding “direct experimental evidence for a significant increase in the Earth’s greenhouse effect”. (Harries 2001, Griggs 2004, Chen 2007).
- If less heat is escaping to space, where is it going? Back to the Earth’s surface. Surface measurements confirm this, observing more downward infrared radiation (Philipona 2004, Wang 2009). A closer look at the downward radiation finds more heat returning at CO2 wavelengths, leading to the conclusion that “this experimental data should effectively end the argument by skeptics that no experimental evidence exists for the connection between greenhouse gas increases in the atmosphere and global warming.” (Evans 2006).
- If an increased greenhouse effect is causing global warming, we should see certain patterns in the warming. For example, the planet should warm faster at night than during the day. This is indeed being observed (Braganza 2004, Alexander 2006).
- As greenhouse warming increases, winters are warming faster than summers. This has been observed (Braganza et al 2003, Braganza et al 2004)
- Another distinctive pattern of greenhouse warming is cooling in the upper atmosphere, otherwise known as the stratosphere. This is exactly what’s happening (Jones 2003).
- With the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) warming and the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) cooling, another consequence is the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere, otherwise known as the tropopause, should rise as a consequence of greenhouse warming. This has been observed (Santer 2003).
- An even higher layer of the atmosphere, the ionosphere, is expected to cool and contract in response to greenhouse warming. This has been observed by satellites (Laštovi?ka 2006).
- The specific pattern of ocean warming, with heat penetrating from the surface, can only be explained by greenhouse warming (Barnett 2005).
And the (non-climate model-based) evidence just keeps piling up:
Our results show that it is extremely likely that at least 74% of the observed warming since 1950 was caused by radiative forcings, and less than 26% by unforced internal variability. Of the forced signal during that particular period, 102% (90–116%) is due to anthropogenic and 1% (−10 to 13%) due to natural forcing…
As is common with armchair skeptics, a superficial understanding of the subject at hand has led to a false premise for the entire argument presented above. Apparently it’s a combination of irrational distrust in experts and plain old arrogance that enables these people believe that after reading a few blogs they know better than the deep body of scientific knowledge on climate change that has been built up over decades by thousands of scientists all over the world.
This flavor arrogance permeates the skeptical crowd, as exhibited by UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller who was an outspoken global warming skeptic until he recently conducted a review of the data himself (funded by the denialist Koch brothers, no less). What Muller found was that, oops! the leading climate scientists were right all along. Apparently feeling no need for humility about his past mistakes, Muller lectures his Wall Street Journal readers that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”
Back to the argument. Given that the main premise is wrong, what about the specific claims? Fail.
This echo chamber of criticism always comes back to the same small groups of scientists who created the models…
Well, not so much, according to Wikipedia:
Thousands of climate researchers around the world use climate models to understand the climate system. There are thousands of papers published about model-based studies in peer-reviewed journals.
The code for the models and the sources of temperature data are openly published. Nevertheless, skeptics would have us believe that a small group of scientists rigging their modeling results and suppressing dissent has gone undetected in such a huge and open community of scientific researchers. But that’s what makes unfounded conspiracy theories tick—everyone is in on it!
Yes, the climate models are not perfect, but no one understands that better than the scientists involved, who painstakingly calculate the uncertainty and openly discuss it. The simple fact is, CO2 is the only forcing variable in the global climate models that can reproduce observed temperature trends. “Skeptics” love to bloviate about other possible explanations, but the scientists have already been there, done that. At this point, if this was any other field of science that wasn’t so politicized, the real question would be: Prove that CO2 is NOT causing global warming.
…this small group of scientists have been discredited by their own words in thousands of emails that demonstrate that their motivations are not to do good science.
This refers to the so-called “Climategate” emails, about which many skeptics never stop howling, even though the scientists who wrote those emails were exonerated by nine official investigations. As can be learned with a five minute google search, the email quotes were taken out of context and wildly misinterpreted. It is either ignorance or willful deceit that allows “skeptics” to continue citing the emails to try to discredit the science.
Therefore, there is sufficient doubt in my mind about the effects of man’s activities on the climate that I do not want to see the US economy destroyed, and all the rest of our jobs moved to China, in order to solve a problem the very likely is not a problem.
“US economy destroyed.” Scary words! But the reality is if we set our minds to it, we could convert our economy to low carbon energy sources and have economic prosperity at the same time. Furthermore, there is a strong case to be made that doing nothing will have a negative net economic impact, as the International Energy Agency’s recently stated:
Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.
No doubt, the psychology that fuels global warming skepticism is rich. Throughout history, paradigm-shifting discoveries tend to be scorned at first. In the case of global warming, resistance is concentrated in the conservative end of the ideological spectrum, and part of that can be explained by the fact that addressing the problem will require action by governments (gasp!), though a few conservatives are starting to face reality.
Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change it’s way too late in the day, and there’s way too much at stake, to suffer fools gladly. These pseudo-skeptics are impeding progress on one of the most important global issues of our lifetimes, and jeopardizing the well being of literally billions of people in future generations because they can’t get past their own ideological and psychological hang ups and deal with reality. The appropriate response is to push back hard and not worry about being nice.
Footnote: If you believe that the graphic at the top of this post is exaggerated, take a look at the C3 website, where you will find countless examples of cherry picking intended to mislead. For example, compare this anti-science to this science. And if you are wondering who produces C3, the web site doesn’t provide even a single name—always a sign of a credible source, right?