21 June 2013

Read this before next week (It may save you from saying something silly).

Posted by Dan Satterfield

There are rumors that President Obama will announce initiatives regarding climate change next week, likely dealing with the carbon dioxide output of power plants and perhaps other things. I know nothing of the particulars, but I do know there is overwhelming and conclusive evidence that we are running out of time to reduce our CO2 emissions. That said, I don’t know whether this plan is a good one or not. That is a political debate that has long been avoided, and one we (and the Planet) must have.

Here is hoping that whatever is announced leads to a debate on the merits of HOW to deal with the problem, and NOT whether there IS a problem. There is no longer any shadow of a doubt left that we are dangerously interfering with our climate. That said, next week there will be the same tiny handful of scientists quoted by some news outlets who think they must find an opposite opinion, and give it equal time. This is a FALSE BALANCE as the graphic above so aptly illustrates.

For example, do you see an interview every year on July 20 with someone who says the Moon landing was a hoax? The sensible media outlets do not give equal time to those tin hats who think it was all faked, because that would be presenting a false balance. By the way, more physicists think the Moon landing MIGHT have been a hoax than think climate change is.

I can almost assure you that next week some political commentator will make the claim that the Earth is cooling, or that the Earth has stopped warming. Saying this makes you look very ignorant to anyone who knows the science. Greg Laden’s post this week is pretty direct and spot on. It is written from the perspective of a Biology teacher. Greg has kindly given permission to re-post it here. Save it, and send it to those who make the mistake next week, and tell them to educate themselves on the science.

 Why you sound so stupid when you say “global warming has stopped”.

re-post courtesy Biologist Dr. Greg Laden (PhD Harvard)


Science is good at seeing things that you can’t really see. For example, science can provide an accurate three dimensional model of a critically important molecule even though no one has ever directly seen what this molecule looks like. That three dimensional model of the molecule can be used to understand things such as a) how life works and b) how to address some important disease.

Science can measure the exact proportions of each of several elements that are invisible that make up the air. We can sense the air but we can’t see Nitrogen vs. Oxygen vs. CO2 in the air, while Science can. Science can ascertain the invisible and the unpalpable. The actions and effects of those elements in the air are critically important. Were it not for Science’s ability to “see” them we would understand very little about some very important things.

There is a neat device some biology teachers use to get this point across. It is called The Ob=Scertainer. It is a device that demands that a student make the leap from thinking that if you can’t see something you can’t “see” it, to understanding that we can “see” what we can’t “see” if we are just a little smart about it. Or more accurately, if something does not leap to full realization of your usual senses, that does not mean it can’t be understood and no conclusions can be reached about it.

Before I describe that device, a small digression.

Years ago I was teaching a seminar in which we read a paper written by someone who would fit well into the modern “skeptics” community (I don’t mean science denialist here, but rather, regular skeptic) and by that I don’t mean in a good way, but rather, in the hyper-skeptical sense. The paper was about a certain skeleton found at a certain site, a very important one. Everybody thought this skeleton was a burial, where a dead guy was put in the ground and covered over. The author argued that you could not say this. Every tiny bit of evidence that the skeleton was a burial was examined by the author and discounted. At the end there was not one stitch of evidence left uncriticized, unquestioned, in this paper. The students in the seminar all agreed that this set of bones was not a burial, and indeed, may not have even been a skeleton.

One example of the critique involved the measurement of the distance between bones that normally adjoin in the human body. In most cases the distances between articular surfaces was outside the range found in normal humans, suggesting that the “skeleton” may not be “articulated.” In my view, all of these arguments were irrelevant. The bones were all in approximately the right place, the individuals was in a fetal position, sort of, and although it was not clear that there was a hole dug (the nature of the excavation did not allow this) there was a scattering of stones on top of the bones, which were then in turn buried over 60,000 years or so of accumulation of sediment above the skeleton.

In other words, the skeleton was clearly a burial, and the students had all been talked out of thinking this by a hypercritical, almost post-modern attack on the original conception.

So, I did this. I told the students that I was going to buy a beer for everyone in the room except the one person who was under 21, and she would have a non-alcoholic beverage of her choice. But only under one condition. Everyone was to write on the index cards I was passing out whether or not they thought this skeleton was a burial (write “burial”) or not (write “not burial”), without anyone else seeing their card. If everyone had the same exact opinion, everyone got a drink. Otherwise, nobody got a drink.

The cards were distributed, stuff written on them, and collected. The decision was unanimous. When push came to shove, when something very important (a beer) was at stake, each student decided that the burial was a burial.

Because a) it was a burial and b) the scales had cleared from the eyes of the students.

Now, back to this device that biology teachers use sometimes.

The Ob-Scertainer.The Ob-Scertainer.

It is a box with a certain shape inside. The space inside the box has various little walls or pegs or whatever inside the hollow area. Inside the box is a ball bearing that can move freely around in two dimensions. By tilting the box this way and that one can get a sense for what sorts of obstructions are inside the box, and attempt to draw a map of the interior space.

The students are in this way challenged to draw a two dimensional model of something they can’t see using indirect (and admittedly fuzzy) evidence. It takes time, there are sometimes errors, but they manage.

Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh are in a boat. They are in the middle of a deep, cold lake. If the boat sinks they will die of hypothermia and their corpses will sink to the bottom. There is a device in the boat that will sink it instantly, or alternatively, propel the boat to the safety of the shoreline where there are three martinis waiting for them, but it all depends on all three of them correctly answering a question. Notice that this is different from the scenario above, where the students only had to all agree. The students in my seminar were in fact interested in the truth, while the three people in this boat in this lake are not. So getting it right is the thing.

The question is, “Is global warming real, human caused, and important, yes or no.”

They don’t know who is asking the question. It could be the Heritage Institute, it could be Michael Mann with his finger on a remote that operates the device. But they are told that the best available science will be used to determine if they are wrong or right.

They will all answer “yes.”

Scientists know that greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, are increasing in the atmosphere. They know that this increases the amount of sunlight that gets converted to heat, staying around on the Earth longer, as opposed to going into outer space. They know that this heat is distributed among several parts of the earth approximately as follows:

  • Ocean 93.4%
  • Atmosphere 2.3%
  • Everything else 4.3%

Everything else includes the land surface of the earth and various ice sheets and so on.

Over the last several decades the overall temperature of the atmosphere, that 2.3% part of the equation, has gone up on average. Given any reasonable time period, i,e 10 or 15 years, it really has never gone down, though it has failed to go up very much now and then. The overall trend is up.

However, we have really good measurements (for the last several decades) for the Atmosphere, and for the surface of (but not the deeper parts of) the Ocean. This means that when the heat goes up more than expected in the Atmosphere, which it has done now and then, we can guess that this involves less heat going into the Ocean or to those other things. Conversely, when the temperature goes up less in the atmosphere than expected, we can guess that the “missing” heat went into the Ocean or one of the other places heat might go. For example, the heat in the atmosphere has not gone up over the last few years as much as predicted by drawing a straight line covering the last few decades, but instead,

  • Greenland ice cap has lost a lot of ice (which takes up heat).
  • The Arctic sea has lost a lot of ice (which takes up heat).
  • The few measurements in the deep ocean that we have show that it has gained a lot of heat.

It all makes sense and pretty much fits together, but there are many who claim that “global warming has plateaued” or that there is a “hiatus” in global warming.

See the extra heat going into the ocean? From Balmeseda, Trenberth and Kallen, 2013. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat conent. Geophysical research letters 40(1-6).See the extra heat going into the ocean? From Balmeseda, Trenberth and Kallen, 2013. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat conent. Geophysical research letters 40(1-6).

OK here’s an analogy. You make $50,000 a year. You pay out 10,000 in taxes. Then, suddenly, taxes go up and now you are paying $20,000 a year in taxes. Would you claim that $10,000 a year has disappeared into thin air? No. The money still exists. Its just not you YOUR pocket (you are the Atmosphere) It is now in the Government’s pocket (the Government is the Ocean). And, in fact, since you are so small and the Government is so big, this shift in heat, er, money, will be noticed by you (the person) a lot, but very little by the big giant government.

People can see or feel when it is hot and cold, to a lesser extend they can know when there is drought, when there are major storms, when there are fires, and if they are paying attention they can observe when the sea rises up and eats part of New Jersey. But they can’t see when the surface of the earth, the ground, below your feet, goes up a half a degree, or when the ocean at depth gets a tiny bit warmer. They can see, on the news, the melting of the Arctic ice, but they may not “see” (as in “get”) the connection whereby Arctic ice melts and sucks energy out of the atmosphere that might otherwise have been a heat wave in Paramus.

But Science can see that!

There is not a hiatus in global warming. There is not a plateau in global warming. Global warming has not stopped. However, climate change (including and especially global warming) is one or two orders of magnitude more complex that, say, the plot of this book:

Global warming is slightly more complicated than this, despite the usual commentary by conservative columnists in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Global warming is slightly more complicated than this, despite the usual commentary by conservative columnists in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, who apparently can’t find their belly buttons.

But you wouldn’t know that from what we often see in the press, among commenters who demand that global warming be simple, or at least, exploit the belief that it is simple to misconstrue the meaning of any evidence of complexity. Shame on them.

The Ob-Scertainer requires that a student admit that she or he can know something unseeable. Modern medicine does that too. As does every electronic device you use, pretty much. And so does understanding climate change.

We don’t have time any more to mess around with denialism, false balance, and willful ignorance. Get on board or get a D, or even an F.

Graph of global temperatures from HERE.