Ball or Aerosol?

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According to the likes of Bob Ward, George Monbiot, Ben Goldacre and Steve Connor, it is a well established fact that the slump in global temperatures over three decades in the middle of the last century is the result of changes in the composition of atmospheric aerosols following various clean air acts in the western world.

Failure to acknowledge this fact is ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty’, according to Monbiot, and ‘a major misrepresentation of the scientific evidence’, in the words of Ward. Goldacre described the question of the post-war temperature slump as a prime example of a denialist ‘zombie argument’ (it ‘survive[s] to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times [it is] shot down’) and wrote that it has ‘been answered already, ages ago’. It’s the aerosols, stupid.

We have stated repeatedly that such certainty is not justified by the state of scientific understanding of atmospheric aerosols (see links above). So it’s good to see Quirin Schiermeier’s piece in today’s issue of NatureThe real holes in climate science – which identifies aerosols as one of four problematic areas of climate change research (the other three being Regional climate prediction, Precipitation, and The tree-ring controversy):

Atmospheric aerosols — airborne liquid or solid particles — are a source of great uncertainty in climate science. Despite decades of intense research, scientists must still resort to using huge error bars when assessing how particles such as sulphates, black carbon, sea salt and dust affect temperature and rainfall.

Overall, it is thought that aerosols cool climate by blocking sunlight, but the estimates of this effect vary by an order of magnitude, with the top end exceeding the warming power of all the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by humans.

One of the biggest problems is lack of data…

Schiermeier goes on to describe how little is understood about the relative contributions of white aerosols (eg, sulphates, which have a cooling effect) and black carbon (which has a warming effect); how we don’t know the atmospheric aerosol composition in the present, let alone the past; how little we know about the way in which aerosols interact with clouds and other atmospheric processes, etc.

He doesn’t go into the implications of this lack of knowledge for our understanding of the post-war temperature slump. But it goes without saying that, if ‘Scientists have yet to untangle the interplay between pollution, clouds, precipitation and temperature’, then the claims of Ward, Monbiot, Goldacre, Connor et al are wildly off the mark, if not examples of ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty’.

Thankfully, neither is the post-war temperature slump mentioned in the obligatory list of long-debunked denialist arguments (Enduring climate myths) that accompanies Schiermeier’s article – something of a first for the genre.

The Nature piece is not without its faults. For a start, it is framed in terms of the putative attack on climate science by ‘deniers’. And Hans von Storch is already complaining that Schiermeier has misquoted him, and that the article ignores myths perpetuated by the orthodoxy (of which we could add a few of our own). But perhaps it has dealt the severe head trauma that was needed to finish off for good the real zombie argument – that ‘Temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming. This is well-known to all climate scientists.

Randi, You Old Goat

Nothing can surprise about the climate debate any more. First, UK homeopath-slayer Dr Ben Goldacre lays his climate cards on the table. Now his comrade in arms across the pond, James Randi, has done the same – only completely differently. Get this:

Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds […]

as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

It’s easy enough to believe that drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes are signs of a coming catastrophe from global warming, but these are normal variations of any climate that we — and other forms of life — have survived. Earth has undergone many serious changes in climate, from the Ice Ages to periods of heavily increased plant growth from their high levels of CO2, yet the biosphere has survived. We’re adaptable, stubborn, and persistent — and we what other life forms don’t have: we can manipulate our environment. Show me an Inuit who can survive in his habitat without warm clothing… Humans will continue to infest Earth because we’re smart.

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

Paging Dr. Goldacre… Warmer Zombies on the Climate Ward

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions last night, and in his Bad Science column in the Guardian today, Dr Ben Goldacre lays into what he calls the ‘zombie arguments’ of climate sceptics:

…reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down[http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462]. “Homeopathy worked for me”, and the rest.

Zombie arguments survive, they get up and live again, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at realclimate.org, with refutations. There are huge lists[http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php] of them everywhere[http://scholarsandrogues.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/anti-global-heating-claims-a-reasonably-thorough-debunking/]. It makes no difference.

“CO2 isn’t an important greenhouse gas”, “Global warming is down to the sun”, “what about the cooling in the 1940s?” says your party bore. “Well,” you reply, “since the last time you raised this, I went and checked, and it turns out that there were loads of suphites [sic] in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had back then, and the odd volcano, so that’s sort of been answered already, ages ago.”

Goldacre’s sulphites example is very poorly chosen, and for a professional sceptic, he appears remarkably willing to defer uncritically to zombie lists of zombie arguments. Moreover, if zombie arguments are what bothers him, what about those deployed by the living dead of the climate orthodoxy? Here are some of the claims repeated ad nauseam by and in support of the climate change orthodoxy, along with our responses:

1. Climate change will be worse for the poor.

Everything is worse for the poor. The issue is poverty and inequality, then, not climate. Small differences in climate that produce negative human effects do so because of a lack of wealth or otherwise a lack of civil infrastructure. The outcome of policies and international agreements to limit productive activity and development can therefore only increase inequality and decrease wealth, putting poorer people closer to their environment, for a marginal – if any – positive change in the weather. Environmentalism will be worse for the poor.

Painting Pictures of Poverty
Who’s the Basket-Case, Oxfam?
Backwards to the Future
Climate Science and Climate Scepticism
The Age of the Age of Stupid

2. An organised and well-funded network of climate change deniers has distorted the public debate.

The environmental message has been faithfully and sympathetically reproduced by the UK’s media. The BBC’s output is predominantly green, and its news rarely covers the climate debate critically. The few hours of programming that have been broadcast on UK television networks that have given an airing to scepticism have become the object of anger. But you can probably count the number of such programs broadcast in the last decade on one finger. Meanwhile, there are many hours of programming each week, reflecting the orthodox, consensus position, within lifestyle, current affairs, science, and ethics programming.

Print media is more divided, with all papers occasionally featuring sceptical perspectives. In the case of UK newspapers, the Guardian, Independent have clearly climate-orthodox editorial agendas – climate change is anthropogenic and a looming catastrophe, and we must all reduce emissions now. The Times and Telegraph are more sceptical, but not (Christopher Booker aside) of the idea that the planet is warming and much of that is anthropogenic. The Daily Mail does take a more sceptical view of the basic science, to the fury of environmental activists. The Sun, Mirror and Express are widely assumed to push a sceptical line, but they clearly do not – see herehere, and here.

The three main political parties embraced the green agenda comprehensively, each promising to take it more seriously than the last. Yet the principles these parties have taken up have not once been tested democratically. No party has dared to step out of line on the climate issue.

The public debate has been entirely dominated by the orthodox position. If there has been an attempt to distort the public debate it has been entirely ineffectual. It does not get airtime. It has not bought politicians. It has failed to establish an organised, institutional response. The media is dominated by the environmental message, companies go out of their way to demonstrate their environmental ethical credentials, politicians rarely ever dare to challenge environmental issues. The image of the climate sceptic remains one who speaks for himself rather than one who speaks from within the academy, party, corporation, and against the majority of his peers. Yet the public have not been convinced. This can’t be explained as the consequence of a new trust in mavericks, and the influence of a conspiracy to distort the debate.

As for the ubiquitous claim that the debate has been skewed by corporate funding – especially oil money – what tends to be forgotten are the much larger sums available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF to push their own exaggerated alarmist line.

90 Minutes of TV; 16 Months of Handwaving…
The Well-Funded “Well-Funded Denial Machine” Denial Machine
The Well Funded World Wide Fund for Fear

3. There are just N years/months/days left to save the planet

Or in the words of Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC’s prestigious Newsnight, ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.’ The argument for action to mitigate climate change has always depended on generating a sense of urgency to get itself heard above the background noise of apathy, disinterest and disengagement from contemporary politics. The comprehensive change in our political, economic, and industrial mode of existence that greens want to create will take some persuasion. Accordingly, those riding the climate change bandwagon have had to illustrate their narratives with claims about when climate change will reach its ‘tipping point’, when we can expect disaster to arrive, and at what point we will pass the deadline for creating the comprehensive legal and institutional response to climate change. As there is a perception that the public conceive of climate change as some far away distant prospect, this strategy is perhaps intended to bring the realities of climate change closer to our imaginations. Yet it depends on myth-making, and overstating the predictive abilities of climate science.

Has Climate Porn Already Tipped?
Tipping Point for the Climate Porn Industry
Folie à Deux
Only Four Years Left to Save Environmentalism

4. The vast majority of scientists agree that…

The ‘scientific consensus’ that late 20th century warming can be attributed to human activity is routinely confused with the putative consequences of climate change – particularly social effects – and the political arguments for climate change mitigation. But even if there exists a consensus about the temperature record and its cause, there remains less of a consensus about what the first, second, third, and Nth-order effects of climate change will be. There is, for instance, much less agreement about how global warming will turn into sea level rise, species extinction, and human effects. The consensus on attribution cannot reasonably extend to represent an agreement about what the effects of climate change are, and what is the best policy response is. The failure to delineate the principle cause and its effects, and the effect of its effects, is a mistake that leads to the unhelpful polarisation of the climate debate, opening up proponents of climate change mitigation policies to the criticism that they have hidden prejudice and bad faith behind ‘science’.

The Illusion and Politics of Necessity

5. The IPCC consists of N-thousand of the worlds top climate scientists who all agree…

It is frequently argued by scientist activists, politicians, and campaigners that the IPCC represents thousands of the worlds top climate scientists. This is a misconception of the IPCC, of its contributors, function, purpose, and process.

The IPCC does little science itself, and does not measure the opinions of the contributing authors. It is divided into three working groups, focusing respectively on the physical science basis (WGI), impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (WGII), and mitigation of climate change (WGIII), each reviewing the existing literature in their fields. Each of these working groups is further divided into chapters, and again into sections. A contributing author to chapter 3 of WGI may never enter a working relationship with a contributing author to chapter 4. They may have very little to say about each other’s work, and are not asked to agree or disagree with it.

WGII and WGIII cannot be characterised as populated entirely by scientists, as the zombie argument claims. Instead, these working groups consist of social scientists, economists, and other non-climate and social-scientific disciplines. Moreover, as their task is to understand the impact of climate change on human society, we have argued that this process requires political and subjective precepts which assume a relationship between society and the climate/environment. These precepts and assumptions are not necessarily well-grounded in science, and take as their premises the conclusion to their own study: environmental determinism, and the inevitability of catastrophe. Worst still, these prejudices are the tenets of political environmentalism. That is to say that the IPCC’s work is ‘institutionally environmentalist’, and has been established to fulfill a political need: not simply to provide the political process with evidence with which to make decisions, but to give moral authority to governments embracing the same environmental agenda.

Physician, Heal Thyself
WGIII – But is it Science?
People in Greenhouses Throwing Stones

7. The politics flows from the science

The implication of the argument that ‘the science’ attributing global warming to human activity is settled is that this creates imperatives to cease such activity, and to reorganise life around the principles of environmental sustainability. Frequently, politicians making arguments for mitigation express their adherence to ‘the science’, and that ‘the science is clear’. Creeping lines on charts representing the loss of Arctic sea ice return each summer, and are held each summer to speak for themselves as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ signaling our imminent demise.

But the environmental argument in fact posits a political claim prior to science. It holds that human society can only exist within unchanging environmental circumstances, and that the normal process of politics must therefore be suspended in order to balance the concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. ‘The science’ merely serves to confirm that the world is changing, rather than to substantiate the basis of environmental determinism. As we argue often here on CR, ‘the politics is prior to the science’ in the climate debate, and the emphasis both ‘sides’ in the debate place on science impedes any progress on understanding the political claims either side are making. As we also often say, in order to understand what ‘science says’, it is necessary to understand what it has been asked.

Hacking the Climate da Vinci Code
The Politics is Prior

As Goldacre observes, the same arguments return to the climate debate. But his perspective is too narrow, and he neglects to scan his critical eye over the substance of the claims made by the camp he seemingly attaches himself to. In the process, he has summoned up an inconvenient metaphor.

Environmentalism is zombie politics. It is oblivious to human ambitions, desires and development, other than it seeks to devour them as it turns humans into copies of itself: lifeless, purposeless, walking corpses that would be better off dead. Human life is reduced to meeting necessity and politics becomes the process of managing subsistence rather than contesting ideas about possible futures. It turns humans against humanity.