I was recently invited to provide a response to an opinion article on climate change that was offered to “The Punch” website. The lead article can be read here: It’s just too hard to understand climate change. My response, reproduced below (original here), should be read with this context in mind.
It seems that many of the commenters on The Punch website thought I was being patronising or pontificating. Maybe I was, but how else to answer such a “it’s all too hard” complaint? As one of the others commenters noted: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”, i.e. just wanting for simple answers and consistent outcomes won’t make them so. Anyway, see what you think…
Dylan Malloch laments that understanding climate change is difficult, with the forecasts sometimes appearing to be contradictory or having a bit both ways, and therefore seeming all rather confusing! It’s easy to sympathise with him. Unfortunately, this is the nature of science.
Let’s consider another example. Newton’s laws of physics work just fine for the everyday world, but if we tried to use them in the timing system of our global positioning satellites, the resulting drift error would be about 10 kilometres every day.
So, the engineers at GPS mission control need to use Einstein’s relativistic theories to make sure your iPhone tells you precisely where you are, whenever you want to know. Similarly, neither Newton’s or Einstein’s equations allow scientists to properly predict the subatomic interactions within the electronics of satellites or iPhones. For that, you need to reference the weird world of quantum mechanics.
Each of these model systems – Newtonian, Einsteinian and Quantum physics – produce some contradictory predictions, and gaps in understanding remain. The theories have not yet been unified, for instance, to the lament of Einstein and his successors.
Yet the vast majority of us – the average Joe and Josephine Public – are not confused or worried about GPS and iPhones, for the simple matter that we don’t try too hard to understand how they work. After all, it’s plain enough to our eyes, immediately and incontrovertibly, that they do! So we just accept it, like we do for most forms of technology.
Climate science is now treated rather differently, however. This is because although the stochastic and chaotic systems involved are, in their own way, just as complex as relativity and quantum theory, many people just don’t want to take the underpinning science and evidence for granted.
They WANT to know and understand this stuff (which is good, from a science education perspective), and their motivation usually comes about because they feel threatened by it, or guilty about it, or whatever. Dylan’s example of not wanting to be responsible for suffering poor people underscores the point.
Yet at its core, much of the maths, physics, chemistry, models, theory, and so on, which together make up the many fields of climate science, can be really difficult stuff. It takes a lot of learning time, and lots exposure to the many lines of scientific evidence and the general practice of doing science and dealing with uncertainty, to appreciate the complexities and nuances involved.
So when people don’t ‘get’ the science and are left confused by media sound bites, it’s typically because they haven’t got the time, experience or training to really grasp the interconnections, feedbacks and apparent contradictions.
The other obvious problem is that climate model forecasts are not tangible and deterministic – unlike the GPS or iPhone, there is no simple, repeatable test of whether they ‘work’ or not. Climate change is also not being painted on a ‘blank canvas’ – extreme weather has always been with us, for instance, so how to tell what can be attributed to natural versus human-caused effects?
It’s tough, no doubt about it, and there is a huge scientific effort dedicated to identifying the ‘fingerprints’ of human activity amongst the many ‘smudges’ caused by ever-present natural influences on weather and climate.
Imagine, for example, that you wanted to safely cross a busy road, and there were 20 cars going past you every minute (natural events). Then, a traffic signal somewhere up the street failed, and started to let more traffic through (climate change), such that there were now 30 cars whizzing past each minute.
You step out on the road and are unfortunately hit by a car. As you lay in hospital with your leg in traction, you wonder: was I hit by one of the original 20 cars, or one of the new 10? You decide that you can never know for sure, but having later been told about the circumstances, you realise that your risk of being struck went up by half because of the failed traffic signal that you didn’t even observe.
Analogies like this are always imperfect, but it might help you get the point.
So Dylan is left wondering how ‘global warming’ can cause more heat waves and droughts, and yet also be attributed to torrential down pours and flooding.
The simple answer is that you can have both, because more and more energy is being trapped by the Earth’s atmosphere as greenhouse gases accumulate, and the climate dynamics that result from this energy input is expressed in different ways in different parts of the world at different times. The full answer? Well, it’s complicated…
232 replies on “Climate Change – it’s complicated, but it’s real”
Gregory Meyerson wrote:
“And as for tree rings, my understanding is that the records do correlate with other proxy measures and the instrumental record up to 1960. So the divergence in one place does not entail the divergence everywhere.”
This misses the point
It would be unscientific to use tree rings as proxies for temperature in the early periods where temperature records do not exist, if the temperature record correlates with tree rings up to 1960 but not in the 50 years since then.
I can’t think of any possible justification for that. One has to establish (not just claim, but scientifically establish) the cause of divergence. That has not been done, instead the “team” went ahead and “hid the decline”, ie they hid the fact that their entire method and the majority of their data was most likely invalid.
Until the cause of divergence is scientifically established (not by one peer-reviewed paper from the team, but established by critical review) all the papers based on tree ring proxies are worthless.
After all, it is known that other factors besides temperature affect tree growth. CO2 concentration, soil nitrogen and rainfall immediately spring to mind. It is most likely that one or more of these factors explains the divergence.
Incidentally, this is not a little storm in a little teacup. This is a tsunami. On Judith’s page she has had to start a second thread on this topic – she closed the first after 3 days aand 1091 comments. the second thread, here, http://judithcurry.com/2011/02/23/hiding-the-decline-part-ii/ has already 268 comments after 1 day of operation.
I took particular note of this post by Jim West, about 4th on the first thread:
“I have no idea what Oliver’s level of confidence in climate science was prior to the “hide the decline” revelation, but I can say that I was a reasonably firm believer in “the consensus” up until I began paying attention (around 2006) to the ongoing battle McIntyre was having with the Realclimate group over the hockey stick. By 2007, having seen the unbelievable disingenuousness of these key defenders of the hockey stick, I was becoming truly sceptical. Sceptical not so much in the sense that I discounted the potential for GHGs to cause serious warming, but sceptical in that I felt I should place zero faith in anything a hockey stick defender had to say, regardless of their credentials. I know that the folk associated with Realclimate have probably done much worthwhile work, but I was also certain that they would spin and obfuscate shamelessly to defend shoddy work.
By 2009, when the climate gate emails were leaked, with their “hide the decline” revelation being just one among many, for me it was just confirmation of behaviour long suspected from following the hockey stick wars. However, it should be remembered that climategate drew the attention of many people to the fact that there were serious sceptics for the first time, and that there was also some very dubious conduct on the part of mainstream, IPCC sanctioned climate scientists. I suspect that the pathetic excuses being put forward to explain the why “hide the decline” isn’t really as bad as it appears, are right now playing the same role in converting a new wave of neo-sceptics that the hockey stick wars played for me.
So I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the power of the ongoing, absurd excuses being offered to explain away “hide the decline” to convert a new generation of unbelievers.”
This is interesting and timely, given the recent conversation between novandilcosid and me:
I’m afraid it is. There have been multiple inquiries into the “climategate emails” and also into Mann’s hockey stick and NONE have found ANY wrongdoing on the part of ANY scientist.
Curry is just engaging in a cynical muck raking exercise. Why should we be interested in her opinion when she prefaces it by a disclaimer that she has no expertise in paleo temperature reconstructions and bristlecones make her “eyes glaze over”?
As for testimonials from an anonymous poster about how it shattered his faith in climate science, you must really think the readers of this blog are idiots.
As I said before, if this bunch were actually interested in paleo temperature, they would be discussing the science and in particular research published in the period after TAR. They are plainly not.
As for Curry’s claim to be building bridges – what a laugh.
There’s a piece by an editor of a scientific journal on more unscientific behaviour at http://network.nationalpost.com/NP/blogs/fpcomment/archive/2010/03/12/benny-peiser-climate-libel-chill.aspx this time on the fraud allegations against Jones and Wang (the infamous UHI paper)
I particularly thought the pre-penultimate sentence said it well:
“Comparable behaviour in the private sector would be subject to severe sanction.”
The article then concluded:
“The revelations exposed by the CRU emails require the full disclosure of all documents and correspondence in this alleged fraud case. Until the whole affair is fully and publicly investigated, the reputation and integrity of leading climate scientists will remain to appear tainted and discredited.”
Sadly, and notoriously, the investigations didn’t go near this matter. Not because there is no substance, but for political reasons. The allegations by Keenan were very serious, but there was zero investigation of them.
“There have been multiple inquiries into the “climategate emails” and also into Mann’s hockey stick and NONE have found ANY wrongdoing on the part of ANY scientist”
Yes, as Sir John Beddington said, they “played a blinder”.
Enough dazzling whitewash can send anyone blind.
Particularly if you are of the warmist persuasion, you can be blind to the bleedin’ obvious wrong doing.
As Judith Curry says:
“The subject of climate change is complex and important topic; the public is counting on scientists to provide the best available information. When the public saw in climategate, with “hide the decline” being its slogan, there was a substantial loss of public trust. This is not a good thing for climate science, nor for policy deliberations.”
Your “editor of a scientific journal” is Benny Peiser, co-editor of Energy and Environment, a journal with so little standing that it is not even listed in the ISI database here: http://science.thomsonreuters.com/mjl/
E&E is the last refuge for contrarians when their stuff is so poor that no reputable journal will publish it.
The publisher has just sent a threatening letter to the good people at RealClimate:
“The publisher has just sent a threatening letter to the good people at RealClimate”
You need to open your mind and your horizons a little.
That was not a threatening letter at all but like most CAGWers who only know how to play the man and not the ball [if the cap fits wear it], Gavin’s misrepresentations finally got E&E asking a reasonable question:
I was wondering why the conversation below between Roger Clifton and Mark Duffett on Bravenewclimate was removed?
@Mark Duffett, thank you for the link:
The above was removed. Why? I find the graph useful and surprising that we have to get it from a posting by the climate deniers rather than directly from a NASA web site?
“I find the graph useful and surprising that we have to get it from a posting by the climate deniers rather than directly from a NASA web site?”
I think you’ll find that we aren’t in as much denial as you are and that this is a little more informative on GRACE.
Of the 0.007% of the ice that is being lost [according to GRACE], the error is more than plus or minus10%.
That should read 0.007% per year.
The error in the known mass of the Greenland icecap also seems to be more than plus or minus 10%.
Sort of puts it in perspective….
I’m not in denial at all. Thanks for the link to http://www.csr.utexas.edu/grace/
However I still have not found that ice melting graph on that web site. Maybe its posted somewhere there and I just haven’t located it yet.
spangled drongo — Do study
Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
University of Chicago Press, 2010
before you embarass yourself further.
Barry Brook wrote:
“This is interesting and timely, given the recent conversation between novandilcosid and me:
I would like to thank Barry for his persistence and help. I wanted to respond in detail, but I put my back out (carting blue metal and pavers to the backyard) so will have to defer my response to a later time.
You’d be better to response over at the relevant website, to which I linked.
The CAGWers on this blog seem to love referencing Pigliucci.
Does he teach how to play a ball game without a ball?
How to score pointless points?
spangled drongo, on 25 February 2011 at 11:08 AM — I am the only one referencing Pigliuccit and I am not a CAGWer [which a term used only by a certain self-selected group].
As for your questions, read it and apply the lessons learned self-referentially.
Over at Deltoid, Tim Lambert has a piece on the statement by the head of the Bureau of Meteorology to the Australian Senate’s Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. Dr Ayr’s statement is a refutation of the nonsense in a letter based upon Ian Plimer’s untruths, from Archbishop Pell to the Senate.
Dr Ayr’s statement is well worth reading.
As pointed out in one of the comments, Pell’s behavior is in direct opposition to the position taken by the Vatican:
“God created our world with wisdom and love and when he had finished his great work of creation, God saw that it was good.”
“Today however the world is confronted with a serious ecological crisis. The earth is suffering from global warming as a result of our excessive consumption of energy.”
“We cannot deny that human beings bear a heavy responsibility for environmental destruction. Their unbridled greed casts the shadow of death on the whole of creation.”
“Together Christians must do their utmost to save creation. Before the immensity of this task, they must unite their efforts. It is only together that they can protect the work of the creator.”
The most recent of the “climategate” inquiries delivers it’s findings:
Inspector General’s Review of Stolen Emails Confirms No Evidence of Wrong-Doing by NOAA Climate Scientists
Hate to tell you this, but Newton’s theories actually don’t conflict with Einstein’s. Newton’s are simply a subset of Einstein’s, which are valid only at low speeds/energies.
In reality Einstein’s theories apply all the time; we only use Newton’s equations because it is simpler to do the math and the difference is negligible at slow speeds.
On the other hand, Quantum Mechanics and Relativity definitely ARE at odds with each other.