Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bad Weather for Good Science

Getting a little weary of all the armchair science-phobes using recent heavy weather as an excuse to try to whack sound climate science. Erm, kiddies, this unusual weather is a *feature* of global climate change (the net effect of which is "global warming") not counter-evidence. Many casual observers seem to have a spot of trouble distinguishing between weather and climate. This is just fine, provided that these "observers" are responsible enough to withhold their opinions until they've done their homework. But sounding off from a place of benighted misconception only serves to advertise the cluelessness.

What has been happening with the weather, of late, is that unusual deviations in the jet stream are producing uncommon local weather events; this is precisely what the models predict as well. The topography of the changing temperature gradients is shifting and bending these currents in new ways, and instances of unseasonable, unprecedented or extreme weather are the inevitable and expected result.

The planet really is heating up--and in a hurry. Indeed, the science behind global climate change has never been more robust. A recently released World Meteorological Organization report shows that 2010 will likely be among the three warmest years on record--and the period between 2001 and 2010 the warmest decade on record--for our planet.

All of the GCC models emphatically *predict* erratic and extreme weather in the process of climate change. An enormous and diverse majority of the scientists who think carefully about such things for a living consider the evidence overwhelmingly compelling. And make no mistake, if somebody could supply a piece of counter-evidence that could take the whole edifice of theory down around our ears, it would be a career-making move for them. Trouble is, there isn’t any one assumption in the climate change argument which one might conceivably undermine or disprove to make the whole game collapse. There’s a whole matrix of relevant perspectives, observations, and analysis--a shocking number of which point clearly in the direction of human-caused warming.

But even more frightening than the implications of the science is this simplistic campaign of disinformation that conflates weather and climate, and thumbs its nose at the stunning body of research and careful analysis that both measures and models this unsettling trend toward (decisively) increased warming. The fact that so many are unable to make even simple distinctions between the basic terms of the argument (e.g. between climate and weather, or between single data points and broad trends) should be a source of considerable embarrassment. It well may be emotionally satisfying to congregate with like-mindedly un-, ill-, or misinformed friends to take potshots at the overwhelming scientific consensus, but when this jeering pointedly misunderstands its subject at such a fundamental level, one has to marvel uneasily at the ease with which fallacy displaces reason in such a high-stakes debate.

If our crackpot lay opinion-makers weren’t so enamored of their role in telling hardworking scientists how silly they are, perhaps they would be less inclined to mistake ignorance for perspective. The "negative team" seems to pose, in some sense, as the repository of reasonable counterargument, but they simply don't possess even the most elementary tools that might be required to deliver it. For example, that tired chestnut about "ruining the economy" over climate change is a perversely misleading sack of badger bollocks. Research into alternative sources of fuel--as well as new modes of energy acquisition and deployment, increased efficiency, etc.--could quite conceivably pump our national economy like nothing ever has before (even the Internet boom) if we promote it right. Strict environmental regulations trigger innovation and motivate upgrading. The countries that take the lead in patenting and exporting more efficient means of producing and consuming energy will carry the day economically. But it's going to be "get in front or get in line." We'll need to push pretty hard to position ourselves at the bleeding edge, as we did with the World-Wide Web, or it could blow right by us. (China already has an early advantage here, and they're playing a shrewd game.) In any event, a positive impact on the economy seems every bit as likely as a negative one, on balance, as a result of taking action to reduce the destructiveness of our tenancy on this pretty rock.

As the rug is increasingly tugged out from under the climate change scoffers, I expect them to become more and more shrill. This is what often happens when people commit themselves to an increasingly untenable position or belief in a public way as these folks have done. (see "Sociology of Belief" by Borhek and Curtis.) As the evidence against their position continues to mount, so will the volume and acerbity of their disparagement of the science. Their rhetoric will become more vague, simplistic and ambiguous, but more emotional. They will increasingly insulate themselves from sources of substantive dissent in their daily lives, choosing instead to surround themselves with true-believers. They will hone their rhetoric until any anomaly can be marshaled in support of their vague, contrarian cant (Unusually cold winter in region X? "Al Gore is a fool!" Snow in Florida? "Those goofy Climate Change sheeple!"). They will attempt to replace rigor and cogency with volume and authoritativeness on the assumptiuon that nobody will notice--and often nobody will. And they will rehearse the rhetoric of indignation and beleaguered rectitude endlessly and emphatically within their reference group, as this is what insulates them against evidence. Even normally rational people can shoe-horn all kind of nonsense into their heads if it's packaged, lubricated and reinforced just right from a psychological standpoint. It's hard to see your own fallacies--and especially so when you're pre-committed to a belief that requires them for its sustenance.

But our climate scientists are not arguing from the occasional anomaly; they are making careful predictions, from very detailed (and often conservative) models based on vast vaults of constantly accruing data. *All* of these theories actually predict increased volatility, wild local swings and anomalous behavior. It's a complex system fer Chrisakes. That's how they behave when they're pushed away from equilibrium.

Here's a short list of other "issues" that are often raised out of ignorance, where the answers reveal simple misunderstandings that could have been cleared up with five minutes of due diligence:

Not all of the glaciers are melting--and besides, glaciers are always growing and receding!

Of course "not all the glaciers are melting," but that's not even the question, is it? The smart kids ask what is happening to glacier mass globally. On balance, the pervasive and accelerating trend is in the direction of increasing loss. The global glacier mass balance is decreasing every day. The annual loss from Greenland's massive ice sheet alone is passing the 100 gigaton range.

The temperature record relies on readings from differing equipment, technology, locations, altitudes, etc. How can you rely on that?

We don't. That's just one angle--one that's constantly being tweaked and corrected as new sources of potential error are identified. But the globally averaged trend is clear. It's the same trend as the one identified using (for example) sea level rise, declining arctic sea ice, analysis of boreholes, increasing ocean temperature, data on glacier mass, satellite measurements in the troposphere, weather balloon data and proxy reconstructions. Pick one or pick them all, the implication is the same.

There's no consensus!

Yuh-huh. And it's not just the IPCC either. The conclusions of their most recent assessment was endorsed by these lightweights too:
National Academy of Sciences (United States)
Royal Society (United Kingdom)
Academia Brasiliera de Ciências (Brazil)
Royal Society of Canada,
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Academié des Sciences (France)
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)

Indian National Science Academy,
Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
Science Council of Japan,
Russian Academy of Sciences,
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences....

How much censensus is required before one feels obliged to wake up and take action? Of course, the deniers don't care if there is consensus or not. As soon as you demonstrate that there is, in fact, such a surprising degree of consensus, they flip the script and suggest that consensus = collusion. In the pathological denier narrative, the rules are whatever they say they are--and they're free to change them whenever it's convenient to do so. The constraints of reasoned debate find no traction in this fluid discursive environment. Best to restrict our efforts at persuasion to those who find data and careful analysis persuasive. Those who are unconvinced because they've not yet seen the light are within reach; those who have kitted themselves out with heavy blindfolds (apparently as some sort of contrarian fashion statement) are not.

Gore's "Hockey Stick" didn't hold up on the ice.

There were issues with the original hockey stick showing sharp increases in recent warming: it was a prototype and it had some bugs. But with the ever-increasing barrage of data and proxy reconstructions rolling in from the trenches, we now have enough hockey sticks for the entire league. They aren't as straight or uniform as the first one (that's exactly what made it seem a little dodgy), but they have precisely the same general shape. Read 'em and puck off:

The list could go on for some time.

Are we really so thoroughly science-illiterate, as a country, that a thoughtful and intellectually-legitimate conversation on the most urgent topic of our time is completely outside the realm of possibility? Oh, I think we are. I dare you to prove me wrong. In fact, I'd love you for it...


  1. This is great.

    You may be interested also read this piece by the historian Clive Hamilton. Einstein faced politically-motivated attacks on relativity after it was confirmed empirically in 1920:

    At the height of the storm in 1920, a bemused Einstein wrote to a friend: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.”