Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is it getting hot in here?

A few years ago I was pretty convinced that the basic line on global warming was absolutely true.  I really saw no reason to doubt that CO2 emissions were heating up the Earth and that failure to prevent this disaster might doom us all.  I no longer believe that.  There are a number of reasons for my change of mind, but let me lay out a few things first.

-The temperature records of the Earth over the last century show a substantial increase in average temperature.  No one of any credibility denies this.
-The Earth has been drastically hotter and colder than it is now many times over its history.
-There is a substantial correlation between CO2 levels and average world temperature over a huge timeframe in the past that is well supported by scientific evidence.
-The vast majority of the models used by scientists to model Earth weather patterns assume that increases in atmospheric CO2 will increase the temperature of the Earth.

None of this proves that CO2 is actually increasing the Earth's temperature.  The ice core evidence showing correlation *does not* imply causation, and in fact it may well show causality the other way.  This is supported by the accepted fact that an increase in temperature will cause an increase in CO2 levels due to CO2 coming out of the oceans.

Another intriguing fact is that there are many times that temperature spikes up or down with no relationship to CO2.  As an example, during the period from WW2 to the 1970s the temperature of the Earth dropped despite this period being one where CO2 levels rose drastically.  This is only one of many similar issues, as most climate models also have absolutely no explanation for why if CO2 causes high temperatures and high temperatures cause CO2 why the Earth has had such a fluctuating temperature instead of a steady, inexorable increase due to a the feedback loop described above.

I started doing a little looking into this after seeing a video on the internet called The Great Global Warming Swindle a few years back.  This video was really interesting because it combined a lot of political mumbo jumbo and somewhat sketchy science with some really hard questions that I was unable to find good answers to.  I spent some time looking at the firestorm of debate that followed the video and came to the conclusions that the video itself should not be taken at all as an example of good science and that many people on both sides of the debate are pundits with no credibility.  However, it did seem to me that CO2 deniers often made points that simply could not be addressed by their opposition.

People that claim that the Earth is not going through a noticeable warming period are either delusional, badly misinformed or straight up lying.  However, from all the data I could locate the evidence that CO2 actually does what most models say it does seems sketchy at best.  Our models cannot explain most of the Earth's climactic history so the idea that we are able to make accurate predictions about the future is pretty laughable - in science it is well known that it is usually easy to make a model that fits known facts but the real test is making a model that makes accurate future predictions.  If your model can't even manage the practice round how can you rely on it for the real test?

None of this changes my stance on emissions though.  I am very much for reduced emissions whether that be by carbon trading, tightened standards for vehicles, changes to renewable resources or other options to reduce our use of fossil fuels.  However, I heartily dislike scientific models that simply aren't nearly as good as they are proclaimed to be being used as a giant stick to enforce political change.  Using sketchy science and scare tactics to get changes you want may work once but it undermines the faith people have in scientists and the scientific method.  Losing that credibility means that next time you need to convince people to change you will have a much harder time doing so.


  1. I went through an up and down on global warming and climate change. It seemed pretty obvious it was happening, then it seemed somewhat less obvious as a result of some of the things I read. But recently I was reading an article on manufacturing denial, and I think that maybe skepticism about global warming has been created by people with substantial financial interests in the matter.

    I think about the MMR/autism "connection" (measles, mumps, rubella vaccine). In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published a paper claiming he found a link between MMR vaccine and autism and reported that single vaccines would be safer. The research he did was funded by a solicitor with a specialization in criminal negligence suits who hoped to file a massive class action suits against MMR vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield was paid over 400,000 pounds to conduct the research and did not declare this payment to the journal that published his paper. Clinicians who worked on the study say that the results Wakefield published do not match the actual results of the study that was done. Furthermore, Wakefield has a patent on a measles vaccine; a vaccine he has no hope of ever selling as long as people use the three in one MMR vaccine. Also, just for fun, he conducted tests on children during the trials that violated medical ethics. The journal has since retracted the paper, and he was found by a disciplinary panel to have acted dishonestly and irresponsibly. But of course, honest scientists cannot *prove* there is no link between the vaccine and autism, they can only show many studies that cannot find any evidence.

    Basically one guy had a million bucks to blow trying to manufacture a massive lawsuit, another guy lied his ass off, the whole world bought it, and now we have outbreaks of measles (which is normally fairly innocuous but can cause dangerous fevers and pneumonia in some cases, and is known to cause miscarriages and birth defects when contracted by pregnant women) in places where it had previously been eradicated.

    It takes two guys and a million bucks to start a global movement that ruins peoples lives. People who have economic interests against global warming have way more than two guys and way more than a million bucks to spend manufacturing doubt. Questions that scientists can't answer come pretty cheap to people with an interest in generating them.

    I don't know anything about how the climate works, and I'm pretty sure a good orator could put together an argument that would sound pretty convincing to me either way. The deniers know this and know that I know it. They know that if a person who is not a climate scientist engages their reasoning and looks at evidence they will end up in a state of doubt, not knowing what is true. That is all they need. To me, therefore, the basic facts of climate change are these:

    1. People who have a monetary interest in denying climate change have far more money than people who have a monetary interest in forwarding the idea of climate change
    2. Other things being equal, this should mean that climate change would be largely discounted as implausible
    3. Climate change is largely accepted or doubted but largely only denied by nutcases

    Conclusion: Climate change is a real thing

  2. I fully accept climate change and the societal changes that climate change believers want us to adopt by and large. What I don't accept is the level of certainty and knowledge that is assumed to exist within those who support the idea of climate change and their ability to predict the future accurately.

    Remember when acid rain was supposed to destroy forests? It didn't. Of course, it did destroy lakes so taking steps to reduce acid rain was a great idea but believing the environmentalists who said they knew what was going to happen was a mistake.

    Think about 'we are running out of oil'. If you ask random people if that statement is true you will find they largely agree with it due to what they are being told by the media. However, it is entirely false. The amount of oil in the Earth's crust is immense and we can continue our current rates of consumption for centuries without running out. We are certainly running low on *cheap* oil and prices are definitely going to rise as oil companies are forced to get oil in more expensive ways but the idea that we will run out in the foreseeable future is laughable.

    The last example I have here is the chunk of time in the 70s where scientists were telling us the big freeze was coming. Global cooling over the last 10-15 years had been measured and they were worried about a new ice age.

    Just because something is widely accepted by random people and supported by the environmental lobby is no reason to think it is scientifically valid. Many things are, but it is not sufficient.

  3. Bill Nye did an episode of his "The Eyes of Nye" series on global climate change. I'll have to see if I still have it on my old laptop at home.

  4. Your whole arguement is based on Global Warming which is a term no longer used as it is grossly misleading. Global climate change is preferred and results in a general increase in global temperature accompanied with more extreme weather events. It's unfortunate I don't have the papers and studies handy to show that they have scientifically proved co2 increases temperature but it isn't the only cause. There are several other factors such as feedback loops involving ice/snow cover, anthropogenic changes (landuse, water redirection, etc.) and impacts from outside Earth (solar, cosmic). Unfortunately people demand more evidence about climate change then any other theory out there. It's unfortunate a few papers which challenge climate change and co2 as a cause have persuaded you to change you belief. It's always going to be a struggle to change the minds of a population whose economy and way of life directly and indirectly causes the changes to the world around us. Of course I also know you're posting this as you also enjoy discussion :). Keep up the blog bud!

  5. Derek: Indeed, I posted this because I was curious to see if anyone could actually convince me either way on the subject and to get a bit of dialogue going. I am more than willing to be convinced by science but so far in my own inquiries I have found absolutely nothing that convinces me.

    Some of what you have posted concerns me though. When you suggest that people demand more evidence for climate change than any other theory out there I feel like that is overly defensive and not fact supported. Climate science is outrageously difficult and hard to test and as such any hard conclusions should be viewed with some skepticism.

    Claiming a sufficient understanding of climate change to predict the future meaningfully is an incredible position, particularly since scientists have been making that exact claim for decades and have been regularly wrong. I looked over the claims of those who have models and they change drastically year by year as the models change (particularly with the big freeze stuff in the 70s) so it is hard to imagine that I should believe in someone when it is clear that all their past predictions were very premature. When a particular branch of science has made many future predictions over time and has clearly been badly mistake over years and yet wants to control public policy on a worldwide scale based on its current predictions, wouldn't you think we should require the utmost in proof and diligence? Most scientific disciplines aren't being used as the justification for a massive restructuring of the world economy so of course they are allowed to exist with less proof and skepticism.

    In particular the 'extreme weather events' phrase concerns me. I am not concerned because I have some theoretical objection since I know little about the reasoning, but it sounds like too pat an answer to "Why is it bad if the earth heats up?" I heard that objection many times years ago when global climate change was a new thing and the extreme weather events was the answer. Can we really predict the formation of these things with such accuracy that we know what a substantial change in the Earth's climate would do to them? We cannot predict a storm coming a day or a few days in advance in most cases, so I am doubtful that anyone is capable of figuring out how extreme weather events would change in a world with a noticeably different temperature considering all the other things that would change.

    In large part my feeling is that we just know less than we think we do and our hubris in thinking that our understanding is greater than it is is a dangerous thing.

  6. No wonder you don't understand extreme weather events, you definition is incorrect. Extreme weather event is defined by an weather event (cold, hot, wet, snow, wind, etc.) that is classed in the once every 100 years scale. As well temperature events are classed as days which exceed tolerance levels. These extremes are occurring more and more. I really wish I had the graphs to explain better. As for incorrect predictions that's a whole other discussion that unfortunately I can't describe on my iPod or in thus blog. Anyway I don't agree with your statement about the population are skeptics. Many more are denier rather than true skeptics. Regardless take care.


  7. Well, a great deal has changed since the 70s, we have more powerful computers, we have thousands more satellites, and we have a far better understanding of almost every kind of science, including climate science. Something that *hasn't* changed since the 70s is that in the 70s there was no broad consensus that the earth was cooling among climate scientists.

    In the 70s climate science did not exist as it does today. Peer reviewed journal articles appeared suggesting global warming in the mid sixties, with those suggesting global cooling a couple years later. By the end of the 70s there were 6 or 7 publish articles on global cooling and over 40 on global warming. Even in the 70s there were more scientists predicting warming than cooling, and those scientists who were predicting cooling were looking at a few threads of what would become the larger field of climate science. The 70s is a lot like ancient history for many sciences, but for climate science and other new areas of study it really is ancient history, it was the dawn of the field.

    The place where global cooling was touted was not in scientific journals or communities, but in Time magazine, which is what created the public impression that scientists thought there was global cooling. The idea that climate science predicting global cooling in the 70s is a myth that is being perpetuated by people who want to discredit global warming either because a) they don't know the difference between their memory of a Time magazine article and real research or b) they are just outright liars.

    This is my problem, I can't figure this stuff out for myself because anyone can just say whatever they want about it. The journal article I found examining this myth of the 70s cooling prediction and, apparently, explaining how the science of the 70s laid the groundwork for the climate science of today, is a copyrighted work that I can't read online. If I was lucky the big reference library at Bloor and Yonge might have that journal, but I wouldn't bet on it. What I can readily read is pretty much what random people have to say, not what is accepted by a scientific consensus.

    Of course those random people might not even be random. Many large industries create fake grassroots organizations to promote ideas or cast doubt on scientific consensus. That movie you mention, the Great Global Warming Swindle, contained edited comments from scientists attempting to make them seem like they were arguing against global warming when they are, in fact, ardent believers in it. The movie is actually quite literally a swindle, intentionally misleading the viewers to believe that there is not scientific consensus on the matter when there is, and arguing largely against strawmen which are easily understandable to the public while ignoring the real arguments and models of climate scientists which are very inaccessible to laymen.

    In the 1950s, the tobacco industry paid doctors to tell people that smoking was good for them. Then in the 1964 when the Surgeon General in the US started gathering and publishing reports on the harm cigarettes do the tobacco companies paid "experts" to try to cast doubt on these findings. In 1970 you may well have said that there just wasn't enough evidence to conclude whether cigarettes were bad for you, after all, doctors thought the opposite of what they say now only 20 years ago, and while everyone keeps saying there is a consensus, there are notable doubters who raise questions that the consensus can't answer.

    What is what is undermining faith in the scientific method, not sketchy conclusions from actual scientists, but demands from anti-science opponents that scientists be infallible and omniscient.

  8. Also, we *do* have climate models that are pretty accurate at modelling the past hundred years for global temperature ups and downs (or at least people produce graphs that come from these models, which could be 100% fabricated but I don't have a reason to believe that they are). As you said, that's much easier than actually predicting the future, but the idea that our best models don't even fit our historical data is just wrong. It's obvious that at some point we didn't have these models, so this claim could come either from someone who repeated it so long they figured it was still true after decades had passed, or, again, from someone who was simply lying.

  9. Derek: I would love to see data on the extreme weather events. My statements about storms, hurricanes, etc. was based on information I read on the internet and have seen on television that was presented as part of the global warming argument. You claim that those things are not what science is saying at all, which suggests that if you are right then what is being said to the public is not what scientists actually think. That would certainly be a good source of confusion and doubt if it were all true, and I really don't know if it is or if it isn't.

    While I may be speaking from a decided lack of experience I would tend to believe the idea that hotter overall temperatures lead to specifically more volatility in temperatures and more extreme spikes and that would could predict that sort of change. That is decidedly different from the storms and disasters type events that I have seen in the media on many occasions.

    A lot of my skepticism of scientific models of future warming is based on their immense ranges. One example I saw was someone suggesting that their model predicted a .5C to 5C change over the next hundred years. That difference is so utterly staggering that it really begs the question of whether or not the model actually has any validity at all.

  10. I have a theoretical question for you: Say next year was really colder than average. Also say that the year after that was similarly cool and that the trend continued for a decade. At what point would the current thoughts on climate change be altered? I ask this question because we are looking at models that aren't especially testable. If the current theories are wildly wrong we have no particular way to test within any rational timeframe. How much do you rely on a model that cannot be properly tested?

    Sthenno: I fully believe that industry fakes scientific data and that they do terrible things to try to fool the public into believing what is good for the company's profits. That does not mean that climate change is true or false however, but only that there are huge amounts of money to be made by people either way and that both sides may well try to lie. I am confident that the anti-climate change side has more cash, but that does not mean that they are actually wrong, only that they are supporting the viewpoint that makes them money.

    I don't ask scientists to be omniscient or infallible. I do ask that policy be designed around things that are provable rather than speculation. Just because a scientist in the 70s was wrong is not sufficient to assume a scientist in the same field today is wrong. However, if a scientist today told us that according to Newtonian mechanics X was true we would absolutely believe because that system has been in place and making excellent predictions for a incredible length of time. Climate science is not that way and their predictions and certainty have been very much questionable in the recent past so it is reasonable for us to be unsure that all the current models are going to be shown to be correct a hundred years from now.

    I would like to point out that much of my concerns with the models is the long time periods before the current era. If you look at the temperature record going back thousands or hundreds of thousand of years the temperature and the corresponding CO2 levels spike up and down very dramatically. If a scientist says they have a climate model that accurately predicts all of the temperature data we have then I would completely buy into their future predictions. That is certainly a tall order (and not the only proof I would accept) but the impression I am under is that we still aren't able to accomplish that feat, which suggests to me that we are really stretching it to say we know what is going to go on in the next hundred or thousand years.

  11. It's funny that you use Newtonian mechanics as your example as something you believe as the basis of accepting a proof since that whole system fell to bits at the atomic level. Quantum mechanics was born out of the ashes of the failure of Newtonian mechanics.

    You can look at quantum mechanics as an extension or a fix but nothing alters the fact that Newtonian mechanics failed miserably at the turn of the last century. Expecting a given scientific model to be perfect is a lofty goal, but one that's never going to come to fruition. You can't just expect the world to get paralyzed because you can't prove something to 100% certainty one way or the other.

    Science is all about good enough. This is the model that works until it doesn't and then you fix it. If the model climate science has right now it's good enough explain why, don't just say it might be wrong because you can't guarantee it and sweep it under the rug.

  12. Newtonian mechanics completely falls apart for the very, very fast or the very, very small. However, if you move a couple of random objects around or smash them together in the space that human regularly occupy you will find that Newtonian mechanics is still a excellent model and predicts things to within greater accuracy than we can usually measure. That accuracy has never been challenged (as in, the equations are all right at the sorts of speeds and sizes that humans deal with regularly) and it is a pretty ludicrous idea that they would be shown to be wrong.

    Just like most scientific theories Newtonian mechanics is very useful for certain things and useless for others. Climate science cannot tell you what temperature it will be on my balcony tomorrow morning at 8:00, but it doesn't pretend to have that ability. It does claim to have to ability generally speaking to predict the general climate of the earth over a long time period. However, the claims that it has been making do not have a historical record of accuracy. People have had much time and incentive to prove Newton's mechanics faulty and yet no one has. People have had very little time and virtually no ability to prove current climate science faulty (since testing long term predictions takes long term time) so having less trust in their robustness is natural and reasonable.

  13. To be more clear: My statements above are not proof that we should ignore climate science's models. They are however a good reason to have some doubt particularly if there are other factors that suggest that the models have flaws.

    I have not and will not say "I know that CO2 has no effect on climate" because I don't know that and don't think that either. I just think that other people also don't know that to a much greater extent than they understand or admit.

  14. One other thing: Watch An Inconvenient Truth - the movie by Al Gore that talks about global warming. It won't prove anything one way or another but it will show you that propaganda and bad science is being used heavily on the pro climate change side as well. After watching An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle I really came to distrust what either side said though the Al Gore movie is the less terrible of the two for sure.

  15. Right, but you said if someone came up with some wacky new theory based fundamentally on Newtonian mechanics that you would believe him on his word because he based it on something you believe to be fundamentally true. Physicists actually tried to do this at the turn of the century and failed miserably. It's easy to say in retrospect 'oh yeah, Newton didn't mean really small or really fast things, of course' but without the benefit of hindsight it's not easy at all. Very smart people were very very stumped by it at the time.

    Of course they eventually worked it out (we think!) but we again have no guarantees. For all we know we're actually in The Matrix and all it's going to take is someone with a really strong will and suddenly people are flying or inertia is a joke.

    You're never going to get a perfect model. Even if you had hundreds of years to verify the current model you still wouldn't have a guarantee. You may be able to increase your personal level of satisfaction but you're never going to get all the way. And all the while, public policy still needs to be made. We can't guarantee CO2 will or will not make our planet inhabitable anytime within the foreseeable future but we still need to take actions. We can stick out heads in the sand and let people do whatever they want or we can use the models we do have and make sense of them.

  16. I'm not saying that propaganda isn't used by politicians of all ilks and that statistics aren't abused by them. But it seems like you're saying that because some people use bad science we should ignore all science...

  17. I certainly do not think that. When scientists come up with theories that are not being used to justify massive changes and expenditures in society I feel like we lose very little by assuming they are probably right and waiting for someone to prove them wrong (or not). In the meantime we can use their ideas and figure they are probably right. However, when the model is key to making enormously important decisions we can't afford to just assume anything a scientist says is right and go with it. We need more rigor and/or more time for errors to caught.

    If a climate scientist said in public

    "I have a great climate model. 5 years ago I got it to predict the weather for the next 5 years and the results are now in. My predictions were very good and the results are statistically significant. My model shows and my results confirm that CO2 is raising the temperature of the Earth."

    I would say holy crap, we should do a little bit of fact checking to make sure these results aren't fudged, but if they are legit we should believe this guy and use his model. Does this guy exist? Has anyone made future predictions with their models that have been verified? The core of science is in making a hypothesis and testing it and it feels to me like that simply hasn't happened.

    I am willing to be proved wrong! Find a scientist that has done something like this. I honestly want to see it if it is out there.

  18. Good discussions:)

    Skeptic: someone who changes their opinion based on the best current scientific knowledge.

    Climate science as it is taught in high schools:

    Start with these basic facts. If you dispute these then there can be no further conversation as you are not using known science:
    1) CO2 (and many other gasses) absorb infrared radiation (see a line spectrum to know this).
    2) When the sun heats the ground, the ground then gives off infrared radiation which either goes back into space or is absorbed by the atmosphere.

    These are the plausibility pillars upon which the human forced climate issue stands. These are undebatable (with science).

    You can pretty easily set up an aquarium with CO2 inside to see this effect with some basic thermometers or temperature probes.

    Next, some scale: The climate is REALLY complex. Despite this, scientists who have been investigating climate (and other) phenomena for the past several hundred years have noticed STAGGERING recent changes. Their best assumptions suggest that these changes are anthropogenic. The evidence points to a strong human element. We can never know for sure if this is correct. The best we can do is amount a huge collection of evidence and see which way it points.

    I saw a talk by several leading canadian climate scientists at LU last year. They laid out pretty staggering evidence from all different areas and time-lines.

  19. This controversy reminds me of the 'intelligent design' debate. In that debate a few dissenting scientists (see Behe, Michael) formulated several biting arguments regarding evolution by natural selection. The basic premise goes like this:

    "If natural selection is true then how do you explain this thing over here?"

    Once that thing is explained using the best current scientific model the intelligent design proponent goes on to say,

    "Well, ok, but how do you explain this other thing over here?"

    This "moving the goal post" continues on and on and gives the impression that we have two points of view that are equally supported by evidence (or one, natural selection, that is full of all these holes as a theory).

    In fact, we have one remarkably successful theory with a mountain of evidence all pointing in the same direction and another concept that exists only to provide doubt about very specific points. The tragedy is that the latter is remarkably successful in convincing people.

    Anthropomorphic accelerated climate change is a theory supported by an ironclad theoretical basis (CO2 absorbed infrared, infrared comes from the warm ground) and a mountain of other data. Certainly the earth's climate is a ridiculously complex machine and this allows for a lot of weird happenings that don't fit perfectly into all models that have been created but that is how science works. As evolution has been tweaked over the years as we have learned more details about how it works, climate science is on the same arc.

    In the end we can go with scientific consensus or forge our own path. One has a better track record than the other.

  20. Just a note:

    There is testing that is going on in short timeframes. Most of it is done in the arctic (and has been ongoing since the 50's I think, although not originally for these purposes). At the LU symposium several of the profs talked about studies that they have been doing for the past 40 years in the arctic (a shocking amount of the 10,000 year old micro-lakes drying up, Unexpected ice melt). Looks like the extremes are the best short term testing grounds.

  21. Actually Matt, I've noticed a strong correlation between people who argue for intelligent design and people who argue against the reality of human caused climate change.

    But anyway, Sky, I did a google search for "predictive power of climate models" and the fourth or fifth hit was an explanation of all of the successful predictions that have been made by climate science covering short term periods. In one case in the late 80s a 12 year model was basically correct except that it was a few years off on predicting when a major volcanic eruption would happen. You say you haven't seen proof that these things can predict anything, and I admit I had no idea if there was such proof. So this morning I typed it into google and found it. Same as the fact that there was no real scientific belief in cooling in the 70s and the claim that our models don't even get history right. All you have to do is type these things into google and look at a couple of the pages to find actual scientists explaining how they work. I would say that the reason you haven't seen this evidence is because you didn't have any motivation to see it, getting information instead of fiery debates that are fueled on one side by people who don't really understand their own positions deeply. As I said, it is easy to manufacture doubt in the population.