Friday, April 20th 2012, 3:45 AM EDT
I was working on an entirely different column about entrepreneurship and state tax policy when I read another Forbes contributor (Steve Zwick) this morning suggesting my house should be allowed to burn down in response to my global warming views.
We know who the active denialists are – not the people who buy the lies, mind you, but the people who create the lies. Let’s start keeping track of them now, and when the famines come, let’s make them pay. Let’s let their houses burn. Let’s swap their safe land for submerged islands. Let’s force them to bear the cost of rising food prices.
They broke the climate. Why should the rest of us have to pay for it?
I will suggest a counter-proposal at the end of this article, but I think it is worth reading his entire article. It really gives a good idea of just why the climate debate is broken. The ratio of ad hominem attacks to actual thoughtful discussion of science is just amazing, and the implicit assumption that there are no people of goodwill on the other side of the debate is both wrong and dangerous. I invite you to compare the tone, content, and tenor of his articles on climate with mine on this site. There have been five: Here, here, here, here and this one you are reading. The first two try to pin down where skeptics do and don’t agree with the theory of catastrophic man-made climate change. The other three, including this one, have been lamentations on why the discourse around climate is so unproductive.
It is hugely frustrating that proponents of manmade catastrophic warming theory mostly stopped debating skeptics in public a number of years ago. I had a number of good public debates through about 2008, but since then it has been impossible to obtain such a debate. Its frustrating because both sides casually point to evidence in posts like this that are supposedly “case closed” but which are immensely flawed and don’t stand up well if actually challenged. For example, he picks this article to declare that climate model predictions have been proven correct. I would love to know how long they trolled around to find a model output that showed only a half degree of warming from 1980 to 2010. The more famous projection is James Hansen’s presentation to Congress in 1988, where he predicted a degree of warming between 1985 and 2010. We have barely seen half of this, and most of that warming occurred before 2000.
This is not surprising. The historical evidence we have simply does not support a high sensitivity to CO2. The IPCC quotes climate sensitivity numbers (degrees C per doubling of CO2 concentrations) in the 3-5 range. These kind of numbers imply that, given the amount of CO2 we have produced in the past, we should already have seen 1.5-2.5C of warming. In reality, we have seen about 0.7C, and likely not all of that is due to CO2.
The main new evidence that Mr. Zwick offers in his article is a doozy. Apparently some university professors polled Americans and asked them if they remember seeing any severe weather in the last few years, and then asked them it they thought these might have been linked to man’s burning of CO2. I know, I know — it’s hard to argue in the face of such scientific evidence. It’s clear now why these folks have been able to wrap themselves in the mantle of the true defenders of science. But somehow Copernicus was able to overcome the polling data on the heliocentric universe so I will try to muddle through as well.
In the summer of 2001, a little boy in Mississippi lost an arm in a shark attack. The media went absolutely crazy. For weeks and months they highlighted every shark attack on the evening news. They ran aerial footage of sharks in the water near beaches. They coined the term “Summer of the Shark.” According to Wikipedia, shark attacks were the number three story, in terms of network news time dedicated, of the summer.
Bombarded by such coverage, most Americans responded to polls by saying they were concerned about the uptick in shark attacks. In fact, there were actually about 10% fewer shark attacks in 2011 than in 2010. Our perceptions were severely biased by the coverage.
Similarly, every bit of severe weather now makes the news, so the American public can be forgiven for thinking that maybe such weather is increasing. But when one actually looks at data, it’s hard to see good evidence of a shift in severe weather. Neither extreme wet weather, extreme dry weather, tornadoes, or hurricanes show any real upward trend. Sure we had some 100-year high temperatures in the US in March. But in the same month the rest of the world was at or below its average temperature for the last couple of decades. The reality is that the US makes up about 2% of the global surface area so that on average, an area the size of the US somewhere in the world should be having such a 100-year high month six times a year.
For these reasons, and others, it is really, really hard to detect shifts in the mean of a data set like climate outcomes from just a few samples. It is even harder to detect shifts in the standard deviation, which is essentially what folks like Mr. Zwick are claiming when they say that we are seeing more weather extremes (e.g. both more dry and more wet weather). Ostensible proponents of science in the catastrophic warming community are doing science a disservice by addressing this difficult issue with the tone he adopts, and using such lame evidence.
In fact, no mechanism has ever been suggested where CO2 can cause climate changes (e.g. more / less rain, severe weather, etc) without the intermediate step of warming. Everything in the IPCC reports follow this logic chain of CO2 –> Warming –> Climate changes. It turns out that we have seen little or no warming over the last decade and a half, either in the surface temperature record or in ocean heat content. If we aren’t observing warming, we can’t be seeing man-made climate changes, or, to put it more accurately, the climate changes we inevitably are seeing (since the climate is always changing) are likely not man-made.
Instead of screwing around in the media trying to assign blame for the recent US heat wave to CO2 and threatening to burn down the houses of those who disagree with us, we should be arguing about what matters. And the main scientific issue that really matters is understanding climate feedback. I won’t repeat all of the previous posts (see here and here), but this is worth repeating:
Direct warming from the greenhouse gas effect of CO2 does not create a catastrophe, and at most, according to the IPCC, might warm the Earth another degree over the next century. The catastrophe comes from the assumption that there are large net positive feedbacks in the climate system that multiply a small initial warming from CO2 many times. It is this assumption that positive feedbacks dominate over negative feedbacks that creates the catastrophe. It is telling that when prominent supporters of the catastrophic theory argue the science is settled, they always want to talk about the greenhouse gas effect (which most of us skeptics accept), NOT the positive feedback assumption. The assumption of net positive climate feedback is not at all settled — in fact there is as much evidence the feedback is net negative as net positive — which may be why catastrophic theory supporters seldom if ever mention this aspect of the science in the media.
I said I would offer a counter-proposal to Mr. Zwick’s that skeptics bear the costs of climate change. I am ready to step up to the cost of any future man-made climate change if Mr. Zwick is ready to write a check for the lost economic activity and increased poverty caused by his proposals. We are at an exciting point in history where a billion people, or more, in Asia and Africa and Latin America are at the cusp of emerging from millenia of poverty. To do so, they need to burn every fossil fuel they can get their hands on, not be forced to use rich people’s toys like wind and solar. I am happy to trade my home for an imaginary one that Zwick thinks will be under water. Not only is this a great way to upgrade to some oceanfront property, but I am fully confident the crazy Al Gore sea level rise predictions are a chimera, since sea levels have been rising at a fairly constant rate since the end of the little ice age. In return, perhaps Mr. Zwick can trade his job for one in Asia that disappears when he closes the tap on fossil fuels?
Postscript: In the past, I used to call proponents of catastrophic man-made global warming theory “alarmists.” You will find a lot of my past writings use this term. It is useful to have some sort of shorthand, but I no longer think this kind of terminology is productive, and so I try to avoid it. On the flip side, I am comfortable being called a “denier” as long as you are absolutely clear what I am denying. I am not denying that climate changes, or that the world has warmed somewhat, or even that man-made CO2 emissions can have a greenhouse warming effect. What I deny is the catastrophe.
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