Science! – Climate Change and Skepticism Part III

It has been a little while since I wrote on this topic.  What got me going was a “debate” (and I use the term loosely) with some folks on the internet.  Again I experienced folks that really don’t understand the physics attempting to debate me on the issue as if it two kids arguing in the sandbox over whose dad can beat up whose dad.  Ok, be the plumber but try to pretend to be a doctor, fine.  I’m not playing that game.

As I was working on this blog, I came across an excellent link that I will share later.  It is great in that it takes the often used “one-liner” sound bites that some use in an attempt to win a “debate” against the largely held conclusions about climate change and give a retort in two forms.  The first is a one-line retort and the second is a detailed retort.

It is nearly impossible for me to go into every single issue that might come up dealing with this topic.  I have a full-time job and in graduate school.  Thankfully others have done some good work to help the lay public educate themselves.  However there are a few items I will discuss that I commonly deal with but I urge you, as the reader, to go to the link I provide at the bottom.

1.  “But climate is always changing so the notion of climate change is a non-starter.”

Why yes, climate is always changing.  We have historical and prehistorical data that shows quite conclusively climate changes.  So what?  The issue is that our modern activities are having a noticeable, measurable and the largest factor in our recent decades of climate change.

2.  If we have only measured temperature for maybe a century how can we possibly know about temperatures prior to this?

Thanks to multiple branches of science, we have what are called proxy data.  These are physical or even biological data that show a correlation to ambient temperature.  There are many of them and each has had to undergo detailed work in understanding how accurately they “measure” temperature.

3.  Climate has changed far more than even the worse case predictions for man’s influence show.

That is correct.  There is strong evidence that the earth has experienced several near global glaciations that make our last ice age look like a cool day in July. Other periods in earth’s history had significantly warmer periods than now. However such climate changes took a long time to occur and didn’t involve human activity.  Furthermore trying to keep 7 billion people fed and reasonably peaceful in the face of potential crop failures, water shortages, sea-level rise drowning cities aren’t going to help humanity.  Furthermore, some of those natural changes on the order of our worst case projections did in fact lead to mass extinctions of plants and animals even with significant time periods for them to adjust.  We are talking decades to centuries and that is most certainly too little time for wildlife and even our own crops to adapt without costly genetic engineering which may or may not even solve the issue.

Selfishly speaking, it isn’t about life on earth.  It will go on even if/when we drive many species to extinction.  It is our stability in our modern civilization that is the issue.

4.  “Climate Change” or “Global Warming” is a Big Liberal Plot

Well the two terms are used interchangeably although “climate change” is more accurate in that climate is more than just temperature.

In the 19th century, the first work in looking at carbon dioxide and how increasing it might change global temperatures.  Even before quantum mechanics and the massive impact it had on understanding how matter and light (visible, infrared, etc…) interact, there was an estimate made that if man managed to double CO2 levels, global average temperatures would increase 2-4 deg Celsius.  What is amazing about those crude estimates is that they are still relatively accurate as best as we know it today.  These estimates were made in Europe in the 1890’s.  Modern American liberal and conservative groupings didn’t even exist then nor existed in Europe.  It is not a liberal plot.  What comes into play is a value and economic decision on how much and just what governments should be doing.  The question of government’s role is going to spark the liberal vs. conservative arguments and bring out the vocal crazies on either end of the political spectrum.

5.  Water vapor is the largest greenhouse gas.

Yes it is.  And it doesn’t help that by raising temperatures via other greenhouse gas emissions, we evaporate more of it into the atmosphere.  This is what is termed a positive feedback mechanism.

6.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is a political body that needs to find that man is responsible for climate change.

This is deep misunderstanding or outright paranoia right there.  The IPCC is a political body as far as the United Nations has formed it.  But what it does is to pull together all the scientific research on the topic, organize it, and write many summaries including those for layperson politicians who need guidance for what to do about climate change.  The reason they are explicit about what they do and why they state man is involved in climate change is because they are making a distinction, based on sound science, that climate change has two sources – natural and man-made.  It is the man-made stuff we can theoretically do something about.

7.  That storm was caused by global warming (or wasn’t caused by global warming).

Storms are going to form, rage, and die out whether we are here or not.  They have before we began to change the atmospheric composition and will now that we have made significant changes to the composition of the air.  The best way to think of it is playing with loaded dice.  You can still roll the same combinations with loaded dice as you can with non-loaded dice.  But the probabilities are no longer purely even.  With loaded dice, they are loaded such that certain values on the dice are more likely to come up in a random roll.  The same is the case with storm intensity and frequency.  Some combinations are more likely (or less) with a different atmospheric composition and resulting surface temperature than others.

8.  Who cares about some extinctions projected to occur?  Extinction is natural.

That is a value statement.  If you care or don’t care, that is your personal values being reflected.  I could say your death is inevitable too.  Does that mean a murderer should get away with killing you?  Extinction is natural…when nature is doing it.  Hunting animals to extinction (passenger pigeon), destroying habitat (driving many animals towards extinction currently), introducing invasive species (dodo bird), or changing climate from man’s activities are not natural.

9.  Scientists are not in agreement

Guess what, few scientists are in exact agreement on every thing appropriate.  That doesn’t mean they largely dispute the general findings.   Don’t believe me.  Read some interesting research on the consensus view for yourself:

This has been the same argument that some creationists use in an attempt to dispute evolution.  Many scientists who are in disagreement are either dead (Sir Issac Newton), not reputable experts (Henry Morris), or disagree over the rates and mechanisms of evolution (Darwinists vs. Punctuated), not that evolution isn’t occurring at all.  There have also been specific events in which vested parties have deliberately attempted to cloud the issue by lying to scientists (Senator Imhofe and/or his staffers), hacking into their email and making incorrect conclusions (“climate gate”) and thereby attempting to influence the non-scientific community.  They cannot influence the science so they attempt to influence the voting citizen.  I spoke about this in Part I of this blog.

10.  Nature is having a bigger effect than man, even now.

Apparently not.  I love this one.  Laypersons love to ask questions (and often very good ones) but where they often go wrong is they assume that the scientists in the field didn’t ask the same questions and come up with some answers.  Do you really think scientists involved didn’t think of volcanoes and solar activity?  Don’t you think they probably had to get a good idea if carbon ratios in ice cores bubbles have a certain range of use in figuring out temperature and where the carbon originated from?

This is not to say such questions are important – they almost always are.  Even laypersons ask damn good questions.  But it is the ability to find the answers that distinguish the layperson from the expert.  And in almost every question the average layperson comes up with, there is either ongoing research or an answer, or both.

 I think part of the reason this arises is if you can stump someone who cannot immediately answer your question, then you have “won the debate.”  No, you have stumped someone.  It doesn’t mean you are right.  Ask me to compute the square root of a four digit number in my head.  If I cannot do it, it doesn’t necessarily mean your answer is right.  It simply means I couldn’t answer the question at that time.  Science never works on this kind of “debate.”  Unfortunately people and politics live in that kind of “debate.”

11.  Peer-Review doesn’t mean much. 

You have a better way to present findings and challenge them until either they are rejected or accepted?  It isn’t perfect at all.  Human beings are involved and mistakes are made.  One of my own committee members for my doctorate is dealing with this very issue right now.  Eventually he will either prevail or redo his work to meet the critiques he is getting and then will have his article published.

One recently famous example often used to attack peer-review is that even with peer-review, the finding about the disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains were found to be way off.  But guess who discovered the mistake and forced retraction of the articles involved?  That’s right, scientists with peer-review.

Furthermore one has to be careful of funding sources or leading titles.  In of itself, funding sources or arising from political charged names or sources do not necessarily mean false data or incorrect conclusions.  But it is good to know the potential, and I say, potential biases that might, and I say, might be involved.  In the end, it is the science that matters.

12.  Computer models aren’t very good.

As a general rule, that statement doesn’t mean much.  You use products everyday that have been subjected to lots of computer modeling but you aren’t rejecting those products.  Why?  Because a) they can work well and b) you probably have no idea of just how “invasive” computer modeling has been in the products in your life.

I suppose if you listen to the weather and even take some of it on a grain of salt, you are basing it on computer simulations.  Are they perfect?  No way.  Without a damn good understanding of the math and physics involved AND the quirks involved in numerical mathematics, you can take a perfectly easy system and software and produce garbage.  I have done that myself both at work and in graduate school.  Hell, one of our homework projects in a computational fluids class I took was a deliberate ruse.  We had to model flow in a nozzle by writing three programs using three techniques.  One of the techniques was given to us to show that it cannot work.  In other words, a massive hair-pulling exercise to show us the quirks of fluid flow simulation.

On the other hand, advanced simulations and the massive supercomputers behind them have simulated past climates very well adding substantial credibility to their usage.  Many of the problems involved in climate change are uncertainties in the parameters used such as clouds that are not explicitly modeled (not yet but soon to be with the new exo-scale supercomputers), and global greenhouse gas emissions.  Such emissions are economical and political issues, not scientific.

This is why there are various scenarios used with their corresponding differing results.  It is not that the models are crap, it is they uncertainty in emissions is so large that we could have modest changes to contend with or potentially catastrophic.  This shouldnt be a surprise.  It is like forecasting how much money you will have at retirement.  You don’t know what your future salary will be so you take some educated guesses and based on those guesses (scenarios) you estimate your savings.

Want more?  Care to really know?

As for almost any other question you might have along with simple or intermediate responses along with peer-reviewed data, here you are:

Categories: fun sciencey stuff.Tags: ,

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