The Fourth Annual Global Warming Blog: Infection of Science


For our purposes, climate change is a tidy term used to describe the following: the burning of fossil fuels by humans, and the carbon dioxide emissions that follow them, is beginning to raise the mean temperature of Earth. That is to say, while climate is always changing due to influences such as solar variation, volcanic eruptions, and Milankovich cycles, human activities are starting to nudge it away from its natural variation. Different parts of Earth will react differently to this change. Not every place on the planet will warm, and there will likely be shifts in precipitation patterns.  Call it global warming or anthropogenic global warming (AGW) if you’d like, I’m not interested in debating semantics.  Several topics not touched on below were addressed in previous blogs in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Bigger Fish to Fry

During a term break from Penn State in the late ’80s, I had a rare opportunity to talk, one-on-one, with my grandfather.  He flew 20 missions with the Army Air Corps in World War II before being shot down, serving the last year of the war in Germany as a prisoner of war.

I asked him, “When you were kids, what did you and your friends think the future would be like?”

He did not hesitate, “We never thought about it. We were too busy getting by… just working day-to-day.”

There was no condescension in his tone; it was a simple, straightforward answer to my question.  I then realized how fortunate I was to have the luxury to think about life ten, twenty, or fifty years into the future.

Given how many people still live in the short-term, working to improve their immediate quality of life, I am not surprised, from a sociological level, why so many people are disinterested in the topic of climate change.  

Meme Me

University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr. expressed the above idea succinctly as the Iron Law of Climate Policy:

When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time. Climate policies should flow with the current of public opinion rather than against it, and efforts to sell the public on policies that will create short-term economic discomfort cannot succeed if that discomfort is perceived to be too great. Calls for asceticism and sacrifice are a nonstarter.

To succeed, any policies focused on decarbonizing economies will necessarily have to offer short-term benefits that are in some manner proportional to the short-term costs. In practice, this means that efforts to make dirty energy appreciably more expensive will face limited success.

Pielke has become one of my favorite active scientists.

Of course, in the current sociopolitical environment, even admitting you like a scientist in this game comes with a cost.  There is no lack of animosity among some scientists in the climate wars.  I sometimes feel I am the only one who respects Pielke and Judith Curry, as well as Heidi Cullen and Michael Mann.

It is odd. I have had several in-person discussions with Mann.  I met Cullen, a Ph.D. in ocean-atmosphere dynamics and climatology, a couple of years ago at a seminar (in a bizarre coincidence that shows how small this business is, I found out she went to high school with one of my Penn State roommates). Curry was the admissions officer at Penn State who finally heard my pleas to get into graduate school in the early ’90s. Pielke has skyped into the class I teach at Lynchburg College.

Noise, Noise, Noise

The evidence for climate change is convincing.  At least to me.  Little new information has been introduced in the last year to move my position. Working at the crossroads of media, earth science, politics, and social science has introduced me to a deafening discord of opinions on this subject.

One sound bite. One typed sentence. One data point. Wild extrapolation and judgement follows. Maddening hyperbole. Torches and pitchforks to the other side. Some are itching to start an online pissing match, and they are quite proud of it.  Spend a little time browsing twitter profiles; those people are not hard to find.

Scream at me, accuse me, label me, mock me, slander me, and belittle me if it makes you feel good about yourself and your position.  The sun will rise tomorrow.

War on this, Attack on that. It’s all very tiring.

Having begun to dabble in the social sciences, I am starting to realize that each person receives, evaluates, and dismisses evidence based on his/her experiences, beliefs, and emotions.

As a result, there is little left out there that I have not already heard.

But basically, nothing has changed.

Backyard Brawl

Given the region of Virginia where I am employed, I found one particular skirmish in the climate wars of substantial interest. Nationally, it was widely overlooked, perhaps because it involved arguing within the Evangelical Christian community.

Although there is probably some level of  generational difference of opinion, evidenced by the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, it is a dual among scientists who are Evangelical Christians that initially gained my attention.

In August, prompted by comments made by a bombastic talk-radio host, Katherine Hayhoe and Thomas Ackerman authored an op-ed in The Christian Post. Part of their essay reads:

We are both atmospheric scientists who study climate change, having earned advanced degrees in our respective fields and having devoted our lives to increasing knowledge through scientific research. We know climate change is real, that most of it is human-caused, and that it is a threat to future generations that must be addressed by the global community. We are also evangelical Christians who believe that God created the world in which we live.

From the very beginning of the Bible, the goodness of God’s Creation and God’s love for people is front and center. In Genesis, humans are tasked with stewardship of the earth and its creatures.

Hayhoe is one of the more visible evangelical climate scientists, publishing numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles and a larger, non-technical book aimed at her evangelical peers. Ackerman has a lower profile, but he knows his way around the atmosphere: he was my atmospheric thermodynamics professor at Penn State in 1989.

Ten days later, a rebuttal appeared from Roy Spencer and David Legates in the same publication:

We, too, are evangelical climate scientists. We, too, believe in manmade global warming. But, unlike Katharine Hayhoe and Thomas Ackerman, we believe natural climate variations might far outweigh human-induced variations and that attempts to control future global temperature by reducing greenhouse gas (especially carbon dioxide—CO2) emissions will cause more harm than good to the poor for whom Hayhoe and Ackerman express concern. Like them, “We are also evangelical Christians who believe that God created the world in which we live.”

Like them, “We are … atmospheric scientists who study climate change, having earned advanced degrees in our respective fields and having devoted our lives to increasing knowledge through scientific research.” Like them, “We know climate change is real.”

But rather than keep it to the science, Spencer feels the need to poke and belittle, continuing:

Hayhoe and Ackerman—like other climate alarmists—urge us to try to reduce future warming by reducing our use of fossil fuels.

See that? Alarmists.

Now, to be sure, names are thrown the other way.  The term deniers gets tossed around too easily. But I found this tone in a Christian publication unsettling.

And this is precisely the type of exchange that drove me to dig into the social sciences further. Conveniently, the next question on my mind was asked by Judith Curry’s more secular blog:

What actually differentiates academic scientists in this public debate?  It doesn’t seem to be the science. Virtually all academic climate scientists are within the 97% consensus regarding the infrared emission of the carbon dioxide molecule and the warming effect on the planet. This includes ‘skeptics’ such as Richard Lindzen, Roy Spencer, etc.

What is seen above is a reflection of the same arguments among non-scientists. Different emotions, beliefs, experiences… and yes… the role of government… all play a huge role. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The science is not just affected by politics and differing world views. It has been infected.

Briefly scroll down Spencer’s personal website. It does not take long to see his distaste of the federal government. Of course, he is not unique: it is just as easy to find individuals on the other side who oversell the scientific consensus and demand immediate governmental action.

Scientists are human. I expect them to have political leanings. But those scientists who boast their political allegiances in the same breath as their research have abandoned their objective scientific principles, and they have willingly abdicated their legitimacy in this venue.

Same Stuff. Different Day.

So at the core, that 2-on-2 skirmish is no better than the exchange of competing philosophies below.  It is an exchange I have seen innumerable times. As seen on a popular social media site, this particular banter was between a real-estate agent and a meteorologist.

Point: Mother Nature controls everything, that’s a God topic, we are minuscule element in the vast expanse of what is perceived as science. Quit stocking yourself as a dignitary of the modern world and understand that you can do nothing to inhibit the progresses of structure. You guys always think that there is resolution, it doesn’t exist, we are week [sic], we are uninformed, we are unable to see the scope of our creation. Those that do are absurd.

Counterpoint: I have always believed that science is the discovery of God’s creation. What we have learned since the human race came to be is God slowly revealing his secrets to Man. Will we ever know everything? Not even close. But as long as we remember who gave us the ability to learn, and that we use that acquired knowledge to help our fellow man, all is good. There is this issue of stewardship, and I don’t mean the financial type. It is God’s command to us to take care of the earth while we are here. He wouldn’t have given us that command if we didn’t have the potential to harm the earth. And if anyone thinks we don’t have the ability to harm the earth, all you have to do is look back to August of 1945. Whether you agree with what the U.S. did in Japan or not, the bottom line is we proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that we have the ability to destroy this planet. If it’s arrogant to think we can, I can’t think of a word powerful enough to describe people who think we can’t.

Counterpoint is right. If you don’t think humans are significant enough to have some influence on the planet, you are either unwilling or unable to do the math.

I suppose I should not feel bad.  Well-respected Cliff Mass, from the University of Washington, has tried to play peacemaker in this fracas. But that went over like a lead zeppelin.

Spin City

Of course, the fifth IPCC report was issued earlier this year.  Hundreds of people working on this enormous series of documents.  There will be mistakes. Some people will abuse the authoritative position in which they have been entrusted. Human nature does not change.

But the big picture is still the same.  Yes, there has been a pause in warming. Yes, there was more ice in the Arctic Ocean during this year’s summer minimum than in 2012.

Recall that 2012 had the lowest area ice extent since 1979.  And the older ice, that which survives the melt during the summer season, continues to fade away. 

old ice

Age of ice in the Arctic Ocean since 1983. The amount of ice that survives the summer melt season continues to decline. Graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

One data point does not make a trend.  If you depend on one data point to make your argument about a process that takes place over several years, or even decades, then you are either disingenuous or ignorant of the scientific process.

Likewise, the pause in the surface air temperature rise over a 10-15 year span does not signal that the warming has stopped. Until we have data for the next 10-15 years, paused is a more accurate definition.


From NASA GISS. Anomalies are from the 1951-80 mean. Red line is the 5 year mean. Green bars indicate uncertainty estimates. Similar plots are found from NOAA, The UK Hadley Climate Research Unit, and University of California at Berkeley.

As I originally posted in 2011:

The idea that the warming will be uniform and at a constant rate is simplistic and horribly misguided. There will be jumps and stalls along the way.

A good analogy is the crawl each year from winter to summer. Every day between March 21 and June 21 is not warmer than the last. There are pauses and accelerations. There is often a cool spell in May or an abnormally warm spell in April. But we always get to summer.

From a personal standpoint, if we use 1900 as an analogy to March 21, I am concerned that we are only in the middle of April.  My guess, and it is only a guess, is that climate change will not be more accepted by the general public until sometime during the 2030s.

The long-term trend is the issue.  One year does not change anything.  Ask Physicist Richard Muller at Cal-Berkeley. Give me an additional 15 years when the mean global surface temperature either holds steady or drops, and I will happily admit that 97% of publishing climate scientists were wrong.

All Else Being Equal

High-profile events like tornado outbreaks and Typhoon Haiyan have always happened. Always will.  Go back just 50 years: there are twice as many people on the planet and there has been a corresponding rise in the development of cities and infrastructure.  At the risk of sounding crass, there is now more stuff to break than in 1963.

The unusual track of Hurricane Sandy last fall stirred up a particular pot.  Its track was associated with atmospheric blocking patterns.  Of great interest in the research community is whether or not these blocking patterns are becoming more frequent, especially in light of the reduced Arctic ice.

Intuitively, the idea makes sense, but the data is not conclusive.  This is an intense area of research in the climate science community right now.  While some are already convinced, more studies are needed.

The next several years should be telling.

Orders of Magnitude

Current carbon dioxide levels sit at 400 parts per million. Because it composes only 0.04% of the atmosphere, some believe its concentration is too small to do any additional warming.

Consider the concentration of stratospheric ozone, which shields a huge amount of the ultraviolet radiation we receive from the sun.  Its peak concentration at that altitude (about 20 miles up) averages about 8 parts per million, or 50 times less than the concentration of carbon dioxide.  Averaged throughout the globe, ozone concentration is even smaller: 0.06 ppm.

The Models Are Wrong

Statistician George Box, who passed away this year, famously stated, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

In this case, the models, or more correctly, mathematical global circulation simulations, are but one tool. Useful, yes. Perfect, no.  If one screams verbatim about what the models say will happen 10 years into the future, and it does not come to pass, one should prepare to face the backlash.

Observations matter.  Do the observations come close to the simulations?  Has hindcasting been done to check what the simulations do well, and more importantly, what they do not do well? How can the simulations be improved?

But turning a blind eye and wholeheartedly discounting the information the simulations provide is not a sound practice.

Fear and Risk

Fear sells. Fear motivates. It is the threat of taking something away that you deem valuable. It is the mother of anger: pushing raw, emotional buttons inside of us.  Pick your fear in this game: fear of intrusive government or fear of environmental collapse.

But there are real objective risks involved in doing a slow, long-term experiment on our atmosphere with no second Earth for comparison.  

Every individual, however, assess his/her risk differently.

If I had the means to secure beachfront property, I would still go after it.  But I’m not sure I will tell my future grandchildren to do the same.

Full Disclosure

I do my best to be objective, but of course, I claim no immunity.

Hook me up to a polygraph and I will tell you I have voted both sides of the aisle during my adult life.  I was raised in the Baptist Church, and I am now a practicing Catholic.


About seansublette

Meteorologist at Climate Central. Broadcast meteorologist in Virginia from 1995 to 2015. Born and raised in Richmond, VA. Penn State alumnus. Loves baseball and the rock band Rush. Views are independent of my employer. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
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