Saturday, December 3, 2011

Is Global Warming Science A "Religion"?

One would have thought by now that even with one of the prime skeptics (Richard Muller) coming over to the side of scientific consensus, the climate change deniers and naysayers would give it a rest. But no, this is not their wont. They are driven by the belief that economics trumps all other concerns and hence even if the Earth burns and millions perish, Wall Street's fortunes and prerogatives must prevail.

Their tactics also know no bounds, including of disrepute. And so we have recent outbursts such as Daniel B. Botkin (WSJ, 'Absolute Certainty is Not Scientific', Dec. 2) and earlier WSJ nabob Brett Stephens claiming global warming science is a "religion" ('The Great Global Warming Fizzle').

In Botkin's case, he makes the spurious claim that those of us who support the theory of anthropogenice global warming are also insisting the basis is one of "absolute certainty". Of course, if one issues tenets of absolute certainty, then what one has is dogma, not science. We know this. But what appears to bother Botkin is the massive consensus that supports anthropogenic driven climate change. He appears clueless that this is based on more than 15,000 papers published in peer-reviewed climate journals. He therefore errs in conflating the hardness and scope of the consensus with "absolute certainty".

This shows that Botkin, like many others (maybe even Stephens) doesn't grasp the nature of the scientific support. Not grasping it, they then assert some kind of absoluteness of "belief" or "dogma". Years ago, this was skewered by Daniel Schrag, Harvard professor of geochemistry and director of the Laboratory for Geochemical Oceanography. Schrag correctly noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is by nature a conservative organization. The breadth that gives its findings weight – 3,000 scientists, reviewers, and government officials were involved in drafting the reports – meant that consensus had to be reached across broad points of view, including those from countries whose economies are based on oil production.

Meanwhile, in the reactionary financial press and its sundry op-ed pages, the IPCC is depicted as a bunch of wild-eyed radicals seeking to bring the global economy down deliberately. Not so! What they have observed is:

a) For the thousands of years the CO2 concentration was 280 ppm or less, fairly uniform cycles of rain and droughts applied and these were limited to specific regions.

b) Once the industrial revolution began and the CO2 concentrations shot up, these cycles began to get disrupted.

c) Today, at a level of 390 ppm, we are seeing massive prolonged droughts in many places - such as Texas and Mexico (where over 1.7 million cattle have died from starvation or thirst in the past year) and the potential for massive further climatic disruptions, including intense flooding and drought - the extremes predicted by the AGW models.

d) We know that the CO2 concentrations are increasing at 2 ppm/yr and that each such increment translates in an additional 2 watts per sq. meter of heat trapped - which must be added to the solar insolation (1330 w/m^2)

e) We suspect the tipping point to the "runaway greenhouse effect" is at 450 ppm or close to it, which means if nothing is done and at the present rate of carbon deposition, we will reach that critical threshold in merely 30 years. Or by 2041.

Granted, all of these are projections, but nearly all climate scientists concur with these basics. This doesn't mean all aspects are settled, only the geographical uniformity. Talking about rising average temperature is almost misleading because the effects will vary in different parts of the world. Common all over, however, will be the increase in violent storms and extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, as the atmosphere seeks to redistribute the new energy – in the form of heat – that it is absorbing.

Other major global shifts, such as changes to ocean currents, are less likely but possible. Should they occur, they could also have far-reaching effects. If the warm water current that flows across the North Atlantic were to slow or shift south, for example, temperatures in Europe, which typically experiences warmer temperatures than its northerly latitude would indicate, could plunge. (This was the scenario depicted in 'The Day After Tomorrow' although it is one of the least likely).

The point is that climate scientists don't claim to have any absolute certainty across the broad spectrum of details, but only in the major points listed earlier. Hence, it is egregious for naysayers like Botkin to make an issue out of "absolute certainty" when only the major points are agreed on. Are these enough to warrant carbon taxes or other means to limit the increase of CO2?

Yes, I believe so, and advance it in an analogous fashion to Dick Cheney's "1 % doctrine" on terrorism. Thus, for Cheney, if there was even a 1% chance of a massive terrorist strike then that was sufficient to command all or most national defense resources to prevent it. In like manner, if there is only a 1 percent chance of Earth ending up in a runaway greenhouse effect, with all that portends (including the death of billions) then all resources we have must be mounted to prevent it. In other words, all the money in the world will not help us by one iota if humans will not be able to adapt to a runaway greenhouse planet with daily temperatures near 150F in most places, except the Arctic and Antarctic.

In Brett Stephens case, he argues:

"Expect Mayan cosmology to take a hit to its reputation when the world doesn't end on Dec. 21, 2012. Expect likewise when global warming turns out to be neither catastrophic nor irreveersible come 2017."

But comparing the Mayan end times babble to global warming theory is irresponsible in itself. It also shows the author to be incapable of discriminating between patent pseudo-scientific barf and a true scientific theory for which we actually have abundant data, i.e.

wherein I noted that the projected anthropogenic CO2 emission rate of 35 gigatons per year is 135 times greater than the 0.26 gigatons per year emission rate for volcanoes, plumes etc. This ratio of 135:1 (anthropogenic to volcanic CO2) is what defines the anthropogenic multiplier index.

Then there was the matter of carbon isotope ratios:

and the graph shown, of radiocarbon (C14) excess over C12 over a roughly 2,000 yr. period. Quoting the late solar physicist John Eddy on the nature of that graph:

"The sharp upward spike at the modern end of the curve, representing a marked drop in relative radiocarbon, is generally attributed to anthropogenic causes—the mark of increased population and the Industrial Age. "

But one wonders if Stephens is even able to read, far less interpret correctly, such graphs. Very few are, and especially very few nattering WSJ nabobs who likely have never taken a college general physics course in their lives. But hey, that makes it easier for them to flap their gums (or keyboards) about "religions" when they don't know dick or diddly squat.

This is demonstrated by the fact that the guy doesn't appreciate that AGW (anthropogenic global warming) theory has followed the traditional path of all good science in successive approximations to its original thesis or model. You have data, and accessory information which leads to some initial result which tests a particular hypothesis- call it 'x'. You then acquire better data (perhaps because of refined instruments, techniques ) and are led to a modified (improved) result such that: x (n+1) = x + P(x) where x(n +1) denotes an improvement via iteration, with P(x) the process (acting on x) that allows it.

Integrated into the process is the matter of falsifiability! Thus, at each stage, tests to falsiafy said hypothesis must be conducted before proceeding to the next iteration. Religions - by contrast- simply impose their truth ab initio by fiat or decree. There is no attempt whatever to incorporate any approximation. Or to even acknowledge that 'truth' can't be accessed all at once. Rather, one must set rational truth aside and succumb to ‘faith”.

Meanwhile, early versions of the IPCC model actually predicted the Arctic would first experience global change in melting ice caps, permafrost, and it did. It predicted the warmest years of the decade would correlate to CO2 concentrations > 366 ppm, and they did. (Nine of the past 11 years were the warmest on record, all displayed CO2 concentrations at > 367 ppm).

As for the Mayan malarkey, Stephens isn't even remotely aware that its purveyors never delivered one single test for falsifying it, say to predict a specific consequence (on Dec. 21, 2012) of the Milky Way's "dark rift" being aligned with the Sun (which occurs about once every 100 million years)

As for Stephens' 2017 insinuation, no serious climate scientist I know has predicted anything 'irreversible" by that year, or a specific catastrophe. Hence, he is guilty of invoking straw men. What we do know, and can be pretty sure of, is that this is 6 more years, which means the CO2 concentrations will increase another 12 ppm to 402 ppm - assuming the same rates of fossil fuel consumption, and that means a further 12 watts/m^2 of heat trapped. This will likely translate into much more melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. Will this spell "catastrophe"? We don't know, and neither does Stephens know that it won't!

Stephens last bit of bloviated garbage would be the funniest it it weren't so pathetic:

"Religions are sustained in the long run by the consolations of their teachings and the charisma of their leaders. With global warming, we have a religion whose leaders are prone to spasms of anger and whose followers are beginning to twitch with boredom. Perhaps that's another way religions die".

But again, since AGW is not a religion, the comparison is both daft and inappropriate. I also don't know where Stephens gets this "followers" bullshit. Global warming theory is not based on popular beliefs , but on accepting the theory based on passing the tests for its own falsification.

It is quite obvious to me that Stephens doesn't even grasp that being a follower of a religion can't be the same as a "follower" of AGW, since AGW's "followers" by definition are predicated on their understanding of the new data and tests, not "beliefs" or emotional persuasion. Will AGW theory "die"? Not bloody likely so long as the data and tests for falsifiability keep on coming through, and being passed.

And not so long as climatic disasters keep occurring from year to year, including increasinly long heat waves such as we saw this past summer, e.g. in Texas, Oklahoma. Moreover, evidently unknown to bloviators like Botkin and Stephens, even as some deluded business interests oppose any climate change legislation in Washington, many companies with the most to lose from global warming (e.g re-insurers like Munich Re and Swiss Re), are treating it as a reality - as reflected in their much higher insurance costs. One executive, David Friedberg, of a company that insures farmers against climate disasters, has noted that "What seems like minor deviations in rain and heat to the average person, are millions in crop damage to soybean farmers in Indiana, North Dakota and Texas".

But maybe Brett is cheered on daily by his own WSJ followers and their fervid economic beliefs, so tends to generalize overmuch. Or maybe, to quote David Friedberg, he's just "an average person" who doesn't feel climate impacts directly, so regards anything seen or heard as "religious hype".

Given such delimiting parameters on his intelligence, insight and experience, we may one day expect Brett to start his own anti-global warming religion. Just be sure, Brett, you have some good excuses ready for your followers when the day time temperatures become so high in New York City that it's unaffordable for good ol' Rupert M. to keep the a/c running in those WSJ offices!

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