Thursday, November 20, 2014

Climate Science Too Technical? Check Out "The Climate Crisis" by David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf

One of the problems with the IPCC 5th Assessment Reports (AR5) is that they are highly technical. Even the Summary for Policymakers is technical, and you can be sure that reading the thousands of pages that summarize the tens of thousands of scientific studies evaluated for the AR5 are mind-numbingly technical. But you still want to learn about climate science. The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change is a great book for you.

Written by climatologists David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf, The Climate Crisis was published in 2010 so isn't quite as up-to-date as the most recent IPCC report, but it does a decent job of explaining the status of climate science to non-scientists.

That doesn’t mean the book isn’t technical. It is chock full of color graphics, charts, tables, and photographs documenting every aspect of climate science. But the authors work hard to present the information in language that educated non-scientists and scientists, as well as professionals in other fields, can more readily understand. Overall they accomplish this goal, though I do think that parts of the book are still technical enough to confuse your “average Joe” (i.e., most of us). Conversely, I don’t think they explain some of the charts well enough – there is a tendency to have a narrative and reference a chart or graph, but then not explain the graph in detail. This is intentional as the book is designed to communicate the information on a level that non-climatologists can understand, but I did find myself wanting to drill into the figures more than was enabled.

Still, these are minor quibbles and I find the book to be a very useful addition to the reading list of anyone interested in the topic of global warming or climate change. The authors are both practicing climatologists and professors of climate science. Rahmstorf has been a lead author in recent IPCC assessment reports and so has intimate knowledge of both the science and the process for review. Both authors contribute to the blog, a useful, though still technically oriented, source of information that delves deeper into certain aspects of the science.

The book itself focuses on the state of the science and examines the evidence of climate change already being observed, what is happening with snow and ice in various parts of the world, how the oceans are changing, and how climate is measured. They also have chapters on what we might see in the future with respect to climate change, impacts of those changes, and how we can avoid the worst of it. They briefly touch on climate policy in the last chapter, but they focus on the need for action, the global nature of the cooperation required, and the differences between developed and developing nations, rather than discussing any specific policy solutions.

I definitely recommend the book. Readers will find it both informative and enlightening.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

John Kerry: Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate Change

The science is unequivocal - human activity, primarily our emissions of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels, is warming the planet. It's happening, we are the dominant cause, and the ramifications on our economic and political stability, our economic and human health, and our social and societal values are serious. Action is necessary.

So says the IPCC, NASA, NOAA, the US National Academies of Sciences, the UK Royal Society, every other National Academy and major scientific organization around the world, and virtually every climate scientist. The world is warming, we are the cause, and we must take responsibility.

Which is why this week's surprise announcement is such an important step. As Secretary of State John Kerry notes in his Washington Post Op-Ed,

"the United States and China are the world’s two largest economies, two largest consumers of energy, and two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Together we account for about 40 percent of the world’s emissions."

That fact is why the next sentence in Kerry's piece is so true:

"We need to solve this problem together because neither one of us can solve it alone."

Needless to say, this agreement cannot simply be lip service; it must be followed by action. The prospects for that action remain uncertain. In the US, the Republican Party, which just gained control of both houses of Congress, has been arguing for US inaction because "we can't solve the problem alone." This agreement removes that fallacious argument. And yet, the immediate reaction from the Republican Party to the promise of Chinese action was as expected - partisan and disingenuous.

Uncertainties in China also exist. China recently surpassed the United States as the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, though the United States and Europe remain the "champions" of total historical contributions. Chinese industrial growth will continue given their overall population, as will their reliance on fossil fuels for a long time to come. But China is also a leader in the development and construction of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Those realities are reflected in the terms of the agreement.

Clearly this is a first step, and a baby step at that. Political dynamics in both countries could negate these honest attempts to deal with the realities of man-made climate change. That would be both irresponsible and destructive to our mutual future economies. One hopes the Republican Party in the US and the authoritarian regime in Beijing will find that working for the common good of their respective nations and populaces will overtake the partisan dishonesty that is the rule.

The Presidents of the United States and China have shown leadership in a world afraid to be honest with the public. Let's hope others follow their lead.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Science and Politics - Two Big Events in Climate Change This Week

It's been a big week for climate change. There was one huge event that went largely unnoticed, and one less consequential event that was the talk of the town. That fact represents a major obstacle for action to deal with the unequivocal science that says humans are warming the planet.

Let's start with the big event. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international organization that summarizes the state-of-climate-science every seven years, issued its Synthesis Report on November 2nd. As the name suggests, this is the final report in the series and synthesizes the voluminous data from the three scientific working group reports issued over the past year. As their "headline" document notes, the combined reports state unequivocally:

1) Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,

2) Humans are the dominant cause of this warming,

3) Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems,

4) Man-made climate change is a threat to sustainable development, and

5) We must act now.

The unequivocal science that led to all of these conclusions has been documented in great detail in the working group reports already issued; this final report simply summarizes the main points so that policymakers can discuss options to deal with the ramifications of the science. Action is necessary, and necessary action must begin now. The consequences of inaction are dire.

Unfortunately, this critical IPCC report was largely ignored by the media and policymakers alike because....ooh, there was an election!!

What the election means....

Which gets us to the second big event that will, in fact, likely be inconsequential when it comes to taking action. The mid-term elections in the United States occurred on Tuesday, November 4th. As expected, in large part due to the huge Democratic wins in Republican-leaning states six years ago, the Republican party took control of the Senate. Republicans have already controlled the House since 2010. With a united Congress (such as it is), this increases the chances that bills will actually be passed and sent to the President.

That sounds good, right? Not really. Because the Republicans gained control due both to vagaries of the calendar and indebtedness to the tea party, all bills will have to pander to the most extreme elements in both houses of Congress. With respect to man-made climate change this means no bills that honestly deal with the science will ever reach the President. Instead, denial of the science and attacks on science organizations and funding will be the main order of business. This is exactly what the Republican-led House has been doing for four years, and now the Senate can do it too.

So with the conservative climate denial machine (both the tea party and climate denial get major funding and organization through the Koch brothers lobbying network) now in positions to attack science, why is this so inconsequential?

On the one hand it is very much consequential. Efforts to defund science and block action are likely to get further along than in the previous Congress. But on the other hand, no bills honestly dealing with climate were getting to the President anyway because of House denial. Meanwhile, the Republican minority in the Senate successfully manipulated the closure process such that not even the simplest bills could get through without multiple 60-vote majorities. True, now that they control both houses, Republicans can pass bills, but that means they have to take responsibility for them. While most of the Republican leadership has willingly pandered to the denialist elements (and will make those denialists chairs of the relevant science committees), they know that the science is unequivocal and some action must be taken. They've held back economic growth and jobs to hurt the President, but are they willing to throw America under the bus forever? Unfortunately, the answer isn't all that clear.

The most likely scenario is that the Senate won't allow the most egregiously denialistic House bills to get through the Senate. For the merely ceremonial denialist bills the Republicans in the Senate could send them to the President, who will promptly veto anything that doesn't begin to take responsibility for the science.

The science, by the way, that demonstrates warming of the climate system is unequivocal, humans are the dominant cause, has already had widespread impacts on human and natural systems, is a threat to sustainable development, and action is immediately necessary.

You know, the unequivocal science that is documented in the many thousands of pages summarizing the state-of-the-climate as put forth by the IPCC reports largely ignored this week.

Yeah, that science.

To paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, "And yet it warms."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Here's the Reason Climate Deniers Use Abusive Name Calling as a Tactic

Ever noticed how in "discussions" on the internet with climate deniers, especially the ideologically motivated amateur ones, you invariably start seeing references to "alarmists?"  Not surprised anymore to seeing terms like "algorian" [in honor of Al Gore] or "sheeple" or "communist" or "climate Nazi?" Ever wondered why such abusive name-calling has become so prevalent on the internet when discussing man-made climate change? It's actually an intentionally used tactic by climate deniers.

Think of this factual statement:

"Virtually every climate scientist agrees that the sum total of all of the peer-reviewed science over the last century demonstrate unequivocally that the planet is warming and human activity, primarily our burning of fossil fuels, is the dominant cause."

Supported by millions of empirical data points and well-known physics, the statement is easily demonstrated to be factually accurate. It's unequivocal - the planet is warming and human activity is the dominant cause.

This presents a problem for climate deniers. It's hard to get mileage by denying what "virtually all climate scientists say..." So, deniers replace "climate scientists" with "alarmists" and, Voila!, problem solved. We're no longer talking about science, we're talking about activists, extremists," political followers of Al Gore, and the more emphatically crazy, "warmists," "communist commissars," "libtard warmers," "warmageddonists," and all sorts of other mean and nasty names intended to deflect from the fact that virtually all scientists agree humans are warming the planet.

Name calling is a crutch. Designed to keep the illusion of movement when climate deniers know they don't have a leg to stand on. But it's also a tactic; designed as a means of harassing scientists and science followers. It's a form of violence. A way to inflict aggression on to people deniers have chosen to despise because the deniers don't want to take responsibility for the ramifications of continued warming.

So abusive name calling is intentional. You'll see demeaning names like those above, as well as calling people such blatantly offensive epithets such as "global warming Nazis," the "Branch-Carbonian Cult of Climate Thermageddon," "useful idiots," and various abusive expletives. Attacks are directed at scientists like Michael Mann, scientific communicators like John Cook at Skeptical Science (who has been called "John Crook" by amateur deniers), and every day people that comment on various blogs and social sites like Facebook.

When deniers use name calling to distract from having to admit that "alarmist" actually means "virtually every climate scientist in the world and well-known physics," they are 1) being dishonest, and 2) making it obvious that they understand, or at least sense, that they are intentionally being deceitful.

The harassment of climate scientists and others has a long history in the climate denial industry. Future posts will look closer at this aspect, as well as at what scientists and science followers alike can do to combat harassment by those who deny the science of man-made climate change.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dissing the IPCC and other Scientific Organizations - How Climate Deniers Work

One of the recurring tactics used by climate deniers, especially the amateur ones, is to dismiss with prejudice any scientific organization that reports the state-of-the-science with respect to man-made climate change. The most egregiously - and falsely - attacked organization is the IPCC. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which, thankfully, we all know as the IPCC), is written off as a political organization because, well, because it says "intergovernmental" right there in the title, doesn't it? So obviously it just makes stuff up to push an agenda, right? 


Since there is so much misinformation out there about what exactly the IPCC does it seems appropriate to give a little background. The IPCC was "established [in 1988] by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences." By definition it is both a scientific body and an intergovermental body. As a scientific body it "reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. " It is an intergovernmental body in that it is "open to all member countries of UN and WMO," and representatives from up to around 130 countries participate in the plenary sessions where decisions about adoption of the technical reports are done. Note that the governmental representatives only show up to adopt the technical reports; the technical reports themselves are written by scientists expert in the fields pertinent to the particular part of the report being written.

The IPCC didn't come into existence on a whim or from some political motive. It was established because there was already a vast amount of empirical evidence suggesting that human activity was causing a dramatic warming of the planet. At the time, this information was spread out in thousands of independent papers and reports all over the world, as well as observations such as retreating glaciers, increasing temperature readings, ice cap extent and volume measurements, and new data from satellites. It was becoming obvious that something was happening to our climatic system, but with the information scattered all over the place it was hard to tell what was causing it. In short, the IPCC was formed to bring all the data from all these sources together, and summarize it into something that could be understood by policymakers charged with making decisions.

While climate denialists like to make believe the IPCC is some sort of political behemoth created to push some agenda, this characterization couldn't be further from the truth. The IPCC staff are actually very few in number (about 10 people). The work of summarizing the state-of-the-science is done by thousands of scientists who volunteer their time to compile, review, and assess the tens of thousands of peer reviewed and related publications and studies. These scientists generally are academics at universities or at scientific agencies such as NASA and NOAA in the US, and their counterparts in countries all over the world. It takes several years to summarize the data for each report.

So contrary to the grand conspiracists that dominate climate denialism, the IPCC doesn't conduct any new research itself nor dictate what is to be written, it is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the compiling and evaluating being done by scientists across the globe. These scientists work in diverse teams to synthesize the vast amounts of available information and produce technical reports for each of the three working groups. Only after the technical reports are completed does the IPCC convene representatives from each group and each country to agree on a fourth volume called the Synthesis Report, which as the name implies, summarizes the three technical reports in a way that government officials and the public can understand. 

Since its inception in 1988 the IPCC has published five sets of Assessment documents, in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013/2014. Each succeeding report incorporates all the new research since the last report (plus a reevaluation of the previous studies), and the more we know and understand the more certain we become about the fact that the planet is warming and the likelihood that we are causing it. The most recent, Assessment Report 5 (AR5), concluded that "the warming of the climate system is unequivocal," [p.4] and that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." [p.17] Using the IPCC's terminology, "extremely likely" means between 95% and 100% certainty, and "unequivocal" means clear and unambiguous (i.e., absolutely certain). In other words, climate change is happening and it's because of human activity.

Next up is the process of developing the Synthesis Report, and IPCC rules require 100% consensus among the representatives at the plenary session. This is done long after the three technical reports are completed by the scientists and the synthesis report must obviously conform to the science presented. Since some participating governments rely so heavily on income from the fossil fuels that are the primary contributor to global warming, these members tend to work hard to water down the conclusions in the synthesis report as much possible. Thus, the "100% consensus" process tends to result in estimates that are less dire (NOT more dire) than the science actually supports. So the problem is very likely much worse than the IPCC Synthesis Report suggests. 

As anyone at this point should be able to see, the IPCC itself is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the work of thousands of scientist contributors, expert reviewers, and myriad commenters as they pull together all of the scientific studies and synthesize the conclusions derived from those studies. Since these scientists come from a wide range of countries, backgrounds, and views (including contrarian and climate denier views), suggestions that there is a grand conspiracy to further some single agenda is, to put it nicely, bonkers. 

The professional denialist lobby and their spokespeople, of course, know that the science is unequivocal. But they are paid to further the interests of their benefactors and intentionally choose to ignore the science they find inconvenient, and routinely seed the blogosphere with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods so that amateur denialists have fodder to plagiarize. The professional lobby knows that the ideologically motivated amateurs won't really understand what they repeat, nor be particularly skeptical of the sources despite delusionally referring to themselves as skeptics. It's more than a little cynical on their part, for sure, but that's what they are paid to do and they do it well. So they dishonestly demean the IPCC and chuckle at the ideologues who further their goals. 

The amateurs? We'll discuss more about their traits and tactics as we continue the series. One ubiquitous trait of amateur denialists is contradiction (often in the same sentence). More on that soon.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to Separate the Science of Climate Change from the Non-Science of Climate Deniers

Whether we think about it or not, we live in a scientific world. But with so much information out there it's sometimes difficult to separate the actual science from the pseudoscience, or worse, the crock. Especially when there are people out there who intentionally mislead the public on such important science issues as man-made climate change. 

The science is clear - human activity is causing our climate system to warm. The support for this is voluminous and unequivocal. But, you say, "I saw on a blog that said it was all a hoax. How do I know who to believe?"

A reasonable question, and one easy to address. Take, for example, the following video by Michael Shermer, an actual skeptic. In something he calls the "Baloney Detection Kit" he lays out ten questions everyone should ask themselves as they evaluate various claims. This interesting and informative video can help us understand the world of climate denialists, so watch it and then check out the text below.

As the video shows, there are 10 questions to ask ourselves when someone offers a new theory or opinion. Let's apply these to man-made climate change, also commonly called global warming.
1) How reliable is the source of the data?

The scientific consensus: Sources are tens of thousands of studies published in the peer-reviewed literature and conducted by thousands of researchers over more than three decades of investigation by scientists at every kind of scientific organization (government, independent, skeptic, NGO, University, industry, etc.) all over the world. 

The denialists: Sources are mostly non-science bloggers, Op-Eds in business newspapers, and a handful of skeptic scientists associated with free market and fossil fuel lobbying groups.

2) Does the source make similar claims?

The scientific consensus: Science is always open to new ideas.  That is how science works.  All new ideas undergo the same tests of evidence and scrutiny.

The denialists: The phrase used in the video, "heretic for the sake of heresy," comes to mind. Most denialists will argue for the sake of arguing, even if contradicting themselves.

3) Have the claims been verified?

The scientific consensus: All claims must meet the test of scrutiny - peer review, replication, many other experiments looking at the issue from many different angles. Claims of man-made climate change have been verified through multiple lines of evidence. 

The denialists: Any single "data" point is touted as the truth that upsets the established understanding, even long after the "data" has been shown to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or an outright fabrication.

4) Does this fit with the way the world works?

The scientific consensus: The idea that CO2 could have the effect that was discovered is entirely logical and consistent with how the world works. It has been demonstrated through experiment and empirical evidence.

The denialists: Some of the claims are so bizarre and so divorced from the way the world works that the logic is hard to follow, e.g., the claims that the well known greenhouse effect is somehow false despite nearly 200 years of evidence.

5) Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

The scientific consensus: Scientists constantly are looking at alternative explanations. The author and/or every other scientist in the field will try to test whether other explanations would also explain the phenomena being observed.

The denialists: This is best summed up by a direct quote by one denialist: "I and all of skeptic science has [sic] cherry picked the facts that disproves that man made C02 is the cause of global warming. We don't need any others."

6) Where does the preponderance of the evidence point?

The scientific consensus: Tens of thousands of studies published in the peer-reviewed literature and conducted by thousands of researchers over many decades of investigation by scientists at every kind of scientific organization (government, independent, skeptic, NGO, University, industry, etc.) all over the world have led to the overwhelming conclusion that has become the scientific consensus on climate change.

The denialists: Bloggers and skeptic scientists associated with free market lobbying groups who suggest one study is enough to invalidate the preponderance of the evidence.

7) Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?

The scientific consensus: Science is all about using the scientific method, assessing corraborative evidence, testing, using logic, etc.

The denialists: Tendency to ignore any data that do not support their predefined view, including all the information presented that demonstrates their "data" are false.

8) Is the claimant providing positive evidence?

The scientific consensus: Climate scientists have provided many decades of positive evidence in tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies, corroborated by observations of ice melting, glaciers receding, temperature changes, etc. The most recent IPCC assessment reports summarize this positive evidence in detail.

The denialists: Most of the "evidence" provided is unsupported by the data, usually unverifiable, and contradictory. Often what is presented as evidence is not actually evidence but rather a political or economic viewpoint, e.g., global warming is a hoax because cap-and-trade will cost companies money

9) Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?

The scientific consensus: As noted, climate scientists have compiled many decades of evidence that account for the changes we have been observing.

The denialists: Mostly focus on anomalies and seem to think that these few uncertainties explain everything, when in fact they simply ignore anything that seems not to fit their predetermined ideas.

10) Are personal beliefs driving the claims?

The scientific consensus: As the video notes, scientists are people too. Which is why we have peer-review and the scrutiny of other scientists who may view the issue from a different perspective.  The data tell us which conclusions are supported.

The denialists: Mostly begin with a distaste for one of the policy remedies and then decide to "fight the science" as a lobbying tool to avoid regulation. They then cherry pick to find any information that they think supports their crusade to avoid regulation (by denying the science). This helps explain why the most cited "skeptic" scientists are all associated with free market lobbying groups, and why we routinely hear denialists say things like "climate change is wrong because cap-and-trade is just a tax on business."

Feel free to go back and view Shermer's "Baloney Detection Kit" again. These ten questions should be asked by every citizen evaluating for themselves the claims made by scientists and denialists. In fact, that last line is a good indicator of the veracity of the claims - virtually all climate scientists (along with the realities of physics) concur that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly support the conclusion that human activity is warming the planet. Those who claim man-made climate change is a hoax? Mostly they are non-scientists and free market/fossil fuel-supported spokespeople.

That says a lot.