Monday, November 3, 2014

A note on global warming

Larry Kirkland wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the Moscow Pullman Daily News on October 22.  The gist of his  piece is that the media is only reporting the politically correct view of anthropogenic climate change when in reality, climate change is a hoax.  I wrote the following response to his editorial, only to find that Jeff Hicke had already provided a suitable response.  Since my piece addresses specific points brought up in the original editorial, I thought it would be useful to post it here.

I agree with Larry Kirkland's statement In His View  that truth is essential to making informed decisions. However, he provides no evidence to support his claim that the mainstream media is providing false information.  I suggest that he call upon the original sources rather than relying on the spin doctors with whom he agrees.

Kirkland ridicules the change in terminology from "global warming" to "climate change," implying some sort of conspiracy by scientists and the media.  For the record, Prof. Wally Broecker is generally credited with coining the phrase "global warming," which came from his 1975 Science paper, "Climate change; are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?" Though the title leads with "Climate Change," "global warming" resonated with the media and the public. To be precise, we should use the term global heating: the trapping of solar energy by a thickening blanket of CO2, to which humans are contributing in large measure.  Heating can (1) lead to processes such as melting, which are not associated with a temperature increase; (2) perturb delicate steady state cycles to make them chaotic; and (3) result in temperature increase.  All three consequences of heating are being observed according to predictions.

Kirkland states that "...the globe quit warming some 18 years ago."  This is false. Figure 1 plots the global land-ocean temperature index from data I downloaded from NASA's website.  The index was lower in 2013  than it was in 1998, but this is within statistical uncertainties as can be seen from the scatter in the data.  Selecting the two data points that support your conclusion and ignoring the rest is a dishonest practice called cherry picking.  The globe is indeed warming and the truth is out there if you care to dig more deeply.

Kirkland criticizes studies that show 97 percent of scientists believe in global warming, claiming that this was proven false in 2013.  The 2010 paper by Anderegg et al, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, assembled a list of climate researchers whose opinion on anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is known based on authorship of scientific assessment reports and membership on multi-signatory statements.  Of those scientists who were deemed to be active climate researchers based on publications and citations, they found  "97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researcher."  Several other studies since then show similar results.  A separate study by John Cook, which reported similar percentages, was criticized by Forbes contributor James Taylor.  Even if Cook's methods were flawed, this does not invalidate the 97% figure determined from scientific studies such as those by Anderegg, as Kirkland would lead us to believe.

Kirkland states that "None of the complex computer models of the Earth's climate have been able to accurately predict historical and current climate patterns." It is true that the models are not perfectly accurate, but they do predict the correct trends. Even the lower end of the predicted range is cause for concern.

If Kirkland wants honest science reporting, he should read Scientific American, an excellent magazine that reports on significant breakthroughs and gives in-depth reviews of important cutting-edge research area.  Articles are written by writers -- most having a science degree; and, by researchers -- a large fraction having Noble prizes.  A thoughtful Letters section provides a forum for further debate.  What you describe as the PC view happens to be the consensus view of scientists.

It is a simple matter for an internet savvy individual to cherry pick data, misrepresent climate scientists, and yes, even find some true mistakes in data and methodology in scientific papers.  After the dust settles, the preponderance of evidence convincingly supports the claim that the climate is changing due to human activity, and the consequences need our attention. Rather than debating whether climate change is real, which has been established with a high degree of certainty, we should be using the best available evidence to come up with a risk/cost/benefit analysis, and shift the debate to what actions should be taken and in what proportions.  Requiring 100% certainty is an excuse for inaction that we cannot afford.  Let's move forward and debate the real issues.

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