Measured Against Reality

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why I'm Skeptical About Anthropogenic Global Warming

I’ve always been skeptical about anthropogenic global warming. Something about the concept just doesn’t seem right to me. All right, the earth has gotten hotter since the industrial revolution. Do we know it wouldn’t have happened anyway? All right, Carbon Dioxide does trap more heat than normal air. But do small changes in its concentration make a big difference? It very well might, but something just doesn’t seem right, at least to me.

A recent article gave some merit to my doubts. If Christopher Monckton, the author, is correct, then human-made CO2 has very little impact on climate, and far less than most people think. He’s not the only person who espouses this position, over the last year I’ve collected a good number of articles all giving good reasons to doubt the anthropogenic global warming (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Climate is an emergent phenomenon. As such, it’s incredibly hard to predict. There are so many variables, and in order to build a comprehensive model they all have to be taken into account and weighted accurately. This is a nearly impossible task, given that we don’t even have a complete list of variables yet, let alone a good weighting system.

This is highlighted very well in the fact that the sun’s role in controlling the Earth’s temperature now seems to be very large, much greater than previously thought, and we appear to be in a particularly active period right now. It’s entirely possible that most of the warming we’re seeing is due to increased solar activity, as many of those articles point out.

Another problem that I’ve always had with CO2 warming is that every ounce that we release from burning fossil fuel was once in the atmosphere. Maybe this is me being naive, but the earth managed just fine back when plants were freshly converting that CO2, why shouldn’t it now? I’ve also read that ninety percent of the non-living organic material on earth is in unusable sediments, which would mean that we’d hardly be resetting Earth’s CO2 meter at all. Again, I might be misunderstanding the situation, but just from an arm-chair thought-experiment perspective, it doesn’t add up.

The final problem that I have with anthropogenic global warming is the little ice age. This was a period of colder-than-normal temperatures, lasting from about the 14th to the mid-19th centuries. This covers the entire history of recorded temperature, and its end coincides with the start of the industrial revolution. Perhaps our baseline is off, because we had five and a half centuries of unusual cold, and we’re just now re-entering normal temperatures. As Monckton points out, before then it was actually hotter than it is now (I’ve heard that 2,000 years ago it was a full 2 degrees Celsius hotter).

I’m not saying that the climatologists have generated this controversy for their own gain. Maybe they did, but I doubt it. They almost certainly firmly believe that human emissions will cause massive global warming. But are they right? Or is there merit to Monckton’s objections? It certainly looks like there’s some.

I’m also not saying that we should do nothing about curbing emissions and pursuing alternate energy sources. Oil will run out, and when it does we’ll need some form of energy. Investigating our options now will make the technology that much better when it does run out. We might even discover something better than oil and coal.

What I am saying is that I think it’s best to be skeptical about complicated issues that are difficult to fully resolve (which is why I’m also skeptical about free will and the nature of consciousness). Once the evidence is truly unambiguous, then I’ll be sold. But until then, I’ll be on the sideline of this debate, Al Gore be damned.

(In case there are any more would-be commenters who don't know what skeptic means, I'm not saying that anthropogenic global warming isn't happening. I'm also not saying that it is. I'm saying that based on what I've seen, I'm not convinced either way. I've teetered back and forth on this issue for quite a while, and am currently leaning back toward "it is happening" based on all these links. My position after reading a whole bunch of the stuff that has been posted will most likely be "it is probably happening". But I still prefer to wait it out. Also, to the people who say "the thousands of scientists say it's so, so it must be so!": that's not evidence. That's not a reason to believe something. Several of the articles I linked to were by an MIT climatologist. I realize that most climatologists believe firmly that warming is happening, but that doesn't make them right. The evidence they has does. Which is why I'm currently looking at that.

Also, no need to be nasty because you think I'm an idiot. If you disagree with me, just point me toward realclimate.org or somewhere that has good explanations and data quickly available. Don't be an asshole. Besides being totally unnecessary, it won't help you any.)

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12 Comments:

  • Unfortunately, many of the sources you've listed (such as the Monckton article) contain so many distortions and lies (in fairness, none of them invented by Monckton) as to render them completely useless.

    I will give only one example; please feel free to write me for (many) more - adrian dot ludwin at gmail. Monckton states - I think in the supplemental PDF - that James Hansen, a NASA scientist, overpredicted warming by over 300% in 1989. This is a lie. Hansen produced three scenarios - good, expected, and bad. The "bad" scenario involved us ramping up CO2 production far more than we really did during the 1990s. Not surprisingly, the "bad" scenario was worse than what actually happened - by about 300% - and the "good" was better. As for the "expected"? It slightly *under* predicted the warming that actually occurred (http://www.giss.nasa.gov/edu/gwdebate/ to see the three scenarios, and what actually happened).

    However, Patrick Michaels (who started this particular lie) never mentions the "good" or "expected" scenario. I call it a lie because he actually had to erase those lines from the graphs he presented to congress, to leave only the "bad" scenario. In my opinion, he knew full well what he was doing.

    There are, of course, huge uncertainties remaining about climate. But before you "buy in" to one side or the other, you owe it to yourself to let each side put its best arguments forward. I suggest http://illconsidered.blogspot.com/2006/03/guides-by-category.html as a start. He directly responds to some of the articles you've linked to - my favourite is "global warming stopped in 1998."

    As I've said, feel free to e-mail me for more details.

    By Blogger Adrian, at 11:11 AM, November 09, 2006  

  • Most of the articles were op/eds. You can find an op/ed to support anything.

    Have you read any official study findings?

    There is no such thing as certainty in Science. If you prove gravity correct billions of times but prove it wrong even once the theory must adjusted or thrown out.

    However, you do reach a point where a theory has enough evidence and momentum that the chances of it being wrong are continually diminishing.

    When you take the mass of evidence that indicates an anthropogenic source of global warming and multiply it by the enormity of what is at stake (the equation to calculate risk)- it is quickly realized we have reached that point.

    Given the risk presented by global warming and the multitude of gains to be made by weaning ourselves off oil regardless of warming the time for widespread skepticism has passed. Skepticism now only functions, on the individual level, to serve as one last excuse to live in a manner that is unsustainable.

    By Anonymous Ken, at 11:39 AM, November 09, 2006  

  • I am sceptical about the atomic theory myself. I mean I have never seen an atom, have you?

    Sure I don't know anything about physics or chemistry and I have never been to collage but I don't think we should listen to those so called scientists when they try and cram their politically correct atomic theory on us.

    It's good to be sceptical about things you know nothing about.

    By Blogger timmy, at 11:58 AM, November 09, 2006  

  • From an "arm chair thought experiment perspective", when you take 3 billion years worth of fossil fuels and burn them up in 200 years, I'd expect it to create an oven.

    By Blogger TV, at 12:23 PM, November 09, 2006  

  • "Maybe this is me being naive, but the earth managed just fine back when plants were freshly converting that CO2, why shouldn’t it now?"

    Those plants had billions of years to capture CO2. We've released a large percentage of that CO2 in the last century. I really don't believe that plants can work effectively enough to counteract human activity.

    Furthermore, we've cut down a rather large percentage of the plants that once existed on the planet. Large numbers of entire forests have been cleared to suit our purposes. If you aren't aware of it, forests are the primary consumer of CO2. I really don't see how the remaining plants can work to effectively clean up after us.

    By Anonymous Ceryen, at 1:11 PM, November 09, 2006  

  • If you are truely skeptical about something then you should examine all the evidence and not just deny something.

    Sorry right now about that evidence, well as my co-commenters have pointed out so well i will not add a whole lot to this, however if you talk to the majority of scientists who have been doing climate research for the last 20 years you will find out that those that call for a debate on the issue have missed the boat - it happened within the scientific community in the early 90s and no significant findings that I am aware of have risen to shake this consensus, AGW is real and is occur as I type this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:54 PM, November 09, 2006  

  • I think there is still healthy enough debate about how much humans have in the warming. I think the common consensus is most of the warming is due to humans. But, surely there is mixed thoughts on how effective solar variability is. Warming is pretty clear. But, how much warming is due to CO2, land-use changes, solar variability, etc, is still a question. The thing is though if CO2 emissions hasn't been the majority of the warming until now, it will become so with rapidly increasing emissions due to economic development in China, India and the third world.

    I think it is becoming clear that we need to be much more efficient with how we use our world. So I think environmental policy needs to consider all our possible effects on the environment and what is important to mitigate, not just global warming. Besides, climate change is something we will have to prepare to deal with in the future if we want to sustain a highly developed society. Even if we minimalize emissions, other natural cycles will still cause climate change. Maybe a new ice age will be again 400 years from now, heck maybe sooner. The prehistoric record points to rapid change. Our mitigation efforts for global warming are good IMO, however we must be prepared to respond to climate change as well, it will not be likely tamed to an unchanging system.

    There is plenty we know, but also plenty to learn. While, I know we have had plenty of scientific research in global warming, I do hope that the new congress initiates a new commission on global climate change.

    By Blogger Bill, at 8:03 PM, November 09, 2006  

  • Good joke, too bad this is not April 1. Sure, why pay attention to all those thousands of climate scientists when we can get the real story from the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brentley, a somewhat nutty retired newspaper editor (check him out on Wikipedia). RealClimate.org also has some comments for anyone who may have not seen the humor right away.

    By Blogger Mike, at 8:24 PM, November 09, 2006  

  • Ken says "You can find an op/ed to support anything. Have you read any official study findings?"

    The idea that climate skepticism is a disease of poorly educated journalists and that hard research is all going one way is easily falsifiable.

    How about "Experimental Evidence for the role of Ions in Particle Nucleation under Atmospheric Conditions" published by the British Royal Society last month? (Summary here).

    The implication of this research is that maybe CO2 should not be hogging the limelight so much. And it points up how complex and difficult planetary climate science is.

    By Anonymous Pali Gap, at 12:36 AM, November 10, 2006  

  • I'm glad to see that someone knows what real skepticism is.

    I do think there is real reason to be skeptical, however I don't think many of your points are those reasons.

    The data I've seen indicates that we're approaching a majority of the C02 in the air being human-released. This may be misremembered, but it the proportion is very large regardless. This data is from a print edition of New Scientist...so sadly I can't properly cite it.

    The only way human C02 is irrelevant is if C02 is itself irrelevant.

    You can do, and I have done, a simple lab to demonstrate that this is not the case. Take a laser. Take a gas cell of C02. Note the absorbtion peaks - they are in the infrared.

    As such, C02 absorbs outgoing infrared light, warming the environment or re-emitting it in all directions where previously it was heading only out.

    I've chosen to gloss over why infrared is important.

    I agree, climate is emergent and very difficult and complex. There could easily be many important factors we haven't even concieved of.

    However, if you insulate such a system, it will get hotter. The only question is by how much. Unless the upper atmosphere has some sort of active heat sink I don't know about, the heating should be relatively straightforward to estimate.

    The sun is definately, however, one of the factors we only misunderstand, and that poorly.
    I wouldn't be surprised at all if the consensus shifts to a sun-dominated equilibrium.
    However, that we are even considering a huge shift shows how little we truly understand the solar radiation-Earth system.
    I seriously doubt that this has changed. It's more likely that we more or less guessed again and it worked out.

    I assume that when you say Earth made out okay when it was laying down the plants that became oil, that you're referring to the fact that it had much more CO2 and everything was fine?
    Part of the issue is that there are numerous greenhouse gases and they were in some other configuration back then.
    However, I believe the planet was dominated by jungle conditions in those days. It was much hotter, wetter, and probably meteorogically violent. The plants and giagantic insects (think hawk-sized dragonflies - there was also lots of oxygen from all the plants) just didn't mind.

    Oh man those insects must have been noisy.

    We, however, most certainly would mind, especially during the period where the climate shifts from our current mode to a hotter one.

    However, I am a little fuzzy on what the original situation was like. It does seem that at some point Earth should have been ovenlike. Scorching, really. The kind of thing popular science would revel in telling us about. "In one billion BC, Earth had Death Valleys on every continent where you could easily fry eggs at noon. And that was north of the equator."
    But I never see any of that. What was all that CO2 doing? Was it slowly released over time by volcanoes? That seems kinda weak. And what about all those ice ages we keep hearing about?

    Some of it is that the sun was a lot dimmer back then. Apparently it's heating up quite rapidly on geological timescales. But how much? Does it account for the discrepancy?

    About the little ice age; I'm pretty sure some climatologist, somewhere, thought of that before you did. It would have spread pretty quickly through the scientific community, and so I'm quite confident that it's taken care of.
    Sure we didn't directly record temperatures, but there's ice cores and sediments and tree rings to help us infer such things. Taken together, you get a pretty clear picture.

    Oh it'd be awesome if you could point me to your locutions (if any) about free will and consciousness. I'm not skeptical anymore, but I'd like to see what you think.
    I suppose I could find out myself, but I'm pretty lazy.

    I can guarantee Al Gore doens't know shit about climatology. He's a politician and he's involved for political reasons. That's all.

    I long to hear more people say, "The fact that large numbers of scientists believe something is not evidence." It's not even an indication. It's trivia.
    There's dozens of instances of large numbers of scientists being very very wrong.
    But really the problem is that scientists do not make reality: they study it. Their beliefs are a reflection of their studies, not reality.
    They hope, at best, to have their studies reflect reality.

    I'm surprised and pleased no one has been nasty yet. I only hope that I haven't unintentionally broken that streak.

    So anyway, the real problem with Global Warming is that it's politicized and frankly no one knows anything about what it's actually going to do.

    Since it's now political, nothing you hear on the news will actually have anything to do with science. No, really. It'll all be supporting one dude's issue or another.

    Second, we seem to have increased storm energies. However, there's no way to prove or even strongly suggest that it's Warming and not random.

    There also seems to be accelerated desertification and greatly accelerated ice melting.
    Again, the proof that this is Warming related is circumstancial.
    I mean, it seems plausible, but that's all we can say about it.

    Personally, I think the ice is melting far too fast to fit the data about warming that I've read about. I'd like to know what's going on there. Perhaps the reports are criminally sensationalized or I don't understand the proportions, or maybe we're warming much faster than I think.

    I suppose I should take my own advice about not listening to the news.

    Finally, I have concerns that the debate has never mentioned, side by side, perhaps in chart form, the possible culprits of Warming.
    First is, of course, us. Next there's the sun. There's also unknown climate cyclicalities. There's also volcanism, though that one's pretty unlikely.

    Most likely, of course, is some unholy alliance between some of these members. I suspect that before we all die out from something that's not Warming or nuclear or meteorite related, that there will be a very surprising discovery that leads to a proper understanding of CO2, the sun, and such things.
    But that's just cuz I've seen similar things before. The controversy is due to a lack of crucial knowledge, I suspect.

    I should mention that ions in solution behave very differently than in bulk form - half of common salt is a deadly chemical weapon used in the world wars.
    The other half makes water burn.

    And they separate completely when dissolved in water.

    The bulk of the atmosphere is poorly understood and the atmosphere is essentially a gaseous solution. It's possible that an unknown interaction changes the behavior of atmospheric CO2.
    Witness CFCs vs Ozone. We rarely know what's going on until it's too late.

    Also, sorry about not actually providing links to data. However I'd be finding them the same way you might: with Google.

    Anyway, I feel like I've written enough, so I'm going to stop. Many thanks if you actually slogged through all that.

    By Anonymous Alan, at 11:08 AM, November 10, 2006  

  • Give This a read, about a new children's book published by the UN about climate change.

    While the science is dubious at best, what really worries me is the political fearmongering and anti-capitalist (and thus anti-American/anti-Western) rhetoric, especially that being taught to children who rarely have the ability to question, let alone the faculties to research, what they are being taught.

    Now don't get me wrong, the anthropogenic global warming skeptics (particularly the partisan ones rather than the scientists) are pumping out rhetoric as well, but at least it isn't teaching children that "rich countries" are destroying the Earth.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 12:47 PM, November 13, 2006  

  • One thing that didn't get mentioned in your post is the effect that perfectly natural events like volcano explosions have on the climate - at least temporarily. Back in the early 90s a friend's dad told me to read up on Krakatoa and Mount Tambora - both famous for huge volcanic eruptions in the 1800s that had devastating consequences over the following years.
    The other thing is that doomsday scenarios sell books, get media attention and research grant money.

    By Blogger notthislittleblackduck, at 7:04 AM, February 03, 2007  

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