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Cold Case vs. CSI

Filed under: — gavin @ 14 February 2007 - (Slovenčina)

If you are a follower of TV crime shows, it is likely that you’ve come across one of the CSI offshoots (CSI stands for Crime Scene Investigation) and a slightly less well known show called ‘Cold Case‘. In both these shows, difficult crimes (usually murders) are solved using the most up-to-date forensic methods and incredible detective work. However, it will be obvious to even the most jaded TV watcher that the CSI crew get to have a lot more fun with the latest gadgets and methodologies. The reason for that is clear: with a fresh crime scene there is a lot more evidence around and a lot more techniques that can be brought to bear on the problem. In a ‘Cold Case’ (where the incident happened years before), options are much more limited.

Why bring this up here? Well it illustrates nicely how paleo-climate research fits in to our understanding of current changes. Let me explain….

For the last 30 years or so, the amount of information we have about the planet has gone up by a couple of orders of magnitude – mainly due to satellite information on atmospheric (radiation, temperature, humidty, rainfall, cloudiness, composition etc.), ocean surface (temperature, ice cover, windiness) and land properties (land cover, albedo) etc. Below the surface, we are now measuring much more of the ocean changes in heat content and carbon. This data, while still imperfect, has transformed our view of the climate such that the scientists studying it can seriously discuss details of problems that twenty years ago were not even thought of as issues. “CSI – Planet Earth” if you like.

Comparatively, the amount of information we have for any period in the past is less – hundreds (in some cases a few thousand) of records of climate ‘proxy’ data (i.e. records that are related to climate, such as tree rings ot isotope ratios, but that aren’t direct thermometers or rain gauges) that are not necessarily optimally spaced, nor necessarily well-dated, nor uncontaminated by non-climate influences. However, there is the great advantage of a much longer time period to work with, as well as a greater variety of changes to investigate. Think of the people that work on that as the ‘Cold Case’ crew.

The most prevalent reasonably scientific question about current climate changes is ‘how do we know that this isn’t natural variability?’. A number of versions of that question came up in the House hearing last week (a nice report from the proceedings can be found here). Some of those comments were serious, some were ridiculous, but all essentially pointed to the same issue. Kevin Trenberth and Richard Alley answered it best when they pointed out that the causes of ‘natural variability’ – whether the sun, volcanoes or ocean changes – should be detectable (but haven’t been), and that the anthropogenic ‘hypothesis’ should have consequences that are also detectable (which have). Add in the modelling studies which indicate that current conditions can’t be explained without including greenhouse gases and you have a pretty solid case that what is happening is in large part anthropogenic.

A rather more specious comment heard often (including at this hearing) is that ‘if it was warmer before, then the current warming must be natural’ or alternatively ‘if you can’t explain all of the past changes, how can you explain anything now?’. First of all, there are many periods in Earth history that are unequivocally accepted to be warmer than the present – the Pliocene (3 million years ago), the Eocene (50 million years ago) and the mid-Cretaceous (100 million years ago) for instance. Less clearly, the Eemian interglacial period or the Early Holocene may have been slightly warmer than today. Thus, if that logic were appropriate, no-one should bother worrying about climate change until sea levels start to approach mid-Cretaceous levels (about 100m above today’s level!).

However, the logic is fatally flawed. It is akin to a defense lawyer arguing that their client can’t possibly have committed a particular murder because other murders have happened in the past that were nothing to do with them. That would get short shrift in a courtroom, and the analgous point gets short shrift in the scientific community too. Of course, it is possible that our suspect was involved in previous murders too – but obviously the further back you go, the harder it is to pin it on them. And clearly, there will be past murders where they have a clear alibi.

A better tactic for the defense is obviously to try and pin it on someone else – and if that someone else has a record – then all the better. Therefore, ‘the sun did it’ is a frequent accusation, but as we have discussed here quite often, this time around the sun has an alibi and there are reliable witnesses to back him up.

Given the better information and resources available for the CSI crew, it is natural that their assessment of the current case will generally hold sway. Cold Cases (or paleo-climate) are of course of paramount interest: they provide a much wider set of conditions that set the stage for the modern analyses and provide plenty of test cases for us to hone our techniques (such as climate modelling). However arguments from paleo are extremely unlikely to trump the modern analyses – whether they refer to the medieval warm period or the Phanerozoic.

So to summarise, CSI-Planet Earth have a good case for pinning the latest warming on greenhouse gases. Cold Case has evidence that they were involved in some previous cases (the last glacial period for instance), though they’ve definitely ruled our suspect out for a few others (e.g. the 8.2kyr event). It would be hard to argue that our suspect should be acquitted because there have been some crimes they didn’t commit!

Update: I should have linked to this Newsday piece: Hot on their global trail by Bryn Nelson where I first tried out this analogy.

168 Responses to “Cold Case vs. CSI”

  1. 51
    Jane Kloeckner says:

    Hello, Lovely analogy! Here’s another point of view about the analogy between criminal law and environmental risks. A risk avoidance theory for Environmental Law is different than risk avoidance in criminal law.

    “In environmental risk situations, the cost of a false negative – deciding that the benign hypothesis is true when it is not – is much higher than the cost of a false positive – deciding that the catastrophic hypothesis is true when it is not .. Catastrophic results more than offset the modest benefits of erroneously accepting the benign hypothesis ….
    [Therefore,] when the potential adverse effects of an environmental risk are many times greater than the potential benefits, a proper standard of proof of danger … may be that there is only ‘at least a reasonable doubt’ that the adverse effect will occur, rather than requiring a greater probability, such as ‘more likely than not’ that the effect will occur.” See Plater, Environmental Law & Policy (2005) at 14, citing to Professor Page, 7 Ecology Law Quarterly 207 (1978).

    Criminal law has an opposite goal, limit false positives, e.g., limit the chance of a false conviction because it’s better to let hundred criminals go free than convict an innocent man. So, criminal law prosecution uses the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof, which is an inappropriate standard for avoiding environmental risks.

    We do not need to prove GHG or other anthropomorphic forcings are causing GW beyond a reasonable doubt, like the CSI or the Cold Case investigators. It’s the wrong standard. Climate scientist can convince lay people that the environmental risk must be mitigated by showing “at least a reasonable doubt” that the problem is anthropomorphic.

    The IPCC, SPM 4AR, Feb. 2, 2007, finds climate risks exceed the “at least a reasonable doubt” standard of proof of danger, e.g., some risks are very likely, see page 4-18, fn 6, and some are just “more likely than not”, see Table SPM-2. In general, the SPM provides adequate evidence for reasonably prudent persons to find that governments and businesses have a duty to mitigate climate change within their abilities. It’s also clear that we need to study climate change more thoroughly to find solutions and decided on mitigating actions, regionally and globally.

    It’s fun to participate in this forum. I’m learning so much from this blog<3 It’s great.

    FYI: On Thur., 2-15, 6:30 PM Central time, Prof. Jimmie Adegoke, who teaches at UMKC, is giving a lecture via OPAL, on Midwest climate change.

  2. 52
    Mike says:

    Re#13 – Thanks and I’ll try and watch my spelling as well. Here’s the smoking gun themselves i.e. Exxon and a link to their peer reviewed work on climate research (!!??). As my prosecution lawyer what’s your assessment of these articles? Their overall tone?

    Keep up the good work

  3. 53
    Alexander Ac says:

    Re 45:

    Well, that is optimistic ;-). If Japan wastes energy, what to say about US… :-)

  4. 54
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re 37: It is a common misconception that developing countries contribute a large proportion of the CO2 from burning wood/forests, agricultural waste, etc. This simply is not true. See

    Even in those developing countries with high emissions (mainly China, but to a lesser extent, India, Iran and Brazil), the emissions come from the urban/industrial sector, not the underdeveloped sector. Thus we can have a significant effect if we rebalance the energy sources for these and our own economies. Look at France–a developed country but contributing only 1.6% of CO2 emissions.
    As to the “punishment” for the “crime” some are discussing, I might note that it is the sons who are being punished for the sins of their fathers, so it might be more in the spirit of justice to reform our own ways so that our progeny have the benefits of a functioning civilization.

  5. 55

    [[The governments of the world spend around ONE TRILLION DOLLARS per year on the military — on weapons and other means for human beings to kill each other — and more than half of that is the US military budget.

    Imagine what those many, many billions of dollars might accomplish — what they might long ago have accomplished — towards developing and deploying appropriate technologies for a sustainable human civilization living respectfully of all life and within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s biosphere, providing the means for health, happiness, peace and prosperity for all human beings everywhere. It is almost painful to think about it.]]

    Futile, too. Like it or not, countries attack other countries, and any even minimally responsible government will either spend money on a defense establishment of its own or ally itself with a big power that spends it. Suddenly stopping military expenditures in the US, for instance, would leave us vulnerable to attack from the large number of countries around the world that hate our guts. Cuba, for instance, might want to annex Florida. Without a military, how would we stop them? Response from the well-armed citizen militia? Don’t make me laugh.

  6. 56
    Dano says:

    I just read this entry. This is a good way to use analogy.

    And I must expand on #3:

    ‘If the curves don’t fit, then you must acquit!’



  7. 57
    Sashka says:

    Re: 54

    With all due respect, Wikipedia is not an ultimate source of truth. In one of the recent threads I linked a NYT article where it quoted research indicating that burning in Indonesia alone amounted to 8% of global CO2 emissions.

    [Response: One does need to take care to distinguish peak emissions in a few years and the long term emission. After all, one can only go on so long before there isn’t any forest left to burn, or peat bog left to drain. But that’s somewhat beside the point. There is no question that tropical deforestation — and let’s not forget Indonesian peat bogs — is an important contributor to global CO2 emissions. Anything that helps to bring this under control has got to be a good thing, with lots of benefits for biodiversity as well as for global warming. What’s to dispute about that? –raypierre]

  8. 58
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Tangent Rejoinder

    Easter Islanders certainly degraded their island’s resources to a dangerous degree, but it was hardly an island paradise to begin with. However, we don’t have to restrict our imaginations to the false dichotomy of paradise vs. death. Our present hyper abundance and ease might fade with time, but barring runaway catastrophe we’re not going to go back to subsistence farming and such.

    [Response: Precisely why I took the risk of mentioning some dollar cost figures for the US. The economic-alarmism argument that carbon controls will drive us back to subsistence farming sets up a false dichotomy. To solve the US problem, we’re talking about $550 per person annually gross cost (less in net terms). That’s not going to drive us back to the stone age. It’s not even going to put much of a dent in our present hyper-abundance. The burden on the poor can easily be handled by something like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would still leave plenty of incentives in the system for companies to build IGCC coal with carbon sequestration, or wind farms instead of pulverized coal plants. Forgive me please for pushing the limits of our comment policy by injecting these numbers into the discussion, but I justify the indulgence because the estimates link to the technical feasibility arguments in Pacala and Sokolow, which are indisputably a matter of science. –raypierre]

  9. 59
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Re #9, Gavin, I think the motive is more or less the same as the robber who holds up a gas station, one who doesn’t really intend to kill anyone. He just wants to get the money so he can live a rich and high life. Then in the heat of the moment he kills the person, without really thinking.

    Same way we want to live a rich and high life. We don’t really intend to kill anyone to get that (at least the vast majority of us don’t want to do so). But something happens in the process. People get killed or hurt, their property destroyed.

    And contrarians plead innocent until proven guilty by a bunch of uneducated juror peers who can easily be swayed by the swagger of a couple of contrarian scientists and big name novelists. Even the judge is coaxing them to return a “not guilty.” And since the jurors are also guilty of the same crime, they surely don’t want to set any precedence that will go against them (even if the victims are their own progeny).

    The problem is its sort of like shooting bullets up into the air (which they do around here on New Years), and some people get hurt. Everyone’s doing it, and you don’t know who’s going to get hurt. The bullets we shoot today will be up in the air a very long time, causing untold harm…but most of it decades, centuries, millennia from now. Doesn’t make for a good crime show or court case.

  10. 60
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ray, you may want to update the Wikipedia article if it’s not been done. Google News found these.
    Note this is a change, any ‘percent’ estimate has to include the time span to be useful information.

    Global Warming Is Being Seriously Underestimated, India – Feb 2, 2007
    This then emits about 65 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. Currently, millions of hectares of peatlands are drained and are decomposing in Indonesia and …

    Once a dream fuel, palm oil may be an eco-nightmare
    Taipei Times, Taiwan – Feb 2, 2007
    “These emissions generated by peat drainage in Indonesia were not counted before,” Kaat said. “It was a totally ignored problem.” …

  11. 61
    Hank Roberts says:

    Finishing the digression, I hope; this is definitely off topic. The sources for the peat/CO2 story are here:

  12. 62
    Marcus says:

    re: 54: Ray Ladbury, your Wikipedia page does not include land-use change emissions, for which estimates range from 3 GtCO2/year (deFries, PNAS, 2002) to 8 GtCO2/year (Houghton, Tellus, 2003) (compared to 24 GtCO2/year from fossil fuel + cement emissions which is what is reported in the Wikipedia table)

    (Though I do share your disagreement with #37 in terms of how hard it will be to stabilize emissions)

  13. 63
    Henry says:

    I like it. Television fiction as metaphor for paleoclimate research. Of course the reality is that Project Innocence has proven hundreds of mistakes in the criminal justice system. Granted they haven’t proven a single mistake in CSI or Cold Case.

  14. 64
    tamino says:

    Re: #52

    I checked out the page of “ExxonMobil Contributed Papers on Climate Science.” They list 41 papers. All but 4 of them (!!!) are “attributable” to ExxonMobil because of the participation of a single author: H. S. Kheshgi. The one I find most ironic is this one:

    28. Kheshgi, H. S. (Contributing Author), 2001. “Technical Summary,” In (J. T. Houghton, and D. Yihui eds.) Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis: Contribution of WGI to the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC, Cambridge University Press, New York, 21-83.

    This isn’t the only IPCC report on which Kheshgi contributed, and all of them are listed as “ExxonMobil Contributed Papers on Climate Science.” In other words, ExxonMobil is trying to take credit for the IPCC reports!

    This is “padding the resume” to the extreme — I’ve never even imagined anything like it. I think it shows, quite effectively, just how hollow are ExxonMobil’s claims that their position on global warming has been “misunderstood.”

  15. 65
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #46 & 47, Wang Dang, you obviously are not a sci fi freak, like me. I was okay with DAT, knowing it was sci fi, but I liked THE ARRIVAL better (aliens trying to accelerate global warming to meet their comfort level). The only problem was my disbelief became unsuspended when the ice started chasing the people — as it did in SUPERMAN when Superman flew around the earth opposite the spin & turned back time. I also didn’t like that much water in WATERWORLD, but would have been okay if it had been explained at coming from both global warming & some aliens shipping in oceans of water to drown us out to make it habitable for them.

    And I have no problem with Venusians who have caused runaway warming on Venus, escaping to earth, but they crash on the moon. Eons later our moon expedition finds their remains & their plans to get to earth in their space pod, and their history on Venus, how they triggered runaway warming. Of course we earthlings are freaking out, thinking maybe some Venusians made it to earth and are living among us, drowning out the voices calling for mitigation of global warming…If I ever get time, I’ll write that up as a screenplay. It’d make a great movie…

    Yeh, I’m no fun at parties. But out of politeness to my hosts, I make my points hard and fast, then move on before it comes to blows. Sorry, but I’m a defender of life on earth, warring against the thanatos drive in the Darth Vaders who would destroy the world.

  16. 66
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #55, Don’t worry, Barton, once we get through with Florida, no one will want it. My place, too, which is not too far above sea level and in a hurricane area — as we moved down we saw the signs pointing in the opposite direction, “Hurricane evacuation route.”

  17. 67
    Dave D says:

    Thanks to mark s and Steve Bloom for responses to my post (#28).
    I found the answer to the time resolution of the ice cores in the link Steve (#45) provided. The answer is 22 years for bubble trapping,
    so the cores have enough “bandwidth” to follow CO2 accurately.

    (Neftel, A., E. Moor, H. Oeschger, and B. Stauffer. 1985.
    Evidence from polar ice cores for the increase in atmospheric CO2 in the past two centuries. Nature 315:45-47.)

  18. 68
    Jerry says:

    Another kind of “cold case” related to climate reconstruction is an article from The Economist, which I excerpt and attach. My edit, ellipsis to omit non-climate related material.

    from: Economist, 10 February 2007
    Better Spatlese than never
    How German wine makers are responding to climate change

    Just as Rheingau Reisling was making its mark again as one of the world’s finest wines, it has come under threat from an unexpected source: climate change. The special quality of Rhine Reisling relies on a mix of cool nights and warm days for slow ripening….

    …But warmer average temperatures are threatening to redraw the wine map. Red grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, traditionally grown in the south, will migrate northward by 200-400km and up hillsides bu 100-150 meters, says Hans Schultz of the Research Institute at Geisenheim in the Rheingau. Bu 2040, cabernet sauvignon will flourish where Reisling does now.

    The impact has already been felt in the past few years. Eiswein, a delicious dessert wine made from grapes which are picked frozen on the vine at a temperature of minus 7C or below, is becoming even rarer. This season the local growers had only two chances – December 27th and January 26th – to pick grapes frozen enough. “That was our latest harvest ever for Eiswein”, says Arno Schales, whose family has grown Reisling since 1783 and has made Eiswein for the past 50 years. His Eiswein this year, a crop of 200 bottles instead of the usual 1,000-2,000, came from pinot noir grapes, which survived the late warm weather without rotting…

    …Mr Schultz, who has written several papers on the subject, notes that the Geisenheim vines are developing shoots seven days earlier, blossoming ten days earlier and starting to ripen 12 days earlier than the 40 year average; they are especially affected by the warmer nights. “Reisling is very sensitive to the soil and the climate,” echoes Ernst Buscher of the German Wine Institute, across the river in Mainz…

  19. 69
    SecularAnimism says:

    Barton Paul Levenson wrote: “Like it or not, countries attack other countries, and any even minimally responsible government will either spend money on a defense establishment of its own or ally itself with a big power that spends it.”

    Indeed, I surely expect that as accelerating anthropogenic global warming, combined with the other ongoing damage that humanity is inflicting on the Earth’s biosphere (e.g. see the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), reduces the capacity of the Earth to support life, while at the same time supplies of the cheap fossil fuel energy upon which industrial civilization is totally dependent peak and then rapidly decline, that the main response of the nations of the world will be to increase military spending, the better to fight with each other over the dwindling resources.

    BPL wrote: “Suddenly stopping military expenditures in the US, for instance, would leave us vulnerable to attack from the large number of countries around the world that hate our guts.”

    The US spends more on its military than the entire rest of the world combined; most of the rest of the military spending is by US allies; and only a small fraction of those US expenditures have anything to do with actually protecting the US from attack. Surely there is some room for adjustments, between a half trillion dollars a year in military expeditures and “Suddenly stopping military expenditures in the US”.

    [Response: Military policy and prospects for doing without military expenditure are decidely off topic here. It came up only as a way of putting the costs of CO2 mitigation into perspective, showing that the expenditures involved do not seem too alarming in light of other things governments routinely spend money on. Let’s leave it at that, shall we? My apologies if I myself contributed to stimulating this digression. —raypierre]

  20. 70
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Since some object to Wikipedia on principle, I will note that the source of the data was the UN. Here’s another one.

    Fuel use of fossil fuels still dominates the sources of CO2. The industrialized countries still dominate the burning of fossil fuel. I do not think it is reasonable to blame the average Brazilian (or Indonesian) farmer for the fix we are in. Could they be part of the solution? Certainly. The point is: If you really want to impact CO2 emissions, you have to change the energy sources used by industry.

  21. 71
    Mike says:

    Re #52/64
    Great work I’m sure Tamino. My apologies for not knowing who’s who in climatology. Maybe they didn’t think people would investigate their claims as carefully as their pals scrutinise the good folk’s work.

    Back to the CSI track – Exxon’s dream team (pun intended) just need to insert reasonable doubt. (Doubt is their product?). Reminds me of the lawyer in the movie “Scarface” who said he was an expert at raising reasonable doubt but “when you’ve got a million three of undeclared dollars staring into a videotape camera, honey baby, it’s hard to convince a jury you found it in a Taxi Cab.”

    Oh to be a juror in an Exxon mass tort claim! (Been reading too many Grishams).

    Keep the good work.

  22. 72
    Climate Fan says:

    I have a silly question, but I need to ask it. The CO2 level that we have now has been unprecedented for 600,000 years. What if someone asks, “Yes, but maybe if you look further back, you WILL find there is a period which has similar CO2 levels”. I know that that is a silly objection; if it were accepted, then no number of statistical studies will be enough. But what is the best way to answer such a question when someone says, “You have not looked long back enough, and perhaps there is a time when we had climate/CO2 levels etc. such as we have today. Hence, this is a natural cycle…”?
    If this question has been answered before, I will appreciate it if you can provide a link.

  23. 73
  24. 74
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 72

    IPCC AR4 will help you understand global temperature has increased since 1900 and CO2 increased about 100 ppm since then. World population in 1900 was 1.6 billion. In 8000 BC it was about 5 million. 600,000 years ago is your guess but likely less than a million.

    So. raising atmospheric CO2 concentration 35 percent in about 100 years and increasing population four-fold in that same time period makes the matter of earlier CO2 concentrations meaningless (to your discussion perhaps). Whatever the concentration and impact on climate then, the earth was unpopulated.

    Ask that someone to look ahead.

  25. 75
    Joel Shore says:

    Re #36: (Regarding the complicity of other GHGs besides CO2.) While there may be a fair bit of uncertainty regarding the sensitivity of climate to GHGs, I believe there is much less uncertainty in regards to the relative sensitivity of climate to the different GHGs. I.e., it is straightforward to determine from the way they absorb radiation what their relative contribution to warming should be. And, in fact, agreements like the Kyoto Protocol have incorporated these other GHGs into the emission reduction requirements using their relative warming potentials.

    It is worth adding, however, that the warming potentials are not the only things that matter, since the lifetime is also important. And, in this regard, I think CO2 has the other “suspects” beat because it has a much longer lifetime in the atmosphere (at least in comparison to the second most potent GHG, methane). So, while lowering methane emissions may actually be a very good short-term strategy to get a lot of bang-for-the-buck (since this could quite quickly lower its concentration due to its short lifetime), eventually you have to deal with “the elephant in the room”, which is CO2…destined to be the dominant player by virtue of its hanging around so long.

  26. 76
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ray L. — yes, but — note the problem with peat in Indonesia is caused by a Dutch “biofuel” project — unintended consequences!

  27. 77
    GAW says:

    I wouldn’t push the CSI analogy too far, most of the wiz-bang technology on display is patently fake.

    A better analogy is between AGWism and epidemiology. Consider the hysteria over Cholesterol. Evidence links Cholesterol to heart disease so the “scientific conclusion” is to put half the populace on Statins – a solution that lowers Cholesterol levels but is not only economically wasteful but probably ineffective in reducing heart disease to boot. In reality, the low fat, high carbohydrate diet recommended by the “medical consensus” is probably largest contributing factor to both the Cholesterol problem and the recent epidemic of obesity. But you certainly won’t hear that from the medical establishment or the for-profit industry that has grown up around the Cholesterol ‘problem’.

    You may or may not agree with my assessment of the Cholesterol problem, but I think you are kidding yourself if you don’t think that “climate science” is subject to many of the same limitations as “medical science”. Reductionism is an extremely difficult discipline and many things can go wrong when your facts are mostly statistical and direct experimental validation of a hypothesis is difficult if not impossible. Both medical and climate sciences face concerns about data quality in the face of bewildering complexity. Both are long on causality and past predictions and short on control and future predictions. Both hide their machinery behind a wall of technology that is impenetrable to the layman. Both come to conclusions that deserve a large does of skepticism.

    My fear is that AGWism, like much of modern medicine, will waste a lot of resources that could be better spent elsewhere. My personal feeling (I am a conservationist) that same effort spent on combating the environmental effects of world poverty would do more towards sustaining what is left of our poor planet’s environment than anything the comes out of AGWism. I don’t have any proof of that, but it is pretty much the same feeling I have towards the effect of modern medicine. Those opinions come more from a deep appreciation of our cultural conceit than any skepticism of our engineering might.

  28. 78
    Mark A. York says:

    “Reductionism is an extremely difficult discipline and many things can go wrong when your facts are mostly statistical and direct experimental validation of a hypothesis is difficult if not impossible.”

    And that is exactly why your argument fails. It’s based on unsubtantiated opinion and no facts at all.

  29. 79
    Steve Latham says:

    Mark, I think you’re being heavy-handed. GAW basically says that we often think we know something when in fact we don’t know it so well. GAW also says the layperson has a difficult time ‘seeing’ evidence for him/herself. I agree with GAW that more controlled experiments would be a real benefit to both climate and medical science. Nothing there to get one’s back up. If there’s one thing in comment 77 I disagree most with, it’s the insinnuendo about profit. There will be inertia if/when the ‘climate consensus’ changes, but it won’t have much to do with profiteering by the scientists.

  30. 80
    Dick Veldkamp says:

    Re #78 AGWism

    GAW, I think what you argue here is a false dichotomy. Surely we could spend 1% of GDP or something (according to Stern) on mitigating the CO2-problem AND tackle other problems at the same time. Also it would appear that conserving nature becomes very much harder if temperature rises as fast as we think it will – so the problems are really connected.

    You seem to imply with your cholesterol argument that evidence for AGW is rather flimsy. Please take a look at Raypierre’s reply #120 under “Nigel Calder”, that sums up the evidence in a few lines. If that does not satisfy you, what better advice can I give you than to read some more of th4 stuff on this site?

  31. 81
    Sashka says:

    Re: 57

    Anything that helps to bring this under control has got to be a good thing, with lots of benefits for biodiversity as well as for global warming. What’s to dispute about that?

    To dispute is the Kyoto approach regarding the means and ways whereby the developing countries are assumed to be just a small part of the problem. To dispute also are the well-intentioned government initiatives that lead to the Indonesian fiasco in the first place.

    [Response: So Kyoto doesn’t solve all the world’s environmental problems. Agreed. So now what do you want to do about it? How does dropping the only mechanism currently available for dealing with a big part of the problem (i.e. developed world CO2 emissions) help solve the Indonesian problem? Anyway, I’m glad you agree something should be done. Kyoto’s not my favorite either, and there are a lot of things I’d do differently if I were the emperor of the world, but I’m not. International negotiations are messy. I think you’ll have a hard time arguing that what’s going on in Indonesia has much to do with anything other than good old fashioned greed and good old fashioned lax environmental regulations. –raypierre]

  32. 82
    Sashka says:

    Re: 30, 45

    I don’t doubt Eric’s credentials for a minute. Unfortunately, in the RC article that you linked he never mentioned diffusion even once. The only relevant to my inquery bit came from a reader (Georg Hoffmann). However I’m not sure that the paper that he’s referring to discusses diffusion on long time scale.

    [Response: Sashka, we’re getting tired of doing your literature searches for you. You are surely perfectly capable of looking up the diffusivity of gas in ice, and combining that with the porosity of densified ice to get the number you’re asking for. Our conversation with you, if you can call it that, struck me as familiar, and suddenly I figured out why. When my children were quite small, they figured out that, their parents being professors and having a natural reflex to answer questions, they could be kept going almost indefinitely on any topic by simple utterances of “why?” and “how come?” without even needing to listen to the answer. Sometimes it was amusing (to them, always, actually), but not a great way to make any progress on learning things. At some point we instituted the idea of the “question buzzer.” After a certain number of “whys” and “how comes” the question buzzer would go off and no more questions would be answered untill the kiddies had reflected on the previous answer and shown some progress in understanding. I should add that they grew out of the mechanical “whys” and “how come” stage by the time they got to first grade. Draw your own conclusions about what I’m getting at here. –raypierre]

  33. 83
    SecularAnimist says:

    Every episode of Law & Order begins with this voiceover:

    In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups – the police who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

    With apologies to Dick Wolf:

    In dealing with anthropogenic global warming, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups – the climate scientists who investigate the scientific facts of global warming and climate change, and the environmental advocates who work to educate the public and policy makers and press for change to reduce the harmful consequences. These are their stories.

  34. 84
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #79: GAW, I would urge you (and anyone else who hasn’t) to read the Discovery of Global Warming on-line book and the new IPCC Report (both linked through the right bar). Also, I think your analogy to medicine is really quite apt, except that climate science is in the role of simply making the diagnosis. In terms of solutions, I suspect most climate scientists would suggest prevention as the first and best course of action now that the diagnosis has been made. The analogy in the case of high cholesterol would be to utilizing appropriate diet and exercise to first stabilize and then reduce the problem. Drug intervention is comparable to various geo-engineering schemes that seek to avoid addressing the causes.

    Regarding your concerns about conservation, speaking as a long-time Sierra Club leader I would point out that there are reasons why world poverty isn’t getting sufficient attention now, and that those reasons have nothing to do with a desire to devote resources to dealing with global warming. Besides, things like increasing drought associated with climate chnage are not likely to be very kind to the Third World.

  35. 85
    Craig Allen says:

    Re #76: Actually CO2 release in Indonesia (and particularly in the peat forests of north-east Sumatra, Kalimantan-Borneo and perhaps also Irian Jaya (East Papua) is caused by a combination of burning, the creation of vast networks of drainage channels that dry out the peat and wetlands and conversion to farmland and plantations. This is being done by both farmers (massive settlement transmigration settlement programs have been underway for decades) and by forestry companies. Dutch companies and others may be there, but both Indonesia and Malaysian companies are notorious for these practices both there and elsewhere in South-east Asia and the Pacific Region. Go for a tour on Google Earth – it’s really scary.

    Having said that, I was traveling in the Tarkine region of North West Tasmania (Australia) last week and I came across landscape scale areas of temperate rainforest and mixed eucalyptus forest on peat soils that are rapidly being converted to monoculture blue-gum plantations (again it is clear as day on Google Earth). Then we came across an area where from horizon to horizon the rainforest has been so fiercely/repeatedly burnt that all that is left is a depauporate grassland-heath on a skeletal chalky substrate.

    Mind you, much of the timber is used to provide the cheap chipboard, skirting and and just about anything else wooden in our luxury western homes. We’re all implicated in this.

  36. 86
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #82: Well, there may be another post that addresses it, so try searching the site. Alternatively, Google Scholar is your friend. Offhand, though, what makes you think it’s a problem at all? Finding literature that simply proves a negative can be difficult. In any case, trying to think the issue through, diffusion could have only a smoothing effect, and if it was suspected that it was somehow masking CO2 excursions (which I think would imply greater climate sensitivity) I’m confident we would have heard a great deal about it.

  37. 87
    Sashka says:

    Re: 78

    I’m curious what sort of facts would you like to see in support of the opinion expressed in 76? Do you think that direct experimental validation of a hypothesis is easy? If it’s so easy how come hundreds of scientists are working on it so hard?

    What I find wrong about GW “debate” is that positions of the sides are not falsifiable. The denialist wouldn’t agree that the observed trend is out bounds of natural variablilty. Or they would look for other than CO2 reasons. No need for me to bash them: there is a hundred people here who specialize in this sport.

    My problem with “mainstream” is over-reliance on models. Is there something that would signal that the models are wrong? I’m not claiming (just suspecting) there is but the hypothesis that the models are right must be falsifiable. What is the criterion? Is there anything that should happen with climate such that the modeling community would admit that the models don’t have sufficient predictive ability to forecast 100 years forward even with the horrible variance that the current generation displays?

    Correct me if I’m wrong: I don’t believe there is anything that would shutter the confidence. Say, mean global temp in 2007 goes down 1 degree C vs 2006 (no volcanoes, no major La Nina etc.) Does anybody foresee this? No. Would it change anything? I guess not. Free variablity. Noise in the system. Perhaps. All I’m saying that model verification process must include a possibility of falsification. Otherwise there is just one possible outcome. In which case we move to the domain of religion instead of science.

  38. 88
    Sashka says:

    Re: 87

    In my mind, stack of snow is a porous medium which could allow the air bubble to diffuse through the column until it solidifies completely. I don’t know how long the complete solidification might take, not even down to an order of magnitude.

    The smoothing could obscure sharp CO2 changes in the past. Not that it changes anything about human-made CO2 trend but still I’d like Ray’s lightbulb moment to be taken in the right perspective. Perhaps there’s nothing wron with the argument at all. I’m just asking.

  39. 89
    S. Molnar says:

    Gavin, I love the new multiple choice search function. If you need me to be your straight man for anything else, don’t hesitate to ask.

    [Response: No problem. You inspired some kindly reader to help me out – I will use you again in future if necessary! Thanks. – gavin]

  40. 90
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Kyoto was supposed to be a baby step in global cooperation in global warming. Criticism that it doesn’t solve the world’s problems is like ragging on a toddler for not winning the Olympic 100 meter dash.

  41. 91
    tamino says:

    Re: #82

    Sashka, if you study the data carefully you’ll discover that for at least the last 700,000 years or so (the time period covered by EPICA dome C), diffusion (even long-term) cannot be a big factor in these measurements.

    That’s because the pattern of CO2 changes from one glaciation to the next are so similar. Diffusion could only smooth the data, but in fact they show no sign of any reduction in variance from one to another glaciation/deglaciation.

    You remind me of the “skeptics” who suggested that the moons of Jupiter discovered by Galileo were actually internal reflections caused by imperfections of the optics. Galileo wondered how it would be possible to construct optical imperfections that would perfectly mimic four separate satellites proceeding in regular orbits around the planet! And when Galileo set up his telescope so the skeptics could actually see them … they refused to look.

  42. 92
    Jim Crabtree says:

    Ray L:

    I still stand by my numbers in #37. China (a third world country) is rapidly approaching us for producing CO2 and is expected to overtake us in the near future. India is moving up rapidly. I wonder if the UN man-made emissions numbers for Brazil include the transformation of the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source. As for the people – look at how many working poor we have in this country (and we are a rich country). Many of them are living just a paycheck or so away from going under (I call that barely surviving). Most drive cars that get poor gas mileage and live in homes that don’t have energy efficient appliances and live in poorly insulated homes. Now look at China, India, and Brazil and see how many working poor there are. China is bringing online a new coal fired plant at about 1 a week. Think about how much it will cost to retrofit all of the these plants (and other facilities – they most likely won’t shut them down). Most of the workers in Chinese factories are working poor. On a per capita basis, their carbon foot print is small, but their populations are large. What percentage of these people can afford to cut their carbon footprint? The poor slash and burn farmer in Brazil has one objective – to feed his wife and 7 kids today and he is not too worried about something a few years down the road.


  43. 93
    tamino says:

    Re: diffusion in snow

    Take a look at Etheridge et al. (1996, J. Geophysical Res., 101, 4115), which describes in detail the analysis of the Law Dome ice core. They study the effect of diffusion in the snow (actually firn) by sampling the air in the snow itself down to the “bubble closure” depth (about 72m). This corresponds to ice only 10 years old, but the low value for Law Dome is due to the very high rate of snow accumulation at that site.

  44. 94
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #87: Sashka, Dave D. was able to find the answer in the post I linked; see #67 above. 22 years to seal the bubbles clearly presents no problem given the rate of CO2 change being reflected, especially since the diffusion rate would be dropping to zero during that period (and so each bubble effectively would reflect rather less than 22 years of mixing). As for diffusion afterwards, I can imagine there being a small amount, but given the lengths of time we’re concerned with it would have to be a large effect indeed and even so would only tend to make deglaciations look a little less abrupt. But as Raypierre noted, the calculation shouldn’t be that tough. If it turns out to be too hard, of course somebody somewhere has aleady done it (probably lots of somebodies), but if you can’t find anything via Google Scholar email Eric and ask him who would be likely to have such a thing at their fingertips. If he doesn’t know, try NSIDC; I think they have a budget for PR. Good luck with that.

  45. 95
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #83, or:

    In dealing with anthropogenic global warming, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups – the climate scientists who investigate the scientific facts of global warming and climate change, and the policy-makers who don’t do much about it and let the environment and society go to ruin (as district attorneys would if they refused to prosecute criminal cases, but let offenders off scott-free). These are their stories.

    The environmentalists would then be like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and they’re hopping MADD at the inaction.

  46. 96
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    So now that we’re thick into analogies, how about it if climate scientists expand their concept “runaway warming” to include as a special case the more limited type of runaway scenario, in which the climate eventually rebounds to the initial conditions at the start of the process, as happened after the end-Permian and PETM warming episodes?

    “Runaway” is an analogy (a concept that should not be reified), based presumably on runaway horses or cars that get out of our human control, then eventually stop. So we could have type I runaway warming that stays (relatively) permanently in a new hotter state, as on Venus, or on Earth billions of years from now when the sun greatly heats up. And then we could have type II runaway (or hysteresis runaway), like a bell curve, in which the climate heats up for thousands of years, but then returns to its cooler starting point. A situation in which we may heat the world initially by our GHGs, but that warming causes nature to net emit more GHGs, leading to more warming and more of nature’s emissions, and so only, spirally well beyond anything we could do much about, even if we reduce to zero emissions.

    We really do need a word for this that distinguishes it from linear GW, which presumably in this instance we could halt by halting our GHG emissions, after a lag time. I know from a scientific point of view, GHGs are GHGs whether from human emissions or from nature, but from a policy POV, the distinction is important.

    And BTW, horses that run away, usually return to the stable later of their own accord to get their meal.

  47. 97
    Marco Parigi says:

    Re: #75(Regarding the complicity of other GHGs besides CO2.) While there may be a fair bit of uncertainty regarding the sensitivity of climate to GHGs, I believe there is much less uncertainty in regards to the relative sensitivity of climate to the different GHGs

    This doesn’t make sense – If there is uncertainty in the sensitivity in climate to GHG’s in general, and the mechanisms via which extra net radiation gets absorbed is different for each individual GHG, and because most GHG’s have been rising since industrialisation, there is almost certainly more uncertainty in the relative sensitivities than in the net.

    in fact, agreements like the Kyoto Protocol have incorporated these other GHGs into the emission reduction requirements using their relative warming potentials.

    In fact methane capture projects seem to be the only ones that have been financed just on the basis of their GHG reduction by Kyoto. Yet, you find me a scientist that will push for methane capture over wind farms. Why is nobody pushing for a reduction of methane emmissions by 75% within 10 years.

    And, in this regard, I think CO2 has the other “suspects” beat because it has a much longer lifetime in the atmosphere

    CFC’s also have a very long lifetime – In fact, the atmospheric concentration is yet to peak, years after emmissions have dropped substantially. It is still plausible that eliminating all short term GHG’s and relaxing our emmissions standards for sulphates could get temperatures dropping again. That would buy us heaps of time to concentrate on the Elephant, and to tease out more accurate relative sensitivities through regression analysis of climate data.

  48. 98
    Steve Latham says:

    Hi Lynn,
    Here’s a happy link about things actually getting done. Not science, though, so no need to discuss these things here.

  49. 99
    James says:

    Re #92: You say “…look at how many working poor we have in this country (and we are a rich country). Many of them are living just a paycheck or so away from going under…”

    And why is that, I ask? At the simplest level, not only does it cost _nothing_ to do things like turn off unused lights (particularly outdoor ones left burning all night), or lower thermostats, it leaves money in your pocket. Similarly, if all you can afford is a 20 year old clunker, there are a lot of (comparatively) fuel-efficient Hondas and Toyotas of that vintage. No one _has_ to drive a gas-guzzler, and again, choosing not to do so leaves money in your pocket.

    The problem, in a lot of cases, is not lack of money per se, but the attitude that you’re supposed to spend every cent you get, even if it’s on things you don’t particularly want. That attitude goes across all levels of society: I know people with 6-figure incomes who are likewise just a paycheck or two away from going under.

    Indeed, the fear of losing this sacred “lifestyle” seems to be at the root of most of the denialists’ frantic search for alternative theories. They’re not worried about starving if/when climate change causes massive crop failures, because things like that are totally outside their experience. They’ve gotten used to a society where even the poor – perhaps especially the poor – are obese.

  50. 100
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#91, Galileo also dispensed with the notion of retrograde motion introduced by Ptolemy and others to account for the observed behavior of the planets; he showed that if you put the sun at the center than there was no need to invoke backwards motions of the planets.

    Assuming that we are heading for the Pliocene-type conditions (3mya), paleoclimatology can tell us something about that world. In 1997, the picture looked like – for a 2004 update, see :

    “Relative to today, the Pliocene warm period was characterized by: 3C higher global surface temperatures, 10-20m higher sea level, enhanced thermohaline circulation, slightly reduced Antarctic ice sheets, emerging but small Northern Hemisphere ice coverage, and slightly (30%) higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. A small decrease in carbon dioxide concentration could explain the cooling at the end of the warm period if coupled with positive feedbacks, as suggested for the onset of significant Antarctic glaciation.”

    When you consider the massive proportion of people who live in coastal areas, combined with the fact that low-lying countries of 40 million (Bangladesh) are expected to mostly vanish, what you have is a catastrophe, except that you can’t be sure how fast the changes will come. Current rates of fossil fuel CO2 emissions, as well as current rates of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, appear to be accelerating – not an encouraging phenomenon.

    Obviously, the thing to do is to 1) keep monitoring the land-ocean-atmosphere-ice system and 2) stop burning fossil fuels, especially coal. Since it doesn’t do much good if only half the world stops burning fossil fuels, we need treaties like Kyoto just to get a forum for international agreements. The incidence of heat waves and intense storms is almost certainly going to increase over historical averages – which is where most of the initial damage can be expected.

    How do you define “damages due to extreme weather?”

    It turns out that the NWS and the NOAA’s use of the 1971-2000 time period (as compared to the 1961-1990 time period) as a baseline has some effect on the ‘weather risk insurance industry’. Their explanation for their change of baseline can be found at – not knowing exactly how ‘extreme weather event insurance’ works, I hesitate to speculate too much on the underlying rationale, other than to note that redefining “normal” is an unusual method of limiting risk. NOAA has also determined that global warming is not connected to any increase in hurricane intensity:

    “According to Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, head of NOAA, we are entering a cyclical period of extreme weather in the Atlantic that could last another 30 years. “I don’t look at that as the end of civilization or our ability to ensure the core of our economy,” he says. “But we are in a period of higher risk right now.” Six hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. in 2004–the most since 1985–and nine of the hottest years on recent record were in the past decade, according to insurance giant Swiss Re.

    The economic toll is dramatic. Last season’s hurricanes caused $56 billion in damages. The European heat wave of 2003 cost economies there roughly $20 billion. And 2004 was the most expensive year ever for the insurance industry; it will pay out roughly $39 billion in claims related to natural disasters globally.”

    The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation is in retrograde, and there is no proof that CO2 plays any major driving role in the climate system…and a moderate El Nino caused the record warmth this winter… except that in Moscow, it was the North Atlantic Oscillation… and in the Artic, it was the Arctic oscillation…you see, all this is due to the various climate epicycles lining up just so, in order to create this (undoubtedly) temporary climate fluctuation.