There are two stories floating around about the state of the earth’s atmosphere. Both are believed true by government-funded scientists and the environmentally minded. The situation is curious because the stories don’t mesh. Yet, as I said, both are believed. Worse, neither is true.
Story number one is that this year will be the hottest ever. And number two is that the reason it is not hot is because “natural variation” has masked or stalled man-caused global warming.
Which is it? Either it’s hotter than ever or it isn’t. If it is, then (it is implied) man-caused global warming has not “paused.” If it isn’t, if man-caused global warming has “paused,” then it is not growing hotter.
There are two things to keep straight: (1) why these divergent contentions are believed, and (2) why they are incompatible and individually false. The first point is easy. Climatology has become a branch of politics. And in politics, particularly in our rambunctious democracy, statements asserted in the name of some political goal are usually believed or at least supported by those who share the goal. It is necessary for global-warming-of-doom to be true in order to attain the government’s goal (of increasing in size and power), so any statement which supports global warming is likely to be touted by government supporters, even mutually incompatible statements.
Scientists — and some very big names indeed — who have made their living on government grants, and who provide arguments in line with the government’s desire that global-warming-of-doom be true, recently wrote a letter to the President and Attorney General asking these officials to criminally prosecute under the RICO Act scientists like myself and organizations that might fund me. Which scientists and organizations? Those, they say, who have “knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.”
In other words, arguments put forth by independent scientists and organizations that do not support the government’s line cannot be considered science, but should instead be classified as criminal acts. Incidentally, it has come out that the scientist leading the effort to prosecute the innocent has “paid himself & his wife $1.5 million from gov’t climate grants for part-time work.” Climatology is thus a branch of politics. Quod erat demonstrandum.
I’m no politician and can’t predict what will come of this. But I am a scientist and know good physics from bad. To understand why the claims about the atmosphere mentioned above are false, it is necessary to grasp, at least in broad outline, some rather complicated statistics and physics. Let’s try.
Claim Number One: This Year Will Be The Hottest Ever
The first claim is not only false, it is ludicrously false. It’s not even close to being true. There have been times in the history of the earth when it was much hotter. Here is a link to one estimate of the earth’s mean temperature over time.
But haven’t atmospheric carbon dioxide levels risen over the past few decades? Yes, but here is another link with carbon dioxide levels plotted alongside temperature (see the second graph down at the link) showing how the two do not track each other and at times have even moved in opposite directions.
We are now geologically in what is called the Quaternary Period, which is characterized by periodic cold snaps, which is to say, glaciations. Glaciers have come and glaciers have gone for more than two million years, and we expect they’ll continue to come and go mainly because of the way the earth wobbles and wends it way around the sun. Before the Quaternary was the Pliocene, and well before this was the better known (thanks, Hollywood!) Jurassic, which ran 145 to 200 million years ago. And before the Jurassic was the Triassic, extending back another 25 millions years.
From the Triassic to the Quaternary, a time spanning more than 200 million years, the earth was hotter than it is now, and not just a little hotter, but downright steamy at times, with temperatures 10 or more degrees Celsius higher. It was so hot that the entire planet was green and fertile, and animals, you might recall, grew to tremendous size. Before the Triassic there were other periods, some of which more closely resembled ours in climate.
The lesson to be learned from this is that the climate is never constant; it always has changed and always will. Stopping climate change is a human impossibility. I mean this word in its strict sense. There is no power short of Omnipotence that can stop the climate from changing. Certainly no government can. To plead, therefore, that we should stop climate change is not to engage in science, but politics.
Above I said the linked picture represented an estimate of the temperature, and this is so. Thermometers didn’t exist in any reliable or widespread sense until the last 100 or so years of earth’s history, and even now these only cover a small fraction of the earth’s surface. And even in the modern era, the ways we have of measuring temperature have varied and still vary. Satellites, which provide some of the best, but still imperfect, global measurements have only existed about 50 years.
That means if we want to know the temperature before 50-100 years ago, we have to guess. It’s not a blind guess, though, since we can use so-called “proxies.” These are chemical and physical measurements known to be correlated with air temperature. We can tally these over geologic times and plug them into a statistical model that predicts what the temperatures were. There is nothing wrong with this except for two things. Here it gets a bit technical.
No statistical guess should be stripped of its uncertainty. We don’t want the temperature guess alone, we want it with a plus-or-minus the guess attached. The first problem is that these plus-and-minuses are almost always absent. The result is over-certainty in statements about what the past was compared with the present. Sometimes uncertainty in the temperature guesses is provided, but it’s the wrong kind of uncertainty, the wrong plus-or-minuses.
All these statistical models have innards called parameters, which are nothing more than mathematical “dials” necessary for the equations to work out. Unfortunately, a fallacy has become ingrained in science that these parameters directly represent or are reality. This fallacy is so ubiquitous that I call it the Cult of the Parameter. The fallacy is harmful because the plus-and-minus bounds to reality are necessarily larger than the plus-or-minus bounds to model parameters (usually 4 to 8 times larger). The result is always dramatic over-certainty.
And it’s still worse. The models take proxy measurements, but the uncertainty in the time those proxies were laid down in history is always discarded in the statistical models. How do you know the proxy you measured was 1.10 and not 1.11 million years ago? Answer: you don’t.
The end result is to make temperature guesses appear smooth and uncomplicated, which is an illusion. That illusion makes it easier for (actually measured) temperatures in modern times to appear more variable. And that makes it easier to appear that we are hotter now, even if we’re not. Add to that the observations that modern records are continually being tweaked by scientists (and strangely always in a direction that makes it appears colder then and warmer now), and it’s no surprise to hear talk of “record temperatures.”
Now if we only go by the satellite record, it’s quite easy to be in a “record-breaking” year, for the trivial reason that there only a few years on the books. Every year stands a good chance at breaking some kind of atmospheric record. But because of the entire geologic record, the chance of breaking real records is not even remote; it’s nearly impossible.
Scientists know all these facts, yet some still make the statement that this year will be (or could be) the hottest. They say it while knowing it isn’t true. Why?
(Those who want more technical detail can go here to learn about the BEST project’s statistical reconstruction of historical temperatures, which is touted to be the “best” but which commits the errors noted here.)
Claim Number Two: Natural Variation Caused A “Pause”
The American Meteorological Society is, or rather was, the preeminent organization for those who study weather and climate. Its official organ is known as BAMS, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. BAMS is used to impart news items of interest and the like, but it also publishes review articles on the state of science.
Now the AMS has, like nearly all other government-money-dependent scientific organizations, given up all pretense of physics and has instead embraced politics as its raison d’etre. So far removed from its original mission is the AMS that they are publishing a BAMS review article by two non-scientist ideologues and one scientist who writes mostly about politics. The title is “The ‘Pause’ in Global Warming: Turning a Routine Fluctuation into a Problem for Science.”
The authors are Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist who specializes in gimmicked surveys, Naomi Oreskes, a historian who believes in a vast right-wing conspiracy, and James Risbey, a real climatologist who spends much of his time wondering why everybody doesn’t agree with him (he has more than one paper with Lewandowsky and Oreskes on this theme).
The point of this new paper is the same as all of Lewandowsky’s works. He wants to paint detractors of The Consensus as crazy or oil-industry stooges. For these authors, and for many, the mere fact that government-funded scientists have said a problem with the atmosphere exists and that only government can solve it is more than sufficient proof of the contention. Any who disagree must be doing so out of ignorance, insanity or evil intent. That their position on the science might be wrong never occurs to them.
And they are wrong. Their claim is that the (satellite) observed non-increase in global temperatures over the past two decades was caused by any or some combination of these: “natural variations,” El Niño, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, “random” or “routine fluctuations” and the like. They say that if these “causes” did not exist, the temperatures would have increased just as they were predicted to under the theory of enhanced-feedback carbon-oxide-driven (EFCOD) global warming.
Do you see the fallacy? They use the absence of predicted increases as proof the increases were really there, but in masked or modified form! To them, the repeated, consistent and egregiously mistaken predictions made by climate models are true no matter what because EFCOD global warming is true no matter what. It used to be in science that when a theory made predictions even as fractionally lousy as EFCOD global warming, it was quietly removed from service. But global warming can’t be dropped. There is too much riding on it remaining in force.
And this is not the only or even the worst fallacy. Having faith in lovingly created but failed theories is an error, but it is an understandable human foible. No one wants to disown his child, no matter how ugly. Our response to a scientist who doesn’t want to give up his life’s work should be pity, not condemnation.
But making statements physically impossible is not forgivable, not for those who call themselves physicists. The real blunder is this. Scientists claimed to understand how the atmosphere worked. Based on this understanding, they said that “disruptive,” “dangerous” global warming would soon be upon us. It didn’t happen. What went wrong? El Niño, they say.
But El Niño, “natural fluctuations” and the like are not things separate from the atmosphere. They are part of the atmosphere. These things are nothing more than human-labels given to particular measures of the atmosphere. El Niño is not a primary cause, it is an effect, an observation. “Natural fluctuations” means “what the atmosphere does.” Thus it is a tautology, an observation empty of scientific content, to say “what the atmosphere does” caused “what the atmosphere did.”
These “routine fluctuations” and the like are part of what the scientists said they already understood. They are not alien entities that arrive unexpectedly and upset theory; they are, or should have been, an integral part of EFCOD global-warming theory. These things are the atmosphere, they are the climate.
It is thus clear that scientists who blame these phenomena for their failings don’t know what they are talking about. They said they understood the atmosphere, and here is proof they did not. So why should we continue to believe them when they say, “The time to act is now”?
We now see that the word “pause” is a terrible misnomer, a circularity. It states what it seeks to prove. To say there is a “pause” is to claim that we know why the atmosphere is doing what it is doing. But if that were so, then the models over the past two decades would have made successful predictions. They made atrocious predictions, and they are growing worse. That means to say there is a “pause” is equivalent to we know global warming is there because we can’t see it.
It is well past the time to move on from EFCOD global warming and return to doing real science.