Obama's MIT Speech on Energy and Climate: A Critical Take

By Chris Mooney | October 26, 2009 9:07 am

Guest post by Karen Aline McKinnon*

The day after the Pew Research Center came out with the report that “Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming,” President Barack Obama came to MIT to speak about America’s future in clean energy technology. Sitting in Kresge Auditorium before the speech was set to begin, concerned about the direction–-or lack thereof-–of domestic and international environmental policy, I hoped that Obama’s speech would provide daring new direction and a necessary mandate to move away from a fossil-fuel based economy. Rather, the speech was highly and falsely optimistic in these times of uncertainty regarding climate change policy.

Obama stood before energy scientists and environmental activists drawn primarily from research institutions in Cambridge and proudly claimed that those who believe that climate change is not an issue are being marginalized. And so it may seem to those of us ensconced in bastions of science and liberal thinking. But the significance of the timely Pew report cannot be understated: Rather than being marginalized, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is a very serious problem moved from 44% in April 2008 to 35% today; the percentage who believe it is not a problem increased from 11% to 17%. Worse still, only 36% of Americans believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, and a full 33% believe it is not warming at all. Obama would have done well to critically assess the pulse of America on climate change before so optimistically claiming that, for Americans, there is “no question” that we must change our energy system because of climate change.

Speaking at MIT, Obama apparently forgot about the difference between technological solutions and political ones. Drawing on his infinite capacity for hope, he stated that it is simply a “dangerous myth” that our political system is broken and cannot successfully address climate change. With this statement, I hoped that Obama would address the current quandary: As we inch closer to the Copenhagen talks, hopes for a comprehensive international climate agreement have been dashed, more than in part due to the inability for Congress to agree on a climate bill in time. Instead, he spoke straight to his audience and re-emphasized the ability for scientists at institutions like MIT to pioneer new frontiers in technology that can assist in addressing climate change. Technological solutions, however, mean nothing without a political infrastructure to support their implementation, and it is this political system that may be ill equipped to meet the political challenges posed by climate change. Indeed, it may be a more dangerous myth to have blind faith in the ability for our democratic process to address the problem in a timely enough manner.

Obama built his campaign on hope and optimism; both of these qualities are admirable and necessary. But the time may have come for our president to speak frankly to the public about the increasingly severe threats posed by climate change and the very real problem that our political system does not seem able to address many of those threats. Climate change is unlike any other problem faced by Americans before, because it has a timescale imposed by the Earth system that humans cannot adjust at will. It’s high time for Obama to be honest with Americans about these realities, and combine his optimism with a heavy dose of truth. Only a true understanding of the severity of the problem, presented by a popularly-elected leader, will induce Americans to think globally and seriously about climate change.

* Karen Aline McKinnon is a senior at Harvard studying Earth and Planetary Science with a focus on climate.

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Comments (51)

  1. Guy

    There is a dangerous combination of selective ignorance and misinformation when it comes to global warming. The people buying the 17mpg gas guzzlers aren’t not listening, they are just listening to all the wrong people. I recently was forwarded an email about the USA geological survey finding more technically accessible oil (billions of barrels apparently). So now these people don’t believe there will be any reason to conserve energy in the future. They view environmentalist as alarmist wackos and global warming as a liberal conspiracy/hoax. If this trend continues, there’s little reason to be optimistic about our chances.

  2. Gadfly

    Unfortunately, Obama’s only qualifications for being president are hope and change. And hope and change require, at some point, the spine to deliver on them. And that’s something he’s repeatedly demonstrating that he lacks.

  3. Guy

    Gadfly, that sounds a lot like something Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck would say.

  4. Chris Mooney

    Karen,
    I was a bit stunned by the new Pew findings. But it just underscores an overall theme that no longer surprises me a bit–growing scientific knowledge or certainty has very little to relation to the state of public understanding or acceptance. Science can become more certain, and the public more skeptical, over time. It is all about the political and media dynamics and how well–or poorly–the science is communicated.

  5. Sorbet

    Chris, well-said.

  6. Erasmussimo

    I believe that Ms. McKinnon is overly negative in her review of Mr. Obama’s speech, primarily through political naivete on her part. Were Mr. Obama to follow her advice and treat AGW as a controversy, he would only make matters worse.

    By treating AGW as a matter of scientific controversy, Mr. Obama would only lend strength to the AGW deniers, who would respond by claiming that even Mr. Obama acknowledges doubts. By instead treating the existence of AGW as an undeniable truth, he reinforces the position that there’s nothing left to debate — from a political standpoint — about the existence of AGW. (The AGW deniers here will surely misread the preceding sentence.)

    Mr. Obama took the best position given the political situation. He may be President, but he is not Dictator. He cannot snap his fingers and make laws spring into existence. He must convince Congress to get behind his proposals. Herding cats is a snap compared to getting something through Congress. And Congress’ limited attention span compounds the problem. Mr. Obama has already achieved a near-miracle in getting Congress to focus on health care. It now appears inevitable that some kind of health care bill will pass Congress, and it may even include a public option — that would have been considered a fantasy just 12 months ago. Mr. Obama is not so foolish as to distract Congress’ attention at this crucial time. His political skills have accomplished wonders so far. He is already planning ahead for the climate change bill by addressing easy audiences such as he just did. I expect that he will continue to slowly ramp up attention to AGW, and attend closely to it once the health bill has passed. Of course, he also has a few other minor issues to deal with: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the economy, to name a few.

  7. It’s all about education. Those loud voices espousing that GW is not real, or that it is certainly not from human activity, are swaying those that are willing to listen. We’re doing a bad job of *educating* those willing to listen with regard to climate change. The misinformation is stunning, and it is presented in a manner that seems reasonable to folks.

    I’ve tried to do my part-
    Here’s a post on the myth that increasing concentrations of a TRACE gas like CO2 can’t possibly impact the global environment:
    http://bit.ly/1HN3VE

    And here are some PERCEPTION-CHANGING posts on Climate Change and Global Warming at Blog on the Universe.

    Understanding Human-Induced Climate Change: “A Day in the Life of the Earth”
    http://bit.ly/2uhzdO

    How many more people on Earth in a day, a week, a month, a year? (Stunning)
    http://bit.ly/b6APK

    The biomass of the Human race must be huge to impact climate! Uh … nope.
    http://bit.ly/HJqIC

    Apples – and the fragility of the Atmosphere
    http://bit.ly/p6YNs

    Dr. Jeff Goldstein
    Center Director
    National Center for Earth and Space Science Education

  8. Nobody here seems to consider the possibility that the reason Americans are becoming less convinced about the greenhouse hypothesis is that the scientist making the case for it do such a bad job. They have no evidence, and the arguments for it are primarily in the popular and high-brow press. Meanwhile, the GCMs are being falsified by the last ten years of data.

    You can argue that recent trends are temporary and short-term, but you could have made that argument about warming in the 1990s. Only faith sustains the intense belief in anthropogenic global warming.

  9. Madrocketscientist

    I’ll start believing in our political solution to climate change when I start seeing politicians seriously promoting modern Nuclear power to replace base coal plants. Until then, they aren’t serious about changing things, all they are doing is paying lip service to the idea.

  10. Madrocketscientist

    As for why AGW is falling on deaf ears, it’s because people have memories. They remember stuff like DDT, they hear about & experience the personal destruction that radical environmentalists cause in an effort to save some animal they’ve never heard of, or just because they don’t like a lab or a radio tower.

    People & communities have been burned too many times by those who claim to be working to save the environment, and now they hear that the government wants to pass more laws that will cost them more money. They all feel that the boy has cried wolf one too many times and they have decided they don’t want to listen anymore.

  11. Guy

    Scientists call make all the arguments they want, but if people are willing to listen to them to begin with they may as well be talking to a wall. When comes to a topic like global warming skeptics tend to do selective listening. It’s like with a child and mother. If the child chooses not to listen to what it’s mother is saying, they will not hear what they need to hear. They will keep repeating their bad behavior until more drastic measures are taken. AGW skeptics are selectively filtering out what they don’t want to hear. Once the really bad consequences of global warming start happening then they will be forced to listen. Reality has a way on convincing that words simply can’t match. You can tell a child something is hot and will burn, but until they actually touch it they won’t believe you.

  12. Guy

    Correction to previous: Scientists call make all the arguments they want, but if people are not willing to listen to them to begin with they may as well be talking to a wall.

  13. bilbo

    I think a part of the “why does the public not get AGW?” issue also lies on the side of environmentalists. They can be just as guilty of taking science out of any meaningful context in place of overblown statements just as much as the Right takes it out of context by a misunderstanding of how science works.

    Levelheadedness, people! We need it.

  14. Erasmussimo

    Well, it was only a matter of time before the deniers showed up, and Lichanos doesn’t disappoint. Lichanos, your argument that the GCMs have been falsified. They have not; as more data come in, they continue to improve. You would be correct to claim that they aren’t perfect, but they are certainly reliable enough to provide us with a rational basis for concluding that AGW is a serious challenge to our society. You also refer to “present trends” as if there is some sort of trend contradicting AGW theory. There is not; the trick is to understand the appropriate time scale for a trend. Today it’s cooler than it was yesterday, but that doesn’t mean that the globe is cooling. This month is cooler than July, but that doesn’t mean that the globe is cooling. The appropriate time scale for assessing climate change is based on basic thermodynamic values for this planet, and it’s about 30 years. Not 11 years. And the trend over the last 30 years is decidedly in favor of the AGW hypothesis.

  15. John Kwok

    bilbo,

    What we need are those who can persuasively get the information out. Spent the latter part of last week attending the annual Photo Plus East trade show here in New York City and was impressed with the Northern Hemisphere glacial melting documentary photography project undertaken by photographer
    James Balog and his team, which is receiving ample technical support from leading camera and lens manufacturer Nikon. Heard Balog speak about this and his images really hit home the reality of widespread glacial melting, with anthropogenic global warming being the sole cause of it. You can see more here:

    http://www.extremeicesurvey.org/

    Appreciatively yours,

    John

  16. John Kwok

    Karen,

    Yours is a great post. Am not surprised however by the President’s eagerness to please everyone, as evidenced by his MIT talk. Since he’s done the best job I know of in putting the appropriate people in place in charge of cabinet-level science and technology positions, I am more than a bit perplexed as to why he isn’t heeding their advice more.

    Appreciatively yours,

    John

  17. John Kwok

    Karen,

    If you are thinking of graduate school, may I suggest considering sending applications to both Brown and Columbia? Think either institution would suit your interests quite well.

    Regards,

    John

    P. S. I am well aware of Brown’s program, having concentrated in geology – biology as an undergraduate there.

  18. Madrocketscientist

    John,

    Thanks for posting the link about the EIS. The videos are both majestic and a bit sad.

  19. John Kadi

    Karen,

    Thank you for the article.

    I am one of those who, if asked, would answer a pollster as “no longer convinced that global warming is either proven or man made” – my mind has changed over time as I see how many political types are telling me to believe in it without question.

    Anyone who would like to debate the idea is villified as a whacko, that’s not science, that’s indoctrination. The worst part is that people like me are changing our minds because we are naturally disposed to curiousity and skepticism, these are traits the scientific community are supposed to embrace, not demonize.

    When “scientists” are telling us to not look behind the curtain and just believe whatever they say, they are no longer scientists by my definition.

    The “greening” of America has become too politicized and is filling too many deep pockets with my cash for me not to question and doubt the veracity of their claims.

    Kind Regards,
    JZK

  20. Erasmussimo

    John, I’m happy to debate the matter with you. There are several reasons why AGW supporters are vilifying AGW deniers:

    1. The scientific case in favor of AGW is now overwhelming. There is so much supporting data that there simply isn’t any question that human releases of CO2 are causing the earth to warm. There’s a strong scientific consensus in favor of AGW. So, from the point of view of the scientists, the debate is over.

    2. All of the arguments raised by deniers have been refuted many times, yet deniers just don’t seem to pay attention to the refutations.

    3. There’s a vast amount of outright falsehood emerging from the denier community. I’m not saying that all deniers are liars; but certainly many of the most prominent deniers have repeated made statements that they must know to be false. I don’t mind somebody holding a different opinion, or pushing a contradictory argument, but when advocates just plain lie, I start treating them with contempt.

    It’s certainly true that some AGW advocates have been less than honest. The movie “An Inconvenient Truth”, while technically correct on most points, had some misleading elements. Certainly some of the things coming out of Hollywood are nonsense. However, if you ignore all the hypesters on both sides and just look at the straight science, there simply isn’t any good reason to hold serious doubts about AGW.

  21. Erasmussimo:

    I don’t vilify anyone, pro or con. I just listen, research, and think.

    “So much supporting data…” Yes, hmm…I am aware of much of it, and it isn’t very convincing to me at all. There is much data that is consistent with the AGW hypothesis, but being consistent with and proving are totally different. In this context, it’s just my word against yours of course, i.e., I’m not going to write a paper here, but that is the logic of my position in brief.

    “Strong scientific consensus…” As it happens, I was just reviewing a recent presentation by Oreskes that makes that famous point of hers. It’s mostly rubbish, just on the logical plain, but nevermind. I want to know how you know that there is a strong consensus? Did you organize a vote? What proposition was at issue? AGW makes a LOT of claims, all consistent with one another, but most of which must be proven independently.

    BTW, “denier” is a clearly pejorative term, intended to class those who don’t sign on as akin to flat-earthers and holocaust-deniers. Not very fair.

    “All of the arguments raised by deniers have been refuted many times…” I used to be a cautious supporter of the AGW view, but after watching how they failed to engage concretely with logical objections, I moved towards skepticism. I’ve seen it again and again – even on televised debates. Still, I can’t prove that here, in this space of course. On the other hand, when problems are proven to exist with the AGW point of view, the usual response is to then claim that this may be so, but it’s trivial. The issues with the Hockey Stick PCA are typical.

    Your remarks earlier in the comments about the proper time-scale to assess GCMs is also relevant. Ten or eleven years of contrary observations don’t make a significant trend. Even when the appropriate scale is thirty years. And you make this telling comment, not at all unusual:

    Lichanos, your argument that the GCMs have been falsified. They have not; as more data come in, they continue to improve…

    Ahh…they are not perfect. They make predictions that don’t come true, but they are “always being improved” as new data come in. Yes, precisely. You can never prove them wrong. The reply is always, “We were close; now we have a better model. Wait ten years to see how the new batch of prognostications fares.”

    It may be true that some “deniers” have made false claims, maybe on purpose. Some supporters of AGW have gone on record supporting hyperbole as a justified tactic to get action. Let’s just ignore those folks, shall we?

  22. Jon

    On the other hand, when problems are proven to exist with the AGW point of view, the usual response is to then claim that this may be so, but it’s trivial. The issues with the Hockey Stick PCA are typical.

    Well, when all this work has gone into researching the problems on multiple fronts, AGW deniers treat all data problems, no matter how miniscule, as if they prove *everything* is wrong. As if the whole AGW case was built on samples from a certain species of conifers in one study. If it was, all of these dozens of scientific organizations wouldn’t be putting their reputations on the line.

    And as for “predictions”, there’s a range of things that can happen. People who deny AGW, treat any uncertainty as if it was proof that nothing should be done. As if all uncertainty was on our side. (That’s not the way the world works, otherwise I’d be taking all my family’s money and spending it at Foxwoods tomorrow).

  23. Erasmussimo

    Lichanos, you’re certainly free to draw your own conclusions from the data, but the fact is that the great majority of the pertinent scientists who look at the data draw the conclusion that AGW is real. So here we face an interesting problem: why is it that you draw conclusions completely opposite to those drawn by competent scientists? I can imagine several possible answers to this question:

    1. Perhaps you are not competent to draw reliable conclusions about AGW.
    2. Perhaps your judgement is influenced by political rather than scientific considerations.
    3. Perhaps you think that all those scientists are part of a conspiracy and therefore their opinions do not deserve consideration.

    I don’t know which of these possible answers applies to you; perhaps there is some other explanation for the discrepancy between your opinion and that of the scientists.

    You write: “There is much data that is consistent with the AGW hypothesis, but being consistent with and proving are totally different.”

    I see that you have little training in science. You see, nothing in science is ever proven; proof is a mathematical concept that has no application in science. Scientific hypotheses can be disproven, but none are ever proven; eventually the evidence that accumulates in favor of a hypothesis becomes so great that most scientists in the field accept that hypothesis. That is what has happened with AGW; as more and more evidence accumulates, more and more scientists are convinced, and now the number of scientists who accept the AGW hypothesis far exceeds the number who do not.

    (By the way, when I refer to “scientists”, I mean those scientists whose expertise is relevant to AGW, not any and all PhDs in the sciences.)

    As to the number of scientists who embrace the AGW hypothesis, there is abundant evidence to document this. There is the IPCC AR4, which presents the combined judgements of many scientists. There is the NAS statement on the matter. There are the statements of support of just about every relevant scientific association on the planet. This information has been widely available for years; I have to wonder how you could have managed to miss it.

    You think it unfair to refer to opponents of AGW as deniers. I think that “denier” is the perfect term here: such people deny the AGW hypothesis. And yes, the comparison with flat-earthers, evolution deniers, and similar people is right on the money, because there simply is no scientific basis for the denial. I’m happy to explain this stuff to you, if you wish. There’s mountains of information out there if you really want to know.

    You write, “after watching how they [advocates of AGW] failed to engage concretely with logical objections, I moved towards skepticism.” I’m not sure who you were watching, but it certainly wasn’t mainstream advocates of AGW. Again, there’s mountains of stuff on the web that answers all the objections clearly; most AGW advocates have lost patience with the deniers who keep repeating old accusations without knowing the answers to them. You provide a good example with your reference to the hockey stick. There were several problems with the original hockey stick graph back in 1998. Mann and others addressed these objections in a paper in, if I recall correctly, 2004. Yet deniers just keep repeating the claim from 1998 without knowing that it has long since been addressed.

    You write that “They [GCMs] make predictions that don’t come true”. In this you misunderstand what a GCM does. GCM stands for “Global Climate Model”. A global climate model is just that: a model of the global climate. It will not tell you the temperature in Peoria tomorrow morning, and if you expect it to, you don’t understand its nature and purpose. It will tell you about the big picture of climate change: how the worldwide climate will change over a period of many decades. No GCM has been falsified; all the work done with GCMs relies heavily on postdiction, Where discrepancies are discovered, the scientists inquire into the nature of the discrepancy, figure out how they erred, and correct the model to address that issue. Already the major GCMs used in the IPCC reports (I believe that there are 10 or 12) all come in pretty close to historical records and pretty close to each other. So we have good reason to have confidence in them. In any event, they haven’t made any predictions that haven’t come true. One thing is certain: all of them agree that global average temperatures will be increasing all through this century.

    I agree that we should ignore the hyperbolic claims. Tell you what: I won’t beat you over the head with Marc Morano if you don’t beat me over the head with Al Gore. Fair enough? ;-)

  24. Hm…

    Jon 23 said:
    … AGW deniers treat all data problems, no matter how miniscule, as if they prove *everything* is wrong. As if the whole AGW case was built on samples from a certain species of conifers in one study.

    Well, perhaps some skeptics have this attitude towards “miniscule” problems, but perhaps you think all the problems are “miniscule…” I see you are familiar with the tree ring, conifer sample issue. You seem to accept that there is a problem here. The reason why such a big deal is made of it is because it is not a trivial thing. The establishment of the historical climate record is a very important AGW argument. If it can be shown that, say, there was no Medieval Warm Period, then the current warming – if it is in fact supported by data – is unusual, perhaps alarming. If not, then not. So undermining the hoary hockey stick plot is VERY important, and the methodological issues are NOT trivial.

    If it was, all of these dozens of scientific organizations wouldn’t be putting their reputations on the line.

    Well, there are fads in science too. And part of the problem I see is that they are NOT putting their reputation on the line. By signing on, they join the club, and funding is more available. Beyond that, I’m not convinced that the editorial position adopted by the leadership of an organization is proof that all the members are of the same mind. I deal with this extensively in my critique of Oreske’s shoddy reasoning. See: http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/is-terra-burningand-how-do-we-know/

    People who deny AGW, treat any uncertainty as if it was proof that nothing should be done.

    Policy makers must assess risk. Perhaps they should have a lower threshold of proof on scientific questions. That is a totally separate issue from whether or not the science is good. Linking the two as you do above turns the scientific debate into a political brawl.

    Now, Erasmussimo @ 24:

    First, if your moniker is a bow to Erasmus, you certainly are violating his spirit with your insulting and venomous tone. You say I am free to draw my own conclusions, and then invalidate any I may have by diagnosing my mental error. You seem to have been influenced by the sociological school of scientific disputation, i.e., those who disagree must be part of a cult or have an unsuitable class background, or been intellectually deficient. Of course, otherwise they would agree with us. Let me say for the record:

    1) I think I am competent -obviously I can’t convince you – but I am reasonably intelligent, decently educated, and committed to scientific investigation.
    2) My politics has nothing to do with it. I am a left-liberal. It pains me to find myself on the side of libertarians and Republicans, but there you go.
    3) I firmly reject conspiracy theorizing of all kinds. The Israelis and the CIA did not destroy the WTC; Oswald killed JFK; Men DID land on the moon, etc. etc.

    I see that you have little training in science.

    You know nothing at all about me. I simply used “proven” in a colloquial manner. I am well aware of the nature of falsification and the epistemological ramifications of it. I do not demand geometrical proof or mathematical certainty from anyone in this controversy. If you want to discuss Popper and Wittgenstein, and their differing views in another forum, I’d be happy to argue with you there.

    …eventually the evidence that accumulates in favor of a hypothesis becomes so great that most scientists in the field accept that hypothesis.

    It’s not just a matter of accumulating evidence: there has to be a plausible mechanism that can be tested, falsified, experimented on, etc. This brings us back to Jon’s remarks. The “miniscule” problems that come up endlessly with AGW are always about this evidence. For example, GCM modelers predict unprecedented ice melts at the north pole. They cite evidence of extreme ice melts (the late 1990s). People scream about ice-free poles. Meanwhile, the next several years show ice at normal levels. Historical evidence comes up of ice-free poles in the 1950s and 18th century. Long arguments about statistical interpretation of data in the antarctic develop. The evidence is almost always contested – not exactly a robust demonstration of the theory.

    Can you even be sure it is significantly warmer? Do you trust the world wide network of monitoring stations? Have you examined documentation about them – many of them are sub-standard. I’m not talking about conspiracy here – just sloppiness and lack of funding. And this network is being used to make predictions over decades to within a few degrees??! The devil is in the details in this case, for sure.

    Regarding the “consensus,” I will point out only that the IPCC is not a scientific body, and does not claim to be.

    Again, there’s mountains of stuff on the web that answers all the objections clearly; most AGW advocates have lost patience with the deniers who keep repeating old accusations without knowing the answers to them.

    I read a lot of this stuff. Realclimate.org is a good site for this, no? It would be exhibit No. 1 in my case. The otherwise informative book, The Discovery of Global Warming is another good example. The lack of patience is palpable. All I can say is “tough.” That’s science. Convince me. I listen to reason. I’m not going to shut up just because it’s inconvenient for some true believers.

    Your remarks about the hockey stick are interesting. Everybody who critiques it is aware of Mann’s “answers.” They feel they miss the point. That IS the point. And the chart is still used all over the place to “prove” AGW, although the IPCC no longer headlines it.

    Finally, I find your comments about GCMs almost nightmarish. If these models did not exist, AGW would be dead in the water. Nobody would be convinced that a clear trend had been discerned. I am well aware that they are not intended to predict tomorrow’s weather in Peoria, but they are supposed to predict trends, at least that’s what AGW people say. If ten or eleven years of data don’t conform to a rising tend – and just about everyone agrees on this, even strong AGW advocates – then isn’t that a strong knock against the reliability of the model? Or do you just say, “Oh, ten years is nothing. We know it’s right, but only on a scale of several decades?” How do you know? Because it matches historical records? Anyone can make a model match HISTORIC trends, that’s easy!

    Glad you recognize that Al Gore is over the top. Fair enough. I voted for him by the way.

  25. Jon

    So undermining the hoary hockey stick plot is VERY important, and the methodological issues are NOT trivial.

    Tree ring temperature reconstructions are not even the main evidence for climate change. There are other proxies, and there are other tests that don’t even involve temperature reconstructions that are far more central to the case. Bashing the hockey stick is like arguing over the 2000 presidential election by looking at contested ballots in Idaho. Even if you win the argument, it’s not even consequential, unless your point is to perform a public temper tantrum to confuse people.

    By signing on, they join the club, and funding is more available.

    The scientific method and the peer review process is like joining the Elks Club? And actually, it’s just the opposite of what you say. If they wanted more funding, they would declare the science uncertain.

    That is a totally separate issue from whether or not the science is good. Linking the two as you do above turns the scientific debate into a political brawl.

    Yes, and if we relied on blog commenters to determine if all the different science done was “good”, we’d obviously have more problems than we do now. I’ll stick with the expertise of all these organizations, rather than yours, thank you very much. (And bow out of this conversation.)

  26. Erasmussimo

    Lichanos, I’ll begin by pointing out that you overestimate the role played by concerns over the MWP when you write:

    “If it can be shown that, say, there was no Medieval Warm Period, then the current warming – if it is in fact supported by data – is unusual, perhaps alarming. If not, then not.”

    The MWP is an interesting piece of evidence, but it doesn’t really provide a compelling argument for either side. The central mistake that AGW deniers make is the assumption that the temperatures themselves constitute the central evidence to support AGW. This is incorrect. Although temperatures themselves provide useful evidence, the truly compelling evidence is the rate of change of temperature. The MWP showed a very slow rate of change in temperature, both up and down. All of our evidence for other temperature warmings shows similar slow rates of change. By contrast, the current rate of change is unprecedented. We have never seen anything like this sharp, sudden increase in temperature. This is truly compelling evidence.

    But you’re wrong on another way as well: the pine tree evidence is not our only evidence used in paleoclimatology. Did you read the IPCC chapter on paleoclimatology? They describe a bunch of different methods for determining temperatures in past times. We could throw away all the pine data and still have an overwhelming case for AGW. That controversy just isn’t very important in the larger scheme of things.

    ” And part of the problem I see is that they [scientists] are NOT putting their reputation on the line.”

    Oh yes they are. When a scientist publishes a paper, if that paper is discredited, then the scientist’s reputation suffers. A scientist’s career depends primarily on being right and never publishing anything that turns out to be wrong. So every time a scientist publishes a paper, they’re putting their reputation on the line.

    “By signing on, they join the club, and funding is more available.”

    Boy, you REALLY don’t know how science works, do you? The second worst position to be in in science is a “me too” position. (The worst is being wrong.) If all you ever publish are “me too” papers that just agree with everybody else, pretty soon you’ll be denied any more funding. The way to get ahead in the scientific world is to rock the boat, to publish ideas that contradict what everybody else thought was right. Einstein is considered a great scientist not because he confirmed anybody else’s work, but because he turned everything upside down and made everybody else’s work wrong. Chomsky is the leading linguist today because in the early 60s he directly challenged some of the central tenets of linguistics, and made a convincing case. Career advancement in science is attained by knocking idols off their pedestals, contradicting received wisdom, surprising everybody. Going along with the crowd will get you a teaching position in a junior college.

    “Beyond that, I’m not convinced that the editorial position adopted by the leadership of an organization is proof that all the members are of the same mind.”

    You sure like that word “proof”, don’t you? OK, look, let’s talk about truly eminent scientists: the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS was established by an act of Congress 150 years ago with the specific assignment of providing Congress with the very best scientific advice bearing on public policy issues. The NAS is comprised of the cream of American science — only the very best scientists are fellows of the NAS. Furthermore, the NAS takes its duties very seriously and devotes enormous effort to insuring that the official reports it tenders to Congress are absolutely reliable. And in fact they have been very successful: in 150 years, not one single NAS report has subsequently been shown to be incorrect. They have a perfect record. Can you name ANY other institution that has a perfect track record? So guess what: the NAS has come out loud and clear in favor of the AGW hypothesis.

    You objected to my speculating about your reasoning process. I remind you that I put my statements in the subjunctive so as to make it clear that I was speculating. But let me get down to a simple, direct question; I’d like to see your answer to it. I’ll put it in CAPS to make sure that you understand the weight I put on this question:

    WHY DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR SCIENTIFIC JUDGEMENT TO BE SUPERIOR TO THAT OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES?

    Next, you write:

    “if your moniker is a bow to Erasmus, you certainly are violating his spirit with your insulting and venomous tone.”

    You’re wrong in two ways: first, Erasmus was a great deal more polite than most of his contemporaries, but he could sling the invective with the best of them when he got made. See his response to Scaliger’s criticisms, for example. Very nasty stuff.

    Second, I don’t see any venom in my posts. To call you a denier is not venomous, it’s just the most appropriate term. To observe that you don’t have much training in science is not venomous, because you in fact DON’T have much training in science. I don’t need to resort to polemics, because I know that I have a very strong case.

    You object to my speculations as to your thinking process. OK, that’s fair. So why don’t you declare your reasoning process? So far your statements on the matter have not been very illuminating. In particular, I’d very much like to see your answer to the question above that I put in CAPS.

    “You know nothing at all about me.”

    I know that you make a lot of incorrect statements.

    As to your misuse of the term “proof”, I’ll accept your statement that you were using it loosely. I expect that you in fact agree with my skeletal outline regarding the process by which scientists come to accept a hypothesis.

    “It’s not just a matter of accumulating evidence: there has to be a plausible mechanism that can be tested, falsified, experimented on, etc.”

    Yes, that’s what we call “evidence”. The hypothesis makes predictions that can be tested against reality. We go out and gather data. If the data is significantly different from the predictions made by the hypothesis, we can reject the hypothesis. If the data is consistent with the hypothesis, that constitutes supporting evidence. The evidence is the central element of the processes you describe.

    “For example, GCM modelers predict unprecedented ice melts at the north pole. They cite evidence of extreme ice melts (the late 1990s). People scream about ice-free poles. Meanwhile, the next several years show ice at normal levels.”

    You are simply, flatly wrong here. Where are you getting this crazy information??!?! The evidence is very strong that arctic ice is diminishing. How can you reach reliable conclusions when you’re basing them on horribly incorrect information?

    “Historical evidence comes up of ice-free poles in the 1950s and 18th century. ”

    Again, this is simply, flatly wrong. The Arctic was most certainly not ice-free during the 1950s, nor was it ice-free in the 18th century. Where are you getting this nonsense? It’s truly shameful that an educated person such as yourself could fall for such blatant lies.

    ” The evidence is almost always contested – not exactly a robust demonstration of the theory.”

    No, very little of the evidence is contested in the scientific community. Yes, there are lots of AGW deniers who contest the evidence — but these are the same people who claim that the Arctic was ice-free in the 1950s.

    “Can you even be sure it is significantly warmer? Do you trust the world wide network of monitoring stations? ”

    There are many sources of temperature information, but the most important is the satellite data, which I *do* trust (after it undergoes proper analysis). And the satellite data is completely consistent with the other sources. Even if we threw away all the ground station data, we’d still have a lot of data from the satellites showing rapid warming in the last 30 years.

    “the IPCC is not a scientific body”

    OK, call it a “body of scientists”. Call it a “set of scientists”. Call it a “group of scientists”. In any event, if you have an objection to IPCC AR4, why don’t you make it? What statement in AR4 do you contest?

    “All I can say is “tough.” That’s science. Convince me. I listen to reason. I’m not going to shut up just because it’s inconvenient for some true believers.”

    First, I’m happy to provide you with the evidence, but given that you embrace some truly crazy concepts such as an ice-free Arctic, I’m not sure how receptive you are to science. But I’ll give you this assurance: if you truly want to learn about AGW, I’ll be happy to explain this stuff and answer your questions.

    Second, you’re welcome to exercise your First Amendment rights, but your comments carry no weight with knowledgeable people. Dispense with the silly nonsense that you’ve been reading on denier websites. Above all, READ BOTH SIDES! You’ve been quoting all the standard denier claims, and you seem quite ignorant of the refutations of those claims. Why is it that you are well-versed in the arguments of one side and ignorant of the arguments on the other?

    As to the GCMs, you write: ” If these models did not exist, AGW would be dead in the water.”

    Actually, AGW was recognized as a probability at least as far back as the 1950s. The position of scientists right up into the 1980s was that AGW was likely going to take place someday, but as yet there was insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis (and in fact that was the gist of an NAS report in the 1970s). During the 1980s we started to get the first evidence in support of the hypothesis, but most scientists remained skeptical; there just wasn’t enough evidence. By the 1990s the evidence was solid enough to support a closer examination of the possibility, and a number of efforts were launched to obtain solid evidence for or against the hypothesis. Meanwhile, however, most scientists remained cautious about the hypothesis; again, they felt that there wasn’t enough evidence. By the turn of the century, the shift had begun. A goodly minority of scientists embraced the hypothesis and most others conceded that it was a strong possibility but did not want to commit themselves until more evidence came in. By 2005, the shift was pretty much complete; a strong majority of scientists accepted the AGW hypothesis. There remained some holdouts, but their numbers have been waning. Nowadays, for the great majority of scientists, the debate is over: AGW is real. The current controversies (and there are many) are about the details.

    “If ten or eleven years of data don’t conform to a rising tend – and just about everyone agrees on this, even strong AGW advocates – then isn’t that a strong knock against the reliability of the model?”

    No, it isn’t. Suppose economists decide that we’re coming out of the recession. They have examined all the indicators and they’re confident that the economy is recovering. Then the stock market has a bad month and goes down 10%. Does that mean that the economists were all wrong? Of course not. When we consider changes in the economy as a whole, we think in time scales of several quarters. One month, or even one quarter is not enough to signify a trend.

    With climate, the time scale of change is at least 30 years. Some definitions of climate talk in terms of centuries. However, a simple calculation of the heat capacity of the earth’s oceans compared to the heat balance of the overall planet shows that 30 years is the smallest reasonable time period for considering changes in temperature to be secular. It’s this simple thermodynamic calculation that is “How we know”. I’ll be happy to explain it, if you wish.

  27. Erasmussimo

    I’d like to add a basic point that many AGW deniers don’t get: the AGW hypothesis is not merely an empirical one. It’s not as if scientist just happened to notice that temperatures were rising and wondered why. The basic concept is called the “greenhouse effect” and was understood more than a hundred years ago. By the 1950s, scientists knew that Venus had a very strong greenhouse effect and was blazing hot. So the fact is that AGW is theoretically expected. Basic physics tells us that adding CO2 to the atmosphere should cause the earth’s temperature to rise. In other words, AGW is a solid theoretical prediction; what has changed in the last 20 years is the accumulation of masses of empirical evidence bearing out the theory.

  28. John Kadi

    Erasmussimo’s neck and eyes must hurt from his constant position of looking down his nose at all who dare question his unproven, questionable, opinions/agenda. (unless perhaps he’s very tall)

  29. Jon

    Yes, John Kadi. We know how this game is played. Erasmussimo is an “elite”. We are better off if we trust humble hobbyists working things out in their spare time.

    Next time I get on the plane, I won’t care if the pilot has his license, what will matter is that he’s a “regular guy,” instead of an elitist pilot license holder, right? That’s much more important than competence at piloting a plane in my book.

    Or next time my kid is sick, I won’t care if the doctor is qualified and has an MD from a college. That would make him an elitist and his “opinion” tainted.

  30. Erasmussimo

    John Kadi, are you suggesting that I’m better than others? I don’t believe that. I am happy to share what expertise I possess. I’m sure that there are things you could teach me. Perhaps they aren’t about this particular topic. I would hope that, were I to solicit your expertise, you would be forthcoming — and I would not consider you an egoist if you offered to teach me in those areas in which you possess expertise.

  31. Madrocketscientist

    The current CGMs are just now incorporating the Heat Island effect & the Nitrogen cycle, along with adjusting to the fact that the the Ocean Conveyor model just got turned on their head, which says to me, wait a bit, let the Climate Guru’s get the models adjusted and re-run.

    That being said, I am very tired of all the political bodies crying out about how the world is going to end if the CO2 gets too high. Call it Over-hype Exhaustion, but I’ve spent two decades hearing excessive hyperbole about how the coasts will drown and the heat will kill crops and there won’t be any water to drink, coupled with the last 8 years of screaming about how the terrorists are gonna kill us and the gays are gonna destroy civilization, and now I get to hear about how the government is gonna take all my money in order to fix all the worlds ills.

    Frankly, I’m sick of hearing it all, I’m sick of the doom & gloom that nothing comes of even though tons of experts have promised it. I live 300 feet above sea level near the coast, I’ll get worried when I have waterfront property.

  32. John Kadi

    Eras wrote: “The scientific case in favor of AGW is now overwhelming. There is so much supporting data that there simply isn’t any question that human releases of CO2 are causing the earth to warm. There’s a strong scientific consensus in favor of AGW. So, from the point of view of the scientists, the debate is over.”

    I’m sure Einsteen heard basically the same thing. I’m sure flat earthers communicated similarly. You sir are no scientist if that is your attitude.

    You are on a high horse Eras, and your kind is the very reason for my skepticism. I fully expect you are in the pocket of the greenies.

    Jon: My recommendation is you go to doctors for your sick kids and use pilots to fly your (evil) planes; your comparisons are silly.

  33. Erasmussimo

    Actually, John Kadi, Einstein did NOT hear the same thing. His theories were really radical, yet they were met with cautious open-mindedness. The attitude of most scientists at the time was “Gee, his reasoning looks impeccable and it certainly answers a lot of questions, but it’s so… weird! Can we really get behind this?” There were some challenges on details of interpretation, but relativity was embraced rather quickly. So your statement is incorrect.

    “You sir are no scientist if that is your attitude.”

    Given that you don’t seem to know much about science, I don’t put much weight on your assessment.

    “You are on a high horse Eras, and your kind is the very reason for my skepticism”

    Yes, I can believe that educated people rub you the wrong way. Don’t trust them thar eggheads!

    ” I fully expect you are in the pocket of the greenies.”

    If by that you mean that you expect that I am receiving compensation for expressing myself, you’re quite wrong. I belong to no organization, am self-employed, and am beholden to no one. I have no biases on this matter, either. I suspected that AGW would someday take place as long ago as 1975, but without any evidence to support the hypothesis, I drew no immediate conclusions. In the early 1990s the evidence started to look interesting, but was still not convincing. I think I came to support the hypothesis around 2003. If we get new evidence contradicting the theory, I’ll drop it instantly. But do you even know any of the evidence? Have you read any scientific reports on AGW? Have you read any of the NAS materials?

  34. Jon

    My recommendation is you go to doctors for your sick kids and use pilots to fly your (evil) planes; your comparisons are silly.

    How about relying on climate scientists to study climate?

    How about relying on qualified scientific organizations to review their work?

  35. John Kadi

    Eras: First of all I was out of line yesterday with my comments. I apologize. My goal is to learn more about AGW, because right now I am convinced it’s about 25% science and 75% profits + politics.

    The NAS appears (to me anyway) invested in AGW, they seem as biased for it as Exxon is biased against it. I (and many like me) would like to weigh the facts and keep an open mind. When we see that any scientist who questions the rate, cause, or premise of AGW is torn apart by their supposed scientist peers, it opens our eyes and makes us want to peel the onion and find the agendas that are driving the opinions.

  36. Two general points:

    Many of the arguments made for global warming seem to me to be an instance of “affirming the consequent.”

    • If it rains, the streets will be wet.
    • The streets are wet.
    • Therefore, it is raining.

    We know that is bad logic. How about this:

    •If AGW is happening, global temperatures will rise, migration patterns will change, polar ice will thin.

    •Temperatures are rising, animal migration patterns are changing, polar ice is retreating. (Assuming we accept the “mountain of evidence…”)

    •Therefore AGW is real.

    Second: I regretted my use of the word “venomous” in my comment on Erasmussimo’s tone – poor choice of words. But with his latest salvo, it seems I was merely prescient.

    Regarding Jon @ 26:

    Tree ring temperature reconstructions are not even the main evidence for climate change.
    I know this, but they are very important for the Mann hockey stick, which has been advanced as an important piece of evidence. I can’t discuss every clod in the mountain of data here. Proxies, however, all share common calibration problems.

    Bashing the hockey stick is like arguing over the 2000 presidential election by looking at contested ballots in Idaho.
    It is one of the most widely cited graphs/arguments in favor of AGW.

    Even if you win the argument, it’s not even consequential…
    A convenient argument for those whose logic and evidence is being undermined.

    If they wanted more funding, they would declare the science uncertain.
    Where do you get this from? If you are competing for grants and contracts, you must have quite an inside track! From where I sit, all the money is going one way. This is not all for scientific work, true, but it illustrates the trend.

    Yes, and if we relied on blog commenters to determine if all the different science done was “good”, we’d obviously have more problems than we do now.
    Can’t argue with this at all!

    Erasmussimo @ 27 & 28: last first…

    I’d like to add a basic point that many AGW deniers don’t get: the AGW hypothesis is not merely an empirical one. … The basic concept is called the “greenhouse effect” and was understood more than a hundred years ago. By the 1950s, scientists knew that Venus had a very strong greenhouse effect and was blazing hot. ..
    This is well understood. It’s a variation on the “It’s just basic physics argument,” for AGW. Nobody denies that CO2 is a GHG: not the major one, of course. Mentions of Venus are ridiculously off track. Venus is smaller, closer to the Sun, has a different rotation/orbit dynamic, and has an atmosphere that has virtually no similarity to Earth’s. CO2 is a trace gas here, not on Venus!

    The MWP is an interesting piece of evidence, but it doesn’t really provide a compelling argument for either side. The central mistake that AGW deniers make is the assumption that the temperatures themselves constitute the central evidence to support AGW. This is incorrect. Although temperatures themselves provide useful evidence, the truly compelling evidence is the rate of change of temperature. The MWP showed a very slow rate of change in temperature, both up and down.
    Correct, it is not a clincher argument, but it is indicative of the sort of data wars that go on in this debate. AGW people are at pains to discount evidence of the MWP. You focus on the rate of change, but of course, determining what that is, and what is unprecedented requires more historical data mining…

    We could throw away all the pine data and still have an overwhelming case for AGW. That controversy just isn’t very important in the larger scheme of things.
    Well, it says a lot about the care with which some AGW advocates make their case. Yes, there’s a mountain of consistent observations out there, but remember the fallacy of affirming the consequent. For a person who is stubborn, they just don’t add up to much. Convince me.

    So every time a scientist publishes a paper, they’re putting their reputation on the line.
    I read lots of papers that are along the lines of, “The IPCC predicts that…therefore, if they are right, we can expect this…” That’s not exactly going out on a limb. How do you argue with such mush?

    Einstein is considered a great scientist not because he confirmed anybody else’s work, but because he turned everything upside down and made everybody else’s work wrong.
    Science is not defined soley by the Einsteins, Darwins, and others of their great stature. Most scientific work is far less remarkable and exciting. Most scientists are more like ordinary folks, and much more likely to be influenced by the received wisdom of the day. That’s just the way it is. I’d like to believe that they are all Newtons, but they’re not. Scientific instituitions share many of the problems of bureacratic institutions everywhere. Spent any time in an academic department meeting lately?

    Going along with the crowd will get you a teaching position in a junior college.
    Bit snobby, aren’t you?

    WHY DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR SCIENTIFIC JUDGEMENT TO BE SUPERIOR TO THAT OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES?
    I don’t. Academies don’t have judgement. Individuals do. I don’t think I have better judgement or more knowledge than its members either. But I do have questions that I need answered. I’d be very interested to hear from each member of the academy and what they think about the academy’s statements – do they agree in toto? in part? which part? What IS the consensus? That doubling CO2 will raise temperatures 1 or 2 F, all things being equal? Something else?

    Erasmus… he could sling the invective with the best of them when he got mad.
    Touché

    …to observe that you don’t have much training in science…
    You know nothing about me. For all you know, I may be an esteemed scientist in the climate science community. I’m not into slinging credentials. Just attend to what I write.

    …Meanwhile, the next several years show ice at normal levels.”
    You are simply, flatly wrong here. Where are you getting this crazy information??!?!

    Do a google search for history of arctic ice and you’ll find accounts of the search for the Northwest Passage. WattsUpWithThat – a “denier site” – contains many links to academic papers on this topic. It also features photographs taken in the late 50s by crewmen on the Nautilus that surfaced that North Pole – hardly any ice. The statement about the current level of ice at the pole is from graphs published by NOAA and a study center at the University of Colorado. I’ll dig up the links if you can’t, but not today.

    You rant on for a while, and then come to this:

    Dispense with the silly nonsense that you’ve been reading on denier websites. Above all, READ BOTH SIDES! You’ve been quoting all the standard denier claims, and you seem quite ignorant of the refutations of those claims.
    I mentioned that I read RealClimate.org and The Discovery of Global Warming. Both of these seem to me to be among the premier strong advocates of AGW, and both are by PhD’s in atmospheric science. Do you think these are not good enough at representing your position? I read others as well.

    Regarding the centrality of the GCMs you retort:

    Actually, AGW was recognized as a probability at least as far back as the 1950s…The current controversies (and there are many) are about the details.
    Those details…I would accept the basic consensus I mentioned above. Those details you mention can make the difference between a reasonable proposition and a wild apocalyptic pronouncements. Again, what IS the consensus?
    As for the GCMs, if they had not been developed, all these predictions wouldn’t be made, and scientists would be much more circumspect in their statements in public. The models give them cover to assert that they have divined the true nature of the climate system and can reasonably predict its behavior. That’s the point of their work. In fact, models give them insight to the mechanics of the system and help them gain more, but little predictive power.

    No, it isn’t. Suppose economists decide that we’re coming out of the recession. They have examined all the indicators and they’re confident that the economy is recovering. Then the stock market has a bad month and goes down 10%. Does that mean that the economists were all wrong? Of course not. When we consider changes in the economy as a whole, we think in time scales of several quarters. One month, or even one quarter is not enough to signify a trend.
    I consider it a truly depressing pass to which we’ve come when a debate over natural science uses economic forecasting as a supporting argument. You should take a look at Paul Krugman’s (a strong AGW guy) writing on why economists got/get it wrong.

    I’ll be happy to explain it, if you wish.
    No thanks, I’ve exhausted my time allotment for this thread…

  37. Erasmussimo

    John, why do you say that the NAS appears to be invested in AGW? What possible benefit could any of these scientists gain from either accepting or rejecting the hypothesis? These are all the wise old men of American science; their reputations have already been made, they all have tenure, and they can pretty much do whatever they please. About the only thing they fear at this point in their careers is making a stupid judgement that would tarnish their reputations. So why do you think that they have some sort of investment in AGW?

    Yes, scientists tear apart those with whom they disagree; that’s how science works. I believe it was Eddington who tore apart Chandresekhar in the 1930s over the possibility of black holes. Eddington turned out to be wrong, but that didn’t stop him from attacking Chandresekhar viciously. Scientific controversies can be terribly nasty. Here’s a key factor in it: scientists as a group tend to be emotionally immature. That’s because they devote their entire existence to the pursuit of their specialty. While you and I were learning the hard way about getting along with other people, scientists were busy studying their books. It is perfectly natural that the intense competitiveness of science produces one-dimensional people. They can keep their disagreements civil when they’re unsure of themselves, but when two scientists of opposing opinions and few doubts collide, there will be fireworks. The evidence in favor of AGW is now overwhelming, and consequently many scientists are confident in their support of the hypothesis. When another scientist then challenges the hypothesis, they can be pretty ferocious in their reactions.

    However, most of the debate that you have seen is not between scientists. Almost all of the public discussion of AGW is carried out — on both sides — by nonscientists. Although I have scientific training and have participated in research work, I do not consider myself a scientist. And the leading public critics of AGW have little or no scientific education.

    As far as the agendas that are driving the opinions, I want to caution you against assessing scientists as driven by a desire for monetary gain. Most scientists earn paltry incomes and really don’t care. What drives them is the drive to gain scientific repute. They crave the respect of their peers. And the way to gain respect from other scientists is to be both contrarian and right. It’s a murderously difficult combination to pull off, and only the best people achieve that status. So that’s the agenda that drives scientists: to be both contrarian and right. There’s a Nobel Prize waiting for any scientist who disproves AGW — that would be spectacularly contrarian. If AGW could be disproven, they’d do it in a second. So the agendas that drive opinions do not bias scientists to favor AGW.

  38. mumstheword

    I know this will sound very simplistic, but ours is a simplistic populace. The reason the Pew numbers are so different is because we had a relatively cold winter and a relatively cold summer. If there are no significant heat waves or hurricanes, America forgets that AGW is an immediate threat. Ask them if they are concerned that the polar ice cap has melted and that there is a significant decline of habitat for polar bears. You might get a different answer than if you ask them if they think global warming is real.

    I do think it’s unfortunate that Obama supporters are so impatient with the process of change. It’s all well and good to talk about it in a campaign, but it will take TIME to reverse the incredible impact of the previous 8 years. I have never seen so much rapid change in politics in my lifetime and he’s been in office for less than a year. Clinton had 8 years to accomplish his goals, and he didn’t get as far on a number of issues. Obama, unfortunately, is the Generation X president elected by Generation Y voters, who always want what they want before they want it. Expectations for him are so high that even while he pushes complacent middle America faster than they are comfortable going, educated media and academia slam him for not moving faster, for not being more radical or direct. Everyone then takes shots at him, and thankfully he seems to remain focused on pushing forward.

    In any case, here’s one way that you can see green concern going mainstream, Pew survey aside: there’s more attention among ordinary people paid to fuel efficient cars and saving energy in their homes. It’s gone mainstream, from curly light bulbs to discussing the efficacy of different insulation techniques to hybrid SUVs being popular. Green is being marketed – it’s desirable. There’s nothing sexy about winterizing, but we’re all doing it, and I would argue that that has more impact than whether Obama gave the MIT crowd what they wanted to hear.

    Just a few years ago, when everyone was talking about Al Gore and global warming and deciding whether there was any truth to it, Hummers were considered cool, not outrageously wasteful. Even when gas prices were at their highest, the huge SUVs were in full force, but no longer. It could be just the economy that makes everyone want to conserve, but I doubt that’s all there is to it. Most people want polar bears on earth, and for some reason, they do make that connection. Just don’t ask them if they believe in global warming, because they won’t want to commit.

  39. Ask them if they are concerned that the polar ice cap has melted and that there is a significant decline of habitat for polar bears. You might get a different answer than if you ask them if they think global warming is real.

    This is true. Is it relevant? Maybe they shouldn’t care about the ice cap and polar bears. I’m not endorsing that point of view, but you can’t take it as a given.

    Then there is another problem if they say they DO care. Are they correct? Do they have any knowledge of the issues? I’ve had my say about the arctic ice already, but what evidence is there that polar bears are endangered by global warming? Don’t tell me about THAT photograph! I read a paper by a polar bear expert that said their populations were doing okay, and were most threatened by the usual suspects – poachers, human settlement, hunting, etc.

  40. mumstheword

    There’s a big difference, again, between what is true and what is the perception. Nobody likes endangering awesome animals, unless of course if they are in the way of them making lots of money or some project that would significantly improve human beings’ lives. An endangered minnow? Not such a big deal. And why? Because of the perception; it’s hard to love a fuzzy toy that looks like a minnow.

    If you read the Pew survey, there’s more to it than the headline suggests. (I’m a big fan of reading whole reports and not just the juicy bits.)

    One pertinent paragraph says:

    “Despite the growing public skepticism about global warming, the survey finds more support than opposition for a policy to set limits on carbon emissions. Half of Americans favor setting limits on carbon emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if this may lead to higher energy prices; 39% oppose imposing limits on carbon emissions under these circumstances.”

    Why would people care about carbon emissions if they didn’t believe AGW was possible or even (gasp) true? They don’t SEE solid evidence of global warming, they say, but they are supportive of laws that would impact our effect on global warming.

    Whether they should or should not care about the ice cap melting, we all get the idea of global catastrophes. There are enough movies out there depicting any number of awful conclusions to mankind to suggest it’s occurred to us all. This is not new – visions of the apocalypse are old as the hills, and humans do seem to be responsive to the idea of avoiding it, whether it’s thermonuclear war or plague or locusts or fire and brimstone.

    So whether or not Americans believe there is AGW is almost immaterial, because they are responding as if they do, and that’s what counts. Will our government be able to respond as he has promised when meeting with our neighbors? Will our president come through on the actual policies that will limit our impact on (for you lichanos, alleged) AGW? I don’t see any evidence to suggest otherwise.

    What exactly can that hurt? Since when was pollution anything but a problem for a host of reasons?

  41. “Despite the growing public skepticism about global warming, the survey finds more support than opposition for a policy to set limits on carbon emissions. Half of Americans favor setting limits on carbon emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if this may lead to higher energy prices; 39% oppose imposing limits on carbon emissions under these circumstances.”

    Interesting finding. Count me in. I think a carbon tax would be great, although the cap-and-trade scheme seems to me like a horrific boondogle that would accomplish nothing positive, for most people, anyway.

    Why do I favor a carbon tax? Perhaps my reasons are not so different from the Americans polled:

    – air pollution is a world wide problem, much under reported.
    – cars cause pollution, noise, traffic deaths and lots of other bad things
    – burning fossil fuels produces “externalities” that are a free ride now – they shouldn’t be. If they are not, we will be more innovative and efficient.
    – I have a strong philosophical, ethical, and practical committment to conservation. Primary among my goals is habitat preservation. Carbon-fueled urban sprawl, and non-point water pollution from industrial fertilizer are serious threats to habitat and ecosystem viability.
    – I like quiet, clean air, and find roadside culture depressing. Maybe I’m just a snob, but those are my values. Reducing use of gasoline, fostering density in settlement, etc. would support my goals.
    – Geopolitics. If it weren’t for oil, we would care about the opinions of some backward mullahs as much as we care about the opinions of most of Africa. We should care more about African nations, but less about the middle east. Certainly, we don’t want to be beholden to them in any way.

  42. Erasmussimo

    lichanos, there are a great many errors of fact and logic in your post #37. To wit:

    1. Your claims regarding the logic used to confirm the AGW hypothesis — or any hypothesis — are incorrect. You list only three confirming pieces of evidence: “temperatures are rising, animal migration patterns are changing, polar ice is retreating”. In fact, there are literally hundreds of confirming items of evidence: changes in glaciation all over the world, changes in river flow patterns, changes in temperature distributions in the oceans, changes in CO2 concentrations in bodies of water, changes in tree mortality in forests in the American West — the list goes on and on and on. You think that there are only three pieces of evidence. There are hundreds of pieces of evidence.

    Moreover, you leave out a crucial factor in the argument in favor of AGW: no other hypothesis comes remotely close to explaining the observations we have made. All of the competing hypotheses (solar activity, natural fluctuations, natural releases of CO2, for example) have been soundly refuted.

    2. You refer to “the Mann hockey stick, which has been advanced as an important piece of evidence.” You further declare that “It is one of the most widely cited graphs/arguments in favor of AGW.” Had you read the IPCC AR4, Chapter 6, or even looked at Figure 6.10, you would realize that the Mann reconstruction is only one of twelve different reconstructions. There is a second Mann reconstruction in 2003 that is also used in Figure 6.10, but again, there are a total of twelve different reconstructions by ten different scientific teams, each using a different methodology, and they all show the same basic pattern. Your analysis of the significance of the Mann data is incorrect.

    3. You refer to the scientific grant process in these terms: ” If you are competing for grants and contracts, you must have quite an inside track! ” This is incorrect. The grant-making process is complicated and thorough. You should learn a little about how grants are actually made before making such wild accusations.

    4. You respond to my point that there is sound theoretical foundation for AGW in the greenhouse effect with this statement: “This is well understood. It’s a variation on the “It’s just basic physics argument,” for AGW. Nobody denies that CO2 is a GHG: not the major one, of course.”

    I conclude that you agree with my point that there is a sound theoretical foundation for AGW.

    5. Regarding your statements regarding the MWP, here’s a condensation of material in Box 6.4 of IPCC AR4 in regard to the MWP:

    ” However, Figure 6.10 shows that the warmest period prior to the 20th century very likely occurred between 950 and 1100, but temperatures were probably between 0.1°C and 0.2°C below the 1961 to 1990 mean and significantly below the level shown by instrumental data after 1980.
    In order to reduce the uncertainty, further work is necessary to update existing records, many of which were assembled up to 20 years ago, and to produce many more, especially early, palaeoclimate series with much wider geographic coverage. There are far from sufficient data to make any meaningful estimates of global medieval warmth (Figure 6.11). There are very few long records with high temporal resolution data from the oceans, the tropics or the SH.
    The evidence currently available indicates that NH mean temperatures during medieval times (950–1100) were indeed warm in a 2-kyr context and even warmer in relation to the less sparse but still limited evidence of widespread average cool conditions in the 17th century (Osborn and Briffa, 2006). However, the evidence is not sufficient to support a conclusion that hemispheric mean temperatures were as warm, or the extent of warm regions as expansive, as those in the 20th century as a whole, during any period in medieval times ”

    I believe this statement to represent the best available knowledge at the time it was written. Do you have any more trustworthy source of information on the MWP?

    You write: “For a person who is stubborn, they just don’t add up to much. Convince me.”

    Why don’t you read IPCC AR4? Or any of the NAS reports? They’re readily available on the Internet. Those would convince you.

    You write: “I read lots of papers that are along the lines of, “The IPCC predicts that…therefore, if they are right, we can expect this…””

    Perhaps you should read some other papers. In particular, the IPCC AR4 report or some of the NAS reports. They provide a great many statements to argue against — if you’ve got facts to argue with.

    You take me to task for discussing Einstein, but YOU were the one who brought up Einstein in the first place!

    In re the NAS reports, you write: “But I do have questions that I need answered. I’d be very interested to hear from each member of the academy and what they think about the academy’s statements – do they agree in toto? in part? which part? What IS the consensus? That doubling CO2 will raise temperatures 1 or 2 F, all things being equal? Something else?”

    Then why don’t you just read the NAS reports? The answers you seek are right there. Why are you skeptical about material you haven’t even read?

    “You know nothing about me. For all you know, I may be an esteemed scientist in the climate science community.”

    I do know what you have posted here, and I know that no scientist would make claims such as those you make. Therefore I conclude that you have little or no scientific training. It’s an entirely reasonable conclusion. But I agree, this is a sideshow, we should concentrate on the material itself rather than getting personal. Mea culpa.

    I’m going to take a break now and read the material on arctic ice to which you referred. I’ll post again when I have examined that information.

  43. Erasmussimo:

    I’m beginning to think you just don’t read what I write, but I’ll respond a bit. It beats working…

    I conclude that you agree with my point that there is a sound theoretical foundation for AGW.

    Yes, I agree. GHG provide a plausible mechanism for temperature increases. The issues are: are these increases occurring in an unprecedented way; are GHG the only possible causes; is there proof that they are to blame?

    You list only three confirming pieces of evidence: “temperatures are rising, animal migration patterns are changing, polar ice is retreating”.

    This is absurd, almost childish. I listed only three because I have neither unlimited time nor space. I can’t discuss the “mountain of evidence” you claim here. I mentioned that in my post. I take those three as somewhat representative, not exhaustive.

    Moreover, you leave out a crucial factor in the argument in favor of AGW: no other hypothesis comes remotely close to explaining the observations we have made. All of the competing hypotheses (solar activity, natural fluctuations, natural releases of CO2, for example) have been soundly refuted.

    There’s been a lot of natural variation in climate in geologic, pre-historic, and historical time. The NULL hypothesis is that there is nothing new going on, just business as usual. You have to provide reasons to abandon that view. AGW has not refuted it. It simply claims to have established its own point of view as superior. (This ignores ALL disputes about the data and the nature of what has actually happened as well!) There have been huge swings of temperature and CO2 in the past.

    How can you have “soundly refuted” the claim that only natural variation is at work? First, you would have to show that the changes are quite different than those observed before. AGW claims this, but that is why the disputes over the historical record and proxies (Hockey stick, etc.) are so important. Second, you have to propose a mechanism. AGW has a plausible mechanism, but it depends on computer models AND the historical method to demonstrate it’s validity. When contemporary data don’t cooperate, the statistics are juggled to find the right period of record.

    You should learn a little about how grants are actually made before making such wild accusations.

    I deal with grants and RFPs a lot. I made no accusations. I don’t know what you are talking about.

    I read the 4th IPCC report. I was struck by the difference between the Statement for Policy Makers and the actual scientific papers. They seemed to come from different planets.

    YOU were the one who brought up Einstein in the first place!
    Nope, I didn’t. You did. So there. And you seem to have missed my point on that note anyway.

  44. Erasmussimo

    OK, I went and had a look at the website you referred to and found the article about what you wrote:

    ” It also features photographs taken in the late 50s by crewmen on the Nautilus that surfaced that North Pole – hardly any ice.”

    Here is the article in question — remember, this is from the website that YOU recommended:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/04/26/ice-at-the-north-pole-in-1958-not-so-thick/#more-7368

    Yes indeed, it starts off with a photograph showing a submarine surrounded by open water, captioned to indicate that this is the North Pole.

    HOWEVER! If you read the article itself, you’ll come across this statement from one of the crew members of the Skate, James E. Hester:

    “the Skate found open water both in the summer and following winter. We surfaced near the North Pole in the winter through thin ice less than 2 feet thick. The ice moves from Alaska to Iceland and the wind and tides causes open water as the ice breaks up. The Ice at the polar ice cap is an average of 6-8 feet thick, but with the wind and tides the ice will crack and open into large polynyas (areas of open water), these areas will refreeze over with thin ice. We had sonar equipment that would find these open or thin areas to come up through, thus limiting any damage to the submarine. The ice would also close in and cover these areas crushing together making large ice ridges both above and below the water. We came up through a very large opening in 1958 that was 1/2 mile long and 200 yards wide. The wind came up and closed the opening within 2 hours. On both trips we were able to find open water. We were not able to surface through ice thicker than 3 feet.”

    In other words, there are some areas of open water, but they are small (he calls an opening that was 1/2 mile long and 200 yards wide ‘very large’) and rare (he mentions that ‘they were able to find open water’ — obviously it required some effort to locate such places). Thus, you’re saying that the North Pole had open water in 1958 when in fact it had only a tiny amount of open water. What we’re talking about today is the loss of tens of thousands of square miles of ice, as well as the thinning of the ice that remains. The loss of all ice during the summer is now considered highly likely, although it may not happen for 20 years. Hence your original statement that the ice levels in the Arctic Ocean are at normal levels is just plain wrong.

    If you want reliable scientific information on the extent of Arctic sea ice, you can look at the University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research website here:

    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/

    And here’s a quote from that page:

    “ea ice extent averaged over the Northern Hemisphere has decreased correspondingly over the past 50 years (shown right). The largest change has been observed in the summer months with decreases exceeding 30%.”

    So let’s put to rest the myth that Arctic sea ice levels are normal.

    You next mention that you read RealClimate.org. That’s good; they present a lot of information. I’m surprised that the explanations they provide are not satisfactory to you. One consideration here is that they provide up-to-the-minute reports on ongoing research. Perhaps it would be more useful to get some big-picture information; here’s a page with some downloadable brochures. These brochures represent the most carefully worded authoritative statements for the public on AGW:

    http://dels.nas.edu/climatechange/basics.shtml

    You ask: “Those details you mention can make the difference between a reasonable proposition and a wild apocalyptic pronouncements. Again, what IS the consensus?”

    The consensus is best characterized by the statements in the NAS brochure “Understanding and Responding to Climate Change”. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how conservative the phrasing is. There are no apocalyptic predictions; but they are clear that AGW is real and presents a serious threat. Please, download and read this piece; it’s less than 30 pages long, it provides very clear explanations of the issues, it provides references to more detailed material, and most of all, it’s absolutely reliable. This is the gold standard of scientific reliability; you can trust every statement in that brochure to be truthful.

    Gotta go now. Perhaps more later.

  45. John Kadi

    For what it’s worth, I’m the one who brought up Einstein (albeit misspelled)

    It is clear that the NAS is convinced of AGW, its collective mind is made up, that doesn’t make them right.

  46. I attended a meeting at NASA (not NAS) to discuss adapting to climate impacts. This was a policy meeting, not a meeting to thrash out scientific issues. AGW was a given. Fair enough.

    I was struck by the bias in favor of negative impacts. Only they were of interest. Of course, those are the ones to which we would have to adapt, but it was pretty much assumed that all impacts would be negative. The basic idea was, “change is bad.” Not a new idea. Who likes disruption? but rather narrow.

    Furthermore, it was clear that there was tremendous confusion over how to define a climate impact. Coastal flooding? That happens now. It will get worse, more frequent? Okay, we should adapt. Shouldn’t we adapt now? How about 20 years ago?! Climate change impacts are often little different from weather impacts. This creates a powerful internal dynamic to identify “clear” and “negative” impacts of AGW, otherwise, what’s the point of all these committees? One could argue, and I do, that many of the adaptation strategies are good things, regardless of AGW, but nobody wants to hear that. If they didn’t prepare for flooding 20 years ago, that argument won’t wash today! So, the bias is clearly in favor of “discovering” and “communicating” alarming impacts.

    In fact, one speaker, summarizing some adaptation programs in California, said that “suprisingly,” the results of a study of AGW on electric power capacity in the San Diego area showed minimal results, only 7% at peak, “and were not alarming.” MUCH less than expected. He was clearly disappointed. He went on, “but we expect that number to increase with further study…”

    Finally, there is the “everything is connected” argument. Everything bad that may happen in future can be linked to climate change. Wars over food, wars over land, wars over water. More malaria. More pollution. One person said, “we may have to give up eating beef in this country!” (Is that so terrible?) Economic disruptio everywhere!!

    Of course, most of these things happen now. AGW would add to the mix of stressors, but it is by no means necessary. So why are these things listed as future alarming impacts of AGW?

    You might was well argue that the problem is the money economy. That’s the root of all (environmental) evil. Without it, we would have no industry. Let’s return to barter.

    Or, it’s the fault of The State. (Anarchist/Libertarian view.) Without the modern beaucratic nation state, there would be no world economy, no national economy, communities would be more eco-regional, etc. etc…SMASH the state, stop AGW!

    Or, it’s because of language. Remember the Tower of Babel? Without language, etc. etc. All of these bad things are “language impacts.”

  47. Erasmussimo

    Lichanos writes: “I think a carbon tax would be great, although the cap-and-trade scheme seems to me like a horrific boondogle that would accomplish nothing positive, for most people, anyway.”

    Huzzah! Something we agree upon! Mutual back-slapping all around. ;-)

    But then you write: “AGW has not refuted it [the natural fluctuations explanation]. It simply claims to have established its own point of view as superior. (This ignores ALL disputes about the data and the nature of what has actually happened as well!) There have been huge swings of temperature and CO2 in the past.”

    The killer argument against natural fluctuations is the rate of change of temperature. There is no climate change in the historical period as abrupt as this one; in fact, the evidence we DO have suggests that temperature changes of this magnitude are spread out over centuries or even millenia, not decades. The only temperature change anywhere near this dramatic was at the time of the Younger Dryas, and even then we have to interpret the data in the most extreme manner possible.

    ” First, you would have to show that the changes are quite different than those observed before. AGW claims this, but that is why the disputes over the historical record and proxies (Hockey stick, etc.) are so important.”

    There’s no evidence whatsoever that any of the recent temperature changes were this dramatic. As I mentioned above, the only possibility is the Younger Dryas, which was 10K years ago, and so all the nonsense over pine trees is irrelevant to this consideration. I’m not sure what proxy is used for that time scale. If you don’t like the proxy, then we come to conclusion that we have NO evidence of any temperature change as dramatic as the current one.

    “I read the 4th IPCC report. I was struck by the difference between the Statement for Policy Makers and the actual scientific papers. They seemed to come from different planets.”

    First, there’s no need to even consider the statement for policymakers; that’s not the meat of IPCC AR4. The main report is the matter under concern. You say you read it, but you obviously did not notice that Mann’s reconstruction played a minor role in Figure 6.10. Contrast this with the statement you made in your post #37:

    “I know this, but they are very important for the Mann hockey stick, which has been advanced as an important piece of evidence.”

    So while I’m happy to learn that you have indeed read IPCC AR4, I would recommend that you read it again, more carefully. BTW, are there any substantial scientific claims made in IPCC AR4 that you take issue with?

    Re: Einstein: You’re right, I was wrong. Mea culpa.

    In re your post #47, you note that the emphasis is on negative impacts. There’s a good reason for that: we have trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure all over the planet that was built on the assumption that the climate would not change. If that assumption turns out to be wrong, then a great deal of that infrastructure has to be modified. It doesn’t matter whether the planet is heating or cooling: if it changes significantly, that forces us to rebuild a lot of stuff. Think of all the port facilities that may need rebuilding if sea level rises significantly. Think of island nations such as Maldives that will be underwater if sea level rises by more than 2 meters. How are we going to find a new country for half a million displaced Maldiveans? Or what about the deltas of the world: Amazon, Ganges, Nile, Congo, etc? Those deltas are all at sea level; they are also some of the most productive farmland in the world. If sea level rises by just a meter or two, that farmland will be lost and many millions of people will be rendered homeless.

    Sure, there are some upsides. Some places will get more rain. Alaska might support a larger population if it’s not so bitter cold. Of course, we’ll have to relocate every last settlement in Alaska that is standing on permafrost. They had to do it for one small village and it cost many millions of dollars.

    California will likely face huge water problems. Currently vast amounts of water from Northern California are diverted to Southern California. However, if the Sierra snowpack is reduced, then water flows in the rivers of Northern California will be reduced and there simply won’t be enough water to sustain all the people in Southern California. And what happens if the Imperial Valley can no longer get enough water from the Colorado? That one valley generates billions of dollars worth of agricultural products every year.

    Now, none of these are catastrophes. We’ll have plenty of time to adjust. But in the long run the total costs of all this will add up to trillions of dollars. I don’t see this as a matter of saving the earth. I see it as a matter of investing a small amount of money now to save a much larger amount of money later. Will the ROI be high enough to justify the expenditure? THAT’S a debatable question!

  48. MadScientist

    Wouldn’t you agree that there is no timely action; emissions will continue at a rapidly growing rate for at least the next 10 years, probably more due to the ever increasing population? Even if all anthropogenic CO2 emissions were to cease tomorrow, how many centuries would it take for concentrations to decrease to, say, 340ppm?

    @erasmussimo: I think you’re being extremely optimistic in saying that we will have plenty of time to adapt. How quick can you move, say, a 50,000 acre farm, clear the area for planting, and set up the infrastructure for irrigation etc? Don’t forget that the move needs to be funded by someone; at the moment an uneconomical operation means yet another farmer out of a job and the rest of the world doesn’t care.

  49. Erasmussimo

    MadScientist, the pace of change, while rapid by climatological standards, is slow by human standards. We do not expect big changes in sea level for many decades. Thus, we’ll have plenty of time to respond to these changes. My fear is that, if sea levels rise by 30 cm and then pause for a decade, the deniers will declare that sea level will rise no more, and we needn’t spend any more money adjusting to the changes. The question is, do we want to be ahead of the curve or behind the curve?

  50. John Kadi

    Now that AGW has been debunked as junk science, I would hope that Erasmussimo and others who hung their hat on that particular peg are very happy for the good news that mother earth is just fine. Right?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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