Bill McKibben on the New Denialist GOP

By Chris Mooney | October 13, 2010 11:46 am

Republicans were always pretty bad on global warming–but at least there used to be moderates one could point to who understood the science, even if they weren’t running the show. Nowadays, though, it seems even that is vanishing.

In the latest New Republic, Bill McKibben has a piece about all this. As he puts it, “On what is quite possibly the single biggest issue the planet has faced, American conservatism has reached a near-unanimous position, and that position is: pay no attention to all those scientists.”

It’s really incredible to think we’ve reached this point. McKibben chalks it up not to fossil fuel money, but to deep seated conspiratorial thinking, driven of course by ideology and resentment of intellectual elites.

Somehow, as only McKibben can do, he nevertheless manages to end on an upbeat note:

In the meantime, many of us are rolling up our sleeves and getting down to work. On October 10, in thousands of communities around the country, we’re holding a Global Work Party to put up solar panels and dig community gardens and lay out bike paths. We don’t think we can stop climate change this way—that will take action to reset the price of carbon. But we do think we can show the way. Not with a Tea Party, but with a work party. Which, in a different era, would have appealed to conservatives above all.

Read the whole piece here.

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Comments (26)

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  1. As Jeff Toobin of CNN said last year, one of the biggest seismic shifts in this country’s politics since the 80s is that moderate Republicans have almost completely vanished. Either they don’t exist or they don’t interfere, which is as good as not existing. The Republicans have practically made it a law- If you are a Republican you cannot believe in global warming or evolution. It does not then matter what the facts say; you cannot support them if you want to stay a Republican. It’s almost become a requirement for becoming a Republican.

    And what “intellectual elites” are the Republicans fighting against? A scientist who spends years looking for facts and logical conclusions and then speaks out because he cares about the future of his grandchildren just like everyone else is “elite” only because he has a PhD. from a fancy university?

    The almost unanimous opposition of Republicans to science and hard facts may be one of the most important reasons for this country’s slide into ignorance and illiteracy. Everything will go downhill from there.

  2. TTT

    By rights, “elitism” would define the people who never cracked a book about climate science but who think they are smarter than the experts just for showing up. They don’t have to WORK at knowing things, for all knowledge is already theirs. Of course, as with basically all right-wing sloganeering, actual content and definitions do not matter, it is only a medium for resentment and hate. SEE ALSO: “judicial activism,” “Real America.”

  3. Nullius in Verba

    “By rights, “elitism” would define the people who never cracked a book about climate science but who think they are smarter than the experts just for showing up.”

    Do you imagine that many of the people who believe in CAGW have read any climate science books, either?

    I’m constantly being amazed by the number of people who think they’re being scientific for believing, but who do not themselves understand any of the science.
    Their idea of “scientific” seems to be “believes whatever the reputable scientists say without question”, (where “reputable” seems to be rather more socio-politically defined). It’s fascinating.

    Perhaps you’re different. Perhaps you do know the science, as you suggest. But you ought to know, the signs are not promising.

  4. Sorbit

    @4: Well, by your definition none of us are scientifically informed since we don’t do the research ourselves. I am pretty sure you have not done the research on CAGW yourself. We may as well not believe in evolution by your definition. In case of CAGW there’s the opinion of more than a thousand IPCC scientists who have pooled together evidence from a disparate number of disciplines and published in leading peer-reviewed journals. I would consider that “reputable” enough until I see very strong evidence to the contrary. Ditto for evolution.

  5. TTT

    Nullius: “Do you imagine that many of the people who believe in CAGW have read any climate science books, either?”

    I don’t “imagine”–I know it for a fact. I know this is the Internet and anybody can claim anything, but I’m actually an environmental scientist and everybody in my academic program was an environmental scientist too. And we all read the books and articles, and wrote our own, and all of our professors had done the same.

    I am NOT amazed by your own irresponsible intellectual relativism–the idea that “oh, NOBODY knows the truth, they’re all just bluffing.” We are actually talking about hard science here and one side actually does have it. Actually, both sides have it, just one side understands and accepts it and the other side sees it as a conspiracy and rejects it, exactly like dinosaur fossils.

    AGW is extremely easy to observe–you can demonstrate it under laboratory conditions with commonplace household items. We have ironclad evidence that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are now higher than at any point in the last 650,000 years–a time period in which all non-human ghg sources were already operational, meaning that new surge can only be explained by an entirely novel factor, which in this case is the entirely novel human practice of digging up submerged petrocarbons that had been sealed away from the biosphere for tens of millions of years and burning them into gases.

    You can argue the POLICY SOLUTIONS if you want, but saying “there’s no real science behind this, nobody who talks about it really knows what they’re saying” is just lazy. Do better.

  6. Pete McCloskey said before, and still tells it like it is.
    http://www.penipress.com/2010/10/08/the-legacy-of-environmental-maverick-pete-mccloskey/

    “Earth Day… has become the focus of almost hatred by today’s Republican leadership. Many still argue that global warming is a hoax, and that (former President George W.) Bush has been right to demean and suppress the arguments of scientists at the E.P.A., Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Geological Survey,” McCloskey wrote in an email to the Tracy Press of Tracy, Calif.

    “We still have the environmental issues of our time,” he said on Saturday. “But what those kids did on [the first] Earth Day changed the world.”

  7. FUAG

    As a moderate republican, I get sick of people telling me that I don’t believe in evolution. Hey, I wish I could find a fiscal conservative party that wasn’t faith based!

    What gets me is when scientist speak in absolutes when the science does not support absolute statements. Also, when legitimate causes for skepticism come along they are summarily dismissed rather that given a “hey, that’s a good point, perhaps we need to rethink this”.

    Why am I more apt to be a skeptic, here’s a perfect example:

    Bill Gates backed project to make clouds whiter, by spraying see water into the air, to cool the earth: http://www.usatoday.com/weather/research/2010-06-10-cloud-whitening_N.htm

    VS

    Water Vapor is a powerful global warming agent: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/11/1110_051110_warming.html

    (I picked usatoday.com and nationalgeographic.com to insure no right wing bias.)

    Just taking 2+2=4 approach, the Bill Gates project will warm the earth!

  8. Nullius in Verba

    #6,

    TTT, for a scientist, you show a curious tendency towards non-sequiturs.

    All I did was note that the vast majority of people who believe in CAGW, as with the vast majority of people generally, are not doing it from a basis of detailed scientific knowledge. The proportion of humanity who have degrees in environmental science is very small, and I’m quite sure that the number of people who nevertheless believe in it is much larger. According to such an argument, only scientists who have studied the question would be qualified to render an opinion, and most people are not.

    All I’m doing is pointing out the double standard between demanding that all sceptics must study the science before being permitted to express scepticism, but believers get a pass.

    Nowhere did I say “nobody knows the truth, everybody’s bluffing”.

    I’m also interested to read your argument that AGW is readily observable in the laboratory. Your next non-sequitur is in the assumption that because CO2 levels have increased due to fossil fuel burning (a claim I have absolutely no problem with, although your argument here seems to be no more than a uniformitarian assumption) that this demonstrates AGW. There are at least a dozen further steps in the argument, any one of which could fail, before you could draw such a conclusion. You need to talk about black body radiation, absorption and emission lines at different wavelengths, pressure broadening, radiative balance, convection, the adiabatic lapse rate, albedo, water vapour, feedbacks, clouds, the oceans, climate oscillations, aerosols, climate models, solving the Navier-Stokes equation, grid resolution, parameterisations, ensembles, autocorrelated time series statistics, unit root tests, urban heat islands, adjustments and homogenisation, and so on before you can even get close.

    There is no empirical evidence to give significant confidence in predictions of catastrophic climate change due to anthropogenic emissions. There is not even any empirical evidence that the climate has yet moved outside the range of natural variation globally, and there is definite empirical evidence that it has not at a local scale, where people experience it.

    Yes, there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect (mostly due to H2O, but with a CO2 component). Yes, increasing CO2 will have a warming tendency. Yes, we have increased CO2. But none of that implies that the magnitude of the warming effect is dangerous, significant, or even detectable against the random background noise. That people continue to believe the simplistic explanations prove their case beyond argument only goes to show how little they understand them themselves.

    The climate is immensely complicated. We are only just at the very beginning of our attempts to understand it. Please stop trying to pretend that it’s simple and it’s all been sorted out already.

    I am also amused to note your use of the 650,000 years number. You do know, of course, that the Earth is considerably older than 650,000 years. So why did you pick the number? Was it perhaps because you are well aware that in the past the CO2 level has been up to 20 times higher? That considered over the entire history of life on Earth, that the current level is far below average?

    Yes, there’s real science behind scepticism, and sceptics do sometimes know what they’re talking about. Anybody who says otherwise, as you just did, is being lazy. If you’re going to get offended at the suggestion that your side might not always know what they’re talking about, then please do us the courtesy of not making the same lazy assumption about us. Thank you.

  9. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius, I’m going to call you on a couple of points:

    Yes, there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect (mostly due to H2O, but with a CO2 component).

    Note that water lines don’t mask the CO2 lines all that much in the 10 μm vicinity. CO2 column densities don’t fluctuate like water, so there’s a steadily increasing term that gets added to any water fluctuations.

    But none of that implies that the magnitude of the warming effect is dangerous, significant, or even detectable against the random background noise.

    (regarding the “detectable against background noise”) You and I went through this once before. There’s something like a ~1 deg/century rise in the last roughly 50 years (underlying shorter period fluctuations) which is not that far off from what is expected from CO2 trapping, given the rate of CO2 increase during the same period. Unless there’s some mechanism that can store or release heat on timescales longer than this period, that must mean that all the other energy budget terms, whether or not we know them or how they vary, must roughly cancel in the energy balance equation. That implicates CO2.

    Was it perhaps because you are well aware that in the past the CO2 level has been up to 20 times higher? That considered over the entire history of life on Earth, that the current level is far below average?

    You’re actually supporting the concerns about global warming here: by taking the totality or major fraction of carbon that was extracted from the atmosphere in the distant past when the climate was warmer and the sea levels were, what, a hundred meters higher and much of North America was under an inland sea, and releasing it back into the atmosphere in a very short time, you risk restoring those very conditions – hot, steamy, swampy and flooded continents.

  10. TTT

    You need to talk about……*snipped immense list of tangential jargon*

    No, I really don’t. What we need to talk about is this:

    Yes, there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect (mostly due to H2O, but with a CO2 component). Yes, increasing CO2 will have a warming tendency. Yes, we have increased CO2.

    That’s the whole story right there. I am not arguing for the “Waterworld” scenario but, rather, for the real world scenario–which you have just summarized. It is odd that you didn’t just come out at the very beginning and say that yes, you DO accept the square-1 premise of foundational climatology. A lot of “skeptics” try to bury the lede in this manner–they start out talking about how dangerous / deluded / ignorant / conspiratorial the scientific community is, and then around paragraph 3 they’ll admit that the foundational facts are all true but they just don’t want to spend money on the problem.

    And you know what? That’s fine by me. I can respect people who man up and look you in the eye and say “I accept that humans are contributing to the greenhouse warming of the planet, in some amount, but I’m not convinced it will be significant or that its effects would be worse than the disruptions brought about by proposed policy solutions.” That’s a reasonable answer. “Climate scientists don’t know what they’re talking about” is not a reasonable answer–especially when, as you just did, you are perfectly willing to grant the core of the case.

    I am also amused to note your use of the 650,000 years number. You do know, of course, that the Earth is considerably older than 650,000 years. So why did you pick the number? Was it perhaps because you are well aware that in the past the CO2 level has been up to 20 times higher? That considered over the entire history of life on Earth, that the current level is far below average?

    I chose that number because I knew you would not be able to dispute either its accuracy or its implications, and you haven’t.

    And acting like I WOULDN’T know that “prehistoric Earth was hot” is no different from a creationist acting like biologists don’t know that monkeys still exist and haven’t all already evolved into people. It perfectly mixes both ignorance and arrogance. The people you’re talking to do know it–it just doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    See, back when prehistoric CO2 levels were 20 times higher, human civilization did not exist. And could not have existed. And if those conditions were to return today, it would cease to exist.

    We are the beneficiaries of an extremely complicated and extremely fragile globalized agricultural commercial civilization, which can only survive in the climatic conditions in which it was originally established. Rapid significant change would destroy it, and take most of us down with it.

    Now, as I said before, reasonable people can reasonably disagree whether rapid significant change is going to happen. But saying it would be FINE if rapid significant change happened because they’ve happened before–when we weren’t around to be killed by it the last time–is a Grade-A example of not seeing a forest because a tree got in the way.

  11. Sorbit

    FUAG: If you are a moderate, truly fiscally conservative Republican believing in evolution, good for you. You are an endangered species who is going to go extinct very soon if trends continue. Try schooling your more radical counterparts (who are fast comprising the majority) who are so hell-bent on politicizing science and fear-mongering about the next socialist government takeover that they don’t give a damn about facts in the real world. I doubt they will listen though, and they are the ones whose voices are loudest.

  12. FUAG

    Sorbit: Deal, as long as you do the same. Both sides need more voices coming from the center. So much of the trouble in this country is that the voices on both sides have gone so far out to the fringe that they are easily dismissed as loons. Because of this, each side can easily dismiss the other’s ideas. And if anyone tries to split the difference they are pummeled by both sides.

    Radicalism is not a trait exclusively held by the right….

    Perhaps we should start a new party of Radical Centrists! 😉

  13. Sorbit

    I agree. We do need more voices from the center. There is no doubt that radicals abound on both sides and I also agree that sometimes reasonable criticism of climate change is squelched. But on balance the right has definitely come across as being much more anti-science because of its politicization of evolution and climate change. You won’t find many creationists among the far left compared to the far right. I am not talking about reasonable questioning and doubt which is fine. I am talking about the hollering about climate change and evolution being liberal conspiracies run by radical socialists taking over our children’s minds.

    I think we would all be more than happy to have moderate Republicans who support climate change and evolution coming out and speaking forcefully. In fact we crucially need their support even if they don’t completely agree with us. But where are they? These days people like Palin, O-Donnell, Limbaugh and Beck are thought to be mainstream, not extremists. They have immense popular support. Far from being on the fringe, they are some of the dominant voices in the Republican party. If people like you do agree that they are on the fringe, you need to speak out much more forcefully and call them out for what they are.

  14. sinz54

    I’ve been a political conservative for 40 years (long before these new conservatives came on the scene).

    I fully accept AGW is real (and evolution too).

    My problem comes when we start discussing possible solutions to AGW.

    We conservatives are patriots and nationalists, a concept that is apparently so alien to the “one-world” idealists on this blog that they can’t deal with it.

    I love the United States. My ancestors came to America to get away from Europe and Russia. Those who remained behind were murdered. So I consider myself to be a proud citizen of the United States–not any “citizen of the world.”

    I’m not prepared to accept any solution to global warming that puts an unacceptably high burden on the United States–any solution that involves permanent American self-flagellation.

    And yet, that’s what I see from environmentalists on various websites, when they don’t think anyone else is listening in –but we are.

    On the Greenpeace USA website, for example, they actually had the gall to propose that we all just give up jetliner travel and stay home from now on. (Sorry, Hawaiians.)

    No way, Jose!

    You guys may think it’s O.K. to end up with a smaller, weaker, slower, poorer America in order to “save the planet” or (even worse) to “save Bangladesh”–but we don’t.

    So I challenge you global warming activists to give us YOUR vision of the United States, 30 years from now. Will we still have cars of some kind? Will we still have trucks and roads? Will we still have jet travel? Will we still have the cherished American freedom to travel where we want, when we want?

    Will we still have comfortable homes in the suburbs? Will we still have abundant food?

    And will we still have an economic growth rate that exceeds the rate of population increase?

    Now’s your chance to put up or shut up.

    Show how America’s future can still be bright, and you will go a long way to easing the concerns of those of us who aren’t prepared to sacrifice America on the altar of global warming mitigation.

  15. Nullius in Verba

    #10,

    “Note that water lines don’t mask the CO2 lines all that much in the 10 μm vicinity. CO2 column densities don’t fluctuate like water, so there’s a steadily increasing term that gets added to any water fluctuations.”

    I don’t have a problem with that. Not sure why you say this is ‘calling’ me on this point.

    “There’s something like a ~1 deg/century rise in the last roughly 50 years (underlying shorter period fluctuations) which is not that far off from what is expected from CO2 trapping,”

    It’s about 0.5 C (give or take quite a lot of measurement error) – were you using degrees Fahrenheit? – which is about what one would expect from CO2 without feedbacks or any other contributors. We do, however, have to be careful that we’re not confirming the consequent. Just because 0.5 C is predicted under certain circumstances, and 0.5 C is observed, that doesn’t mean the former is causing the latter. It may be that the other contributors and feedbacks cancel. (Although I’m open to the possibility that they don’t.)

    “Unless there’s some mechanism that can store or release heat on timescales longer than this period, that must mean that all the other energy budget terms, whether or not we know them or how they vary, must roughly cancel in the energy balance equation.”

    Two things – first, yes there is. The oceans can store and cycle heat on a time scale of thousands of years. Second, the energy budget can change for all sorts of reasons besides CO2. For example, if there are more low-level clouds (due, for the sake of argument, to oscillatory shifts in ocean surface temperature distribution and hence evaporation), more incoming shortwave is reflected back into space, and the energy input to the energy balance reduces. Less cloud can cause warming. If the distribution of heat at the ocean surface changes, then even if the overall heat content is the same, it can change the rate at which it transfers between atmosphere and ocean. (The effects are non-linear, a range of temperatures does not behave on average as if it were all at the average temperature.) There’s industrial pollution (soot on snow causes warming), land use change (crop fields have different characteristics to forests or savannah), irrigation (increases humidity locally, causes surface cooling by evaporation), urban heat islands (besides their direct effect on thermometers, they cause local convective winds and precipitation changes). And so on. And even if the overall energy budget were to stay the same, changes in the distribution of heat (equator to pole, land to ocean, day to night, summer to winter, etc.) can have equally significant effects.

    There are lots of natural (and less natural) effects that can, do, and have caused the climate to change. It does it all the time.

    “You’re actually supporting the concerns about global warming here:”

    Only if you suppose that the past was warm and steamy because CO2 was higher.

    The global temperature has been both warmer and cooler. The sea level has been both higher and lower. Life has carried on regardless. Corals did not drown and go extinct. Polar bears survived the Eemian. Shellfish lived (and indeed evolved) in the less alkaline seas.

    Yes, if Antarctica entirely melted away over the period of the next 50 years, then we would be in trouble. But only mad warmists believe that is even remotely possible. Sea level rise is more likely to be around 20-30 cm, and I doubt most people would even notice.

    If you want to be concerned about climate change in general, then I’d support that. Climate has always changed, we can expect it to do so again (irrespective of what happens to CO2 emissions), so we must acquire the ability to adapt. We’re a lot better at it than we were even a hundred years ago, but we can do better. However, I’d suggest that the best way to do that is to develop economically and technologically; and I’d also suggest that if it is going to change, we’d much prefer it to be warmer than colder.

  16. Nullius in Verba

    #11,

    “A lot of “skeptics” try to bury the lede in this manner– […] and then around paragraph 3 they’ll admit that the foundational facts are all true but they just don’t want to spend money on the problem.”

    That isn’t the lede. The lede is that CO2-induced warming isn’t going to be significant. The essential problem has never been with the basic physics, (although scientists have been apallingly bad at explaining it,) it has always been in the leap from the basic physics to the predictions of imminent global disaster. The foundational facts are true, and they tell us that we don’t need to spend money on the problem.

    “That’s fine by me. I can respect people who man up and look you in the eye…”

    Oh, good! Because that’s what the argument is about.

    I’m glad we’re finally able to talk about it!

    “See, back when prehistoric CO2 levels were 20 times higher, human civilization did not exist. And could not have existed. And if those conditions were to return today, it would cease to exist.”

    Oh! How disappointing! And after such a fine start!
    (But seriously, this is much better than the usual name calling that passes for debate on this topic..)

    Human civilisation could very easily exist under those circumstances. It would have to be in somewhat different locations, but since we incrementally rebuild our cities every hundred years or so, so long as it didn’t occur overnight we could cope without any difficulty at all. In fact, human civilisation would probably do rather better.

    “We are the beneficiaries of an extremely complicated and extremely fragile globalized agricultural commercial civilization,”

    No, we’re not fragile. We’re actually extremely robust, and getting ever more so. Free markets adapt, they solve problems, they find ways of doing things and circumventing obstacles, and each bit interacts and adjust to all the bits around it to create an extremely efficient, self-repairing, highly adaptable ‘organism’. It is perfectly true that if circumstances changed and we didn’t change with it, then the sudden failure of all our specialised optimisations would quickly cause it to collapse. But of course we would change. We do it all the time.

    We can survive in every climate from Antarctica to the African desert, to the rainforests of Brazil, to the mountains of Tibet. We can hop on a plane and fly from one to another in less than a day. We head south for our holidays because we like it warmer, and if the weather locally doesn’t suit our tomatoes then we grow them in a greenhouse, with extra CO2.

    Seriously, the world isn’t going to end. You would have thought people would be happy to hear it…

  17. William Holder

    One thing I wonder about is, If we are to bring down temperatures through massive CO2 emission reductions does it follow that we will massively increase CO2 emissions when it gets cooler as it did during the Little Ice Age that ended just 150 years ago?

    Second, given the variability of the climate (see chart below) – how do we know what the climate would do naturally over the next 100 – 200 years; should we be working with it or against it, so to speak, as regards CO2 emissions.

    http://jonova.s3.amazonaws.com/graphs/lappi/gisp-last-10000-new.png

    Third, I’ve seen estimates of the economic cost to reduce emissions to target levels outlined by the IPCC as high as 40 trillion dollars through 2050. Couldn’t we rebuild Africa from the ground-up for that kind of money and wouldn’t the world derive a greater benefit.

    I would sincerely appreciate any answers or thoughts anyone has as regards these questions. Thank you.

  18. Brian Too

    @15. sinz54,

    OK, you’ve explained your fears. However for me, those are fears out of bounds, out of proportion. On the other side you’ve managed to completely displace any fear of bad consequences due to climate change. Why?

    Have you not noticed that democracies are taking root worldwide? Communications technologies are making distance small and manageable? Standards of living, education, health and all the rest are going up, and dramatically so?

    My take is that we are not literal citizens of the world, but something new is really afoot, and Americans in particular have been slow to recognize it.

    Europe is not a basket case, involved in yet another local, regional or continental war, one of dozens (hundreds?) that spanned centuries. Cheap shots against Europe won’t cut it anymore. Asia is not a basket case. Sure China is still autocratic, but look closely. It’s not the rigid, hobbled, suspicious country it was in 1970. Their economy is unrecognizable as compared to classic Communist ideology. Look at India, which is digging itself out of a perpetual hole of poverty, overpopulation, and need. Look at South America. The worst excesses of today don’t really compare to the old Communist versus Fascist competitions of a half century ago.

    You mentioned Russia. OK, if you had a choice, which country would you rather live with, the Russia of Stalin, Lenin and the rest, or the Russia of Putin?

    You don’t have to like them. However I see no recognition in your position that the world is different now, and noticeably better for it. It’s all just America Roolz and the Rest are Foolz!

    I won’t bother to answer your other questions because, without the foregoing, it’s wasted breath.

  19. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius @18

    I don’t have a problem with that. Not sure why you say this is ‘calling’ me on this point.

    sorry, no offense intended – I was trying to emphasize, actually for the sake of other potential readers, that the molecular-spectroscopic aspects of the issue are pretty well understood and while water absorbs a lot more in the IR region of interest, it doesn’t preclude CO2 from doing so.

    It’s about 0.5 C (give or take quite a lot of measurement error) – were you using degrees Fahrenheit?

    Oh, I was just looking at the UAH thermosphere temporal profiles to get a number, but 0.5 C/century is fine for the sake of argument (may I ask where thats coming from, btw? Also, may I ask about the source 0.5 C/century CO2 prediction? I’ve not been able to locate that on my own)

    Regarding oceanic energy storage: If there were some mechanism on the Earth that could somehow remove extra energy and bury someplace where it could return millennia later for example, then that would invalidate the energy balance argument I’m trying to make. As far as I can tell, the heat content of the oceans seems to be limited to a depth of order of 500m or so, which has diffusion timescales on the order of a few decades.

    Just because 0.5 C is predicted under certain circumstances, and 0.5 C is observed, that doesn’t mean the former is causing the latter. It may be that the other contributors and feedbacks cancel.

    The point I’m trying to make is that, if its true that the secular 0.5C/century climb is both predicted and is observed, the _net_ effect of all the other terms is zero or near zero, that their combined secular trends are not contributing.

    Then, it starts becoming an Occam’s Razor issue – if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

  20. Nullius in Verba

    #21,

    No offence taken – I was mainly trying to check whether something had been misunderstood between us.

    I actually picked the number for warming over the last half century from HadCRUT3 (-0.1 C to 0.4 C) but the others are not far different. If people quote the figure for the whole century, you add on the rise between 1910 and 1945. The IPCC only asserts that the second half of the 20th century is “mostly” AGW – i.e. the 1975-2000 rise. HadCRUT3 is a merging of the Hadley centre’s sea surface temperature dataset and Phil Jones’ CRU land temperature data. (Hence, the accuracy of the measurement could be questioned, but I chose not to do so on this occasion.) When discussing the warming that has been claimed to have been caused by AGW, 0.5 C is probably the most appropriate figure. You could argue for 0.6-0.8 C if you like.

    The figure for the temperature rise expected comes from the climate sensitivity to CO2 without feedbacks, which is about 1.1 C/2xCO2 (i.e. 1.1 C for each doubling of CO2, the relationship is approximately logarithmic). Since CO2 has increased about 40% over pre-industrial times, we thus get about half that amount, 0.55 C. (Remember, this is without feedbacks or any other contributors.) The number is fairly standard on both sides of the debate and can be found in many places. It can be calculated from differentiating the Stefan-Boltzman relationship (expressing how surface temperature relates to radiated energy balance) at 288K to get a longwave radiative sensitivity of 0.3 K/(W/m^2), and the IPCC estimate of CO2’s radiative forcing of 3.7 W/m^2/2xCO2. Multiplying the two gives the value.

    Of course, the IPCC hypothesise massive positive feedbacks to increase the effective radiative sensitivity to around 0.8 K/(W/m^2), and sceptics (like Spencer and Braswell 2010) estimate a value around 0.17 K/(W/m^2), indicating negative feedback.
    (Note, I’m not saying Roy Spencer is right – it’s too early to tell. But it is serious science.)

    Regarding long-term ocean heat storage, look up the thermohaline circulation. But having said that, I should note that ocean temperatures are now being monitored and the heat doesn’t appear to be showing up there. (See Trenberth’s statements about missing heat for example.)

    “The point I’m trying to make is that, if its true that the secular 0.5C/century climb is both predicted and is observed, the _net_ effect of all the other terms is zero or near zero, that their combined secular trends are not contributing.”

    As an explanation for past warming, maybe. But predictions of future warming will depend critically on which it is, because cancellation in the past does not imply the same cancellation in the future. The different components may be varying independently. For example, if we have 0.5 from CO2, 0.5 from other sources, and feedbacks which halve the effect, we’ll get 0.5 as an output. The other sources and the feedback cancelled. But if we increase CO2 to 1.0, the other sources go negative to -0.5, then after feedbacks we’ll get 0.25. The unknowns can have a big effect.

    Of course, not knowing means that it could be worse than we think, too. But trying to second guess such wild unknowns is like playing Pascal’s Wager. You don’t know that you’re not making things worse, either. Usually, the best response to unknowable risks is to stay flexible.

  21. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius,

    thanks for the data pointers, much appreciated. I’ve been trying to disentangle what I’ve been finding via the web on radiative forcing estimates (I dislike the term “forcing” – I think trapping is a better description) and thats helpful.

    For example, if we have 0.5 from CO2, 0.5 from other sources, and feedbacks which halve the effect, we’ll get 0.5 as an output.

    I’m not sure how the CO2 trapping could be affected by a reductive multiplier of that severity unless something was blocking upward surface IR radiation by a big factor, or the average surface temperature went down by a great deal. It seems like most of the multipliers work on the energy supply side of the equation (albedo effects). On the IR trapping side, H20 variation up or down would greatly affect the balance, but that would be pretty independent of the CO2 term.

  22. Nullius in Verba

    Sean,

    You’re welcome.

    Personally, I dislike both “forcing” and “trapping”. Possibly a better word would be “thickening” but I don’t feel so strongly about it as to argue. I’ll try and explain, and see if you agree.

    The greenhouse effect in a convective atmosphere works a little differently to the pure radiative model that you’ve probably been taught. (The radiative model was the consensus understanding prior to the 1970s, when Manabe and Wetherald revolutionised our understanding.)

    First, the critical control of the overall temperature is not the result of what happens at the surface, but what happens at the top of the atmosphere with the emission to outer space. Any body in a vacuum will approach an equilibrium temperature at which it emits as much as it absorbs, but the relevant temperature is that of the surface that is emitting, which is high up in the atmosphere. (Actually, a fuzzy spread across the atmosphere, but allow me to simplify.) So the top of the atmosphere (and we’ll come to the definition of that in a moment) that settles at a fixed temperature.

    What happens below that is where things get a bit different. The temperature in the lower atmosphere is dominated by an effect called the adiabatic lapse rate – the temperature changes at a constant rate with altitude. (Look up the International Standard Atmosphere for a graph.) This is due to air that rises or falls getting compressed or expanded by the changing pressure, and changing temperature as a result. It is why the tops of mountains are so cold, even though everybody knows hot air rises.

    So the top of the atmosphere is held at a fixed temperature (given a fixed albedo/input), and the atmosphere below it varies with a fixed slope. The average temperature at the surface is therefore fully determined. It depends only on the lapse rate, the difference in height, and the temperature at the top.

    The adiabatic lapse rate of dry air is a physical constant, unaffected by CO2. It can be calculated to be about 10 K/km. However, humidity does affect it, due to precipitation and latent heat, and the lapse rate of moist air is generally a bit lower, about 6 K/km. So with the top of the atmosphere about 5-6 km up, and a lapse rate of 6K/km, the surface temperature is about 30-36 K warmer than it ought to be on radiative grounds alone. This is the greenhouse effect.

    So where does CO2 and other GHGs come in? Well, they affect the height of the the “top of the atmosphere” – by making the atmosphere more opaque, they thicken and raise the altitude of emission to space. By an extremely complicated calculation involving lots of quantum mechanics, this has been estimated at about 150 m per doubling of CO2, which at 6 K/km corresponds to about 1 K of surface warming.

    That’s why I say “thickening” is a better word for what GHGs actually do.

    And what about the older radiative picture – of outgoing long-wave being “trapped” and radiated back down to the surface? This does indeed still happen, and it is arguable that if it didn’t contribute, the adiabatic lapse rate could never form, but it does not control the temperature profile because of convection.

    Radiation on its own would result in an exponentially increasing gradient as one approached the surface. But as soon as it exceed the adiabatic lapse rate, convection starts up and equalises the temperature far faster than radiation can affect it. And when it equalises back to match the adiabatic lapse rate, convection stops. Thus, while the radiative back-and-forth does happen, the temperature profile is held to a constant 6 K/km (completely irrespective of CO2) by convection.

    In case you want peer reviewed back up (although I would hope I’ve broken you of that habit by now), you can find much the same explanation in Soden and Held 2000 just below figure 1. (http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.energy.25.1.441).

    It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that, and there are big gaps in the explanation that could be argued, but this gives a reasonable idea of the basic physics.

    Feedbacks are a lot more complicated. I might be tempted into talking a bit more about that on another occasion.

  23. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius,

    I’ve always assumed that atmospheric heating was largely driven by coupling to the surface, which itself is radiatively heated, and the vertical temperature profile was then established by convection and gas dynamics. I’ve never thought about the contribution of the reradiated flux. Estimating that would be the kind of calculation I thoroughly enjoy doing – theres all sorts of interesting questions of optical depths, whether or not LTE applies – fascinating stuff for me.
    Unfortunately, I have absolutely no free time this week, so I’ll have to put that off for a while.

  24. Nullius in Verba

    In that case, you may find the Kiehl and Trenberth paper “Earth’s Annual Global Mean Energy Budget” of interest – particularly figure 7. It’s one of the papers most often cited (and argued over) in such discussions.

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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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