Texas Republicans Ignore Climate Science at Their Peril

By Chris Mooney | April 11, 2011 8:57 am

My latest DeSmogBlog post follows up on a prior post with a “What’s The Matter With Texas” theme:

March 2011 was Texas’s driest month on record; 98 % of the state is currently in drought conditions; the stage is set for devastating wildfires; and the current drought is expected to persist or intensify. But drought isn’t the only thing that’s growing more stark—so is the contrast between these weather and climate conditions that their state faces on the one hand, and the behavior of Texas’s elected representatives on the other.

Read here to see what I mean.  H/t to Nick Sundt at the WWF climate blog for inspiring this follow-up post.

Comments (67)

  1. dirk

    Only in a theocracy do people blame government for droughts.

  2. Chris Mooney

    way to miss the point….

  3. Sam

    I hope they are joking.

  4. Gaythia

    Texas also has a serious groundwater depletion problem. Water regulation varies by state, and Texas employs a “rule of the biggest pump” philosophy which encourages tragedy of the commons type behavior.

    A map of Ogalalla aquifer depletion can be seen here:

    http://geology.com/usgs/high-plains-aquifer.shtml

    Drought conditions, of course, increase pressures to pump groundwater.

    Without more forward thinking, science based, behavior, what is the future?

  5. Jon

    Once you’ve made your oil money, you don’t have to actually like, *live* in the state…

  6. Pablo

    A season of lots of snow and cold isn’t a sign that global warming is bunk, but now a single drought season is…. way to be consistent alarmists.

  7. vel

    In that the southern US will become even more miserable climatologically in the next few decades, I think we should create a “wall” to keep those refugees from coming north. They want to still secede? Let ‘em.

  8. Nullius in Verba

    This post is so funny! Well done!

    Weather is not climate! Say it again, now.

    How often do we get to go through this cycle? “Everybody look at those climate sceptic fools connecting the snow and ice to global warming, don’t they know that you have to look at thirty year trends?” Oh, but as soon as we get some hot, dry weather somewhere… here it comes again. “How can the elected politicians of Texas fail to connect this year’s drought with the impending global warming catastrophe of doom?”

    “Just juxtapose this fact with the drought map of Texas, pictured with this post—and the fact that Texas’s state climatologist has warned that “it is likely that drought frequency and severity will increase in Texas” due to climate change…”

    OK. I’ve juxtaposed them. So what?

    What should we infer? That the drought implies anthropogenic climate change is true? That this drought is specifically attributable to EPA-preventable CO2 rise? What sort of connection might be made in your readers’ minds? What stark contrast is growing? – How many readers, I ask myself, will you catch out with this?

    Greens like Tim Flannery in Australia did exactly the same thing – went on and on about the endless climate-change induced drought, to the point where the government ordered the flood protection dam operators to keep water levels high right at the start of the wet season. When the rain returned – as it does, this being the weather – they didn’t have the capacity to absorb the flood waters, and even made it worse when they were forced to release extra water at its peak. (The flood – of course – then got promptly blamed on climate change.) Let us hope Texas learns the lesson.

    In the case of Texas, it’s partly because of the switch from El Nino last year (which was wet) to La Nina this year (which is dry), and partly because of the position of the Atlantic jet stream that kept tropical rain storms from reaching land – the same reason you had no hurricanes hit you. You ignore meteorological science at your peril!

    I’m quite certain you know the difference between weather and climate, so I can only assume you posted this post-ironic satire to wind me up. :-) But I’m always happy to take the opportunity to re-iterate the point. Weather is not climate. Did I mention that before?

    And with stories like this, you guys wonder why so many people think snow and cold weather count as evidence against global warming…

  9. As a Texan, I don’t like vel’s suggestion. Our state is not homogeneous.

  10. Gaythia

    #7 makes a very valid point, that is worth extending. It isn’t just knowing the difference between weather and climate, it’s also knowing the differences between local, regional and global. In the DeSmogBlog article, Chris says “severe drought—a condition expected to worsen, due to climate change, in the future”. That is not necessarily the outcome for Texas.

    Most explanations I’ve seen for here Colorado put it in an uncertain zone regarding precipitation. The northwestern Colorado mountains are quite snowy. On the other hand, the weather this year is very dry on the eastern plains. This is probably related to it being dry in much of Western Texas. We get snow here in Colorado’s front range in what we call an “upslope” condition, which pulls in Gulf moisture. As #7 points out this has to do with El Nino/La Nina weather patterns.

    I’m not an expert on Texas climate but I found what sounds like a reasonable evaluation from the Texas state Climatologist here:

    http://texasvox.org/2010/12/08/texas-state-climatoligist-talks-about-texas-and-climate-change/

    “In Texas, the overall climate pattern vaguely follows global pattern for temperature change, with warming in the early part of the century, then fairly flat in the middle and warming since then. A part of that is due to an increase in greenhouse gases. ”

    “rainfall in Texas has actually been steadily increasing over the past century. It’s about 10 to 15 percent more rainfall per year now than there was at beginning of 20th century, which is a fairly large amount. And the projections for rainfall change in the future from climate models — some have it wetter, most have it dryer. ”

    “The impact on water supply is going to come from the change in temperature, which increases evaporation, increases water demand and increases the need for water both by plants and by cities. So the changing climate is going to reduce water supplies, but that’s a second-order effect compared to the increase in population, which is having a massive effect on demand for water.”

  11. Gaythia

    This sentence: Most explanations I’ve seen for here Colorado put it in an uncertain zone regarding precipitation.

    Should have the addition: changes with global climate change.

    The next sentence should start with: The weather this year

    What happened to the editing function?

  12. Sean McCorkle

    This post is very frustrating in the sense that, its already been well argued over the last decade or two that some populations will consistently elect and re-elect representatives who work against their best interests, sometimes to ironic levels, as is the case here. And we know there’s a messaging apparatus out there that made this happen and maintains it. What I want to know is, how do we counter it? Logic doesn’t work. What will work? What will get through? How about focusing on the negative financial impact? That seems to be the driving motivator in politics these days. Wasn’t there a post a while ago about how people will not accept results if it works against how they make money? How about trying to turn that around with something like this

    In those results the strongest effect of climate change falls on springflow and the agricultural sector. Springflows at Comal (the most sensitive spring) decrease by 10-16 percent under the 2030 scenarios and 20-24 percent under 2090. Farm income falls 16-30 percent under the 2030 scenarios and 30-45 percent under 2090. The shift in agricultural water use to M&I water use indicates that the city users will buy out some agricultural usage through water markets.

    from page 11 of one of the reports found following the links above. How about that for a message: “farm income could fall by half in your area in 80 years, how does that grab ya?”

    @11 – A few of my comments have been outright “eaten”, to turn up later. I’ve just assumed it was some weird interaction between the server and web browser.

  13. Gaythia

    A lot of these farmers, in the panhandle anyway, have to know that the Ogallala aquifer is going to be largely depleted way quicker than 80 years at the rate they are going . In which case they might be lower income dryland farmers. Or on to “something else”.

    http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/21589/1/sp99te01.pdf

  14. You think this is madness? This. Is. Texas.

  15. Exhaust it. Destroy it. Suck everything from it. Move on.

  16. Bobito

    When I read a post like this one, then do a quick google and turn up something like this: http://www.vwa.org/presentations/betancourt_usgs_drought.pdf

    What am I to think? Seems to me that this drought is entirely normal, much like climate change.

    So, if you want to convince someone that AGW is a problem, try using facts and logic rather than scare tactics. Even if it’s fun (and easy) to make fun of Texas, it’s not helping your cause…

  17. Matteo

    “Only in a theocracy do people blame government for droughts.”

    And what do we call it when we blame Texans for everything?

  18. M Burke

    CA is at 175% of yearly snowfall after years of drought. This is cyclic… the sky may be falling, but it doesn’t continue to fall.

  19. Gaythia

    @18 Climate can be both cyclical and have an underlying trend line.

    I do agree with those who point out that you can’t base world climate analysis on observations at any particular point on the globe.

    San Francisco makes a good object lesson: the warmer it gets in California’s Central Valley (Sacramento, Bakersfield) the more the rising hot air there sucks cooler and foggier air off the ocean into San Francisco. Thus San Fransico can be quite cool in the summertime. Does this mean that San Francisico residents can scientifically postulate a global trend towards a cooler, moister world? No, it does not.

    Bobito is taking his link found on a quick google search out of context. The USGS is perfectly capable of studying natural drought cycles and also how these cycles are impacted by imposed AGW.

    Several question bullet points on slides there raise these very issues, and demonstrate that these researchers do not see their work in any way refuting AGW:

    •How does AMO modulate North American precipitation in
    summer & winter? Are subpolar& tropical Atlantic coupled?

    •How will warming affect the spatiotemporal structure and
    manifestations of present and future drought?

  20. Nullius in Verba

    “This post is very frustrating in the sense that, its already been well argued over the last decade or two that some populations will consistently elect and re-elect representatives who work against their best interests, sometimes to ironic levels, as is the case here.”

    Yes. It’s called democracy.

    “What I want to know is, how do we counter it?”

    You don’t – at least, not in the sense I think you mean.

    History is filled with people who were utterly convinced that they had the right answer for how people should live, what was in their best interests, what was the right thing for everyone to do. The trouble was, other people didn’t agree, often being just as convinced by their own answers. And the thought naturally occurred to many of them – if argument and persuasion doesn’t work, how can I make them do what it right – what is in their own best interests – when they don’t want to?

    I assume (and hope) you’re talking about a sure-fire way to persuade them, unconditionally – but of course the advertising industry has been hunting for such a thing for decades. I don’t think it exists – and think it would be seriously bad news for humanity if it did. You always have to accept for any method of campaign that it can fail – or what would you do when the Republicans used it against you?

    The fact that any political viewpoint can always be rejected by the people – no matter how convinced its adherents are of its rightness – is one of the foundational protections of liberty and democracy. You try to persuade, and if you fail to persuade, it doesn’t happen.
    (The same goes for us, of course.)

    “Logic doesn’t work.”

    Have you tried it? ;-)

    Seriously, there are problems with the science and with your argument that need to be fixed before you can proceed. It may be that if you fix them, you will become more persuasive. Or it may be that they can’t be fixed, because it’s not true. But you won’t get anywhere by continuing to deny that there’s any problem, and blaming it all on the other side.

  21. Sean McCorkle

    @19

    Yes. It’s called democracy.

    No, its called Tyranny of the majority

    I assume (and hope) you’re talking about a sure-fire way to persuade them, unconditionally

    I just want get through the constant bombardment of “global warming is a hoax perpetrated by fraudulent scientists after grant money” nonsense and get them to listen, preferably listen enough to try to understand the basic science of the phenomena.

    “Logic doesn’t work.”
    Have you tried it? :)

    I did notice your dodge, in #8,

    In the case of Texas, it’s partly because of the switch from El Nino last year (which was wet) to La Nina this year (which is dry), and partly because of the position of the Atlantic jet stream that kept tropical rain storms from reaching land – the same reason you had no hurricanes hit you. You ignore meteorological science at your peril!

    of the big question: If the Texas drought is due to effects that are always present, then why is this a record drought?

    Greens like Tim Flannery in Australia did exactly the same thing – went on and on about the endless climate-change induced drought, to the point where the government ordered the flood protection dam operators to keep water levels high right at the start of the wet season. When the rain returned – as it does, this being the weather – they didn’t have the capacity to absorb the flood waters, and even made it worse when they were forced to release extra water at its peak. (The flood – of course – then got promptly blamed on climate change.)

    Sounds like what you are describing there is a great example of increasingly severe weather extremes, which seems quite consistent with what is expected

    Longer, more intense heat waves will become more common. Storms, floods, and droughts will generally be more severe as precipitation patterns change. Hurricanes may increase in intensity due to warmer ocean surface temperatures.

    It is impossible to pin any single unusual weather event on global warming, but emerging evidence suggests that global warming is already influencing the weather. Heat waves, droughts, and intense rain events have increased in frequency during the last 50 years, and human-induced global warming more likely than not contributed to the trend.

    The caution is, or should be, that while one or just a few events does not a trend make, many events do.

  22. Gaythia

    @Chris (and Sheril on a different thread): A better commenting platform would be nice!

    Took me a minute here to figure out that Sean was not saying something to me (I’m now at 19, as I read this) from his comment @21, about democracy. (Democracy, what did I say about that?). Rather the numbers have been juggled again after some comments were posted.

    You no longer have an editing or preview option. As Sean pointed out in yet another thread, inputting comments causes them to disappear into oblivion. I blame this for my double post on one of Sheril’s threads. Time delays so you can screen are ok, but it would be very helpful to know that the comment had been received.

    Thanks!

  23. Sean McCorkle

    Gaythia: yikes, sorry for the confusion! I’ll try to not use comment numbers anymore.

    For the record, I’ve had sporadic problems with the editing feature, but it actually works correctly more often than not for me (and its a great feature too, although maybe I overuse it).

  24. Chris Mooney

    With regard to commenting, this is a necessary, unfortunate consequence of our strong spam filter. Sometimes good posts go to spam because there are so many bad posts that we are trying to keep out. I’m sorry about that. When it happens, it can take me time to find them and dig them out. But few, if any, are ever lost.

  25. Sean McCorkle

    Yow, I didn’t realize that was so labor-intensive for you. Thank you for going through all that trouble.

  26. Nullius in Verba

    One way to deal with the lost comments putting numbers out of synch would be to post a short note to say one had got lost, and then for the moderators to delete the note when they restore the lost comment. I don’t know if it’s possible for us to be that organised.

    #21,

    “No, its called Tyranny of the majority”

    “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” JS Mill, On Liberty, 1859.

    The comment was about the statement “some populations will consistently elect and re-elect representatives who work against their best interests”. That’s democracy – it is for the population to decide what is in their own best interests, not others. It’s a different issue to the majority population electing and re-electing representatives who work to unjustifiably restrict the liberty of minorities. Democracy does not mean that anything goes so long as the majority support it – but it does mean that people get to decide for themselves what is in their own best interests.

    As Mill said, “His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.”

    People should not be prevented from being green if they want to be. Save energy, recycle, stop flying, cycle to work, buy local, buy low-energy light bulbs, whatever you want. Or if you want to set up a business to generate non-fossil fuelled power, built on your own land and backed with your own money. I would oppose any government introducing regulations to stop you doing that. I would certainly oppose any move to stop you advocating for it. That would be tyranny. But I am not aware that the state of Texas has ever proposed such?

    “I just want get through the constant bombardment of “global warming is a hoax perpetrated by fraudulent scientists after grant money” nonsense and get them to listen, preferably listen enough to try to understand the basic science of the phenomena.”

    I agree with that. But what do you do about the people who have listened enough to understand the basic science, and as a result say global warming is a hoax?

    I just want get through the constant bombardment of “denialism is a hoax perpetrated by fraudulent propagandists after oil money” nonsense and get people to listen, and to try to understand the basic science. To understand how science needs to be done and to be able to recognise bad science and fallacious arguments.

    There is a full spectrum on both sides – from people who parrot what “experts” have told them to people who really can discuss the science. I do not accept that advocates for only one side need to be world-class scientific experts before they are allowed to dispute with the other.

    “If the Texas drought is due to effects that are always present, then why is this a record drought?”

    Over how long a record? I think the state climatologist’s statement was that it was the worst since 1967. But what do we know of one in 1720 in Coahuila that reportedly killed thousands of livestock, or the one in 1756 that dried up the San Gabriel river? When Austin’s colonists first arrived, their first corn crop died due to lack of water in 1822. In 1884-86 the western part of Texas was abandoned by farmers. The worst we know of, I think, was from 1949-1956. Texas, like Australia, is frequently subject to drought. It’s normal.

    In Australia they said the same – the flood was a record, and a sign of increasing extremes. Apart from the previous floods in 1841, 1857, 1893, 1931, and 1974, of course. They predict a never-ending drought, and when it floods then all of a sudden they predict floods as well, and always did.

    Even people who don’t understand climate science can recognise and understand that tactic. Which is why I love it when Chris here spots a news story about a ‘record drought’ in Texas and immediately tries to connect it to the fight on climate legislation. Weather is not climate. Unless it supports predictions of global warming doom, of course, when it is.

  27. Chris Mooney

    Nullius I’ll add that long comments, of the length that you write, are always flagged and held by the system. Just FYI.

  28. Nullius in Verba

    I know. I have no objection.

    We can tell the difference between the spam filter and the moderation queue, because with the spam filter it just disappears. I don’t have any problem with the spam filter, or however long it takes to appear. I will sometimes raise an eyebrow if comments stay in the moderation queue many hours after subsequent comments have got through, though. Both are rare enough that I don’t consider it a problem.

    I do truly appreciate your enlightened comment policy here, and don’t mind a few quirks and delays for the opportunity to debate. It’s far more civilised here than many other sites. I do try to keep comments as short as I may, but I find the added precision possible with longer arguments is well worth a short delay. I have no complaints.

  29. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius:

    Its been a _long_ while since my civics class, but I clearly remember my teacher drilling us with “majority rule, but minority rights”. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” entails, among many other things, that my environment isn’t totally trashed by my neighbors.

    Regarding this drought, one can’t pick and choose a drought or region, one needs to look at all the changes that are occurring to determine if there’s a trend. If you are arguing that you can’t blame one drought on AGW, you are right. The same for one flood, or one hurricane. When these start happening with more and more frequency and more intensity, then one can argue about trends.

    Lastly, just because a stronger drought may have occurred in the past which can’t be caused by AGW, doesn’t not mean that this one is also not caused by AGW. Weather pattern changes are expected from AGW as well.

  30. Jon

    I say “birth certificate,” you say “presidency!”

    “Birth certificate!” “Presidency!”

    “Birth certificate!” “Presidency!”

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/hair-today-gone-tomorrow-2/

  31. Gaythia

    @Nullius: Actually I think you ought to consider brevity for other reasons.

    I would agree with some of your arguments. A drought in Texas does not, on it’s own, say much about climate change (but that’s not what Chris said anyway). But as I pointed out in #12 above, it is not necessarily true that warming would lead to less precipitation in Texas, although warmer temperatures do affect evapotranspiration rates, and thus drought. We could talk about the Palmer index, and evapotranspiration mapping.

    You are right that in the above post, we don’t know what ‘worst in history means” . Since the Alamo maybe? Colorado is believed to have had a very severe, 57 year period of drought in the 12th century, this caused serious difficulties for the Anasazi. We could talk about historic climate patterns, identification of paleoclimates and changes in climate trends superimposed on other climate trends.

    But stuff like this is, in my opinion, unsupported and overboard and doesn’t warrant being taken seriously: “In Australia they said the same – the flood was a record, and a sign of increasing extremes. Apart from the previous floods in 1841, 1857, 1893, 1931, and 1974, of course. They predict a never-ending drought, and when it floods then all of a sudden they predict floods as well, and always did.”

    They? Never ending? Always?
    I think you can do better.

  32. Nullius in Verba

    #29,

    I agree that, other things being equal, it’s not right for the environment to get totally trashed by the neighbours. That would be a case of harm done. But with a few particular exceptions, I would have said that modernity and prosperity have increasingly protected the environment; that it is cleaner and safer today than it has been for a long time. That is a long and contentious argument, though. For the purposes of the current argument, the point of it is that one cannot justify imposing just any measure, any restriction of liberty, on nothing but unsupported and contentious assertions that it does harm. The question of harm has to be judged by a means the people consent to.

    “When these start happening with more and more frequency and more intensity, then one can argue about trends.”

    So go ahead and look for trends, and we will argue about them. So long as you are aware of the limitations of the data, the possibility of spurious trends due to statistical autocorrelation, the dangers of selection effects due to confirmation bias, and that correlation does not imply causation, I have no problem with that. So far as I am aware, people have looked (e.g. here and here) and so far not found anything that stand up to scrutiny.

    Just because many droughts have occurred in the past that could not have been caused by AGW, that doesn’t mean this one is not caused by it. It also doesn’t mean that it isn’t caused by the anger of the climate God Tlaloc, awoken from his sleep by society’s moral weakness and corruption. His priests and followers are confident of the diagnosis – though many argue, motivated no doubt by the sacrifices they are being asked to make.

    That may seem like a silly argument to make – but an entire society once pursued that strategy to its own destruction. We need strong evidence – the strongest, given the costs – before we turn our world upside down on such claims.

  33. Gaythia

    @ Nullius: “I agree that, other things being equal, it’s not right for the environment to get totally trashed by the neighbours.”

    What other things are you talking about?

    It seems to me that usually “things”, like access to power are not equal. That is one of the purposes of having a scientifically informed society,with truly democratic representation, leading to appropriate regulations.

    Using Texas as an example again, in the Texas panhandle, until restrictions are put in place, groundwater goes to the person with the biggest deepest pump. If the well to someone else’s farmhouse dries up because of that, tough luck, partner.

  34. Nullius in Verba

    “What other things are you talking about?”

    When discussing moral philosophy, I usually try to remember not to talk in moral absolutes. Would I trash the environment just for fun? No. Would I trash the environment to save hundreds of thousands of lives? Maybe. Would it make a difference if it was the sort of ‘trashing’ that would heal naturally, or which could be cleaned up? Yes, I think so.

    We are rarely offered a black-and-white choice between ‘harm’ and ‘no harm’. Usually it is a balance between competing choices all of which cause harm. I wanted to make it clear that I do regard damaging the environment as wrong, while opposing the absolutist, anti-human stance that some environmentalists take.

    Nor is it always easy to tell what counts as ‘trashing’. The natural world often does things all on its own that we would regard as severe damage if we had done it, but because of the naturalistic fallacy, are not noticed in that way. It’s a matter of perspective. The Sahara was once green, with an annual monsoon – but the climate changed and the forests died. Further back in time, the Antarctic was filled with life. So how do you look at them? As ruined deserts where life is a constant struggle? Or as the last remaining pristine, unspoilt, beautiful wildernesses? If we returned them to habitability – destroying those few specialised organisms adapted to the conditions, but opening the way to far more – would that count as creation or destruction?

    Do we really love the environment, or simply hate humanity?

    “It seems to me that usually “things”, like access to power are not equal.”

    Do you mean political power or electrical power? Either way, I’m not convinced that it’s something as such that needs to be regulated, or that ought to be. There is also the usual argument here between left and right as to whether you mean equality-of-opportunity or equality-of-outcome. Everybody should have enough but not everybody has to have the same.

    The water pump issue is a different question. It’s not so much about the environment as about resource limitations. There are other solutions. You could get a bigger pump yourself. You could buy water from the neighbour with the big pump. You could invent ways to make do with less. You could give up the farmland as too crowded, and go and do something else for a living. The optimum choice depends (in part) on the local economics. Can a politician a thousand miles away, influenced by popularism, ideology and lobbying, predict the right answer for all circumstances years in advance and write regulations to ensure it happens?

    Some things do need regulating, but the bar ought to be set a lot higher than it is. (Longer explanation here.)

  35. Nullius in Verba

    Just noticed I missed one…

    “They? Never ending? Always? I think you can do better.”

    The perils of brevity… Oversimplification.

    “Perth will become a ghost city within decades as rising global temperatures turn the Wheatbelt into a desert and drive species to the brink of extinction, a leading Australian scientist warns.”

    “He said there were no signs that Perth’s once-abundant winter rainfall would return any time soon, and even a small drop in rainfall had huge knock-on effects for the region.”

    “My hypothesis is Perth will become a ghost metropolis over the next few decades unless governments acknowledge that global warming is a reality.”

    Sure sounds like a never-ending drought to me. And, of course, Sean here replied “Sounds like what you are describing there is a great example of increasingly severe weather extremes, which seems quite consistent with what is expected” which sounds a lot like saying they had always predicted floods. I’m not picking on Sean. He’s only saying what everybody else said.

    It’s a big problem for communications on your side. ‘Experts’ like Tim come along and say things that ordinary people interpret as asserting imminent disaster of a particular sort – which may be more convincing and motivating in the short term, but like all end-of-the-world predictions becomes even more strongly anti-convincing when the prophecy fails to come true. It’s quite true that the science never predicted such a thing. But Tim didn’t tell us that when he was scaring everybody with his tales of ghost towns in the desert.

    It’s not just Australia. For example, do you remember this prediction? – “In the plains states, from Iowa to eastern Colorado, south to Texas and north to South Dakota, the age of the family farm finally came to an end, and the sturdy freeholders, long seen as the anchor of US democracy, dispersed. Some signed on with the agribusiness conglomerates that bought up land and lobbied Congress for pipelines to the Great Lakes before the water levels there fell, too, while others sought to start over in Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. But most of them joined in the next two decades by a swelling trek of tens of thousands of others from bankrupt farm and ranch communities, looked for jobs in the cities of the upper Midwest and Canada. [...] They were among the first communities to empty, the precursors of thousands of ghost towns that stipple the plains from Colorado to Indiana.” – Do you happen to know what date was set on that? And if you were a believer and it didn’t happen on the appointed date, would you begin to doubt, or simply move the date further down the line? How far would you be willing to go?

  36. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius, what I’m saying is that you’re not doing a good job ruling out AGW as a cause (or aggrevating factor) of the extreme weather.

  37. Nullius in Verba

    #36,

    That’s true. I wasn’t trying to.

    What I was saying was that there is no possible way to connect them. The flap of a butterfly’s wings can trigger storms and droughts a continent away, so it is said, but there is no way to track it back to the butterfly in question and, as one might want, get it to stop doing it.

    I’m currently experiencing perfectly normal weather here – calm, cool, sunny intervals, a light breeze – can you rule out the possibility that this is happening because AGW has stopped? If extremes are evidence for, then isn’t ‘normal’ evidence against?

    Weather is not climate. I shall have to remember to remind you of this conversation the next time we’re all shovelling the ‘global warming’ off the frozen roads. :-)

  38. Bobito

    @19 Bobito is taking his link found on a quick google search out of context.
    I’m not the one that set the context, the context was set by the topic of the thread. How is bringing historical information to the discussion “out of context”?

    The USGS is perfectly capable of studying natural drought cycles and also how these cycles are impacted by imposed AGW.
    They are able to tell me how much this drought is affected by AGW, really? Can you send me a link saying how they are able to do that?

    do not see their work in any way refuting AGW
    I never said it did refute AGW, nor was I refuting AGW. I was providing evidence that the drought was a normal occurrence.

    What I said was drought in the southwest is a natural occurrence, and climate change is a natural occurrence. If you want to prove that either is induced by human activity you can’t use one to prove the other.

  39. TTT

    What do you do about the people who have listened enough to understand the basic science, and as a result say global warming is a hoax?

    I wait for them to appear every Christmas Eve on their flying sleigh.

    Nobody who understands the basic science can say global warming is a hoax. They can say it isn’t enough of a threat to bother us, and/or that we can’t or shouldn’t do anything to stop it. But if someone disputes the foundational facts of how greenhouse gases behave and what happens when you make more of them, they don’t understand the basic science.

    But with a few particular exceptions, I would have said that modernity and prosperity have increasingly protected the environment; that it is cleaner and safer today than it has been for a long time

    Correct–because modernity and prosperity helped instil the social order required for compulsive legal codes ending certain behaviors that damaged the environment, i.e. Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The library is beautiful because people are compelled not to burn it down. The city is clean because people are compelled not to spray grafitti. And so on.

  40. Nullius in Verba

    #39,

    Global warming isn’t the same thing as the greenhouse effect, unless you are using the term to mean the whole complex of ideas (as I believe Sean intended it), in which case it is perfectly possible to dispute it.

    And I’m rather inclined to doubt that you know how the greenhouse effect actually works – and whether you do or not, I’m quite sure that most advocates for AGW don’t. Not understanding the basic science is very common.

    I do often wonder about people who think that rules and regulations are the foundation of civilisation – are they themselves the sort of people who only behave themselves because there’s a law? Or do they think themselves better than everyone else? They never seem to wonder why people made the rules in the first place. The environment was getting cleaner long before those laws were enacted, the laws were in response to the popular desire, and in practice made very little difference. Society has its own rules – defined by constant mutual interactions between people – and legislation only formalised them. People wanted to clean up the environment, because a dirty environment is horrible to live in, and did clean up the environment because with prosperity they had enough resources to spare from survival that they could. Nobody would have passed the laws before they were prosperous enough to be able to afford them.

  41. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius:

    Weather is not climate.

    Climate is the average of weather conditions:

    –noun
    1.
    the composite or generally prevailing weather conditions of a region, as temperature, air pressure, humidity, precipitation, sunshine, cloudiness, and winds, throughout the year, averaged over a series of years.

    I shall have to remember to remind you of this conversation the next time we’re all shovelling the ‘global warming’ off the frozen roads.

    And I shall have to remember to remind you the next time we’re shoveling in the northern hemisphere, to check the temperatures in the southern hemisphere, which experiences summer when we’re experiencing winter. At the same time Inhofe was building an igloo in D.C. to make fun of Al Gore, Brazil was experiencing a record heat wave and the global temperatures (thats the average) were reaching record levels.

    The flap of a butterfly’s wings can trigger storms and droughts a continent away, so it is said, but there is no way to track it back to the butterfly in question and, as one might want, get it to stop doing it.

    The same can be said for the resultant position of atom or molecule in a gas after several collisions, given accurate starting conditions. Yet the bulk behavior of the gas can be accurately predicted.

  42. TTT

    I do often wonder about people who think that rules and regulations are the foundation of civilisation – are they themselves the sort of people who only behave themselves because there’s a law? Or do they think themselves better than everyone else? They never seem to wonder why people made the rules in the first place. The environment was getting cleaner long before those laws were enacted, the laws were in response to the popular desire, and in practice made very little difference. People wanted to clean up the environment, because a dirty environment is horrible to live in, and did clean up the environment because with prosperity they had enough resources to spare from survival that they could.

    And I wonder if you think your political ideology is so awesome that it gets to rewrite basic historical facts that get in the way. This is like a libertarian smudgy xerox of long-discredited utopian leftism, ever more earnestly casting wishes about the perfectability of man.

    Your story is paradoxical–if everybody had such perfect environmental awareness and valuation, then the laws would never have been required, much less passed, there would have been no “popular desire” to solve problems that free-market perfection would have ruled out ahead of time, and we would not have been discussing this because there would be nothing to discuss.

    Question: was the Cuyahoga River “getting” more flammable or less flammable before new water quality regulations were put into place? How about British air quality before its own Clean Air Act? And yet the U.S. and UK in the first half of the 20th century were highly prosperous countries. Look at China’s economy now–then look at the water potability and biodiversity in most of their rivers. The postwar glut of Arab oil wealth empowered so many people to indulge their kooky pagan fertility quirks that as a direct result the black rhinoceros population went into a death-spiral from nearly 100,000 in the 1960s to past the point of effective ecological extinction today.

    Rules and regulations aren’t exactly “the foundations of our civilization”–but they are legitimately impactful. They have the power to change behavioral outcomes–and thus they have both an appropriate role and a clear pattern of results when brought to bear on behaviors that change environmental conditions in ways the rulemakers disliked. That’s another foundational fact on which reasonable people cannot reasonably disagree.

  43. Nullius in Verba

    #41,

    So are you arguing that weather is climate?

    #42,

    “Your story is paradoxical–if everybody had such perfect environmental awareness and valuation, then the laws would never have been required, much less passed, …”

    The paradox is easily resolved. First, people vary in the compromises they choose to take with environmental protection, and society as a whole compromises between the different viewpoints. These compromises shift over time. The law formalises the compromise position, so that it is clear and unambiguous, for the reduction of disputes. Secondly, industries may frequently favour regulation where clean-up has a heavy cost burden. Each individual plant manager may wish to clean up their output, but could not afford to go first as their prices would go up and they would go bust in the face of the competition. Regulation enables them to raise prices together, and pass the cost on to the consumer. It favours large, well-established businesses that can afford the costs, raising a cost barrier to new competition. So long as the effect of the price rise is not to drive consumers away, regulation is individually more profitable, at a cost to society as a whole. If society decides the benefits are worth the costs, I don’t have a problem with that.

    “Question: was the Cuyahoga River “getting” more flammable or less flammable before new water quality regulations were put into place? How about British air quality before its own Clean Air Act?”

    Good questions! The answer to the first is “less flammable”, the answer to the second is that air quality dropped from the 1500s to about 1880, after which it started to improve rapidly and consistently – long before the clean air act.

    The Cuyahoga river story is interesting. While the fire in 1969 became famous, it was actually very minor compared to fires of the past. It was put out within half an hour, so quickly that the press didn’t even get any pictures of it. The river had previously caught fire in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and 1952. The picture a lot of people remember of the 1969 fire was actually from the 1952 fire, that some creative journalists had substituted.

    Back in the 1800s, a major industrial waste disposal infrastructure was unaffordable, so the compromise chosen was to classify certain rivers as “industrial streams” and use them as sewers, while preserving others. It was well-known that dropping hot coals into the Cuyahoga (and other rivers) would trigger bursts of flame, and industrial fires on the river were common. But the funding priority back then had been cleaning up the drinking water to prevent cholera.

    Serious efforts to clean up the Cuyahoga actually started around 1948, largely because of the risk to shipping and riverside property of the fires. The 1952 fire spurred greater efforts, and by 1959 it had improved to the point that fish had returned to the river. Things steadily improved although the river was still badly polluted. Over the next 15 years national priorities shifted – having dealt with the most urgent environmental problems of clean drinking water, they could move on to the less serious issues, and the 1969 fire occurred at just the right time for the EPA’s public campaign.

    In practice, as I said, the clean-up was already well in progress, and the legislation merely formalised a change that had already been going on for 15-20 years. The change in both industry’s and the public mood was driven by increasing prosperity; that had both solved the higher priority environmental concerns, and led to the availability of the money to build an expensive waste infrastructure.

  44. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius:

    is climate not the average of weather patterns?

  45. Nullius in Verba

    Climate is often taken to be the average of weather taken over a long enough period for the short-term randomness to get averaged out. (This definition implicitly assumes that there is such a period, that the climate can be assumed not to change over shorter periods. More on that shortly.) The word “weather” has two subtly different meanings here: it can refer to either the state of the atmosphere, or the short-term variations in that state. Climate being the average of weather takes it in the first sense, but “weather is not climate” evidently takes it in the second (it would be nonsensical otherwise) and in the sense that the definition of climate requires that these vanish, climate does not include the weather.

    In the context of a changing climate, the definition above gets blurred. Part of the variation in weather is due to “weather” and part due to “climate change” but there isn’t an obvious objective way to separate them. You can try assuming a frequency cut-off – assuming that weather variability averaged over a known interval or longer is zero, and the climate varies slowly enough that it can be considered constant over this interval – but it’s not necessarily true, and you then have to have an objective way of calculating the cut-off frequency. Since we know that the weather changes naturally on all time scales (ice ages and so forth) and it’s all the same physics, we can see the distinction is arbitrary. Climate is just the low frequency component of weather, weather is just the high frequency component of climate, and what counts as “high” or “low” depends on context.

    There is another way of interpreting it, which is as the probability distribution of the weather at a particular instant. Under this definition, it isn’t actually the average of the weather, although the average may approach it if it varies slowly enough. We still have all the same problems, but now the problem is getting information about the climate, since it isn’t directly observable.

    But any way you cut it, if we’re not allowed to say global warming has ‘stopped’ over the last ten years, then how can five months in Texas be described as climate? How is that consistent?

  46. Sean McCorkle

    But any way you cut it, if we’re not allowed to say global warming has ‘stopped’ over the last ten years,

    You’re allowed to say anything you want, of course. (doesn’t mean its right, though:))

    then how can five months in Texas be described as climate?

    If its part of a trend (in the context of all the cautions you list above, and others), I think it can fairly be cited as an example.

    This just occurred to me: If correlation does not imply causation, what does imply causation?

  47. Nullius in Verba

    “If correlation does not imply causation, what does imply causation?”

    That’s a very difficult question, in general. First you would have to define causation.

    But for a quick answer, proving causation is what scientists use controlled experiments for.

    There are ways of introducing the effect of controls into observational studies, such as the ability to make reliably accurate predictions of all observable aspects of the phenomenon under circumstances not previously seen, but they generally make assumptions about the independence of circumstance and outcome that have to be justified by other arguments. It’s hard to be sure you haven’t missed any hidden connections.

  48. Sean McCorkle

    But for a quick answer, proving causation is what scientists use controlled experiments for.

    In a sense, experimental evidence is also correlative, no? “When I do something, such and such happens, repeatedly” which means that the outcomes, including those from control experiments, are correlated with the experimental conditions in the set of experiments performed. So experiments really don’t prove anything, although they can rule out theories/hypothesis (I guess this is what Popper argued). Nothing is ever really proven, its just that the ideas & theories which make testable predictions that aren’t disproven despite repeated attempts to do so&emdash;the survivors&emdash;are those that become accepted by the community (provisionally&emdash;its understood that they still could be overturned in the future)

    So what I’m leading to is: where and how do you draw the line in how much correlative evidence is required?

  49. Nullius in Verba

    The point about controlled experiments is that the inputs are set by a process that is known to be independent of the system under study. This eliminates a lot of the issues that cause problems for pure correlation – reverse cause, common cause, spurious correlation, sampling bias, etc. The relevant feature that makes controlled experiments different is the causal relationship imposed between the inputs and the outcome. It’s all about the causal structure of the experimental set-up. It’s not a question of the amount of correlative evidence.

    But as you say, even controlled experiments do not give absolute certainty, and are not the only consideration – Popper’s falsification principle still applies. The controlled experiment still has to be set up to distinguish between the alternative hypotheses. How much evidence you require depends on your priors, but it only counts as evidence at all if all the other conditions are met.

  50. Sean McCorkle

    It’s all about the causal structure of the experimental set-up.

    And how is the casual structure established, if not by the experimental results (which are correlative)?. Thats circular. I don’t see how you can get around conclusions which ultimately depend on correlations with inputs. Regardless of how well-designed and informative the control experiments may be, the conclusions are drawn from effects under experimental conditions verses no-effects (or different effects) observed in the controls (un- or anti-correlation).

    It’s not a question of the amount of correlative evidence.

    That doesn’t seem right: in general, repeated successful results weigh more than singular results.

    Extending this to scientific fields which are purely observational, where experiments (and control experiments) can’t be performed, such as astronomy, geology or climate science, how does one establish causality?

  51. Nullius in Verba

    “And how is the casual structure established, if not by the experimental results”

    The causal structure is established by the way you set the experiment up.

    For example, in one experiment I collect a sample of people, I ask which of them drank coffee this morning, and I measure their blood pressure. I find a significant correlation between the two. So does that mean drinking coffee causes high blood pressure, or does high blood pressure cause people to crave coffee, or are blood pressure and coffee drinking both caused by insufficient sleep, or did my sampling method bias the selection towards a particular group that both includes many people with high blood pressure and who drink coffee?

    In another experiment, I collect a sample of people, I toss a coin to assign them to two groups, one of which I ask to drink coffee and the other I ask to abstain. I then measure their blood pressure and find a correlation. Could it be that their blood pressure caused them to drink coffee by making the coin toss land a certain way? Could their blood pressure and a coin toss both be caused by the same thing? Could my sampling method possibly pick out a particular special group that both has high blood pressure and always come up ‘tails’ when they toss a coin?

    The point is, by selecting the inputs independently of the system under study, we guarantee a certain causal structure – that there is no causal arrow pointing towards the inputs. This enables us to deduce more than we otherwise could from the correlation.

    It’s still not perfect, of course. We don’t know that any hot beverage might not have the same effect, or maybe the person serving the coffee was very scary. There’s more than one issue to consider in experimental design besides having controls. But the primary difference between the above two experiments is not that one involved any stronger correlations than the other, but that controlling the inputs tells us something something about the causal relationships. Repeating the first design lots of times successfully wouldn’t necessarily give you as much confidence as using the second design just once.

  52. Sean McCorkle

    All the coffee experiment does, as you describe, is rule out the reverse cause (high blood pressure causing the craving for coffee). But it doesn’t establish that coffee is the cause. In addition to the possibilities you mention, there are all sorts of other possible causes, such as genetic predispositions, environmental causes, or combinations of them. And even after one takes control steps to address those possibilities, there could always be others which noone can think of, but still may be there. So how does one establish that coffee drinking IS the cause of the elevated blood pressure?

    And more importantly, how does one establish causality in observational or natural sciences, where one can’t construct desired control experiments?

  53. Nullius in Verba

    Genetic predispositions and environmental causes are excluded by the experimental design, so long as sample sizes are large enough. Any other factors like genetics are not correlated with the coin tosses and so will be balanced equally between the two groups – they can’t be used to explain the difference in blood pressures.

    And what makes you assume you can establish causality without controlled experiments? Why do you think scientists make such a fuss about them, and go to all the trouble and expense of constructing them?

    (I’m not asserting that you can’t, I’m just asking if you’ve considered whether it has to be so.)

  54. Sean McCorkle

    The conclusions from the coffee experiment will nevertheless be plagued by possible unknowns—for example, a contaminant difficult to isolate, remove, or even identify that often or sometimes accompanies coffee which might be the ultimate cause.

    And what makes you assume you can establish causality without controlled experiments?

    I ask because of sciences which are limited (with rare exceptions) to observations only, such as astronomy. For example, that sunspots are caused by concentrations of magnetic fields is borne out by observations, not experiments. Or another example from geology: craters and formations such as Barringer crater were caused by impacts, which is evidenced by, among other things, the presence of shock-formed minerals in and around them. Are those causes not established because of lack of controlled experiments?

  55. Nullius in Verba

    It is quite true that the experiment doesn’t determine what it is about drinking coffee that causes the effect. You need further experiments for that. I’m just trying to illustrate a principle here with the simplest possible example.

    Magnetic fields on the sun are measured on the basis of experiments on plasmas in the lab, to understand and confirm the basic principles. Geologists do lab experiments with gas guns and explosives to verify their ideas about impact craters. But if you find shocked minerals around a caldera, do you really know for certain that it was caused by an impact? If you didn’t already know about calderas, would you have made the assumption? Is it possible that there’s anything else you could be missing?

  56. Nullius:

    Up above, rather a long way at this point, you comment that the Greenhouse effect is not Global Warming. Apparently you don’t refute the physics of the greenhouse effect (which is good, because that would be silly), but you refute Global Warming? I’m sure you’ve stated your position in the past, but I’m a relative newcomer, and I’m curious about your position.

    I believe we can agree that the the greenhouse effect is the proposed driver of Anthropogenic Climate Change, with associated feedback loops (such as albedo changes brought on by lower ice coverage in the Arctic, for instance). Presumably you don’t contest the basic physics that control the earth’s energy budget (incoming energy, albedo of the earth’s surface, and the emissivity of the atmosphere, more or less), of which the greenhouse effect is a key controlling component.

    How then do you refute the premise of Anthropogenic Climate Change?

    I’ll cheerfully grant you that we really don’t have much idea what the hell is going to be the end result of this process, outside of very gross impacts such as reduction in permafrost, higher sea levels, etc. I also think this particular story with Texas is a bit silly, as it’s entirely possible Texas will end up sufficiently wetter to balance any increase in air temperature that is likely to occur, and our predictive models are still extremely ball-parky. But it’s one thing to say ‘We don’t know what is going to happen” versus “ACC is not real” when you understand the fundamental physics of the greenhouse effect.

    (Also allow me to reassure as best I may that I actually do have a fairly good understanding of the mechanics of the issue here, since you seem quite ready to dismiss the grasp of others on the subject matter.)

  57. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius,

    That concentrated magnetic fields create sunspots is driven by observations (Zeeman splitting of spectral lines, structure of coronal loops seen in the far UV, etc) and to some degree by increased understanding of magnetohydrodynamics of plasmas, a field which has seen some lab experimentation, but nowhere near the large scale or complexity of sunspots (which are often bigger than the Earth itself! Convective cells are comparible to the size of continents!). Any theoretical models must extrapolate far beyond the scales actually verified in laboratories, and while they help establish the cause, the observational data is the strong evidence.

    Similarly, cratering experiments suffer from being on too small of a scale to properly explain the geologic features. Even Galileo argued back in the Renaissance that material properties do not scale linearly with size. Thats especially true for craters produced by multi-megaton or gigaton impacts. The case for craters being the results of impacts comes from presence of specific signatures, such as the shocked breccias and microfracturing usually present around these features.

    I think you’re making the point that extra knowledge (MHD physics, shocked minerals) helps or is essential to establish the cause, and I definitely agree. But these cases (B-fields => sunspots and impacts => craters) are ultimately not made by experiments, they’re made by observations and extrapolations of knowledge (some of which has undergone previous experimental validation).

    I think these two examples are demonstrations of sound science, and the results are quite strong, although we can’t be entirely certain about them. I also think your coffee experiment would produce good results—probably much more certain than my examples, although there will still be a tiny nagging uncertainty even after many rounds of controls. The only thing we could really be certain about is if these conclusions are falsified by other observations. The cases are made by compiling evidence (which is correlative) and combined with a plausible explanation derived from pre-existing knowledge, and they’ve survived any attempts at falsification, to date.

    The whole point of this being, that, yeah, correlation doesn’t imply causation, but correlations are an important part of causation arguments; they are often used as supporting evidence, and shouldn’t be automatically dismissed.

  58. Nullius in Verba

    #56,

    OK, first, you have to understand that a lot of the time I am not so much interested in whether people hold the right opinions, as whether they do so for the right reasons. There are many aspects of the standard theory that I believe, but only because I’ve gone through a rather longer and more careful chain of logic that I don’t believe the person I’m arguing with has followed. I will sometimes still argue with a statement I consider to be true if I think the reasoning is invalid.

    Now, on to the physics of the greenhouse effect. The (badly misnamed) greenhouse effect doesn’t work like a greenhouse, or (in a convective atmosphere) how they say a greenhouse works. It is a combination of two effects: firstly, a body with a constant heat input in a vacuum adjusts its temperature until the visible, radiating surface radiates exactly as much heat as is being input, and secondly, gases increase in temperature when they are compressed and drop in temperature when they expand. You may not have heard the second point emphasised, it is often left out of the popular explanations.

    For the first point, it’s a fairly straightforward calculation to show that given the amount of heat the Earth receives from the sun, it’s effective radiating temperature ought to be about -20 C. However, because the atmosphere contains infra-red opaque gases – primarily water vapour and carbon dioxide – the surface that radiates this heat is not the solid surface, but a fuzzy layer extending through the bottom 8-10 km of the atmosphere – on average, it is the level about 4-5 km up that settles out at -20 C.

    If the atmosphere did not convect, then the radiative opacity of greenhouse gases would slow its escape, and lower layers would get hotter as an exponential function of altitude, and the surface would be at an average temperature of 60 C. Obviously, this theory is contradicted by observation, and the reason is that if you get a heat build up near the surface, with warm air below cold, the warm air rises, carrying any excess heat away by convection.

    However, because the air is rising, it’s pressure drops with altitude, and it expands. This causes its temperature to drop. This effect means that over long vertical distances, the atmosphere can be stable to convection so long as its vertical temperature gradient is below a limit set by gravity and the physics of gases, called the adiabatic lapse rate. For dry air, this is about 10 C/km, but if you take the latent heat carried by water vapour into account, this drops to about 6 C/km in moist air, but is variable from place to place. (Note, this effect of water vapour is nothing to do with it being a greenhouse gas.)

    The 4 km altitude of emission to space, multiplied by the 6 C/km compressive increase in temperature as you descend to the surface, plus the -20 C effective radiative temperature at 4 km gives the average surface temperature around 15 C. This is called “the greenhouse effect”.

    That stuff is absolutely standard atmospheric physics, invented some time around the 1970s and used in all model calculations by climate scientists. It is perfectly orthodox, and I agree with the basic physics. In practice, there are complications – the atmosphere is not the same everywhere on Earth, and in a non-linear system the physics of the average is not the average of the physics, but it’s close enough to base a discussion on.

    I’ll pause a moment here because the spam filter is liable to object to the length. But it’s worth noting, I quite often can’t even this far without getting a violent argument, because of all the duff explanations floating around.

  59. Nullius in Verba

    58 continued…

    Right, so having set out in what sense I “don’t refute the physics of the greenhouse effect”, we can talk a bit about global warming. Again, this is complicated.

    The term can be interpreted in many ways. Two are as a theoretical contribution to surface temperature because of the anthropogenic increase in CO2, and as an observed increase over the past century of the global mean interpolated bias-adjusted mid-diurnal surface temperature anomaly. (A bit of a mouthful, but it’s important to realise that it isn’t actually the temperature, it’s something a bit messier.) There are huge problems with the data quality of the observations, but I’ll pass over those for now and take the numbers for the sake of argument.

    Considered as a theoretical contributor, I agree CO2 should have an effect. If you hold everything else constant, each doubling of CO2 will increase the surface temperature by 1.1 C, by raising the average altitude of emission to space. Since we have so far raised CO2 by 40%, one would naively expect about half that amount: 0.65 C so far. Which coincidentally is about the same as the whole of the observed rise.

    However, not everything else stays constant, and there are other factors that cause climate to vary naturally. This is where the disagreements start. We have a set of other forcings – such as internal climate oscillations – and we have a set of feedbacks – in which the climate responds to temperature changes by doing things that themselves further change temperature. These are not understood! There are some plausible hypotheses here, but nothing solid.

    The orthodoxy has it that the feedbacks have the effect of multiplying the CO2 effect by more than 3. Note that this means that the vast majority of the hypothesised greenhouse effect is not due to the radiative properties of CO2, but to the feedbacks. Because this would obviously triple the effects of the 40% rise seen so far – which would obviously be refuted by observation – they also hypothesise a set of negative forcings to lower the temperature so that the high-feedback models will fit. This area is where the science gets contentious.

    For example, one of the biggest of the feedbacks is water vapour, which has two major effects: higher surface temperatures can evaporate more water, which both acts as a greenhouse gas, warming the surface, and which reduces the adiabatic lapse rate, which cools the surface. The change in lapse rate causes a predicted “hotspot” in the upper atmosphere over the tropics – the changing lapse rate causes higher altitudes to warm at double the rate of the surface. All the models predict it, but observations don’t see it, and sceptics have shown (and got published) that the difference is statistically significant.

    That’s just one problem, there are lots of others.

    In short, sceptics suspect (but nobody knows) that the feedbacks are actually slightly negative, and the other contributors are running slightly positive, so the 1.1 C per doubling is reduced to around 0.7 C per doubling, and other factors are naturally raising temperatures slightly at the moment. CO2 is causing maybe half the observed trend since 1950, and we would expect a further rise over the coming century of maybe half a degree, which given the natural background variation would be undetectable.

    Bear in mind, that’s an alternative hypothesis – it isn’t proved yet, either.

    However, the biggest problem I have with the science is the way it’s done. That’s another long essay, so I’ll break here.

  60. Sean McCorkle

    … Which coincidentally is about the same as the whole of the observed rise.

    I would add here that, because the CO2 absorption is always present and steadily increasing, we therefore know that all the other terms add up to roughly nothing in the energy balance, regardless of whether we understand them or not. The temperature increase is adequately explained by CO2 buildup.

  61. Nullius in Verba

    59 continued…

    OK, last one.

    Climate science is comparatively young, as sciences go. While parts of it go back centuries, a lot of the stuff the current predictions are based on is less than 15 years old. As a young science, it’s quite normal for there to be a lot of unknowns, a lot of iffy hypotheses being bandied about, and for everything to be quite uncertain. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is trying to sell it as more certain than it actually is.

    The biggest problem I have with climate science is with the attitude to quality. There are results that have been published that are known to be wrong, but which are still doggedly defended and continue to be cited as part of the evidence. The one for which we have the most complete evidence and background is the famous Hockeystick graph of MBH98, but many of the alternatives offered in its place have serious problems too.

    The problem is not simply that they’re wrong, (anybody can make honest errors, it’s what science is all about,) but that they got past the layers of checking that we are told guarantee the conclusions of the consensus, and that even when the errors are pointed out, the results are still defended and cited, few scientists seem to dare to speak out publicly against them, and the few that do are attacked as being shills for Exxon or similar conspiracy theories.

    It’s not an isolated case. For one of the best examples understandable with the minimum of background context – there’s a file called Harry_read_me.txt that is the diary of one of the climate scientists at CRU, detailing his efforts to update a data product that was peer-review published by a couple of other scientists. (The product is a database of gridded climate data called CRU-TS2.6, which was supposedly being updated to CRU-TS3.0. But poor Harry couldn’t even get the code to run, let alone reproduce the already published results.)

    Go and read it – it’s a real eye-opener. (And frequently very entertaining/amusing – in a horrifying sort of way.)

    This is not how professional science is supposed to be done. It’s a major scientific scandal. But the fear of “giving climate sceptics ammunition” is so strong that a lot of people refuse to say so, and find ever more inventive ways to excuse it or dismiss it.

    The ‘Harry’ output is considered by CRU a “flagship gridded data product”, passed the same peer review that passed all the other climate science you rely on, and graphs based on it made their way into the IPCC reports on which the future of the world is being planned.

    In any branch of industrial science it would be totally illegal. If you tested a headache pill with science like that, or sold an investment prospectus that way, you’d be put in jail! But we’ll spend trillions of dollars and overturn the economies of the world on its basis, and nobody worries. I find the attitude peculiar.

    Anyway, I hope that explains my position a bit better. Apologies for the length.

    #57,

    Sean, I wasn’t deliberately ignoring you. I agree, particularly with your last paragraph. I’m not saying correlations should be ignored, I’m saying they should be treated with caution.

    #60,
    As we discussed previously, the increase is adequately explained by all sorts of other factors on exactly the same reasoning. If A+B+C+D = (+1) + (+1) + (+1) + (-2) = +1, the increase is adequately explained by A alone, and adequately explained by B alone, and adequately explained by C alone. Picking out B as “the cause” is an arbitrary choice forced by the way you choose to group and summarise the factors – it’s not telling you anything physically real. It requires a far more sophisticated argument to prove causality.

  62. Sean McCorkle

    It wins by Occam’s razor:

    Observed temperature increase adequately explained by expected increase due to CO2 buildup

    is simpler than an explanation which

    (1) must somehow, through some unspecified mechanism(s), negate the buildup due to the CO2 term
    and
    (2) must somehow, through another unspecified mechanism(s), replace pretty much what was removed by (1)

    The 2nd explanation requires at least two unspecified mechanisms and the coincidence that together they remove the temperature climb expected from CO2 and then replace it with pretty much the same climb.

  63. Nullius in Verba

    If you only have one hypothesis, it must be true by default?

  64. Sean McCorkle

    You’re proposing a 2nd hypothesis, which I’m arguing is more complicated and should therefore be excluded until other reasons require it be considered. (for example, evidence that directly falsifies the first hypothesis, or strong evidence that supports the 2nd hypothesis over the first)

  65. Nullius in Verba

    The alternative hypothesis I mentioned is of the same complexity (and especially when compared to the complexity of the climate system), and there is other evidence to support it. But I’m not going to get into that at this point. All I intended to give was a brief summary for someone new to the issue, and I’ll stick with that.

  66. Nullius – I’m not new to the issue, I’m new here.
    Those are different.

    That’s a very nice summation of the issue, and I don’t entirely disagree with you on the the climate science critique, in that it’s youngish and certainly the models require a great deal of work. I have to say though, that I have not seen many good arguments for alternative drivers of the current changes, particularly those being seen at high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. If one is going to claim natural variation, being able to explicate that is useful. And there are other impacts of CO2 that are worth being concerned about, such as ocean acidification.

    Ultimately I think the situation is best described as being a very, very large experiment. We’ll end up finding out one way or another who is correct about the trajectory of the climate, and what is acting as the driver of change.

    I agree that it’s appropriate to critique how the science is done, and absolutely necessary to engage in debate over the accuracy of the hypotheses and theories involved. But this situation is unique, in the sense of how potentially important figuring this out is to humanity as a whole, the amount of money in play, and the existence of a very socially powerful opposition that is more than willing to cast aspersion on science as a whole to discredit findings that they feel threaten them economically. These things are sort of short circuiting the normal way in which research is conducted, received, and critiqued.

    I think it’s a matter of risk assessment (in terms of public policy), more than anything else, and that’s how the issue should be being discussed in political arena.

    The potential bad outcomes are very, very bad indeed, and the costs of taking action to reduce the amount of fossil CO2 released may be relatively minor (or non-existent in the long term), depending on how action is taken.

    I tend to come down on the cautious side of things, particularly because fossil fuels are a finite resource, and we’re going to run out of the damn things anyway. I’d rather see us make the effort to undergo a transition in energy source now, while fossil energy is relatively cheap. There are folks that argue that an ‘energy descent’ is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be. If we are aggressive about developing a full palette of energy supplies (including, hopefully, fusion) now, we can avoid that. If we wait until oil costs several hundred dollars a barrel, taking action will be much, much more difficult, and we may not have the economic oomph to get the job done.

    Ceasing to rely on fossil energy would also do things like preserve petroleum for use as a industrial feedstock, so we can continue to produce all the extremely useful chemicals on which it is based. It would also reduce the amount of environmental damage inflicted in the name of energy extraction, which is quite severe in many parts of the world. And let’s not even consider the influence of oil on politics!

    We will ultimately have to stop using fossil fuels, whether Anthropogenic Climate Change is real or not, and adding in the risks involved if ACC is indeed a real thing makes the choice about when to take action fairly obvious to me. When you have a reasonable chance to avoid a possible disaster, you should take it. Especially when you’re going to have to do those things sometime down the road anyway.

  67. Nullius in Verba

    #66,

    I’m sure those are all views we can debate at greater length again, if you choose to hang around. Speaking for myself, that promises to be interesting.

    I’ll just briefly comment on two points, and then move on, as this thread is getting quite old. (The local convention seems to be to stop when they drop off the front page.)

    “the existence of a very socially powerful opposition that is more than willing to cast aspersion on science as a whole to discredit findings that they feel threaten them economically. These things are sort of short circuiting the normal way in which research is conducted, received, and critiqued.”

    I would suggest that this applies to both sides – I don’t think there can be any doubt that “aspersions” have been cast on climate sceptics. As a rule, climate sceptics don’t object to science as a whole – many (most?) are big fans of science and technology, and care about it deeply. What they oppose ‘as a whole’ is scientific Authority, and some specific bits of science that they believe have not been done as science should be – especially on a topic with the impacts this research has.

    “I think it’s a matter of risk assessment [...] The potential bad outcomes are very, very bad indeed, and the costs of taking action to reduce the amount of fossil CO2 released may be relatively minor”

    One of the more famous examples of a risk argument is Pascal’s Wager. A non-zero risk of any infinitely bad outcome is sufficient to determine the outcome, irrespective of evidence presented. So all you have to do is claim a sufficiently major disaster follows from not following your plan, whatever it might be, and the necessity of compliance follows.

    Understanding the logic underlying Pascal’s Wager is vital to proper risk assessment.

    This is not the first time global environmental disaster has been predicted – and we had the same risk assessment problem last time. The measures being proposed were draconian, but the predicted disasters were even worse. In the end we ignored them, and none of the predictions came true, but was it the right decision? Or did we just get lucky?

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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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