Ducking the Point

Most skeptics have been clubbed over the head with the “settled science” refrain at one time or another.  How can you, a layman, think you are right when every scientist says the opposite?  And if it is not settled science, how do folks get away unchallenged saying so?

I am often confronted with these questions, so I thought I would print my typical answer.  I wrote this in the comments section of a post at the Thin Green Line.  Most of the post is a typical ad hominem attack on skeptics, but it includes the usual:

The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.

Here is what I wrote in response:

I am sure there are skeptics that have no comprehension of the science that blindly follow the pronouncements of certain groups, just as I am sure there are probably as high a percentage of global warming activists who don’t understand the science but are following the lead of sources they trust. The only thing I will say is that there is a funny dynamic here. Those of us who run more skeptical web sites tend to focus our attention on deconstructing the arguments of Hansen and Schmidt and Romm, who alarmist folks would consider their top spokesmen. Many climate alarmists in turn tend to focus on skeptical buffoons. I mean, I guess its fun to rip a straw man to shreds, but why not match your best against the best of those who disagree with you?

Anyway, I am off my point. There is a reason both sides can talk past each other. There is a reason you can confidently say “well established and can’t be denied” for your theory and be both wrong and right at the same time.

The argument that manmade CO2 emissions will lead to a catastrophe is based on a three step argument.

  1. CO2 has a first order effect that warms the planet
  2. The planet is dominated by net positive feedback effects that multiply this first order effect 3 or more times.
  3. These higher temperatures will lead to and already are causing catastrophic effects.

You are dead right on #1, and skeptics who fight this are truly swimming against the science. The IPCC has an equation that results in a temperature sensitivity of about 1.2C per doubling of CO2 as a first order effect, and I have found little reason to quibble with this. Most science-based skeptics accept this as well, or a number within a few tenths.

The grand weakness of the alarmist case comes in #2. It is the rare long-term stable natural physical process that is dominated by positive feedback, and the evidence that Earth’s climate is dominated by feedbacks so high as to triple (in the IPCC report) or more (e.g. per Joe Romm) the climate sensitivity is weak or in great dispute. To say this point is “settled science” is absurd.

So thus we get to the heart of the dispute. Catastrophists posit enormous temperature increases, deflecting criticism by saying that CO2 as a greenhouse gas is settled. Though half right, they gloss over the fact that 2/3 or more of their projected temperature increase is based on a theory of Earth’s climate being dominated by strong positive feedbacks, a theory that is most certainly not settled, and in fact is probably wrong. Temperature increases over the last 100 years are consistent with neutral to negative, not positive feedback, and the long-term history of temperatures and CO2 are utterly inconsistent with the proposition there is positive feedback or a tipping point hidden around 350ppm CO2.

So stop repeating “settled science” like it was garlic in front of a vampire. Deal with the best arguments of skeptics, not their worst.

I see someone is arguing that skeptics have not posited an alternate theory to explain 20th century temperatures. In fact, a number have. A climate sensitivity to CO2 of 1.2C combined with net negative feedback, a term to account for ENSO and the PDO, plus an acknowledgment that the sun has been in a relatively strong phase in the second half of the 20th century model temperatures fairly well. In fact, these terms are a much cleaner fit than the contortions alarmists have to go through to try to fit a 3C+ sensitivity to a 0.6C historic temperature increase.

Finally, I want to spend a bit of time on #3.  I certainly think that skeptics often make fools of themselves.  But, because nature abhors a vacuum, alarmists tend to in turn make buffoons of themselves, particularly when predicting the effects on other climate variables of even mild temperature increases. The folks positing ridiculous catastrophes from small temperature increases are just embarrassing themselves.

Even bright people like Obama fall into the trap. Earlier this year he said that global warming was a factor in making the North Dakota floods worse.

Really? He knows this? First, anyone familiar with the prediction and analysis of complex systems would laugh at such certainty vis a vis one variable’s effect on a dynamic system. Further, while most anything is possible, his comment tends to ignore the fact that North Dakota had a colder than normal winter and record snowfalls, which is what caused the flood (record snows = record melts). To say that he knows that global warming contributed to record cold and snow is a pretty heroic assumption.

Yeah, I know, this is why for marketing reasons alarmists have renamed global warming as “climate change.” Look, that works for the ignorant masses, because they can probably be fooled into believing that CO2 causes climate change directly by some undefined mechanism. But we here all know that CO2 only affects climate through the intermediate step of warming. There is no other proven way CO2 can affect climate. So, no warming, no climate change.

Yeah, I know, somehow warming in Australia could have been the butterfly flapping its wings to make North Dakota snowy, but by the same unproven logic I could argue that California droughts are caused by colder than average weather in South America. At the end of the day, there is no way to know if this statement is correct and a lot of good reasons to believe Obama’s statement was wrong. So don’t tell me that only skeptics say boneheaded stuff.

The argument is not that the greenhouse gas effect of CO2 doesn’t exist. The argument is that the climate models built on the rickety foundation of substantial positive feedbacks are overestimating future warming by a factor of 3 or more. The difference matters substantially to public policy. Based on neutral to negative feedback, warming over the next century will be 1-1.5C. According to Joe Romm, it will be as much as 8C (15F). There is a pretty big difference in the magnitude of the effort justified by one degree vs. eight.

  • Alan D. McIntire

    Here’s a wikipedia link to per capita energy consumption:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_consumption_per_capita

    It lists the US as 7794.8 KG oil equivalent per year. 5% of that is 389.74.
    Bangladesh, Benin, Ivory Coast, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritria, Ethiopia, Haiti, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, and Yemen are the 12
    countries listed as conusming less than 5% of US energy. Somalia is not listed. The 95% for the US was estimated off the top of my head based on an estimate of the US consuming 4 times average per capita energy, having
    5% of the world’s population, and the fact that the goal of global warming initiatives is to cut back emissions 80% of 1990 levels. My guestimate of
    95% for the US may well have been UNDERESTIMATED once the fact that my calculaiton was an off the top of my head calculation, and that 1990 world energy production rather than 2003 world energy production would be the base.

    Most of you have never seen the countries listed above, but I’ll bet a significant portion have visited Mexico. Mexico consumes over 3 3/4 tiems the amount of energy we’d have to cut back, and Mexico is not exactly a paradise overflowing with energy.-

  • I have just arrived at your blog and I very much like what I see. I am so tired of hearing about scientific consensus. If that is how science works poor old Alb Einstien would never have been heard. Science is not about what the majority beleive is true it is what the minority can prove is right that is what makes science. I don’t care how clever a scientist is, unless he/she can prove their point beyond a doubt to their piers it is NOT science!

    I believe this point is being missed in this entire climate change debate. There is no voting in science votes only count in politics. This is how to identify the scientist from the politian.

    Thus the debate at present is not about science but on if we should bet and act on conjecture. When it become a matter of science the answer will be much more clear and sides will be taken but the facts will be science not thoughts and the direction of action will be plain regardless of the side one takes.

    A nuclear explosion is science, if and when to use it is politics. This was not the problem until the bomb became science. Prior, it was a matter of if such a bomb could do what conjecture said it could? Then science proved it and there was no longer any doubt. We still have the politcal problem though.

    I suggest this is where the climate debate is headed. My vote is that we get the science right first and then react according to our politics. If we allow politics to drive true science we will end up with a replica of the “science” of economics or worse still Polictical “science”. I doubt there is a need to vote on veracity of this fact. I guess it must be science then?

    QED

    Jack

  • san quintin

    Hi Jack. I’m afraid you’ve completely misunderstood how science works. You said: “I don’t care how clever a scientist is, unless he/she can prove their point beyond a doubt to their piers (sic) it is NOT science”. Well we have…that is why there is a consensus. It’s that there is no alternative explanation to AGW that remotely holds up. It’s certainly not the sun, nor natural variability, natural emissions of CO2 etc. The interesting point about Einstein is that he was never stopped from publishing or ridiculed by the scientific establishment (like denialists like to say AGW deniers are). Physics then was (and is now) falsifiable and Einstein produced some answers to some long-standing problems. If a modern-day Einstein wanted to falsify AGW s/he could easily do this…..show that CO2 isn’t a GHG. Showing that the T trend isn’t warming actually wouldn’t falsify the physics at all…the only falsification is physics not weather. The fact that no-one has done this is significant. Sceptics have had since 1824 to show that CO2 isn’t a GHG and they haven’t done so. That’s why there’s a consensus!