Seriously, global warming is real

Urgh.

Look, man-made global warming is real.

This conversation is starting to bore me. I’ve had it thrice this week, with different people who I know aren’t stupid (I checked). It also really disturbs me. I don’t think deniers are gullible idiots, I just doubt they’ve actually looked at any of the evidence.

What’s more, denialism posing as ‘scepticism’ really does bore and disturb me. It pisses me off too. So I must admit that I’ve been kicking around a draft of this post for a while. It really felt inevitable that I’d have to write something on this topic. I started it a few weeks ago, but after yet another chat today I felt compelled to finish it.

People seem to gravitate towards labels and adopt the narratives associated with them, and they don’t often examine the facts before drawing their own conclusions. You get ‘Greens’, ‘Leftists’, ‘Geelong Supporters’, ‘Liberals’, ‘Tradies’, ‘Students’, ‘Conservatives’, ‘Socialists’, ‘Apatheists’; I’m left wondering where all the ‘Critical Thinkers’ are. People who don’t practice critical thinking will invariably fall victim to someone’s else’s idea of reality – and other people’s ideas about reality are generally pretty unreliable.

I don’t trust most of what I hear and read (thought I listen and read a lot), so I prefer to trust science – not individual scientists, who are fallible people, but science – the idea that we can glean facts about reality from the tests we do of reality. Science makes the effort to be objective in ways that people can’t. Science is critical thinking coupled with rigorous testing, and it’s a damn useful tool to rely on. That’s why I know that man-made global warming is real. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. It definitely is.

The scientific evidence to support the existence of man-made (anthropogenic) global warming is mounting every single day. Now, an actual sceptic (without abusing the term) should know this – given the sheer volume of resources freely available to anyone who cares. To call the current body of evidence overwhelming in magnitude would be something of an understatement. The public is woefully misinformed about the position of the scientific community on the issue, despite repeated attempts by climate scientists to make their voices heard. (Go on, follow that last link.)

The accumulation of evidence and the correlating increase in acceptance among scientists of the reality of man-made global warming has been in full swing since the 1970s. (A lot of right wingnuts like to say that the big scare in the ’70s was ‘global cooling’; well, maybe that was the case in the media, but in scientific journals the worry was global warming.) There is now an almost complete consensus among qualified scientists that the Earth is warming and that this is due to human activity. To quote the Skeptical Science website’s summary of the research on acceptance of man-made global warming among scientists (ibid.):

They find between 97% to 98% of climate experts support the consensus (Anderegg 2010). Moreover, they examine the number of publications by each scientist as a measure of expertise in climate science. They find the average number of publications by unconvinced scientists (eg – skeptics) is around half the number by scientists convinced by the evidence. Not only is there a vast difference in the number of convinced versus unconvinced scientists, there is also a considerable gap in expertise between the two groups.

Telling, right? That really should be enough, but I know that it won’t be. So get comfortable. Maybe go get a cup of coffee and your cat, because this is quite a long entry, clocking in at well over 7,000 words, so I’ve broken it up into easily digestible sections.

All the facts that follow I hope are uncontroversial. You can fact-check everything I’ve written, and in fact I encourage you to. I just don’t want to litter this entry with hyperlinks. If you have anything you want to correct me on, I’d be glad to acquiesce, provided you have actual evidence to back up your claims.

Ready? Good.

Simple science

Climate science is a real science. Real sciences require a balance of data and theory to make them useful. Theory should attempt to accurately explain the data, and it should make predictions that can be tested. Phenomena uncovered scientifically are typically modelled using the ultra-precise language of mathematics. When scientists uncover new data about the current and past climate, they feed it into supercomputers (because there is a lot to calculate) which run algorithms to accurately simulate what’s happening. This method works very well, and it has really shone by accurately predicting and modelling the climates of other planets in our solar system.

But when it comes to modelling the Earth’s apparently more complex climate, current models can only get us so far. The fact is that they are slightly, but notoriously inaccurate: whenever someone measures the actual climate and compares it to what the simulations predicted, the actual measurements indicate that things are heating up faster than predicted.

That’s just a shortcoming of theoretical modelling. Let’s have a look at the hard evidence.

I’m now going to try to give you the most basic and lucid explanation of the science of anthropogenic global warming I possibly can. It has been said (I can’t remember where) that understanding the reality of global warming can be taught to a high school science class. (I’m pretty sure that was said in America; Australia’s school system is, frankly, a lot better.) I’m inclined to agree; at least on global warming, but not on climate science as a whole. I have to take this on myself because almost every denier I’ve ever met simply refuses to watch Al Gore’s film. Fine. I won’t use it as a reference at all. I’m telling you though, it does do a better job at explaining the basics of global warming than I can. I will assume no prior knowledge of the subject on your part.

It is important to distinguish between weather and climate. Weather is defined by events that are localized spatially and temporally, while the climate is the entire system. Global warming is a shift in climate, and that impacts weather patterns – but you can’t equate this evening’s isolated showers and a south-westerly breeze with the entire global climate system. Locally, you can discuss a five year drought in Queensland as a climatic event, but if it snows once during one of those droughts, that individual snowstorm is a weather event. To put it simply, climate deals with long term trends and averages. The weather is what you care about when you’re getting dressed in the morning. Global warming takes a more macroscopic perspective; it describes a shift in the global climate. That’s why so many scientists were reluctant to immediately blame Cyclone Yasi on global warming – they wanted to see if a trend was emerging. Just because there’s a blizzard somewhere on a warming world doesn’t mean the world isn’t warming and a sunny day in July doesn’t mean winter doesn’t exist any more. (And my birthday is in July, so I’m all for a little sun in July.)

To understand global warming, you’ll need a basic understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Here’s a diagram that sums up the greenhouse effect to help us along the way. If it looks a little intimidating to you, just stick with the white text. Don’t worry too much about the numbers at this stage. You may want to refer back to it as we go through the rest of this section:

The Greenhouse Effect
Pilfered from the Wikimedia Commons, created by ZooFari

You may have noticed that the Earth is constantly bathed in sunlight (solar radiation), and this is especially salient during the day. Half of the solar radiation that hits the Earth is absorbed by the planet’s surface. It converts into heat energy (infrared thermal radiation), and and some of this heat energy is trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the rest of it escapes to space. So the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere dictates how much heat energy won’t be able to radiate back into space.

We know that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere circulate trapped heat energy around the lower atmosphere and surface of the planet – that’s why we can experience hot nights, and hot humid nights (water vapour is also a greenhouse gas). Of course, the weather is constantly in flux in different places all over the world because of shifting high and low air pressure zones and numerous other factors (studying weather patterns is what gave rise to chaos theory), but higher average temperatures due to an enhanced greenhouse effect will make pressure systems fluctuate even more chaotically, thereby making the weather even more capricious. This is fuelled by the extra solar energy retained by the atmosphere due to the greater presence of greenhouse gases. Warm air over the heating ocean will absorb moisture until it shifts into a low pressure system, then all that moisture is released violently.

So this general heating effect is why these gases are called greenhouse gases (this isn’t a strictly accurate name, the greenhouse effect is different to convection occurring in actual greenhouses – but it is good enough). This heating mechanism is what makes life as we know it on Earth possible; under the right conditions, it makes things comfortable and maintains the stability of the climate. The concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere do indeed fluctuate naturally, and some of these fluctuations in the distant past have led to major extinction events. So I’ll state this now: an increased average temperature on the planet is nothing we would want to even try adapting to.

Less than 1% of the composition of the Earth’s entire atmosphere is comprised of greenhouse gases. That should give you an idea of how incredibly sensitive the climate is to their presence. Without greenhouse gases, the effective temperature of the whole planet (because of the amount of sunlight it absorbs) would be about -19° Celsius (or 254 Kelvin). The Earth’s actual average surface temperature is about 14° C (287 K). So that tiny fraction of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere contributes about 33° C to the global average surface temperature, and that is what makes it possible for our kind of life to exist. The climate’s sensitivity to the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere really cannot be underestimated.

Doing the math

So yes, we want a little warming from greenhouse gases. When you burn fossil fuels and other forms of carbon, you partially convert them into carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, which is a greenhouse gas. It doesn’t disappear when the smoke disperses – it simply dilutes in the air, and becomes a part of the atmosphere. Burning carbon resources for energy gives off CO2 gas as a by-product. So, naturally, burning a lot of fossil fuels, like we have been doing, will alter the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases. Scientists have calculated that to sustain human life on the planet, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere should be no more than around 350 parts per million (ppm) by volume. A CO2 concentration of 350 ppm traps just enough heat from sunlight to stabilize the weather, prevent major droughts and stop sea levels from rising. It keeps the climate amenable to the biosphere, thus it maintains that all-important ecological equilibrium.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s atmospheric concentration of CO2 was at 275 ppm. (More info here.) The Industrial Revolution formally began our 24-hours a day, year-round habit of making unwanted donations to the planet’s carbon cycle – and we enthusiastically became exponentially bigger carbon contributors practically every day for a couple of centuries. With a bit of math, it’s easy to calculate that the rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration is a fair bit less than what you’d expect, given the amount of CO2 we can account for emitting in the last 200 years. The current atmospheric concentration of CO2 is still highly disconcerting at 392 ppm. Going off these figures (recent as of July 2011), that means that there is now 42% more carbon in the atmosphere, which we put there. Moreover, the concentration of atmospheric COis currently rising by approximately 2 ppm every year because we aren’t yet making the effort to quit carbon.

There are other variables at work which may have some small effects on the climate. Research has shown that today, in 2011, these other factors are a lot less significant than the greenhouse effect. (There is a summary here.)

We know that the average amount of solar heat occupying the Earth’s atmosphere is exactly as predicted by current recorded atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. We have satellites orbiting the planet, at the very top of the atmosphere, that detect the intensity of incoming solar radiation, and this is compared to measurements of how much infrared thermal radiation (heat energy) remains trapped in the atmosphere. (See the diagram above.) A furtive glance at the data will reveal that the global average temperature has steadily risen in correlation with growing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases over recent decades. (The actual scientific paper on these satellite measurements is here.) This is no coincidence – it is one of those thoroughly terrifying occasions where experiments and data have shown that correlation can’t mean anything other than causation.

Digging up the past

Scientists who study ancient climate patterns (paleoclimatologists) have discovered ways to measure the temperature record of the distant and recent past, much like homicide detectives and forensic investigators would uncover the circumstances of an unwitnessed murder by examining the evidence left at the scene of the crime. Different intensities of infrared thermal radiation (atmospheric heat) leave discernible signatures in tree rings, boreholes, stalagmites, glaciers, lake sediments, coral, and elsewhere – these simply need to be dated, and scientists can extract an accurate temperature reading for that period by proxy. You can more read about how the ancient climate is studied why it can be done effectively here.

Proxy temperature data is frequently plotted on time line graphs so different methods proxy measurements can be compared to calculate mean temperatures. The time lines that these comprehensive temperature proxy studies have yielded (referred to as ‘hockey stick graphs’ when combined with recent direct measurements because of the steep ascent towards today’s end of the graph) have been the subject of a great deal of unwarranted controversy from denialist circles – probably because they look so scary. But this public drive to scrutiny has proved useful to paleoclimatologists, because it meant the techniques had to be refined. Consequently, they have become more accurate and effective.

Past concentrations of atmospheric CO2 gas can be measured by studying surviving ancient ice cores. More recent atmospheric CO2 concentrations are measured directly at observatories like Mauna Loa in Hawaii. COtime lines produce the same ‘hockey stick’ deviation found on ancient temperature graphs, and the homogeneity between the two is stark. (See below) The measurement process of ancient atmospheric CO levels is also apparently less controversial. So unless the laws of physics have changed just before the last century, we have accurate data from multiple lines of inquiry of past climate and atmospheric COconcentration fluctuations and this leads us to conclude that the global average temperature has always been largely dependent on the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Climate Nudge

From SkepticalScience.com

(If you’re wondering why the temperature reconstruction data and the carbon forcing reconstruction data don’t add up at around 1000 AD, research the medieval warm period. It was mostly solar flares and decreased volcanic activity that did it; and that’s an exception that doesn’t apply today because those things aren’t happening now – if they were, with the current atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, we’d be screwed.)

So, if you’ve followed me, it should be obvious that the Earth is currently heating up. And it’s all thanks to us.

But wait! There’s more!

Global warming has an evil twin

To quote from this dated National Geographic article (if you don’t look at the date, you can tell by the whiffs of optimism):

By rights [atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations] should be worse. Each year humanity dumps roughly 8.8 billion tons (8 metric tons) of carbon into the atmosphere, 6.5 billion tons (5.9 metric tons) from fossil fuels and 1.5 billion (1.4 metric) from deforestation. But less than half that total, 3.2 billion tons (2.9 metric tons), remains in the atmosphere to warm the planet. Where is the missing carbon? “It’s a really major mystery, if you think about it,” says Wofsy, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University. His research site in the Harvard Forest is apparently not the only place where nature is breathing deep and helping save us from ourselves. Forests, grasslands, and the waters of the oceans must be acting as carbon sinks. They steal back roughly half of the carbon dioxide we emit, slowing its buildup in the atmosphere and delaying the effects on climate.

Well we now know that most of that missing CO2 went into the ocean. Some of it has been sequestered by trees, which is good, but CO2 in the ocean is not good. Carbon dioxide lowers the pH of ocean water, and this means the ocean is becoming acidic. Scientists call it ‘ocean acidification’ (because obviously ‘global warming’ didn’t sound scary enough). This happens for complicated but well-understood chemical and thermodynamic reasons covered elsewhere. Ocean acidification is our other carbon problem, and it has only been on our radar for the past five or so years.

As I said, this is bad.

Ocean water covers over 71% of the Earth’s surface. More than half of the ocean is over 3,000 metres deep. And it has absorbed over one-quarter of the CO2 humanity has emitted in the last 200 years. The ocean’s acidity has increased by around 30% compared to before the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, the rate of ocean acidification it is projected to double by the end of the century if we continue to emit greenhouse gases. Sea water lapping the coast of northern California is already acidic enough to melt seashells. You can imagine the effect this will have on the ocean’s biosphere, which is home to many of our primary food sources.

Coral reefs – like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – may very well become the first ecosystems that human activity wipes out. Reefs contain roughly a quarter of all marine species and only cover 0.1% of the world’s oceans. The potential loss of innumerable different species is tragic, but the damage to the biosphere will affect all of us. That is, if we allow this to continue.

The ocean helps regulate the climate and provides the planet with most of its atmospheric oxygen; a lot of our food comes from the ocean, and this is all under dire threat from rising acidity in the ocean. Scientists who study the Earth’s carbon cycle have a less copy-friendly name for ocean acidification: ‘global warming’s evil twin‘. If it isn’t already clear to you, I would urge you to follow that link to find out why.

Check your feedback

So we can account for most of the CO2 we humans have put into the ecosystem. What does this mean? Well, you know all that wild weather we’ve all been experiencing? Droughts, flash floods and the like? Global warming will dry out land, but it also causes crazier storms because the ocean heats up as well. It has been suggested that what we call global warming should instead be referred to as ‘climate destabilization’ because it better reflects the type of weather we’ll soon see; while ‘global warming’ simply names the observation that the average temperature will rise a few degrees in the coming decades. I mentioned this earlier: heated ocean water evaporates into water vapour, which absorbs into warm air, which condenses in the atmosphere, creating clouds, and these clouds might get blown inland into a low pressure system; and then they violently precipitate all over the city or town you happen to live in. It’ll be a spectacular global warming-brand snow storm if the cold air it meets over your domicile is below freezing. That’s why you’ll see an intensification in this new trend of alternating droughts and flash-flooding. It means the weather has developed bipolar disorder after years of abuse and it’s getting worse. Crazy weather events from 2010-2011 (up until around July) are documented here.

And that’s just when you account for the greenhouse gases that we’ve emitted purposely (well, not intentionally, but at least we knew where that COcame from). There is a much more potent greenhouse gas, which is also fairly common. You might have heard of it: methane. It traps a lot more heat than carbon dioxide. You smell it when you’re sitting next to someone with no tact on the bus. We don’t emit much of it ourselves. Currently there is about 200 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than there is methane. At this rate, it isn’t much of an immediate concern.

But it is a cause for concern if you think about the future. A lot of the planet’s methane is trapped under the Arctic’s permafrost (so named because permafrost didn’t do a lot of melting before humans started burning fossil fuels). Because the rising average temperature has caused permafrost to start melting, methane gas has been leaking into the atmosphere. We don’t really know what effect this will have, but it’s looking like it will set off a positive feedback mechanism. More greenhouse gases means that more methane will end up in the atmosphere, which will melt more permafrost, which in turn will release more methane, which is a nasty vicious circle to get caught in. This is what scientists are talking about when they mention that we’re at risk of falling victim to a runaway greenhouse effect.

That’s just one of the many positive feedback mechanisms that have the potential exacerbate global warming beyond our control. I mentioned before that water vapour is also a greenhouse gas – as the climate warms, the atmosphere will be able to hold more water vapour, which will allow the climate to trap more heat energy, which will lead to more warming, and so on. Ocean acidification could be another, and there are others – and there might be more that we don’t yet know about. Sure, there are negative feedback mechanisms which would mitigate the warming effects, but there are a lot less of those.

It’s a big deal

So we have a problem. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is currently rising faster than it did during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) extinction event, and the climate is obviously very sensitive to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. What does this all mean?

We don’t yet know exactly. All we know is that the negatives vastly outweigh the positives. We do know that the weather will get worse, sea levels will climb, droughts more frequent and conditions in Africa (already the hardest-hit nation) will probably transmogrify into a hot version of Mars. For those of us still living elsewhere on the planet, there is a high chance that dramatic destabilization of the climate could lead to things like global economic collapse; the displacement of hundreds of millions of people; widespread famine; food riots; martial law; etc. The sort of stuff you’d expect to see in a real life adaptation of the cult classic film Soylent Green. I’m finding it very difficult to engage in hyperbole here. We are kidding ourselves if we think we have a chance to adapt to this.

If you want to see what has already happened (in the form of actual television news features – many from Australia), and what will happen if we allow the trend to continue, you should watch the unabashedly titled film The Age of Stupid, directed by Franny Armstrong and available to watch or download here.

After everything I’ve covered, if you’re still not convinced, I’d urge you to visit the Skeptical Science website. Skeptical Science is frequently used as a platform for climatologists and other scientists from all over the world to address and debunk literally every single global warming denialist argument they come across in plain English (and many other languages too).

What they don’t tell you

There is scientific conspiracy afoot, or so we’re told by the deniers.

I will briefly discuss ‘climategate’, then we’ll move on. Any idiot can take stolen messages out of context and make all kinds of unqualified claims. Just look at all the different sects of Christianity out there. Plus, the scientists involved didn’t do anything wrong. But then, the public, being unfamiliar with the literature, could not fairly be expected to know what climate scientist Phil Jones was talking about when he said (emphasis added):

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

I mean, how could the public be expected to know that the phrase ‘Mike’s Nature trick’ in a private email exchange between scientists refers to an innocuous technique described in a paper published in one of the world’s most respected scientific journals, Nature, in 1998, by lead author Michael Mann? The technique combines tree ring-derived reconstructed temperature data of the past with recent directly measured temperature data to produce a temperature time line graph. The mentioned ‘decline’ refers to a curious but well-studied physical effect where temperature data from tree rings after 1960 show a decline in temperature, while direct temperature measurements have not. This is because tree growth has recently been stunted due to numerous global factors relating to, you guessed it, climate change. Up until 1960, tree ring data closely matched instrument measurements and other proxy temperature measurements (such as those discussed above).

The second most famous leaked email was from the leading IPCC researcher Kevin Trenberth, which contains the following quote:

The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.

Wow, incriminating right?

Not so fast. If you look at the study Trenberth was referring to, it discusses that while we know the planet is warming due to an enhanced greenhouse effect, data from short term weather patterns sometimes didn’t appear to reflect this because our observation system wasn’t yet adequate to comprehensively track the planet’s entire energy budget. You can imagine this could lead to a PR nightmare when trying to communicate the risks of climate change to an ignorant public. The northern hemisphere has since seen the hottest year on record – 2010. 2010 was tied with 2005 for the whole planet’s hottest year recorded, and it was marked by some of the craziest weather events seen since we’ve had the resources to keep track. (More info here.)

It is important to remember that climate and weather are not necessarily the same systems. Weather is complicated and can only accurately be predicted weeks in advance (remember the butterfly effect trope, which in the real world deals with weather patterns, not time travel), while climate deals with long term averages – or what weather variables have to work with. So while the previous decade averaged out as the hottest ever directly measured. 2011 is so far ranking as the 17th hottest, and marked by increased in flooding in Australia. This sort of weather variability is totally consistent with a warming planet.

I believe that much of the popular press failed the public by not digging into the context of the leaked emails as soon as the whole incident erupted, and by blowing the whole thing completely out of proportion. You don’t need to be a student of journalism to suggest that fanning the furore is not real reporting. But those are just my opinions. I’m not asserting that the entire scandal was manufactured by the media industry from essentially nothing to sell papers (and reap from increasing advertising revenue), I’m just wondering where the real journalists were.

So forget ‘climategate’.

An industry of doubt

The conspiracy theories I’d like to address here are the ones disseminated by the denialist industry. Denialist speakers tend to claim that the whole discipline of climatology is flawed, and then they intentionally misinterpret certain climatology data to buttress their biases and they skew other data to offer up straw-man arguments to ritualistically slaughter to the delight of their adoring audience. Obviously, the bulk of the data they simply ignore. ‘Lord’ Chris Monckton is the widest known proponent of this theory and practice.

More sophisticated deniers (like Tony “carbon dioxide is weightless” Abbott) have been taken in by Monckton’s ‘lahs’ (seriously, that’s what he calls ‘lies’ in the text of his slideshow…). Happily, Prof. John Abraham at the University of St. Thomas in the USA took the time to extensively and comprehensively debunk Monckton’s attempt to be the AntiGore on his university webpage (and Prof. Abraham is an actual scientist), slide by suspect slide. Monckton’s rebuttal was, well, feeble. (Journalist George Monbiot called it ‘magnificently bonkers‘.) I won’t go into the details, but I’d like to point out that attacking a professor with tenure at a respected university’s academic credentials is plainly a stupid thing to do.

A disturbing percentage of deniers believe that the nasty 97-98% majority of climate scientists are participating in some sort of malicious big government conspiracy. The idea that thousands of scientific researchers are formally conspiring to destroy the global economy and strip everyone of their basic rights is absurd. These sorts of grand sweeping conjectures toe the threshold of clinical paranoia. It actually reminds me of the early 20th century conspiracy theory spread by the publication of a certain fabricated racist scrapbook, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which alleged that a Jewish conspiracy was trying to take over the world via fringe men’s charity groups like the Freemasons. There are still people who believe that, but most of them don’t even realize that they’re spitting the same anti-Semitic bile that inspired Hitler and his Nazi pals. To allege that thousands of professional researchers from all over the world have converged on this ‘Warmist’ conspiracy to forward some communist plot may lack the surreptitious racism, but it certainly smacks of the same grade of ignorance.

Do you want to know what the real global warming swindle is? How incredibly incestuous, virulent, sneaky and well-funded the denialist industry is.

Aside from the crazies and the kooks, only groups with financial interests in big oil and big petrol are sowing doubt on this issue. The Heartland Institute and the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI), two free market ‘think-tanks’ (ironically where most bad ideas seem to come from, these days) – the former headed by prolific denialist ‘Lord’ Monckton; the latter listing him as a ‘global warming expert’ (!) – have received millions of dollars in funding from oil giants ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.

It’s probably no coincidence that Dr. Frederick Seitz, former paid consultant to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (who kicked Seitz $45 million in order to, among other things, sow doubt about the health risks of tobacco amongst consumers) is now working for the Science and Environmental Policy Project and the George C. Marshall Institute – both prominent climate change denial organizations heavily financed by the big players in the polluter industry. Seitz has also served on The Advancement of Sound Science Center (TASSC)’s scientific advisory board.

TASSC has arguably lead the most damaging campaigns against government efforts to combat global warming. This might have something to do with the fact that TASSC is chaired by neocon propaganda outlet FoxNews‘ own batshit serial-denialist commentator Steven Milloy. These and other anti-climate ‘think-tanks’ received an awful lot of funding from, well, guess who – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

It all goes much deeper than I have the time to discuss in much depth here. I did uncover a lot though in the space of a few days’ research. Rather than continue with specific examples, I’d suggest you pick up the book Merchants of Doubt by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. I haven’t yet read it, but it looks like it covers more than what I could with the help of Google. The website for Merchants of Doubt is here.

Apparently I’m not the only one raising questions about this odd coterie of bullshit spinners. Australian social media initiative OurSay solicited questions from the public on the issues surrounding climate change. The most popular questions were put to journalists at The Age. The fifth most popular question, to quote an article posted on the Sydney Morning Herald website asks:

The Sunday Age‘s reporters to find out who, if anyone, is funding prominent climate change ”sceptics” in the media, including Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt and Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones, and whether those people had a vested interest in maintaining ”the industrial status quo”

So what did they turn up? Nothing yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

This isn’t a tinfoil hat-grade formal conspiracy, and there’s nothing secret about anything I’ve covered, but it’s still worth noting.

On sense and scepticism

Conspiracies aside, it doesn’t just doesn’t make sense to refuse to act on climate change in the face of insurmountable evidence. Master polemicist Christopher Hitchens doesn’t understand climate science, but he understands the principles of science well enough. He believes that we should treat global warming as a fact now because we don’t have another planet with which to run an experiment. The only safe, conservative option is to act as if it’s true and take the necessary measures to combat it. Actually, forget Hitch (that’s not something I say readily), watch Greg Craven’s original YouTube video on how to approach global warming conservatively even if you don’t buy the evidence. (Again, I find myself in the debt of one Simon McWaters for linking me.) Speaking of logical consistency, has anyone else ever noticed the irony of self-labelled conservatives denying climate change? You’d think that they’d want to take the conservative road and play it safe. Apparently not. But I digress.

If you want absolute proof that global warming is happening (and if you insist, that it’s man-made) before you’d support acting on it, then I have to ask: why are you holding the science of climate change to a higher standard than you hold Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity?

If you’re reading this, you probably use a global positioning system (GPS) device, in your phone or in your car. Time onboard the satellites that GPS devices require to work ticks at a different rate than it does down here, nearer to the ground, because of the way the Earth’s mass warps spacetime – just as predicted by Einstein. This means that these differences in the flow of time must be taken into account when calibrating GPS satellites and devices in order for the system to work.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity also predicts that nothing can travel faster than light. The fact that neutrinos might have been found to be travelling faster than the speed of light in a recent high-profile CERN experiment doesn’t render Einstein’s entire theory useless – general relativity otherwise describes practically everything in the macroscopic world almost perfectly. Almost perfectly, but not actually perfectly. But if you threw out relativity because it isn’t perfectly established (or, lacking in absolute proof) and because it has some demonstrable inconsistencies (and I’m not just talking about superluminal neutrinos, I’m also referring to its zero-sum incompatibility with quantum theory – which is itself scarily accurate with its predictions but incomplete), the talking GPS toy in your car would be worse than useless and you’d invariably get lost more often and have to resort to that battered old street directory festering under your passenger seat.

Science is the last place you’ll find claims of certainty. You’ll find claims that are well established theoretically and strongly grounded by evidence that effectively excludes any competing hypotheses, but you’ll never hear a scientist in any discipline earnestly tell you they’ve stumbled upon a nugget of Absolute Truth. If you want absolute proof before you’ll accept any scientific theory, you’re not asking for science – you’re asking for religion; and no scientist can give you that. Sorry.

You should always ask for proof when someone says something that doesn’t sound right. You obviously need to be especially sceptical when it comes from suspect groups like transnational corporations or large political parties. But when you get proof, you have to accept it. If you keep asking for proof after you get it, you’re thinking like a fundamentalist. Science is the opposite of fundamentalism. In science, there’s no dogma; science is just a set of tools to investigate reality with. Scientific knowledge is constantly under review, but that doesn’t make it invalid – scientific knowledge corrects itself when better evidence comes along. It’s the closest thing to absolute truth we’ve got, and that’s why it’s so useful.

Shut up and think

What follows might sound politically incorrect, and for that I make no apologies.

The fact is that your opinion as a lay person on the evidence behind global warming is basically meaningless. It is totally irrelevant. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to understand the evidence; but your job as a citizen in this democracy is to pay attention to the facts, think, listen and analyse – not to tell scientists how to interpret their data. Anything you say that doesn’t gel with scientific consensus cannot add anything useful to the discussion. Denialism is just white noise. Science might serve democracy, but it is not itself a democracy – it’s more like a tyranny of data. Science is apolitical; it is a tool for determining facts about reality. You can’t fight evidence with popularity without looking like a clown.

People don’t like that and I understand why. It is hard to trust what feels like the establishment. That your lay person’s opinion is inane to science might sound elitist, and it sort of is; but it isn’t exclusionary. If you wanted to meaningfully say that global warming isn’t a man-made problem, you could get qualified by going to school and you could hypothetically then spot that crucial bit of evidence that would bring the whole edifice down. But that isn’t likely; you’ll probably find that the evidence for anthropogenic global warming is unequivocal, and you’ll probably uncover new evidence to support the theory since your hypothesis was an attempt to refute it (that’s how science works), as almost all the scientists studying the climate have. But since other people are doing the job, doing it very well, and publicising their findings, why bother? Why not just listen?

Think about it another way: would you want someone who isn’t a qualified neurosurgeon to cut out the tumour that might be growing in your prefrontal cortex? Would you feel the need to become a fully qualified neurosurgeon yourself before you go under the knife? The human brain is more complicated than the Earth’s climate, but we still know that tumours aren’t good for brains. Climate scientists aren’t doing actual surgery but they are like doctors, in that they write out prescriptions and referrals that will ultimately save your life. We should be grateful that the carbon tumour was spotted before it became inoperable.

So when I said that opinions that don’t gel with the scientific consensus are useless, I was probably being too diplomatic. They’re worse than useless. Expressing such opinions is the equivalent of advocating homoeopathy as a valid alternative to brain surgery; or denying that brain tumors exist; or saying that they’re not bad things to have. And anyway, how do you know for sure that you caused your brain tumour? You don’t, so why should you do anything about it? You can just try adapt to that growing tumour ravaging your prefrontal cortex and destroying your ability to regulate your behaviour, and that would be better for your neural economy anyway, right? Well, why not? After all, brain tumors are perfectly natural.

Sticking our heads in the sand

The majority of the Australians were worried about global warming right up until Prime Minister Julia Gillard suggested they pay for it. Then practically all of them became ‘sceptics’ overnight. They’re not actually sceptics. Sceptics evaluate evidence. If you’re ignoring evidence, you’re not a sceptic; you’re a denier. You are allowed to express distaste for the government’s carbon tax plan and still acknowledge the existence of global warming. I don’t agree with the proposed carbon tax because I think that in a country with such rich uranium and thorium deposits and so much desert space to fill with solar plants, such a tax should be largely unnecessary. We would simply need to switch from burning carbon to splitting carbon-neutral atoms and we could maintain our standard of living, and even grant it to more people; but I know that’s not the popular position, because apparently even environmentalists can think like fundamentalists. Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me.

Love or loathe the carbon tax, it is designed to goad private industry into innovating to zero-emissions technology. Australia’s emissions profile sucks. We should be ashamed of that. The Gillard Government’s proposed carbon tax has again been given the thumbs-up by economists and even scientists from all over the world. It’d be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, even though I don’t think the carbon tax is the only answer. It’s important for me to be open to all solutions because again, global warming is a fact.

Apparently you can get a lot of people to cast aspersions on something they don’t understand when you make them feel that their wallets are under threat. There’s nothing quite like selfishness and greed to stultify reason. Bertrand Russell purportedly once said: “Many people would rather die than think; in fact, most do.” I hate that now the inability of a majority of people to think might actually kill off the rest of us.

If I have to blame someone

I blame Andrew Bolt. Well, him and the rest of his ilk. No, actually, I blame the disingenuous sell-outs who give perfidious pricks like him airtime.

I blame the media for swallowing denialist bullshit by the truckload. That’s not to say that most journalists believe that shit. What I mean is that the media gives these cranks airtime under the delusion that they’re being balanced. Really, they’re just scamming cash from desperate consumers.

Balance in the media isn’t actually balance when it just serves to give the insane fringe a voice. The only reason denialists get a platform is because they’re in vogue, because they say the things that complacently comfortable white people in big environmentally safe cities want to hear. This is pandering to public prejudices, political and economic powers and wishful thinking. Thankfully, Fairfax Media’s reporters have started feeling the same way.

I believe my acquaintances to be (at least) partially victims of this dangerous phenomenon. The only constructive thing I have to say about climate change deniers, and I’ve heard this sentiment expressed elsewhere, is that the rest of us wish they were right – and presumably they do too. But they’re wrong, and wishful thinking is among the worst reasons to believe something.

Some final thoughts

The saddest part about this whole mess is that we’re not yet doomed. We could be doing things to fix the situation, but we’re not. Apparently there’s no money in preventing global warming – only in cleaning it up, which is a pretty brainless perception to possess. With peak oil looming, the rarer oil is, the more it sells for – just as whales near extinction, the more Japanese whalers get for whale carcasses. The economics of fossil fuels is fairly simple to comprehend. So is the driving greed.

As I’ve stressed, you don’t have to be an idiot to be capable of denying climate change. Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer was a denier before he saw Al Gore’s slideshow. Global warming denial was also pushed in my least favourite episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, which just goes to show that even formidable sceptics have been fooled (by a television weatherman, I’m not kidding). According to his new book God, No!, Penn Jillette seems to have switched to a tentative “probably but I don’t know” position. As the late great American songwriter Warren Zevon crooned in his timeless track My Shit’s Fucked Up: “It has to happen to the best of us/The rich folks suffer like the rest of us/It’ll happen to you.” Well, we hope it doesn’t.

What you do have to be to deny climate change – if not an idiot or a polluter lobbyist – is ignorant of the facts. Ignorance is easily remedied with Google and a bit of initiative. But then, denialism seems to appeal to certain ideological biases; Michael Shermer and Penn & Teller are all outspoken economic libertarians.

We really need to stop wasting our time with trying to appease the deniers and the fundamentalists. We need take the necessary steps to mitigate this and reinstate the environmental equilibrium with science, regulation and innovation. We might complain about taxes, but global warming is not what Australia wants. Go read this article over at the Rolling Stone website just to see how obvious the damage Australia’s already suffered thanks to global warming looks to outsiders.

If you’re still confused on the issue, just watch this. That’s also good if you now know where you stand, because it’s both funny and terrifying.

So now that I’m finished with this lengthy footnote of an entry, I’m allowed to go back to assuming that you all accept anthropogenic global warming as a fact. That would be super, because I’m probably going to talk about green technology and the idiots who try to stop it again.

We shouldn’t be ashamed of our progress as a species. We’ve done some great things. But it should go without saying that we have a lot more to do to neutralize the traps we’ve inadvertently set for ourselves.

Shit didn’t just get real, shit’s been real for a long, long time. Trust the science, it’s trying to help you.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Simon McWaters for once again being a vigilant reader and suggesting links. Also thanks to my friends, colleagues and family for their invaluable feedback and encouragement.

If you were a denier and I’ve caused you to capitulate, please share. That’d be awesome.

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10 thoughts on “Seriously, global warming is real

  1. Pingback: Who are the biggest sceptics? « Entropy & Iteration

  2. Re: You’re explanation of Trenberth’s “travesty” statement:

    “…while we know the planet is warming due to an enhanced greenhouse effect, data from short term weather patterns sometimes didn’t appear to reflect this because our observation system wasn’t yet adequate to comprehensively track the planet’s entire energy budget.”

    This is the equivalent to Creationists’ “God of the gaps” arguments (God operates only in those areas where we don’t have any information).

    The facts are:
    1) We have a theory that says the planet should be warming.
    2) Data says the planet is not warming.
    3) We are unable to comprehensively track the planet’s energy flows.

    (Note that point 2 is not BECAUSE of point 3, as you imply above, but is independent.)

    You’re conclusion seems to be: The heat is going where we can’t see it, and anybody who doubts this is an asshole.

    This is not how I was taught science operates when I got my degrees in math, physics and EE.

    Reply
    • Well, as you know, the data capturing the planet’s warming is now incontrovertible. I say this because it is. (Remember the Koch funded study all over the news last October?) The claim that the data is wanting is plainly false and I stand by framing those who propagate that claim as arseholes. I refer you to this heavily-referenced HuffPo article for more information.

      For you and other readers who find my explanation of the “travesty statement” inadequate, here’s a July 2011 article by the eponymous Kevin Trenberth on tracking the planet’s energy budget to compliment the link I provided in the body of the post above.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: drip | david’s really interesting pages…

  4. I agree with virtually everything you say, though might not have said some things in quite the way you have — but, hey, that’s the variety of life.

    The only point I would make is that it’s not a good idea in any argument to make personal comments about individuals (so called ‘ad hominem’ comments). OK, we all know ‘Lord’ Monckton’s arguments are irrational, and distortions, but please don’t make personal remarks about him. His eyes are like they are because he has Graves disease, not because he talks crap.

    Please, for me, change it and any other such comments. The power of your arguments will be all the stronger for it.

    Best wishes,

    John Russell

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Sixteen scumbags on global warming « Science & Defiance

  6. I admit to being utterly confused about this subject. I find it very disturbing because I really care about the Earth, and yet also know just how devious that its so-called rulers are also. So I can say I am really confused, and what makes it worse is that on both sides so-called scientists contradict each other. It has become very personal because the English ‘summer’ this year was suicide-inducingly awful. Week after week of grey, miserable rain, and cold. Ask for explanations and the ‘experts’ just say ‘oh—the jet stream is on the wrong place and we don’t know why’ and leave you with that. I am aware of extreme weather conditions all over the planet. Just watched this video:
    ‘Never mind the heat, climate change is hoax by gravy-train scientists’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEmUS7PAWFw
    What have you on this guy? Why does he sounds so smugly convinced?

    Reply

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