Sixteen scumbags on global warming

Yesterday The Wall Street Journal published a letter, signed by sixteen proper scientists, with real degrees and everything, that declared “There’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy.” Take a look.

Now, I don’t claim to be smarter than Claude Allegre, J. Scott Armstrong, Jan Breslow, Roger Cohen, Edward David, William Happer, Michael Kelly, William Kininmonth, Richard Lindzen, James McGrath, Rodney Nichols, Burt Rutan, Harrison H. Schmitt, Nir Shaviv, Henk Tennekes, or Antonio Zichichi. But it seems like I know more about climate science than they do. Which is sad, because I really don’t know a hell of a lot. I’m more of a neuroscience kind of guy, and I don’t even have an undergraduate degree yet.

I think it’s important that knowledgeable people correct the misinformation on global warming percolates into the wider public consciousness. So I’m now going to wipe the floor with each of the fatuous and demonstrably false points that apparently substantiate this affront to human progress. I’ll try to quote sparingly, so if you’re interested in following along, refer to the link provided above.

This mediocre diatribe begins with an invocation of Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever’s resignation from the American Physical Society because he doesn’t accept the evidence of anthropogenic global warming. This is just an appeal to authority – in this case, a solid-state physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1973. Beginning a serious contrarian letter on such a dire issue with fallacious reasoning is not a great way to establish credibility.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that there are roughly 50,000 members of the American Physical Society, making it the world’s second largest organization of physicists. Also, I assure you, Ivar Giaever wasn’t the only Nobel laureate in the club. So who cares if he walked out over the word ‘incontrovertible’? And on that note, who cares if the number of so-called ‘heretics’ is growing? The number of scientists who accept global warming is too. Taking sides on a politicized topic like this one is a byproduct of what’s called ‘general awareness’. Not worth a mention, ladies and gentlemen?

The second claim is just embarrassing. Pathetic, even. Here’s a slice:

Perhaps the most inconvenient fact is the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now. This is known to the warming establishment, as one can see from the 2009 “Climategate” email of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth: “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.”

Perhaps the most inconvenient fact here is that Kevin Trenberth was talking about modelling the climate’s short term energy budget, not a simple ‘lack of warming’, and energy budget modelling is a mite more complicated than Trenberth’s critics were prepared to even consider. The fact is that we did observe a long-term trend in warming and the hottest decade on record. (See also: my own post on the basics of global warming if this is new to you, otherwise read Tamino on the 2011 temperature data and how it fits the AGW signal.)

Next, they take aim at the predictions made by the IPCC over the last 22 years. I don’t know why they’d even bother. This is kind of like trying to construct a smart phone based on patents registered in the ’60s. The 2007 report is much better and it draws on a great deal more research. The predictions made most recently in IPCC reports have – for the most part – held up.

The next claim is that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. In itself, CO2 is not a pollutant. CO2 molecules don’t literally suck up heat (which is energetic molecular motion for those of us who slept through physics, and this is roughly what Trenberth was referring to), but rather they capture and radiate heat. CO2 isn’t a pollutant, but it is a greenhouse gas. That’s the important bit.

The atoms that make up CO2 molecules are readily excited by energy in the form of thermal radiation from the sun. Excited molecules are highly mobile. This sets off a chain reaction; excited molecules excite other excitable molecules by colliding with them. Because energy is conserved, elevated levels of greenhouse gases diffuse more heat through the totality of molecules that make up the atmosphere. Basically: the more greenhouse gas molecules there are in the atmosphere, the more solar energy goes into the planet’s climate energy budget (the aforementioned subject of Trenberth’s study); ergo, high atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will cause the atmosphere to retain more heat than it would otherwise. By far the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution has been human activity.

Any scientist – or any high school student – should know that without the greenhouse effect, the Earth’s effective temperature would be too low to support an ecosystem like our own.

Our special sixteen then raise the point that CO2 is exhaled by humans. Here we have lame spin, the implication being that if those Green socialists are to be believed, breathing is bad for the environment, man! Humans do exhale CO2, but by doing so we do not increase the concentration of CO2 on the planet. The CO2 that humans exhale is converted from the oxygen we inhale. Oxygen is ‘exhaled” by plants, because plants ‘inhale’ carbon dioxide. This is a facet of that all-important planetary carbon cycle. We simply don’t add anything by breathing.

In the same paragraph, we find this:

Plants do so much better with more CO2 that greenhouse operators often increase the CO2 concentrations by factors of three or four to get better growth. This is no surprise since plants and animals evolved when CO2 concentrations were about 10 times larger than they are today.

This is true, but again, misleading. During the late Ordovician period, roughly 450 million years ago, the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 concentration was around 5,600 parts per million (ppm) – but some how, glaciers managed to form during that time. This is probably the most seductive myth spread by the better read deniers, but it illustrates that they really should know better. As the title I’ve given this post might suggest, I think it’s plausible to assume that they do know better and they don’t care.

What isn’t mentioned above, or anywhere in the article, is that the output of the sun also significantly drives the climate. Without the energy from a star, the greenhouse effect cannot heat a planet. During the Ordovician period, the sun put out about 4% less energy than it does now. In order for glaciers to form on the planet during that time, CO2 levels would need to drop below 3,000 ppm.

(For perspective: with the sun’s current energy output, CO2 levels need to stay below 500 ppm in order for our planet to have glaciers.)

The main sources of the ridiculously high levels of CO2 present in the atmosphere during the Ordovician were a lot of very active volcanoes. Major warming produced by volcanoes is mildly self-mitigating, because volcanoes also give off sulfate aerosols which have a mild, transient cooling effect on the climate by scattering incoming solar energy in the upper atmosphere (while wreaking havoc on the ozone layer, but that’s another story). This fact alone is not sufficient to explain how glaciers managed to form during the late Ordovician.

We know that when CO2 reacts with water molecules, it converts them into carbonic acid. This process plays a part in producing deadly acid rain (sulfur dioxide, also spewed out by volcanoes and today, coal plants, makes acid rain much more corrosive than it would be if carbon dioxide were the only gas in the picture – thanks to yikess for pointing this out) and this process is also behind the acidification of the ocean. Calcium carbonate, or limestone, reacts to carbonic acid molecules in rain to produce yet another chemical: calcium bicarbonate, which isn’t a greenhouse gas. This is known as rock weathering – and as any architect can tell you, it can have a pretty dramatic effects even over a few decades without full-blown acid rain. So, over long periods of time, on a planet with a lot of limestone, a steady high level of CO2 in the atmosphere, acid rain will slowly but effectively ‘react’ carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

446 million years ago, volcanic activity went into a lull, but acid rain continued to fall, and the ocean remained acidic, which weathered rocks. This lead to CO2 concentrations dropping below 3,000 ppm long enough for glaciers to form. I know that’s not a very simple or elegant explanation, but this isn’t a simple subject. I think my explanation is well-complemented here. (This entry owes a lot to the good people at Skeptical Science.)

It should go without saying that the plants that evolved from green algae during the Ordovician period were the very different ancestors of today’s plants, and were adapted to the harsher environment of the era. Today’s plants are evolved for the modern ecosystem. And while a comfortable concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide molecules does indeed help plants grow, any more simply destroys their environment through climate destabilization via global warming. This occurs most obviously through drought, and less obviously through stronger storms (fuelled by extra energy retained by greenhouse gases) and other phenomena, like acid rain.

By the very late Ordovician period, greenhouse gas levels had dropped far below the levels necessary for glaciation, and this caused the unstable icy mass-extinction events that ended the era. In the hotter Silurian period that followed the Ordovician with the return of greenhouse gases, flora did diversify – the first vascular plants emerged – but during the Silurian period atmospheric oxygen levels were much lower and the ocean was sporadically anoxic. High levels of oxygen stresses plants. So again, the plants that were adapted to that environment would not thrive today.

The next point I’d like to undermine is this one:

In 2003, Dr. Chris de Freitas, the editor of the journal Climate Research, dared to publish a peer-reviewed article with the politically incorrect (but factually correct) conclusion that the recent warming is not unusual in the context of climate changes over the past thousand years.

In 2003, Chris de Freitas did allow a paper that said as much to be published in Climate Research. A shitstorm did indeed ensue, and half of de Freitas’ colleagues on the editorial team promptly resigned. The paper in question was by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas. Review by the wider scientific community has shown to us civilians that this paper does not qualify as worthy research. And once again, perspective tells us that we’re talking about a diminutive minority. If you’re interested in the supposed case against anthropogenic global warming in the peer-reviewed literature and how it weighs up against the immense bulk of the data, I recommend starting here (then going here, then here).

Then we come to some misdirection framed by the story of an infamous insane Soviet pseudoscientist. I’ll deal with the misdirection, and then like the article, I’ll return to the Lysenko fallacy. Here’s the misdirection:

Why is there so much passion about global warming, and why has the issue become so vexing that the American Physical Society, from which Dr. Giaever resigned a few months ago, refused the seemingly reasonable request by many of its members to remove the word “incontrovertible” from its description of a scientific issue? There are several reasons, but a good place to start is the old question “cui bono?” Or the modern update, “Follow the money.”

Indeed. The trouble is that our sixteen sellouts (either money or politics) have to contend with the fact that tracing a credible conspiracy amongst cadres of ‘sceptics’ to distort the facts for financial gain is trivial compared to trying to implicate almost every climate scientist on the planet in one. I’m enjoying my summer break right now, so I’m on a break from journalism. I’ll leave the job of following these particular cases up to others. Further:

Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet. Lysenko and his team lived very well, and they fiercely defended their dogma and the privileges it brought them.

Clearly the letter gets a bit vague at this point. Trofim Lysenko is invoked to contribute to the emotional, rather than the logical flow of the argument.

Lysenko was a key figure of the Soviet revolutionary religion, and a symbol of the wish for the strength of the totalitarian ideology of Stalinism alone to rewrite the laws of nature. (Funny, that.) Lysenko rejected Mendel’s gene theory and claimed to have developed agrarian praxes that would quadruple crop yields for good Soviet workers. Lysenkoism was the epitome of junk science, and implying even a spurious or figurative link between modern climate science to Lysenkoism is both cretinous and disingenuous; it’s also a bit like comparing Peter Higgs with Pope John Paul II. I’m guessing that their point here is to conjure up the ghosts of the Red Menace in the minds of the American taxhaters who didn’t mind a bit of Cold War demagogy.

It isn’t surprising that no attempt to elucidate the structure of the ostensible commie conspiracy has been made. We only get the accusation, with its nature surreptitiously alluded to and left to percolate through the grey matter of any old-school Republicans who might actually be reading. Classic propaganda, in other words.

It then goes off on a tangent, which insinuates that those dreaded ‘Keynesian’ top-down efforts to de-carbonize the economy will somehow destroy society; courtesy of the projections of an economist who failed to predict the global financial crisis (unlike, say, Steve Keen). At this point, they have no credibility, so it isn’t surprising I have the distinct feeling of being fed half-truths here too, so I’m a bit reluctant to slam William Nordhaus based on what this article says about him.

It’s such a shame, really. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish that the world wasn’t warming. But it is, and that makes examining these bullshit articles that much more depressing.


9 thoughts on “Sixteen scumbags on global warming

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

  2. “The atoms that make up CO2 molecules are readily excited by energy in the form of thermal radiation from the sun.”

    Careful – it’s typically the thermal radiation from a planet’s surface that is most relevant in discussing of the role of greenhouse gases. The vast majority of solar radiation is in the visible spectrum, which passes through the atmosphere without much trouble, warming the Earth’s surface. Greenhouses gases are active in the IR spectrum – and Earth’s outgoing thermal radiation is centred in that region. More greenhouse gases – more absorption of outgoing thermal radiation.

    “This occurs most obviously through drought, and less obviously through stronger storms (fuelled by extra energy retained by greenhouse gases) and other phenomena, like acid rain.”

    I think you should exercise some caution in saying ‘most obviously’, given that a warmer world will have more rainfall. Projections of drought are largely focussed on the subtropics, due to the projected (and recently observed) poleward expansion of the Hadley cell. I’m generalising there for reasons of space – but the only thing particularly obvious about rainfall and warming is that there will be more of it. Linking warming with drought without a location specific context is risky. Cheers.

    • Cheers! It’s probably too late for me to edit, but thank you for the heads up. I’ll try to be more precise in future articles. These details are crucial, because they seem to be what the deniers most readily latch on to. Thanks again!

  3. Hi Matt, I just chanced across this blog. Well said. What you are seeing here is exactly what has happened with every scientific revolution. This one just has a higher profile than some (but not evolution, for example). Compare it with plate tectonics, for example (I choose a well-known example). The original idea was ridiculed, but as evidence gathered, the converts multiplied. By the early 90s there remained only a small handful of holdouts – I remember one old guy somebody pointed out to me at a scientific meeting about that time still yapping about the minor discrepancies in the data. Eventually these people, the Kininmonths and Plimers here in Australia – will fade away, and none too soon in my opinion.

    • None too soon indeed. It’s a bit of a joke that it’s gone on for so long though. You’d think mainstream society would have learned from the decades of bullshit from the tobacco lobbies.

  4. Pingback: Free market Lysenkoism « Science & Defiance

  5. Pingback: Free market Lysenkoism « Science & Defiance

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