Climate science has turned from an obscure and forgotten discipline to the center of a raging world-wide controversy – something I don’t think climate scientists were prepared for. It has also become the third rail of skepticism – don’t touch it unless you want to get burned.
The reason for this is probably obvious – skeptics are divided politically (this is an oversimplification but largely true) between liberals and libertarians, both of which seem to have strong and opposite opinions on the topic of global warming. As a result I have been simultaneously criticized for being too soft and too hard on global warming dissidents. I hope this means that I am striking an objective balance – but then, of course, I get criticized for striking a “false balance.” I have been told that I am losing my skeptical street cred, and that I have faith in global warming as a secular religion. Many people also seem to think they can divine my political persuasion from my opinions on global warming, but then proceed to make very incorrect assumptions on that score.
There has also been intense fighting on what to call global warming dissidents – the term I have settled on as the most accurate and neutral. Part of the problem is that dissidents come in a broad range of opinions. At one end of the spectrum there are what can only be described as deniers – those who engage in all the tactics of denialism against any notion of climate change. At the other end are those who accept the core scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), but are skeptical of some of the dire predictions and proposed fixes. And there is every permutation in between – defying easy categorization or labeling. So I use “dissidents” as a neutral catch-all.
What is most disappointing about the AGW controversy is the degree to which self-identified members of the skeptical community engage in less-than-skeptical discourse on this topic. I am mainly referring to the many dozens of e-mails I have received on the topic (every time I talk about it) but also on blogs and articles.
I would like to share with you an e-mail exchange I had recently with a global warming dissident. He is responding mainly to my recent discussion of “climategate” – which has really increased the nastiness of the discussion on AGW.
My personal understanding of the current state of climate science is this – the evidence is very solid that average global temperatures are trending up over the last century and that human forcing through CO2 production is the best current answer to explain this trend. If this trend continues (a somewhat big “if”) then there will likely be significant unwanted consequences – not for the earth, but for human civilization. Shifting around agriculture and shorelines will be inconvenient, to say the least. But there is admitted uncertainty in this, and we don’t know all the ways in which the environment will respond to CO2 and temperature increases. But, as is often the case with applied sciences, we have to act prior to certainty if we want to affect the outcome.
Further, the current plans for fixes to rising CO2 and climate change are as much political as scientific. I think the best solutions to focus on are those things that we would benefit from anyway. Let’s accelerate research and development into alternative energy sources and increased energy efficiency. Even if AGW is a non-issue, these will be good things. It’s a win-win.
I must admit I have not been impressed with those who have e-mailed me to try to convince me that AGW is pseudoscience, and that dissidents are the real skeptics. It seems that the more someone tries to convince me of this position, the more they push me in the opposite direction. The following e-mail exchange really is representative of what I receive. (Forgive the length of the exchange.)
Steve, I was heartened to hear your softened position on Global Warming in the Year End SGU, even though Rebecca is still rabid. Eventually, all of you will come to realize who were the real skeptics on this issue, and who were the Denyers. A quote from below article – if the shoe fits:
“The secular religion of global warming has all the elements of a Religious Faith: original sin (we are polluting the planet), ritual (separate your waste for recycling), redemption (renounce economic growth) and the sale of indulgences (carbon offsets). We are told that we must have faith (all argument must end, as Al Gore likes to say) and must persecute heretics (global warming skeptics are like Holocaust deniers, we are told).
People in the grip of such a religious frenzy evidently feel justified in lying, concealing good evidence and plucking bad evidence from whatever flimsy source may be at hand. The rest of us, and judging from polls that includes most of the American people, are free to follow a more rational path.”
I responded with the opinion I outlined above, concluding:
When you dig through all the nonsense and look at the actual data – in my opinion it supports the conclusion that the planet is warming and anthropogenic forcing is playing a significant role. Where this will lead and what to do about it are less clear. There is still uncertainty, but one thing is sure – if we wait until we are certain about AGW it will be too late to do anything about it. It’s like waiting to treat a patient with possible cancer until after you are sure it’s cancer, because it has spread and is now incurable.
Here is part of the e-mailer’s response:
Thanks for the considered reply. We of course agree on many of the issues – I have always been in favor of pollution control, energy efficiency, alternative energy, recycling when efficient. But not Cap and Trade or Carbon Credits or other political/economic disasters. Regarding your cancer analogy, you don’t treat for cancer without the biopsy showing the actual cancer. If you saw the Walter Williams / John Coleman information I sent yesterday, the “warming” itself is now questionable because CRU dropped the coldest temperature data from the mix used to show global temps. And the anthropogenic forcing effect is very tenuous – and where we truly disagree on Truth and Relevance.
OK – this is where I like to dig in. Whenever I get a specific claim I investigate it for myself and try to find out what the real story is. It seems that when it comes to the AGW controversy the claims of the dissidents do not hold up under investigation. So, did the CRU drop data in order to create the false impression of global warming? Here is what I found.
Your point about the CRU dropping the coldest temperature data is a good example of why I am not impressed with the criticisms of AGW dissidents. You seem to be accepting uncritically the claims of the extremists on one side. My approach is always to investigate the claims first, see what both sides are saying, and then come to a conclusion.
It did not take me long to find this: http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2010/01/kusi-noaa-nasa/
A very reasoned and referenced analysis of this claim.
First, as far as I can tell the claim comes from here: http://www.climategate.com/climatologists-drop-806-cold-weather-stations-in-a-single-year
The claim of dropped data results from anomaly hunting followed by admitted speculations:
“Absent any public statement from climatolgists for such a strange act, I can only speculate that this a deliberate attempt to cause an artificial warming of the data set. I can think of no other valid scientific reason.”
Ah – an argument from ignorance. Well, he should have investigated first.
It turns out that stations are not being dropped from the data. It takes years and even decades to put together the hand-collected data from many stations around the world. So as you look back in time, those stations whose data has not been made available yet “drop off”. As the author above explains – if you look at the number of stations providing data 30 years from now you may see a spike around 2010 in the number of stations. In other words – stations are not being dropped, there is just a delay in getting data from them.
Second – you need to ask what should be an obvious question – is there any evidence that the stations which are currently missing from the data (for whatever reason) would skew the temperature results in favor of a warming trend. The answer to this is a clear no, from multiple independent lines of evidence. First – satellite temperature data would increasingly depart from ground station data if the ground stations were being biased in one direction. No such trend exists.
Second, when you compare stations with current data and those without current data, there is no pattern or bias toward warmer or cooler temperatures. So the core claim that cooler temperatures are being systematically dropped is false.
As a side note, the claim is about the GHCN, not the CRU.
This is representative of the entire climategate affair, as far as I can tell – although I am reserving judgment until all the facts are in. It does seem the CRU scientists were not following the rules of transparency and had developed a bunker mentality. It remains to be seen if they were engaged in “pious fraud.” What I reject are the premature conclusions of dissidents who were quick to assume that climategate confirmed all of their most extreme opinions.
So far, when you dig down to the real information it turns out that the anomalies in the data were just an innocent part of the scientific process – in this case the lag in data collection. This is true anomaly hunting and confirmation bias.
I am still waiting to hear a legitimate scientific argument from AGW dissidents why we should reject the claim that global warming is happening and is likely anthropogenic. I am not impressed by political arguments, calling my position a religion, or weaving liberal conspiracy theories.
I may be wrong – if you think I am then let’s discuss the science. My challenge to those who consider themselves global warming skeptics is, if you wish to truly earn that mantle, is to focus on scientific arguments. My opinions can be changed on this topic, I really have no stake in the debate at all – except the one that every human on the planet has, which is only served by knowing the truth, whatever it is. I hope global warming is not happening, it is nothing but a major inconvenience and crimp in civilization. I would love to just continue burning fossil fuels and not have to worry about the consequences.
So if you disagree with me, show me some science. And spare me the name-calling and conspiracy theories.