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Climate Change: What Are the Real Questions?

Before we evaluate the answers we're given about climate change, it would be good to understand the questions.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

August 8, 2013 - 3:00 pm
shutterstock_116446909

My favorite part of Earth Day.

Ancient history

On April 22, 1970, I — along with a teeming multitude of junior high school and high school kids, college students, hippies and New Leftists — participated in the first Earth Day, a “teach-in” organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to make the world aware of the imminent environmental crisis that faced the world — starvation from Malthusian collapse, the coming Ice Age, industrial pollution combined. In Pueblo, Colorado, we had a list of “demands” — the one I remember best was closing the City Park to car traffic so people wouldn’t be exposed to all that automobile exhaust.

It wasn’t a complete loss, as I met a couple of girls who I’d have an unrequited crush on for years after, but it didn’t have a whole lot of other effect locally — anti-pollution laws had already cut the emissions from the CF&I steel mill significantly, and the City Park remained open to cars, even on weekends. The enabling legislation that led to the Environmental Protection Agency had been signed the preceding January; and at least for me, my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat when my father pointed out to me that a lot of the people who drove into City Park on summer weekends were poor people who lived in poorer parts of town. The country club members who lived near us would be fine — it was my friends Manuel and Vern, who worked with me on the loading dock, who wouldn’t be able to visit the park.

In 1972, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which predicted the imminent environmental crisis that faced the world — starvation from Malthusian collapse, the exhaustion of oil and “nonrenewable” resources, industrial pollution combined. The charts looked impressive, the model looked impressive — this was long before I really became involved in modeling myself, and learned how much of a model’s results depend on the assumptions of the modelers — and I really thought this was the real thing. My friends and I started planning a sort of neo-Mission style adobe fort in order to survive the collapse.

That didn’t happen either, the brunette with the waist-length hair who was going to be the new Eve to my Adam never did actually sleep with me, I went off to college, the world didn’t end again. By then, I was starting to get more skeptical.

When the imminent environment crisis of global warming faced the world, I read about it fairly widely. The model of CO2-forced warming seemed plausible, but too many of the predictions depended on models that I knew were more complicated than I would trust — and by then I’d lived through the predictions of imminent nuclear war, and nuclear winter, and nuclear winter’s baby cousin the global cooling that would be caused if the U.S. were foolish enough to try to take back Kuwait, forcing Saddam Hussein to set fire to the oil fields, and a half dozen other imminent crises — and I had become a confirmed skeptic of imminent crises in general.

shutterstock_98312849

Didn’t need the adobe fort after all.

Less-ancient history

The Skeptical Environmentalist came out in 2001 — right after the imminent collapse of civilization caused by Y2K computer bugs — and I found it fascinating. The author, Bjørn Lomborg, had started out a believer, but in trying to analyze the work of Julian L Simon, he had realized that an awful lot of the imminent crises either weren’t supported by real data, or were much less harmful than the solutions that were being proposed.

Still, I was only a sort of mildly interested skeptic myself; I proposed a pair of articles to PJM in 2007, one taking the pro-AGW position and one the anti, and I was finding the pro-AGW article hard to write. There were too many questions, and I was already seeing the way that the science and the politics had combined in 2004 and were shaping up for the 2008 election. Now, though, I was interested and reading much more widely.

Then, in 2010, was the Climategate bombshell; we at PJM were among the first non-specialist media to break the story of the purloined files that showed how a relatively small clique were working to suppress research that contradicted the imminent environmental crisis predictions, while concealing the fact that they themselves had real problems even replicating their own research.

This whole history is a (possibly too long) lead-in to suggest that we can take a careful and appropriately skeptical look at the science, and also at the reasoning behind the science, and make our own decisions, without being seduced by the press release science.

What is the hypothesis?

Basically, what I suggest is that we think about what chain of things must be true for the whole climate change hypothesis to be probable. Technically, this is called a chain of implications.

To start with, let’s set out the hypothesis clearly. The hypothesis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been that the evidence supports several statements:

  • that the Earth’s overall average temperature is increasing and we can measure the magnitude of that warming with sufficient accuracy to reason further
  • that the Earth’s climate is changing as the result of an overall increase in the global average surface temperature
  • that the magnitude of this change is greater than can be accounted for by natural processes
  • that the primary mechanism responsible for this warming is the change in radiative balance caused by increased CO2 content in the atmosphere (the “greenhouse effect”)
  • that humans are responsible for this warming
  • that this warming will continue
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Let’s do science.

What are the questions?

So now, let’s consider what questions we have to answer to confirm this hypothesis — or better, what observations might disprove it.

Is there observable warming?

This is the obvious first step: if global warming is an issue, there has to be global warming. There seems to be general agreement that there has been effective warming, at least over the 300 or so years since the thermometer was invented and there was some agreement on temperature scales. On the other hand, the distribution of thermometers around the world was very sparse at first, and surprisingly sparse now; estimates of the global average surface temperature (GAST) still depend on statistical processes being applied to the measurements that exist. As a result, the estimates of GAST do vary from source to source — as we’d expect.

There is an additional confounding factor, though: those measurements themselves can be affected by systematic error, which is to say errors in the process by which the original measurements are made in a way that biases the results. As Anthony Watts and others have shown, siting changes — things like an air conditioner blowing its warm exhaust on a measurement station, or an asphalt parking lot being built where there had been an open field — have made a number of the surface stations in the United States questionable.

Is the Earth’s climate changing as a result?

Looked at narrowly, of course, this is a tautology: if the temperature is increasing, the climate is necessarily changing. The implication is that it’s changing in harmful ways. Again, there is certainly some agreement that the Earth’s overall climate has changed over the same 300 year interval. That 300-400 year interval since the invention of effective thermometers starts roughly at the depth of what is sometimes called the Little Ice Age, a period in which winters were significantly colder and harder.

There is less agreement about the magnitude of the change, and about how warm the preceding period, which is called the Medieval Warm Period or Little Climatic Optimum, really was.

Fig.final_revised

Boiling over: an example of press-release science.

That the magnitude of this change can’t be accounted for naturally

Now we get to the meat of the argument. In 1998, Michael Mann and others published a paper with a chart that became famous as the “Hockey Stick,” shown here in its best press-release-science form (taken from thinkprogress.org.)

Notice several things about it — a pleasant cool mottled background, a very faint shading around the line in the past, the very flat downward-sloping green trend line, and the nice fiery red-and-orange line leaping upward. The faint beige is an attempt to represent error bands.

Mann and the others were reconstructing temperatures based on a variety of temperature proxies, such as patterns of tree growth. (You’ll notice the temperature values here go back long before thermometers.) These, as with many other parts of this argument, are based on statistical models — which isn’t to say they’re necessarily wrong, just that we can justly be suspicious of the results. For example, you may notice that this version doesn’t show a pronounced Medieval Warm Period at all, which isn’t very consistent with historical accounts of the weather at the time.

Now look at this version, which was published with an article about Dr Mann.

mann_hockeystick_graph968

The “hockey stick” revised.

The error bands are — how to say this? — somewhat wider. What’s more, the Medieval Warm Period is back, with a peak that actually is slightly higher than current temperatures. In fact, considering the error bars it’s hard to say that there has actually been any real change in GAST at all.

Mann et al based their original reconstructed temperatures on a statistical process that selected what data to emphasize — essentially to trust — and what data was less worthy of trust. In the interval between the Think Progress chart and the more recent one, McIntyre and McKittrick had published several papers critical of the approach used by Mann et al, culminating (in my mind at least) with a paper in which they showed that feeding random numbers to Mann’s original approach would produce the same “hockey stick”. (A more approachable explanation of this can be found here, and Rand Simberg wrote about it on PJ Media here.)

A National Science Foundation ad hoc committee was formed to evaluate Mann’s statistical methods, and found them to be flawed. This report, called the Wegman Report for the lead author, has been criticized repeatedly, but never for its actual methodology.

The argument has been that the “hockey stick” shows an unusual warming in the last roughly 200 years. When you consider this, I think the most important point to consider is the “null hypothesis” I wrote about a few weeks ago. Basically, given those error bands, if there has been significantly more warming than we would expect, could we tell?

Is the major mechanism causing the warming a result of increasing CO2 concentration?

Again, there are a number of modeling approaches that suggest it should be, and again, all models should be considered suspect (even my own). There are at least a number of competing hypotheses that ought to be considered:

  • There may be variations in solar output that account for these changes.
  • There may be systematic errors in the data itself.
  • There may have been other mechanisms at play that are human-caused but not CO2-based.

Will the warming continue?

The imminent environmental crisis of climate change is based on, once again, the predictions of climate models. If the models are correct, then there will be much greater warming in the future, which is predicted to have various catastrophic effects.

We looked at that along with the null hypothesis in a previous column. Basically, there’s one real problem — the real climate refuses to behave correctly. I went into this at length then, so I won’t repeat the whole argument, but the basic point is this: the actual observed temperatures have been flat for almost 20 years, and are now at the edge of the confidence interval — that is, the modelers would have taken a 20-1 bet against the temperatures staying this low.

There are no conclusions

Every scientific paper is supposed to end with a “Conclusions” section, and that’s always a fiction: there are no conclusions in science, just our best knowledge at the time.

Now that you have the questions, you can read up on the topic. Draw your own conclusions.

*****

images courtesy shutterstock /  Ron Rutgers / Ros Vasilev / Fedor Selivanov /

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
I live in Pennsylvania, near where Washington crossed The Delaware. The homes on my street (circa 1750-1890) do NOT have driveways. We have street parking in front…and a lovely township park across the street.

For the past 10 years, on the eve of EVERY “Earth Day”, we residents receive notices on our windshields and in our mailboxes from our local Police, reminding us to MOVE OUR CARS the evening before Earth Day, and to KEEP the street clear of our personal vehicles the next day, BECAUSE THE EARTH DAY PARTICIPANTS WILL REQUIRE THOSE SPACES TO PARK THEIR CARS.

There is plenty of parking at the nearby elementary school. In fact, the CHILDREN of that school are taken hostage and force-marched the three whole torturous blocks to The Park (and back) in order to “save the planet” every year….but the 30-40 aging hippies, local college professors, various eco- non profit group members and other assorted lefties that “organize” this propaganda?

Oh no. They cant WALK. They are there to give SPEACHES, and need to breeze in and get out, FAST…with Police Enforced “rock star parking” right NEXT to the Park.

Needless to say, some of us refuse to move our cars….and every year, we conspire to ritually park “just far enough apart” to prevent any visiting Prius from slipping in between….I even take all three of my motorcycles out of the Shed in my yard, and space them at the curb the same way.

And I take that day day off work every year, JUST to see them become APOPLECTIC when they arrive…and find that their anticipated, Police Enforced, "Privilege To Inconvenience Others", has be denied by lowly mortals.

Such pure joy I get in seeing the arrogant, fat and slovenly types with gray ponytals trying to Parallel Park several times, before realizing they Just. Cant. Fit.

Followed soon after by Angry Lesbians in their Subaru Wagons, circling the block over and over, cursing loudly to to each other in a nurotic rage “why are their CARS here!...there’s not supposed to be any CARS here!” .

The ultimate treat is when one of them gets out and tries directing the other into a tantalizingly CLOSE, but JUST too small space, while blocking the whole street in the process….if you want to see the “tolerance” and “peacefulness” of the left in action, just sit back on your front steps and watch THIS!

God, I've come to love Earth Day more than even more than Christmas!

49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I remember musing as I looked out across campus from my office window in the early 70s that when I was a kid in the 50s academic work was supposed to be about unearthing truth. Now I realized my academic mind was occupied with finding an agenda to push as the key to academic success. I wondered: What happened? Little did I know that the whole academic world would become a brothel of agendas with truth largely quarantined to a few select locations like the large hadron collider.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Charlie, I'd settle for the watermelons answering one question:

"What is the optimum temperature for the Earth? Show your work."

Until then, they can bite me.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (91)
All Comments   (91)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
wattupwiththat reports The early chill in the Arctic continues

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/08/14/the-early-chill-in-the-arctic-continues/

As I wrote last week here they will have to put a new green line as we enter the return of the ice and many will begin to wonder if ice age is coming back
scientist with a strong I YES I put their fingers in their ears and blind their eyes ,foam at the mouth making such reports "disappear" to their fan club
Pray they find nice woman to marry to keep their hearts warm and flesh body warm in coming cold winters since waxwing01 has inside story from the Queen of the Sun I marry
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
The fear of AGW is simply a tool to assist the liberal over-lords in their redistributionist endeavor. All "solutions" include taking money, resources and freedom from the developed nations to be distributed at their discretion. (Think Solyndra)
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
To all those who say increased CO2 will not increase global warming, I offer a rebuttal. It's a rather obvious one, too.

Depending on planetary alignments and timing, take a look into a clear sky about an hour before dawn or an hour after sunset. See that bright pinpoint? It ought to be obvious - it's the brightest natural thing in the sky after the Sun and Moon.

Global warming. See it.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
And when CO2 partial pressure gets in the neighborhood of 80 bar I'll concede you have a point.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
And all that "global warming" happened without humans involved -- all natural processes.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The so-called greenhouse effect, the alleged cause of anthropogenic global warming, does not exist. This is the only conclusion you can reach from the observation that global temperature is not increasing despite the fact that there is more carbon dioxide in the air than ever before. This is not a temporary "pause" of warming or a "hiatus" as the warmists like to refer to it. By now it has lasted for fifteen years, since 1998. The IPCC was established in 1988 and ten years after that the warming stopped. This pause has lasted five years longer than the ewntire previous existence of the IPCC and should be considered the new normal for climate science. Their science is completely at a loss trying to explain it and in their desperation they have come out with absurdities like claiming that the energy from OLR is hiding in the ocean bottom. There is nothing mysterious about it because saturated greenhouse theory iof Ferenc Miskolczi [1] fully explains it. He published it in 2007 and was shouted down in the blogosphere. But in seven years no peer-reviewed challenge appeared, no doubt not for lack of trying. In 2010 he found a way to prove it by using existing data. NOAA has a weather balloon database that goes back to 1948. He used it to study the absorption of infrared radiation by the atmosphere [2] and discovered that absorption had been constant for 61 years while carbon dioxide at the same time went up by 21.6 percent. This means that the addition of this substantial amount of carbon dioxide to air had no influence whatsoever on the absorption of IR by the atmosphere. And no absorption means no greenhouse effect, case closed. That is the explanation of why carbon dioxide today is unable to produce greenhouse warming. You can bet that this did not suddenly begin 15 years ago but has always been the case. It follows that all past warming claimed to have been greenhouse warming is natural warming, misidentified. And all predictions of warming by mpdels using the greenhouse theory are simply invalid. Since they have been used to justify various emission control laws these laws have been passed under false premises and must be voided. Since AGW simply does not exist the IPCC that was set up to study it no longer has a purpose and should be closed down.
[1] Ferenc M. Miskolczi, “Greenhouse effect in semi-transparent planetary atmospheres” Quarterly Journal of Hungarian Meteorological Service 111(1) 1-40 January-March 2007)
[2] Ferenc M. Miskolczi, “The stable stationary value of the Earth’s global average atmospheric greenhouse-gas optical thickness” E&E 21(4):243-262 (2010)
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
See, here you're having a problem with precisely saying what you mean. But seee, eg, here: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/07/23/quantifying-the-greenhouse-effect/

What you *mean* is tat the degree of additional heating is not linear to the additional CO2.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
I live in Pennsylvania, near where Washington crossed The Delaware. The homes on my street (circa 1750-1890) do NOT have driveways. We have street parking in front…and a lovely township park across the street.

For the past 10 years, on the eve of EVERY “Earth Day”, we residents receive notices on our windshields and in our mailboxes from our local Police, reminding us to MOVE OUR CARS the evening before Earth Day, and to KEEP the street clear of our personal vehicles the next day, BECAUSE THE EARTH DAY PARTICIPANTS WILL REQUIRE THOSE SPACES TO PARK THEIR CARS.

There is plenty of parking at the nearby elementary school. In fact, the CHILDREN of that school are taken hostage and force-marched the three whole torturous blocks to The Park (and back) in order to “save the planet” every year….but the 30-40 aging hippies, local college professors, various eco- non profit group members and other assorted lefties that “organize” this propaganda?

Oh no. They cant WALK. They are there to give SPEACHES, and need to breeze in and get out, FAST…with Police Enforced “rock star parking” right NEXT to the Park.

Needless to say, some of us refuse to move our cars….and every year, we conspire to ritually park “just far enough apart” to prevent any visiting Prius from slipping in between….I even take all three of my motorcycles out of the Shed in my yard, and space them at the curb the same way.

And I take that day day off work every year, JUST to see them become APOPLECTIC when they arrive…and find that their anticipated, Police Enforced, "Privilege To Inconvenience Others", has be denied by lowly mortals.

Such pure joy I get in seeing the arrogant, fat and slovenly types with gray ponytals trying to Parallel Park several times, before realizing they Just. Cant. Fit.

Followed soon after by Angry Lesbians in their Subaru Wagons, circling the block over and over, cursing loudly to to each other in a nurotic rage “why are their CARS here!...there’s not supposed to be any CARS here!” .

The ultimate treat is when one of them gets out and tries directing the other into a tantalizingly CLOSE, but JUST too small space, while blocking the whole street in the process….if you want to see the “tolerance” and “peacefulness” of the left in action, just sit back on your front steps and watch THIS!

God, I've come to love Earth Day more than even more than Christmas!

49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Way to go Root !
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
been there, lovely area providing it did not have so many liberals screwing it up- the elites must have better parking as in their world we are all Equal but they are more equal than others
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
CO2 has no measurable effect on temperature, as this chart clearly shows:

http://tiny.cc/e4vp1w

The entire "carbon" scare is based on the enormous federal grants to 'study climate change'. More than $100 BILLION has been granted since 2001!

With that kind of money being shoveled out, there is a huge incentive to claim there is a problem. Because why pay, if this is the answer:

"There is no problem. Nothing either unusual, or unprecedented is happening. Past temperature extremes have been much greater than now."

The "carbon" scare is the biggest taxpayer scam the world has ever seen, from the UN down to Tuvalu. They all have their fingers in our wallets. And it is all based on a hoax, as we can see in the chart above: as CO2 rises, global temperatures are falling.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nonsense, see Roy Spencer's link below.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Which part is nonsense? The part that seems to be the essnece of your article or the parts after that?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The part that says CO2 has no measurable effect on temperatures. It's unclear that the increase has had a particularly unusual effect on temperatures, or that human additions to CO2 have any observable effect on the degree of warming, but the idea that CO2 does *cause* wasming, as pushed eg by the sky dragon guys, it's about as well supported at the idea that vaccines cause autism.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't know what the real questions are, but the real answer is that the new Sec'y of the Interior doesn't want no stupid anti-Warmists in her organization. She sounds as intelligent as her predecessor at Interior, agenda driven Ken Salazar, who promptly boogied off on his Colorado vacation when the Gulf Horizon well blew.

Very likely, the woman appointed to replace the corrupt and stupid Lisa Jackson at EPA (why hasn't Lisa been prosecuted for that illegal email account where she could discuss EPA agenda sub rosa ?) shares the new interior secy's...sympathies.

They can all have a confab with Babsie Boxer in the Senate, whose ears and mind remain completely closed to anyone refuting AGW.

Geez California, DiFi and Babsie, really ?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
"In an agency-wide address to employees Aug. 1, (Interior Secretary Sally) Jewell took the unusual step of suggesting that no one working for her should challenge the idea that human activity is driving recent warming. “I hope there are no climate-change deniers in the Department of Interior,” she said."

If not out and out foxes, then out and out morons are running the henhouse.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr. Martin left out the final step of the CAGW thesis. ("C" for "Catastrophic"; if the effects of AGW aren't seriously bad there is no crisis.)

The "greenhouse effect" of increased CO2 in the atmosphere is limited. CO2 only blocks a few bands of the infra-red spectrum. Its maximum possible effect on heat re-radiation is only enough to raise global temperatures by a few degrees. Present levels of CO2 already block nearly all re-radiation in the affected bands, so further increases of CO2 will have no effect. (It's not even clear that this effect is actually happening in the real world - there is no apparent correlation between CO2 and global temperature.)

The final step in the CAGW thesis is that the minor termperature increase which atmospheric CO2 might cause will cause increased evaporation of water from the oceans. Water vapor is a far more effective "greenhouse gas" than CO2, and will raise temperatures further, causing more evaporation - a positive feedback loop that will increase temperatures until the Earth is a scorching desert like Venus.

There is no evidence whatever for this part of the thesis, except questionable computer model results. And if this part of the thesis is not true, there is no reason whatever for the elaborate, enormously expensive policies to replace fossil fuels with "green energy".
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
can't remember what got me started, but for the last few years I have gotten very involved studying ancient cultures. you want to see science suppressed for political reasons - you would not believe how digging up bones could get so p.c.

anyway, what always comes across strongly in each culture is how climate or the environment can help/hinder mankind. things like a volcano eruption, a comet, or an asteroid strike, sea/ocean flows and who knows what may cause climate change at any time. not to mention natural, perhaps systematic changes like the sun's output. the only constant in everything I have observed is change; and, like climate change appears to be cyclical. cool>>>hot>>>cool>>>hot. never have I seen where warming has hurt anything seriously. oceans rise and drop. it is becoming evident that many ancient cultures are now just off the coasts of many countries. it looks like they just moved inland as the oceans rose. however, that recovered baby mammoth who froze w/ subtropical fauna in his gut always gets my attention. sounds like he got hit quick by something big, like an immediate loss of heat. hmmmm?

btw, the sun appears to have a very significant black (cooling?) area that recently covered about 1/4 of the area of the sun. nothing like this has ever been observed before. maybe I need a new jacket this year.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
What year was the photo at the top actually taken? The on e titled, "My favorite part of Earth Day."
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think it's relatively recent -- I was looking on shutterstock for brunette hippie chicks and that was the one I liked best.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can see why, she just didn't look circa 1970.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Except for the wavy hair, she looks a good bit like the unrequited love I was talking about.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
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