RealClimate logo

Science, narrative and heresy

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 November 2010

Recent blog discussions have starkly highlighted the different values and priorities for scientists, bloggers and (some parts) of the mainstream media.

For working scientists, the priority in any discussion about science should be accuracy. Methods, results, and interpretations must be clear, logically connected and replicable by others. For people who haven’t experienced a joint editing effort on a scientific paper, it might surprise them to see the strength with which seemingly minor word choices are argued over. This process is particularly stark in short format papers written for Science and Nature, (and increasingly for press releases), where every word is at a premium. For many scientists then, the first thing they look for in a colleagues more ‘popular’ offerings is whether the science is described clearly and correctly. Of course, this is often not the same as judging whether it succeeds in improving popular understanding.

Indeed, the quality of the science is almost always how a popular piece is judged by scientists, regardless of the final conclusion the author comes to. For instance, my review of Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers was very critical, because his conception of how the science worked was poor, regardless of the fact that his conclusions are aligned to my own in many respects. The furor over the Soon and Balinuas paper in 2003, was much less about their conclusions, than about the nonsensical manner in which they had arrived at them (combined with disgust at the way it was publicised and promoted). Our multiple criticisms of Henrik Svensmark have focused far more on the spin and illogic of his claims concerning the impact of cosmic rays on climate than it is on the viability of the basic mechanism (which remains to tested).

The underlying principle is that proposed by Daniel Moynihan, that people might be entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

The media on the other hand is mostly fascinated by the strength of the narrative. The enduring ‘heretic’ meme – the plucky iconoclastic individual whose ideas are being repressed by the establishment – is never very far below the surface in almost all high-impact scientific profiles, for instance, Freeman Dyson’s NY Times magazine piece last year. To be sure this is a powerful archetype even in how scientists see themselves (shades of Galilean hero-worship), and so it is no surprise that scientists play up to this image on a regular basis. Craig Venter is someone who very successfully does this, possibly with some justification (though YMMV). However, this image is portrayed far more widely than it is valid. Svensmark, for instance, has gone out of his way to mention that he works in a basement on a shoestring budget, having to work weekends and holidays (the horror!) to pursue his ideas. For such people any criticism is seen as the establishment reaction to the (supposedly revolutionary) consequences of their ideas. This of course would be the case for true revolutionaries, but it is a very common attitude among the merely mistaken.

It is not difficult to see the attraction in being seen as the iconoclast outside the mainstream in a scientific field that has been so polticized. There is a ready audience of misfits and partisans happy to cheer any supposed defection from the ‘consensus’, and there are journalists and editors who, in their desire to have ‘balance’, relish voices that they can juxtapose against the mainstream without dealing with crackpots. Witness the short-lived excitement a couple of years ago of the so-called ‘non-skeptic heretics‘, such as Roger Pielke Jr., championed in the New York Times. In truth, there is very little that is ‘heretical’ in any of these voices. Only someone with no experience with the way science is actually done — try going to an AGU meeting for example — would think that scientists being upfront about uncertainty and following the data where it leads is any kind of radical notion. The self-declared heretics do get criticised a lot, but not generally because of the revolutionary nature of their ideas, but rather because they often indulge in sloppy thinking or are far too quick to allege misconduct against scientists (or the IPCC) without justification, perhaps in order to bolster their outsider status. That does not go down well, but to conflate ‘mainstream’ expressions of distaste with this sort of behavior with the belief that the actual ideas of ‘heretics’ (about policy or uncertainty) are in some way special or threatening, is to confuse the box with the cereal.

There are a couple of tell-tale signs of this ‘Potemkin heresy’ that mark it out as not quite kosher. First, for the heretic who has a coherent alternative to the orthodoxy, it is very unlikely that this alternative will be in line with the thoughts of all the other outsiders. True heresy is actually very lonely. If alternatively, the ‘heresy’ consists of thinking that every idea that pops up is worthy of serious consideration, they are simply throwing away the concept of science as a filter that can actually take us closer to reality. If every idea must now and forever, be considered anew whenever someone brings it up, no progress is possible at all. Science works because it can use observations from the real world to move on from unsupported or disproven ideas. All ideas are in principle challengeable, but in practice, unless there is new information, old issues get resolved and put aside. The seriousness of a new ‘heresy’ then, can be measured in how much shrift is given to the crackpots. As Sagan said, one should always keep an open mind, but not one that is so open that your brains drop out.

The second sign that all is not well is in how well the supposed heretic understands why they are being criticised. Usually this is stated up-front by the critics – for instance, I have criticised Judy Curry for not knowing enough about what she has chosen to talk about, for not thinking clearly about the claims she has made with respect to the IPCC, and for flinging serious accusations at other scientists without just cause. Similarly, we have criticised Roger Pielke Jr. for frequently misrepresenting scientists (including me) and falsely accusing them of plagiarism, theft and totalitarianism. That both interpret these critiques as a disguised attack on their values, policies or scientific ideas would be funny if they were not so earnest. (For reference, we are just not that subtle).

Unfortunately, the narrative of the heretic is self-reinforcing. Once a scientist starts to perceive criticism as an attack on their values/ideas rather than embracing it in order to improve (or abandon) an approach, it is far more likely that they will in fact escalate the personalisation of the debate, leading to still further criticism of their conduct, which will be interpreted as a further attack on their values etc. This generally leads to increasing frustration and marginalisation, combined quite often with increasing media attention, at least temporarily. It very rarely leads to any improvement in public understanding.

The fact remains that science is hugely open to new thinking and new approaches. Indeed, it thrives on novelty. New data from new platforms, new calculations enabled by the increases in computing power and new analyses of the ever-increasing amount of observed data, each have the continual potential to challenge previously held ideas – if that can be demonstrated logically and with evidence to back it up. A recent example of a potentially dramatic new finding was the Haigh et al paper on solar forcing. If true, it would turn almost all work on solar effects on climate on its head, and they had no obvious problem publishing in Nature. This idea of knowledge sitting on a knife edge ready to flip whenever some new observation or insight arrives, is the reason why science is so exciting and fascinating. That is the reason why science deserves to be the story, and why journalists should be continuously searching for the ‘front page’ thought that will allow this story to be told to a wide audience. But all too often the real story is neglected in favour of a familiar well-worn, but inappropriate, trope.

It is clear that scientists’ obsession with clear thinking over narrative handicaps our attempts to communicate the seriousness of the climate change challenge. But since the media will continue to favor compelling narratives over substance, that is the method by which this debate will be fought.

542 Responses to “Science, narrative and heresy”

  1. 251
    Johan B. says:

    It is kind of obvious that mr McIntyre and others of the skeptics mob are spreading uncertainties and lies for political and social-economical reasons (extreme republican-inspired anti-tax-policy for an example). What they do has nothing to do with science at all.

    Their job is to undermine scientific work, and cowardly assault scientists and distract them in work in the name of greed and perversion of human kind. With other words, the truth is not interesting for them.

    If you don’t believe me, watch what happens next time an important climate- decision are on the global agenda or in (especially) USA. New attacks will immediately come with much greater intensity than normal from the sceptics. So if you are going to present something very important to the public, be ready with a “loaded gun”. Because you will need it and don’t be afraid. There are still a lot of people out there that see through the sceptics lies and sees their true agenda.

    So Mr Sceptic. Would you really trade the earth for a few percent lower taxrate? You morons!

  2. 252
    Rod B says:

    Ray, I assume the hunter-gatherer subsistence society would be an outcome, not by design…

  3. 253

    James Hansen’s two “Notes of optimism”, from his Blue Planet acceptance speech: 1) China’s enormous investments in clean energy and 2) Legal enforcement of climate policy:

  4. 254
    Snapple says:

    Here is the latest about the Florida criminal Bobby Thompson. He gave a lot of money to Cuccinelli.

    To see all the articles about Thompson, click here.

  5. 255
    Septic Matthew says:

    Meanwhile, here is the latest World Energy Outlook.

  6. 256
    Septic Matthew says:

    Some discussion of it here:

  7. 257
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B.@251

    You would be correct. It would be the product of human stupidity.

  8. 258
    David B. Benson says:

    Harold Pierce Jr @228 — Your prior comment @77 was so completely wrong that I was sure it was intended as a joke.

  9. 259
    Ray Ladbury says:

    David Benson, Harolds comment, regardless of intent, was a joke. The only question is whether he’s in on it.

  10. 260
    David B. Benson says:

    Ray Ladbury @258 — :D

  11. 261
    DSL says:

    SoundOff: “we need fettered capitalism”

    Ethical capitalism is a difficult prospect, since the fundamental value of capitalism is the generation of capital. It may seem like a efficient system at allocating resources, but this is only on the production side. On the consumption side it’s a total nightmare of waste. Efficiency, despite the claims of pro-capitalists, is not necessarily valued. Capitalist entities have shown a ready willingness to kill for the sake of profit. Destruction is, after all, opportunity (see Halliburton). A warmer world with a rising sea level offers a great deal of opportunity for those with the means to take advantage of it. Worse yet, the private property system that is part and parcel of the current economic mode does not recognize the dynamic earth system. How can we expect anyone who believes that real power–economic power–should be concentrated in the hands of the few to also believe that becoming less profitable for the sake of the many is the right thing to do? Remember that capitalism requires both poverty and unemployment, both for the sake of driving down the cost of labor. And it is currently driving toward the requirement of a highly-mobile labor force (highly-mobile = wasteful). There are economists on record saying that eventually air itself will enter the commodity system. That’s not a joke. See the wonderful activities of the Bechtel corporation.

    The current economic mode is part of the problem, but modifying it should not be thought of as a replacement for other climate-mitigating actions. It’s all of a piece. It’s possible that ethical gains in one area might lead to ethical gains in other areas. Humans are a messy business.

    captcha: totemic cuprot (wha? sounds like a paper that needs to be written)

  12. 262
    flxible says:

    Harold Pierce Jr @228 – As a B.C. resident and owner of a small business that uses natural gas, I find your statements baffling – the B.C. carbon tax is currently $20 per tonne CO2e, NOT anything “per GJ” – your cost for gas is also a puzzle, mine is $16.940/GJ, and the carbon tax on that works out to about 9.5% [current statement right in front of me], absolutely bizarre that your claimed gas charge is less than 30% what I pay and the carbon tax over twice the rate of mine … Are your eyes brown or are you just a little confused about the world around you? Oh, I see. You’ve forgotten to include the the actual cost per GJ in your coagulating. Maybe you also forgot to look out the window the past “60 some years” watching those TV weather reports, and haven’t noticed the changes ongoing with B.C.s climate and glaciers . . . pity, but as Jim said @77, you really do need to get out more.

  13. 263
    Septic Matthew says:

    We spend a lot of time and words in disagreement, so I thought that I should add that I agree with Secular Animist in 242.

    A major improvement would be to internalize the otherwise external costs of coal. An additional improvement would be to eliminate the subsidies for fossil fuel.

  14. 264
    Michael K says:

    To be perfectly honest, I’m actually quite shocked at the primative level of some of the comments regarding my little thought experiment relating to “Capitalism.”

    I wasn’t attacking Capitalism, or defending it. I was only asking a question. It’s surprising that so many people apparently assume that I’m not a supporter of Capitalism, just because I ask a very basic question.

    That so many people automatically launch into defence mode when one has the temerity to ask a question, is surprising and a bit sad.

    It really must be true, the idea that faith, dogma, and ideology, trump the rational view every time.

    That people believe what they are required to believe in order to fit the world into their ideological framework.

    It almost seems that even mentioning the word “Capitalism” is close to a form of thought crime, and that raising the idea, however, meekly, that our current socio/economic model might be the root cause of many of our problems, is wrong, even on the threoretical, abstract, level.

    That asking the question, is in itself, seen as tantamount to treason and heresy rolled into one.

    The attack on climate science isn’t neutral, or primarily “scientific” in nature. It’s glaringly politica, dogmatic and partisan. To ignore the socio/economic framework we live in, in this context, is strange, though understandible.

  15. 265
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    Been reading science daily about the relative ocean convective threshold over the last 30 years. Not so sure I understand it completely? They say the convective threshold has been rising at the same rate as the ocean surface me that would indicate a net zero increase in the quantity and strength of hurricanes and ocean storms..but they also state there would be less hurricanes because of this? Also the temps (a few kms above the surface) in the upper atmosphere is rising..that to me would seem to say that the relative difference between the sea surface temps and the upper atmosphere where the water vapour condenses is less and that would support the theory of less hurricanes as the temp gradient is slightly less pronounced. Does this mean that the upper atmosphere temp is the primary driver for hurricanes and storms? As sea temp rise is practically locked in for the next few hundred years..if the upper atmosphere temp change tracks that of sea temps there will be no increases in atmospheric convection?. Am I on the right track guys? Thanks!

    [Response: Yes, but there is at least one problem w/ the argument. We know that the lower stratosphere is cooling. This is in part due to GHG increases (its part of the vertical fingerprint of GHGs–warming troposphere, cooling lower stratosphere), though other forcings (e.g. Ozone depletion) may be playing a role. Kerry Emanuel has shown that the lower stratospheric cooling is playing a major role in the observed increases in Atlantic hurricane potential intensity over the past two decades. If that trend continues, so will the positive trends in various metrics of Atlantic hurricane activity–that appears to be ignored in this latest study. -mike]

  16. 266
    Jim Eager says:

    Alex Katarsis @250: “adapting to the [changing] environment rather than attempting to reduce the GHG generation”

    Adaptation will mean uprooting, moving and resettling large numbers of people in some of the most densely populated parts of South Asia due to sea level rise, a region where Partition didn’t go at all smoothly.

    Adaptation will mean making up the shortfall in rice production as several major Asian production regions become untenable due to rising sea level and heat stress.

    Adaptation will mean making up the shortfall in protein as the marine food chain at least partially collapses due to falling ocean pH.

    And lest you start to think the toughest problems of adaptation will befall those living elsewhere, adaptation will mean the drought-driven depopulation and abandonment of several large urban centers in the American Southwest and possibly even the curtailment of agriculture in parts of the Midwest.

  17. 267
    Dan H. says:

    Maybe we can move them all to Russia. The climate will become much more hospitable as temperatures rise, and there are vast stretches of land for them to farm. Granted, them may have to farm wheat instead of rice. Of course, if we stop dredging those areas along the coast and allowing more seawater to enter, then the amount of land lost to the sea would be small.

    The Amercan Midwest should prosper as the growing season continues to lengthen and precipitation increases. This area will include Canada also. The American Southwest has already grown mcuh faster than the area can support, and they probably should move out. There is a reason that the population remained low for centuries, it is a desert.

  18. 268
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Alex Katarsis asks: “Regardless of the causes of climate change, wouldn’t engineering based on existing technology be best applied directly to human’s adapting to their environment, rather than attempting to reduce the GHG generation upon which a large portion of the modern world depends?”

    The first step in mitigating or adapting to any problem is bounding the risk it poses. At present, we can’t even get there. If climate sensitivity is higher than we now think it is (which it would be if the MWP were a global phenomenon), warming and the damage it does will be commensurately greater. Basically, no one has produced a convincing analysis that demonstrates that climate change does not mean “game over” for human civilization.

    What that means is that if we follow normal risk-reduction protocol, we have no choice but to do everything we can to avoid realization of the threat. That means reduction of carbon consumption. Perhaps if we hadn’t wasted 2 decades arguing over settled science, we might have had sufficient time to develop mitigation strategies. As it stands now, stringent reduction measures will be needed just to buy time.

    And you are right, it is not just climate change we face. In our need to supply 6 billion people with the wherewithall to survive, we are already doing damage to the carrying capacity of the planet. Environmental degradation, aquifer destruction, collapse of fisheries. All will be exacerbated as human population crests at ~10 billion around 2050.

    The problem is not just climate change, but rather developing a sustainable civilization–but climate change is one of the most severe threats we face.

  19. 269
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Dan H., Spoken like a man who hasn’t looked into the problem much.

    Russia. Hmm, wonder what happens when all that permafrost melts. I don’t think you’re going to be running heavy machinery on that terrain any time soon.

    The US Midwest…well, except 1)it’s already dry and slated to get drier; 2)agriculture is already dependent on irrigation from the Ogalala aquifer, which is drying up and soon will be lost forever; 3)Much of the Midwest will soon be too warm to grow crops like winter wheat

    Canada…ever hear of the Canadian shield? It’s the bedrock that is left in much of Canada after the last ice age scraped away the topsoil (which wound up in the US Midwest until the dustbowl winds blew it into the Gulf.

    You know, you can look this stuff up yourself.

  20. 270
    Septic Matthew says:

    264, mike: Kerry Emanuel has shown that the lower stratospheric cooling is playing a major role in the observed increases in Atlantic hurricane potential intensity over the past two decades.

    Has an increase in Atlantic hurricane potential intensity actually occurred over the past 2 decades? This looks like a topic that could deserve its own thread with a review of all the evidence.

    [Response: Yes–there is a great review by Kerry Emanuel in this BAMS article, a couple years old but still a pretty up-to-date assessment. -mike]

  21. 271
    JCH says:

    Why on earth do people assume a country like Russia is going to allow 100s of millions of climate refugees to enter Russia. They’re not going to do that. Most likely, they will nuke the exodus. I think the vast majority of the losers of climate “r*o*u*l*e*t*t*e” are most likely going to live in misery/die in place.

    And Dan H., unless you’re a migrant farmworker, I don’t think Canada will let you in.

  22. 272
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “All will be exacerbated as human population crests at ~10 billion around 2050.”

    I doubt that the Earth’s human population will reach 10 billion around 2050. I expect there will be major ecological crashes resulting in global famine and a large die-off well before then.

  23. 273
    Dan H. says:

    I see a little bit of sarcasm is lost on you.
    At the current rate of sea level rise, ~2.5 mm/yr, significant populations will not be displaced. Do you have any evidence that the midwest will get drier or too warm to grow wheat? Precipitation increased during the 20th century warming, which is expected to continue. Temperature increases occurring primarily during the winter which resulting in a one week longer growing season.
    Of course, you could have looked this up yourself.

  24. 274
    David B. Benson says:

    Dan H. @266 — The entire continguos US is scheduled to dry up. See

  25. 275
    CM says:

    Dan H. said (of South Asian climate refugees):
    > Maybe we can move them all to Russia.

    Dan, does it occur to you how callous and arrogant that sounds? What, just crate’em up, ship’em out, and plonk’em down in Siberia, problem solved? Why would Bangladeshis cheerfully adapt to their country drowning, when Americans can’t even adapt to a watered-down cap-and-trade bill?

  26. 276
    Dan H. says:

    How many people do really expect to be displaced by a 2.5 mm/year sea level rise? The world’s oceans rose by about 20 cm in the 20th century. How many people were displaced then? This century should be no different. Relax, no one will be crated up and moved.

    Reports saying that the entire U.S. will dry up are humorous at best. The farm belt in the midwest should continue to see increasing precipitation in the future as long as temperatures continue to rise (10-20% 20th century increase), and an increased growing season due to shortened winters (one week 20th century increase). Throw the increasing airborne carbon into the mix, and farmers should continue to reap record harvests. There are some places which are using more water than is being replenished. These people will have difficulty continuing to cultivate a dry area.

  27. 277
    dhogaza says:

    Dan H.

    Why on earth do people assume a country like Russia is going to allow 100s of millions of climate refugees to enter Russia. They’re not going to do that. Most likely, they will nuke the exodus. I think the vast majority of the losers of climate “r*o*u*l*e*t*t*e” are most likely going to live in misery/die in place.

    And Dan H., unless you’re a migrant farmworker, I don’t think Canada will let you in.

    Some folks claim to worry that adaptation is preferable to mitigation because mitigation isn’t possible without the imposition of “world-wide government”. Which is baloney, but … can one imagine a scenario where Russia and Canada allow millions of climate refugees into their country without there being some sort of world-wide government making the imposition on them (or at minimum, funding it?).

    Of course, one wonder if Dan H., so smitten with the amount of potentially arable land up north, besides being perhaps a bit naive of soil composition in the far north, is also staring at a Mercador projection of the globe?

  28. 278

    Further to #273–

    Yes–as curious as it sounds, people the world over have strong feelings for their home and their country.

    And just how the bloody hell are the Bangladeshis supposed to get to the steppe, even saying the Russians would welcome them? There’s currently about 160 million of them; that’s a lot of trains/buses/donkey carts. And would they be stuck waiting behind 180 million Indonesians?

    I’m exaggerating? Well, yes, perhaps I am–but by how much? Isn’t it a tad troubling that we can’t yet define just what the extent of the problem would be?

    It’s certainly troubling that most of the prime growing lands are expected to get much, much dryer. The PDSI values shown in the graph DBB pointed to are far in excess of those experienced during the “Dirty Thirties.”

  29. 279
    Jim Eager says:

    Dan H @266: “Maybe we can move them all to Russia.”

    Don’t you think that “we” would have to consult the Russians about that first?

    In any case perhaps you might want to talk to an agronomist: it will take a lot more than a warmer climate and ample precipitation to remake the Siberian and Canadian boreal forest and permafrost muskeg into productive farm land capable of growing wheat.

    Ray mentioned the inconvenient fact that Precambrian shield covers more than half of the Canadian boreal forest, but in Russia there is the vast Siberian Traps flood basalt, laid down by what may have been the largest volcanic event in geologic history. Keep in mind that the map is not the territory.

    Dan H: “The Amercan Midwest should prosper as the growing season continues to lengthen and precipitation increases.”

    Assuming that the precipitation continues to fall in the right amount where and when needed, a tenuous assumption since one thing that we can expect in a warmer world is dryer conditions in continental interiors, and since we know that the western portion of the American Midwest has in fact been a semi-desert at times in the past.

  30. 280
    JCH says:

    It is not 2.5 mm per year. In the year 2100 – 75 (I think) mm to 179 mm of sea level rise. Look at 100 X 2.5 mm. Cross your eyes and squeeze. Let’s see what comes out.

    See why I was asking? Dummies like me can’t figure it out without a great deal of help. I’m off to the open thread, where I belong.

  31. 281
    Jim Eager says:

    Dan H, you really should try to keep up with the current state of physical reality.

    Sea level rise accelerated to over 3mm/year in the mid-1990s, which was before accelerated ice mass reduction was observed and measured in Greenland and West Antarctica, which suggest further increase in the rate of sea level rise is in the future, yielding at best a 1 meter rise by 2100, while 2 meters can not be ruled out.

    Now consider the area currently under rice production in the deltas of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irriwaddy and Mekong rivers, and the total population dependent on that production. You seem to be blissfully unaware that Bangladeshi farmers are already suffering from increasing salinity of the water table and building dikes and flood barriers by hand to keep the sea out, and that temperatures in some parts of South Asia are already at the upper limit for the successful germination of rice.

    And your assertion that the US Midwest will see increasing precipitation in the future flies in the face of what happened in the 1930s and what paleoclimatology shows happened during the MWP. Similar to the situation with rice, the climate zone suitable for growing wheat is steadily moving northward, where it is constrained by the shield granite and the boreal forest.

    Please, get a clue.

  32. 282
    Dappledwater says:

    How many people do really expect to be displaced by a 2.5 mm/year sea level rise? The world’s oceans rose by about 20 cm in the 20th century. – Dan H

    The rate of sea level rise accelerated during the 20th century. The current rate of rise is 3.2mm per year. Why did you not even bother to research this stuff before commenting on a blog run by climate scientists?????

  33. 283
    SecularAnimist says:

    Dan H wrote: “The Amercan Midwest should prosper as the growing season continues to lengthen and precipitation increases.”

    There is no reason to expect that to happen.

    On the contrary, it is expected that droughts — including unprecedented, extreme and prolonged droughts — will increase; rainfall will be concentrated into extreme precipitation events (floods); and much of the “growing season” will be too hot for crops to thrive.

  34. 284
    Septic Matthew says:

    269, mike,


    I followed the link, and the first proposition, right under the author list, is this: A new technique for deriving hurricane climatologies from global data, applied to climate models, indicates that global warming should reduce the global frequency of hurricanes, though their intensity may increase in some locations.

    In the text of the paper they write that the apparent warming of 1980-2005 (confirming your assertion that I questioned) must be due to something other than global warming, unless the models are wrong. Maue’s web page (and peer-reviewed paper) shows declines in total energy dissipation (he uses ACE) since 2005, and there seems to be little change throughout the whole 20th century.

    In another place I expressed a doubt that the climate models actually make clear predictions about changes in intensity/frequency of tropical cyclones. This Emanuel et al paper tends to reinforce my doubt.

  35. 285

    Dan H,

    I’ve often seen people act like we can just shift agriculture north with warming temperatures, but I think it’s interesting to note that photosynthesis/growth relies on three rate limiting factors; temperature, CO2 and light. While temperatures may get warmer, it will not change the length of the day, or the angle of incidence of sunlight at certain times of the year, not to mention other concerns like the fitness of the soil, water availability, and the typical onset of the first crop killing frost (which, even in a warming world, may not change as much).

    I’m certainly no expert, but I don’t think there are many crops that will be productive the vast stretches of open land in Siberia, no matter how warm it gets.

    Scroll down and look at the measures of insolation at different times of the year in Demoines (Iowa), Winnipeg (Canada), and Ukhta (Siberia).

  36. 286
    turboblocke says:

    I find it amusing that people can talk of blithely moving millions of people to Siberia etc. Apart from the logistics and legal issues involved in such a mass migration, where is the infrastructure for them to live: the roads, railways, towns etc? Who’s going to pay for building all that?

  37. 287
    ccpo says:

    Alex Katarsis says:
    9 November 2010 at 2:14 PM

    A question for the scientists. With commodity prices rising and potentially ready to explode, and according to National Geographic, nearly half of the earth’s surface now related directly or indirectly to agriculture, are there problems on the horizon involving modern “miracle” ferlizer use world-wide?

    Yes. 1. They come from fossil fuels, which will eventually run out. Literally. 2. They are part of the 10 calories to get 1 problem. 3. They destroy soils by “burning” them, leaving them devoid of organic matter and life. 4. Stop the fertilizer, stop the food. 5. They are killing the oceans. 6. They prevent people from going to regenerative agriculture, which needs no tilling (millions of acres in the US currently not being tilled) and rebuilds carbon and biota in the soil, i.e., creates soil/humus. 7. Eliminate the ability of soil to hold water due to loss of organic matter in the soil. 1% organic matter will old 30-some litres (gallons?) of water, 5% will hold 130-some. Need I clarify further?

    BUT!!!! We don’t need them. Simply returning all non-consumed matter back to the soil it came from, directly or by composting or mulching, reduces losses to about 2.5 percent according to Fukuoka. Closing the cycle with animals and humanure can prevent virtually all loss and even allow building of soil via use of accumulators, etc., and non-food waste streams (grass cuttings, tree leaves, animal manure, etc.) or business waste streams (cafeterias, restaurants, etc.)

    As one example, there have already been battles over whether to subsidize (even charitably) increased fertilizer use in Africa. This particular climate “threat” has no easy enemy to blame.

    Of course it does: Big Ag. Do you think it accidental GMO seeds exist, that huge CAFOs and corporate farms exist? As well as out own mis-steps intentional and unintentional. Our society and economic system is the problem. Al Bartlett likes to say the greatest failing of human being is our inability to understand the exponential function.

    It seems to me that these problems are becoming less and less about the science and more about politics and the engineering required to find real world practical solutions.

    It always has been.

    Regardless of the causes of climate change, wouldn’t engineering based on existing technology be best applied directly to human’s adapting to their environment, rather than attempting to reduce the GHG generation upon which a large portion of the modern world depends?

    No. How does more of what caused the problem fix the problem? Ask Tainter, Catton and Diamond about the success rate of increasingly complex solutions to increasing complexity. And ask the IEA about their statement published yesterday that peak crude oil production occurred in 2006. (2005, actually.)

    If one wishes to engage in informed discussion of solutions for the Perfect Storm, I don’t see how a person can do so without some understanding of all of the following:

    Embedded energy (what did it take to make X?)

    non-linear systems (the bigger they are, the harder they fall… tipping points)

    chaotic systems (the bigger they are, the harder they fall… tipping points)

    Dunbar’s Number (cohesion lies in knowing people)

    resource limits (oil, water, phosphorus, plutonium, rare earth metals, fish…. (really a population and consumption issue)

    EROEI/EROI (Energy returned on energy invested > crude was 100:1, now may be as low as 11:1; biofuels 3:1 or less; essentially, increasingly less energy available for work needed for a rising population. Per capita energy in the US has been falling for a couple decades. No surprise we are declining at the same time… thermodynamics rule.)

    thermodynamics (need energy to do work. less work, less energy.)

    Jeavon’s paradox (increasing efficiency = greater consumption due to better access and perceived affordability, etc. Efficiency cannot trump increasing population. period. since 1950-ish to 2000-ish pop up 2+x, but consumption rose 11x. In US, oil consumption rose 5 million barrels a day from 1980-ish to 2005-ish even as efficiency rose 33%-ish.)

    collapse of complex systems (Um… they break. More is not better. History says best choice is managed decline in the face of breaking systems and/or reducing resources)

    economic and social cycles (They exist. Hard to override. Exacerbate crises. Can lead to tipping points being crossed.)



    So the proper response is to organize into sustainable, better yet, regenerative social structures that, by definition, conserve, preserve and actually improve natural services upon which we depend. This cannot be done in a system that works under assumptions of unlimited growth, imbalance in capital, finance, energy, food, water; i.e., a discussion about The Commons must ensue. A system of private ownership may be possible, but not based on a fractional reserve system (inherently requires growth, is essentially a Ponzi scheme -> deflation scares the bejeezus out of governments for this reason.)

    The energy for more and more to solve larger and larger problems simply will not be there until our “renewable” (lots of non-renewables in renewables… shhh… don’t tell anybody) energy systems are much more advanced and/or we power down by a factor of, off the top of my head, 8 to 10. To illustrate, Europe uses 1/2 the energy the US does, but is still very far from sustainability.

    I see a potentially much higher quality of life in the end, tough it will look a lot less technological, but not necessarily be. think of it as a hobbit with internet, a community tractor, community vehicle (if not close to the light rail system/electric bus route, connected to the high speed backbone, etc.)…

    But technology? No. The time lines are far too short. Systems are already failing. And no amount of technology can grow food for 9 billion in a world 5 or more degrees hotter than today. Well, I have actually designed a semi-subterranean green house for full sun and automatic heat control from the temp of the surrounding soil.


    reCAPTCHA: the feretar… is that fer(al) tar(sands)?

  38. 288
    ccpo says:

    got my bold tags messed up… oops..

  39. 289
    ccpo says:

    Bob (Sphaerica) says:
    10 November 2010 at 4:35 PM

    Dan H,

    I’ve often seen people act like we can just shift agriculture north with warming temperatures, but I think it’s interesting to note that photosynthesis/growth relies on three rate limiting factors; temperature, CO2 and light.


    Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Basically, weakest link. We currently have a long list of potential limiters to civilization growth and development, but it only takes one to bring it all down via cascading failures. That there are so many should scare the bejeezus out of everyone.

    Black Swan events (but I did mention tipping points, non-linear and chaotic systems) which are qualitatively different in that they simply aren’t seen to be possible. They’re not on the horizon. This is different from just discounting possibilities via risk assessment; we can’t know a Black Swan is coming, but we can know *something* might, so need to build very resilient systems that can absorb shocks.

    Anywho… engineering won’t cut it.

    reCAPTURE: pharke not


  40. 290
    Didactylos says:

    If “Septic” Matthew didn’t stop reading every time he sees the word “model”, he might be better informed.

    But then, he says insane things like “declines in total energy dissipation … since 2005”. Maybe reading the whole paper really wouldn’t help him. Certainly in the far too long time he has been commenting on this site, he has not learned anything.

    It’s an interesting paper, though. Well worth the time.

  41. 291
    Dan H. says:

    ARgo measured have shown that the rate has decreased since the 3.2 mm/yr. The centruy long average is about 1.8, while the near term is closer to about 2.5. If you are going to criticize someone for not using updated research, maybe you should look into the most recent work, as someone may know more than you.
    Secular, do you have any evidence that the precipitaion increase witnessed recently will suddenly reverse dramatically?
    Bob, you left out the frost/freeze aspect. The growing has increased due to earlier planting and later frosts.

  42. 292
    Ray Ladbury says:


    But the mass migrations worked so well during the India-Pakistan partition…
    Oh, wait. No they didn’t

  43. 293
    Dan H. says:

    If you are going to criticize someone for being out of date, then you should really keep abreast of the latest technology. Using the latest Argo measurements, the most recent calculations (including the 3.2 mm/yr rise since 1979) is about 2.5 mm/yr. This is still above the long-term rate of 1.8 mm/yr. This is after the decelleration in Greenland and Antarctic ice mass lost. You need better clues.
    Maybe if midwestern temperatures rise to the levels seen in the 1930s, drought-like conditions will return. However, research has shown that the drought led to the large temperature rise, not vise versa. Maybe you should get two clues.
    For many Midwestern crops, the main limiter is the frost/freeze timeline. Temperature, precipitation, CO2, and fertilizer all play a role also, but if any of you were farmers, you would know to plant after the last freeze in spring and harvest before the first frost in fall.

  44. 294
    David B. Benson says:

    Dan H. @291 — US and many other regions dry up:

  45. 295
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    In the “your worst fears” department, Judith Curry is going to be testifying to congress as the sole minority witness.

  46. 296
    Alex Katarsis says:

    Thank you for the responses. What about the Nitrogen issue? 250 times more damaging than C02? We are talking about 50 percent of the land on earth (according to N.G.) being dedicated to agriculture – and poorly planned agriculture being responsible for 80 percent of tropical deforestation (less than 14 percent being due to sprawl). The nearly silent but forceful protests over subsidizing modern fertilizers in famine stricken areas of Africa for example, seems ridiculous. I am encouraged that genetically modified seeds are helping in some rough areas, there, and that the fertilizer issue has become complex due to cost, but should we continue to deny the farmers of Africa the benefits of increased output per acre due to this problem? Starve them now instead of drowning them later, so that activists can feel better about themselves? If I were president of the US (god forbid) I would encourage the subsidies, help enrich their soil now, increasing the output of agriculture in those areas which will benefit most due to poor irrigation and strengthen the self-sufficiencies of areas which immediately surround some of the places you are most concerned about having to evacuate later. Of course, this means letting the nitrogen do the massive damage that it will apparently do – according to the theories of AGW. It’s hard to find a bad guy to blame when it comes to nitrogen.

  47. 297
    Jim Eager says:

    Dan H @291: “Using the latest Argo measurements…”

    You might want to at least try using the correct names of the sea level measuring systems, which would be TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason.

    Free clue: the Argo float system measures ocean temperature, salinity and pressure, not sea level.

  48. 298
    Alex Katarsis says:

    And you guys never look on the bright side. We’ll all be enjoying fine Reykjavik Chardonnay.

  49. 299
    tamino says:

    We can all relax, and forget about the global warming problem.

    John Shimkus, Republican congressman from Illinois, assures us that the planet won’t be destroyed by global warming. Why is he so sure? Because God promised Noah.

  50. 300
    adelady says:

    Oh nice work, Dan. Farming would be a dead set money spinner if last freeze, first frost were the only issues.

    What do you do when the precipitation you rely on comes in 2 or 3 devastating, soil and seed washing away downpours rather than the frequent but less damaging rainfall that actually helps crops. Grow wheat in Australia, fine. If the rain comes at the end rather than the early or middle part of the season, your lesser, thirsty crops get wiped out by the rust that thrives in the warm, wet conditions. How do you harvest or sow seed when the soil is so waterlogged the machinery sinks in the mud?

    Of course when it’s drought you do what I watched many mid-north (of SA) farmers do last year. You “harvest” your sparse, barely kneehigh sticks halfway through the season and sell the feeble result as hay.