Monday, April 30, 2012

Climate change myths

I was recently at a meeting and at a break the topic of climate change came up because I mentioned that I had missed an opportunity to hear Al Gore speak to come to the meeting. Someone who I respect and admire brought up several points about global warming that I thought I'd publicly refute here.

1. "Temperatures haven't actually warmed in the last fifteen years." False.

First, let's talk about the last 130 years. Indisputable instrumental data shows a very clear warming trend. Whether that's the result of human factors or something else, the fact is it's warming during that period. Here's the NASA data. 

Second, 2011 was in fact the 9th warmest on record but it was colder than 1998, which was THE warmest on record. It you draw a trendline from 1998 to 2011 you get cooling.

This perspective was exemplified in an egregious Daily Mail article about a report from the British meteorological office (Met Office) with the secondary headline "Met Office releases new figures which show no warming in 15 years". The original Met Office piece stated:
2012 is expected to be around 0.48 °C warmer than the long-term (1961-1990) global average of 14.0 °C, with a predicted likely range of between 0.34 °C and 0.62 °C, according to the Met Office annual global temperature forecast. 
The middle of this range would place 2012 within the top 10 warmest years in a series which goes back to 1850.
How do you get from the above statement in the original Met article to the statement that there's no warming in 15 years"? You cherry pick the your quotes, you don't include information from Met Office that refutes your points, and you end your data set with an April 2010 data point drawn from only 47 measurement stations in the Arctic.

2. The e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia at very least show an egregious disregard for the scientific process by Michael Mann (he of the hockey stick curve) and inappropriate consideration of opposing views. False.

First, the idea that any science should depend on what a few people say or do is obviously silly. In any case, regardless of what one might think or believe about Michael Mann's attitude, his science remains valid: as my brother wrote on the RealClimate blog last week about Michael, "The conclusion that the past few decades are likely the warmest of the past millennium — i.e. the conclusion of the best-known of his papers in Nature and Geophysical Research Letters—has never been seriously challenged."  Nor have the results of Phil Jones (who was also accused of all sorts of misdeeds around the "climategate" emails). Indeed, all of Jones' results were demonstrated to be correct by the prominent physicist and former climate skeptic Richard Muller.

Second, Jones, Mann et al have been exonerated six ways to Sunday. As the Economist said:
"None of this is evidence of fraud. Looked at broadly, the e-mails seem to show a pretty workaday picture of scientists, with frustrations and sloppinesses, disagreements, opponents badmouthed, and cultural differences bridged..."
3. There has been a decline in the number of climate scientists who are convinced about climate change. False.

I don't know where this is coming from. But based on anecdotal evidence from my brother--who is a prominent climate scientist--plus a recent analysis of literature sources it is clear to me that the vast majority of climate scientsts do see substantial evidence for climate change and indeed are are convinced of the anthropogenic causes of this change. The literature analysis is in a paper titled "Expert credibility in climate change" which definitely shows that 97% of climate scientists see evidence for anthropogenic climate change.

4. Al Gore doesn't believe in climate change as evidenced by the fact that he's made a lot of money off his "sky is falling" climate change message and flies around in private jets, producing an excessive amount of carbon.

I can't fully refute that one because I'm not in Al Gore's head but it seems a strategy of incredible foresight to start talking about climate change in 1976 when Al Gore held the first congressional hearings on climate change in order to make money three decades later. Was he really thinking way back then that he'd create a documentary in 2006 and then leverage that to a position at a venture capital fund in order to make investments in clean energy based on the climate change "hysteria"? But perhaps he is indeed as prescient as Dick Cheney--create a false premise (WMDs in Iraq), lie to your Secretary of State so he goes in front of the U.N. with false data, start a war, and let your former company (Halliburton) benefit tremendously. I don't believe that Dick Cheney started the Iraq war to benefit himself personally--even though he may have personally profited--and I don't believe that Al Gore is so cynical as to argue the scientific basis of climate change just to line his own pockets. In fact, investing in the Iraq war and in clean technology are tremendous risks. They go far beyond the risks that most politicians or investors typically take. It remains to be seen how well those investments will actually turn out. In Cheney's case, it's meant that he hesitant to travel abroad for fear of legal repercussions. For Al Gore it has meant a constant barrage of criticism--and death threats, I'm sure--from people who believe he's in fact the right hand of the devil. As to whether Al Gore is not doing as he would have others do by reducing their carbon footprint, I certainly have some room for forgiveness and believe in the possibility of redemption for him in this regard given all the hard work he's done in fighting to get a message about which he--and I--are quite passionate.