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Why climate change contrarians owe us a (scientific) explanation

Posted on 11 October 2013 by gpwayne

For a while now, I’ve considered climate change denial to be akin to superstition, which the Oxford Dictionaries site defines as “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences.” I mention this because when challenged, contrarians often claim that the climate changes we are witnessing are not man-made, but products of ‘natural variability’.  In this context, I find that ‘natural variability’ appears to be a synonym for ‘supernatural influence’.

Why? Because they can’t explain it. Not just that: many seem to believe they are not obliged to do so, which is suspiciously convenient, and all too reminiscent of those who would claim they don’t need to ‘explain’ God. In this, they share a view once expressed in a Guardian forum which, to this day, remains one of my favourite denialist non-sequiturs. When challenged, a poster calling himself Hamlet 4 insisted “I don’t need to prove climate change is caused by natural variability. It just is.”

*****

Recently in the Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli wrote an interesting article entitled Magical climate contrarian thinking debunked by real science. The first sentence creates the context:

“One of the most important concepts to understand when trying to grasp how the Earth’s climate works, is that every climate change must have a physical cause”.

He follows that up with the premise on which his argument is based:

“It’s not sufficient to say global warming is the result of “a natural cycle” – which cycle is causing the change? For example, is it due to the Earth’s orbital cycles around the Sun, which operate very slowly over periods of thousands of years? Is it changes in solar activity, which has on average remained flat and even declined slightly over the past 60 years? Is it ocean cycles, which shift heat between the oceans and air, and don’t cause the Earth to accumulate more heat?”

Dana is taking issue with a specific paper, authored by Syun-Ichi Akasofu, a retired geophysicist and former director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks:

“[Akasofu] claimed that the current global warming is merely a result of the planet “recovering” from the Little Ice Age – a cool period (the cooling mostly isolated in Europe) that lasted between the years of about 1550 and 1850. Problem – Akasofu didn’t identify any physical cause for this supposed ‘recovery.’”

I’ve often remarked that climate change contrarians have no science. A common retort is that since we ‘warmists’ are making the claims, it is us that need to produce the evidence to support it. On the face of it, this seems fair enough – and indeed we have produced the evidence, not that contrarians are prepared to acknowledge any of it. (No surprise there). However, as with calls for probity, accuracy and transparency, one might imagine that such virtues, attributes or burdens of proof would be applicable to us all, not just scientists, advocates or journalists. Evidently, one would be wrong.

Clearly, the pseudo-sceptics do not care to understand that when they make claims, the same rules ought to apply. Describing the changes we have already witnessed as ‘natural variability’ without explaining the forcing or its origin is exactly the superstitious ‘magical thinking’ that Dana discusses, which explains absolutely nothing and has as much credibility in scientific terms as claiming that God did it.

*****

Since theological explanations are no longer popular, contrarians need some kind of new, unknowable force to conveniently explain climate change; the new superstition of ’natural variability’. They don’t seem to understand that, in the scientific context in which these claims are usually made, this is yet another hypothesis, and requires exactly the same standard of scientific examination they demand of existing climate science.

Natural variability is not an explanation of cause, but the observation of a pattern of effect. It is not a mechanism, nor is it a description or function. Natural variability is an attribution, a generalisation, a vague but convenient catch-all. All phenomena are 'natural' and they vary a lot. Citing 'natural variation' as an explanation, explains nothing. The missing component in this 'explanation' is how and why ‘natural variability’ takes place at all - and to discover this, we must turn to science.

To bring about a ‘natural’ change still requires an energy input or output. Climate change contrarians cannot produce any science that attests to energy changes that might cause this recent ’natural variability’ any more than creationists can produce science (or evidence) to support their claim that 'it was God what done it'. This should not be surprising, because climate change denial is a belief system, founded not on science and evidence, but something akin to a religion, or superstition.

The problem with the claim that all the climate changes we are already witnessing are within the bounds of natural variability is that those making the claim cannot identify the forcing – the change in energy levels – required to increase the global temperatures rapidly over three decades, to melt glaciers, to warm oceans, to change seasonal periodicity, to expand deserts, to cause extreme weather, change precipitation patterns, to decrease Arctic ice volume or increase Antarctic sea ice extent.

All these and many more changes in our environment require energy, and what climate change contrarians cannot produce is even a convincing alternative hypothesis to explain where this energy is coming from, let alone produce empirical evidence for it. Yet this is their ‘theory’, their alleged explanation for what is happening to the climate. I think they owe us more than some vague, hand-waving generalisation. They owe us a scientific explanation of what drives this ‘natural variability’, because without it, they are asking us to dismiss a cohesive, consistent, consilient scientific theory in favour of nothing but untestable, unprovable, unfalsifiable superstition. They might as well be asking us to dump science in favour of magic – and then again, perhaps that’s exactly what they are doing.

*****

When it comes to credibility, a source of information should surely maintain some kind of balance. That isn’t to say that an editorial policy can’t be applied – the Guardian is still (barely) a left-wing media outlet but that doesn’t mean its output is mere propaganda, even though its detractors might conveniently characterise it as such.

This point is particularly salient when considering the main contrarian websites. These sites cannot possibly be considered sceptical, for a simple reason; they find fault in all climate science, not just some of it.

Think about it: thousands of papers published over the last 50 years. I just wrote about the Charney report – a remarkably prescient bit of work dating from 1979 – but the audit trail goes a long way further back than that, all the way back to Fourier, Tyndall, and Arrhenius with his greenhouse theory, published in 1896. (Arrhenius received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903 by the way, and in 1905 became Director of the Nobel Institute, where he remained until his death).

Surely I can’t be alone in thinking that a site calling itself ‘sceptical’ would find some papers to be accurate, some to be debatable, and some to be in error. That would be the logical assumption in regard of any statistical breakdown of technical materials, particularly when the material originates from scientists so geographically and culturally diverse.

The probability that all climate science is wrong (or right, for that matter) is, statistically speaking, zero. Indeed, Skeptical Science, while lauding many papers for their insight, had no compunction in finding fault with a recent paper about an alleged methane bubble. (A fine demonstration of true scepticism, the lack of an agenda – and the pernicious corruption of proper spelling by the colonies. Have they no respect?).

The unfortunate result of finding fault in everything is that one can no longer be seen to persuade, but to hector and harass, to denigrate and deny. Without a counter-argument, all that’s left is propaganda. Persuasion requires a counter-position at least as credible as the one argued against; propaganda requires only a credulous audience willing to believe something that confirms a view they already hold. When the subject is climate science, it isn’t a valid argument to dismiss one theory without being able to propose an alternative. As I’ve said before, to knock down an edifice, all that’s required is brute strength and a sledgehammer. Constructing a new edifice out of the rubble requires more; intelligence, architecture, planning, skills and crafts, design and construction. Contrarians certainly know how to wield the hammer, but there’s not much evidence of anything constructive in their position.

Why do I claim that criticism without a counter-theory is invalid? For the same reason Dana eschews ‘magical thinking’. At the heart of the climate change debate there is a question being asked, and to answer it requires science. (The Oxford Dictionary on-line defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”).

We study the physical and natural world for many reasons, but chief among them must surely be the desire to understand changes in the world around us that may affect us for better or worse. So we find ourselves contemplating an important question; the climate is changing – why is that?

If contrarians want to argue their case, it is not sufficient to be dismissive of climate science, any more than it is appropriate to pitch opinion against theory. There is no material explanation for climate change proposed by deniers, except the magical thinking of ‘natural variation’. The only valid way to improve science is through better science, and better science is not achieved by taking a sledgehammer to the existing canon, any more than it could be improved by burning books.

We have a really important question to answer: why is the climate changing? This question cannot be answered through rhetoric or debate. It is the stuff of science, and until those who take issue with anthropogenic climate change can produce an alternative theory of equal merit, they must rely entirely on hyperbole, demagoguery, personal attacks, misrepresentation, and bad science to promote their invidious case.

I’m open to persuasion, but only by one means; science. ‘Natural variation’ doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question, which cannot be put back in the Pandora’s box it came from. We need an answer, and ‘natural variability’ isn’t it. What contrarians cannot do is persuade us that such a pressing question does not require an urgent answer.

All physical change involves changes in energy states. Until climate change contrarians can come up with a plausible, testable alternative explanation as to where this energy is coming from and why it is changing in distribution and quantity, they cannot present an argument that will persuade by force of logic. Appealing to pseudo-superstitions like ‘natural variation’ is an appeal to a mob mentality. It depends on predisposition, a certain ignorance, a credulous audience and a lack of sceptical enquiry. What it will never do is stop the ice melting, nor explain why it is.

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Comments 51 to 100 out of 131:

  1. Comments Policy

    No ad hominem attacks. Personally attacking other users gets us no closer to understanding the science. For example, comments containing the words 'religion' and 'conspiracy' tend to get moderated. Comments using labels like 'alarmist' and 'denier' as derogatory terms are usually skating on thin ice.

    Note: denier, contrarian and alarmist all used in the post by gpwayne . Or do the rules only apply to people that question the science? Just asking a valid  question here?

     

     

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    Moderator Response:

    [PW] Moderation complaints/whining noted; move on to the topic of the thread. If you have solid scientific backup for your previously-unsupported assertionss, provide them. Otherwise, further detractive commentary *will* be moderated.

  2. Yes, you do need to supply the details.  And you need to get to know the site.  Your argument has already been dealt with here:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-higher-in-past.htm

    Not referring to this indicates you're not really interested in much of anything but stopping discussion with 'gotcha's that work in your local pub.

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  3. This is my response to the post by Elephant In The Room (#36).

    "As for scientific explanation - you seem to be laying down the gauntlet for people to refute with scientific evidence something that is currently theory".

    To be clear, I am insisting that the only way to challenge science is with better science. Opinions need to be validated, else they remain mere opinion – and as we’ll see, opinions do not – indeed cannot – add to our scientific knowledge. Only science itself does that.

    The threat of man-made climate change is a theory that currently the IPCC have a 95 percent certainty in (previously 90 percent). It's all semantics.

    No, it’s all statistics. The fact you confuse the two is revealing. (It reveals an agenda, to forestall the obvious question).

    100 percent, 90, 50. It is immaterial. We could all quote our 'out of 10' view on any given subject. It DOES NOT add weight to the argument.

    Nor does TYPING IN CAPITALS.

    Probability is hardly immaterial. Again, your comment reveals an agenda, a lack of understanding, or a refusal to do so. In short, inferential or observational science (where results cannot be tested against a ‘control’ Earth, for example) often relies on a statistical determination. Confidence levels are crucial to understanding the uncertainties, evaluating them, and how they are resolved.

    However, it is my belief, and it is a belief, that the effect of the Co2 that we as humans churn out is minimal compared to the amount produced through natural variation.

    Well, that’s true in a broad sense, (although it isn't natural variation that causes the effect - natural variation is a description of how the effect changes over time. Your misapplication of the term is also part of the sub-text of my article).

    Anyway, the pre-industrial greenhouse effect warms us by around 30 degrees C. Human contributions have added 0.8 degrees C. But since the system is non-linear, and highly reactive, it is a small increase that concerns us because its effect may have consequences far in excess of its proportion.

    To ask a person or persons to refute 'evidence' with 'science' is ludicrous in the same way that it would have been to ask people to challenge that the world was once deemed to be flat.

    This is a serious failure of logic, if you don’t mind me saying so. How else can one challenge scientific evidence, except with better scientific evidence? And your analogy is inappropriate. The belief that the world was flat – not widely held at any time since Ptolemy, by the way – was not a scientific view, but after the birth of Christ, largely a religious one. The appropriate analogy would be to suggest it would be ‘ludicrous’ to challenge the round Earth evidence by citing a religious belief that it wasn’t – exactly the point I made in the article.

    And I can assure you that our brief incursion here will have no effect on the long term future.

    And I can assure you that you have no way at all of knowing that. Your assurances are not remotely credible, since like the rest of us, you cannot predict the future. Attempts to do so smack of superstition, however.

    Are we complaining that we are returning [carbon] to the air after it had once been sequested?

    No, we are concerned about the speed at which we’re doing it, and the warming it's causing.

    Are we complaining about sea levels when we know full well that this is a natural event that occurs post Ice Epoch?

    No, we are concerned that the sea level will rise so fast we will not be able to adapt, and that massive amounts of damage will be done to fragile systems, including the human economy. (By the way, describing these issues as 'complaints' is tone-trolling. They are not complaints, and your attempts to dismiss them as such are more products of an agenda).

    Is it the planets fault that we as humans choose to build houses in coastal areas that will as history tells us become inundated again with water?

    Is it the Bangladeshi’s fault they live in Bangladesh? The Dutch in Holland? That mankind has settled along river deltas like the Indus, Ganges etc because the plains were fertile, and the rivers promoted transport, trade and exchange of ideas?

    Take a good look; there is enough history there to tell you what has been and what will be again.

    In other words, we’ll repeat history because we can’t learn from it. How fatalistic (and also a non-sequitur).

    Do you really wish to throw all your eggs in one basket for the sake of a global threat that isn't really a threat at all? [my emphasis]

    This closing remark serves to make the key point I raised in my article. You claim climate change ‘isn’t really a threat at all’.

    To which I say this: since you can't possibly know this - it's another claim to be able to read the future - in fact that’s just your opinion. To convince me, you’ll have to demonstrate a high probability for the claim – and you can’t. For that, you need science, and you don't have any.

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  4. MA Roger @49: You may be right and it would be powerful to be able to say that there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that refutes AGW that hasn't since been found to be incorrect.  The point I was trying to make was that to a non-specialist both sides of the debate can look the same, as described by Elephant in the Room @50.

    Elephant in the Room @50: I'd be very interested in continuing the discussion with you as you make exactly the point I made in @43 - that both sides of the debate appear the same, meaning you need to make up your own mind what to believe.

    The main counter-AGW argument appears to be: The climate has changed before and no-one truly understands it, therefore there may be some other explanation of the current changes than anthropogenic that is not accounted for in the climate science and the models.  

    The IPCC would actually agree with that I think and put the chance that some other explanation is the dominant cause at 5%.

    Do you think there is a chance that they are right?

    For sake of argument, lets say that humanity is the dominant cause of climate change since 1950, but we don't yet know that it is for certain at the moment.  There would be a lot of scientists trying to find out, wouldn't there?  And most of the scientific results they came up with would support the currently unknown scientific truth, wouldn't it?

    The alternative hypothesis is that humanity is not the dominant cause, and we don't know that for certain at the moment.  In that situation, you would expect a lot of the science to support the view that humanity is not the dominant cause.  That not being the case, you would need to account for the 97% pro-AGW; 3% anti-AGW balance - the counter-consensus argument: there is a large scale confirmation bias among climate scientists, who are looking for evidence for their pre-conceived notions.  You would need to conclude that climate scientists are all bad at their job, or are corrupt in some way.  That seems incredible to me - if it were the case, surely there would be a few good climate scientists out there finding the evidence that refuted AGW?  More than a few?

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  5. Good article: Can you add Einstein to list of scientist as he showed that the geometry you choose is determing what physics you can measure? And for the Dutch: J.C. Lely, as designer and implementor of one of the biggest waterworks. Both had to wait and sit for 20 years before they were heard. Both had a lot of trouble getting their ideas across. Both needed a 'crisis' to get through the fog of 'common sense' beliefs from vested interest.     

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  6. Jubble @54.
    If there is some theory that stands up to scrutiny which would relegate AGW to a non-threatening phenomenon as the contrarians insist, it is a simple question to ask - What is this theory? Do pray tell. I would not be alone in giving any serious suggestion the time of day. And the 3% climatologists who publish papers that do not fit the consensus - they are not very prolific so identifying such a theory shouldn't be too much of an ask as there is little enough literature in which such a theory can be hiding.

    But I don't hold my breath. The whole reason d'etre of this post is that such a theory does not exist. To the great unwashed, the contrarian "side" may appear the same as the scientific "side" but that similarity is an illusion promoted by contrarians and denialists. Scientifically, the difference is that the contrarians continually deny the veracity of whole swathes of science for no other reason than such science is inconvenient for their theorising.

    If the IPCC establish a 95% certainty that human influence has been the dominant cause of rising temperatures over the last 60 years, that does not mean the likes of Elephant In The Room can assume the remaining 5% is his to do with as he will, like some five quid note found lying on the pavement.
    If positive human forcings have been overestimated a bit and/or the negative ones & natural ones & the temperature rise underestimated a bit and the climate wobbles proved to be on the larger side, that presents a situation that would take up the lion's share of the 5%. So all there is lying on the pavement for contrarians to pick up is a bent penny piece. The remaining uncetrtainty gives no scope to deny AGW.

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  7. Elephant #36. You waxed philosophical and weren't moderated. Here goes. As I move rapidly to my Final Rewards I'd like to think our bunch can strain enough against its natural powerful purpose, to provide sacks of flesh to aimlessly carry its genes around and do their bidding slavishly, to advance even to proper space ships (which we ain't gonna do by burning rotted vegetables). You have one foot assisting the 3-month time horizon of the fossil-fuel Corporate kings and the other foot planted firmly in the future when our sun blinks out, but you missed the potential fun stuff for future humans in-between. I'm for the fun thing of new ideas, innovation and whatnot, rather than the miserable philosophy you have of <paraphrasing> species come,  species go, so what, that I first heard on a David Suzuki CBC phone-in 15 years ago. I wonder who is with me and who is with you.

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  8. " The climate has changed before and no-one truly understands it,"

    Except of course that the current climate theory has no problem explaining past change. The problems with past climate change is that, depending on how far back you go, there are multiple possible explanation, all consistent with modern climate theory that can account for the observation. The problem is that is not easy to extract both accurate records for past climate and accurate forcings. However, as the IPCC chapter on paleoclimate shows, theory accounts very adequately for observation given those constraints. "nobody truly understands it" is simply willful ignorance and wishful thinking.

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  9. Elephant.

    "I am entitled to that opinion and that is what I say."

    You are entitled to your own values and political opinions, but you cannot have your own version of reality. What you are saying is that your opinion is not based on any reasonable evidence so there is no basis for anyone else to be interested in what you think.

    "It is easy for everyone on here to talk about 'scientific evidence' when your view is the evidence of an army of climate scientists. Given that there is a distinct absence of investigation into the merits or not of climate science it will always be a one sided debate."

    As far as I can see all this statement means is that you dont believe the evidence therefore you must conclude that somehow the evidence is flawed, rather than question the basis by which you came to your own opinion instead. You are agreeing there is no evidence to support your view but you hold to that believe anyway?

    In fact, the army of scientists is constant investigating the merits of the science - one positive that came out of the climategate leaks is the robust nature of climate debate between climate scientists. If there is one group of people that have scientists, funding, resources and particularly the motivation to attack climate science, then it is the fossil fuel industry. Instead of doing the science they instead spend their money on disinformation. Why is that? Well because their own scientists tell them the science is solid so it would be a waste of money. This is my industry. I dont know of a single climate denier among colleague in my department.

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  10. One other point for Elephant.

    "10 percent of children in the UK for example live in poverty. We also cannot provide our current energy needs."

    What is considered poverty is a rather relative measure. As is what you define as an energy "need"? You could also argue that poverty is actually a distribution problem and that having abundant energy isnt going to remove poverty. MacKay estimates UK consumption at 125kWh/p/d while USA manager 250kWh/p/d. By comparison Hong Kong manages on 80kWh/p/d and India on less than 20. I'd say there was scope to redefine "need" somewhat.

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  11. Fossil fuel companies are not stupid and neither are they poor. They spend millions each year on research, scientists and technicians, Climate change is threatening their business and if it was a false science or if there was another way out they could easily spend the money on research and find it and prove it. Denying that is is happening is only wasting time and a lot of people are going to die.

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  12. Jubble @ 54:

    The main counter-AGW argument appears to be: The climate has changed before and no-one truly understands it, therefore there may be some other explanation of the current changes than anthropogenic that is not accounted for in the climate science and the models.

    That's an argument from ignorance, though. They may not truly understand it, but to say that no-one does asserts a level of knowledge on their part that they clearly lack.

    I think it's worth reiterating that AGW was not invented to explain "the current changes". The current changes were predicted long before they were observed — Svente Arrhenius' first computed a climate sensitivity of 4C in 1896!

    I would point those people to:

    1. Spencer Weart's "The Discovery of Global Warming", showing just how long the theory has been around and how it has evolved over time.

    2. Frank Capra's short film "The Unchained Goddess" from the 1950s talking about the possible consequences of mankind's CO2 emissions.

    3. Richard Alley's talk at AGU in 2009, "The Biggest Control Knob — Carbon Dioxide in Earth's Climate History", giving an excellent overview of the role CO2 has played in Earth's history.

    The fact that climate has changed before — and we know why — is one of the reasons we can predict what will happen this time!

    Thinking that, in spite of all this, the science might still be wrong and the problem may not be as bad as it currently seems, is wishful thinking for which there is no evidence and a bad risk management strategy. I think it's safe to say, as the OP essentially does, that a prima facie case has been made and the burden of proof has now shifted on to the other side if they wish to argue for inaction.

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  13. MARoger @56 & JasonB @62: The scientific argument has clearly been won - there was never an argument in the first place.  

    The popular argument is very much up for grabs, though.  Throughout history, proving the science has only ever been the first important step of many before concerted action can be taken.  Examples are smog in London in the mid 20th century (4000 deaths in 4 days 1952 were initially blamed on influenza - it wasn't until 1956 that legislation was brought in) and of course tobacco.

    Climate contrarians (as they like to be known) will not produce the science, because it is not there.  They will instead try to denigrate the scientists, badging climate science as not a real science at all (other than those cherry-picked studies that can be woven into a superficially convincing argument for "natural variability"), and describing the IPCC as a corrupt group of inept close-knit non-scientists, rather than a panel summarising the work of 1000's of scientists.

    I have just posted the following on WUWT - let's see what sort of response I get:

    "I am looking to be convinced that AGW is a myth or not a problem. I admit that currently I believe that on balance it isn’t a myth and is a problem. My background is in science, with a joint hons undergraduate degree in Math and Physics from the University of Nottingham, England and a post-graduate in applied statistics (operational research) from the London School of Economics.

    Fire away – how can I be convinced? I’ve read “Climate – the Counter Consensus”, if that helps."

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  14. Jubble @ 63,

    The scientific argument has clearly been won - there was never an argument in the first place.

    That's not true. Arrhenius' 1896 paper was thought to have been refuted for half a century due to a flawed experiment by J. Koch in 1900. (Interesting read.) It took a long time for the scientific community to come around.

    The irony, of course, is that "skeptics" now raise all the same objections that were raised and dealt with years ago by real scientists in forming the modern consensus view, all the while proclaiming that they are the ones fighting the closed-minded establishment that has "already made up its mind" oblivious to the fact that the "skeptics" actually represent the holdovers of the old estalishment view that took so long to overcome with scientific evidence!

    It's like Flat Earthers complaining that modern scientists are stuck in their ways and not considering new, alternative theories!

    This is also an interesting read that you might like.

    I have just posted the following on WUWT - let's see what sort of response I get:

    You may be surprised by what they think is convincing evidence. :-)

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  15. chriskoz@6

    "The reason is: the religious institutions around the world do accept AGW"

    I have to disagree with you on your analysis.

    The reason is that your objection does not touch the core of the comparison (which you seem to acknowledge), which is that people who denies the scientific premise of AGW do that based on their belief/ideology because AGW is a direct threat to their belief system.

    I do want to take a moment and clarify my stance: I consider both (politcal) ideology and religions equal in that the other promotes some economic of social idea on a pedestal, while the latter places a superbeing on it. To the degree where this becomes sacrosanct and no critique is tolerated/accepted.

    In this situation, a scientific theory which directly threatens the dogma of the believer causes the believer to be in a state of cognitive dissonance and the solution is either to modify the dogma to accommodate the new information, abandon it altogether, or reject the science, not based on facts, but on secondary reasons (ad hominem etc.).

    AGW is not directly contradicting the central tenets of most of the religions (although some seem to interpret the texts differently). Hence your reference to Vatican acceptance is not very strong. It would be better to observe how vehemently the various religions has opposed, and changed their dogma (eg. the Anglican Church of England), due to research in evolution and cosmology, both which directly contradicts what the sacred texts claim to be the truth.

    AGW however is a direct threat to those who adhere to the ideology of free market and libertarianism, since AGW very clearly indicates what is required to avoid the consequences.

    The crowd that follows and repeats the lies as "alternative theories" on WUWT or such blogs, are poeple who for some reasons are unable or too lazy to verify the "skeptic claims".

    Are you sure there is not even a single person among that group of people, who does not really believe in what is published on those blogs? The last sentence is in essence saying: They accept the "alternative theories" on blind faith, contrary to what science says. Is this really so different to how some of the (traditionally) religious people are rejecting science on the field of evolution and cosmology?

    Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a expert on neither theology, nor AGW/Evolution/Cosmology. Any corrections are much appreciated.

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  16. Whenever we hear things like "worst flood in 100 years", "strongest hurricane since..." "most tornadoes in 50 years" or whatever here are the things that come to my mind.

    Identify and explain all of the natural factors that caused that record event in the past long before man had much effect on CO2 then identify and explain all of the man made factors that made the recent event equal or exceed the past natural events.

    That is the scientific explaination I am looking for.

    If man caused Sandy then what caused the more powerful storm that hit New York in 1821?

    If nature caused 5 hurricanes to hit the east coast in 1954-55 then why do people claim that the recent fewer and less powerful east coast storms are caused by man?

    Prior to the strong La Nina (cooler Pacific waters) fueled Joplin tornado outbreak there was the super outbreak of tornadoes in 1974 (another strong La Nina) fueled outbreak. Why was the 1974 outbreak that occurred during the media hyped global cooling scare different than the Joplin outbreak where people blamed warming. Even though both were actually caused by the same thing that fuels all severe weather. Interaction between air masses of different temperatures.

    Why was nature as powerful in the past as man is claimed to be today?

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  17. "AGW however is a direct threat to those who adhere to the ideology of free market and libertarianism, since AGW very clearly indicates what is required to avoid the consequences."

     

    Even more importantly, Iin my opinion, is the fact that AGW itself is one of the largest and most stark examples of a market failure, and to those who fervently believe in lassiez faire capitalism as the Holy Grail that can solve all our ills, it is a *very* inconvenient fact that lays bare the falsity of that long-held supposition.

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  18. History Reader @66.

    While all your questions may not be so readily answered as the first example you set, that first is hardily an obscure question. And neither is its answer. Your question of course should be framed a little differently as obviously Sandy was not a product of human endeaviour. Rather its path and intensity was much influenced by human endeaviour.

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  19. History reader @6, you refer to "... the media hyped global cooling scare ...".  As a reader of history, you should know better than to get your information from people who are known to falsify the record.  When deniers have to make fake Time magazine covers in order to prove the existence of a "media hyped global cooling scare", that tells you that the actual evidence does not support their claim.

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  20. History read, the scientific explanation for attribution of weather events to global warming is pretty simple, really.  All specific weather events have occurred as they have actually occurred as a result of global warming.  To imagine a global warming-free world where Sandy develops and tracks as it actually did last year is irrational, to say the least.  An increase in global energy storage affects every part of the system, and from a variety of directions.

    Also, with something like hurricanes, most non-experts I've talked with baseline their experience in the 1970s or 1980s, as if that were the period before global warming.  It was not, and global warming = persistent change.  The science on hurricane development under global warming is, at best, only loosely aligned under one theory.  Journalists, in general, have done badly in communicating this area of the science to the general public.  

    As far as humans being powerful is concerned, note that humans are simply enhancing an already very powerful natural mechanism--the greenhouse effect.  The theory of the greenhouse effect is extremely well-supported by direct observation/measurement, and it hasn't faced a serious challenge in about a century.  We are simply doubling the strength of one major component of that effect, and through that doubling we enhance the power of several other components of that effect (H2O and CH4).  

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  21. History Reader, to give you an illustration of my first claim, take a pinball machine.  Build a device that shoots the pinball into the machine at precisely the same speed each time.  Shoot the ball in and then track the ball.  Now, shift every bumper one millimeter to the left (a tiny shift!), and each kicker a millimeter to the right.  Now shoot the ball again.  Same track?  Same score (without using the flippers)?  No. Or, if the same score, not for the same reasons.  

    Undoubtedly there will be some natural variation that will affect the track on each run beyond the re-placement of the bumpers and kickers, but the re-placement of those elements certainly has an effect, and over a long number of runs, the difference between the two states (pre-re-placement and re-placement) will become clear, as the signals of short-term natural variation (climate read: ENSO, PDO, 11-year solar cycle) start to average out.  

    Of course, we're not shifting the climate a millimeter to the left.  Given the geological bounds of climate (the bounds set by precedence and physics), we're moving the bumpers and kickers about an inch to the left.  However, we're not doing it all at once.  It feels immediate to the evolutionary progress of the biosphere, but to the individual human it feels quite slow and relatively harmless.  The ball is still bouncing around at the top of the machine, though.

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  22. scaddenp @60:

    "MacKay estimates UK consumption at 125kWh/p/d while USA manager 250kWh/p/d. By comparison Hong Kong manages on 80kWh/p/d and India on less than 20. I'd say there was scope to redefine "need" somewhat."

    I'd say there is too, but I don't think we can say that energy "needs" are necessarily met by a per-capita distribution as low as India's, let alone that of many sub-Saharan African countries.  I would like to see more discussion of this, as it is the only argument against rapid decarbonization of industry that I have heard from climate contrarians that seems to me like it could even potentially be valid.  With (hundreds of millions?) of people the world over truly living with what we could only honestly call "energy poverty" (I'm thinking at least that a kids-huddled-under-streetlights-doing-homework-in-the-evening type of situation qualifies), there is undoubtedly a serious problem.  I also understand that international treaties like Kyoto/Copenhagen/UNFCCC don't place mandatory emissions reductions or even emissions growth limits on poor (or "non-Annex 1"?) countries, so it's not like international climate policy is overtly snubbing the world's energy-poor.  But on the other hand, is it possible that staying within, say, a 2-degrees-C global emissions budget could be irreconcilable with the goal of lifting X number of people out of energy poverty?  Or, on the other hand, if the goals are reconcilable, how much longer will it take for the quality of life of that X number of people to be improved on a responsible (in terms of maintaining or restoring climate stability) emissions budget, compared to how long it would take by simply throwing up coal and gas power plants willy-nilly, emissions budget be damned (entertaining for the moment the idea that we have enough readily available fossil fuel on Earth to eradicate energy poverty by burning it)?  If the difference is several decades, then adequately addressing the AGW problem could be imposing a continued miserable existence (or at least one that would seem so to me if I had to live it) on an entire generation of the world's energy-poor.  

    This bothers me a lot (I live in the US, where we overconsume and can't agree on a fiscal budget, let alone a CO2 one), especially when I consider it also in light of the concept of "global overshoot day," defined as the day of a given year on which our cumulative consumption of natural resources exceeds that which the Earth has the capacity to restore in a year, which according to the Global Footprint Network (an organization that I admittedly don't know much about, so I can't speak to the robustness or credibility of the science behind its pronouncements) occurred sometime in August this year, if I remember correctly.  Meaning that, if per capita energy consumption correlates to consumption of other resources, as I assume it must to some degree, then raising India's or China's per-capita energy consumption up to say even UK's level is a scary thought for global resource conservation in general, whether or not it involves blowing past any global emissions budget that might avoid climate mayhem.  

    I realize I'm touching on a lot of highly specialized subjects in one rambling comment.  The main point that I would like to make is that I would like to see either a thoughtful SkS post that addresses the subject of energy poverty head-on, or more discussion under the Climate Myth "CO2 Limits Will Hurt the Poor," where the main post (as of now) simply takes an end-around route by observing that unmitigated climate change itself will disproportionately hurt the poor.  I don't doubt that that is true, but I would like to see some kind of comparative analysis of whether climate change will hurt the poor more or less than the differential amount of energy poverty (if any) that the poor will be made to endure by being subject to a global emissions budget that will safely avoid climate catastrophe(even if there are no limits being imposed on poorer countries now, surely limits would have to be imposed as soon as the kind of rapid emissions growth ensued that would be necessary to lift people from energy poverty - by burning fossil fuels - to anything resembling what would feel like energy prosperity to an American or Brit, e.g.) .  

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  23. I made a similar comment under the relevant "Climate Myth" post (#65, by the way), and looking back, I see that scaddenp has offered some insights there (thought I recognized your ID).  I have not read MacKay's Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, but I see he has a free downloadable pdf here: http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html, and I will take your suggestion of reading it.

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  24. jdixon - It's very interesting book. It inspired me to make and publish the same analysis for my country (NZ) though with a slightly different emphasis. His approach of looking at things in terms of kWh/p/d is very useful.

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  25. scaddenp, would you be so kind as to proivide a link to your analysis? I'd like to share it with my Kiwi friends.

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  26. @History reader #66, DSL #70. I think History's questions are better answered by locating those bell curves of weather events and discussions of them (I recall lectures by, perhaps, Dr. Wasdell, Dr. Hansen, Prof. Muller posted as videos that included explanations of the bell curve of weather events both widening at the base and moving towards the severe events. My understanding is that a weather event is not "caused by global warming", which is simplistic. The additionaI energy in the system (in the oceans) makes more events more energetic, but to greatly varying amounts so that it is incorrect to say "this is a global warming one, that's a regular one like we had before". It's important to note that "global warming" is in its early years so we should not expect every weather event to be more powerful than any prior weather event.

    "powerful east coast storms", the east coast of which country or continent ? (is my so-subtle way of saying the peoples of Land Incognita really notice the navel-gazing south of the Sumas border crossing here. I mean we really really notice it and a commenter would gain great creds by searching for a similar size weather event in some country over there, study and add to their comments to show cosmopolitanism  in the global topic of global warming).

     

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  27. vroomie - the original is linked from here at Hot Topic. Oliver Bruce did an update last year, serialised at Hot Topic, starting here. The final document can be downloaded from here.

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  28. What I would really like to see is an American (or Luxembourg) version of the document. How do you actually manage to use 250kWh/p/d? That's more than double NZ or UK but I wouldnt have thought the lifestyle that much more energy intensive. I suspect the figure for consumer energy use have some issues.

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  29. scaddenp @78.

    I'm not entirely sure why you pick on Luxembourg but they actually do have the largest per capita accumulative CO2 emissions (since 1750). There is a bit of geography here. Second on such a list is UK & Belgium is fourth (only receltly overhauled by USA) as this is the region where the industrial revolution first grew big. Luxembourg continues to have a big steel industry and is a very small country which is why it manages to remain out in front. (Thus didn't feel they should feature on this graphic of national & per capita accumulative emissions because I considered Luxembourg with its steel industry a sort of special case. And they are a small counrty.)

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  30. I picked on Luxembourgh because they come in at a whooping 300kWh/p/d.

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  31. If a scientist observed a bottle of beer warming on a table, and noted how the temperature changed over some time interval, could they make a scientific statement about the warming, and/or predict the future temperature?

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  32. Andrew7x8, no.  Analysis of the physical situation is required.  Simply extrapolating a trend in that way can leave one literally dead.  If I stand in the middle of the street and am not hit by a car for 10 minutes, does it mean that I will never be hit by a car?  If we know why the bottle is warming, we can assess how long the conditions are likely to persist.  We know why the climate system is warming, and that--not the surface trend--tells us that it's likely to persist for centuries.

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  33. Andrew, the question is why is the bottle of beer warming. If you postulate that say it is warming because the air temperature around it is warmer than the beer, then you could determine things like thermal properties of glass and beer, and then see whether observed warming was consistant with Fourier law. That doesnt mean hypothesis is proved - there could be a say a chemical reaction due to an additive to beer and an masking refridgerator element to give rates consistant with Fourier law - but it does give you some confidence in then using simple heat transfer to predict the future state of the bottle temperature.

    However, if you had a network of very accurate thermometers within the beer, then you would observe more complex temperatures changes going on within the fluid because of internal convective currents within the bottle. Predicting the evolution of temperature on these thermometers would be a very complex task with a lower degree of predictability. However, if the beer is cold and room is warm, you have little difficulty in predicting the average temperature of the beer  over say 10 minute intervals and how fast it will warm to room temperature.

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  34. Andrew, further to that - accurate prediction is about understanding what is happening and why. Quantification means being able to model the process with well-understood physics.

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  35. DSL and scaddenp, thanks for the reply. Imagine that the physical situation cannot be investigated for some reason (possibly temporarily). Is there any scientific statement that can be made by examining how the temperature changed over time. For example, it may have tended to a limit, changed linearly, increased exponentially, or shown some periodic behaviour. Can any scientific statements be made based on the temperature record?

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  36. Andrew, the physically situation is easily examined physically and has been done so. I suggest you look at the "The history of climate science" and "the Big picture" button at the top of the home page for starters on this. The radiative properties of GHG have been known for a long time. The increase in radiative forcing is directly measured. However, the physics might be understood, but that doesnt necessarily make it easily modelled. It is especially hard to make short term projection - for much the same reason as micro temperature changes within the beer. Its easier to predict next's year monthly average in summer than to predict the daily temperature in 10 days time. Climate models have no skill at predicting surface temperature on decadal scales and dont pretend to be. They are skillful at long term trends. 

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  37. Not alone, Andrew.  I've argued with people who claim that there is a natural cycle at work over the last 150 years.  They've pointed to Excel graphs that show GMST smoothed to the point that it looks kinda like a sine wave.  They then argue, based on that pseudo-sine, that we're about to go into a period of cooling.  I ask if they believe that solar variation drives temperature.  They say of course it does.  I then point out that solar has matched GMST pretty well over the last 1000 years, but over the last fifty solar has been flat or falling.  Temp, however, has risen rapidly.  I then ask where that leaves their sine.

    The surface signal is composed of solar input, greenhouse forcing, anthro and natural aerosols, ocean-troposphere oscillations, and a variety of feedbacks.  The short-term oscillations provide uncertainty in attributing and projecting the short-term trend.  The long-term trend is dominated by solar, GHG, and aerosol changes.  GMST is the result of all of that in one trend line.  

    Worse yet, the surface/troposphere is a tiny portion of the overall thermal capacity of the system.  The oceans are the overwhelming thermal capacitor of the system.  Thus, even if you could draw any conclusions from GMST, you couldn't draw any conclusions about global warming.

    Why, then, does mainstream media focus on GMST?  One or more of the following: 1) the writer thinks the audience is too dumb to understand the details; 2) the writer doesn't understand the details; 3) the writer doesn't want the audience to understand the details; and 4) the writer thinks the audience doesn't need to understand the details, since GMST is the most directly relevant result.

     

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  38. @DSL #87 Re your closing paragraph, but persons genuinely attemping to  explain this phenomenon to the public in the past have also focussed on GMST. It's been my assumption that climate scientists have discussed GMST as the "warming" because that's what they can get (to varying degrees of coverage) from paleoclimate proxies. I've assumed they don't have paleo-ocean-heat-Kj otherwise it would have been discussed. Logically, this part of the topic would be split into the ocean warming heat and the surface symptoms. Thus they've given the mischief makers a nice phoney tool through no choice of their own. Based on my observations of others' comments there's a significant portion of the public who will never be able to grasp this topic.

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  39. I read "The history of climate science" and "The Big Picture", as scaddenp suggested.

    I noticed that the first sentence of "The Earth is Warming" in "The Big Picture" is:

    The Earth is Warming
    We know the planet is warming from surface temperature stations and satellites measuring the temperature of the Earth's surface and lower atmosphere.

    Surely the public and mainstream media are focused on GMST, because climate scientists used GMST as evidence of global warming. It is unfair to blame the public and mainstream media if the "goalposts" are moved.

    1 1
  40. No, Andrew.  The theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not based on any surface temp record.  It is simply the greenhouse effect plus the proposition that humans are responsible for the recent rapid rise in atmospheric CO2. 

    Even if the surface temp were plunging negative for 50 years, the theory would still be in evidence.  It would simply be colder without AGW.

    You need to make a distinction between the theory of anthropogenic global warming and modeling of future elements of climate.  That distinction has always existed in the science.  AGW is not based on the output of general circulation modeling.

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  41. Andrew, further, and again, 90%+ of the effective thermal capacity of the climate system is wrapped up in the oceans.  Another 2-3% is in global ice mass loss.  Using surface temperature to assess global warming is like writing a review of a restaurant based on drinking a glass of water and eating one appetizer.  Can doing that tell you something about the restaurant?  Absolutely, but you'd never actually write the review based on just the appetizer. 

    I hope.

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  42. Well I think Andrew does have point. GMST is where we live so that is what we notice. However, if you are going to have people claiming climate science is wrong because GMST is rising more slowly, then you do need to look at bit further afield than just the very noisy GMST. However, until we got Argo in 2002, ocean temperatures estimates had large error bands especially below 700m.

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  43. @Andrew7x8 #89 I agree with your point but there's no progress without change so suggest you attempt to explain that GMST is a pretty good proxy for climate warming & cooling when comparing blocks of at least 30 years with other ones and it's all we have for comparison from 650,000,000 until ~100 years ago, but we are finally starting to get the real deal, ocean heat, measured well and we can increasingly expect that to be the quantity measure this century because it's going to be a true measure even from one year to the next. Point out that it makes the topic interesting because if GMST were to soar +0.5C next year with no identified cause from insolation, albedo, aerosols or greenhouse gas change then people could correctly say "well, it's hotter than hell but at least global warming has completely stopped for now" right ? If Arctic icebergs discharged into the Atlantic increased, they'd cool some  Atlantic surface water, reduce surface temperature and increase global warming. Fascinating. 

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  44. DSL @90, of the theory of the greenhouse effect can be summed up in a single equation, that equation is:

    ΔT=(ΔF-ΔQ)/λ

    where ΔT is the change in Global Mean Surface Temperature, ΔF is the change in forcing, ΔQ is the change in global surface heat content (of which approx 90% is OHC), and λ is the climate sensitivity factor.

    Consequently GMST is integral to understanding the greenhouse effect, and to predicting the consequences of a change in greenhouse gas concentration.  That does not mean GMST can be understood in isolation. ΔQ is also essential to understanding the theory, and any body claiming the so-called "hiatus" disproves AGW has forgotten that; but we should not go overboard and ignore the central role of surface temperature in the theory.  Afterall, the upward IR flux is a function of surface temperature, not of OHC.    

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  45. Tom, have "climate scientists used GMST as evidence of global warming"?  You're pointing out that surface temp is critical to understanding the results of the initial forcing, but an increase in GMST is not evidence for the existence of the initial forcing (the human-enhanced greenhouse effect).  Again, if surface temp were plunging, would it falsify AGW?  No.  But claiming that GMST is evidence of global warming allows a plunging surface temp to be read as a falsification of AGW.

    I could also point out that the increase in RF via enhanced GHE did not occur in a vacuum.  It developed dynamically with existing ocean energy conditions. Surface temp is also a function of OHC and ocean circulation, and vice versa.  

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  46. DSL @95, climate scientists have used rising GMST as evidence of global warming.  An example is Meehl's analysis of temperature record ratios, and multiple other examples could be found.  Further, if the temperatures were to plunge for long enough it would falsify AGW.  IF, for example, temperatures were to plunge (trend less than -0.1 C per decade) for the next five years despite a series of strong El Ninos, a lack of volcanoes, and strongly rising anthropogenic forcings, I think AGW would be falsified for practical purposes.  No theory is ever completely falsified, in that new data and new understandings of old data can rescue the most moribund theory in principle; but in the above scenario the likilihood of AGW being rescued would be small IMO.   

    Given the reliance of climate scientists onincreased global temperatures as evidence of AGW, there is some justice in claims that defenders of climate science have shifted the goal posts in response to the so-called "hiatus".  As a result, I do not like discussions of the "hiatus" that focus exclusively, or almost exclusively on OHC.  Of course, the shift of focus is not an ad hoc response to criticism.  It is justified by the theory, and partly driven by the availability of better OHC data.  Further, the climate scientists never relied solely, or even mostly, on rising GMST as evidence of AGW.  The so-called "hiatus" has forced climate scientists (and defenders of climate science) to provide a better, more nuanced account of AGW - or at least it should.  (It will not with a dominant focus on OHC.)  That is a good thing.  However, reasonable observers will note that the shift in focus merely results in defenders of climate science discussing in more detail features of the theory that have existed all along.

    I have some concerns about SkS coverage of the "hiatus" on the basis of an excessive focus on OHC, and an insufficient focus factors which would have caused a decrease in GMST absent AGW.  That is, I would like to see a little more focus on ENSO, and declines in forcings from other sources, and slightly less focus on OHC.  Such a shift would, IMO, give a more balanced opinion.  

    Your post @90, however, goes to far in leaving temperatures out of the equation.  I plunging global temperature for 50 years not falsifying AGW?  Really?  Not without the most extraordinary circumstances.  Given that a grand solar minimum equivalent to the Maunder Minimum would only cause an (from memory) 15 year hiatus in temperature increases, the extent of volcanism, asteroid impact, or decreased solar activity required for falling GMST for 50 years and AGW being true will constitute a catastrophist nightmare in its own right.  

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  47. Tom, I see what you're saying.  I get it, and perhaps I'm pulling an "if by whiskey," but when I say "AGW," I mean the greenhouse effect enhanced by humans digging up carbon and burning it, and by humans directly altering the biosphere.  I don't mean "a positive trend in GMST."  I mean a trend above what we would expect from natural forcings.  If you had that 50 year plunge, how high on the list of things to check would the enhanced greenhouse effect be?

    When I discuss this issue with the general public, and especially with doubters, it's clear that in their minds, "global warming" means a positive trend in GMST, and that if there is no trend in GMST, climate scientists are 1) engaged in fraud and/or 2) don't know what they're talking about.  Of course, neither condition is true, even if GMST is flat over the short term.  In other words, I'm not working this over for the sake of being absolutely precise; I'm working it over in order to find the best way to start a productive engagement with members of the general public.  One of the ideas I want to de-bunk is the idea that GMST != "global warming."  Even if it's technically true, it's not a healthy place to work from.  Svante Arrhenius expected the enhanced greenhouse effect to play out in GMST, but he didn't use GMST as a starting point for the theory.

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  48. It doesn't count for much (anything, actually) in the grand scheme of things but some of us (me, for instance) have always been bothered about our myopic focus on surface warming. Well, I say "always" but by that I mean since the moment the massively-obvious-in-hindsight disparity between ocean thermal capacity and that of the air was pointed out to me. I became interested in the climate change topic somewhere around 2005 and it was shortly thereafter that it became apparent most of the action was going to be in the watery part of the Earth, indeed that most of the dynamics even in the air were going to involve water and phase transitions of various kinds. 

    The gaseous atmosphere is like a cartoon character grappling onto the wheel of a wagon, battered and pummeled by something much more energetic. The faster the wagon goes, the worse the beating, punctuated by coincidental moments of relative peace.  The wheel is the surface of the ocean and wagon it's attached to is the bulk of the water.

    Tom's right that a really extended period of not much happening in the wee gassy part of Earth would be a cause to reexamine assumptions. Though Tom is much more scrupulously connected to the details and thus better able to say, for my part I'm not sure even then we'd be looking at a fundamental collapse of the  concept of AGW. The system we're in is being shocked in a novel way; how the dynamics of this thing unfold is something we can roughly predict but it's clear that some biggish details elude us, as evidenced by the (sorry to mention it yet again) Arctic sea ice scenario. 

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  49. I should add that if we really do think we're seeing a slowdown in warming that is not caused by ocean dynamics then we can all kick our heels for joy and stop discussing anthropogenic global warming right now.

    The alternative explanation to the ocean would seem to presuppose that radiative imbalances can come and go according to principles that entirely elude us. That doesn't seem likely, not at this juncture. 

    0 0
  50. When surface temperatures follow the forcing trend, they are in and of themselves a signicant part of the conversation, sufficient to carry the discussion. (Based, of course, on a reasonable view of the statistical uncertainty of short trends in the the presence of short term variations)

    The rest of the climate has, of course, also followed the forcings including anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and warmed as well over the last 50 years or so. Currently, however, given a (short term) variation in surface temperatures, as well as quite likely some variations in the forcings - those variations are being used as rhetorical ammo by 'skeptics' who are less concerned with facts than with winning debating points.

    And therefore those with a more global view are pointing out the rest of the climate, warming as it always has, to demonstrate that the short term variations in surface temperatures are indeed not evidence against the physics of the last 150 years. That doesn't mean the 'skeptic' tactic of cherry-picking short term variations makes sense. 

    If the 'skeptics' actually understood or valued measures of statistical certainty regarding air temperatures, it wouldn't be necessary to point to the rest of the climate. Meaning that their own lack of math is being used as another debating point. Shame on them. 

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