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Consensus as the New Heresy

Filed under: — group @ 3 January 2007

Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, David Archer, Stefan Rahmstorf, William Connolley, and Raymond Bradley

Andy Revkin, who’s one of the best journalists on the climate beat, wrote a curious piece in the NY Times discussing the ‘middle stance’ of the climate debate. It’s nice to see news pieces on climate that aren’t breathless accounts of a new breakthough and that take the time to point out that the vast majority of relevant scientists take climate change extremely seriously. To that extent, the message of this piece was a welcome one. The curious part, however, was the thread running through the piece that this middle ground is only now emerging, and even curiouser, that this middle ground can be characterized as representing some sort of ‘heresy’.

Heresy, is commonly defined as ‘an opinion or doctrine at variance with the official or orthodox position’. So where does this idea come from, and why is it now ’emerging’?

It has often been remarked upon that scientists and academics make their reputations by breaking down orthodoxies and by challenging previously widespread assumptions (but it will only work out well if they’re right of course!). Nobody makes much of a name for themselves by agreeing with all previous thinking. Indeed, to be thought of as a radical new thinker, one must assume the role of the heretic, challenging the stale orthodoxies of the past. And given some of the scientific iconoclasts in our pantheon (Galileo, Einstein, Wegner etc.), we see this as a completely natural state of affairs.

However, there is a big difference between really challenging the majority opinion and simply stating that you are. We are all often ‘contrary’, but here at RC we also generally find ourselves firmly in the mainstream on many of the central scientific points: e.g., our views on the most probable value of the climate sensitivity (around 3C), the likelihood of the imminent Gulf Stream reversal (zero), or the possibility of Venusian-style runaway greenhouse effect happening this side of a billion years (extremely small). That these positions are in line with conclusions drawn by IPCC is no surprise, because those reports result from intense discussion and peer-review involving a large fraction of the community, thus they reflect the views of the climate science community very well. Most scientists present these widely shared conclusions when speaking to the public, and where their own views diverge from it, they make it clear that these are their own conclusions rather than a generally accepted view.

In reading about the new ‘heretics’ then, one might have expected that associated with them would be statements that would contradict IPCC or that we (as mainstream scientists who do not claim to be heretics) would otherwise find objectionable. So let’s consider the specific tenets of the ‘new heresy’ mentioned in the article:

  • From Carl Wunsch: ‘It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid’. Agreed.
  • “Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to nonpolluting energy sources”. Sensible.
  • There is “no firm evidence of a heat-triggered strengthening in storms in recent years” (our emphasis). Well, what the WMO statement to which this assertion is attributed actually said was (first bullet point): “Though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point.” We agree with that statement – this particular subject is definitely in a state of flux.
  • “Recent increase[s] in the impact of storms was because of more people getting in harm’s way, not stronger storms”. Again, the WMO report did not state this. What it stated was (third bullet point of statement; emphasis added): “The recent increase in societal impact from tropical cyclones has largely been caused by rising concentrations of population and infrastructure in coastal regions”. These are not quite the same. Once again, we agree with what the WMO actually said. Interestingly, the second bullet point of the WMO statement, not mentioned in the article, “No individual tropical cyclone can be directly attributed to climate change” was voiced by us more than a year ago.
  • “Global warming is real, it’s serious, but it’s just one of many global challenges that we’re facing,”. Of course.
  • From Mike Hulme: “I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama,” he wrote. “I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.” Agreed. And we said much the same thing when commenting on the ‘Climate Porn’ report.
  • “It is best not to gloss over uncertainties”. Duh!
  • “efforts to attribute recent weather extremes to the climate trend, though they may generate headlines in the short run, distract from the real reasons to act”. We couldn’t agree more, and have stated as much before.
  • “‘An Inconvenient Truth’ may push too hard”. Perhaps at last, there is a (moderate) difference of opinion. We agree with Eric’s review of the movie earlier this year, i.e. while there were a few things to quibble with, Gore got the science basically right.

The only substantial disagreement, then, is over a movie review. On all other points of substance the ‘heresy’ and the old orthodoxy are the same.

We’ve emphasised over and over that the science that should inform policy should come from thorough assessment processes like the IPCC and the National Academies. The views of individual scientists (including us) should carry less weight – partly because of our specific biases (due to the field we work in or our personalities), and partly because a thorough discussion and peer review process (like that leading to IPCC reports) will lead to more considered, informed and balanced statements than any individual could muster. Media representations of what individual scientists supposedly said should not be used for policy at all!

Much of the sensationalist talk in the public discourse (and to which the scientists in the piece, and we, rightly take exception) are not the pronoucements of serious scientists in the field, but distorted and often out-of-context quotes that can be further mangled upon frequent repetition. We have often criticised such pieces (here, or here for instance) and it is important to note that the ‘shrill voices of doom’ referred to by Mike Hulme were not scientists, but campaigners.

John Fleck suggests that Revkin’s point was that the middle stance is only now being reflected in the media coverage, which for the highly polarised US discussion could be a valid point – although Revkin’s own work in the New York Times argues against it. So does the fact that all of the scientists discussed in this piece are veterans in media coverage of the issue; their view of things can hardly be called “just emerging”.

Perhaps the real background to Revkin’s piece simply is that some like to use the age-old debating tactic of labelling other views as “extreme” in order to position themselves in the “middle”. If you divide the world into ‘alarmists’ and ‘deniers’, you can then nicely present yourself as the ‘heretic’ who wants to break the mold. But this is a false distinction.

The plain fact is that the vast majority of scientific judgement on this issue – as outlined in the IPCC documents including the AR4 coming up in February- does indeed cover the ‘middle stance’, which we would state as being in agreement with the statement of the National Academies of the G8 last year that ‘the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action’. As Jim Hansen states in his quote – it’s still surprising that there are some people who don’t know this yet.

Further discussion on this piece is available: Matthew Nesbit, John Fleck, Roger Pielke Jr, David Roberts and Andrew Dessler. Also Joseph Romm.

259 Responses to “Consensus as the New Heresy”

  1. 51

    Ike- Your WWW search got you close (50 miles up the road;-):

  2. 52
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dr. Pielke, presuming you’re asking the RC Contributors to address “dubious and extreme claims” in the science about “global warming theory” — Google Scholar finds only about 213 papers total mentioning it. You probably know most of the authors. Can you be more specific about which papers you believe make dubious and extreme claims about ‘global warming theory’?

  3. 53
    Bryan Sralla says:

    Re #45: Ike, FYI, University of Colorado is in Boulder, not Fort Collins. It seems the e-mail adress from RP2 is emminating from CU, that powerhouse institution of right-leaning views. Please check your facts before “RAMMING” someone you don’t agree with, or we might all end up “BUFFALOED”.

  4. 54
    Hank Roberts says:

    P.S. — when you read the 213 references, you’ll see many of them are in management and politics journals. I won’t try to do an Orestes/Peiser tally, but the phrase “global warming theory” may be one used by people outside the field. Looking at the list, very few climate scientists seem to think there _is_ any single “global warming theory” yet.

  5. 55
    Eli Rabett says:

    I hesistate to do this, but a serious comment on the matter under discussion exists on my blog. As the instigator rather than the originator, I plead not especially guilty.

    However, the serious point of all this is that there is a major benefit to be gained by one side or the other in defining the middle. Indeed, if you look at what the Exxonite public relations push is all about in the US, it is to define their position as the accepted one. (Accepted by whom you ask)

  6. 56
    Steve Sadlov says:

    RE: #45 – RE: “Why aren’t there more solar cell manufacturing facilities in the US?”

    This is a subset of the question, why aren’t there more wafer fabrication plants in the US? Certainly, a good deal of new investment in wafer fabs of all types has been getting directed to so called “low cost geographies.” Only the devices which command the greatest profit margins tend to have their wafers fabbed in the US these days.

    Also, the current domestic photovoltaic device manufacturing capacity in the US is essentially in response to current demand. That having been said, demand is rising rather sharply. Given energy costs and electrical grid infrastructure issues, more and more outdoor equipment deployments are going the self powered photovoltaic route. Furthermore, residential and business consumers of electricity have been incented to do their own installations – it is cheaper for most electricity providers to do rebate programs to homes and businesses than it is for them to pay for new generating plants and grid. One final observation – T.J. Rodgers (CEO, Cyprus Semiconductor) has been sinking funds into developing both new photovoltaic devices as well as US based fabs to build them. Rodgers is not, no offense, a Green. If he is putting his money into it, that would indicate a steeply rising photovoltaic market.

  7. 57
    Tom Huntington says:

    Interesting post, thank you. I agree with you that the “new middle-stance heresy” that Andy discusses is largely the consensus view rather than some emerging and somehow more reasoned and prudent or cautionary view.

    Isn’t this really part of a larger continuum of views on climate change? I could not find the earlier post on RealClimate that I think talked about various levels of skepticism – perhaps that should be revised and updated. One could say that these positions range from
    1. Deny global warming
    2. Accept global warming, attribute to natural causes
    3. Accept global warming, accept a significant attribution to anthropogenic GHG emissions BUT:
    – stress uncertainties in human contributions to warming,
    – stress uncertainties in actual “dangerous” impacts
    4. Accept global warming, accept a significant attribution to GHGs, accept likelihood of dangerous impacts: BUT
    – stress lack of existing technological fixes
    – stress dire economic impacts of precipitous decreases in fossil fuel consumption
    – stress “unfairness” of reducing fossil fuel consumption if China, India, and the developing world are not willing to cooperate
    5. Accept, Accept . . . Assert that we need to be prudent in our response to this challenge and work on an array of “stabilization wedges” that target some level of “acceptable warming”. Assert that economic impacts must be an important criterion in assessing fossil fuel reducing policies.
    6. Accept, Accept . . . Assert that the problem is more immediate and requires decisive action in the near term to avoid catastrophy.
    7. Imminent gulf stream reversal, imminent meters of sea level rise, imminent crop failures . . . .

    I don’t think a new middle stance is emerging. I think the main stream scientific community is mostly at stage 5. To progress to stage 6 would require “emerging catastrophes” and/or millions of climate refugees.

    [Response: Well put. -mike]

  8. 58
    Sashka says:

    IMHO, Andy Revkin didn’t get it quite right. Consensus as the New Heresy became a heresy not because the consensus view has changed in any significant way. It is because the new zealotes, the ultra-alarmists took the center stage in the media. Perhaps this is what Revkin meant but he wasn’t expicit enough.

  9. 59
    SecularAnimist says:

    Tom Huntington wrote in #57:

    To progress to stage 6 [Assert that the problem is more immediate and requires decisive action in the near term to avoid catastrophy] would require “emerging catastrophes” and/or millions of climate refugees.

    Depending on what you mean by “emerging”, it can be argued that we are witnessing “emerging catastrophes” right now.

    The problem is that if by “emerging catastrophes and/or millions of climate refugees” you mean that the scientific community will progress to “stage 6” when millions of people are starving due to widespread multi-year crop failures and the collapse of oceanic fisheries, when millions are without fresh water due to the disappearance of glacial water supplies, when arctic ice has irreversibly disappeared, when massive amounts of methane are being released from thawing permafrost causing atmospheric GHG concentrations to skyrocket, and so on, by the time catastrophes of that scale are upon us — by the time we know with absolute scientific certainty that we are facing a worst-case global warming scenario — it will certainly be too late to do anything about it.

    Fortunately, my impression is that the consensus of the scientific community is closer to what you describe as “stage 6” than to “stage 5” in the sense of recognizing that we face at least a potentially catastrophic situation, and urging both corporations and governments to take urgent action to significantly reduce GHG emissions sooner rather than later.

  10. 60
    Sashka says:

    Re: 45, 55 and alike.

    I’m not sure whether this tendency to look for a guilty party elsewhere is more amusing or annoying. It’s us (the public) who buy the oversized houses and spend a so much power on heating and cooling because we “need” more elbow room. It’s us who choose to buy the inefficient cars and trucks because we “need” more space and power. Etcetera – you can continue the list. So we choose to pay the oil companies for all the fossil fuels that we burn. How is it their fault that they supply us with the fuels? As if big oil can be expected to leave us in the cold with gas stations empty. Will it ever dawn on the left that the oil companies simply serve the economic need that we create? They are not the problem. We are.

  11. 61
    Bryson Brown says:

    It seems to me that the ‘new heresy’ trope is a bit of cheap rhetorical cover, presenting mainstream views in the press under cover of imaginary concessions to the ‘denial’ camp. It’s hard to tell whether it’s aimed at shifting the public’s view (OK, the new moderates are not as scary as we thought climate change believers were, maybe it’s time to take climate change seriously), or aimed at protecting the reputation of the press, which have generally served the deniers very effectively by presenting ‘both sides’ rather than accurately reflecting the strength of the scientific consensus (now the press can say, there really was a worthy debate that we were reporting on, and now the new moderates have emerged reflecting the lessons of that debate). There is a shift (which I think makes the heresey label misleading) from debating what the science says to the practical questions of just how big the economic/environmental threat is and what sort of response is called for. If the debate had always been about this, rather than about trashing the science that put the issue of climate change on the table, the article wouldn’t be misleading. As it is, I find the spin on the Times article distasteful.

  12. 62
    Eli Rabett says:

    One has to start with the observation that even the most sophisticated media is simplistic and reduces all issues to a single dimension. Frames that so simplify complex situations necessarily favor one side or the other. What you are witnessing here is the struggle for a key reporter’s mind on a key newspaper. Moreover, where that reporter locates the “middle” is going to determine where the most input to the stories will be. Bluntly put, is he going to go to Roger Pielke, Jr. or Gavin Schmidt? (sorry guys you just happen to be convenient place holders for different sides in this). This provides a certain “excitement” level in the exchanges. Do not be surprised if Mr. Revkin has a follow up article on the discussions that have broken out.

  13. 63
    Sally says:

    The blame lies in the lobbying power of large corporations and their tendency to provide large donations to further their own interests, and also in their public relations campaigns. The motor vehicle industry lobbies against public transport, for example. We, the people, have to take responsibility for finding out what we are buying and what we are buying into. We are not very good at this, apparently.

  14. 64
    SecularAnimist says:

    Sashka wrote in #60: It’s us who choose to buy the inefficient cars and trucks because we “need” more space and power […] So we choose to pay the oil companies for all the fossil fuels that we burn. How is it their fault that they supply us with the fuels?

    It’s not “us” who spent two million dollars a year for the last eight years to fund a network of advocacy groups who deliberately and systematically deceived the public about the scientific reality of anthropogenic global warming to ensure that the public — let alone the government — would not become sufficiently concerned about it to take measures to reduce fossil fuel consumption. It’s Exxon-Mobil who did that.

    For the record, I drive a 1991 Ford Festiva that I’ve owned for 14 years, which gets over 35 MPG in local driving, and over 45 MPG on the highway. This is comparable to today’s expensive hybrid cars and it was accomplished with technology available 16 years ago. I also pay somewhat higher electric bills to purchase 100% wind-generated electricity.

  15. 65
    Jim Crabtree says:

    (#45) There is serious solar photovoltic research underway in this country. Much of the research is involving nanotechnology. For example, Nanosys is building a new facility in CA to deliver solar cells in the near future. They are shooting for 10% efficiency at $1/watt if I remember correctly. Boeing announced recently that they are hitting at near 40% efficiency in the lab with their solar cells.

    I recently had a solar hot water system installed and the owner of the company that installed it told me that he has been in contact with one company that said they were approaching 50% efficient solar cells and expecting to start manufacturing these cells within the year.


  16. 66
    Sashka says:

    Re: 64

    Wow! Two million dollars a year! You’ll have to admit that the bad guys are incredibly efficient if this is what it takes to counteract tens of millions of dollars spent (mostly by the government) on the mainstream research. Get real, eh?

  17. 67
    Hank Roberts says:

    Blame the “consumers” instead of the marketers and businesses? Maybe, but …. I heard this story reported on the radio recently:

    “[2006] … The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth ….
    “… the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, … the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total….
    “… In this respect, wealth represents the ownership of capital. … widely believed to have a disproportionate impact on … economic development and growth.”

    And then a voice on the radio said:

    “They bought it, they broke it — they own it, let THEM fix it.”

  18. 68
    Hank Roberts says:

    Jim, I hope your hot water system’s ok; the guy you quote got his story wrong though. Drag “approaching 50% efficient solar cells” into Google.

    “… The most efficient multijunction solar cell yet made — 30 percent, out of a theoretically possible 50 percent efficiency …”

  19. 69

    RE; #6 – “Stepping outside of positivist evidence, and moving to realms of intuition, my most strong and fervent suspicion is that there are surprises of biogeochemical cycles that await us – of apocalyptic magnitude–forcing a rethinking of the entire process of living a meaningful human life. These potentials include disruption of the photosynthetic plankton driven carbon cycles and food chains, fostered by an already weakened net of established ecological nutrient energy exchanges.”

    Presumably all of us here are members of the human species, and we know how capable we are collectively and individually of foresight, sacrifice and planning. Not much past a five year time frame. What was adaptive ten thousand years ago doesn’t cut it now. If we don’t or can’t change we’ll take our punishment, and only then will we painfully adjust while licking our wounds. That’s how we are.

  20. 70
    Hank Roberts says:

    By the way, here’s a useful suggestion for seekers and searchers, quote copied from this page:

    “University of California at San Francisco cardiologist and professor of medicine Stanton Glantz… recommended that any time you hear about a scientist denying climate change (or any other significant public health or environmental threat) that you plug their names into the tobacco papers website that he maintains at UC San Francisco:

    Try it yourself. Interesting.

  21. 71

    It’s great to be able to read the geophysicists and geochemists et. al. in this forum. What about the biologists, including field biologists? They’re at a finer resolution end of the problem.

  22. 72
    Dano says:

    Seemingly continuing OT, but not really…

    RE 66 (Roberts):

    Your list – don’t forget the ~$200B spent on advertising to consumers to create demand.



  23. 73
    James Annan says:

    Backing up a bit to point #10:

    Of course, pretty much everyone, including the so-called “heretics,” agrees that global warming is an unprecedented danger that will wreak great human and economic damage in our children’s lifetimes.

    Actually Stern estimates that AGW will knock about one tenth of a percentage point off economic growth – that is, reduce the average rate from 2.3% to 2.2% over the next century. He further claims that we could eliminate most of this loss if we spend a bit on GHG control, although as you know plenty of people have found things to complain about in his sums. But in any case, I’m surprised to hear you of all people supporting maximum economic growth as a fundamental principle as to how we should manage our affairs.

  24. 74
    Paul M says:

    Human population has increased tangentially since around 1870, the rate of population can go no higher than what it is now. It only makes sense that any change in the climate, whether human or not, will affect this rate negatively. While this is probably a good thing, it stands to reason that humans population rates will drop dramatically with a rapid climate change. With all due respect for the folly of predicting what will happen, I do believe the human population will drop by 50 per cent by 2100. It only makes sense.

  25. 75

    #39, Mzed, it was a weak, to now , a moderate El-Nino, it doesn’t justify the present warming trends over the last 5 years. More in line would be to explain that the sea and atmosphere as a whole are basically warmer, GW term fits like a glove. The moderate point of view is that there is Global Warming, a true description of what is going on needs no hyperbola or exagerrations. Every other description is indefensible considering the realities of greater GW for especially coastal people we will never meet.

  26. 76
    Ike Solem says:

    Re#51 and #53

    Whoops. Still, my comments about renewable energy funding are still valid. I see that the central funding organization for the ‘energy initiative’ that Roger links to is through the Department of Energy and their Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is closing it’s six regional offices and opening two. See – generally speaking, when six offices become two it doesn’t mean that the program is being expanded, do you think? The other funding opportunity (a ‘seed grant’) has a max of $50,000 – enough to pay one salary with overhaead for one year. Hmmmm… that’ll accomplish a lot…maybe. Sorry I got the school wrong, but everything else I said is valid – and what do your local renewable energy experts have to say about the potential of renewables to meet energy needs? If you haven’t asked them, then why are you attacking people who write for RC for making similar claims?

    Could you please just answer the question – when do you expect the current trend of record-setting temperatures to end? It seems to me that that won’t happen until anthropogenic atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are stabilized (assuming we don’t hit some trigger like releasing methane clathrates from ocean sediments as warming progresses). It’s a valid question, isn’t it?

  27. 77
    Ike Solem says:

    Thanks, I stand corrected. By the way, does this mean that you are willing to admit that you were wrong regarding your statements about the role of anoxic depositional environements and the genesis of fossil fuels? Let’s see.. you said something like this:

    “”Ike, I am glad you are finally talking about hydrocarbons. FYI, the Middle East hydrocarbon source rocks were deposited in the Tethys Sea. This was a shallow inland sea, that generated restricted anoxic marine source rocks. The massive carbonate reservoirs of the Middle East oilfields are mainly shallow water karsted and fractured dolomites. You are so far off base on this, that it is really hard to even begin to take what you said seriously. Wrong tectonic setting, wrong source rock environment, wrong reservoirs, wrong structural setting. Try again! Global ocean stratification forming oilfields? I have never heard of this in my career as a petroleum geologist. There is way too much junk science on this website.”

    (at )

    The relevant quote regarding this discussion was this: “Anoxic sediments have been widespread in the past and are of great economic importance as source rocks for hydrocarbon deposits. Expansion and intensification of the oceanic oxygen minimum zone, probably during times of reduced thermohaline circulation, is one mechanism that seems to account for many sapropels. Deep basins connected only by shallow connections, which resulted in restricted bottom circulation, were especially common during early stages of continental rifting that formed the Atlantic basin.”

    Still waiting… is it so hard to admit your rather vitriolic attack was completely off base?

  28. 78
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#70, There has been a lot of work done on that issue. For example, see:
    Nature 416, 389-395 (28 March 2002) (limited access)
    “Ecological responses to recent climate change”
    Gian-Reto Walther, Eric Post, Peter Convey, Annette Menzel, Camille Parmesan, Trevor J. C. Beebee, Jean-Marc Fromentin, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Franz Bairlein
    Abstract: “There is now ample evidence of the ecological impacts of recent climate change, from polar terrestrial to tropical marine environments. The responses of both flora and fauna span an array of ecosystems and organizational hierarchies, from the species to the community levels. Despite continued uncertainty as to community and ecosystem trajectories under global change, our review exposes a coherent pattern of ecological change across systems. Although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible.”

    Regarding the issue of oxygen levels in the deep ocean and why it isn’t just an academic argument, see:
    Nature 429, 749-754 (17 June 2004) (full access to pdf)
    “Upwelling-driven nearshore hypoxia signals ecosystem and oceanographic changes in the northeast Pacific”
    Brian A. Grantham, Francis Chan, Karina J. Nielsen, David S. Fox, John A. Barth, Adriana Huyer, Jane Lubchenco and Bruce A. Menge

    The exact cause of the recurrent episodes of hypoxia off of the Oregon coast remains uncertain, but it has something to do with ocean circulation (not nutrient loading, which causes dead zones at the Mississippi outflow). What is known is this: “In 2006, the low-oxygen waters off Oregon stretched further north along the coast, reached closer to shore, and were thicker than any event previously detected. The event was four times larger than any previous episode and lasted four times as long. More important, the oxygen levels were by far the lowest ever recorded on the near shore of Oregon, approaching “anoxic” (“no oxygen”) conditions in some places.” –

    This is not an encouraging sign. The notion that a ‘shutdown of the meridional conveyor belt will lead to a new ice age’, i.e. the theme of the very poor movie “The Day After Tomorrow” has been pretty well discarded, but the actual result of reduced deep water formation may be more anoxic bottom waters in the oceans – something rather like stratification. For more on this, see:
    Nature 434, 628-633 (31 March 2005) (full access)
    “Decline of the marine ecosystem caused by a reduction in the Atlantic overturning circulation”, Andreas Schmittner

    Plankton distributions in the North Atlantic are definitely changing – reference:

  29. 79
    pete best says:

    Re to the reply of #12, Here in the UK we have recently announced a large scale (largest in the world currently) off shore wind farm consisting of some 460 turbines providing some 1.5 GW of energy which amounts to 1 % of the UK total energy needs. In order to get to 20% of projected UK energy needs for electricity we will require some 9000 turbines and as the UK only releases 2% of all global greenhouse emissions you can see that wind is not going to be the answer alone not without major energy conservation and efficiency programmes such as insulation of houses and efficiency gains and the like.

    Personally I feel the task is daunting not least because of the time required to define these programmes and securing the finance to pay for them. Here in the UK for instance we are going to commit to Nuclear by the looks of it in order to offset out climate CO2 emissions. however Nuclear has a large scale CO2 footprint over its lifetime, it is no answer. Therefore projected replacements of fossil fuels along the scales required to offset CO2 emissions to reduce climate change by humanity is going to be difficult because most of the technologies needed to replace fossil fuels are manufactured by fossil fuels and require very large scale investments that governments will not fund centrally and hence will rely on the free market which is not really the best eay to go about delaing with climate change.

    And I still come back to the question of climate change viewed in isolation. Climate scientists in the main model the atmosphere and not the earth per se do they not ? That means that the full implications of climate science are not known, issues such as the amount of species that will potentially dissapear, what will happen to land ice, greenland, antartica, glaciers and hence rivers and natural sources of frsh water, what that will mean for animals and us alike. Basically the list goes on and on. 1 degree C of warming is known to happen, 0.6 now and 0.4 latent in the oceans with more to come because CO2 hangs around for a 100 years.

    No one can predict the full consequences of climate change because we at present do not have the earth model to do so. James Lovelock calls it GAIA and believes that we are in trouble with regard to its systemic nature, most people so far have disagreed with him analysis stating it as alarmist but he could be right simply because science is mainly reductionist in nature and not systemic. This could be our downfall.

  30. 80
    llewelly says:

    Sashka said:

    Will it ever dawn on the left that the oil companies simply serve the economic need that we create? They are not the problem. We are.

    I’ve been car-free most of my adult life. This was perhaps most interesting when I was in college. On odd days people ranted to me about how evil it was of ‘the Left’ to expect poor helpless businesses to take responsibility for the actions they were forced into by consumers. On even days I listened to the same people rant about what a ‘kook’ I was for choosing to minimize (note: not eliminate) my use of fossil fuels. Needless to say, I never saw any of these people boycott businesses they were angry with.

    Perhaps more importantly, whenever American auto-makers have been faced with consumer-shifts toward more fuel-efficient vehicles, they have lobbied the US govt for multi-billion dollar bailouts, and mounted multi-billion dollar propaganda campaigns promoting large, inefficient vehicles, and attacking small efficient vehicles.

  31. 81

    Can I ask a general question about climate science to the writers of

    Prior to human actions, could the global climate system have been regarded as a huge reversible reaction in a state of equilibrium over time-spans of say 5 years? If so, Le Chatelier’s principle suggests that, overall, there is overall negative feedback to increases in global temperature (presumably through increasing radiation heat loss to space)

    Possibly the fears of catastrophe are, in non-specialists, sometimes driven by the belief that there might be overall positive feedback (so world getting hotter –> world getting still hotter (through degassing of permafrost or whatever) –> world getting hotter again – exactly what Le Chatelier’s principle states is not the case, otherwise one would not start in equilibrium).

    I understand that when climate scientist talk about positive feedbacks, this means usually amplification of effects of one change by another consequent change, rather than the overall feedback that causes system to shoot off wildly.

    Is my understanding correct? Is this an area where greater public understanding of the basic science would help? (It would certaintly help me!)

    Peter Cunningham

  32. 82
    Jim Crabtree says:


    I am very pleased with my solar hot water system. On a good sunny day in late December, it was still pumping glycol at 120 degrees (some tall trees in the front yard cast a bit of shade on the unit for about two hours during midday with the sun low on the horizon). This helps to really preheat deep well water (temperature around 55). The system was installed during the first week of October and during most of the month, it kept my water at 120+ degrees without the use of electricity except on cloudy days. I am looking at a payback period of about 5 – 6 years. My October electric bill was the lowest I have gotten since I have been here for 13 years (and that was with a recent rate increase).

    Here is a site you need to check out on quantum dots:

    “We have shown that solar cells based on quantum dots theoretically could convert more than 65 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, approximately doubling the efficiency of solar cells,” Nozik said. The best cells today convert about 33 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity.”

    Research in thin films and nanotechnology are making big breakthroughs in solar cell technology.

    I read yesterday where Walmart has put out a RFP for installing 100 megawatts of solar power in their stores over the next 5 years. With some big name companies installing solar power, others will follow behind and the demand for solar cells will result in more manufacturing facilities in the near future.


  33. 83
    Craig Allen says:

    RE: 70

    Here in eastern Australia it’s bleeding obvious to any biologist or field naturalist with eyes in their head that ecosystems and ecosystem remnants are in serious decline – for all sorts of reasons, not just climate related. And the same kind of denial and political skulduggery goes on of course. But my perception is that while companies, developers and other profiteers will be successful at pooh-poohing the idea that we need to go easy on the environment for some time to come; when it comes to climate change, denial and the argument that we should sit on our hands until the last few contrarians finally agree is rapidly becoming a preposterous position.

    RE: The obsession on this website with the nutty end of climate denialism.

    I really don’t think that that point of view is going to last or matter for long.

    The current drought event in Australia and its effects on our waterways and landscapes are so severe that the media here seems for the most part to have completely given up on contrarian points of view (with a few somewhat comic and rather desperate exceptions). The fact is that if we get another few years like those of the last decade we are in serious trouble. Towns have begun to run out of water, some cities are in tight spots, and we have months of dry weather to come. Politicians of all the southern states are haggling and hand-wringing over what can be done and every paper runs articles virtually every day about aspects of the crisis, its relationship to climate change, current storage levels, what is to be done, water theft, collapse in the rural sector, which river will dry up next, etc.

    Given all this, and that the prediction is for next year to be the hottest ever globally (and that Oz seems to be heating up faster than the global average), I suspect that the scientific middle ground has become somewhat irrelevant to the average Australian. The reality is that even this much warming is already scary. People are aware that there is some quibbling about the unlikely possibility that it might all just be a statistical hiccup. But now they are more concerned with that fact that that might not be (probably isn’t) the case. And even if we do return to wetter times for a while (fingers crossed) they will remember what it is like to have cities on extreme water restrictions and to watch the parks, gardens and rural trees die, and to see farming communities devastated (I’m not making alarmist predictions, I’m describing the daily news).

    So my conclusion is this: We westerners are soft. We like our luxury. If any part of Middle America starts to experience anything like what Australia is now experiencing, then the demand to do something real about the problem will be politically undeniable.

    Scientists can forget about what extreme denialists are saying. What they need to concentrate on is determining by what amount emissions need to be reduced in order to reliably achieve reasonable outcomes for people, the environment and the economy. Once the risk is perceived as being real, this is what will be demanded of them. People understand the concept of risk. They don’t like it. And they want to avoid it.

  34. 84

    Roger Pielke, Jr’s defensive indictment of RealClimate’s “incessant skeptic obsession” strikes me as a bit odd. Before Realclimate came along, the public had few resources to research the claims of the skeptics. Anyone who paid any attention to the public discourse about global warming before Realclimate was bound to think that there is no warming, the satellites show cooling, the surface temps are contaminated by the urban heat island, and those scientists who cry “warming” can’t be trusted because they predicted a global cooling just a few short years ago. Realclimate’s “obsession” with the skeptics is a valuable service to the public, since they have corrected many misapprehensions actively promoted by the skeptics. It’s the skeptic’s obsession with spreading uncertainty by misrepresenting peer-reviewed scientific studies and emphasizing only self-serving facts that deserves contempt.

    [Response: Thanks. – gavin]

    [Response: Goes double for me. – mike]

  35. 85
    Sashka says:

    RE: 80

    With all possible sympathy to your individual attitude towards fossil fuel consumption, you are unfortunately in the vast minority.

    Your claim about bailouts cannot be substantiated. Bailouts never happened. The most that ever happened was a loan guarantee which didn’t in the end cost the taxpayers a penny.

  36. 86
    Paul M says:

    While golfing I had time to question the effects humans have had on the world and if humans are to blame for climate change. My questions were answered when a person in the nearby affluent neighborhood went out walking her dog. As the dog did its constitutional, she scooped it up in a plastic bag, tied it up, and promptly tossed it behing a concrete marker on the golf course. Out of sight, out of mind. This, in a nutshell, is what humans do to the planet, whether we are mountain folk or suburbanites. We have made our bed, now we have to sleep in it. Soon there will be a lot of hungry, thirsty, or ill humans.

  37. 87
    Sashka says:

    Andy Revkin quotes Jim Hansen:

    “If we want to avoid producing a different planet, we need to start acting now,” and not with paltry steps, he said in a recent e-mail exchange with a reporter and other scientists. “It seems almost to be a secret that we cannot put all of the fossil-fuel CO2 into the air without producing a different planet, and yes, dangerous change. There are people who don’t know that!”

    This is exactly right. Which is why all these emission reduction measures, particularly Kyoto, are like a bandaid on the infected wound. These measures don’t affect the final outcome – only delay it. The danger is that the public is getting an impression that something important is being achieved while the opposite is true. It is actually a good thing thing that USA didn’t sign Kyoto: at least it keeps some do-gooders angry.

    The only real solution is to find new sources of energy (not based on fossils). With the existing (and foreseeable) population and economic growth, all emission reduction efforts will not affect the final outcome: complete exhaustion of fossil reserves and death of the civilization.

  38. 88
    Mark A. York says:

    I don’t know, this Australian isn’t convinced.

  39. 89
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    There are national differences on GW speech. Dr. Hulme (who says shrill voices are not effective) is British. I recently did a brief study of the media coverage on GW (per pop) & found the UK way ahead of the US, and I have the distinct impression “shrill voices” is more a UK thing.

    In the US I have not heard one single shrill voice on GW (except my own). I’ve tried the gentle method, the shrill method, leading-by-example method (showing the $$hundreds/yr savings by mitigating GW), prayer. Nothing seems to work, except maybe prayer. Neither the wind nor the sun will get the man to off his coat. It’s just not a U.S. issue, because we are just not a future-oriented or caring people, and we’re really averse to being blamed as the per capita highest GHG emitter.

    I found the media coverage in Canada to be middling between the US & UK.

    What was surprising was that the media coverage in Australia was really high, much higher than the UK. And my main explanation is that Australia is severely suffering from effects that look a lot like the effects we might expect from GW (whether or not these can at present be attributed to GW within the 95% confidence interval).

    And BTW, I do think we need a name for the non-venusian situation on earth where some initial warming triggers nature to emit more GHGs in a net positive feedback situation, causing more warming, causing more emissions (and less albedo), and so on, until we stabilize at a higher temp & many species go extinct (as has happened several times in the past), then eventually (after 100,000 to 200,000 years) get back to our present climate. And I nominate “THE VENUS EFFECT.” (It’s a metaphor, guys, like “greenhouse effect.”) Only problem is it doesn’t sound bad enough, more like some goddess of love thing. And if people don’t know much about Earth or GW, they know even less about Venus. Is that the planet where little green people with feelers hop around? The planet where Bush & Co plan to move when Earth becomes inhospitable, if not totally uninhabitable? And why the gov is really more into the space program than the earth program?

  40. 90
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 87

    Sashka, I have, on another thread, been critical of your seeming ambivalent comments on AGW. However, your contributions to this thread leave me applauding your views.

    I am in full agreement with your statement [It is actually a good thing thing that USA didn’t sign Kyoto: at least it keeps some do-gooders angry.]

    However, Kyoto does serve to channel the developed world focus on AGW even if our President Bush ignores both the treaty and the problem.

    You are expressing a realistic perspective of how heavy the weight our generation must lift off the backs of our children.

  41. 91
    Ike Solem says:

    Peter, the ‘stable equilibrium’ notion of climate was once championed by people like Richard Lindzen, but it doesn’t have much credence. See this climate issue of Science 24 Mar 2006, and the lead editiorial by Kennedy and Hanson:

    “Nothing in the record suggests that an “equilibrium” climate model is the right standard of comparison. We are in the midst of a highly kinetic system, and in the past, dramatic climate changes have taken place in only a few decades. Our comfort in the Holocene may have heightened our sense of security, but the expectation that change is unlikely is not a reasonable position…”

    The question is then, can we rule out natural variability as the cause for the observed changes in climate – and the answer to that is a scientific yes (as opposed to a religious yes, meaning that science deals with probabilities).

    To respond to Sashka’s statement, “Will it ever dawn on the left that the oil companies simply serve the economic need that we create? They are not the problem. We are.”

    Well, people will be affected by AGW regardless of their political views, and that’s the exact public relations campaign that the tobacco industry used – “lung cancer isn’t the tobacco companies fault, they simply serve the economic demand”.

  42. 92
    John L. McCormick says:

    Ike, I doubt a cigarette company would use [lung cancer isn’t the tobacco companies fault] in a public relations camapign.

    However, it was probably used to excess in tort litigation brought by lung cancer victims.

    The view of Shashka stands unchallenged especially when I walk through the shopping mall parking lot.

  43. 93
    pete best says:

    reading most of the posts it seems that people still appear to be denying that a 100 ppm increase in CO2 in the last 150 years (more than coincidence I suspect) has either not been put there by humans burning fossil fuels (some natural means I suspect is responsible) or it has been put there by humans but it is not responsible for the current warming, that is also natural by some means.

    Physics shows us that fossil fuels contain a lot of CO2 and that CO2 absorbs infra red radiation released from the earths surface by a known amount. Hence humans burning fossil fuels which is releasing CO2 is absorbing heat (infra red) from the earths surface and hence causing the atmosphere to increase in temperature.

    Whay is this when the physics is well understood for some reason not universally accepted, is it because it can impact us the human race and potantially curb our progress, without progress we seem to feel that our current existance will become worthless for some reason. Since the end of the second world war free market economics and world trade and technological progress have gone hand in hand and any talk of having to cut back seems to me to be the real issue, the real HERESY !

  44. 94
    SecularAnimist says:

    Craig Allen wrote in #83: “Scientists can forget about what extreme denialists are saying. What they need to concentrate on is determining by what amount emissions need to be reduced in order to reliably achieve reasonable outcomes for people, the environment and the economy.”

    I don’t think it is important to determine “by what amount emissions need to be reduced.” It is important to start reducing emissions.

    Global CO2 emissions continue to grow. The rate at which global CO2 emissions are growing is increasing — i.e. emissions are not only growing they are accelerating. The International Energy Agency in its 2005 World Energy Outlook projects that world energy demand will increase by more than 50 percent by 2030, raising energy-related CO2 emissions 52 percent above today’s levels.

    Given this reality, what is important — what is urgent — is to slow down and then reverse that growth. That is going to be extraordinarily challenging. It is not particularly important at present to theorize about what might be a long-term sustainable level of anthropogenic GHG emissions.

    I will repeat my earlier question: in what year do you realistically think that global GHG emissions will be less than the previous year’s emissions?

    According to the IEA’s projections, it will not be until sometime after 2030, some 23 years from now — during which 23 years emissions will continue to increase every year. Compare this to the statements by James Hansen and others that we have perhaps 10 or 15 years in which to make significant reductions in GHG emissions to avert global climate catastrophe.

  45. 95
    Hank Roberts says:

    Why doubt when you can Google?

    “… smokers are free to purchase and use a product they know to be harmful, but, if they do so, they and not the tobacco companies are accountable for the consequences.”

    Same argument being made now about the coal companies’ products here.

  46. 96
    Steve says:

    On the Brokaw television piece last summer,
    Hansen spoke of half of all living species
    going extinct due to AGW.

    This kind of irresponsible statement is
    not supported by science but becomes part
    of ‘consensus’.

    [Response:I don’t believe that would be considered a ‘consensus’ statement. David]

  47. 97
    Karen Street says:

    Re #79

    We often move into policy issues, so will comment on Pete Best’s policy take.

    If you’re interested in lifecycle GHG emissions of various sources of energy, you can get information here.

    If you’re interested in some of the problems Germany is encountering in expanding its use of wind power, you might check out what the Germans say. Canada is cutting back on plans for expanding wind power for similar reasons.

  48. 98
    Jim Eaton says:

    Here in sunny Davis, California (our low yesterday was a balmy 54 degrees F, 15 degrees above average), scientists at the University of California have added some more information on past warming and CO2 in a paper published today in Science. Here are some quotes from a Los Angeles Times article on their research:,1,4828203.story?coll=la-news-a_section

    Foreshadowing potential climate chaos to come, early global warming caused unexpectedly severe and erratic temperature swings as rising levels of greenhouse gases helped transform Earth, a team led by researchers at UC Davis said Thursday…

    Instead of a relatively gradual transition from a cold world to a warm one, as many scientists had believed occurred, [Isabel] Montanez and her colleagues found fever spikes of climate change correlated with fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide, like a seismometer graph of the myriad tremors before and after a major earthquake.

    “CO2 goes up and temperature goes up. It drops and temperature drops,” Montanez said.

    “It suggests,” she said, “that the normal behavior in major climate transitions is instability, erratic temperature behavior and carbon dioxide changes.”

  49. 99
    SecularAnimist says:

    Steve wrote in #96: “On the Brokaw television piece last summer, Hansen spoke of half of all living species going extinct due to AGW. This kind of irresponsible statement is not supported by science but becomes part of ‘consensus’.”

    Hansen’s statement was not “irresponsible” and it most certainly is “supported by science”.

    Diversity of Species Faces ‘Catastrophe’ from Climate Change
    by Steve Connor
    April 11, 2006
    The Independent / UK

    Tens of thousands of animals and plants could become extinct within the coming decades as a direct result of global warming.

    This is the main conclusion of a study into how climate change will affect the diversity of species in the most precious wildlife havens of the world.

    Scientists believe that if atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide double from pre-industrial times – which is expected by the end of the century – then biodiversity will be devastated.


    The scientists, led by Lee Malcolm of the University of Toronto, investigated how rising temperatures could affect the species richness of 25 “biodiversity hotspots” – areas of the world that are rich in species found nowhere else. The 25 hotspots included in the study cover just 1 per cent of the global landmass yet they account for some 44 per cent of the plants and 35 per cent of the world’s vertebrate animals.

    “Climate change is one of the most serious threats to the planet’s biodiversity. We now have strong scientific evidence that global warming will result in catastrophic species loss across the planet,” Dr Malcolm said.


    The study, published yesterday in the journal Conservation Biology, predicts that many unique habitats will be lost as climate change brings about rapid changes to the environment.

    “We project the eventual loss of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of hotspot endemic plant and vertebrate species under a climate associated with a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations,” the study says.


    The computer modelling used by the scientists found that in some instances the mass extinctions caused by climate change were greater than those caused by deforestation, which many environmentalists had assumed was the single most destructive human activity. In the worst-case assessment, a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations led to the extinction of 40 per cent of species in some of the hotspots – a potential loss of some 56,000 endemic plants and 3,700 endemic vertebrate species.

    Other similar studies have projected widespread mass extinctions of as many as half of all existing species.

  50. 100
    SecularAnimist says:

    Karen Street in #97 wrote: “If you’re interested in lifecycle GHG emissions of various sources of energy, you can get information here.”

    I notice that the site that Karen linked to says “Several analyses exist, you can go here to see others” — and the “here” that is referenced is the Nuclear Energy Institute, an organization that exists to advocate nuclear electricity generation.