On seeing a denialist

Honestly, I have no idea why The Pompous Git was in my RSS feed: must have written something of interest to me or been linked from a site I read. Two weeks ago a title that popped up from the category piqued my curiosity: I expected satire, but instead found what looks like a real, honest-to-god attempt to propagate climate change denial, in an unbearably pretentious style — but hey, judging by the blog’s title, it’s supposed to be the author’s signature — with a lot of conceited mockery forced in. Ironically, it only served to underline his confusion about the very basics of the theory he wanted to discredit, not to mention his problems grappling with secondary-school level physics.

The post is not unique as far as denialists’ posts go, but being more elaborate, makes for an excellent example of all their typical failures of “motivated reasoning”: ignoring 99% of available data to concentrate on a few select graphs and papers (which of course “prove” their point), a total failure to cross-check and/or verify anything (including definitions the author himself links to), a long succession of logical fallacies, and last but not least, classic symptoms of the Dunning-Kruger syndrome: He Knows Better, Because He Once Read a Climate Handbook. Tremble, mere climate scientists.

I wrote the following in  the blog comments (tl;dr warning):

OK, I’ll bite.

1) “Questioning any of the above means you are a Denialist. There’s a “scientific consensus” that all this is true and “the debate is over”.”

A classic straw man, if I ever saw one. You wouldn’t be able to refer me to any source that would define a “denialist” as someone who “questions any of the above”, or to the alleged scientific consensus that says that “all this is true”.

2) The consensus — you ignore all surveys other than Cook et al. 2013 (that paint the same picture), then you set up another straw man: “their fanboys then claim 97% support for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming when there’s nothing whatsoever about catastrophe in the survey” — opinions of “fanboys” have nothing to do with the paper itself. Legates et al. criticism of Cook et al. is bogus, to put it mildly. And please, Willie Soon? The guy who pocketed a million from Big Oil with not a disclosure note until the FOIA query result was published? And… Monckton, for pity’s sake?! You seem genuinely desperate.

3) “CAGW has yet to come of age in the academic sense”

If you actually claim that on the basis of “the guys I talk to don’t have One Book to rule them all”, then they have much better than a book: they have a comprehensive survey, summary and analysis of all scientific activity related to the subject, updated every few years, referencing in detail every significant development and result. You can find it here. And yes, there are books too, if you bother to look for them.

4) “As you can see, it was considerably colder than present 150 years ago. Obviously, the climate has warmed considerably since.”

But the climate doesn’t warm just because it was colder before. If it’s getting warmer, a physical factor that caused the cooling must have disappeared, or a physical factor causing the warming must have appeared. The whole issue boils down to one simple question: can you point to any physical factor other than the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases as the cause of the warming observed in the last 40 years?

5) “Why will the condition that allowed humanity to begin civilisation be a catastrophe when it occurs in the future?”

a) Lamb’s original work — the basis of your graph — concerned an area of Central England, not the globe. Most probably, the Holocene Optimum was neither global (the tropics were cooler than today), nor even constant (the temperatures reached values higher than contemporary seasonally, in NH summer/SH winter). Averaged global temperatures are estimated to actually be lower than at the end of the 20th century.

b) The rate of the change is crucial. We’re raising the concentrations of the greenhouse gases two orders of magnitude faster than it used to happen for natural reasons, and the corresponding temperature peak is steep. Mother Nature deals with such abrupt changes using a strategy called “massive extinction”.

6) “Sure, there could potentially be more CO2 in the atmosphere than is beneficial, but that level (50,000 ppm) is way, way more than we currently have”

A non sequitur, of galactic proportions. The idea that we need to reach 50,000 ppm of CO2 to exit the “beneficial” range is preposterous. Even if you stick to the lower range of climate sensitivity estimates, for a “business as usual” scenario of emissions you get c. 800-1100 ppm in 2100, and an equilibrium temperature rise of c. 2.6 degrees comparing to 1900. 2.6 degrees of _global_ warming in just a few centuries will not be “beneficial” by any measure. The negative effects of ocean acidification alone will outweigh any gains that higher temperatures might bring in some areas.

7) “There’s even considerable doubt that we could ever burn fossil fuel fast enough to double current levels!”

No, there’s not. “Business as usual” scenarios based on existing, known fossil fuel reserves and usage rates give a value of minimum ~800 ppm in 2100 (p. 1096). For the last six decades carbon emissions have been accelerating. Moreover, climate sensitivity needs to be related to the pre-industrial levels of CO2, not current ones (we haven’t yet seen a thermodynamic balance in the climate system following the CO2 forcing).

8) “Greenhouse producers regularly increase the level of CO2 in their greenhouses to 1,000 ppm to increase productivity. It would appear that our current food crops are best adapted to an atmosphere containing ~1,000 ppm of CO2.”

Another non sequitur. Long-time tests in the open — you don’t plan to construct a greenhouse for the whole of global agriculture, do you? — show that given elevated levels of CO2, plants run into constraints with respect to other nutrients; also, some of them show a slowing in the rate of photosynthesis, some staple crops lose nutritional quality, and susceptibility to pests and diseases might rise significantly. CO2 is simply not the only factor in plant growth. This is like saying that humans are best adapted to eating burgers, because when restricted to this diet, they quickly grow much bigger around the waist.

9) “It is immediately obvious that for most of the last 600 million years CO2 levels were higher than today — at 5–7,000 ppm more than an order of magnitude higher for most of that time. Likewise, temperatures have mostly been around 10°C higher.”

So? If you were you planning yet another non sequitur here (“it used to be much warmer, so much warmer cannot be bad”) then you might not bother. The point is that the rate of change is dangerous, not change itself. If you read something about the PETM, for example, a rapid temperature change estimated at 6 degrees in 20 000 years is connected to a massive extinction event. And we’re looking at a few degrees’ rise in a century at the moment.

10) “Another glaringly obvious conclusion to draw from the Scotese and Berner chart is that there is no correlation whatsoever between CO2 and temperature. During the last 15–17 years, the amount of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by ~40%. Here is the effect.”

First, the increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration in the course of the last 17 years is ~10%, not 40%. Second, to deny the influence of CO2 concentrations on temperatures you’d have to invent some special kind of physics, in which CO2 molecules simply don’t absorb and re-emit heat radiation, which is to nullify over 150 years of science — from Fourier to Tyndall to Arrhenius to Callendar. Alternatively, it would really require suspending the conservation of energy, so that heat radiated back to the surface wouldn’t increase temperatures, but magically disappear instead. In either case, it would be a very ambitious anti-science undertaking.

The graph you’re presenting is a great example of data cherry-picking: the starting year is 1996 just because 1998 was a record-breaking El Nino year — hence the convenient peak at the start. The RSS series was chosen just because it systematically underrepresents the warming trend. A surface (lower troposphere) graph was chosen just because it’s most susceptible to noise introduced by the El Nino/La Nina oscillation, volcanic aerosols and the solar cycle. And only 17 years are shown just because a longer interval would actually show a rising trend. During this same time, upper and deep ocean kept accumulating heat, ice cover kept shrinking, springs kept coming earlier, record temperature highs kept outweighing record lows, species kept migrating up/north etc. etc. and every decade _averaged_ kept being hotter than the previous decade. But you, citing just one carefully prepared graph, do not even merely assert that “global warming has paused”, but that CO2 concentrations don’t influence temperatures, no less. This is not skeptical approach to data, this is evidence of enormous confirmation bias.

Here are two other graphs with a special dedication to you.

11) “You have to wonder about someone at NASA writing “In the last two decades, the rate of our world’s warming accelerated” in the light of the chart above of temperatures measured by NASA satellites!”

See above. Apparently, NASA knows the difference between signal and noise, and doesn’t cherry-pick their own data.

12) “From the above, it seems that the warming following this Bond event was 3.3°C in ~130 years, or 2.5°C per century, four times the rate of change experienced in the 20th C.”

And there’s no proof that it was global, and comparable to a sustained rise of averaged global temperatures. The very definition of Bond events that you link to defines them as “North Atlantic climate fluctuations occurring every ≈1,470 ± 500 years throughout the Holocene”.

13)

a) “While the CAGWers continually claim that Earth’s climate is modulated by the atmosphere”

Who, for example? Care to refer the reader to sources? Preferably, in peer-reviewed literature? This is yet another straw man. “CAGWers” claim that Earth’s climate is modulated by a number of forcings, one of which is the contemporary energy imbalance caused by a rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases. I don’t know of a single paper that would follow this with a conclusion that oceans do not play an important role in the climate system.

b) “the thermal capacity of the oceans is ~200 times greater.”

So? Again, what’s your point here? All measurements that we have indicate that the upper and deep ocean heat content is rising. Therefore, the oceans cannot be the driver in the recent warming, irrespective of their thermal capacity.

14) “CO2 has been rising for the last 8,000 years”

Actually, it has been rising for at least 22,000 years. By about 100 ppm during that time, which gives an average of 0.45 ppm for a century. Compare that to the to the rate of the anthropogenic concentration rise.

15) “Quoting one of the staunchest CAGWers, Kevin Trenberth: “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.””

You apparently have failed, for 5 years, to research this old and mouldy “climategate” chestnut. If you had attempted “in all fairness” to actually check the context, you’d know that Trenberth had nothing to “explain away”, since his comment was simply related to the researchers’ (lack of) ability to track actual energy flows, beyond summary energy budget statements, and did not negate global warming in any way.

16) “the “missing” heat is sequestered in the ocean, below 700 m. How it got there without any effect on the upper 700 m is somewhat of a mystery remaining to be explained.”

This is just plain factually wrong. All available measurements indicate a steady rising in the heat content of both upper and deep ocean (see Levitus et al. above). What sources can you quote to support the implied lack of such rise in the upper ocean?

17) “There is no theory The Git has come across demonstrating that methane causes CO2.”

Except that we know physical mechanism governing those cycles and don’t need to guess the causation. All three — CO2 levels, CH4 levels and temperature levels — are related, and the forcing/feedback loop works in BOTH directions.

18) “that carbon dioxide drives climate, is wrong; the reverse appears to be true”

See above. CO2 can be BOTH a forcing and a feedback. Higher temperatures cause CO2 release from the oceans, but that doesn’t in any way preclude the role of anthropogenic CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) as the forcing in the recent temperature rises.

19)

a) “The most important by far is water vapour and is estimated by some to be responsible for up to 98% of the greenhouse effect”

If I wanted to be cruel, I’d ask you for sources of that “98%” revelation.

b) “For reasons that will become clearer/murkier [delete whichever is inapplicable] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) do not consider water vapour to be a GHG. Instead, they refer to water vapour as a “feedback”.”

Not true. IPCC clearly recognizes the role of water vapour as a GHG:

http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/faq-1-3.html

Water vapour is the most important greenhouse gas, and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the second-most important one. Methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and several other gases present in the atmosphere in small amounts also contribute to the greenhouse effect.

And at the same time it correctly treats it as a feedback, not a forcing, in the document you linked. This is because, due to its physical propeties, water vapour CANNOT act as a forcing — it condenses within the range of temperatures and pressures encountered on Earth. Thus, any attempt to add more water vapour to the atmosphere (given constant averaged temperature and pressure) will only result in rain. You need to introduce a forcing in the system that will raise temperatures for water vapour concentrations to be able to follow as a feedback.

You seem to be confused about basic terminology of the theory that you attempt to criticise.

c) “Unlike ordinary water vapour, this anthropogenic water vapour does not appear to condense out as precipitation; it stays aloft and enhances the effect of the CO2.”

After a rise in temperatures, caused by the GHG forcing, the atmosphere’s relative humidity can be higher. In other words, a hotter atmosphere can “hold” more water vapour. This is secondary school physics (Clausius-Clapeyron relation, ideal gas law, etc).

20) “There is no evidence of this so-called Enhanced Greenhouse Effect in the paleoclimate record. Nor is there any convincing evidence of it in the Earth’s current atmosphere.”

Again, this is simply factually wrong. There are a number of methods used to estimate past humidity — e.g. detecting deuterium excess in ice core data, oxygen isotopes in speleothem records, pollen composition, paleo dendrology — and numerous papers describing past humidity on their basis that by and large confirm the water feedback in past climate cycles (dry cold periods alternate with warm humid ones). Actually, changes like the glacial cycles would be impossible to explain without taking into account all feedbacks, including the water vapour one.

The paper that you quote explicitly acknowledges that “radiosonde humidity measurements are notoriously unreliable and are usually dismissed out-of-hand as being unsuitable for detecting trends of water vapour in the upper troposphere”, and that it’s calculated trends (because it’s a reanalysis, not empirical observations report) are “inconsistent with satellite data”. Here you can find a review paper that compares a number of re-analyses and doesn’t exclude satellite data. Not surprisingly, it also doesn’t support the conclusions of the paper that you chose to pick.

21) “The effect of a doubling of current CO2 levels is readily estimated by using MODTRAN5″

No, it’s not. MODTRAN5 is an atmospheric radiation model, by definition providing only a fraction of the parameters necessary to assess climate sensitivity — it excludes the ocean component, the biosphere component, the cryosphere component (albedo itself has a tremendous effect as a temperature feedback), it doesn’t even include convection in its model of atmosphere. It’s a specialized tool, equivalent at most to just one component of General Circulation Models that are used, among others, for assessing climate sensitivity. There’s an ongoing project dedicated to inter-model comparison and collaboration (Coupled Model Intercomparison Project): here (p. 818) you can find a summary of results from 30 CMIP5 models, all of which include at least ocean, earth surface and sea-ice components beside an atmospheric component, with some also covering the biosphere, ice sheets, sediments and weathering, aerosols, atmosphere chemistry, and ocean biogeochemistry. The mean climate sensitivity of these 30 models is 3.2 +/- 1.3 deg. You don’t link to the MODTRAN5 results that you so enthusiastically subscribe to, but I very much doubt they stand any comparison to the results from any of the 30 different GCMs.

Richard Lindzen has a long history of being very much wrong in his predictions, so I’d take what he “manually calculated” with much more than a grain of salt. Here you can find a comparison of his predictions (reconstructed, since he’d been much more willing to propagate his “manual calculations” on press conferences than to publish actual papers) against those of James Hansen. You can see for yourself whose assessment of climate sensitivity gave better agreement with actual temperature record for the last 25 years.

22) Nice trolling though.

So far, the comment hasn’t appeared on the blog. I suspected a glitch, since I had to re-login while submitting, and tried re-submiting, but only got a duplicate content warning. Makes me think the author perhaps simply didn’t want the comment to appear on the blog. One can only wonder why.

Ain’t cognitive dissonance a bitch.

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2 thoughts on “On seeing a denialist

  1. You would appear to have left no comments that I can see; merely a pingback 7 hours ago. I was at the movies. Sorry I do not respond immediately; some of us lead a real life of gardening, cooking, reading books, watching film…

    Perhaps you can respond to my request for something of the quality of Oke’s Boundary Layer Climates that provides justification for the CAGW version of climate rather than The Received View.

    BTW it’s not just MODTRAN5,the AOGCM climate models also leave out the biosphere component, one of the reasons I distrust them. “Ain’t cognitive dissonance a bitch?” :-)

    It’s quite late in the evening and The Git is well past his usual beditime. So I will not comment further here. You are now an approved commenter at my blog. ‘Nite.

    Like

  2. I’ll try to re-submit the comment today. As far as the One Book To Rule Them All is concerned, I addressed this point: the best summary of science of climate change is the IPCC report (it’s actually quite a good read, if a bit dry and technical). There are other good summaries of the area available, like the Letchner (ed.) book. I’m a bit surprised you don’t know them yet — how do you want to criticise the theory if you’re not familiar with it?

    And you really get me confused about your view of the climate models: you don’t trust models that leave out the (relatively less important) biosphere component (BTW, some CMIP5 models reviewed in AR5 do include it), yet you want your readers to trust climate sensitivity assessments based on MODTRAN5, which ignores everything except atmosphere radiation? That is, a model that leaves out clouds, aerosols, convection, ice/albedo, the ocean, to name just a few really important factors of climate sensitivity calculations?

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