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What George Will should have written

Filed under: — gavin @ 28 February 2009

We’ve avoided piling on to the George Will kerfuffle, partly because this was not a new story for us (we’d commented on very similar distortions in previous columns in 2004 and 2007), but mostly because everyone else seems to be doing a great job in pointing out the problems in his recent columns.

We are actually quite gratified that a much wider group of people than normal have been involved in calling out this latest nonsense, taking the discussion well outside the sometimes-rarefied atmosphere of the scientific blogosphere (summary of links). Maybe RealClimate has succeeded in its original aim of increasing the wider awareness of the scientific context? However, like many, we are profoundly disappointed in the reaction of the Washington Post editors and George Will himself (though the ombudsman’s column today is a step in the right direction). It would have been pleasant to see an example of the conservative punditocracy actually learning something from the real world instead of resorting to ever-more unconvincing pseudo-legalistic justifications and attacks on the messenger to avoid taking their head out of the sand. Nonetheless, in a moment of naive optimism, we have allowed ourselves to indulge in a fantasy for how a more serious columnist might have dealt with the issue:

The scientific method in journalism
Feb 29th, 2009, Washington post

This column recently reported and commented on some developments pertinent to the debate about whether global warming is occurring and what can and should be done.

It is no secret that I am a critic of sensationalism in the coverage of environmental issues and that I have a philosophical preference for reality-based policies over those based on the ideologically-based fantasies of those I critique.

In my last column, I reported on a statistic concerning sea ice extent – that global sea ice extent is unchanged since 1979 – that was trivially shown to be untrue, and for that I apologize. Rather than throw the fact checkers in my office or at the Washington Post under the bus, I take full responsibility for the mistake. However, as with good scientific practice, this provides an example of how journalism too can learn from its mistakes.

The source of the original quote was a Daily Tech blog post published in early January. While that post itself was heavily criticized as being misleading, it did use data from a reliable scientific source which was technically accurate at the time. My error was in assuming that scientific ‘facts’ don’t change over a month or two and thus it was not necessary to revisit the source of the original data before writing my column. What was true in January would still be true in February, right? Wrong.

What I didn’t consider was that in complex and noisy data there are always going to be outliers, and in heavily politicised subjects there will always be people who will want to exploit a chance occurrence for a sound-bite. I should of course have known better since I decry this practice on a regular basis in discussions of economic issues. Through a combination of wishful thinking and time constraints, my failure to recognize a piece of classic cherry-picking lay at the heart of this problem.

However, sometimes old dogs do learn new tricks. The surprising fact (to me at least) that the difference in global sea ice between two single dates 30 years apart can change so radically in such a short space of time, implies that it is not a particularly good measure of long term climate change. It is a bit like looking at a single stock to gauge the health of the economy. Unfortunately (for me at least), it also validates the scientific consensus about the original article. It was indeed a misleading statistic, and I was indeed misled. Next time I will try and be more careful.

There continues to be a pressing need for an informed conservative discussion of the issues of climate change. Voices such as Senator John McCain, and businessman Jim Manzi (writing in the Nation last year National Review in 2007) can perhaps show the way. The distraction of the last week over exact parsings and interpretations of technical data are just a sideshow while real decisions are already being made every day in Washington. In order for conservatives to have a voice at those tables, we need to be seen as serious contributors. Every time we are mislead by amateur bloggers, we lose another chance to influence policy. This may have been useful as a delaying tactic in the past, but now that there is clear leadership in the White House, this serves only to marginalize conservatives even further. Unlikely as it may seem for me to quote President Obama approvingly, it may be time for us to put aside childish things.

If only…..

497 Responses to “What George Will should have written”

  1. 201
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Yes, Bill (#193), “We do research that tests hypotheses, not research designed to support hypotheses.”

    And the hypothesis the scientists are testing is the null hypothesis — e.g., that our current climate is caused by natural factors (not greenhouse gases). And only when they get tons of evidence that do not support their null hypothesis, then they reject it, and accept the alternative hypothesis.

    In other words, they try darned hard every way they can to see if the evidence fits the null hypothesis (that the climate is caused by all the natural, regular forces, and not by GHGs), and only when the evidence can no longer support this null hypothesis, after years of trying to show that it does, do they then reject it, and in doing so, accept the alternative hypothesis — that GHGs are contributing to global warming.

    In other cases, such as cancer clusters in neighborhoods where there is a known carcinogen in the water, people get really upset that science cannot say that their cancers are caused by the bad water (usually because the numbers are too low to achieve statisical significance, and stats end up at the .15 sig level (15% chance the null hypothesis is correct), so they can’t reject the null; but that also means there is an 85% chance the null is incorrect, so the people wonder, “what’s wrong with science, there are carcinogens in the well water and my kid died.”

    And knowing the physics behind the natural greenhouse effect (which we should have learned in high school), and learning about the increases in GHGs in the atmosphere, we should have been upset in the late 80s and early 90s when we got those terrifically hot years that the scientists were unable to say (because of the rigorously high level of confidence they require) that the warming was caused by the anthropogenic greenhouse effect. We should have (as some of us did) push on to solve this problem despite the fact that science had not yet established it at the .05 sig level (5% or less chance the null hypothesis is correct….which wasn’t reached in a sci study until 1995). We should have been marching on Washington demanding action.

    As people should push on to get those carcinogens out of their water, even if their cancer cluster cannot be definitively proven to be connected to them.

  2. 202

    Please note that the cap-and-trade mechanism put in place by the first Bush administration to control sulfate emissions and hence acid rain has worked very well. I live in Pennsylvania; the deciduous forests are coming back.

  3. 203

    Mark, I replied to your somewhat patronizing #195 but my reply never showed up; perhaps it fell afoul of board rules and regulations. Let me just say that I am perfectly well aware of the sunspot cycle, and the sunspot cycle doesn’t correlate to temperature anomalies when I run them against ln CO2 and sunspot number in a multiple linear regression. That’s why I didn’t mention sunspot cycles. As far as I can tell, they don’t affect a damn thing.

  4. 204
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #186 & my solutions which usually focus on what the consumer can do re energy/resource efficiency/conservation & alt energy (which BTW also help solve many other problems, including economic problems), here is a an important counterpoint to that:

    PRODUCTION-SIDE ENVIRONMENTALISM. It shows how the producers have a bigger role in reducing GHGs and other environmental harms, than consumers, and how they’ve been increasing production (and harm), while “meaningful” consumption has remained flat.


  5. 205
    RichardC says:

    194 Mark said, “Richard 191, well, be clearer in your communication”

    Yep, my original post was unclear and technically incorrect (I said “substantially” instead of “a substantial amount of”). That’s why I had nothing to say about Gavin’s response. The only study I’ve heard of says up to 35% (or so) solar forcing for 1900-1950. Since 1958 the sun has dimmed, so there’s no evidence to support the denier core hypothesis.

  6. 206
    Michael says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan, I would like to encourage people around me to adapt ‘energy/resource efficiency/conservation & alt energy’ strategies in order to solve GW, but what data do I have to back up my argument? What is the status of the science of GW solutions? At this point are we just beginning to delve into the answers to the GW problem, or have we looked into this extensively and determined that lifestyle changes in the western world is the best course of action?

  7. 207
    sidd says:

    Mr. Levenson writes on the %th of March 2009, at 12:57

    “I live in Pennsylvania; the deciduous forests are coming back.”

    Could this be due to shift in climate zones rather than mitigation of acid rain ?

  8. 208
    Hank Roberts says:

    Michael, there’s a guy named “michel” who’s been asking this same question in several threads lately over at Tamino’s blog “Open Mind” — you might want to look up that conversation, to avoid a lot of retyping in this topic. The ‘Start Here’ button at top also is good.

    While we might hope George Will should have written an answer to your question, it seems unlikely.
    Short answer: insulate, conserve, read.

  9. 209

    sidd, given that the forests were adapted to the previous climate regime, and that mortality was widely ascribed to acid rain, I doubt it.

  10. 210
    Nick Gotts says:

    It is better to debate a question without deciding it than to decide it without debating it. – Stuart Harmon

    Well, that rather depends on the question. If wou’re standing in the path of an express train coming straight towards you and evidently unable to stop, it’s probably best to decide which way to jump without debating it, no?

  11. 211
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #206, Michael, you want evidence — I was tracking our electric bill for a couple of yrs after (and before) we got our SunFrost frig in 1991 (the bills also had the average daily temp, so we could match up like temp months), and the electric bill took a nose dive right after getting the frig. We bought it thinking it would use 1/10 the energy of our old frig, but it was actually 1/12 the energy. As an additional bonus we found much less veggie spoilage, another savings. I calculated the frig had paid for itself ($2600) in such savings within 16 years & has gone on to save between $100-200 every year. And that was just one measure.

    There is my $6 low-flow showerhead. I measured the difference with a bucket and stopwatch — it cut hot water for showers in half. Estimating from our water costs & gas bill to heat the water, I figured conservatively we save about $100 per year on that.

    We have already been living within one to two miles of work since the 1970s oil crunch, and have been driving less than 4000 miles per year. That has saved us lots of money in fuel & car repairs & time, and intangibles such as less frustration with no traffic problems; less exposure to noxious fumes in the car.

    I could go on and on with the 50+ other measures, but that might require a whole article or book.

    THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON NOT TO MITIGATE GLOBAL WARMING, since most measures also save money without lowering living standards, and they mitigate many many other problems from health issues, other enviro problems, wars for oil, you name it. It’s a win-win-win-win-win strategy, and why people persist in a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose BAU strategy is totally mind-boggling, evil incarnate.

  12. 212
    Michael says:

    Hank, Michel is arguing the finer details of GW strategies. My question has to do with the state of the overall science. Let me try again: there has been a lot of time, cash, and energy spent on climate studies over the last couple of decades, but how much time, cash, and energy has been spent on studying climate fixes?

  13. 213
    Hank Roberts says:

    Michael, this may help. It’s a thread here:
    Several of those entries include links that will lead you to chat-room type discussion forums where people go into detail on the specific subjects involved.

  14. 214
    Hank Roberts says:

    Michael, for a simple summary on possible fixes, see this one paper:
    As recommended here:
    If you’re looking for economic studies, pricing, etc., Google Scholar for those words +climate gets aplenty.

    For asking questions, it would help if you’d say what

  15. 215
    Michael says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan, I’m not asking if it (energy/resource efficiency/conservation & alt energy) is a good idea, I’m asking if it is a GW solution.

  16. 216
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Michael, Climate risk mitigation is like any other risk mitigation. That is, you define risk as the product of the probability of a threat being realized and the consequences if it were realized. The basic rules are that you are justified in spending up to the amount at risk to mitigate the risk. Strategies ror risk mitigation either try to decrease the probability of the threat (threat avoidance) or decrease its consequences (amelioration). Threat avoidance for climate change comes down to limiting the CO2 we put into the air. Strategies like injecting sulfate aerosols don’t really count here, because they do nothing to address the long-term threat–stop injecting sulfated and the warming returns within a couple of years. Carbon capture from the atmosphere would also count. Amelioration strategies would depend on the threat being addressed, but would include sea walls to mitigate sea-level rise, etc. Part of the problem is that we don’t have a handle on all the risks yet. It seems that wherever we look we find new ones. That is why serious folks like Hansen and Lovelock advocate only threat avoidance.

  17. 217
    Deep Climate says:

    If you think George Will is “fact challenged”, check out Lorne Gunter of the Canadian daily newspaper the National Post. His latest diatribe on “global cooling” gets four or five facts completely wrong – and that’s just in the first paragraph. It’s been three days already, but there are no corrections from the National Post yet.

  18. 218
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Well, #215, Michael, I’ve been studying this issue for 20 years, and wrote my thesis on Environmental Victimology. I’ve spent time searching for ways to mitigate global warming by reducing GHGs, planting trees, etc.

    But, you have a point. If I’m one in a very small percent of people reducing their greenhouse gas emissions (which includes reducing consumption of products, which have a GHG component), and the vast majority of others around the world are increasing their GHG emissions (as evidenced by ever increasing emissions), and the goverments are doing little to restructure it so as to encourage GHG reductions (they could end all subsidies and tax-breaks for fossil fuel tomorrow, if they had a heart), then it probably won’t do a whole lot of good. That’s very sad.

    Especially when you consider that at some point probably soon even if we humans totally halt our net GHG emissions (or bring them down to, say, 10% of what they are now), the initial warming we have caused will release vast quantities of methane and carbon from melting permafrost and ocean hydrates (which is already starting to happen), causing more warming & more melting & more CH4 release, causing more warming, and so on perhaps to oblivion for all life on earth.

    That is very very sad. But, I think I’ll continue doing my part best I can, and hope other out there will have the heart to do their share.

  19. 219
    Peter Backes says:

    George Will is a little out of sync with his buddies in the oil business. Oil companies are already rubbing their hands in anticipation of more offshore oil deposits becoming accessible due to Arctic melting. Even nations are starting to argue and stake Arctic claims and counter claims.

    One can imagine a day when George will pen an article on the ice-free Arctic being the US’s manifest destiny.

    Perhaps he’ll look back on this contrarian column and ponder the error of his ways…


  20. 220

    #211 Bravo Lynn! Hope Lomborg reads this site. Economists calculations are suspect anyways! Why would we listen to their not so lucid renewable energy cost estimates? The same conservative financial guru gang created an economic downturn they are barely sorry about. Your small utility investment model can be replicated world wide. Journalists faired just as badly as economists in leading every one into mismanagement on the grandest scale, so its not surprising
    miss-information is rampant. Better preach without words by what you do, than to be lectured
    by dumb media savvy economists.

  21. 221

    Let’s see now … “ideologically-based fantasies of those I critique” … “pressing need for an informed conservative discussion of the issues of climate change”. So it’s OK if it’s ideological, as long as it’s his ideology?

  22. 222
    Brian Dodge says:

    “Even if all CO2 were removed from the earth atmosphere, global climate would not become any cooler,” says solar physicist Vladimir Bashkirtsev.

    “Deforestation of the mountain`s foothills is the most likely culprit (for the loss of Kilimanjaro glaciers-BD) because without forests there is too much evaporation of humidity into outer space.”
    Nicholas Pepin, Britain`s Portsmouth University.

    With reported statements from scientists like these, its no wonder George Will is, um, “confused”.

    “Anyway, nuff said. I’ll just say that I’d bet the farm that in 100 years people look back and think “I can’t believe they thought they had it all figured out”. I understand that you have to make the best assumptions you can make and go with the result – it’s the only way to move forward. I just can’t believe folks don’t add a LOT more caveats and that a significant group of scientists believe they KNOW how the climate is going to change going forward.”Jeff 4 March 2009 at 1:01 AM .

    I think you’re confusing INACCURATE and WRONG. Just because there are uncertainties in how soon(10 years?, 50 years?) the arctic will be mostly ice free (90%? 50%?) in the summer, or how long it will take(years, decades, centuries, millennia) for sea levels to rise catastrophically(cm, feet, meters?), or when & where AGW will decrease food production so much that large numbers(1e6?, 1e7?, 1e8?) of people starve to death, doesn’t mean that we don’t KNOW that the climate is warming because we have added about 100ppm fossil C+O2 to the atmosphere already, and the more we add the warmer it will get. I’ll take your bet, and raise the wager; I’ll bet the lives of future generations (some fraction to be determined) that the survivors will look back and ask instead “How could they have been so greedy and arrogant?”. Since I don’t have any descendants, other peoples children and grandchildren will have to pay the bet. I won’t be around to collect, but there are a bunch of people living in less temperate climes who will be moving someplace else when their part of the world is no longer inhabitable, to collect for me; they will be bringing tropical diseases and social unrest (at a minimum) with them.

    Don’t like my terms? Sorry, the bet’s already been laid.

    Think my hippie liberal left wing perspective is exaggerated? A 2003 Pentagon study states
    “With over 400 million people living in drier, subtropical, often over-populated and economically poor regions today, climate change and its follow-on effects pose a severe risk to political, economic, and social stability. In less prosperous regions, where countries lack the resources and capabilities required to adapt quickly to more severe conditions, the problem is very likely to be exacerbated. For some countries, climate change could become such a challenge that mass emigration results as the desperate peoples seek better lives in regions such as the United States that have the resources to adaptation.”
    “Rather than decades or even centuries of gradual warming, recent evidence suggests the possibility that a more dire climate scenario may actually be unfolding.”
    and “…the implications for national security outlined in this report are only hypothetical. The actual impacts would vary greatly depending on the nuances of the weather conditions, the adaptability of humanity, and decisions by policy makers. Violence and disruption stemming from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed to today. Military confrontation may be triggered by a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water rather than by conflicts over ideology, religion, or national honor. The shifting motivation for confrontation would alter which countries are most vulnerable and the existing warning signs for security threats.”

  23. 223
    pete best says:

    Re # 211
    Lyn, you end of comment passage:

    THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON NOT TO MITIGATE GLOBAL WARMING, since most measures also save money without lowering living standards, and they mitigate many many other problems from health issues, other enviro problems, wars for oil, you name it. It’s a win-win-win-win-win strategy, and why people persist in a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose BAU strategy is totally mind-boggling, evil incarnate.

    Probably because a lot of people whos opinion matters (unfortunately) have to wrestele with politics and economics of the situation and realise that even with incentives a vast block of people (voters) would not do anything anyway even if it was free because they do not read at all, are not bothered at all, see no evidence of climate change etc and always confuse weather and climate even when they do think about it which is not often. Lets gets this into perspective, the USA now has a new green president and it needs to be green (renewable) technology all the way through this century and Obama has a plan.

    Lots of money for a large scale upgrading of the US electricity grid and then once done get the vast solar and wind projects that the USA has access to off of the ground and get them millions og hybrid and electric vehicles rolling on US roads. However does this guarantee success in the climate fight I wonder. Well if the USA stops using gasoline are manages to cut its usage by say 50% then will Saudi Arabia be happy about that, will it leave it in the ground or try to sell it to someone else, someone else I would suggest.

    Plenty of pitfalls to come even if individually we can make a difference in our own way. The west that North America (350 million) and Europe (400 million) and some other places such as Australia/NZ (30 million) are responsible for the lions share of CO2 emissions but China and possibly India have growing economies and economically the west is somewhat reliant on them now. We do it first (or do we) and they follow but is that the plan and can we arrange it and will it work.

    Efficieny gains are the easy low hanging fruit, as you said, better freezing and refrigeration, loft and wall insulation, in the USA its easy to halve fuel consumption etc. Any evidence of it as yet though, its all such a slow business. Fortunately so it the changing climate.

  24. 224
    pete best says:

    Re #218, Lyn, from this posting:

    Especially when you consider that at some point probably soon even if we humans totally halt our net GHG emissions (or bring them down to, say, 10% of what they are now), the initial warming we have caused will release vast quantities of methane and carbon from melting permafrost and ocean hydrates (which is already starting to happen), causing more warming & more melting & more CH4 release, causing more warming, and so on perhaps to oblivion for all life on earth.


    Is it proven and is it a scientifc fact that here come the methane?! It seems a little over the top especially the term oblivion for it has hapenned before has metane relase and as part fo the 5 previous great extinctions and hey the planet is as beautiful and life still thrives (give it a few million or tens of millions of years).

    The AGW non scientific language is getting fruity and somewhat overstated all over the web but lets leave it out here at RC which is the only realisitic science site run by scientists themselves.

    Some girl/woman/lady here in the UK threw custard our Lord Mandleson today as he attended a energy conference or redcuing CO2 emisions. We have a long way to go but the Obama administration is a good start relative to the previous one anyway, its going to take a long time to reduce our emissions globally so lets stop getting frustrated shall we. LEts keep it truely scientific.

  25. 225
    Mark says:

    BPL #203 then why did you not mention sunspot cycles, if you know about them, I mentioned them and you mentioned other things I had said?

    Be condescending on your own time, kid.

  26. 226
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Hi Pete (#224). RE:

    Is it proven and is it a scientifc fact that here come the methane?! It seems a little over the top especially the term oblivion for it has hapenned before has metane relase and as part fo the 5 previous great extinctions and hey the planet is as beautiful and life still thrives (give it a few million or tens of millions of years).

    I’m hoping this is just a nightmare from which I’ll awaken….but it’s on its way to being proven. I got it from Hansen’s cutting-edge American Geophysical Union lecture this past Dec. See: Here are some things he says on page 24:

    There may have been times in the Earth’s history when CO2 was as high as 4000 ppm without causing a runaway greenhouse effect. But the solar irradiance was less at that time.


    In my opinion, if we burn all the coal, there is a good chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse effect. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale (a.k.a. oil shale) [which, as we know, are in development now], I think it is a dead certainty.

    [And on page 23] Given the solar constant that we have today, how large a forcing must be maintained to cause runaway global warming? Our model blows up before the oceans boil, but it suggests that perhaps runaway conditions could occur with added forcing as small as 10-20 W/m2.

    I really don’t want to wait until this is proven scientifically at the .05 level of sig. In fact, I’d like to withhold the evidence & end this scientific experiment on earth by having us all drastically reduce our GHGs.

  27. 227
    Hank Roberts says:

    Pete, stop being rhetorical, please.
    “Is it proven and is it a scientifc fact that here come the methane?!”
    That kind of nonsense belongs in the politics blogs.

    Nobody has proven a fact about the future, in science.
    What’s known from the past is expected to happen again.
    Look it up, dagnabbit, don’t play word games.
    Leave that for Will and his ilk.
    Learn something.

  28. 228
  29. 229
    pete best says:

    Re #226, Hi Lynn,

    That 10-20 W/m2 argument seems odd to me when the present CO2 forcing is 1.7 W/m2. In addition we are only at 387 ppmv of CO2 which is why everyone drones on about BAU scenarios to take us to 550 ppmv (if that is even posible). Even though the work is Hansen and he is renowned no one else has spoken about this work and hence we cannot see it as scientific truth but I do not see what 10-20 W/M2 of a corcing can come from unless for some reason methane is around 10x Co2 and hence we get around 10×1.7=17w/m2 of forcing with some know of un known scenario.

    This is the issue you see, we can all speak of doom, doom, doom but there are several problems around this:

    1/ the amount of fossil fuels economically viable to burn
    2/ the total forcing of Co2 at whatever atmospheric load
    3/ the uncertainty of -ve forcings (aersoles, etc)
    4/ Land use changes
    5/ the overall forcings

    The science is clear, 3C for 2x CO2 (fast feedbacks). I kknow that RC and Hansen has commented on slow feedbacks taking 100+ years to double sensitivity but is that a real reality I wonder ?

  30. 230
    duBois says:

    I wonder if the idea of a “solution” to AGW is apt. There are nearly 7 billion of us now and the idea that we’re all going to go back, short of gun point, to pre-Industrial Revolution energy usage is probably (~99%) a non-starter. Even 1950′s usage, in this country, would seem absolutely Spartan. We must mitigate things the best we can and hope for the best. Equilibrium might come well shy of some disastrous rise in temps.

    It’s a thought.

  31. 231

    hope for the best

    Next time I need to solve a life threatening scientific problem, I’ll be sure to apply the tested and true scientific method of ‘hoping for the best’.

    I hear prayer works exceptionally well too.

  32. 232
    Rockman says:

    Mitch (#13), you obviously hit a nerve with your question. Whether you are a “plant” (Tenney #45) or not, I’d like a shot at clarifying and crystallizing the myriad responses you’ve received. What you need to review is the empirical research that has application to climate change. Not anecdotal, not computer modeling not selected sets of data used for statistical purposes, but honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned empirical studies!! An empirical study, if nothing else, can be verified by other scientists. Let me illustrate by using time since the last glacial ice age.

    There are good empirical studies that indicate the Earth has been warming for at least 12,000 years (with some fluctuations).

    [Response: Not really. NH has cooled over that period for instance (particularly in the summer), and the global temperature change is somewhat uncertain since it isn't completely clear how much warming there has been in the tropics. These changes are due principally to orbital forcings and small greenhouse gas changes. - gavin]

    There are good empirical studies that indicate the Earth’s glacial ice has been waning for at least 12,000 years (with some fluctuations).

    There are good empirical studies that indicate the Earth’s sea level has been increasing for at least 12,000 years (with some fluctuations).

    There are good empirical studies that indicate the Earth’s CO2 has been increasing for at least 12,000 years (with some fluctuations).

    [Response: By about 20ppm over 8000 years. Compare that to 100ppm increase in 150 years more recently. - gavin]

    There are NO empirical studies that indicate that humans have caused these changes.
    And that’s why climate change is still a controversial topic. If there were verifiable evidence of us “unnatural” (Richard #32) beings were the cause, the controversy would end. Models (IPCC), consensus (Ladbury #48), opinions (Dean #25 has a common emotional response), anecdotes (e.g.,Polar bears), and manipulated statistics (e.g.,hockey stick) are NOT empirical studies. Notice I said “controversy” and not debate. I, and many of my colleagues would love to see such debates. I’ve heard GREAT arguments for each side that are buoyed up by good empirical data/studies, e.g., CO2 preceding or following a global temperature rise. But there are none that are conclusive on the anthropogenic origins. The IPCC has delivered four reports…all have proven inaccurate in their predictions (Joel #23 is similar – Why are temps going down while CO2 continues to rise?). To circumvent arguments of their (IPCC) inaccuracies, the last report indicates we won’t see verification in our lifetimes. The empirical climate forecasts by solar scientists have proven to be much more accurate (Mark #47 ??) than the IPCC models.

    The controversy should become a reasoned debate by responsible scientists that do not have an agenda to sell. Politicians, like Gore, and activist scientists are trying to push their OPINIONS on the public in the same manner President Obama has sold his bailouts and stimulus packages: through fear and rejecting debate, i.e., “We must act NOW or it will be too late.”

    Don’t let the ad hominem attacks and dismissive attitudes dissuade your pursuit of truth. Science is just that: the PURSUIT of truth. The truth of why/how climate change takes place still remains in the theoretical arena and is far from decided.

    [Response: Your point is logically flawed. There will always be climate changes in the past that will remain un-explained - usually because there is simply not enough data to form a good hypothesis. (Though the changes you highlighted above are actually quite well explained by orbital factors as it happens). However, just like the existence of unsolved murder cases doesn't preclude conviction in a specific case today, non-attribution of past climate changes does not preclude attribution of the current changes. - gavin]

  33. 233
    Dan says:

    re: 202. Furthermore, the loudly pronounced staggering costs to the economy that was brayed repeatedly by industry in the late 1980s re: the cap and trade plan to reduce SO2 emissions in the US never came to pass. It became a very effective EPA program while the economy boomed in the 1990s during the Clinton administration.

  34. 234
    pete best says:

    Re #227, Hank, come off it will you. Its simply that people seem to be stating that its the end of the planet (which it can’t be just the end of a lot of us), all humanity will die out (thats a maybe or not likely is it?), the clathrathes will kill us all but no one knows that do they? In actual fact no one even knows if there is enough econmically viable fossil fuels in the ground to be allow a climate change impact that some people even here are spouting about.

    As it stands so far its 3C at 550 ppmv which we are 80 years from achieving with BAU. There is not As oil provides 40% of our current energy requirements and the IEA world energy outllok report 2008 states 2020 for peak and we rely on oil for so much of everything that the climate change phenomenon is going to become a second rate player to this problem. Gas will peak soon after and who knows with coal but as we rely on oil to extract gas and coal its unlikely that we will ever reach 550 so lets think of something else to stir up the climate change hornets nest shall we!

    Its gonna happen sooner of course this disaster. The forcings might be stronger than the IPCC project of course, slower longer terms feedbacks will double climate sensitivity to 6C for 550 ppmv and all sorts of additional disasters will come.

    I have no issue with the charney limit science of 3C for 550 ppmv but the 6C limit is not in the IPCC report of 2007 and the scenarios for fossil fuel reserves are potentially overstated. So the climate scince is conservative and the fossil fuel reserves are alarmist.

  35. 235
    SecularAnimist says:

    Hank Roberts replied to pete:

    Pete, stop being rhetorical, please.
    “Is it proven and is it a scientifc fact that here come the methane?!”
    That kind of nonsense belongs in the politics blogs.

    pete’s use of language is sometimes unclear to me, so I’m not entirely sure exactly what he meant.

    However, if at some point we actually observe and measure methane emissions from thawing permafrost, undersea clathrates and other such sources, that are of such magnitude as to cause really catastrophic warming, and the observed methane emissions would be irreversible and unstoppable even given the current levels of warming, then we could indeed say it was “proven” and a “scientific fact” that “here come the methane”.

    If that’s the scenario that pete is talking about, it’s not “nonsense” or “political” to ask the question.

    As to the answer — whether or not such emissions have in fact been observed already — I don’t know the answer. I believe there has recently been an observed spike in atmospheric methane increases after methane had leveled off for a while, and that there is at present some uncertainty as to the source of the additional methane and whether the increase will continue.

  36. 236
    pete best says:

    Re #233. Look I understand that carbon sinks can falter and even become sources along with increasing new sources such as increasing wildfires etc, that emissions are presently increasing globally but to somehow project that we are on a road to huge temp rises is unscientific to some degree as the IPCC state nothing of the kind and if such a future was possible then 5 years between IPCC reports is too long and we need a new one now with no political input, only science.

    I read around James Hansens late 2008 report but as yet it is accepted science. I know that RC did an article on the charney limit possibly being 6C for 550 Co2 levels but as yet thats not IPCCC speak is it?

  37. 237
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I think I’ve read about local arctic studies that show methane bubbling up at a much higher rate than the past.

    Re CH4 & CO2, Pete, CH4 is 23 times more potent than CO2, but only lasts in the atmosphere about 10 years (before it degrades to CO2 and other stuff (could someone tell me what that other stuff is?)). So the really dangerous scenario has to do with not only CH4, but also the speed with which we warming the planet, as David Archer has pointed out in an earlier post. But Hansen also speaks of the speed and says that it doesn’t get enough time for weathering to take GHGs out of the atmosphere… in earlier warming bouts that were much slower.

  38. 238
    Michael says:

    Lynn Vincentnathan, I can’t persuade people to take actions to solve GW until I have evidence these actions have a chance of producing results. It does me no good to say I am on the side of science – and then go on to suggest something totally unscientific like reduce your GHG’s because ‘I feel its the best thing to do’, or ‘we have to start somewhere’, or even ‘here are a few studies that say this may work’. I need something more tangible than that, and I am sure it’s out there.

    I am not the type of person who is able to survey the field, summarize the understanding, and make a judgment about the state of science of the possible solutions or make an analysis of the positives and negatives of each course of action. That is why I am posing the question here.

  39. 239
    Rockman says:

    You are quite right in your response, Gavin (#232). However, the “attribution” you are advocating is for us to surrender our freedom to the government, in the form of either taxes or regulation.

    [Response: Oh, please. CO2 molecules don't give a rat's a** for your political views. - gavin]

    My logic isn’t flawed…just the opposite. It is illogical to call for political policy changes based on such flawed models.

    I, and a significant number of other scientists, do not think the inaccurate models of the IPCC warrant such an intrusion by the government at this point. After all, the IPCC is an arm of a government bureaucracy that would benefit greatly from the regulation. (I won’t even go into the fact that the result would simply be to move credits around from country to country and have little effect on reducing atmospheric CO2.) It’s well documented that once a bureaucracy is implemented, it is never rescinded, even if its goal is not being achieved.

    With the current global cooling trend (predicted by solar scientists), why would you not advocate a “cooling off” period on this topic, too, and let the open debates begin?? People are jaded with the crisis mentality that they are bombarded with by the media on every front. Let the scientific process work. It is premature to declare “I know the answer.”

    [Response: Hmmm... so climate change is the only issue in the world where perfect knowledge is the prerequisite for any action? Funny that. (PS. the 'scientific process' has been working for a century or more on this issue). - gavin]

  40. 240
    duBois says:


    I was referring to the political and social probabilities in #230. Personally, I’d prefer a return to 1920s energy usage and the adoption of clean, renewable energy to do it with. I’m just not particularly sanguine about the possibility.


    Somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 trillion has evaporated in the past year following a regime of non-regulation of the financial services industry. Mitigation costs for AGW are smaller by more than an order of magnitude.

    Mote, Beam. Beam, Mote. You two need to talk.

  41. 241
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #238, Michael, that’s why I pretty much spend my time here lamabasting the conservative nature of false-positive avoiding science. If we, say, wait until Hansen’s latest hypothesis re runaway warming is proven correct at the .00000 level of significance (in other words, after it has already happened), then, well, the science will be pretty much a moot point.

    You know, you might better spend your time and effort trying to convince people to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, since occasionally a person actually survives the jump. Then at least we’ll have some survivors, and you would not be in this business of convincing people to go full speed ahead with runaway warming, after which we won’t have any survivors. Just an idea.

  42. 242
    MarkB says:

    Re: #239

    “However, the “attribution” you are advocating is for us to surrender our freedom to the government, in the form of either taxes or regulation.”

    This is what I believe is a key reason for global warming denial. Many focus on the fact that fossil fuel industries are funding various organizations that seek to spread misinformation and confuse the public. But I think a greater factor is personal philosophical biases. Much of the public has a strong ideological bent against any solution that involves government action. There is a strong fear, based largely on emotion and ideology, that mitigating actions will infringe on individual freedom (the government will take away your SUV). This motivates many to want to ignore a large body of evidence on a related scientific topic.

    From #232:

    “And that’s why climate change is still a controversial topic. If there were verifiable evidence of us “unnatural” (Richard #32) beings were the cause, the controversy would end.”

    The manufactured “controversy” is mainly political. It would end if there existed a very simple negligible-impact solution to global warming that didn’t involve lowering carbon emissions. There would be no incentive for Senator Inhofe and others misinform, no need for various ideological organizations to create dubious petitions, no need for fossil fuel industries to attempt to confuse the public, no need for governmental conspiracy theories, and no need for the various rantings seen on various amateur blogs. The science would remain the same. The so-called “controversy” would evaporate.

  43. 243
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Ray (199): “…a cap and trade approach is probably the most efficient mechanism for allowing market forces to prevail. Only the cap is imposed, and that can be subjected to independent review by experts.”

    If everything is honest, and if the carbon permits are auctioned, I see little difference between cap&trade and a carbon tax. Really the only difference is that without specific changes, the cost of carbon stays constant with a tax, but may change radically and unpredictably with economic conditions (as the European CO2 cap has demonstrated). Most businesses don’t operate efficiently with unpredictable and radical changes in their costs. Also, since the environmental effects of CO2 are largely independent of economic conditions, it seems a constant carbon cost would be preferred.

    Of course if the carbon permits are not auctioned, but instead mostly given to the politically favored (as seems likely), then they are very ineffective at reducing emissions, but very effective at attracting bribes.

  44. 244
    llewelly says:

    pete best

    As it stands so far its 3C at 550 ppmv which we are 80 years from achieving with BAU.

    550 ppmv – 386 ppmv = 64 ppmv. Even at 1 ppmv / year, it’s 64 years to 550. But over the last 10 years, CO2 has risen 1.878 ppmv / year. (1999 – 2008 average) That’s only 34 years to 550 ppmv.
    But business as usual is not necessarily a linear rise. The average rise for 1961 – 1970 was 0.9 ppmv/yr. In the 1970s it was 1.3 ppmv/yr. In the 1980s and 1990s, 1.5 ppmv/yr. With China, India, and the US all eager to increase per-capita power usages, with India and much of the rest of the world still increasing in population, a linear rise for a BAU future can’t be taken seriously unless coal reserves are dramatically lower than recent estimates suggest (see below). An exponential rise is much more likely. With that in mind – pre-industrial was CO2 was 275 ppmv. So 1.878 is 1.7% of the difference between current CO2 levels and pre-industrial CO2 levels. An exponential rise of 1.7% per year brings us to 550 ppmv in only 21 years. Since recent reports suggest peak coal may come before 2030, perhaps the 34 year estimate is better. But in no case is 80 years a reasonable estimate for time-to-550 ppmv.

    I have no issue with the charney limit science of 3C for 550 ppmv but the 6C limit is not in the IPCC report of 2007 and the scenarios for fossil fuel reserves are potentially overstated.

    64 ppmv is roughly 136 GtC. Assuming 40% of emissions are absorbed by the biosphere, that’s 227 GtC emissions. Recent estimates of hard coal reserves exceed 400 GtC. I agree those estimates are likely overstated – perhaps even by the necessary 76% or more (227 * 1.76 = 400 ) – but hard coal is not the only source of CO2 emissions. There are other sources – softer coals, tar sands, oil, gas, concrete manufacture, land use changes, etc. Note concrete manufacture and deforestation need not depend on fossil fuel reserves. Plenty to bring us to 550 ppmv, unfortunately.

  45. 245
    Caveman says:

    I, and a significant number of other scientists, doubt that Rockman is a scientist.

  46. 246
    David B. Benson says:

    pete best (229) — The Charney sensitivity of about 3 K for 2xCO2 is best thought of as having two components, fast (60%) and slow (40%). The fast effect is realized with just a few years. The slow effect takes many centuries to reach near-equilibrium.

    As I understand it, Hansen et al. projected an ‘earth sensitivity’ of 6 K based on eventual albedo changes due to very substantial melt in Antarctica.

  47. 247
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #239 & “advocating … for us to surrender our freedom to the government, in the form of either taxes or regulation”

    No, I’m advocating a complete and immediate cessation of all tax breaks and subsidies to oil and coal industries, incl military help in the form of wars (which means we withdraw from Iraq later on today & save big $$$).

    The only tax I might impose would be, say, $1 on each gallon of gasoline & something comparable on coal, but then ALL of the proceeds from that to be immediately returned to the pockets of the American people, divvied up equally. Let the people decide for themselves whether or not to become energy efficient/conservative or buy a home closer to work, etc. Not one penny of this tax would be kept in the coffers of that fascist gov of ours.

    Perhaps even no money for roads either, and all roads to be returned immediately to the people, divvied up equally. Then each family could keep a little toll booth in front of their section of the road and maintain it at their own expense with the money they collect. Or, we could all just stay at home.

    I think we’re onto a great idea here.

  48. 248
    RichardC says:

    203 Barton said, “That’s why I didn’t mention sunspot cycles. As far as I can tell, they don’t affect a damn thing.”

    Then explain the temperature rise in the first half of the 20th century. Explain why solar output tracks sunspot cycles quite well. Though it isn’t as large as CO2, solar output is quite significant. Explain why changes in solar output don’t change things on Earth. Like changes in CO2, we’re talking awfully basic physics. Remember, all of the feedbacks that make CO2 more significant ALSO make solar output more significant. Changes in solar output (aka sunspot cycles) helped temps go up in 1900-1957, and it helped temps go down recently.

  49. 249
    Hank Roberts says:

    > if everything is honest

    Ahem. Don’t count on that when budgeting.

    All budget figures assume many people only pay all their taxes when nominated for public office, or otherwise checked — and very few are checked. That’s a lot of taxes evaded per year:

    “The most recent IRS estimate puts the individual tax gap* at $245 billion per year. This study seeks to develop and review performance measures for the seven most important IRS programs aimed at reducing the tax gap.”

    * The difference between the tax that taxpayers should pay and
    what they actually pay on a timely basis”

    This doesn’t include business taxes, just individuals.

    245 billion dollars per year is a rather large number. Adding a new layer of complexity with cap’n'trade seems likely to provide more opportunities. Budgets have to be about how people actually behave.
    This is part of the reality.

  50. 250
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    All this talk of waiting….

    We are talking about enormous damage to our world, including the massive loss of bio-diversity. We simply cannot allow people like Rockman to divert us from reacting to this challenge.

    The problem realy is a psychological one, how do we change our attitude to consumption (use of energy). Is there anyone who could provide a paper on this on RC?

    The reality is that if we don’t get our act toghether, we will be struggling to grow enough food to feed the 9 billion or so that are expected by 2050.

    Usually, humans respond to to change that stares them in the face, damage from cyclones or earthquakes, for example. Even after this, memory fades and we go back to the old ways. In this case, we have to act now, before the impact is truly felt. This is the psychological barrier we need to overcome. People like Rockman represent this barrier, “it hasn’t happened yet so we don’t think it will”.

    Can we have a thread on this please?

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