Facts are not negotiable

On April 25, I wrote a column for the Albuquerque Journal entitled “Climate Change is Based only on Fact.”  It was a direct refutation of factual errors in a column that had been published two days earlier called “Global Warming is Just Propaganda.”  The previous author, Lewis Green, had made a number of incorrect statements (as well as errors of logic) in support of his claim a that global warming is a conspiracy by left-wing activists.   I don’t understand why the Journal is willing to give space on their opinion page absurd conspiracy theories that are demonstrably false (for an ironclad demonstration, see Peter Sinclair’s video showing that high-profile conservatives accept the reality of global warming).  I also listed several irrefutable facts:

♦ Fact: Global warming is real.

♦ Fact: Global warming was successfully predicted by physicists.

♦ Fact: Scientists accept the reality of global warming.

♦ Fact: Climate and weather are not the same thing.

♦ Fact: Global warming is not a left-wing conspiracy.

Unsurprisingly, my list of facts led to a flurry of letters.  Of the six letters published on May 15, four disputed the facts, or argued that they don’t matter.   I respond to those letters here.

Larry Harrah wrote “Full Disclosure Applies to Both Sides.”  I realize that letter titles are not written by the author, but by the opinion page editor, so I don’t blame Mr. Harrah for the faux balance implying the existence of “both sides” of some scientific debate.  The debate over the reality of global warming really is over.  Of 47,000 members of the American Physical Society, only 206 objected to the APS statement: ‘The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.” Of those 206, only a handful have any expertise on climate science, and of those, none have published contrary evidence. Scientific debate is not about petitions and objections, it requires publications and data. By this definition, there is no debate.

Mr. Harrah wrote that my letter “…withheld some pertinent facts not supporting its thesis…”  These included:

  • Three recent reports that there has been no change in mean global temperature during the first decade of the 21st century.
  • Two periods of unusual warming and icecap melting in the fifth and sixth centuries and in the 11th and 12th centuries.

However, even of both of these statements where true, they would not constitute evidence against the facts I provided.  I do not know what reports Mr. Harrah is referring to or if they were published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature or not (and I welcome a comment from him with citations to published scientific research).  But regardless of what the reports say, here is a plot the actual temperature data:


Whatever the recent reports claim about no global mean temperature change during the first decade of this century, the data do not support it.  Much has been made about the anomalously high temperature during the super El Nino year of 1998 (when tropical Pacific surface temperatures were exceptionally warm, slowing the rate at which the ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere).   Remarkably, the 2011 temperature, which nearly broke this record, was in a La Nina year with low sea surface temperature, when the oceans are soaking up much more heat.  But these relative fluctuations are a measure of interannual variability, not climate.  A better measure of climatological temperature is indicated by the red curve, which is a five-year running average.  This climatological temparature has continued to increase (even 5 years is too short to represent the true climate, which is customarily defined as a 30-year average, and requires at least 17 years according to recent research).

The other claim that there were two periods of unusual warming and icecap melting many years ago would not contradict any if the facts I cited, even if true, so I do not understand the relevance in this context.  It is worth noting that similar such claims have been made, that have turned out not to be true.  For example business advocate Raymond Keating—in testimony to House Small Business Committee (June 4, 1998)—said, “During the past 3,000 years, there have been five extended periods when it was distinctly warmer than today.”  It turns out that his testimony was quoting a Wall Street journal opinion piece that was based on politician/activist Arthur Robinson’s misrepresentation of actual published data (this is why I require that contrarian claims made in Puckerclust comments include citations to peer-reviewed scientific literature).

Mr. Harrah also exhibits a misunderstanding of the role of water vapor in human-caused global warming.  He is correct that water vapor is actually the dominant greenhouse gas, but he is incorrect that it is not of our making.  The increased amount of water vapor is because the air is warmer, which is directly attributable to human-generated pollution consisting of non-condensible heat-trapping gas like CO2.  The CO2 causes a little warming, which evaporates more water, which causes a lot more warming in a vicious cycle of amplification.

I absolutely agree with Mr. Harrah’s final remark: “Politicizing science can lead to meaningless or even bad choices where we squander our resources!”   I have always argued that facts trump politics.  That goes for both conservatives and liberals.

Joseph Yardumian writes, in “Climate Change Predates Your Car,” that our planet has undergone a number of climate cycles over the last 50,000 years.  Again, this is not evidence against human-caused global warming.  Humans cause forest fires with careless use of matches and vehicles with faulty catalytic converters and spark arrestors.  There is published evidence for forest fires in North America before it cars were invented, and before humans even occupied the continent.  It would be equally absurd to use that as evidence that we don’t have to be careful not to start them now.

Burke E. Nelson says, “Don’t Panic: We’ve Been Here Before.”  He asserts without evidence that civilizations advanced and people prospered during times of warming, but not so during time of cooling (this would seem to contradict the fact that the Enlightenment, the founding of our nation, and the beginning of the industrial revolution all took place during the Little Ice Age).

Dr. Nelson (who says he has a “Ph.D. in science”) reminds us that what is now New Mexico was covered by an inland sea.  What he fails to mention is that this was 100 million years ago, long before the Laramide orogeny (mountain-building event) that created the Rockies, and when North America occupied a different part of the globe (a bit closer to the tropics and much further east).  I suspect that Dr. Nelson would not want our pollution to return the Earth to the conditions of the Cretaceous, which were more amenable to habitation by dinosaurs and ferns than to people, livestock, and edible fruits and vegetables.  Fortunately, the earth hasn’t been continuously warming at the current rate since then, or it would be much hotter than the sun!

Dr. Nelson rightly points out the “warm Coke effect.”  As a little bit of CO2 pollution warms up the oceans, as it is now doing, the water exsolves (releases) more CO2 into the air, causing another dangerous cycle of reinforcement: another reason that a little bit of human-caused warming ends up doing a lot more damage than naively expected.

Dr. Nelson also sites Fred Singer and William Happer, both of whom are associated with political pressure organizations like the Heartland Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute, and have become better known for their activism than their science.   Fred Singer and the Heartland Institute (which distributed the book cited by Dr. Nelson) are also known for publishing fabricated climate data.  More recently, the Heartland Institute has been under fire for erecting billboards making nasty personal attacks against the scientific community.

Likewise, Prof. Happer has pushed hard to politicize the science (as indicated by the quotes cited by Dr. Nelson, in which he resorts to name-calling and comparing the mainstream scientific community to a “a cult”).  Prof. Happer has apparently abandoned publishing his disagreements in the scientific literature in favor of conservative online media like The American Thinker.

Finally, virtually any logical thinker understands why it is ludicrous to argue that CO2 cannot be harmful because it comprises less than one half of one percent our atmosphere.  Unless we argue that this concentration of other substances can be safely ignored, this idea is flat out silly.  Should we ignore this amount of:

  • fecal coliform bacteria in our drinking water?
  • drugs in our bloodstream?
  • asbestos fibers in the air we breathe?
  • members of the American Physical Society who dispute the incontrovertible evidence?

I suspect Dr. Nelson would say no.

William E. Keller, in “So-Called Facts Bear Closer Inspection,” challenges the facts that I listed.   Surprisingly, Dr. Keller appeals to the post-modern idea that there is no real objective reality.  In his attempt to refute my statement that climatological temperature continues to increase, he says, “it depends on who’s thermometer you are using.”  But reality is not dependent on the means of measurement.  Either it is getting warmer, or it’s not.  In a bizarre crossing-over of conservative suspicion of mainstream science with liberal muddled thinking, Dr. Keller seems to adopt Deepak Chopra’s idea that “there is no objective reality ‘out there’ that is independent of the observer.”

Furthermore Dr. Keller claims that we only know the temperature over land, and that “what is happening over the other 70 percent [of the Earth’s surface] is not clear.”  What is remarkable is that someone who is so opinionated about a subject would be unaware of the massive amount of data, both direct measurements and remote sensing, on sea surface temperatures (which by the way, are also increasing).

Dr. Keller also claims that NASA satellites show that temperatures in the lower troposphere have remained quite constant for the last 25 years, but fails to cite any peer reviewed literature.  On the contrary, a survey of publications in scientific journals reveal that there has been an increase (Skeptical Science has a nice summary).

Dr. Keller grasps at straws when he criticizes my mention of predictions in the 1950s because I don’t give temperature units.  It is customary when writing for an American audience in a U.S. newspaper to use degrees F (C is used outside the US).  If you don’t believe me, turn to the weather page and see if they give temperature units!  For the record, a good overview of this prediction is given by Gilbert Plass (1959) “Carbon Dioxide and Climate,” Scientific American, July, p. 41-47.  One can listen to an interview with the author here.

Dr. Keller speculates that I “might not have looked hard enough” to attract contrarians to my session at my annual climate session.  But I specifically invited them in a letter to the Heartland Institute.  Notably, my contact at Heartland suggested that I would need to pay for contrarians to attend (which is apparently how the sponsors of the Santa Fe conference were able to attract some of them).

Finally, Dr. Keller confuses stocks and flows, a common mistake among those who deny the facts.  He says that only 5.6% of the CO2 flux into the atmosphere comes from humans.  But if not all of this 5.6% (flow) is re-captured and sequestered by nature, the concentration (stock) will continue to increase, exactly as observed.  And according to the laws of physics, so will the temperature.

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One Response to Facts are not negotiable

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