Statistical tests and mathematical models are important tools of social and physical science. They are at the core of the constant barrage of claims about causality that analysts and advocates make with charts, numbers, and correlations between variables. Which economic policies have led to the greatest reduction in poverty rates in African countries? Which anti-retroviral drug regimen best prolonged the lives of AIDS patients? What military forces and tactics are best designed to achieve victory in an engagement? The answers are rarely self-evident, and since controlled experiments in which just one variable of interest is changed are hard to arrange in human and natural systems, only complex multivariate modeling can isolate the contribution of each variable.
If the researcher is brutally skeptical about all assumptions and so can test them impartially, if the variables are clear and measurable, and if the data are fantastically accurate, one just might be able to identify which combination of characteristics tends to correlate with what type of result, and how sure one can be of these tendencies. Then the evidence of correlation in these models can be used to sneak up on causation, always mindful that one is describing statistical averages, and not certainties that are always replicated. For example, many smokers go their whole lives without a trace of lung cancer, but the difference in cancer rates between large populations of smokers and non-smokers after statistically controlling for confounding influences such as income, ethnicity, and exercise, proves to a high degree of certainty that smoking causes lung cancer. The inability of the average citizen to understand statistical studies and the inherent self-interest of their authors have caused many on the political left to be highly skeptical of studies that contradict their instincts, such as those purporting to show that the minimum wage costs jobs or that DDT does not cause health problems for humans. The popular bumper sticker “Question Authority” is the left’s answer to the mainstream “experts” who translate such studies into society’s conventional wisdom. (1)
Due both to the complexity of the system and the potential impact on people of the policies being proposed, no topic in international affairs is more in need of statistical analysis than the effect of industrial emissions and other human activities on the global climate. Unfortunately, the analyses and even the underlying data have been politicized and misused to the point that they are a hindrance, rather than a help, in determining the truth. Leaders of the world’s governments and of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) brush aside the towering uncertainties involved in attributing past changes in the chaotic and cyclic climate system to human activities such as emitting heat-trapping gasses, let alone in predicting devastating changes for the future. They have transformed the well-hedged suggestions of the IPCC’s scientists, statisticians, modelers into a firm belief, as expressed by both President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, that human-induced “global warming” has brought on “climate change” that will expand into a climate “catastrophe” that threatens human existence.
In Copenhagen the leaders bandied about policies to head off that catastrophe that would be merely costly and inconvenient for people in developed nations by raising the price of carbon-based fuel, but deadly for people in developing nations by reversing the growth-led trend toward longer life expectancy. (2) Thanks to China’s refusal to contemplate such a reversal, these policies were blocked at Copenhagen, but ripple effects of the governmental consensus were already being felt by Africa from reduced exports due to European taxes on the carbon-content of their journey there and from the resistance of foreign aid agencies to building any coal-fired plants, even the clean-coal plants that could spare Africans the illnesses brought on by the residue of “unscrubbed” sulfur dioxide. The demand of African leaders in Copenhagen, acting as a bloc led by the dictators of Sudan and Ethiopia, for $67 billion annually from developed countries to relieve the purported damage from purported warming in Africa was a measure more of their addiction to foreign aid than of their concern for the well-being of their citizens. (3)
The left’s skepticism seems to have deserted it on climate change. Far from questioning authority, leftists are among the leaders in proclaiming climate catastrophe, based on a reverential reference to the IPCC and “the scientists” who spin off far more alarming scenarios. They have abandoned their stock in trade, the diligent digging into research claims on, say, military strategy in Afghanistan or export-led growth in Africa, to uncover self-serving misrepresentations and unlikely simplifications. Why is this the case? Why are the leftists happily hopping into bed with Al Gore, a Dixie whom they have fought on foreign and military policy from the MX missile to aid to the Salvadoran army to landmines? Why do they ostracize as firmly as the Democratic Party any contrary conclusions, or even questions that might lead to them?
The answer is that for the left global warming is the perfect storm, a rare chance to find common cause with the American mainstream on policies that will achieve long-sought goals. The consensus about the dangers of climate change is a welcome license to dismember the carbon-driven capitalism that many on the left see as the source of numerous political and social ills, from poverty to dictatorship in developing countries, and from the income gap to ostentatious consumption in the developed world. In addition, the leftist wing of the “green” movement that began in the 1970’s in Europe and the United States has always had an apocalyptic streak, a fear that population, consumption, and development are unsustainable and tending toward disaster. As John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies has written: “Cutting back on consumption, reducing fossil-fuel use, bringing the developing world into the post-industrial age in a sustainable manner: Even if the mercury weren’t rising, these are critical goals. The climate crisis is precisely the giant lever with which we can, following Archimedes, move the world in a greener, more equitable direction.” (4)
Leftists hoped that the green movement would provide a fundamental challenge to capitalism, but in fact, starting with Earth Day in 1970, at the height of protests against the Vietnam War, it has been a self-interested, mainstream distraction that siphons energy and activists away from a fundamental challenge to imperialism. Organizing on the principle of “not in my backyard” has kept liberals as well as leftists in the United States and Europe from focusing on what is being done by their governments in other peoples’ front yards. American skies and waters are a lot healthier today than they were in 1970 because the environmental movement forced elected politicians to cater to their beliefs, but acceptance of America’s global role of domination remains as fixed in mainstream politics as ever. Leftists are trying to use global warming as a “giant lever” to link the two concerns, but they are expending resources on what is certainly a non-solution to what is most likely a non-problem, and providing legitimacy to the liberals who control the climate change debate, and who have no intention of fulfilling Feffer’s program.
Economist Robert Samuelson wrote presciently in 1997 that a heightened consensus among the public and political leaders that human-based emissions could lead to climate dangers would have only one consequence. It would not be reductions in heat-trapping gasses, because cost-effective alternatives to their use for power simply do not exist, and the necessary heavy tax on the gasses to reduce consumption of them would “impose pain on voters for no obvious gain to solve a hypothetical problem.” Instead, all that would be produced would be a “a gushing source of national hypocrisy.” (5) His prediction came true in the 2000’s, but the hypocrisy was not just American. Everybody, from China to the United States, from NASCAR to American universities, from Shell and other carbon fuel producers to the IPCC and its carbon-heavy conferences, found a way to claim that they were “green” by reducing their “carbon footprint” of “global warming pollution” — even as they continued on with their carbon-based lifestyles just as they had before they feared for the survival of the human race. The limitations on developed nations in the iconic Kyoto treaty were evaded by the creative use of starting points, targets, “credits” from the collapse of the Warsaw Pact economy, and dubious “offsets” from funding hydro-power or cooking stoves in developing countries. (6) The net result of the global warming scare, thankfully, has simply been more creative advertising. Its advocates have wasted monumental amounts of time and energy on a chimera.
Al Gore’s Movie: Apocalypse Soon
The interchangeable terms “global warming” and “climate change” have come to refer to a four-part belief:
- First, that the roughly one degree Fahrenheit rise in surface temperature over the past 150 years has been caused primarily by human activities, rather than by variations and chaotic interactions outside of human control;
- Second, that this one degree rise, rather than other natural variations and interactions, is itself the primary cause of many of the recent changes claimed for other climate variables, such as decreased ice cover, hotter and higher seas, and more intense and more frequent storms, rains, and droughts, and even of changes in such non-climate variables as the number of earthquakes, the rate of species loss and the speed of the migration of diseases;
- Third, that much more dramatic increases in temperature, perhaps from three to eight degrees, will occur in the next century if industrial emissions are not severely limited; and
- Fourth, that these dramatically increased temperatures will in turn cause changes in the other climate and non-climate variables that would be catastrophic for human culture.
It should be noted that there is no inherent reason that someone who believes one of the parts of this quartet need believe any of the others, since the four beliefs comprise separate sets of research questions, all of whose answers are not yet clear, that hinge on different physical facts. For example, there is no reason why the one-degree rise could not be largely natural and the changes in variables still due to it. Or, the rise could be caused by human activity, but the changes in variables could in fact be minor, or have come mostly from sources other than the increased heat. Similarly, the first two beliefs could be true, but the effects of increased emissions on temperature, or of increased temperature on the other variables, from this point on could less potent than in the past, as “saturation” levels are reached. What is known of the complexity of both the theory and practice of climate physics and the unpredictable dampening, expanding, and interactive effects of both emissions and heat make it extremely unlikely, prima facie, that for all important response variables this quartet of beliefs is either wholly right or wholly wrong.
Be that is it may, it seems that most people who focus on the issue either believe the entire quartet or none of it. Perhaps as a result, Americans’ beliefs break down along the lines of political parties, even though, again, there is no logical reason for there to be Democratic and Republican approaches to the complex science and statistics involved. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2006 more than two times as many Democrats as Republicans (54% to 24%) believed there was solid evidence that the Earth was warming and that this was mostly due to human activity rather than natural patterns. By 2009 politicization was even more intense, with Harris Interactive finding that half of Republicans but only eight percent of Democrats do not believe that industrial gasses lead to warming.
Nothing brought more public attention to global warming in the United States than “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film featuring former Vice President Al Gore’s brief for the quartet. This jeremiad makes a blizzard of claims about the causes, effects, and policy responses to recent warming that violate so many basic rules of logic and misuse and exaggerate so many studies that thoughtful viewers may react by rejecting his accurate portrayal of the underlying reality that human-generated carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are indeed important heat-trapping gasses, and by dismissing the imprecise but improving attempts to model the impact of these gasses. In a nutshell, his convenient fibs discredit an underlying truth and valiant attempts to discern its impact. Gore emulates the two most misguided practices of environmental lobbyists. He attacks opponents over who funds them and he generates hysteria about isolated events — Hurricane Katrina, chunks of ice “calving” (dropping off into the sea), ice cover melting on Greenland, Antarctica, and Mount Kilimanjaro, droughts, and the spread of diseases and invasive species — whose causes are complex and often not mostly related to global or even local temperature.
Such violations of the rules of logic (the ad hominem attack, that focuses on who makes a claim rather than what evidence is provided for it, and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of confusing correlation with causation just because one thing happened after another) are found not just on the “green” side. Some of the think-tanks and Members of Congress on the other side of the great global warming debate consistently characterize their opponents as being bought by research grants, and cite isolated places where temperature is dropping, calm is prevailing, and ice is building, as if that too were proof of some overall trend. Just as having intense hurricanes during a period of increased temperature does not mean that carbon-based warming is to blame, the existence of similar hurricanes throughout the ages does not establish that the current intensity is unaffected by human activities. The fact that the recorded rise in global mean temperature from 1910 to 1940 came at a time of minimal industrial emissions and the plateau in temperature from 1940 to 1980 came during a time of far larger emissions does not mean that the similar rise in temperature from 1980 to 2000 was not driven by emissions, just as the plateau from 2000 to 2010 was proof for neither camp. Science needs to establish a model that convincingly predicts expectation levels from both the powerful chaos and inexplicable patterns in climate before we can analyze the causes of deviations from these levels.
Consider one of the film’s most dramatic images — people suffering in the water-filled streets of New Orleans. There have been a few interesting statistical explorations of hurricane cycles that suggest that hurricane intensity has increased recently in response to warmer waters in some regions of the world, such as the Caribbean, but these very tentative findings represent much more the beginning than the end of that inquiry. With a series of measurements for a variable, a change from one period to another is meaningless until the standard deviation, or the typical variation, in the data is calculated, and until changes in other powerful causes of the variable’s movement are factored in, but Gore ignores this fundamental statistical concept. In addition, the suggestive studies have not been well-replicated, and are largely balanced out by studies of other regions, which suggests in turn that natural causes, latent cycles, and random variation rather than global mean temperature are at play.
In any event, Katrina was not a powerful storm at landfall in the context of 20th century hurricanes, or even the most powerful in the year in which it occurred, and to the extent that intensity and frequency have been accurately measured over the years, Atlantic hurricanes experienced a similar spate in the early 20th century. The cause of the suffering in New Orleans had little to do with the recently-increased warmth of water in the Caribbean, even if one attributes all of that to human-created emissions, which is probably not the case, given the huge variations and cycles in sea-warming caused by various ocean currents like the Gulf Stream and by air streams from lengthy African droughts from long before there were factories, cars and emissions. Katrina was devastating because the lakes and rivers of southern Louisiana were full, and New Orleans is built under sea level.
Similar conclusions arise when analyzing Gore’s treatment of ice-calving (a natural process of formation that may be related to both increases and decreases in ice cover), and Kilimanjaro’s glacial recession (a century-long trend, probably largely related to non-industrial changes in tree cover and rainfall, and not temperature). When he shows what would happen if Greenland’s ice-sheet were to melt away, with the world’s coastal areas submerging under 20 feet of water, he is discussing changes that could take thousands of years at current rates. His presentation contradicts the mainstream of the modeling collected by his usually-favored IPCC, which predicts about a one-foot rise in the next century. Again, the degree of melting appears to be a long-term phenomenon rather than a recent response to increased temperature, and is dominated by natural changes and decades-long oscillations in currents and ocean temperatures. Gore’s film confirms his reputation, much magnified by Republican attacks and reporters’ investigations during the 2000 presidential election, as someone who can’t resist making a good point better. Bush strategist Karl Rove, quite a black pot himself for his promotion of the fraudulent war in Iraq, labeled Gore a “serial exaggerator” for such policy claims as having helped create the internet and started the examination of toxic waste sites like Love Canal, and such personal claims as being the model for the hero in Love Story and having his mother sing “Look for the Union Label” to him as a lullaby…when the song wasn’t written until he was 27 years old. Gore’s defenders have parsed each of the many claims in search of excuses, but even they acknowledge his tendency to stretch it at times.
Gore starts the film with just a little demagoguery, just a little fib. He wants to show that scientific consensus can be wrong, a point that ironically cuts against his silly and insistent chant throughout the film that such a consensus supports him on his certainty about the quartet of beliefs about the effects of carbon-based fuels. He claims that one of his sixth-grade classmates in 1959 at the elite St. Albans private school in Washington was laughed down by the geography teacher for pointing out that the continents look as if they used to “fit together.” This is almost certainly a tall tale of the “Union Label” type, and Gore implies as much by continuing with the remark that the teacher became the science adviser to the Bush administration. Gore includes this yarn to make the point that “the trouble is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Never could truer words be spoken — about the certainty he holds for the quartet of beliefs.
In fact, the thought that the continents had drifted apart was one of Benjamin Franklin’s favorite theories, and it became widely accepted in European science shortly after Alfred Wegener published his compendium of identical, widely-flung plants, fossils, rock-types, and coal deposits in 1912. American geologists resisted it strongly for another 20 years because no mechanism for the drift had been posited, but by the time Gore was in sixth grade, even before the causal mechanism of plate tectonics had been widely validated, most recognized the possibility, if not the certainty, of drift. For a geography teacher at St. Albans to have laughed off “Tommy’s” suggestion would probably have meant that she was ignoring the discussion of it in her textbook. Did Gore go back and check the textbooks and talk to the surviving teachers and students and see if she really said it and meant it the way he remembered it from childhood? Of course not: it’s just a political tall tale, indeed one that may have modified from an incident in the childhood of novelist and prominent climate skeptic Michael Crichton. (7) Still, this yarn sets the tone for the movie and for the way Gore continues to present what he calls his “story” on climate change: pick an incident or finding, take it from context, drop the possible uncertainties, present a correlation as a certain cause, and stigmatize anyone who disagrees.
Gore chuckles as he dismisses anyone who disputes his story, which he has called a “scientific consensus unmatched since Newton’s second law of motion.” This particular joke is on him, however. Since the publication of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905 every physicist has known that Newton’s Second Law, in which the Force needed to accelerate an object is equal to the Mass of the object multiplied by the Acceleration one wishes to produce, is wrong. Einstein, with his heartfelt cry of “forgive me, Newton,” showed that the Second Law requires a new term in the denominator, the “Einstein” factor that boosts the force needed to accelerate an object exponentially, and infinitely, as the speed of the mass increases toward the speed of light, and, strangely, time slows down to a crawl. In fact, it is this modification of Newton’s law that led directly to Einstein’s calculation of that most famous relationship in science, which was confirmed over Hiroshima in 1945: a stationary object has a latent Energy equal to its Mass times the square of the Speed of Light.
Gore’s error about Newton’s consensus ironically plays a crucial role in perhaps the most misleading scene in the film, one that he words so carefully that it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is being disingenuous. He displays a gigantic chart showing how concentration levels of carbon dioxide coincide with temperature as it travels up and down 10 degrees every 100,000 years for the past 650,000 years. These rough changes in global mean temperature are very credible, as opposed to the far finer claims about changes from 1,000 years ago, which are based on regional inferences and then global extrapolation from a few northern tree rings. There is a surreal quality to the intense debate about the disappearance from IPCC’s charts over time of a “medieval warming period” that was similar to our century’s rise in heat, and the substitution for it of the dramatic “hockey stick” that shows a flat, rather than oscillating line for the 900 years preceding a now unprecedented jump in the last century. As even the error bands on the IPCC’s hockey stick show, accurate measurement of global mean temperature at this level of detail was impossible prior to the 20th century and still difficult until the advent of satellite sensing in the 1980’s. (8)
Gore does everything he can to imply that carbon dioxide is causing the 100,000-year cycle of temperature. He is careful to state that the causes of changes in global mean temperature are “complicated,” but then immediately says that “nothing is more powerful than CO-2.” He invokes poor Tommy again by asking, “don’t they fit together?” Most dramatically, Gore chooses a scale for representing carbon dioxide that forces him to rise up in a lineman’s bucket over the chart to track the jump in expected levels for the next century, and then makes it clear that we should conclude that the temperature will continue to follow the carbon dioxide up, even though his chart shows that we happen to be at the top of the temperature cycle and are clearly about to come down. (“About” is a relative term here, since it takes about 85,000 years for temperature to drop to its low before the usual 15,000-year rebound to the peak.)
A defender of Gore on the website realclimate.org argues that he never actually uses the word “causality,” but that is quibbling with the entire intent of the scene. Gore points out that the current 15,000-year, 10-degree rise in temperature coincides with a 100 parts per million, or 36 percent rise in concentrations of CO2, and asks whether the projected rise in the next 100 years of another 100 parts per million, or 27 percent, would not have much the same, 10-degree effect on temperature. The answer to this question is obviously intended to be “yes,” and the reason is obviously intended to be that carbon dioxide drives temperature. This is intellectually unconscionable. What Gore clearly knows, but doesn’t say, is that temperature on these scales is almost certainly driven by the 100,000-year Milankovich Cycle, a gradual oscillation in the shape of the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the Sun, with contributions from shorter cycles of the tilt and tip of the Earth. One must say “almost certainly” because as the seemingly omniscient Oxford physics professor Fred Taylor points out, “all is not rosy for the Milankovich model.” Differences in the radiation delivered to Earth due to the orbital changes are not large enough to account for the incredible power it would take to reverse the rise or fall of temperature. (9)
This implies that feedback mechanisms are at work that science has not yet uncovered, which is precisely the sort of problem that bedevils attempts to model the current climate. There are mechanisms that currently can only be guessed at that provide various levels of equilibria. The oscillating ellipse that accords with Milankovich’s temperature cycle is correctly predicted by Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, the latter of which was first confirmed in 1915 by modeling accurately a variation in the ellipse of Mercury that violated Newton’s Second Law, and Gore’s consensus about it. The point Gore obscures in his dramatic elevation is while carbon dioxide is part of the positive feedback mechanism during the rise and fall of temperature, at the important turning points its level is clearly being caused by, rather than causing, temperature change. This is true both at the low end, as when the increase in carbon dioxide followed rather than preceded the turn-around in temperature 15,000 years ago, and at the high end where we are now. During the climb, temperature drives carbon dioxide levels by releasing land and sea-stores of it, and then carbon dioxide in turn helps drive temperature by the “green-house effect.” However, when temperature comes back down every 100,000 years, which is precisely the period that Gore is focusing on while riding in his bucket, it is obviously from causes other than carbon dioxide, since its high levels always follow temperature down rather than keep it up.
It is on the topic of “scientific consensus,” Newtonian or otherwise, that Gore shows his most troubling side, a robust and aggressive anti-intellectualism that ill befits his role as author of a book calledThe Assault on Reason. It is silly to list scientists who support or don’t support the view that human activities can affect temperature, because there is no scientist who thinks they can’t. That odd-numbered molecules oscillate and create energy-absorbing spectral lines, and that carbon dioxide’s lines happen to be strong at a frequency at which infrared radiation leaves the earth, is not in doubt. That is physics, and can be confirmed in a laboratory. What is in doubt is how this reality interacts with various parts of climate out in the real world of changing pressure, wind, humidity, solar fluctuation, cloud cover, and ocean absorption. On long timescales, it is clear that heat-trapping molecules — mostly water vapor, but with about one-third of the effect due to naturally-occurring carbon dioxide — do raise temperature. If they didn’t, the Earth would still be at an average of zero degrees, rather than today’s 59 degrees. On timescales of centuries, though, the question is awash in uncertainty, both in observations and in mathematical modeling of those observations. These inquiries, as even Gore has said when pressed on why his claims of possible sea-rise are wildly greater than even the outside range of most modelers, are always continuing, properly subjecting findings to questions about assumptions, measurements, interactions, and logic.
The contextual omissions and exaggerations in Gore’s presentation seem to have built up year by year. He himself says in the film that when he finds a “barrier” to convincing people of his “story,” he works hard to figure out how to “demolish it.” Here we see starkly the difference between science and lawyering. Scientists are glad to hear new ideas and dissonant evidence, because investigating them may broaden their understanding of a phenomenon. Lawyers try to “demolish” rather than test a new perspective. As a senator Gore infamously bullied MIT atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen in hearings, badgering him and claiming for the cameras that he had trapped him into retracting his finding of two years’ before that human influence may not be the dominant cause of recent mean warming. In fact, it was obvious to observers that all Lindzen was doing was updating data and findings on feedback mechanisms in clouds. Even more grotesquely, Gore’s Senate office portrayed his claimed mentor on human-driven increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, Harvard professor Roger Revelle, as senile and manipulated when Revelle disputed Gore’s dire predictions of carbon dioxide’s ability to drive up temperature. Revelle’s co-author, physicist Fred Singer, sued the Harvard professor who assisted Gore’s office in this portrayal, and won a full vindication. (10)
In the film Gore says that Revelle “saw where the story was going,” and implies that Revelle’s story is the same as his own. He further bemoans the fact that Revelle’s appearance at Gore’s first hearing in the 1980’s did not result in the conversion of the Congress, and the country, to Gore’s belief in the quartet. However, Revelle’s appearance could not conceivably have led to anybody’s conversion because, as noted above, he studied the effect of human-created carbon dioxide on global levels of the gas, and not its linkage with temperature. Indeed, it was his published judgment was that there was not enough evidence of a causal link between the two variables to justify dramatic policy action on emissions that led to the attempt by Gore’s office to smear him.Gore portrays himself and scientists who are warning about the dangers of emissions as Churchills sounding a warning of something as dangerous as Nazism. By analogy, those citizens, legislators, and scientists who do not rally to his banner are dismissed as complacent ostriches, cowardly collaborators, or paid liars. All this has echoes of the deplorable term the most extreme environmental lobbyists use to describe people who don’t promote the quartet: denialists, a word that had previously been reserved for the kooks who dispute the reality of the Nazi slaughter of millions of civilians from Jewish, Polish Catholic, and other non-Teutonic ethnic groups. Gore pointedly quotes Upton Sinclair — “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — and clearly identifies the “skeptics” of the quartet of beliefs as heirs to the researchers for tobacco companies who produced studies questioning the link between smoking and cancer. (11)
Gore’s caustic dismissal of uncertainty about the quartet of beliefs recalls one of his old nemeses, Richard Perle, a Pentagon official in the Reagan era who emerged as a leader of Bush administration officials who showed no uncertainty in claiming that intelligence information showed that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Back in the 1980’s Perle defended his similarly incendiary, and in hindsight similarly incorrect, portrayal of Soviet capabilities and intentions by saying that, “democracies will not sacrifice to protect their security in the absence of a sense of danger.” With his musings on how disappointed he is that American democracy has not responded to his warnings, Gore seems to be revealing that he too thinks that Americans will not sacrifice to guard against the possibility of environmental damage in the absence of a sense of certain disaster.Very much like Michael Moore in another documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” that mixed bathos, bombast, and balderdash, Gore has erred and exaggerated when he need not. It is not the possibility of human-driven climate change that is false, but the certainty. There is more than enough that is inconveniently true about energy policy to justify dramatic research and subsidy programs for developing alternative fuels and ways to capture the waste from current fuels, but Gore’s misleading claims and his pre-judged policy recommendations of taxing or capping power production to reduce emissions — which, despite his assurances, could severely cramp global economic growth and its powerful live-saving effects in lower-income countries — discredit more sensible policy responses. (12)
The Bush administration promoted research on novel ideas for energy production and the sequestration of emissions, and while Obama will continue this research, he is also pushing for constraints on emissions in a variety of direct and indirect ways. The end-game is clearly on the side of the research, because big changes in power production will be required within a century, whether or not human activity increases temperature significantly and dangerously, as fossil fuels became more expensive to extract. Starting the search for economically-viable power sources now is a wise investment, just as finding ways to keep emissions out of the heat cycle is the next logical step in American industry’s generally good record of reducing emissions per unit of production.
The computer models that captured the world
In its 2007 report the IPCC announced that it was 90 percent confident that “most of the observed increase in globally-averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century” has been caused by human activities rather than natural variation, latent cycles, or chaos. How did it arrive at this modest conclusion, which has itself been exaggerated into claims of climate catastrophe? The use of language about “confidence levels” implies to anyone versed in statistics and science that a calculation has been performed on the variability of the data, and that the chances that the rise in temperature is simply random variation is less than 10 percent. In fact, the IPCC is not using “confidence level” in this traditional statistical sense. The claim of 90 percent certainty is just an informal summary of “expert judgment,” and the sole basis cited for this judgment in the 2007 report is the following: “No climate model using natural forcings alone has reproduced the observed global warming trend in the second half of the 20th century.” (13)
There you have it. The consensus that drives the world’s leaders to contemplate dramatic restrictions on the global economy is based on computer models that purport to have isolated a powerful effect for “radiative forcings” from industrial gasses. So, what are these models, and how do they work? (14) First, it should be noted that the IPCC’s sentence is not technically true. Using just a handful of the assumptions, averaged observations, estimated correlations, and mathematical “tuning” techniques that allow it to force a good but by no means perfect fit between modeled and observed temperatures over the past 150 years, the IPCC could easily find as good a fit using baseball statistics, presidents’ heights, or solar variations. Complex correlation models can recreate beautifully the rise and fall of the stock market, but they soon lead to disaster if one buys stocks based on their predictions about tomorrow, let alone the alone the 100 years typically reported for climate models, either because the correlations were not causations, or because new factors modify their future impact.
What the IPCC is really saying is that it cannot find a theoretical reason to manipulate natural forcings, such as solar variations, long-term oscillations like the North Atlantic and the Pacific Decadal, or complex feedback mechanisms from minor natural changes, into accounting for the movement of global mean temperature. MIT’s Lindzen has caustically labeled the IPCC’s logic “proof by lassitude.”Given the fact that the huge changes in temperature that accompany the Milankovich cycles are currently inexplicable, the IPCC’s claim that it understands the causes of tiny changes in modern temperatures is dubious. The claim is even more questionable because it has been made consistently by advocates of global warming theory for 40 years, regardless of the credibility of the models being used. In 1979 advocate Jule Charney issued a report for the National Academy of Sciences based on crude one-dimensional models that has both guided and been repeated by complex three-dimensional models ever since. Charney endorsed a “climate sensitivity” of six degrees for a doubling of carbon dioxide levels and argued that that there were no “overlooked or underestimated physical affects that could reduce (the sensitivity) to negligible proportions.” (15)
The models were poor representations of reality then, and are poor representations of it now, despite the 40 years of new “physical affects” that have been incorporated into them. Oxford’s Taylor politely reminds readers that the models are in their “infancy,” but given the complexity and randomness of climate responses, it is possible that they will never grow up.Climate models are mathematical representations of the inter-workings of all the potential influences on the climate. They were originally developed for the Defense department after World War II by Janos (John) von Neumann, a famed Budapest and then Princeton mathematician, computer developer, and game theorist. The goal was to create a “general circulation model” (GCM) of the movement of air, heat, clouds, and rain by simultaneously solving fundamental differential equations for the conservation of mass, momentum, and energy in a particular box of air, and then solving them again and again in subsequent time period as the boxes interacted. A successful model would have allowed the government to understand the climate over the Soviet Union so it could be disrupted to undermine communist rule. The project was a failure. It proved impossible to predict the conditions that formed clouds or caused rain, so controlling them to create droughts or floods was out of the question. However, when paired with judgments from weather experts, the models allowed improved local forecasting for a few days, and began to be incorporated by television stations.
A small band of modelers continued to add complexity to the models as computing power increased in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and used them to contemplate, again without much success, the causes of the remarkable changes and patterns in temperature visible in the ice core and terrain records from the “paleo-climate” of the past million and even the past hundreds of millions of years. The models were also used by opponents of Reagan’s missile plans to promote fears of a “nuclear winter” that might result from the dust generated by a massive nuclear war. A consensus that the models were worth using as predictors of future climate only developed with repetition of the claim, particularly during the hot summer in Washington, DC, of 1988 by NASA official James Hansen, who testified before Gore’s committee. (16)
GCM now stands for global climate model, a change that recognizes both the advances in providing a global rather than local forecast and adding approximations of numerous physical processes in the oceans, ice, and land, as well as the failure of the models to predict local conditions. GCMs now accept that their prediction for any particular spot for any particular time are incorrect, and are rather intended to provide average estimates for the distant future. Tellingly, the IPCC’s modelers refuse to use the word “prediction,” and instead say that they are providing “scenarios” for the possible outcomes of “story lines” of different levels of population, economic growth, emissions, land clearance, and other human activities, which are themselves difficult to predict.
Today’s modelers divide the oceans, land, and skies into boxes and then mathematically solve rate of flow equations that estimate what would happen in that box, on average and based on previous measurements, in a period of 30 minutes to such variables as temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, energy, and mass when natural and man-made elements enter it. The smaller the box, the more boxes there must be to represent the globe, and the greater the computing time required to run a model into the past, or the future. Boxes in the air are usually 70 miles in length and width, and the atmosphere is divided vertically into perhaps 20 levels of varying heights. The sea, the land, and the ice are divided into roughly similar boxes. Given these box sizes, obviously these are not models of what happens to individual carbon dioxide molecules after they absorb energy, but rather are models of average responses. After the changes are estimated for all the variables in all the boxes for one time period, the boxes themselves provide new inputs to their neighbors for the next time period, and then all the boxes are calculated again. This process is repeated for the desired period, usually the past or future hundred years.
The IPCC persistently claims that these models are more valid as representations of the past and predictors of the future than social science models, because they are based on equations of physics rather than on theorized correlations. This claim is simply nonsense, as is made clear in the technical annexes that accompany the IPCC reports. The dream of modelers of both short-term weather and long-term climate is to make sound predictions just from equations representing the laws of physics, such as the speed with which heat moves in a vacuum at various levels of pressure. This is a fleeting dream because the probabilities of both normal distributions and quantum physics preclude certainty in any physical response at the atomic level, even before one factors in the many interactive combinations of the thousands of important variables that determine temperature, humidity, wind speed, or energy for an atmospheric or ocean box of any size. (17)
Also, the raw equations of physics do not produce reliable interactions, so modelers must observe in the real world, and then replicate in the model, how much impact variables have on each other on average in various combinations, and then factor these results into the mathematics of the model. Such a result is called a parameter, and it is directly analogous to a coefficient of correlation from social science modeling. None of this is dishonest — it is indeed how physical and social scientists alike model complex phenomena — but it is misrepresented, not by the modelers, who are all too aware of and actively discuss the limitations they are trying to address, but by the IPCC and the leaders of the global warming camp. Proposing parameters is just one of the many “tuning” techniques used by the modelers, first so that the model will not run away to rapid boiling or freezing and second to tune their output until it reproduces a nice match with previous temperatures.
The models initially predicted far too much heating from human activity, so much so that they were obviously incomplete and even wrong in their physics. The modelers returned to the fray, identifying more and more variables to include, but this only increased the number of parameters and interactions. As a result, the models are now so complex as to be what Taylor, again politely, calls “opaque.” Modeling has become a fascinating exercise in theory and curve-fitting, constantly informed by scientists’ new thoughts about factors in creating climate, but it is not “science” the way that word is commonly understood, and there is no “consensus” about its track record for recreating the past and little certainty about its strength for predicting the future. (18)
The various IPCC “story lines” produce “scenarios” of increases in temperature of three to eight degrees over the next century. By now, though, such predictions are almost definitional: they follow from the “sensitivity” included in the model, which is based on hypothesized “radiative forcing” formulas for greenhouse gasses that themselves have been generated by tuned models. Carbon dioxide’s current saturation levels in the atmosphere make temperature’s response to it not linear, or steady, but by the square root. This means that increased carbon dioxide has less and less of an effect on temperature, because its heat-trapping effect has already captured most of the escaping energy at its particular frequency.
How will this relationship change at higher concentrations? How much more carbon dioxide can the massive and crucial sink of the oceans absorb than its current 50 percent of emissions? How quickly will the winds take the excess heat from equator to poles, as they go through the three major “Hadley cells” of circulation to get there? Will hotter air lead to a feedback of cooling, as more clouds result from more humidity, and increase the albedo, the 30 percent of solar radiation that is reflected before entering the earth’s energy balance? Or will hotter air create enough water vapor to trap more heat than is being reduced by the increased albedo from more clouds? The possible variety in answers to all of these questions dwarfs the modeled impact of increase industrial gasses. Recent suggestions about the possibly major role in Arctic and glacial heating of black soot from cooking fires in poor countries poses yet another fundamental challenge to the models, which include little effect for this non-industrial emission. If a model is validated by a past fit without a major factor, how can a future “scenario” be based on such an incorrect model?
Lindzen has been pointing out for 20 years that the models assume a positive feedback at a two-to-one ratio, meaning that they find human-generated gasses directly account for only one-third of the one-degree rise in global mean temperature since 1860, and then attribute the other two-thirds of a degree to warming caused by increased water vapor that itself resulted from the initial warming. He has published studies finding that increased cloudiness and increased rates of escaping radiation have created a negative, rather than a positive, feedback to increased temperatures. (19)
Such suggestive work is no reason to discard the models; in fact it is all the more reason to work on them. But it is also reason to be cautious with the ranges of response they indicate. According to the IPCC, model “sensitivity,” or the range of temperature response used by most modelers to represent the effect of a doubling of carbon dioxide, has remained at Charney’s initial rough estimate of six degrees, with an error range of from three to eight degrees, for the past 30 years. When the range for a crucial input is roughly equal to the size of its mean prediction, one should be cautious about the using the prediction as the basis for public policy.As noted previously, the best estimates for the path of global mean temperature over the past 150 years show how tricky looking for causality between carbon dioxide and temperature can be.
The one-degree rise in temperature emerges from a complex and perhaps chaotic history, with half of it coming during a sharp rise from 1910 until 1940, before there was enough of an increase in carbon dioxide to make even a theoretical difference in temperature, followed by a cooling trend for 40 years, despite the massively increased carbon dioxide from the unprecedented industrialization after World War II, and finally a resurgence from 1980 to 2000 that brought the other half of the total rise before reaching a plateau in the most recent decade. The modelers attribute the first half of the rise to unusually high solar activity and the second half to human-generated gasses, but are somewhat perplexed by the two pauses.
In the stolen emails from the “climate-gate” affair of 2009, the IPCC’s lead author on physical science, Kevin Trenberth, apparently admitted as much to his colleagues in discussing the pause in measured warming from 1999 to 2009, which flatly contradicted the models’ predictions of a significant rise of about half a degree:“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.” Since the core of the IPCC’s “90 percent confidence” is the ability of its models to recreate the past climate, his admission should have been troubling for catastrophists. Of course, it was not, since the division of people’s opinions about the importance of the leaked emails perfectly correlated with their previous position on climate change.
The IPCC and its apologists dismissed the plateau by saying that the past decade was the hottest in the past 1,000 years, but this claim, even if measurements were good enough before 1850 to assess it, is meaningless as proof of human impact. Of course at the top of a cycle there is maximum heat, and global means do not change more than a bit of a degree in any year, so once there is a high period, there are a lot of high years. It certainly could be that the swings in the last 150 years represents some complex process of equilibrium that absorbs an increase, rests, and starts up again. Still, a rise or fall of one degree in 150 years is not at all extraordinary during the current, 15,000-year climb of 10 degrees that, as noted, will “soon” turn into the next swing down. None of us will be around long enough to see whether the “scenarios” come true, and even then there will be no way of telling if the scenario was the result of natural variation or human-based emissions. It would have been nice if von Neumann’s idea had worked out — except for people living in the Soviet Union, of course — but it didn’t.
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(1) The slogan is somewhat illogical, since it says nothing about what happens after the question is satisfactorily answered. It seems to imply that the questioner should then agree with the authority, but also that the questioning should continue indefinitely. It is certainly more logical than another favored leftist bumper sticker, “Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History,” a phrase coined by Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Women and men alike rarely make history, so their behavior is irrelevant to that task unless someone were to argue that well-behaved women perform more poorly in that regard than poorly-behaved ones. In addition, the slogan implies that women should be impolite in their daily lives, when making history is a matter for the public arena.
(2) Low-cost energy production is a crucial component of economic growth, particularly in countries that are only now industrializing. In those countries one can observe a clear, causal connection between wealth and life expectancy. Increased wealth for poor people and countries permits cleaner water, consistent energy, better education, and better nutrition, all of which combine to reduce mortality rates, especially for infants. Economic growth doesn’t necessarily have this effect; it can be stolen or hoarded by dictators and a tiny upper class. However, without economic growth, there will be lower life expectancy. There is a precautionary principle that says the world should reduce the use of fossil fuel on the chance that global warming threatens a climate catastrophe. However, the impact of such a reduction on life expectancy reveals another precautionary principle, which demands that solutions to the problem of emissions retard economic growth as little as possible.
(3) The claim by African leaders that recent droughts are due to warming from industrial emissions by developed countries is a close second in fantasy to the claim that rising seas are threatening their existence of island nations. Dramatic under-water cabinet meetings notwithstanding, neither Tuvalu and the Maldives have experienced a meaningful rise in sea level, which is itself affected by numerous variables unrelated to changes in global seas, including the actual rising of land and overuse of sea shore. The existence of lengthy regional droughts in Africa over thousands of years makes it particularly difficult to attribute any recent one to greenhouse gasses. The IPCC records a two degree rise in mean temperature for Africa that matches the rises recorded for the northern hemisphere’s land masses, but this rise is probably the least credible of the IPCC’s measurements. Warming has been observed primarily in the northern hemisphere, mostly on land and ice, and particularly in the higher latitudes where heat, and snow-melting black soot, is transported from warmer regions. Only about half of the African continent is even covered by a station that measures temperature, and satellite data for Africa usually show lower temperatures than those estimated by the IPCC from the land stations.
(6) Emission studies found no reductions caused by the Kyoto protocol by 2012, despite a pledged 5.2 percent target. Any reductions were “due largely to the collapse of former communist economies, including East Germany, and the restructuring of the energy sector in Great Britain. There had been little deliberately accepted pain in the name of climate change policy.” See “Impact of the Kyoto Protocol on Stabilization of Carbon Dioxide Concentration,” Niklas Höhne, ECOFYS energy & environment, Cologne, Germany, 2005, available on: http://www.stabilisation2005.com/posters/Hohne_Niklas.pdf. For the way countries created their targets, see International Environmental Policy: Interests and the Failure of the Kyoto Process, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen and Aynsley John Kellow, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2002, p. 56, available on:http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/italy/03/29/environment.kyoto/ and Chapter 6, “The Kyoto Process,” pp. 53-84, generally. Even leading Kyoto advocate Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, acknowledged that “the greatest value is symbolic.” See “Kyoto Treaty Takes Effect Today: Impact on Global Warming May Be Largely Symbolic,” by Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, Wednesday, February 16, 2005, Page A4.
(8) F.W. Taylor, Elementary Climate Physics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, chapter nine. This text by the Halley professor is a superb and balanced presentation of the science and statistics of climate change.
(10) Singer and Lindzen continue to be harassed by environmental lobbyists, who have joined the State of California in asking a federal court to require the surrender of any communications between these scientists and auto companies who are challenging the state’s emission controls.
(11) This is all very tricky ground for Gore. He wants to hold the tobacco scientists responsible for his sister’s death from cancer, but his family farmed tobacco, and he voted for tax breaks and price supports for tobacco even after her death. He wants to blame global warming skeptics for some unspecified but clearly harmful changes he claims to see happening “quickly” on the river near his home in Tennessee after what he says, incorrectly, has been ten thousand years of stability, but for 30 years he leased a zinc mine next to that river in a deal made in 1973 with famed energy mogul Armand Hammer, creating flow-off pollution that at times exceeded permitted levels. Neither supporting constituents who are tobacco farmers nor making trade-offs in mineral extraction between profit levels and pollution controls is evil, but bitterly attacking others for the same sorts of actions is a bit strange, particularly given the weaker fit of theory with reality in the realm of climate change.
(12) Gore tries to downplay this concern, jumping non sequitur to a discussion of how American manufacturers of cleaner technology could prosper from increased demand. They certainly won’t be prospering if they can’t get any energy to do all that manufacturing.
(13) This particular quote is from the section of the 2007 report of the IPCC’s Working Group on Physical Science Basis that the IPCC’s summaries refer readers to for evidence. This section also states, more broadly: “The fact that climate models are only able to reproduce observed global mean temperature changes over the 20th century when they include anthropogenic forcings, and that they fail to do so when they exclude anthropogenic forcings, is evidence for the influence of humans on global climate.”
(14) F.W. Taylor provides a general description of the models in his Elementary Climate Physics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005. For their detailed operations, see A. Henderson-Sellers and K. McGuffie, A Climate Modelling Primer, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1987, and for the history of the models, see David Randall, editor, General Circulation Model Development, Academic Press, New York, 2000, and Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003.
(15) David Randall, editor, General Circulation Model Development, Academic Press, New York, 2000, p. 136. See also Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003.
(17) Gore of all people should be sensitive to the role of chance, whether in creating weather in the short-term and then climate in the long-term, or in politics. The famous truism that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can lead to a hurricane elsewhere appears to have found its political expression in the decision by Palm Beach county in the 2000 presidential election to use a “butterfly” ballot, which places in the middle of the page all the punch choices for two separate columns. This decision was not extended to the absentee ballot. The fact that election-day voters in Palm Beach supported Buchanan, whose punch hole appeared quite close to Gore’s, at four times the rate of absentee voters, an aberration not even remotely approached in other counties once their size is accounted for, offers strong support for the hypothesis that the butterfly siphoned off about 2,000 Gore voters to Buchanan, and gave Florida and the White House to Bush. The hurricane from this butterfly has since been felt in Iraq, since it is unlikely that Gore’s response to the Al Qaeda attacks on American soil in 2001 would have been to invade a country with no hand in the attacks. Of course, an even stranger case of chance kept Gore out of the presidency as well: the person counting the votes in the contested state was his opponent’s brother!
(18) The politicization of the scientific component of the climate debate adds another layer of weakness to the modeling effort. The complex calculation of the actual global mean temperatures that the models try to replicate is conducted by the very IPCC characters who run the models and make and advocate for policy prescriptions. If another difficult but important variable, the consumer price index, was calculated each year by the modelers in Congress and the administration who try to predict it into the future to make their proposed budgets meet artificial deficit targets there would be an understandable outcry from the millions of retirees whose income is determined by the calculation. Instead, to preserve credibility, the Labor department isolates away from all political pressures an economic unit of career employees that manages the methodology and calculates this particular rate of inflation.