Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is there a consensus among skeptics?

Richard Black at BBC asks the question whether the climate skeptics have unified opinions about detailed questions about the climate.

I think that the correct answer is obviously "No". But unlike Richard Black, I don't think that it is a disadvantage or counter-argument of any kind. The differences between the skeptics pretty much reflect the amount of uncertainty about individual questions. If Richard Black or someone else believes that those 100% unified committees of communist parties or the unified body of believers in Al Qaeda make the opinions of these groups more likely, I beg to differ.

Not only skeptics have different opinions about detailed questions but individual skeptics are uncertain about individual questions themselves.

Unity

Skeptics have a unified opinion about the question that defines their skepticism. More concretely, they believe that climate change is not an urgent crisis that requires dramatic changes of the way how we live and how we use the fossil fuels.

But there are differences about pretty much every question simply because these questions are not settled and free people normally reach different conclusions when they analyze incomplete observations and incomplete theories. I know that this is an inconvenient truth for those who would like the opinions of the whole population to be unified but it is a truth nevertheless.

Also, there is a subtle problem with the questions that are usually not accurately enough formulated so that different people may mean different things by various words. Let us look at particular examples.

Is there global warming?

Well, I think that most skeptics will tell you that it is likely that the average temperature on Earth has increased during the last 100 years. But surely not all of them and frankly speaking, I have a full understanding for those who doubt it. The surface measurements don't seem too reliable because they are plagued by the urban heat island effects, human errors, and other things. It is conceivable that once a couple of these errors will be corrected, the warming that we like the quote today will go away or will at least be substantially reduced.

Some skeptics will tell you that the global temperature is not a terribly well-defined notion. Others will argue that the global character of the warming doesn't seem to be statistically significant. There have been many places that got cooler and the global average may be warmer simply because of statistical fluctuations: it is never guaranteed that the area of regions that get warmer must be equal to the are that gets cooler.

Many skeptics will protest that the choice of the 100-year timescale is an example of fine-tuning, cherry-picking, and cheating, and they are right. At different timescales, one cay see either warming or cooling. By emphasizing the importance of the 100-year timescale, we are already putting the "man-made" answer into the game as an assumption.

OK, I personally think that it is most likely that the warming trend in the last 100 years was close to 0.6°C per century.

Is this warming unprecedented?

Most skeptics, including myself, will say "No". They will tell you about dozens of types of climate changes in the past. Is it true that this 20th century warming is twice faster than the average warming or cooling during an average century in the last 1 million years? It might be. Was it the fastest centennial warming in the last 1 million of years? Probably not.

I think that it is obvious that people are guessing here. Climate has clearly been changing as we know from thousands of sources, experiments, and observations. But equally obviously, we don't have direct measurements of the decadal variations of temperatures 17,680 years ago, among other examples.

How the hell could there be any unity of opinions about it if we clearly have no data about it and no quantitative reliable theories either? Any group of people that is unified about these questions - such as decadal variations 17,680 years ago - that can be neither measured nor reliably calculated is simply a religious group. I think that the previous sentence is another statement that virtually all skeptics - and all sane people - will agree with.

Does the Sun's activity measurably influence the Earth's climate?

Surely, almost all skeptics, including myself will answer "Yes". Some influence is both explained physically as well as deduced from statistical analyses of the temperature records. The influence of galactic cosmic rays on the clouds and the climate is much more scientifically established than the role of the greenhouse effect. Again, most skeptics will agree. Look at the correlations in the papers by Svensmark and Friis-Christensen: they are simply impressively accurate.

The question about the cosmic and solar influence is just a quantitative one, just like the greenhouse effect. When combined with complex phenomena and feedbacks in the atmosphere, both solar activity and cosmic rays as well as the greenhouse effect have some effect on the climate.

The legitimate question is how large it is in both cases. Anyone who tries to make this question dogmatic and binary - that the answer is "Only one is correct and you shall never believe other Gods" is a religious bigot. Such bigots may exist on both sides but I happen to know many more greenhouse bigots than solar bigots.

How much warming should we expect in the next 100 years?

Well, we will probably surpass 560 ppm of CO2. Even if you believe that the greenhouse effect is responsible for all long-term warming, we have already realized something like 1/2 (40-75%, depending on the details of your calculation) of the greenhouse effect attributed to the CO2 doubling from 280 ppm to 560 ppm. It has led to 0.6°C of warming. It is not a hard calculation that the other half is thus expected to lead to an additional 0.6°C of warming between today and 2100.

Other derivations based on data that I consider rationally justified lead to numbers between 0.3°C and 1.4°C for the warming between 2000 and 2100. Clearly, one needs to know some science here. Laymen who are just interested in this debate but don't study the numbers by technical methods are likely to offer nothing else than random guesses and prejudices, regardless of their "ideological" affiliation in the climate debate.

When Richard Black quotes some uneducated people who are climate skeptics, it just shows that he is not being fair and he is spreading propaganda. The real problem with the global warming orthodoxy is that some of the craziest opinions about a coming catastrophe are heard from the most powerful alarmists. When we want to show that the alarmists are not quite sane, we don't have to pick the stupidest representative on the street. We don't have to humiliated Alexander Ač all the time. Chiefs of their institutes at NASA and Nobel prize winners will do the job, too. This is the real difference here.

Clearly, there can't be any consensus about precise values of the climate sensitivity simply because no accurate calculation of this quantity exists. Once again, if a large group has a consensus about the precise value, it is inevitably a religious group.

Now, would 1 Celsius degree of warming be a catastrophe?

This is a question in which skeptics probably agree once again. During the 20th century, the temperatures may have increased by 0.6°C. Not only we can say that it has caused no catastrophe. In fact, it seems that it has caused no visible problems at all. Our world is richer, more fertile, healthier than it was 100 years ago. By extrapolating this observation to the 21st century, there is absolutely no reason to think that a hypothetical additional warming would cause some big trouble.

Can the climate get out of control?

Once again, skeptics will say that probably not. But there is no rigorous proof. No one can say these things for certain. Catastrophes and instabilities are unlikely because they haven't occurred for billions of years even though our planet has tried many eras that were much more extreme than our times. So skeptics generally find theories about instabilities, tipping points, points of no return, and so forth very awkward. But they won't burn someone at stake because it can't be rigorously proven. They will just think that the person who propagates fear is not quite sensible.

Are the oceans more important than the solar activity?

Again, I don't know. If they are at least comparable, we would have to define the question more accurately anyway. Turbulent phenomena in the ocean surely play some role. 1998 was the warmest year mainly because of a huge El Nino. No doubts about it. But once again, there can't be any consensus here because we don't fully understand dynamics of these things. Even if we did, the system is so complex that we would have to carefully define two quantities that we are comparing. The question above is just too vague.

Is CO2 regulation a good idea?

Again, probably all skeptics will answer No, regardless of their belief about the previous questions. CO2 regulation is extremely expensive and it has extremely negligible impact on the climate. Moreover, we are not really sure whether the sign of this impact is positive or negative.

Summary

If I summarize. I think that the main difference between climate realists, also referred to as skeptics, and climate fanatics is not a different choice of some technical quantity such as the climate sensitivity. The main point in which they differ is their attitude to the society, freedom, and knowledge. Climate realists think that questions like that must be looked at in a very calm, balanced way, and each scientist must be free and independent to reach any conclusions that seem to be implied by the available evidence. They think that the complexity of complex systems must be acknowledged and uncertainties should never be masked. Moreover, the link between scientific conclusions and policies is extremely indirect and requires some people to answer many additional questions whose character is not related to climatology. Climate realists think that we must first answer these questions and then we can perhaps use the answers to influence policymaking.

On the other hand, climate fanatics think that these are moral questions that must be looked at in a very irrational way. Only one kind of an answer must be promoted or allowed. Policies must be created before the evidence is available and evidence must be tweaked to agree with the desired policies. Scientific conclusions must be deliberately exaggerated, cherry-picker, and oversimplified to achieved "sacred" goals. Everyone must be forced to believe the same thing and all infidels and heretics must be ostracized. The desired policies of CO2 regulations are good even if the climate apocalypse doesn't exist - even Marx himself believed these things - which justifies any amount of attacks and lies about the skeptics and the climate itself.

These two groups don't differ in technical details of science. They differ in their basic thinking about man, society, nature, freedom, truth, and science.

And that's the memo.

2 comments:

  1. The impact of the global warming debate, no matter which side you support, is a more responsible use of Earth's resources.

    In the USA, many of our water tables have a recharge time of 100 years. In Darfur, the recharge time is ~10^6 years. (rainfall and depletion of water table is used...)

    In Darfur, people are fighting over water rights. Do they use the remaining clean water for irrigation, showers, other? Killing is a terrible result of this question.

    The hidden point of the global warming debate is that we have too many people who need more resources than our planet can offer.

    Food: If everybody eats meat, the cost is too high.

    In Darfur, they could use water to grow soy. This soy could be used to feed the population. This is smart. In most of the developed world, we use soy to feed animals. Most of these animals develop "indigestion" from the soy diet. Cows for example are only supposed to eat grass. Feeding them soy requires the use of antibiotics, which require resources to create. Once cows are killed fuel is used to ship the meat product long distances to market. The entire way meat is kept very cold, at the store very cold, and in your freezer very cold. All using much more energy than a plant based (or even vegetarian) diet requires.

    I think the consumption of meat is a waste of resources.

    No matter the study that comes out, I always look to see if resource conservation is considered. We can burn all the fossil fuel we want, and never heat up the planet, but as the 3rd world countries struggle to survive you can bet they do not give a damn about global warming :)

    The global warming debate will not be answered in our life time. I choose to focus on topics that are easy to prove and demonstrate. The resources argument is easy for many people to understand.

    Gore's Triana global monitoring satellite would have been in operation for 6 years now had it not been stalled in Congress...

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  2. You are right. I think that the problem is not about global warming but about who is causing it. We all have to agree that there is a global warming, but as you have allready sayed it is a matter of who is responsibile or what.

    I really believe that climate is changing but if we want to understand why it is changing, we have to understand climate. For that, we have to understand all factors that influence climate, like the oceans . For this you could have a look at www.whatisclimate.com.

    We cannot just blame humans for all changes. Earth had climate changes in the past also, and in that perioud we had no influence on the matter.

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