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Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk

Filed under: — group @ 16 September 2009

Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt

The issues involved in science communication are complex and often seem intractable. We’ve seen many different approaches, but guessing which will work (An Inconvenient Truth, Field Notes from a Catastrophe) and which won’t (The Eleventh Hour) is a tricky call. Mostly this is because we aren’t the target audience and so tend to rate popularizations by different criteria than lay people. Often, we just don’t ‘get it’.

Into this void has stepped Randy Olsen with his new book “Don’t be such a scientist”. For those who don’t know Randy, he’s a rather extraordinary individual – one of the few individuals who has run the gamut from hard-core scientist to Hollywood film maker. He’s walked the walk, and can talk the talk–and when he does talk, we should be listening!

While there may be some similarities in theme with “Unscientific America” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum that we reviewed previously, the two books cover very different ground. They share the recognition that there is currently a crisis in area of scientific communication. But what makes “Don’t be such a Scientist” so unique is that Olsen takes us along on his own personal journey, recounting his own experiences as he made the transition from marine biologist to movie-maker, and showing us (rather than simply telling us–you can be sure that Randy would want to draw that distinction!) what he learned along the way. The book could equally well have been titled “Confessions of a Recovering Scientist”.

More than anything else, the book attempts to show us what the community is doing wrong in our efforts to communicate our science to the public. Randy doesn’t mince words in the process. He’s fairly blunt about the fact that even when we think we’re doing a good job, we generally aren’t. We have a tendency to focus excessively on substance, when it is often as if not more important, when trying to reach the lay public, to focus on style. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

This is a recurring theme in Randy’s work. His 2006 film, Flock of Dodos, showed, through a combination of humor and insightful snippets of reality, why evolutionary biologists have typically failed in their efforts to directly engage and expose the “intelligent design” movement. In his 2008 film Sizzle, he attempted the same thing with the climate change debate–an example that hits closer to home for us–in this case using more of a “mockumentary”-style format (think “Best in Show” with climate scientists instead of dogs) but with rather more mixed results. Randy makes the point that the fact that Nature panned it, while Variety loved it, underlines the gulf that still exists between the worlds of science and entertainment.

However, the book is not simply a wholesale, defeatist condemnation of our efforts to communicate. What Randy has to say may be tough to hear, but its tough love. He provides some very important lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and they ring true to us in our own experience with public outreach. In short, says Randy: Tell a good story; Arouse expectations and then fulfill them; Don’t be so Cerebral; And, last but certainly not least: Don’t be so unlikeable (i.e. don’t play to the stereotype of the arrogant, dismissive academic or the nerdy absent-minded scientist). Needless to say, it’s easy for us to see our own past mistakes and flaws in Randy’s examples. And while we might quibble with Randy on some details (for example, An Inconvenient Truth didn’t get to be the success it was because of its minor inaccuracies), the basic points are well taken.

The book is not only extremely insightful and full of important lessons, it also happens to be funny and engaging, self-effacing and honest. We both agree that this book is a must read for anyone who cares about science, and the problems we have engaging the public.

If the book has a flaw, it might be the seemingly implicit message that scientists all need to take acting or comedy lessons before starting to talk – though the broader point that many of us could use some pointers in effective communication is fair. More seriously, the premise of the book is rooted in perhaps somewhat of a caricature of what a scientist is (you know, cerebral, boring, arrogant and probably unkempt). This could be seen merely as a device, but the very fact that we are being told to not be such scientists, seems at times to reinforce the stereotype (though to be fair, Randy’s explanation of the title phrase does show it to be a bit more nuanced than might initially meet the eye). Shouldn’t we instead be challenging the stereotype? And changing what it means to the public to be a scientist? Maybe this will happen if scientists spend more time not being so like stereotypical scientists – but frankly there are a lot of those atypical scientists already and the cliches still abound.

When it comes to making scientists better communicators, Greg Craven’s book “What’s the worst that can happen?” demonstrates how it can actually be done. Craven is a science teacher and is very upfront about his lack of climate science credentials but equally upfront about his role in helping normal people think about the issue in a rational way. Craven started off making YouTube videos explaining his points and this book is a further development of those including responses to many of the critiques he got originally.

Craven’s excellent use of video to discuss the implications of the science is neatly paired with the work that Peter Sinclair is doing with his “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” series. Both use arresting graphics and straightforward explanations to point out what the science really says, how the contrarians distort and misinform and take some pleasure in pointing out the frequent incoherence that passes for commentary at sites like WUWT.

Crucially, neither Craven nor Sinclair are scientists, but they are excellent communicators of science. Which brings up a point raised by both Mooney & Kirshenbaum and Olsen – what role should working scientists play in improving communications to the public? Video editing and scriptwriting (and even website design!) is probably best left to people who know how to do these things effectively, while content and context needs to be informed directly by the scientists themselves. To our mind this points to enhanced cooperation among communicators and scientists as the dominant model we should be following. We don’t all need to become film directors to make a difference!

602 Responses to “Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk”

  1. 501
    Hank Roberts says:

    P.S. — yes, I know that it would be stupid, and would take more money than there is in the world, to pay companies or countries for not digging up the fossil fuel. Just like it would be stupid to have to pay people not to pollute, pay people not to shit upstream of where people drink, pay people not to transmit diseases and so forth. But I know the proposal has been made by some third world countries that they be paid not to dig up the coal.

    We need economists with more than two arms, because there are too many different angles on this to handle with the simple economics we have now. How do you handle the change in value of something that goes from being a benefit to being a liability — for others?

    Yeah, yeah, free market would just bankrupt them, but fat chance that’ll happen.

  2. 502
    Eric Grimsrud says:

    In attempting to communicate with the public on the issue of climate change, one can write a book that might potentially reach many, but how does one get that book before the public. As can be seen at, I am trying to do this in my own personal and self-funded manner and would appreciate any advice concerning this question via my Web site.

  3. 503
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Naindj 464
    – There really should not be a problem with reality being much different from the lab in so far as radiative properties are concerned. I don’t know how elaborate all experiments have been, but one can vary the composition and temperature and pressure within a chamber and take measurements.

    My impression is that much of the uncertainty, which is not large for radiative forcings by gases (anthropogenic aerosol forcings are a different matter, unfortunately), is from potential error in conditions as they are (different from how conditions will change – that is feedback and that is where the big (but not unbounded) uncertainties come in) – climate cloud and humidity distributions, temperature, etc.

    Within the LW portion of the spectrum (wavelengths dominated by terrestrial/atmospheric emissions, as opposed to SW, dominated by solar radiation), clouds absorb at all relevant wavelengths (at sufficiently long wavelengths, there is little radiant power left to consider, so it is not necessary to deal with, for example, microwaves, when computing climate system energy budgets), so far as I know. Water vapor absorbs over much of the relevant LW band, but except near the surface at sufficiently high temperature and relative humidity, water vapor is significantly transparent between about 8 and roughly 18 microns, give or take (there isn’t a single sharp cutoff), while CO2 dominates between about 12 and 18 microns in the absence of clouds and high humidity. Radiative forcing is not just about what is blocked from reaching space from the surface, because the atmosphere can also emit to space; but greater opacity concentrates the source of that emission into higher levels which are generally colder (within the troposphere) and so emit less; thus the effect of overlap of CO2 with clouds and humidity depends on the altitude of clouds and humidity as well as the temperature profile. Generally, low-level clouds and humidity will not reduce the effect of increasing CO2 by much, and by themselves have less effect than higher altitude agents of the same opacity (it is even possible that in the condition of a near-surface inversion capped by clouds, the clouds would have a negative greenhouse effect – they would increase the LW emission to space. This is not representative of the global time average effect of clouds, of course).

  4. 504
    Patrick 027 says:

    “Radiative forcing is not just about what is blocked from reaching space from the surface, because the atmosphere can also emit to space; but greater opacity concentrates the source of that emission into higher levels which are generally colder (within the troposphere) and so emit less;”

    This matters for surface conditions because warming or cooling at any level within the troposphere tends to change covective transport of heat in such a way as to spread the heating or cooling out over the vertical interval between the surface and the tropopause; hence, tropospheric and surface temperatures are expected with good reason to follow the radiative forcing at the tropopause level (a measure of the total radiant energy going into the climate system beneath that level, minus that coming out). There is little vertical nonradiant energy flux above the troposphere, at least in the global time average (regional conditions will be different, and there is some rather small flux of kinetic energy from the troposphere that can provide heat to upper layers – this can be neglected for some purposes, as I understand it). Stratospheric warming or cooling changes the radiative flux at the tropopause level, thus affecting tropopause level forcing – this effect is taken into account when an equilibrated stratosphere is used to calculate tropopause level forcing. (This does not include the radiative feedback from the stratosphere when it fully adjusts to changing tropospheric and surface conditions – that is taken into account in the response to tropopause level forcing.)

  5. 505
    Patrick 027 says:

    “regional conditions will be different”

    There is large scale overturning of the upper atmosphere driven by kinetic energy from below, but this is usually a slow process (especially in the time-average) that probably has little time-average vertical heat flux relative to radiative processes, so far as I know, even regionally and seasonally (but daily may be a different matter sometimes ??).

  6. 506

    CTG #496, it is also important to point out that sensitivity is an equal-opportunity employer ;-)

    The primary forcing by CO2 is very well known, exactly computable and well observable (as already Samuel Langley did on thermal infrared radiation from the Moon traversing the Earth’s atmosphere under different incidence angles; this was the data Arrhenius used for deriving his famous relationship). It’s the total feedback acting on this primary forcing that remains somewhat uncertain; but it is the same no matter what the forcing is.

    If you want to explain the temperature swing between glaciations and interglacials, you need to amplify the original effect, mainly of ice sheet albedo and smaller contributions from primary GHG concentration variations, aerosols etc. — by a substantially positive feedback factor. See Section 6.4.1 in the IPCC WG1 report.

    So yes, there is a track record, in spite of the obvious difficulty of having only one, non-expendable, planet to experiment on.

  7. 507
    Recycler says:

    In the spirit of communicating science, what is Real Climate’s response to the Lindzen and Choi paper published in the Geophysical Research Letters, about a month ago?

    The claim in the paper is that the earth’s climate sensitivity has a value that is about one sixth (0.5C versus 3c) than the IPCC’s “best estimate”. As I understand it, Lindzen and Choi derived their estimate from incoming and outgoing radiation data gathered by satellites, and comparing the variation of radiation with the variations in the earth’s tropical ocean temperatures.

    If true, this overturns all the conventional GCMs, doesn’t it? And if it’s not true, why haven’t we heard about it? I’m very surprised at the lack of coverage of this story; it should be loudly denounced if it’s invalid …. and if it is valid, why haven’t the sceptics been loudly trumpeting it as the end of AGW?

    So – puzzling. As RC is the authoritive source of climate information, I’d be very glad to hear your opinion of the paper.

    [Response: First off, there is plenty of evidence that climate sensitivity is in the ballpark of what the models suggest. That implies straightaway that the L&C analysis is going to be flawed or incomplete in some way. Second, the comparison they have made is a little odd – it is with the real world and a set of model runs using the observed ocean temperatures as forcing (so-called ‘AMIP’ runs). These runs have some very subtle issues associated with them, and so it is more usual to look at the fully coupled versions of these models (since they are the ones that are projecting the future in any case). Now both sets of models are archived in the same place, and in the same format, and yet only the AMIP results are shown. I’m curious to see what you would get with the full models. Third, the data analysis itself relies on stringing together different satellites that might have non-negligible offsets and so trends are probably not robust. As usual, one paper does not negate the whole of the science. – gavin]

  8. 508

    #476 Matthew L.

    I agree that it should not be about faith (which is why so many are dedicated here), but you seem to be missing some key points which Barton Paul Levinson so eloquently pointed out regarding your concern:

    “…nobody has a good track record (yet) in predicting what will happen if we (for instance) double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

    and there are a boat load of real climate links on modeling

    See also

    Since you are still presenting the question “if, in 50 years time, it turns out that global warming did not happen” ti tells me you have not figured out some key elements in your understanding of AGW.

    What are the missing things? Knowing the right answers are not as important as knowing the right questions. Maybe you simply are not asking the right questions yet?

  9. 509

    #477 Scott A. Mandia

    Probably because it needs contextual visualization and a relevant platform (pertaining to the target audience) from which to effectively shout, which in turn needs a meaningful budget.

    #492 Rod Black

    Why are you still hung up on short periods of time such as 11 years, or 10 years?

  10. 510
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Why are you still hung up on short periods of time

    The argument is always that something we desire to happen must be happening in any gray area where science says nothing can be determined. Since it must be happening, it must be happening _there_. Little red wagon indeed.

    Similar arguments are made to quantify how the tooth fairy works and the economic details of the transactions. Collect data on teeth put under pillows at bedtime; count the amount of money found under the same pillows the next morning. From this we can say with certainty a variety of things about the economic system that includes the tooth fairy. And her little red wagon.

    You know how he does it.

  11. 511
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Gavin, At one point L&C used satellite data uncorrected for orbital decay, and if you used the corrected data, their “signal” evaporated. Do they use corrected data in the published analysis?

    [Response: I think so, but it might be worth checking with Norman Loeb or someone similar to be sure. – gavin]

  12. 512
    Ike Solem says:

    That’s another good example of how to communicate science to the masses:

    China leads way for solar energy
    Andrew S. Ross, SFChron
    Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    Next month, Santa Clara’s Applied Materials Inc. is scheduled to open a giant solar energy R&D center. The company is investing up to $300 million in the facility. It will not be situated in California, nor in the United States, but in Xian, China. Because China’s where the action is.

    “If the U.S. doesn’t get serious, China’s going to own this industry,” said Applied Materials spokesman David Miller. He points to the Manhattan Project-like push for alternative energy adopted by Chinese officials, which includes up to $60 billion annually in government investment.

    I think that the various economists (such as Jeffrey Sachs) who claim that “China will not abandon coal” have very little understanding of modern energy technology – but then, neither does the leading source for U.S. reporters on electricity generation, the fossil fuel-financed EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute). The fact is that as the global markets collapsed, the Chinese domestic market for solar was encouraged – they understand that relying on energy imports is a problem, and they also know that coal is a problem – and in that situation, the pragmatic decision is to go for large-scale renewable energy development, which is precisely what we should be doing!

    Instead, we are saddled with an astonishing lack of vision and initiative at every level – U.S. financial, government & academic institutions are simply refusing to consider getting off fossil fuels.

    Here’s what Sachs has said, repeatedly and loudly in all manner of forums:

    “Either we figure out to live with coal, or we figure out how to live with climate change,” he said. “And the latter will not be pretty.”

    It’s a ridiculous assertion – there’s no doubt that if all fossil fuels were to vanish from the Earth, we’d be able to get along even better than before by switching to renewables. Oh, it would be a lot of work – but who’s lazy? Secondly, Sach’s preferred CCS solution is technological drivel – even the Secretary of Energy says that it’ll take ten more years before a prototype can be exhibited to the public, and that’s a wildly optimistic outlook.

  13. 513
    Patrick 027 says:

    … (cont. from 503 – 505) Of course, there are regional and diurnal and seasonal and internal-variability related variations from the overall tendency for surface and tropospheric temperatures to shift together. For example, in low latitudes, surface warming tends to be less than mid-to-upper tropospheric warming because of a lapse-rate feedback (the “moist adiabatic lapse rate” (If you can’t find it elsewhere, try searching this site – I’ve covered it before) is temperature dependent), while the polar regions are more stable to convection (in winter in particular), allowing surface warming enhanced by surface albedo feedback without the same warming higher in the troposphere. Such patterns of change have important effects on circulation patterns and the water cycle and clouds precipitation, etc, and associated advective/convective, latent and radiative heating/cooling changes (and salinity in the ocean) and feedback on themselves to produce the total response.

    After stratospheric equilibration (cooling for GHG increase, warming for solar forcing), the TOA radiative forcing will be equal to tropopause level forcing (the radiative forcing of the stratosphere is equal to the difference in the radiative forcings of the top and bottom of the stratosphere before stratospheric equilibration). The stratospheric temperature response to surface/tropospheric equilibration will tend to be in the same direction as surface and tropospheric temperature change in so far as the changes in radiative fluxes due to temperature change – however, positive greenhouse feedback from water vapor and, if/when it occurs, from clouds, will have the opposite effect on the stratosphere.


    Re 476 Matthew L.

    “Or it would be nice if there was a heaven, so I will have “faith” that I am going there because I can believe “six impossible things before breakfast” (Lewis Carrol, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, comic reference to the Christian Creed” – from an ordained priest no less!).”

    Impossible? Depends on what ‘heaven’ is. I’ve heard that there tends to be an increase in dopamine in the process of death. I suspect that at some point in the process of brain death, the ability to be aware of the passage of time dissapears, so the remainder of conscious experience might seem to be eternal in some way (my own speculation). Unfortunately, this might not occur in all deaths, for example, death by close-range nuclear weapon (?although the last moment of brain activity might not have a chance to assess it’s own temporal limitation?). Aside from that, if the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, surely there is a version of the universe (1 in 10^x^y^z…?) in which you will in 1000 years time still find yourself apparently miraculously alive, though your quality of life is another question. Given the Everett interpretation and/or the apparent infinite expanse of this universe, and that if each neuron were replaced with a synthetic neuron with identical cause-effect relationships with other neurons, you should still feel like you, then after your death there is some probability that you will wake up embodied in a bionic being in an alien world which by shear chance just happened to have a bionic brain wired up and with the same neurotransmitter activity and sensitivity as your own brain had been… but I digress.

    “Without a very good understanding of the science,”…”I have almost as much idea about how a computer works as I do of the science of global warming. However” …

    see others’ responses.

    “Dr Shipman” – I am unfamiliar with that reference.

    “What will happen to all the climate scientists if, in 50 years time, it turns out that global warming did not happen in the way, or to the extent, they predicted?”

    Almost certainly it will still have happened in some way to some extent and we will have been better off for realizing there was an issue and taking appropriate measures. The uncertainty in AGW, including regional uncertainties, is itself a cost of AGW, as it limits our ability to optimize our future trajectory (the uncertainty and range of internal variability and natural forcings does not saturate the potential for uncertainty and the range of effects).

    Besides that, even if we were to get AGW wrong, consider that there may be other issues to deal with. If we act according to our best knowledge with each issue we may get most of them right, whereas if we do not we may not get any right. Not that it is all linearly superimposed…

    “Probably not a lot, because all we are asking to do is conserve resources, something that is pretty sensible regardless of whether you believe AGW is taking place.”

    Actually that is just a part of it; we need to encourage technlogical and strategic changes to increase benifits per emission, to adapt to changes, and we should have policy to address inequities in climate change.

    498,499 Ike Solem

    “the engineers will roll on the ground laughing when you ask them to build a Ford Explorer with onboard CCS.”

    What about an enzyme that converts hydrocarbons to H2 + C?

    Re 500,501 Hank Roberts – “Someone who owns an acre of old trees can get paid for money as a carbon offset. But someone who owns the comparable amount of coal, apparently, can’t be paid.”

    … oops, have to get back to that.

    506 Martin Vermeer… “It’s the total feedback acting on this primary forcing that remains somewhat uncertain; but it is the same no matter what the forcing is.”

    That’s a good first assumption but it’s probably not precisely true even if it is almost true. There is no snow and ice albedo feedback outside the temperature range where the Earth is partially snow/ice covered. Cloud feedbacks could change depending on what the climate is. Hence the uncertainty range with climate sensitivity. Also, (somewhat seperate but related point) for very large changes (removing all CO2, for example), the reverse change won’t even have the same radiative forcing magnitude, but the change in feedback magnitude compensates if equilibrium is fully attained (starting from equilibrium states, and for sake of illustration, setting all other feedbacks besides water vapor aside, including lapse rate feedback (?)), removing all CO2 may have a smaller cooling effect than otherwise because of overlaps with water vapor, while the water vapor feedback will be greater by the same amount, because the same change in water vapor in the absence of CO2 will have greater effect.)

    “If you want to explain the temperature swing between glaciations and interglacials, you need to amplify the original effect”

    Actually, you need to react to the original effect, which is not necessarily in the same global average direction. Orbital forcing by itself does not cause much global-annual average radiative forcing changes, at least in terms of TOA incoming solar radiation (redistribution of solar radiation could change the effective albedo…), but it can specifically cause warming or cooling at some times of year at some latitudes, which can then initiate glacial growth or melt, which then has a global annual average effect.

  14. 514
    Chris Colose says:

    Ray Ladbury, gavin

    Lindzen uses Edition 3 this time but I can’t find anything in their paper to show they applied the rev1 correction which changes the LW and SW flux components (but not the net) relative to Edition3. This is also described in the Wong et al paper which was discussed on my site and the RC piece on the older WUWT article, and basically amounts to accounting for the non-uniform SW dome degradation of the instrument.

  15. 515
    t_p_hamilton says:

    “What about an enzyme that converts hydrocarbons to H2 + C?”

    Formation of CH4 is exothermic, so the reverse is endothermic. This means it requires energy input.

  16. 516
    Hank Roberts says:

    > What about an enzyme that converts hydrocarbons to H2 + C?

    You’re throwing up huge posts full of words and they almost, at least some of them, seem like they make sense, but without any citation I can’t tell for sure if you’re just tossing out things you imagine would be nice, or actually referring to something real.

    But then you mention

    “What about an enzyme that converts hydrocarbons to H2 + C?”

    And the only answer is, where are you getting these ideas?

    Please, cite your sources, don’t just tell us what you think would be nice to have.

  17. 517
    Rod B says:

    John P. Reisman (508), I’m not hung up on 10-11 year periods. I don’t even like them very much! I was simply responding to the suggested reference charts.

    Hank, if my commenting on red wagons is bothersome, tell them to quit showing me red wagons!

  18. 518
    Patrick 027 says:

    “And the only answer is, where are you getting these ideas?”

    For the enzyme idea, that’s just my idea. If I were an inventor I might try to find it. It would generally require energy input but I think the overall reaction hydrocarbon -> water + C is still product favored.

    I was going to lead into a further discussion but I ran out of time and just posted what I had…

  19. 519
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, it’s only red on the side you’re imagining.

  20. 520
    Patrick 027 says:

    Hank Roberts – as for where I’m getting the other ideas from –

    heaven – well that was off on a tangent, mainly a chance to demonstrate my imaginative side, though note that it was still guided by reason; very OT by itself but sometimes a distraction can be useful – once recorded it may act as a milemarker for neighboring on-topic discussion.

    As for the Earth sciences, I am often going by memory, and much of it is common knowledge or easily derived from that, so citations are not so necessary. I didn’t say anything controversial, like that climate sensitivity changes in some particularly dramatic way across some particular threshold at x degrees. Of course a citation can help the reader, in particular in giving a source of additional information and helping to boost trust in my statements; however, I am also interested in temporal efficiency, and tend to be more interested in explaining the subject matter rather than only saying ‘go here’. And as you like to point out, people can look things up for themselves. (Interesting double edge-sword there, as this both reduces the need for me to provide citations, and also suggests that I should spend less time explaining things. But what would be the point of commenting if I didn’t explain things.)

    But on that point (of variable climate sensitivity) – depending on meridional heat fluxes as a function of temperature gradients and tropospheric thickness, geographical arrangments, the coriolis effect, etc, there can be a threshold at which the climate sensitivity goes to infinity – the threshold going towards a Snowball Earth state – and in that particular case, there is dramatic hysteresis in cycling back and forth, at least in the idealized theory (I’m less familiar with the implications of a ‘Slushball Earth’).

    More accurately, so long as each forced change is allowed to progress to equilibrium and there is not hysteresis, the reactions to a forward and reverse forcing such as adding CO2 and then taking the same amount away will be equal and opposite, but the radiative forcings will be different, though the sum of forcings and feedbacks will be the same, but the differences are small when using small increments of change (this is more of an issue when comparing climate sensitivity to an incremental radiative forcing to the current total greenhouse effect).

    And the same sensitivity need not apply to all forcings of equal global-time average tropopause level equilibrated stratosphere value (see work on efficacies of forcings, by Hansen if not by others), and the spatial and temporal patterns of the total climate change (including changes in internal variability patterns) can be different. The variations in forcings might be drowned out by similiarities in feedbacks (water vapor, low level polar amplification) for forcings that are not too idiosyncatic. A forcing that is idiosyncratic is anthropogenic aerosols. Orbital forcing is extremely idiosyncratic – the non-Charney climate sensitivity defined in terms of global-time averages can be extremely large and even negative. It is possible to imagine that changes in … (to be continued)

  21. 521
    Hank Roberts says:

    > people can look things up for themselves. (Interesting double edge-sword
    > there, as this both reduces the need for me to provide citations

    Er, no. You’re holding onto the sharp end and banging with the handle.

    When someone _asks_a_question_ it’s easy enough to paste that into Google, or Scholar, and point out that there’s a wealth of information available from which one can start, and ask a question that’s smarter* and likely to attract an expert willing to help someone who’s made that effort.

    But on the other end of the pointy thing, when someone claims to teach, but doesn’t cite sources, the test is to paste their claims in and search as well. If those turn up a clear source, well and good. Test yourself. If what you write doesn’t turn up a good place to start, you, I submit, owe your readers the help of saying why you believe what you claim.

    This isn’t for readers right here right now who can ask; it’s for readers later on who come across what you write — because you mix things like that science-fiction enzyme and other things you say are so well known they need no cite, and you don’t distinguish. The reader thus may wonder “WTF?”

    Just suggesting that testing your own writing by trying to cite it — the infamous “reverse citation” so beloved of college students — is at least a worthwhile exercise. State your belief, fine, but at least _try_ for a cite.

  22. 522
    Patrick 027 says:

    Even the Charney sensitivity might concievably be infinite or negative for orbital forcings. (The reason it is possible for orbital forcings to have negative efficacy is, for example, that a redistribution of solar radiation toward higher could result in negative forcing via increased effective albedo (more light reflected by snow and ice), but ultimately cause an increase in global average temperature via loss of snow and ice cover, depending on thresholds and current states).

    It is possible to imagine that the varying spatio-temporal patterns in forcing between solar and GHG forcing may have some different effects even beneath the tropopause (changes in temperature as a function of day, maybe season and latitude – although the difference in forcing between clear sky regions of low albedo and regions with high cloud tops may be similar because cirrus clouds would locally reduce the effect of additional GHGs and the albedo variation would similiarly locally moderate solar forcing), though my impression is that the similiarities in feedbacks (moist convective lapse rate changes, regional variations in snow/ice albedo feedbacks, more water vapor and its radiative forcing, including a diurnal pattern (greater SW heating of the troposphere and reduced SW heating of the surface in daytime), and compositional feedback and temperature change effects on net radiative fluxes and the corresponding changes in convection) to the global average change will result in a more similar overall pattern of change by many measures (changes in seasonal meridional temperature gradients, changes in convective heat fluxes, storm track shifts, redistribution of precipitation in space and time, sea level rise – and – this is speculation on my part, but the water vapor feedback might redistribute some cumulus convection from daytime to evening and night time, based on the vertical distribution of radiative ‘forcing’ of the water vapor feedback).

    One thing though, is that stratospheric changes could alter stratospheric circulation and this can affect tropospheric circulation. Circulation patterns could redistribute cloud cover, etc. However, while surface-troposphere warming GHG forcing and solar forcing have opposite effects on the stratosphere on average, they, and volcanic *cooling*(?) and ozone depletion have similar effects on annual average meridional temperature gradients in the stratosphere at least according to models (see Chapter 9 IPCC AR4 WGI plots of temperature change for different forcings over height and latitude). Anyway, solar forcing efficacy would have to be several times CO2 forcing efficacy in order for solar forcing to account for a significant chunk of global average changes (minus anthropogenic aerosol forcing, or maybe even including that) over the last couple centuries or so, and I don’t expect this to be the case, so that’s not why I bring it up. I bring it up because it’s interesting to consider and I’m curious about troposphere-stratosphere-mesosphere etc circulation interactions.

    (Also, one can imagine that changes in solar heating even above the ozone layer, and the magnetic field (via the E-region dynamo in particular) could somehow affect the surface and tropospheric climate via some net downward propagation of circulation changes. But there could be theoretical arguments that strongly argue against this being anything sizable even in the absence of any data or even complex modeling, though I don’t know. I would point out that it is possible to imagine many things and interesting though the possibilities may be, it doesn’t make sense to assert that unknowns are likely responsible for what knowns can already account for, hence the wisdom of Occam’s razor (otherwise we could just propose just about anything that hasn’t yet been proven false and run with it into textbooks and policy changes rather than leaving it at the edge of science, an avenue for future exploration).

  23. 523
    Patrick 027 says:

    “The reader thus may wonder “WTF?””

    Okay, point taken; I’ll try to be more careful.

  24. 524
    Patrick 027 says:

    Back to the issue of the enzyme that helps convert hyrocarbons to hydrogen and carbon, which may or may not exist and may or may not be found:

    Ike Solem

    – I agree that the Obama administration could be better (why don’t they issue an executive order to halt firing of skilled military personnel due to s.o. (OT), why don’t they reverse the Orwellian changes of the Bush administration regarding mining waste, why don’t they phase out mountaintop-removal coal mining starting NOW, etc.) However, they’re trying to do A LOT, and I am still hopeful.

    Regarding CCS –

    1. Politics. It doesn’t generally do good to demand 100 % and then get 0 % if we could have settled for 50 %. Not to say we shouldn’t try (as I do when I argue in support of an emissions tax). Even if Obama wants to do 90 %, he or someone similar needs to stay in office in order to prevent us not reaching even 20% in a timely fashion, and so may strategically settle for pushing for 60 %, etc.

    2. It isn’t like they are not supportive of solar and wind. There was an article on Ken Salazar (Secretary of the Interior) and management of public lands for solar and wind power. Unfortunately I don’t want to spend the time to track it down just now. I am hopeful for increases in government support for R&D and clean energy and efficiency policies.

    3. A good cap-and-trade or tax system would encourage efficiency and clean energy R&D and use via market response.

    4. What if CCS or other sequestration pathways could work effectively. I’m not arguing to rely on this possibility as perhaps some hope to do, but why not continue at least some work on it, so long as it doesn’t distract those who *matter* (setting aside whereever media emphasis lies) from other avenues, some of which are more promising?

    Hank Roberts – paying for not using coal –

    In some ways, subsidies for limits on deforestation and other land-use CO2/CH4 sources may be better than a tax on the related emissions, because a tax unfairly lets those who have already cut down their trees off the hook.

    However, the subsidy/payment is unfair to those who never had trees to cut down.

    I think it would be better to have the tax (tariffs on imports, subsidies on exports(?) in proportion to variations in policy between trading partners, perhaps refereed by the WTO to avoid escalating retributions), and apply some backtaxes to past emissions. On that point:

    1. backtaxes might only apply among nations in what they owe to each other, as in many places it would be illegal (aside from technically difficult) to actually apply backtaxes to the emitters.

    2. in fairness to the innocence of those who did know of AGW, discount emissions according to the age of those emissions. (There might not be a discount for the biological and oceanic uptake of the amount emitted over time, since past uptake may get in the way of future uptake (there is a shared responsibility among emissions), and even if uptake continued, all emitted amounts would be drawn down in the same way).

    3. Because wealth migrates and accumulates or decays, there might be an additional discount rate on backtaxes and also a changing proportion between that which is owed by the source nation and that which is owed according to present wealth, the later dominating assigned responsibility for the oldest emissions.

  25. 525
    Patrick 027 says:


    2. in fairness to the innocence of those who did *NOT* know of AGW …

    Although that deserves some clarification and adjustment – 1. of course many of the past individual emitters are now gone, so it doesn’t direcly affect them. However, many nations last, and even when national borders change or contract to zero area, wealth has accumulated. Wealth is where it is, people are where they are now, socities and economies have been built up in some way and we can’t change the past. In the future, enaction of taxes/caps would send market signals that could among other things restructure infrastructure and trade patterns, and even drive some migration (toward areas with clean energy and efficiency (as in reduced energy expended in heating/cooling and transportation, etc, and/or to places where there is greater opportunity to have fun that is less energy intensive (ie walk to the beach).

    The taxes among nations would tend to take the form of a net payment (made over time, paying perhas zero inflation-adjusted interest) from rich nations to poor nations. In order to qualify for receiving the difference between what is owed to and what is owed by a country, the country would have to agree to some international policies. This would be a way to get nations onto a level playing field without being unfair to the poor nations.

  26. 526
    Patrick 027 says:


    (The reason it is possible for orbital forcings to have negative efficacy is, for example, that a redistribution of solar radiation toward higher **LATITUDES** could result in negative forcing via increased effective albedo (more light reflected by snow and ice),

  27. 527
    Patrick 027 says:

    Ike Solem –

    And yes, in the long term, even without the AGW externality, clean energy including much solar and wind may/could be less expensive then fossil fuels, EVEN WITH CURRENT PRICES.

    Without the future price reductions in clean energy technology and likely increases in fossil fuel costs owing to scarcity (aside from political ramifications), however, there is a problem in that, using solar as an example, having solar energy being less expensive then fossil fuels (assuming a sufficient portion of replaced fossil fuels is petroleum) may require already having a sizable solar power infrastructure in place, so that most of the cost is maintanence, replacement, and operations. It is the up front investment that is the problem. If these investments are paid with debt with interest, this increases the time-average expense for at least an initial period. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but there are additional reasons (besides the limits of human rationality) why it hasn’t already gone full speed ahead (though there are hopeful sprouts). A possible role for government subsidy would be to offer extremely low-inflation adjusted interest rates for lo-ans to solar power companies. Such measures and other subsidies can be rationalized on the basis of economic benifit to future generations who will be dealing with the costs of climate change (in addition to the kink in the supply-demand relationship caused by mass market advantages).

  28. 528
    Patrick 027 says:

    About sources – see
    (Not that I can claim to have read through all of those books, etc, but I have used most of them).

  29. 529

    #517 Rob Black

    Then place your considerations in context of the bigger picture and stop presenting notions as if they are meaningful:

    #492 “…it looks like very little change over that 11-year period. Just looks pretty flat.”

    #273 “I looked at your graphs and it looked pretty flat to me: minus about 0.015 degrees over one ten-year period, plus about 0.025 degrees over another, maybe really flat over the combined 11-year period.”

    From my perspective, you really are sort of just playing around in here. Hey, this 11-year period looks flat.

    In other words you’re like the kid in class who likes to point out something just to get his voice heard, no matter how far out of context the statement is.

    Just because you want to say it, not because it has any relevance. Sort of like trying to show off how much you think you know, but only revealing how much you don’t know, because everyone else in the class actually read that chapter.

    I wonder how long it will take you to realize that while most are trying to educate here, you are acting up like the distracting kid in the class that somehow just keeps missing the point. And you are presenting notions that could mislead others.

    How long will it take before you and others start to realize that this all translates to economic costs and human lives right now. and the longer we wait to take meaningful action, the higher the cost will be.

    The multi-year ice mass loss is 10% per year!!! The Arctic really could be virtually ice free by 2013-2016 (and most certainly by 2030-2040). I’m betting we are closer to the first scenario though.

    Good food is going to get really expensive, the poor might be stuck with protein cookies and paste. Inflation will eat away at discretionary spending. The economy as we know it will fade into memory… It’s not some far away future notion, this all starts now.

  30. 530

    Patrick027 #513:

    > That’s [no hair on a forcing] a good first assumption but it’s probably not precisely true even if it is almost true.


  31. 531
    Mark says:

    I can’t let this one go either:

    “This comment was made simply to illustrate the difference between “trust” and “faith”. We tend to “trust” those individuals or groups who have a track record of success [b]in their chosen field of endeavour.”

    Nope, it’s about trust in one endeavour making you trust THOSE SAME PEOPLE in a different endeavour.

    I.e. “I trust computer engineers in their climate expertise because they’ve shown ability in making CPUs”.

    A load of bovine excreta and NAFF ALL to do with what you say you want it to mean.

  32. 532
    Mark says:

    Simon Monkton shows his lack of education:

    “In the context of exchanging molecules, can two isotopically identical molecules be distinguished?”

    Uh, two isotopically identical molecules cannot be distinguished. They don’t come with names, you know. C12 and C13 are not isotopically identical.

    “Is there a difference between the 13C/12C ratios of CO2 produced by plant (or animal) respiration and that produced by fossil fuel burning?”

    Yes, there is.

    Because fossil fuels are not biologically active, whereas trees are.

  33. 533
    Mark says:

    simon monkton: “Leaving aside the apparent insignificance of this number, what is the justification of attributing it wholly to fossil fuel burning?”


    YOU try picking up 16 billion tons of carbon.

    Might as well say “Ignoring the fact that I’m talking bollocks…”.

  34. 534
    hf says:

    I’d like to thank RC’s editors, contributors, the regular posters, and those whose topic specific posts are less frequent, but so important to understanding.

    Inspired by a denialist brother-in –law, I, (scientifically illiterate), have been reading RC for nearly three years. I feel indebted to all of you who take the time to fill these pages with knowledge, logic, reference, nuance, experience, intimacy, humor, frustration, calculation, etc.

    Occasionally, I feel a need to defend Patrick 027. Yea, yea, length, paragraph breaks, cites, he’s not perfect. But most recently he did dispatch Max. And he did single-handedly end the Ground Hog Day cycle. And… he showed the good sense not to do it twice!

    Patrick 027, your words and posts appear greased with a (perfect?) touch of mania. Your writing style, combined with a tendency to think and explain in context, (however informally nuanced), communicates both information and a structure in which to think. That ability is rare and I appreciate your posting here. I’ve let my wife know that I want one of you for Christmas.

    Thanks again, everyone.

  35. 535
    Matthew L. says:

    #531 mark

    Nope, it’s about trust in one endeavour making you trust THOSE SAME PEOPLE in a different endeavour

    I.e. “I trust computer engineers in their climate expertise because they’ve shown ability in making CPUs”.

    That is not what I said and it is not what I meant.

    I stated in post #476 that it was not what I meant and explained, with examples, exactly what I did mean.

    You hint in #531 that you understood what I meant.

    So why are you getting so hot under the collar?


    A load of bovine excreta and NAFF ALL to do with what you say you want it to mean

    Humpty Dumpty:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    (p.s. if we are going to start being picky, the spelling in your post #453 should be “non sequitur”)

  36. 536
    Hank Roberts says:

    Please don’t get into a digression with Mark about who said what, who meant what, and how words should be spelled.
    That’s likely to be endlessly diverting.

  37. 537
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hank and Matthew L., I second that emotion.

  38. 538
    Matthew L. says:

    Sorry Hank and Ray, but when somebody goes out of their way to write such a rude and pointless post, it is difficult to bite one’s lip.

    Bart and others made it clear from their (intelligent) replies that they understood what I meant, so it can’t have been that difficult to understand.

    Again, my apologies for diverting the thread.

  39. 539
    Hank Roberts says:

    It’s good practice at the topic:

    “communicating-science-not-just-talking …”

  40. 540
    David B. Benson says:

    Off-topic, I suppose, but its about communicating immediate (partial) solutions:

    Recently a utility in South Carolina decided to convert a coal burner to a wood burner, avoiding the costly pollution abatement equipment otherwise required for relicensing. Even more recenty TVA decided to shut down four coal plants and convert a fifth to a wood burner for the same reasons. (Is this an EPA requirement or are these state requirements?) Probably TVA will replace the shut down plants with combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs), producing the same electricity with only 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions. Of coure the wood burners have no fossil carbon dioxide emissions. Just replacing all the USA’s about 670 coal burners by CCGTs would lower the nation’s excess carbon dioxide emissions by 24%; converting some to burn wood lowers the total even more.

  41. 541
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 534 hf – Wow, Thanks!

    Climate sensitivity for large changes – actually it occured to me that when all feedbacks are included, adding CO2 to a situation with zero greenhouse effect could result in zero or negative forcing (at the top of the atmosphere – read on) with infinite or negative efficacy. With zero greenhouse effect, the atmosphere could not radiate any thermal energy and could not radiatively cool, while any direct solar heating of the air would make it hotter than the surface, as heat would have to flow down to the surface before emission to space. Adding any greenhouse effect to such a situation would initially increase radiation to space. Feedbacks would however end up resulting in a surface temperature increase. **HOWEVER**, in such an initial situation, the entire atmosphere is above the tropopause, so the tropopause level forcing with an equilibrated stratosphere would still be positive, thus making the situation less ‘weird’. (Also, there would actually be a residual greenhouse effect if there is any moisture source, since equilibrium vapor pressure gets very small at cold temperatures but would not actually go to zero.)

  42. 542
    David Miller says:

    Hank says in #500:
    I agree with Ike.

    Nobody has come up with a plan that will preserve the value of coal, for those who currently own it or the rights to dig it up and burn it.

    I’m lost.

    Where do the owners of a toxic product get the right to poison us all with it?

    It’s one thing to assume the right when there are fairly few people and the consequences are not known. That’s no longer the case.

  43. 543
    Hank Roberts says:

    David, it happens that people or countries own something that’s newly discovered to have some major downside not currently reflected in the market value for it.

    I know some developing countries have already made this argument, and it needs to be addressed.

    Look at the current effort to phase out HCFC refrigerants earlier than originally scheduled for an example.

    Yes, you can say they have “no right” to burn coal. That won’t suffice to actually solve the problem though.

  44. 544
    Patrick 027 says:

    … but I should mention that I cannot take credit for “single-handedly end the Ground Hog Day cycle” – that was done by a moderator; I actually continued with Bob FJ for a brief while here:

  45. 545
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Matthew L., You evidently don’t know what “bait” looks like. Biting your lip is the best way not to wind up with a hook through it. Some folks like to stir the pot.

  46. 546
    Brian Dodge says:

    Paul Krugman’s take on the problem of global warming communication – at least he is aware of it.
    “The result of all this is that climate scientists have, en masse, become Cassandras — gifted with the ability to prophesy future disasters, but cursed with the inability to get anyone to believe them.”
    “In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?”
    “Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change … can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.”

    Not that Krugman is exactly a darling of the right, what with that Nobel Prize and liberal viewpoint. But then, neither are those hippy liberals at the Pentagon who looked at the future security impacts on the US with global warming, and decided that likely consequences ranged from best case “serious” to worst case “dire”.

  47. 547
    Patrick 027 says:

    Hank Roberts – What do you think of my proposal (the tax/cap + trade + backtaxes policy)?

  48. 548
    Rod B says:

    John P. R. (529), To simply review the bidding, Matthew L (246, 249) doubted an 8-degree increase projection for 2080 and cited recent flat trends as partial support of that. (He later specified 10 years and 30 years.) You then responded (251) and told him to look at your graphs and challenged his “flat” assessment. I looked at your graphs and observed (273) they in fact were pretty flat, and asked why you implied they were not. You got huffy; I got puffy.

    Now in retrospect and in going back to the source it seems (at least I guess or infer) you meant for us to scroll down PAST “…the graph[s] of the last 10 years on this page…” to the chart of 130 years even though that was not Matthew L’s question and not what you said. And I guess you expected us (me) to recognize your brilliance and respond to what we ought to be smart enough to intuit what you meant and to not bother the class with any clarification questions over what you said. Or accept whatever you say (mean) because you’re ‘one of the good guys’.

    They’re your graphs. You asserted they, of “the last 10 years on this page”, are not flat. But, in fact, they are. Live with it. Or throw them away.

    This thread has long ago worn out its welcome here. Hell, even Matthew L is clearly bored with it. I’m done (hold the applause…). You can have the last word if you like.

  49. 549
    Hank Roberts says:

    Patrick asks
    > What do you think of my proposal (the tax/cap + trade + backtaxes policy)?
    See if you can find an appropriate topic for policy; might try here for one:

    Rod says:
    what he believes he sees is real; statistics isn’t.

    Good one, Rod. Your confidence level in yourself seems unshakeable.

  50. 550

    #548 Rod Black

    Check the premise.

    The premise is not to challenge whether or not something is flat, but to challenge the cherry picked data. You can pick time ranges across the spectrum since 1880 and find flat parts. Did any of those flat parts stop the long term uptrend? NO.

    If you really want to get specific, the premise of the assertions also revolved around ’10 years’ not ’11 years’, which of course is still a cherry pick. Your pointing out that 1998 to 2009 is flat is a cherry pick. Hence my question, why are you still hung up on short term?

    I can huff, and you can puff, but neither of us will blow down the fact that cherry picked time scales are irrelevant.

    And Rod, you’ve been around long enough to know the long term temperature trend and its attribution. If you still have to be reminded, that is telling.

    As to “the last 10 years on this page” (the Trend 1999-2009) it is not flat, it goes up… or is your monitor tilted?


    No go out and pick some cherries, we’ll make a nice pie later and you can invite some of your friends.

    Oh, and no applause necessary, I’m not that brilliant, my understanding is founded on the shoulders of others… hold your applause for the wonderful work of the scientists that are the real hero’s that give us all the foundation for better understanding.

    Context, relevance, premise… three keys that are handy to have on your key chain.