Toggle between the scientists and the general public in the US to see what an uphill struggle this is.
After watching several videos of the breakup of Beaufort sea Ice during the dead of winter, I decided to contact a leading ice expert, Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, for analysis and perspective. I mixed his comments in with the increasingly-on-the-same-page warnings from his fellow scientists around the country.
I’ll post our full conversation later in the week.
Is this man putting forward a coherent argument?
Who comes out of this looking the most scientific and knowledgeable?
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.
Note: I’ve now written an update where I do claim to be a bit of an amateur climate scientist, so there you go.
I’m not a climate scientist. The chances are that you are not a climate scientist.
In fact, let’s start on the basis of nobody here actually being a climate scientist, okay?
(If you happen to be a climate scientist, you may want to find something else to do for a bit, look at some data, go for a walk, whatever, this isn’t about you)
So, let’s start at the beginning. What with us not being climate scientists, let’s not get into a discussion about the data. I’m not qualified, you’re not qualified, there’s very little point.
So, here goes:
How do I go about unpicking the contradictory views on this subject?
1. One solution would be to listen to the different views then settle on a middle ground somewhere. That would be quick, easy, and would perhaps avoid any unpleasant arguments, and if not, I’d always appear to be the reasonable and balanced one. Great!
This is, of course, a fallacy.
Working on the assumption that there is a reality of some kind, one view must be closer to describing that reality than the others, and there’s no logical reason to assume that the most accurate view should lie exactly in the center of some perfectly balanced spectrum.
2. Perhaps I could consider what I intuitively feel is right, what seems to make more sense, and then look for the evidence that most strongly supports that position.
The trouble here is then I’m only really considering the position that I’ve already decided upon, filtering out all opposing points as a priori wrong. Cherry picking data through confirmation bias. Easily done. Not good.
3. Perhaps I could find someone with letters after their name and who tells me of their decades of experience in the field. Would they have the right answer?
Well, maybe, but just because of their position, reputation or former achievements, they may be wrong on this one, they may be mistaken. I cannot accept an argument purely from authority.
4. So what am I left with? I could stare at the raw data myself, not allowing myself to be influenced by anyone else’s interpretation of it, somehow transform myself into a self-taught expert. If I did this for long enough I may be able to convince myself that I am in fact an expert. I’d also probably send myself a little nutty. How could I avoid the confirmation bias I already wrote about? I know my brain is far from perfect, so why should I trust it here? No, that won’t do.
So, that leaves me pretty stuck. Of course there’s a scientific consensus on this topic, but we all know that a consensus could be wrong. Could there be a bias built into the way we educate scientists that supports the status quo? Sure, why not? Could scientists be influenced by career opportunities, funding issues, or fear of damage to their professional reputation? No doubt. So a consensus gets built up, and it becomes increasingly difficult to publicly challenge it.
So what I need is a trained scientist, or ideally a number of scientists, who have established themselves as voices who challenge authority, who are skilled not just at the data analysis needed, but also the communication needed to reach a broad audience. These scientists should also be committed to independence, to overturning assumptions, to systematically applying logic, critical thinking and rationalism to everything that crosses their path.
So here are a few candidates for this post.
In no particular order, Steven Novella, Phil Plait, and Ben Goldacre. Each man is a qualified scientist, each from a separate branch of science, each completely independent from climate science, and, for me, crucially, each with a well documented track record of challenging the orthodoxy not only within their own fields, sometimes at some personal risk, but also across science.
These guys could play a crucial role in overturning current herd mentality/group think, if that is the case, among climate scientists.
Each of them have, of course, already written at length about this topic.
So which side do my newly appointed panel of independent experts land on?
Each of them have used the term “deniers” or something similar to describe those who claim that AGW is a myth.
Worse, the implication is that the very people who are arguing so passionately for a reappraisal of the science are victims of exactly those fallacies that I’ve described above. A misreading of the arguments and evidence through confirmation bias, and a misrepresentation of the data through cherry picking.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of many who call themselves climate change skeptics. I also think they play an important role in counteracting some of the sillier proclamations coming from the environmental lobby.
I do have to conclude, however, AGW is real, and although I’m not sure that it’s a productive label, the term denialist is harsh but fair.
Many readers will skip down to the end, find a conclusion that they don’t like, and reject everything else. That’s okay, but if you do take the time to read it all, you’ll see that the skip-to-the-enders are making my exact point for me.
Many thanks to the good people of Tallbloke’s Talkshop for allowing me to grill them for a bit on this subject without getting all snarky. They got snarky in the end, but I was quite persistant with my questioning, so that’s fair enough I suppose.