When people chose to follow one of my blogs I take a look at theirs and I’m not particularly discriminatory regarding who I follow. They may appear a little more into flower photography or describing their train journeys or taking us on a quest to discover the meaning of existence than I, and that’s all okay with me.
If, however, the theme of the blog is an evangelical exuberance about someone’s personal relationship with the heavenly Jesus, or a detailed, point by point account of exactly how the world is wrong, including a handy cut out and keep list of what action must be taken to remedy the horrors that are about to unfold, thank you for your interest, but you won’t be getting followed by me. Don’t get me wrong, you believe what you want, we don’t have to agree on anything for me to follow you. My problem here is answers. You think you’ve found them. I don’t think you have.
I know, I know!
It’s nothing against your beliefs, in fact there are also a bunch of climate change denying libertarians who also receive the same reaction regardless of their chosen mystical associations. It’s the sense that you know what it’s all about that’s the problem here.
I don’t know about much. One thing of which I’m sure is that things are pretty complicated. I see that in particle physics, I see that in astronomy, I see that in biology, paleontology, etymology, chemistry, epidemiology, and in fact everywhere where people actually keep asking questions and don’t settle for one answer. Complexity is all around us and it makes sense to me to try and grasp as much of it as we can while we’re here.
The unifying theory of nonsense
There’s always a temptation to try and look for an overarching pattern, some key to it all, some kind of big answer. Well, from what I understand of the universe, beyond certain theories within physics that have exactly zero effect on our daily lives, the idea of there being an answer to the question “what’s it all about?” seems trite.
But I really, really know it!
So if you are convinced that you have the answer to the big one, if you’re certain that you’re grasping the teleological key in your metaphysical hand, why not tuck it safely away in your pocket of wisdom. I don’t want it. If you’re so sure of everything, good. Well done! And I hope understand that my skepticism towards your simplified view of the world is not based on fear, or hate, or anger. No matter what your religion or ideology is, I’m just not that into it. There’s too much to learn about for one lifetime, too much to try and understand, too much to experience with eyes wide open, with a grounding in reality, with a basis in evidence. Far too much to spend time on fantasies, myths and traditions that tell us what we want to here, and not what we have truly discovered.
Magical mystery tour
Of course, I’m happy that people are certain about things. Sometimes I’m even a little jealous. But then I look a little closer, and I see a child on a bus journey, clutching her ticket with its destination neatly printed, eyes tightly closed, muttering with excitement about the wonderful place we’re heading to, or another child in a rage because the driver has taken a perceived wrong turn. This teleological certainty seems unproductive to me. So I look out the window, count the houses, note changes in the landscape, and most of all, enjoy the ride.
No, I’m still not a climate scientist, don’t worry, but I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to look at the data, and that it wasn’t good enough to just trust some bunch of scientists, and that nearly all scientists are corruptible/lazy/sheeplike, just look at the data, look at the data, look at the data!
(To make things clear at this point, I don’t receive any income from any scientific or political organization. My employers have no interest in my views on this matter, and my work has no connection with this issue. Basically, I’m more independent than a copy of The Independent at an independent gathering on Independence Day while watching Independence Day, independently. On the other hand, I do come to this with a slight bias that I must admit. I’d like to find evidence that AGW is not happening, or at least not to the degree that is presented by most media outlets. I’d like to find this because it would mean that there is no crisis, we can all go about our business without worrying about rising seas, mass extinctions and U.V. rays, and I can jet around the world without the slightest twinge of guilt.)
So, after some consideration, and not forgetting that I’m not actually a climate scientist (did I already mention that?), I thought I’d better actually look at the data. The plan here is to try and get to the heart of the main question about AGW without distraction, opinion, or a debate about who says what.
warning: if you’re familiar with the all the basics of climate change science, you may be quite bored by this rather simplistic approach, but it works for me, because, well, I’m not a climate scientist (I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt made up). So, here goes:
What data? Whose data? Where data?
What I want here, is the purest form I can take, the crystal meth of climate data. So raw it’s actually crunchy.
Where do I start?
Well, temperature seems to be as good a start as any.
So I’d need stuff from weather stations, weather balloons and weather robots (do we have weather robots? is a satellite a robot?) around the globe. We’re talking stuff that glaciologists have been gathering over the years. We’re talking datasets of temperatures that the oceans have been, spanning decades and decades. All that business.
Could it be possible that such data is falsified? Yes, I suppose, but in my view we’re entering into the realms of conspiracy paranoia if we start believing that shadowy powers are actually altering the datasets from individual weather stations, hacking into satellites, bribing all the glaciologists, blackmailing all the oceanographers, all the while stopping any whistleblower from busting the whole dirty business wide open.
(If you do believe this conspiracy, I refer you to the well established Blowjob in the Whitehouse principle. If Clinton couldn’t even keep that quiet, well, I guess those shadowy powers are not looking that all-powerful after all.)
Bouncing off the satellites
Satellite measurements of the earth’s microwave emissions that run from 1979 right up to February last year. Nice.
The dataset’s here.
You can see the globally averaged trends for the troposphere. (They show the measured changes in K, which stands for Kelvin, which is just the way scientists like to measure temperature because it starts at absolute zero, but in this case it works the same as Celsius as far as I can tell.) This is interesting data, but then comes the claim from the scientists:
All microwave sounding instruments were developed for day to day operational use in weather forecasting and thus are typically not calibrated to the precision needed for climate studies. A climate quality dataset can be extracted from their measurements only by careful intercalibration of the data from the MSU, AMSU and ATMS instruments.
Disappointing, so I’ll leave it there for the time being, as I don’t know what they’re up to when they’re doing their “careful intercalibration”.
This may look a little extreme at first glance, but I wanted to see if I could find a clear trend myself without looking at a nicely coloured graph pointing one way or another, so I looked at the global mean temperatures from 1880 to the present day (I didn’t want to just focus on the recent past), and I wondered what I’d make of the data if I just scrolled through the numbers. So here it is. Wow. Now that’s quite something.
Change of plan
Around this point in my investigations, it became clear that, along with the oceanographic data I found, and the glacier data I found, there was no doubt. Some time around 1980, stuff quite suddenly started to get considerably warmer, and there’s little evidence that the trend is slowing dramatically. This was so obvious to me, that the idea of describing each dataset in detail became just silly.
If you look at the data and deny that fact, or if you chose not to look at the data and deny that fact, people may call you a climate change denier, and frankly, if they do, I’ll not be there to defend you on this one. You may have some good points to make, you may have interesting arguments, but you are in denial. (Please note: I’m not labeling any groups of people with nuanced views on this subject as deniers. If you think I am, please read those last four sentences again, carefully.)
So let’s move on to some possible reasons for the temperature increase that is actually happening.
It’s a gas gas gas
So what has caused this sudden, dramatic increase in global temperatures? Could it be connected with gases that we’ve been releasing? Well, first of all, has there actually been an increase in greenhouse gases? Let’s look at the data.
Could these increases that correspond fairly closely with the heating of the planet (according to the data that I’ve been looking at, and not to do with anyone else’s opinions) be connected in any way?
This is a tricky one. I’ve found plenty of scientific information about this, but I’m trying to evaluate this without taking the word of a single scientist. The arguments appear to be plausible to me, that these gas increases are partially responsible for the heating of the planet, but the data involved stretches my scientific skills a little to far. The interactions of these gases are no doubt complex, subtle, and extremely difficult to predict with any certainty.
So what are we left with?
A correlation, which doesn’t automatically imply causation, and a plausible theory.
What other theories are there for such a sudden and dramatic rise in temperatures?
I looked into this hypothesis, and it wasn’t easy for me to get to the raw data on this one without it appearing to go through someone else’s interpretation first. Still, I found this.
Looking at the data that I could find I ended up agreeing with the quote:
When you look at the climate models that seek to show the human influence past 1970, you do see a good correlation of the temperature with the projected CO2 influence included, while the correlation with solar cycle length weakens.
I don’t find this as plausible as the gases hypothesis, but if there were a whole bunch of scientists agreeing upon it, then yes, perhaps it would deserve a reappraisal. Currently though, we’re left with the gases hypothesis as the front runner, in my opinion.
And there it is. Now for my tentative, provisional conclusions. (if you’re just skipping to the end, this is the end)
Global warming, happening to a planet very near you right now!
Are we causing it?
Is it happening at the rate that is presented in the media?
I don’t know.
Can we make certain predictions about the state of the climate over the next decade or so?
Are there some clear, general trends from which we can extrapolate an approximate idea of what may happen?
Are they anything to worry about?
Well, that’s a political question, but there do appear to be some pretty dramatic possible consequences, so yes, I think so.
For what I consider an equally interesting discussion of the methodology of how we go about making up our minds on such a topic, please take a look at my previous post.