Journalists Explore Climate Complexity

By Keith Kloor | June 19, 2013 8:05 am

There is much to recommend this article in the New Republic by Nate Cohn, starting with the sub-headline:

Grappling with climate change nuance in a toxic political environment

It is an ungrateful task to interrogate the complexities of climate change (which extend to the policy side of the equation) so props to Cohn for taking it on. That he does so with an even tone and lucid writing makes the piece all the more impressive.

This milieu is reliably explored by Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, which has made it an essential blog. It’s good to see more journalists drilling down into some of the thorniest climate questions of the day, but make no mistake, it’s a fraught undertaking. This is especially so for scientists, as Cohn writes in his New Republic piece:

In the current political climate, debates about things like climate change are carried out in broad-brush assertions. The challenge for scientists is that the more they understand the climate system, the more complex it gets, and the harder it gets to model with precision—not to mention making the kinds of sweeping statements the news cycle requires.

Perhaps the climate subtleties regularly discussed by Revkin at Dot Earth and marvelously examined by writers like Paul Voosen (see here and here) and more recently by Justin Gillis in the science section of the New York Times, will help lead to a more sophisticated public discussion of climate change.

Here’s hoping.

  • Tom Scharf

    The New Republic piece was a decent article. I would actually call it journalism. There was an obvious attempt to challenge climate scientists on their conclusions and to explain the contradictions to what they were hearing from others. That is progress, and as with the NYT, it is evidence that they are finally beginning to questioning their conclusions.

    I think this experience is similar to mine, the deeper you look at what these scientists say, the more it looks like they don’t really understand what is happening. And when you put their assertions to the test (climate projections) and they fall short, this only reinforces this thinking.

    Trenberth is one of the few remaining high profile scientists who will not admit things are not going to plan. He gets all worked up if someone points this out, as if it was inappropriate to do so.

    FTA: “But the “consensus” never extended to the intricacies of the climate system, just the core belief that additional greenhouse gas emissions would warm the planet.”

    Hmmmmm…looks like the rewrite of history is already beginning.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      How do you see that as a rewrite of history? I’ve always understood the consensus to be “additional greenhouse gas emissions would warm the planet.”

      • Jay Currie

        “additional greenhouse gas emissions would warm the planet” which is a statement all but a tiny, fringe minority of skeptics would agree with. However, it is not a statement with any policy implications because without the intricacies being well understood it is impossible to know a) whether there is anything we can do, b) if there is anything we should do.

        And the claim the warmists were maintaining that “the science is settled” (by consensus) has now unravelled. The pause has demonstrated that the GCMs are not connected to observed temperatures and should be scrapped. The inability of the scientists to agree on sensitivity demonstrates the science is far from settled.

        Most entertainingly, the scientist who once stauchly maintained that it was only CO2 which drove temperature – because “what else could it be” have now had to acknowledge that the sun, clouds, the sign of water vapor, natural cycles such as the PDO, soot, other air pollutants, urbanization and even errors in the temperature record itself may account for a good deal of the warming we think we have observed.

        Which is precisely what skeptics have been suggesting all along.

        You suggest that MSM’s finally, reluctantly catching up to the uncertainties of climate science might lead to a “more sophisticated public discussion of climate change.” It might, and it might also lead to less arrogance int the ranks of the climate “scientists” and a measure of humility in the face of uncertainty on the part of the policy makers.

        Heck, with a bit of luck, science reporters might actually ask tough, skeptical questions to blowhards like Mann and Treberth. But baby steps first. Having swallowed the global warming orthodoxy and arguments from authority for a decade, deprogramming the journalists will take some time.

        • Joshua

          …which is a statement all but a tiny, fringe minority of skeptics would agree with.

          I love it when self-described “skeptics” make statements for which there is abundant contradictory evidence, and feel no particular requirement to prove that evidence invalid:

          And the claim the warmists were maintaining that “the science is settled”

          Really. You put that comment in quotes. Please do provide some examples of climate scientists saying what you put into quotes.

          Most entertainingly, the scientist who once stauchly maintained that it was only CO2 which drove temperature -

          Really. Which climate scientist said that it was “only CO2 which drove temperature?”

          It really is amazing just how little changes in the climate-o-sphere.

          • Jay Currie

            Forgot the “s” on scientist.

            The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that “[most] of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenicgreenhouse gas concentrations. “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attribution_of_recent_climate_change#cite_note-ipcc_2007_attribution-2

            Note I said warmist re science is settled – ie dimwits like Al Gore and David Suzuki and Greenpeace.

            If the evidence is so terribly abundant could you provide a link or two?

          • Joshua

            Jay -

            As you showed in your follow-up, the position reflected in the IPCC analysis is not that it was “only CO2 which drove temperature,” but that there very likely no other explanation for anomalous warming over a period of decades. Compare and contrast.

            As for links, we could start here:

            http://tamino.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/q50.jpg

            or this:

            http://www.motherjones.com/files/images/climate_change.jpg

            Obviously, there is some ambiguity in the data there – as it is theoretically possible to answer that global warming is “natural changes in the environment” and still think that ACO2 plays some role- but how do you know what % of those respondents think that all warming is due to natural variation? Answer: you don’t know. And then add all those who think that the planet isn’t warming.

            Consider, also, the prominent “skeptics” who regularly argue that the theory that AGW is a “hoax” perpetrated by academics who want to line their pockets, destroy capitalism, and install a “one world government.”

            You state with certainty, a conclusion about what all but a “tiny, fringe minority” of “skeptics” believe. As a “skeptic,” I’m quite sure you would only reach such a conclusion with validated evidence. Right? Where is it? Or are you only basing your conclusion on your subjective evaluation of the arguments of those you have read in the “skept-o-sphere?” Would that really be skeptical?

            Go to Judith Curry’s place, or WUWT: Where is your evidence regarding what % of “skeptics” there dismiss that there has been any warming, argue that any warming we’ve seen is indistinguishable from natural variability, argue that any changes in climate that have occurred are attributable only to variations in solar radiation, argue that anthropogenic emissions are not changing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (ala Salby), argue that the “homeostatic” attributes of the climate mean that ACO2 could not create warming, etc.?

            Then realize that even there, the comments that you read from “skeptics” in the “skept-o-sphere” represent only a tiny % of people who are climate change “skeptics.”

            Where is your evidence?

          • Jay Currie

            Yes, the data is ambiguous. And as you know, as more data come in the uncertainty as to attribution is growing rather than shrinking.

            Presuming for the moment that there is statistically unambiguous warming, CO2 is only one of a number of potential causal agents. And, before we have much ability to determine its contribution we would have to have stripped out natural variability. This turns out to be more difficult than first imagined. Then we would have to strip out other human factors such as urbanization, soot, air pollution and such like. And we would have to take the sun into account. And other GHGs. Finally, we would have to know that the temperature data was accurate and complete.

            That requires a great deal more research than is represented by the current state of the art. (I mean climate scientists can’t even agree on the effect of clouds for Heaven’s sake.)

            To return to Keith’s point, once the MSM stops carrying water for the warmist interpretation of what you and I agree are ambiguous results, we can move on to a more sophisticated public discussion of climate.

          • Joshua

            “Note I said warmist re science is settled – ie dimwits like Al Gore and David Suzuki and Greenpeace.”

            Duly noted. In the future when I read your comments, I will remember that your use of the term “warmist” excludes all climate scientists and anyone that isn’t a “dimwit.”

          • Jay Currie

            That would be wise as it would be a rare scientist who fell for the nonsense the political warmists espouse. In fact, where the science is as fundamentally uncertain as it is in climate science, touting the warmist line pretty much proves that a scientist is no longer doing science.

          • harrywr2

            Which climate scientist said that it was “only CO2 which drove temperature?”

            Andrew Lacis of NASA GISS – here is his paper titled – CO2: The Thermostat that Controls Earth’s Temperature

            http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/lacis_01/

            Take note of the phrase THE Thermostat…

          • Joshua

            Harry –

            I adjust my theromostat to control the air temp in my house. My thermostat is not the only driver of temperature in my house.

          • Tom C

            Ok Joshua – So what else other than your thermostat controls the temperature in your house? This other thing, whatever it is, does it override your thermostat? Cooperate with it? Take turns controlling the temperature? Please do tell.

          • Joshua

            Tom C -

            So what else other than your thermostat controls the temperature in your house?

            Go back and read what I wrote, and notice how your question is, essentially, a non-sequitur wrapped up in a strawman. Then come back and rephrase your question to actually be related to what I said.

            Oh, and btw – right now it is very comfortable in my house, and the thermostat that controls the AC is turned off, as is the thermostat that controls the furnace. I have doors and windows open and there is a nice breeze.

          • Tom C

            Joshua – this short exchange really highlights how you have no business even trying to think about these things. The concepts of “driver”, “forcing”, “control” etc. roll around in your head with no mediating knowledge to sort them out. I did very well in my graduate courses in controls and heat transfer, so I don’t suffer the same problem. Of course your thermostat controls the temperature in your house. That is what it is there for. Lacis thinks that CO2 establishes the set point of the global temperature, and othe drivers make the gt fluctuate around that set point. He might be right, he might be wrong, but As harry pointed out, he and his gang think that CO2, more than every other factor, establishes GT on long time scales.

          • Joshua

            Tom C -

            “…and othe[r] drivers…”

            That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere. So we agree, you and I, that there are “other drivers,” and we still have yet to see

            “…the scientist[s] who once stau[n]chly maintained that it was only CO2 which drove temperature -…”

            As Jay asserted – and which I questioned.

            Do you have evidence to support Jay’s assertion, or the assertion that Harry implied? Could you supply the quote where you think that Lacis was arguing that it is only CO2 that drives temperature?

          • Eli Rabett

            Whether you open the windows. Please do try harder.

      • Buddy199

        …the consensus to be “additional greenhouse gas emissions would warm the planet.”

        Among the core of rational scientists, that is true. Among AGW ideologues “consensus” is defined much more broadly to include climate research that is not as well documented, as detailed in the NR article. Ideologues blur the distinction as a cheap rhetorical tactic to beat down any perceived doubt or opposition. It’s like accusing someone of being “anti-immigrant” if they are simply against illegal immigration, just a sleazy ploy to try to win an argument.

        • jh

          “Among the core of rational scientists, that is true.”

          No way. I was holding back but enough is enough. What the core of rational scientists may have thought no one will ever know because they were far too timid to express their views.

          The ideologues have lead the charge for most of the last decade with the rest of the community has following along without voicing any significant disagreement. For the most part, outside of the skeptical community, there has been no resistance to the IPCC position that catastrophic warming is not only a credible threat, but a likely outcome.

          The only issue I can recall that prompted serious disagreement among mainstream scientists was the attribution of Katrina to global warming. Other than that one event, there has been no “rest of the story” among the climate science community.

      • Tom Scharf

        This is a rewrite as most AGW advocates believes this means:

        1. Over 50% of warming since 1970 is attributable to human emissions. land use changes, etc.

        2. AGW represents a clear and present danger that requires immediate policy action.

        The definition FTA is likely agreed to by 97% of skeptics and is not controversial.

        Part of the problem is nobody ever defines this, or global warming for that matter. Cynics see this as intentional as it serves propaganda purposes. I’m only kind of laughing at this because if temperatures continue to not track against projections, then my guess is 97% of climate scientists will claim they were in the 3% twenty years from now.

  • bobito

    Great article, nice to see a balanced approach…

    Unfortunately, if this article were to be reported on, the headlines would be something like this:

    FoxNews: “Scientists can’t explain pause in warming.”
    CNN: “Scientists expect a rapid increase in global warming.”

    Sigh…

  • Buddy199

    Good article in the NR. If climate science was reported more often in such a balanced, cool-headed manner it would go a long way toward unraveling the problem and formulating solutions that are widely supported. Apocalyptic propaganda assumes your target audience are just morons who must be manipulated into doing what’s best for them by those much wiser. What horse cr*p. That is why polls show the public becoming less concerned over time with climate change despite the billions of hours of TV and oceans of ink poured into the media campaign to enlighten the unwashed.

    How about this: Here’s what we know for sure. Here’s what we think is happening but really aren’t sure yet. Here’s what might happen, but we need to do a lot more work to be really be ertain on the details. Intelligence, seriousness, humility and ideology-free. It would be a lot better approach than what they’re using now.

    Get rid of the climate Elmer Gantry types like Gore. Get rid of the politicians spot welding their pet agendas to the AGW band wagon. Stop insulting the intelligence and motives of reasonable people by comparing them to Holocaust deniers.

  • Tom C

    Cohn’s use of the word “perilously” in the first paragraph speaks volumes about the weird bias that pervades most writing about global warming. What exactly is “perilous” about model predictions being shown to be wrong in a direction that suggests decreased reason for concern? Can one imagine another field where similar downgraded projections are deemed “perilous”.

  • jh

    “How do you see that as a rewrite of history?”

    The Team has long maintained that the complexities of climate don’t matter: CO2 drives everything in climate. The science was settled . There was no need for discussion. It was “game over” for the climate. You don’t remember that? :)

    Now, suddenly, they say never made any claims about the intricacies of climate? :)

  • OWilson

    What is “perilous” for the warmists is simply the following.

    The temperature projections in the 1990 IPCC Report were completely wrong, some 23 years later.

    Gore’s “hockey stick” was a false construction.

    The earth’s TOTAL ice cover is average for the years 1979 to 2013.
    On who’s side is the denial?

    I need not post “cites’, as I would expect most readers of a “science” magazine could look up the obvious!

  • jh

    Here’s a nice summary of the consensus viewpoint, via an excerpt from a paper posted on Climate Etc.:

    …the late Stephen Schneider, proponent of policy-driven,
    interdisciplinary climate modeling… unequivocally defended seeking answers to pressing social problems by any means necessary, including imprecise science:

    [if you…wait until more precise data is available for input in the models] by the time you get that, we’ll already know the answer because you just go outside and see what happened. And that is not ethical in my value system.

    In other words, the consensus position has always been an ethical position, not a scientific position, in which the end justifies the means.

  • Eric Caselius

    The article in NR was not bad but missing few key points that I know many people are wondering about and it seems to be these key points that are leaving people to discount what scientists are stating and what I believe to be the main reason why politics does not recognize climate change.

    1) The hole in the Ozone, is it getting bigger? Isn’t it possible that the heat would pass through the ozone and into space causing the pollution to be thrown into space which is in turn causing the planet to cool? And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

    2) With all the talk about climate change and how the planet is “Heating Up” why is it that scientists are only seemingly talking about the norther hemisphere and no one is talking about the southern hemisphere? In fact if you look at the new ice forming around the south pole it seems to be growing at a rate comparable with the loss of the north pole.

    3) If you look at how the jet stream works its interesting to note that if a hole in the ozone was in fact dumping large amounts of heat into space that this would pull air up from the south pole which in turn would cause the massive heat fluctuations that have hit in the past several years. The current heat wave seems to be over Canada, Greenland and other norther countries, while in 2011 / 2012 in was further down running through the middle of North America. Middle of North America is now dealing with a cooler front which lends credence to the theory that we are now pumping vast amounts of heat into space which would in turn mean we maybe looking at a planetary freeze within the next 20 – 100 years.

    • Eli Rabett

      Your model does not work on many levels. What we mean by the ozone hole is the sudden springtime decrease in ozone in the stratosphere above Antarctica in the spring. This rapidly heals in a month or two. There are lots of place on line where you can find an explanation of the mechanism.such as the Wikipedia or Robert Parson’s Ozone FAQ.

      The temporary absence of ozone in the stratosphere, has little to do with the radiation of heat from the earth, most of which occurs from the surface and troposphere of the warmer tropics, and what is left over from the temperate latitudes. Very little comes out of the cold polar regions if for no other reason that the emission is proportional to the fourth power of the absolute temperature.

      As too pumping out lots of energy to space, why yes, there has to be a balance between what comes in from the sun and what is radiated to space.

  • DMAllen

    I keep seeing reference to the recent domination of La Nina conditions as one explanation for the pause in warming. I think that’s an exaggeration. Here are two respected graphs, the first from the Australian MET and the second from NOAA. The first shows the more recent, mostly neutral conditions, and the latter shows the “Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly in Region 3″ going back to 1982 with much stronger El Ninos that any La Nina events recently. Doesn’t this data suggest that the 20 year warming period, 1978-1998, was more a result of strong El Ninos than that the recent 15 year pause is the result of La Nina domination?

    http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/enso/monitoring/nino3_4.png

    http://stateoftheocean.osmc.noaa.gov/sur/images/nino3_long.gif

  • jh

    Keith,

    A penny for your thoughts on The Economist’s response to NR:

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/06/climate-change

    I think this is a much more accurate summary of the situation than that given in the NR.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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