Will the real skeptics please stand up?

Chris wants to ask the age-old question: what separates denialists from skeptics? There are no scientific studies that unequivocally show particular people are being dishonest, and all people (even scientists) are prone to mistakes, so the existence of a bad publication doesn’t show that someone is pushing an agenda. Being “skeptical” is a job that all scientists have, and although the term may have a bad name attached to it in global warming debates, it’s actually a very honorable title to have and it’s difficult to find any scientist who is not skeptical of a lot.

This is of course different than simply plugging your fingers in your ears and denying any evidence put in your face.

 When Alfred Wegener proposed the idea of continental drift in the early 20th century, one of the principle objections to his hypothesis was his inability to provide a mechanism that was capable of moving continents across the globe. Wegener proposed that the tidal influence of the Moon was strong enough to give continents a westward motion, but physicists at the time (such as Harold Jeffreys) quickly showed the physical implausibility of this scenario.

Wegener used various types of evidence to support his idea, including the remarkable similarities of the continental margins on opposite sides of the Atlantic, identical fossils being found in both Africa and South America, and also paleoclimatic evidence (Wegener was actually a meteorologist by trade). However, the mainstream geology community was not convinced, and they had every right not to be. Some pieces of evidence were there, but the grounds for a paradigm shift had just not been established yet.

Following World War 2, oceanographic exploration opened up immensely and scientists were able to get a much better picture of the ocean bottom.  Emerging from this work was the discovery of the oceanic ridge system that winds through the major oceans like the seams on a baseball. This, and other discoveries eventually led to the theory of plate tectonics which was far more encompassing than continental drift. After much more evidence, and now a suitable mechanism for how landmasses could move around over geologic time, scientists could not longer reasonably deny this new idea, which is now a unifying idea in contemporary geology.

The scientists in Wegener’s time were correct to be skeptical of the argument, and there were far too many question marks that had to be addressed before specialists would just hop on a new boat which contradicted previous ideas.

Let’s go elsewhere: After Charles Darwin published his “Origin of Species” the idea was actually well received, even by the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until his later publication on “The Descent of Man” which seemed to change the ratio of fact to speculation, that many people seemed to oppose his theories. The theory of evolution is now a very well-encompassing theory in modern biology and geology, and is supported by countless pieces of evidence in multiple fields. There are still minority groups who oppose the theory, but the objections are very repetitious and necessitate that much of what we know about physics should be tossed out the window. The objections presumably arise out of the need to push a specific interpretation of a specific faith rather than anything to do with evolution in particular. Similarily, objections to how tobacco caused cancer presumably arose out of financial interests rather than anything inherently flawed with the science of smoking and lung effects.

What are the reasons for the opposition to anthropogenic climate change? Clearly, they cannot arise from any real scientific reasons because the peer-reviewed literature is devoid of any content refuting the underlying physics or expected spatio-temporal patterns associated with increased greenhouse gases. What’s more, CO2 and other greenhouse gases play as much a role in tying together planetary climate as plate tectonics does in geology or evolution in biology. After all, their role in influencing radiative balance is required in explaining the faint young sun, the hothouse climates of the Cretaceous and Eocene, why Venus is so hot, why Mars may have once had liquid water, snowball Earth, the interglacial-glacial cycles, and the 20th century observations. My guess is that there are many people with financial interests in not slowing fossil fuels, but also many people are just scared that there own lifestyle may have to be altered if AGW is correct.

Are scientists skeptical? Sure, there are lots of questions such as how ecosystems will shift, how fast it takes Greenland to melt, how cloud feedbacks will respond, the role of aerosols in climate forcing, etc…but the overall physics of the greenhouse effect and the fact humans can influence climate is very well-established. There is a lot we do not know, and these uncertanties need to be properly portrayed in scientific articles and to policy makers, but we shouldn’t just make up uncertanties or dwell too much on the stuff which is “settled.”

What makes a denialist? As I’ve said before, even scientists make mistakes. But experts in the field should not consistently make undergraduate-level errors, they should not clearly misrepresent the conclusions of peer-reviewed papers, and they should admit error in the face of correction rather than repeating a knowingly flawed argument to a new (more laymen) audience. It is not an opinion that people doing this, and people need to call them out on it. Many of the facts and conclusions in primary papers are very straightforward so to screw them up should raise some eyebrows.  Many of the “errors” speakers or writers make are so elementary, that if they are actually honest mistakes, any relevant degree in climate that they received should be taken away.

There are lots of arguments out there that might be expected from someone new to the subject with little scientific training, but to come from actual “experts” is unforgivable. Such examples include claiming that water vapor is “95% of the greenhouse effect” and can swamp the effects of additional CO2, the implication that trace amounts of a gas cannot influence climate, claiming that “global warming stopped in 1998,” mentioning CO2 can’t cause climate change since it lagged temperature in Vostok (without mentioning feedback mechanisms), saying that CO2 can’t cause temperatures to rise because they didn’t rise from 1940-1970, saying that most CO2 comes from natural sources so our emissions are negligible, and the like. Anyone who consistently uses these and other similar-style lines can safely be ignored with virtually no chance that you’re going to miss out on some divine revelation that debunks greenhouse physics. Lots of people are actually working on serious issues like improving the instrumental record, understanding ice sheet physics better, understanding cloud-aerosol interactions better, etc.

Repetition does not make an argument right. I did not come up with those lines off of the top of my head, but I’ve seen them all numerous times in many areas of the internet and offline. It’s virtually certain that countless people are not all discovering the same “counter-arguments” or are misusing them in all the same way, so it just shows me that they are coming from a handful of sources that have a large reader(viewer)ship, perhaps the “Global Warming Swindle” video from Channel 4 is an example. As sloppy of a scientific piece it was, they have clearly succeeded in confusing a lot of non-specialists and probably halting policy action on global warming– which I take it was the goal. It clearly was not to educate scientists of “new data” or anything of the sort, and none of that would be able to be presented at a real scientific conference without the lecturer being laughed off the stand.  Before using these arguments, people should ask a few questions:

1) Would I use them in front of experts in the field and be expected to be taken seriously?

2) Forget the science for a second: does this reasoning make logical sense and is it contradictory with other views I hold?

3) Is it likely that experts in the field for a long time have missed out on this piece of information, or forgot about something so important?

4) Can I find real support for my ideas in the scholarly literature, or is the most authoritative source to back me up a newspaper article or blog?


16 responses to “Will the real skeptics please stand up?

  1. Chris.Beautiful Piece.Spencer Weart concluded at the end of his first book” The Discovery of Global Warming” that it was just conservative businessmen that usually become threatened by new science that may effect the status quo. When I argue with so-called skeptics, they are as you say, scientifically challenged, and aren’t truly skeptics at all. At the Accuweather Blog I always ask, where’s the science. I never get a response. The deniers don’t understand science. That’s proves to me that their is too much disinformation,misinformation, and just plain lying going on. Rapid climate change is obviously such a dangerous new territory for the human race, that I feel obliged to fight these deniers in anyway I can. Since we really don’t know when the tipping points will come I err on the side of caution. I look forward to your new book or Internet Site as you obviously have so much to say, and say it so well.Thanks KIPP

  2. Chris:I am posting portions of your piece on the Accuweather blog, on a
    timely basis.Hope that is OK with you. An OIL WONK, Steve Rowland, is posting full pages of Watts and D’Aleo on our blog. I guess he doesn’t have our future in mind?

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  4. re: “However, the mainstream geology community was not convinced, and they had every right not to be. Some pieces of evidence were there, but the grounds for a paradigm shift had just not been established yet.”

    Actually, I think it’s more complex than that, as detailed in Naomi Oreskes “The Rejection of Continental Drift”, discussed also here:


    There was a real split between the US and Europe, for various reasons, and the result was a *real* long-running controversy in science, with serious people on multiple sides (in some cases, more than two). Among other things, this work is one of the reasons Naomi knows the difference between a controversy inside science and something else…

  5. Chris, you keep repeating something about undeniable “greenhouse physics”. Could you please elaborate on what exactly your understanding (or mainstream climatology) of the “greenhouse effect” is, and which “physics” you are talking about? Otherwise it is hard to express any opinion about it…You can start in “top-down” manner, from a big picture like “effective emission layer” and “lapse rate”, and we can finess the details later on.Thanks.

    Response– Check out my post here— chris

  6. Chris, in the above link you summarized (without a reference to original Hansen_1981 work) that :

    “An estimate of the greenhouse warming is
    Ts ~ Te + Γ H
    where H is the flux-weighted mean altitude of the emission to space and Γ is the mean lapse rate between between the surface and the level H.”

    In Hansen et al (1981), they give H =5.5K/km, and Γ =6 km. In Hansen et al (1993) they add the factor of sensitivity of Γ to CO2 doubling as dΓ =200m rise.

    On the other hand, Held and Soden (2000)

    Click to access annrev00.pdf

    give H = 6.5K/km, which translates into Ze = Γ = 5km. Soden estimates the Γ sensitivity to 2xCo2 as dΓ =150m.

    Therefore, the discrepancy in published data is about 20% for two major atmospheric parameters that define the actual amplitude of greenhouse effect. Where it comes from? To start, let me ask: What is the meaning of “flux-weighted mean altitude of the emission to space”? Could you please formulate the definition of Γ in mathematical terms, starting preferably from line-by-line absorption spectrum, such that it can be calculated?

    My next question will be about H.


    Response– The greenhouse effect depends on the strength of the lapse rate, which in a moist area is 6.5 C/km. I’d prefer to skip the socratic method and just give me your point, thanks.– chris

  7. So, you decided to skip to the second question. Do you mean that Hansen is wrong with 5.5C/km? The “debate” around AGW is about changes in single degrees of C relative to 33C (or over bigger difference, depending on assumptions of horizontal heat transfer) overall effect, which requires about 3% accuracy of calculations. Yet your science is not sure if the “strength of lapse rate” is 6.5C/km, or 5.5C/km, which is about 15% difference. How do you know that the “mean lapse rate” [averaged over Earth surface and day-night variations and moist variation] is 6.5C/km? If you know this from some measurements, then how do you know how it will change (or not change) under 2XCO2?

    Regarding my first question, if you don’t know how to calculate Γ, then how do you calculate dΓ/dCO2?

    Response– In fact the lapse rate does decrease in a global warming situation which produces a negative feedback (unless of course you’re on the “no hot spot” fad which could mean the lapse rate feedback is even less negative). The change is a bit more important, right? Lots of models and observations looking at those changes. Are you thinking that the whole gradient from the surface to “H” is going to go to zero or what?– chris

  8. As I see, you disregarded my hint that the “mean lapse rate” is a result of averaging over entire Earth AND day-night variations AND moist variations AND seasonal variations AND cloud cover AND… The “whole gradient” [thankfully] does not go to zero, but local (in time, and zonal) gradients are subject to so called “inversions”, such that the gradient even changes its sign. Do you happen to know a place that shows examples of instantaneous “soundings” across atmosphere in nighttime and seasonal in high latitudes?

    The above was an “observational” part. The skeptical position is that, given the lack of control over the parameter of interest (Co2) and lack of sounding data for pre-industrial period with sufficient quality and spatial coverage, the observations cannot have predictive parameterization with regard to Co2. The other point is that “global radiative forcing” has to be calculated starting from instant sounding profiles and integrating them all. And negative lapse rate should lead to negative contribution to “global forcing”. Most of absorption lines of Co2 have “H” in stratosphere, where the lapse is inverted, such that increase in Co2 should result in overall cooling. If you calculate the averages first, all these effects are improperly accounted for. That’s why I am asking how do you calculate the “H”.

    Now, you did mention that “lots of models” are looking at lapse rate and its changes. The skeptical position is that no matter how “hard” the models are “looking at those”, modern computational technology is absolutely incapable of calculating the “mean lapse rate” of a real atmosphere. Do you agree?

    Please note that all the above are pesky application details that may give vastly different results, from positive, to zero, or even negative, all depending on assumptions and method of calculations. Therefore the reference to “solid greenhouse physics” says as much as saying nothing.

    Response– If you can show one theoretical or modeled application which gives cooling upon addition of greenhouse gases, then you get kudos. As a “by the way” the so-called TAU=1 effective emission level is well in the troposphere– chris

  9. I am afraid you are not following me. The “effective emission level” is apparently based on an average of actual absorption spectrum of relevant IR wavelengths (since you refused to provide the exact formula, I have to guess). However, the spectrum of gaseous media consists of thousands of sharp peaks, and deep valleys between them, due to “pressure broadening”. The so-called “band averaged” (say, to about 1 cm-1 resolution) H could be well in the middle of troposphere. But this average is made of the “valleys” (and continuous part from liquid fog) that are absorbing much less, and the narrow peaks that are absorbing much more, and their H(w) is well above tropopause. That’s where they should cause the ill-famous “stratospheric cooling”. I am not saying that addition of greenhouse gases gives cooling, but that the “effective effect” could be much less than currently assumed.
    Could you point me to a literature (preferably web-accessible) where it is shown that the “radiative forcing” remains the same when the resolution of used spectrum changes from band-averaged to MODTRAN to HITRAN-like? Thanks.

    Response– The only document that I’ve read that could be helpful to you would be Myhre et al 1998, but I suppose you already know about that. If you suspect their estimates are incorrect you should probably be taking it up with a radiative physicist and not me– chris

  10. Alexi Tekhasski

    There have been several other fascinating attempts and studies, the REFIR project, by Collins et al ” Greenhouse Forcing by AOGCMS…”, ICRCCM project, other inter-comparison projects. The usual stuff for line-by-line codes is based on standard atmosphere models, usually for a clear sky, while coincidence with band-averaged GCMs is maintained by adjustments to water continuum. It looks like by changing water content at will and playing with multitude of cloud parameters, one can get any result.

    Looking at wording of your response, I do not understand why it “could be helpful to ME”; I thought that such a fundamental issue should be “settled” by now, and it must be very helpful to YOU to present a clear answer.

    Ok, lets assume that the allegedly man-made WMGHGs doubling is really shifting the radiation balance by 2-4W/m2. At the same time a simple MODTRAN estimate shows that a change of 2% in cloud cover has bigger effect then the whole CO2 doubling. It was also found experimentally that Earth albedo did decrease during 1984-2000 from 0.32 to 0.28, and somewhat back, obviously causing a very substantial radiative imbalance, in tens of W/m2. Obviously, the amount of cloud cover (especially in tropical areas) plays a major role in the global energy balance. As far as I know, climatology has no self-defining model for cloud cover formation, and GCMs usually fudge the cloud cover factor to an observed average of 62% (or whichever suits the bill of model stability). In reality, weather switches the amount of cloud cover that changes the amount of insolation 10-fold , on daily-weekly basis, yet maintaining a pretty stable global average. Do you have any reasons to believe that this thermal self-stabilization can be disturbed by the small bias from WMGCGs?

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  12. Not sure where to put this (censored at RC) reply to your comment, and not even meaning any snark (just trying to say something positive about CA):

    Chris: “a) No scientist or organization is under obligation (or should be expected) to follow the news coming out of every science blog out there.”

    Then surely we are fortunate that gavin thinks a certain blog is especially worthy of being closely monitored (even on a Sunday afternoon) so that this error could be fixed so quickly.

    Response– I don’t know gavin’s daily reading schedule, sorry. If a hint starts that something is wrong with particular data, it can get spread around quickly, and so people with overhear and check it out themselves. Presumably SM did start this “hint” but that’s about it, right?– chris

  13. Well, once they knew where to look, 3 people (SM, a CA reader, and gavin) were able ‘independently’ to determine the problem in a few hours. It appears the hard part was finding where to look.

    I have no concerns with what gavin did to fix the data problem. The issue is the continuing effort at RC to avoid giving any credit or allowing anything positive to be said about SM and climateaudit.org.

    As far as I know comments at RC containing the CA URL are still censored. That policy at a science blog that should be promoting free exchange of information seems extremely unreasonable to me.

    Response– My impression is that a lot of disinformation and personal attacks (especially on RC contributors) originates from CA, and of course once in a while SM does something useful (like find data errors). I’m not quite sure I blame them for not wanting to be associated with CA, but I don’t really have an opinion on how RC goes about handling it.

    Personally, I don’t get into these “gotcha” games and blog wars. I read more in journals than I do these types of forums anyway. I am a regular reader of RC and not of CA because I feel there is a strong difference in the quality of information originating from those sources. I don’t always agree with the approaches of gavin and co. either, but the science at RC usually is very well representative of the peer-reivewed literature (when they’re not spending time addressing every latest argument against AGW you’ll actually learn quite a bit).– chris

  14. I’m not sure where you get that impression. I’ve not seen any disinformation or much in the way of personal attacks from SM. There are ‘professional attacks’ severely questioning the quality of some published science and tactics for withholding information. Of course comments are hard to keep free of personal attacks, but I think SM does a better job of that (without heavy handed censorship) than RC does.

    Chris: “but the science at RC usually is very well representative of the peer-reviewed literature …”

    That is certainly true, but are you not at least a little concerned that some issues may not be covered very well in the peer-reviewed literature (for a variety of reasons)? Have you read about James Annan’s difficulties in getting what appear to be important and high quality papers published?

    I think if you want to at least understand the arguments of skeptics (not talking about denialists here), spending some time at CA would be worthwhile.

    I’m only mildly skeptical of most AGW science and think the IPCC position is probably mostly correct. I am, however, very concerned that some of what’s been published has never been truly independently verified and very much needs auditing.

  15. Pingback: Who to believe? « My view on climate change

  16. But experts in the field should not consistently make undergraduate-level errors…Many of the “errors” speakers or writers make are so elementary, that if they are actually honest mistakes, any relevant degree in climate that they received should be taken away.

    So are you calling for Mann’s degrees to be taken away? He flipped a proxy upside-down to get correlation. That is higher numbers meant colder, and he found a correlation when higher numbers meant warmer, and used this proxy in a temp reconstruction.

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