Note: originally published on 05/30/2010 (transferred from wordpress).
A response I wrote to this Newsweek article.
I am a climate researcher – a PhD student looking at past climates, actually. There are so many unsourced, unreliable accusations in this article and among the comments that I had to respond in some depth.
Most importantly: climate is nothing more than the overall tendencies of weather patterns over a long period. These overall climatic tendencies mask a huge amount of short term fluctuations in weather. If our world is warming that doesn’t mean some regions of the earth – like Europe over the past few months – won’t have especially cold winters. I study a period called “the Little Ice Age,” referring to a few centuries of generally colder-than-normal weather in the early modern period. Well, some of those years – even some decades – were actually warmer than normal, and sometimes when it was cold, wet and stormy in one part of Europe, for example, it was warm, dry and tranquil in another part. Still, over the centuries glaciers advanced and sea ice spread. If the public has lost some faith in global warming that is because they do not understand the reality of climatic changes – largely because we as researchers have done a poor job explaining them – and that is a serious concern.
Has the pace of global warming slowed over the past decade? It depends on where you look. Globally, yes - slightly. In the poles, quite the opposite – and this is critical, because ice not only stores water but also reflects sunlight. When we lose ice, we gain water that more easily absorbs the warmth of the sun, and so polar melting results in a vicious cycle with critical consequences for global warming. As for the pace of warming slowing globally: there is no shortage of possible answers. It’s important to remember that the increasing quantity of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases pumped into the atmosphere by 7 billion humans is just one (very important) climatic stimulus among many. For example, the sun is also experiencing a historic low in sunspots, and the previous times that occurred – the Dalton Minimum, and before that the Maunder Minimum – the climate grew cooler. It’s entirely possible that when the sunspots return we’ll see a dramatic acceleration in global temperatures. The reality that the world’s climate is a complex system with many different elements doesn’t mean that human beings do not have a decisive impact. Remember that last year was still the warmest on record.
There are two points to keep in mind about science and scholarship: first, the universe is incredibly complex and we don’t fully understand it. Second, what we do think we understand rests entirely on a collection of theories that represent the cutting edge of research. The natural “laws” we take for granted – gravity, the law of conservation of mass and energy, etc. – are really nothing more than best guesses. It’s the same with global warming, and climate researchers have never stated otherwise. It’s why anyone who condemns a scientific theory – evolution, for example, or global warming – for failing to provide “certainty” is really just creating a straw man argument.
Right now, as the article reports, the vast majority of researchers in a wide range of disciplines believe global warming is an accelerating reality. The vast majority believe it is caused by human beings. These theories seem extremely sound and are backed by an enormous amount of evidence, although of course, like anything, they’re not certainties. On the other hand it’s more difficult to predict the extent of future temperature rises (and accompanying shifts in precipitation, wind directions/speeds, and storminess) because doing so with any accuracy requires more knowledge of the world’s climate than we currently possess. Just like researchers in physics or biology who push the limits of their fields, here we must proceed with much less confidance. Contrary to what this article claims, however, all indications suggest that the IPCC has been low-balling the (potential) impacts of global warming. This makes sense to me: for one, any massive institution will inevitably shift towards a certain conservatism, and secondly I study I period where temperature changes of just 1-2 degrees celsius radically influenced European environments.
As climate researchers we may not “know” the potential consequences of global warming with any certainty. However, the idea that recent articles have “refuted” (note the word choice) the possibility of dessertification or especially severe natural disasters arising from global warming is just absurd. An example: there has been some controversy over the potential link between global warming and the severe hurricanes of recent years. However, if water temperatures rise sufficiently in the coming decades we will almost certainly see far more severe storms, especially if these are accompanied by higher sea levels. J.R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun outlines the precarious, climatically-sensitive state of global agriculture; indeed even the relatively slight climatic shifts of the period I study influenced famines that killed millions, and potentially a revolution in European commodity prices.
As for the email controversy: this article treats the ridiculous allegations of “cherry picking,” for example, as being self-evident truths. To me it’s difficult to grasp how a cyber attack by a shady group of hackers that publicized a few emails out of thousands, out of context, could have any legitimacy at all. I won’t get into individual emails, but here’s a very good article for those interested: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/11/the-cru-hack. And another: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/11/truth-hacked-climate-email-controversy.php. Maybe the best “unbiased” analysis, the results of the investigation by the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/387/38702.htm
Finally, this article criticizes the supposedly radical political stances of climate scientists. Believe it or not, scientists in all disciplines have always influenced and been influenced by politics, culture, and broader society. Why exactly should climatologists alone keep their heads above the political fray when politicians ignore or reject the looming climatic crisis of this century? To do so would be the height of irresponsibility, and more importantly it would be profoundly inhuman.
For much more on the climate controversy, here are some great links:
This article is one of the best I know of:
Mitchell, John F. B., Jason Lowe, Richard A. Wood, and Michael Vellinga. 2006. “Extreme Events Due to Human-Induced Climate Change” in *PhilosophicalTransactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences*. 364 (1845).
And perhaps the finest new work about those who challenge on scientific consensus on global warming is Merchants of Doubt, published this year by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.