Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Skeptical Science on Climate Change - A Partial Snapshot

Our friend maia-gaia replied in comments once more, reprinted here in full:

“Oh that link! Realize its always dangerous to try satire with a topic with such volatility but that was my intention with the Euthanasia Society link- ill advised it turns out.  

Actually most of my pages deal with highly charged and controversial subjects and I do often throw in some links to the ever-present extreme pro and con views so readers can consider the broadest perspective. It was unfortunate that combining "cancer" and"euthanasia" created a perfect storm for offending everyone.

The only pro activism I advocate for individuals to help save Earth's nature is to join and perhaps volunteer in environmental and wildlife organizations. Neither ecospiritual social networking nor the postmodern movement for self realization have anything near the potential that the collective will and means orgs have to grow political support for the Gaia imperative- essential for actuating sustainable conservation.  

I'm afraid my analogy between Aurobindo and Ramana - and engagement and detachment, got lost when the term "tradition" replaced "detachment". The conversation went tangential from environmentalism to all about whether Ramana was a Neo Vedantan. Refocusing: I think there is simply too much data to sustain the old hats of- Oh- threats are overblown; things really aren't that bad; Gaia isn't fragile and is resilient and there have always been extinctions yet nature recovers, etc. Such equivocations become rationalizations for adopting a detached Maya paradigm- leaving Gaia to fend for herself. This seems to deny the essence of the realization to which we aspire-to apperceive our wholeness. How better to anticipate our awakening than to become loving allies in defending against her/our defile.”

First, let's be clear that no one, least of all me, is accusing Maia-Gaia of literally believing the extreme point of view of the “humanity as a cancer” crowd. It's clear from his website that he entertains all kinds of viewpoints, and while having some sympathy with many of them, I doubt he actually believes any of them fully, lest of all this kind of extremism. I assume that he has his own unique viewpoint that is only described in his own words, not those of others.

Of course, it's certainly true that I picked up this extremist position from reading his website and commented on it accordingly. And it's also true that some version of this theme has gotten traction within the eco-spiritual movement, and even within parts of the general public. Humanity has a lot of misgivings about modernism, modern technology, and the whole scary Frankenstein-monster sense that we are breaking some kind of Divine taboo about tampering with the powers of life that is endangering our Eden-like world, and thus we are flirting with Divine punishment, expulsion from the Garden, and that we must resist these demonic temptations.

These fears are deeply embedded in our culture, going back thousands of years. Whenever the facts of modern science seem to point in their direction, we immediately tend to seize upon those facts to support this kind of emotional sense of doom. And yet, in so doing, we also tend to distort the facts to fit the narrative we have already been given by our culture, and we like to think of those who resist this narrative as “deniers”, which is how those who are skeptical of environmentalists sounding the alarm about the imminent dangers of global warming tend to be characterized. (Not by Maia-gaia, let's be clear, but by many out there in the public conversation about this issue).

For a moment I'll simply address these scientific facts, since they go to the root issue of whether the data really does point towards climate change alarmism being justified, or whether it is overblown. I don't want to overly complicate this website with an endless scientific debate on the evidence - there are plenty of places on the web already devoted to that, and I'd recommend interested parties read the arguments on both sides - but let me just print a few simple charts that I think at least begin to illustrate an important aspect of the skeptic's argument - that the kinds of climate changes we've been going through are most likely mostly natural in origin, and not due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The above chart maps two fluctuating sets of data over the last 20,000 years - Greenland's temperature, and world-wide sea-level rise. I use Greenland's temperature chart for a number of reasons, primarily that it's the most accurate of all the temperature proxies used by scientists. It's derived from ice core samples that can trace the ratios of Oxygen isotopes going back several  hundred thousand years, creating one of the most reliable records of temperature in the world. Likewise, Greenland is at one of the "sensitive" locations in the climate debate, being within the arctic region that tends to respond most powerfully to climate change, and it is likewise the ice cap which is most threatened by melting, and thus a source of global sea rise, in the global warming models used by climatologists to predict future effects of any man-made warming.

It's important to note that one temperature proxy from one location is not enough to draw definitive conclusion about world-wide temperature patterns. Some have questioned whether the patterns in Greenland are simply local variations due to changes in the local climate. Others have questioned whether such warm periods as the "Medieval Warm Period" existed outside of Europe. The problem with those arguments is that they tend to rely on much more questionable temperature proxies, such tree rings growth patterns, which respond to all kinds of environmental changes, not just temperature, and it is thus much more difficult to discern a definitive temperature signal from other facts such as precipitation and available sunlight, which are much stronger drivers of tree growth. Further, there's been some scientific scandals related to those proxies revealing that they rely on extremely small samplings of trees which often seem to exclude data that undermines the researcher's theories. Likewise, further studies from around the world, such as in MesoAmerica and Indonesia, seem to support the notion that these previous warming periods did in indeed exist, and were even greater than our present warming trend.

That said, I invite you to simply examine the Greenland ice core temperature record. It indicates, of course, that Greenland has gone through extreme swings in temperature over the last 20,000 years ago, when the last ice age was near its nadir, and temperatures in Greenland were some 15C colder than they are now. Greenland went through a number of fairly sudden warming and cooling periods, some of them spanning mere decades. Some 14,500 years ago we had a sudden warming spell, and then almost just as abruptly, a sudden cooling that actually sent Greenland into another brief cold spell even colder than most of the previous ice age. About 12,00o years ago Greenland abruptly warmed again, stabilizing at about 10,000 years ago in a relatively warm holocene period, during which virtually all of human civilization developed., in large part due to these warm and stable conditions.

If we look closely at the temperature record in Greenland over the last 10,000 years, we see that while it's more stable than the previous 10,000 years, it certainly contains some significant fluctuations. One thing we can note is that most of these last 10,000 years, the temperature in Greenland has actually been warmer than it is at present. In fact, a number of periods have been considerably warmer than the present time, peaking on at least three occasions at some 3C warmer than the present. And yet one can also see that world-wide sea levels have remained very stable during this time, and have in fact often been higher than they are at present. 

What's also evident from this data record is that the Medieval Warm Period,. peaking about 1,000 years ago, was warmer than the present period. It's certainly true that temperatures have been rising from those experienced during the Little Ice Age that lasted from about 1350-1850, but they have yet to come close to those of the previous peak, much less early peaks several thousand years ago. In fact, it's evident that the Little Ice Age represented some of the coldest temperatures of the last 10,000 years, and that the general climate trend for most of that period has actually been a downward trend, without our current warming period being a very small upward tick in the midst of a long downward cycle, one that is very likely leading us to another worldwide plummet in temperatures as we head into the next full blown Ice Age. 

For the last 800,000 years at the very least, the world has been experiencing regular Ice Ages lasting some 100,000 years, interrupted by brief warming spells of about 10,000 years, more or less, but never much more. None of these temperature changes have been driven by Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The evidence strongly indicates that these cycles are driven by natural variations in the earth's orbit, as well as by changing ocean current patterns that are perhaps related to the closing of the Isthmus of Panama over the last three millions years (when the pattern first began to emerge). Clearly, the climate reaches tipping points after which changes can come suddenly, but it's also clear that these are driven by variations in the solar radiation received by the earth, not by greenhouse gases.

Likewise, even the climate rises and falls experienced within the last 10,000 years, during the holocene, have not been driven by CO2 levels, which have in fact slightly increased during this time (by natural causes) from about 270ppm to 280ppm in pre-industrial modern times. Whatever has driven these climate changes, it has not been man's activities.

So what is the basis for believing that any portion of the warming we have been experiencing for the last 150 years or so is man-made, and due to the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere? Well, it's a highly speculative theory that presumes that the warming effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have the capacity to drive world temperatures to extreme that go beyond any natural variation. The arguments of the global warming theorists have basically been that we don't know of any natural drivers which could account for the recent warming - therefore, it must be the rise in CO2. However, this presume a kind of arrogance about our knowledge of climate that just isn't justified. We simply don't know how our climate actually works, and what forcings account for the climate fluctuations during our holocene warming. Therefore, it's highly presumptuous to suggest that only some unnatural source of warming could account for what has occurred in the 20th century.

The science of climate prediction has relied to an extreme degree on computer-programmed climate models which have been shown time and again to be inadequate at actually predicting or describing the details of how climate changes. It has also relied on assumptions about the sensitivity of climate to minor forcings such as those which it is agreed upon can be brought about by increasing levels of CO2. For example, the basic physics of these gases tells us that they alone can increase world-wide temperatures by no more than about 1C for every doubling of CO from the pre-industrial level of 280ppm. The computer climate models use various scenarios of "high sensitivity" to suggest that this warming will trigger other elements within our climate to magnify this modest rise into something that could be catastrophic, an increase in temperature of anywhere from 3-9C. The problem of course with this kind of thinking is that of GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). In other words, if the assumptions behind these models are false, so too will be their results. 

One of the most hotly contested aspects of these models is the numbers they use to calibrate climate "sensitivity". At present, most models use a very high value for this number, without actually being able to justify it on the basis of the data. Richard Lindzen, a climatology professor from MIT and one of the most respected figures in the field, has for years argued that an analysis of the data indicates that a much lower figure for climate sensitivity than is used by the models is justified, and that it could even turn out to be negative - that whatever increases in temperature are driven by CO2, are actually negated by other factors in the climate, such as increased clouds albedo. The problem with the models, he points out, is that climate is too little understood and that attempts to recreate it using computers will not do anything but reinforce existing illusions of certainty that are not justified by the actual data. 

The computer climate models, contrary to what has been said in the media, simply don't match up well with the actual climate data, except to the degree that they vary so much in their predictions that some of them are bound to fall within the margins of error. One thing they all agree upon, however, is that CO2 emissions did not begin to result in warmer temperatures until about 1970. This means that a large amount of the warming since the end of the little Ice Age, from about 1850-1970, amounting to about 0.6C, was not driven by man-made causes. What was it driven by? We don't know. So how can we say that the warming experienced since 1970, which has been about 0.4C, is man-made? A good question. The global warming theorists have answers, to be sure, but let's be honest, whatever those answers might be, that's a fairly small temperature increase over a very brief period, climatically speaking, to draw such huge and threatening conclusions from. 

Here's an example of one of the most famous series of climate model predictions, presented by James Hansen of NASA to congress in 1988:

As you can see, Hansen's primary model scenario has been over-estimating warming since it was released. Hansen did give two other scenarios which would result in lesser degrees of warming, but he emphasized the above scenario as the most likely. However, even the lower of the other two scenarios has departed from the trends of recent years. In short, there's little reason to think they are reliable, especially in that warming has fallen flat for the last 8-12 years, and is actually on a statistically downward trajectory, although it's too soon to tell if that will last. Hansen tries to explain the gaps in his predictions by suggesting that some unknown climate factor has been masking the CO2 warming trends for the last decade, and that when this unknown factor goes away, warming will resume "with a vengeance". However, even he admits that that if it doesn't happen soon, there will have to be some "rethinking" of the models. Indeed. 

You will have to pardon me if all this leaves me more than a bit skeptical. There are all kinds of models that can be constructed to agree with past climate data, but very few that can actually make accurate predictions, or justify the notion that our climate is now primarily driven by GHG warming. For example, virtually all the climate models that rely on GHG warming to explain recent trends make specific predictions about the internal details in the atmospheric warming to be expected, a kind of "signature" or "fingerprint" which gives us reason to think, if that pattern is found, that the warming we are experiencing is due to GHGs rather than other causes. This creates, n the climate graphs, a kind of "hot spot" in the atmospheric temperature patterns. And yet, in all the data that has been accumulated over the last thirty years, this "hot spot" is missing. If it were to appear, then the climate models could claim some kind of vindication, but it hasn't, and this shed further doubts on their understanding of how climate actually works. 

As a side note, I'll post here a graph of an alternative peer-reviewed climate model published in 1996, which is based mostly on cycles in our ocean currents, and leaves out entirely any forcings due to GHGs.

As you can see, this more simplistic model manages to capture quite well both the trend prior to 1996, and those that have come since. According to this model, we are actually just past the peak of the recent temperature rise, and are coming down once again. This model is not at all unique, however. In fact, a number of climatologists who actually are in the alarmist camp are now saying that worldwide temperatures may be flat or continue to decline for the next 20-30 years, and yet they still maintain that after that, temperatures will resume their rise, and this time much more steeply due to the accumulations of GHGs in the interim. Again, this strains credulity, and seems like the behavior of people who are clinging to a failing hypothesis. 

One thing I'll say about those at the forefront of the global warming movement: they have good intentions. They may be wrong, they may even be somewhat deluded, but they have good intentions. They genuinely believe that the world is in danger, and they are acting according to that belief to try to save it. If I believed in the underlying facts, I would join them, regardless of the faults in their emotional approach at times. I don't like the polarization that has occurred in this debate, and the sense that some people are the good guys fighting the bad guys who are callously destroying the earth for profit. It's certainly true that there are people out there who are callously wrecking environmental havoc for profit. And it's certainly true that the oil and gas industries would oppose the climate change movement regardless of the facts to protect their profits. But that doesn't change the actual facts. If tobacco really didn't cause cancer, the tobacco companies would be right to resist warnings and restrictions on smoking, if it were just some subjective notion of morality that was behind the crusaders.

The point being that even well-intentioned people can be wrong. And further, well-intentioned people can create unhealthly polarizations on the issues to paint their side as the "good" people and the other side as the "bad" people. My reading of the movement is that this is indeed what has occurred with the climate change movement, and it has taken a wrong turn it will severely come to regret in the coming years. 

One must recognize that whether the fossil fuels industry has been driven by greed or not, it has been of tremendous benefit to mankind, overall. This, despite the clear damage it has brought about in all kinds of ways, even if one entirely excludes the issue of greenhouse gases. Humanity surely does need to mitigate and reverse that damage over time, but one can't ignore its clear benefits. Fossil fuel use in China, for example, has certainly polluted its air and bled over into neighboring countries, yet it has also not only greatly improved but saved the lives of many millions of people there. The same is true around the globe. One cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. It's certainly true that fossil fuels are dirty, and if they really were on the verge of destroying our ecosytem with greatly higher temperature, then yes, we'd have to pay the cost of dramatically curtailing their use. But that is simply not the case, and the argument that it is, is based on very weak science. 

The trends in science, I think, are very clearly positive. There are remarkable breakthroughs every year in every aspect of alternative energy production and use. They are not as rapid as some of the scariest of climate change warnings say we need to change over to alternative fuels, but I think they are completely compatible with the actual trends in climate and other forms of environmental degradation they cause. Over the next 20-30 years these alternative energy sources will come more and into use, and eventually dominate our energy markets. The efficiencies of solar, wind, nuclear, ocean current, geothermal, and other energy technologies are increasing on an exponential scale, as is their installed base. There is every reason to believe that they will eventually become even cheaper than most fossil fuels, especially oil, which is likely to decline in production relatively soon and rise in price even further. Even so, there's no reason to rush the gun and get in the way of the economic developments which are raising so many billions out of poverty, and are driving the alternative energy market in developed countries. There will be plenty of time to switch over to these cleaner and safer fuels, and to even patch up the damage we've done.

That doesn't mean that the future is entirely rosy. There are significant problems with the destruction of natural habitats, especially rain forests, and the supply of basic needs such as clean water. One cannot expect those problems to go away overnight, but the good news is that population growth is slowing dramatically and looks to turn net negative within the next 50 years. Overall, I would say that things look rather positive, despite the clear challenges ahead. 

And spiritually, I think we are also turning some important corners. The overall movements in consciousness that underly all these vast social, political, scientific, technological, economic, and environmental changes are significantly positive, despite their often chaotic appearance. One need not fear the future, or lapse into doubt about humanity's essential role in the planet's spiritual evolution. Faith is not unjustified either as an attitude or a method in dealing with any of these problems. 


Losing M. Mind said...

It seems like, from reading what you wrote. A good solution, is to use fossil fuels as necessary, but also concomitantly develop alternatives, and put more funding into that. Not just because of global warming. I don't know enough, you seemed to be going to the data, and actually analyzing it, and so maybe there isn't human caused global warming. (so much for my liberal family members thinking they had defeated my Republican cousin) But even if there isn't, it is nice to not have haze, and producing nasty unbreathable air. Not putting poisons in the air if possible seems like a good idea. And I don't think the things burning fossil fuels puts into the air is necessarily good (not an expert). With nuclear, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Hanson are far from ideal. Chernobyl obviously being the worse. It also doesn't seem, dare i say it terribly difficult to develop alternatives, and probably will be done in short order. Obama was unveiling some solar power plant in Florida that was powering for a whole town. What if every small to moderate sized town had solar power plants. It does seem, and I have no doubt it will happen, humans are going to have to learn to be 100% sustainable. Clearly, it seems, although I don't know the data, alot of what humans are doing is not sustainable, and will have to be curbed, or replaced. But that seems easy, and seems like it will happen. Oh, there are going to be the inevitable political struggles, maybe even violence, because that is the way humans have for the past atleat 10 melinnia reached equilibrium on any issue. But as Maharshi and all these sages have said, the world takes care of itself. It may be our dharma, our prarabdha to play a part in the process. If there is oppression, there is resistance. If there is ecological destruction, the threat to humans, and other animals (awakens the necessary motivation, and in some compassion for others). It all works out, even if it doesn't. Annamalai swami said even if everything is destroyed, the Self is unharmed.
good job with analyzing the data though, and interesting.

Losing M. Mind said...

I do know that combustion of organic molecules such as burning fossil fuels, what it is by defintion or even a camp fire, or a cigarrette, burning octane, does produce carcinogenic molecules. That was from O-Chem. So burning fossil fuels is not the most healthy. But balanced point about China. It also has saved lives. That is the same with genetically engineered crops. There are downsides I believe, allergins, and reduction of biodiversity, as mentioned, but also genetically engineered crops I believe have led to more people actually being fed, who need to eat. Over time, because people are striving for happiness. As said by Maharshi every human longs to be happy because it is his real nature. Because of this humans strive for the best possible world, and all these things get worked out. The world takes care of itself. Although maybe it our dharma to participate in it.

Broken Yogi said...


I agree with virtually everything you've said here, with the exception of your cavaets about nuclear. Those worries would have been applicabel to the earlier generations of nuclear plant design, but current designs are extremely safe, if expensive. Furthermore, the problem of nuclear waste disposal seems to have been solved, as methods for either recycling or rendering safe 99% of waste matter are now proven effective. So I'd say that nuclear is a very safe alternative fuel at this point. It's only problem is that it's relatively expensive and takes a long time to plan, approve, and build plants. By the time they come online in mass, better and cheaper alternative energy methods will probably be in place. But it's good as an insurance policy at maybe 10-20% of total energy needs.

You're right that fossil fuels are basically unclearn, unhealthy, and should be replaced as soon as is practical. I just think there's no reason to rush that process in the fashion climate change people are suggesting we need to. We shouldn't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

maya-gaia said...

I couldn't have defended my position better than you already have...thanks!

In regards to the nuclear option- Gaia Theory's James Lovelock is a strong proponent for its revival.

Losing M. Mind said...

What you've said makes sense and maybe true. But some of the most harsh criticisms I've ever read about nuclear power, is not about another Chernobyl (although I'm not sure why that would be impossible, but maybe it is). It's about the disposal of the waste. I remember reading Ward Churchill's book A little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and denial in the America's, and I remember him talking about (I can't remember a whole lot of specific facts), but something about the way it is stored, radioactive materials actually do leak into water supplies and stuff. Specifically he was saying native american (indigenous) communities have been the hardest hit, he said they were also heavily exploited for mining the nuclear fuels such as Uranium, and many of the native American miners in the four corners area suffered a much higher rate of cancer. So nuclear definitely had some downsides, but who knows maybe it is better still then it's alternatives, but I don't know if it is the best alternative compared to what even might be developed in the near future. I remember vaguely in O-chem, the professor talking about some ingenius ways of manufacturing fuel using the molecular mechanisms of photosynthesis. I can't remember details, and maybe it was something else. But definitely it was using the knowledge about how things work on the level of molecules. It gave me some hope in science actually providing solutions. Not that other things like popular movements, direct action don't have role to play also.