The Multiple Dimensions & Pollution of Climate Change Denialism.

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Science Denial

The Return of the Polar Vortex

The famous Polar Vortex has come and gone in North America. Then, it came back. What a jerk.

NewPolarVortexMemeAs I write this the outside temperature is 13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and tomorrow morning’s Bus Stop Temperature promises to be about –25F windchill here in central Minnesota.

Meanwhile my Twitter stream is polluted with denialist tweets pointing out that it’s too cold outside to believe in global warming, even though the entire land area of the United States, where this cold is being experienced as a cultural and physical phenomenon, is about one and half percent of the planet Earth, and the Northern Hemisphere has just experienced its fourth warmest January during the period known as “Since Records Began” which in this case is about 1880 to the present.

Releasing the Carbon Kraken

There are multiple dimensions along which denialists either get it wrong (because they are not paying attention or don’t understand the data) or making it wrong (because they have an interest in misdirection and misleading others).

One is pretending that the weather outside their window is the climate. The other is pretending that climate change only started after Al Gore said it did, or after some other recent date, ignoring the fact that we have been releasing the Carbon Kraken since the early or mid 19th century, when industrialists figured out they could make more money using coal, rather than water, to run their ever expanding acreage of dark satanic mills.

It’s hard to say exactly when Anthropogenic Global Warming began because at the start any signal from this effect may have been swamped by non anthropogenic (sometimes called “natural”) variation. The available data suggest that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 18th century, and started to rise during the last half of the 19th century.

After World War II, the rate of rise increased significantly. We know added CO2 increases the global surface temperature and the temperature of the oceans, and melts glacial (and sea) ice through the greenhouse effect. This graph, from here, combines various data sources to show the increase in CO2 emissions over time:


When we look at temperatures over time, we see a close relationship between CO2 and temperature, and we see a slow rise prior to World War II with a more rapid increase after. Another graph, from here:


The increase in temperatures are slow and steady but measurable prior to World War II, and much steeper thereafter.

It would be nice to see a graph like this that goes back a little farther in time to match the CO2 graph, but the “instrumental record” mostly post dates the Civil War, and really, the better quality record post dates about 1880. There are records that go way back, tens of millions of years, but they are “proxy” records of a different scale and it’s hard to get them on the same graph.

People who (unbelievably) deny that global warming is a real thing will often point to climate events earlier in the 20th century that may resemble modern day events that we think could be related to warming, and say “see, it happened then, so there is no global warming now.”

There are several reasons that is wrong. First, often, older records of spectacular weather events may be wrong, incomplete or not measured like we would like them to have been measured, so going back to old newspaper accounts and such is highly unreliable. So this means that people are criticizing a carefully assembled and verified set of data (recent changes in CO2 and temperature) and complaining that it’s no good because of cherry picked observation from “data” that is not controlled or verified.

The second reason this is wrong is that there have been very few weather events that could not, really, have happened any time. This does not apply so much to sea level enhanced weather events. If sea level rises then sea or estuary flooding can happen in places it could never have happened before, so that is a qualitative—or base-line—difference. But for the most part, a major cold snap, a high precipitation event, drought or other event can happen at any time.

Climate scientists do not think that there are very many weather events that happen now that could never, ever have happened in the past. Rather, there is concern that some of these classes of events are happening with significantly greater frequency now than in the past.

Was Kansas Not In Kansas Any More For A Decade Or Two?

A third reason this is wrong, which is rarely pointed to but I think important, is that we really don’t know what the association is between two important factors and weather events.

First, just how much new CO2 added to the atmosphere does it take to change the weather? Since CO2 records show an increase that started prior to the better quality instrumental record, the entire instrumental record is potentially affected by higher CO2, though of course, this effect would be much less prior to World War II than during more recent times.

Second, and related, is this: There may be weather related effects that come not from the specific amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but from changes in the CO2. The warming effect of added CO2 is not instantaneous, but rather, takes a long time during which time climate or weather related things may change. Adding a specific amount of CO2 to the atmosphere is like turning the stove on under a pot of tap water. The water starts out cool, and over time heats, then it eventually reaches boiling. After that, the temperature does not change—due to the boiling point, the pot of water has reached a new equilibrium and has stopped increasing in heat. But before equilibrium is reached there are constant changes in the heat level of the water inside the pot as well as other things the water is doing, such as pushing out various gasses, forming bubbles, and circulating thermally in the pot. That is a very simple analogy—there may be either simple or complex changes that happen in the Earth’s heat circulation system that occur as a result of added CO2, that involve changes over time, then reach an equilibrium of some sort and stop happening. Perhaps this occurred during the early days of increased CO2.

I have a hypothesis that I’m not aware has been examined. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the U.S. at least, there seems to have been a handful of extreme weather events, including some major tornadoes, big hurricanes, an historic and history changing drought, and a few other things. The Wizard of Oz, the writings of John Steinbeck, and other cultural phenomena are a very interesting proxy for those climate events, in a way.

I’m afraid that at the moment the data required to examine this period are not sufficient. But I wonder, looking at the above graphs, if the earlier part of the 20th century saw a metastable shift—changing from one equilibrium to a new and different equilibrium—in weather patterns, caused by CO2 induced warming, the effects of which arose for a while then faded away.

The possibility that extreme events may have happened during some period of a couple of decades early in the 20th century due to anthropogenic global warming does not explain all, or even a majority, of the denialist claims. Most of those claims are probably references to incorrect data or cherry picking of events.

The largest and most frequent weather related effects of global warming probably date to the last 20 years. Weather events are known of over many decades before that, and to some extent, even centuries into the past. Therefore, the historical bowl of cherries from which denialists may choose is large. That ratio, between the expanse of historical information and the more limited recent past, is large enough that there are dozens of past events that can be cited, as misrepresentations of reality.

Bicycles Going Backwards

You wouldn’t think it easy to ride a bicycle backwards but it turns out it is. Climate science denialists are good at it, and they can use multiple bicycles at once.

In a recent twitter conversation, an Australian MP challenged John Cook with the false assertion that several studies confirmed that global temperatures have stayed steady or gone down over the last decade or so. When Cook asked for the studies, the MP replied not with any studies, but with a comment about climate models. When pressed further for the studies, the MP claimed he had not promised any such studies and when pressed further changed the conversation to the last 150 years of data. When that did not work he shifted to mention of work that he claimed defied the nearly perfect consensus among both scientists and their peer reviewed papers about climate science. When that did not work he shifted to references in a non-peer reviewed anonymous blog, and then to perceived problems in the peer reviewed process. About that time another climate science denialist attempted to shift the conversation to the alleged (and non-existent) inability of alternative energy sources to work when it is really cold out.

If you have one thing to say that is wrong, it is hard to sustain argument. If you have ten things to say that are wrong, you can sustain the argument by shifting among them as each falsehood is effectively challenged. That form of argument does not advance understanding, but it does sustain the argument, but in a rather vacuous form. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Science denialism thrives in a vacuum.

Fighting With Words

Another dimension along which climate science denialists operate is linguistic. The terms “global warming” and “climate change” mean different things. The former is part of the latter, and in fact, “global warming” is not exactly the same as “anthropogenic global warming.”

Within science, we sometimes see extended discussions of the meanings of specific terms. What is a gene? What exactly is the relationship between “founder effect” and “genetic drift?” When is an “adaptation” really an “aptation” or an “exaptation?” These conversations have three characteristics. First, they reflect changes in understanding, or sometimes, conflict between perceptions of natural phenomena that arose independently and then crashed into each other in the literature or at conferences. Second, they are useful conversations because they can expose uncertainties or ambiguities in our actual understanding of nature. Third, despite their short term utility, they eventually become boring and misleading and scientists move beyond them and get back to the actual science, eventually.

But terminology has another use, and that is obfuscation. It is often said by denialists that scientists changed from using the term “global warming” to “climate change” for one or another nefarious reasons. We also see denialists claiming that scientists used to study “climate change” and that included both global warming and global cooling, but then changed to global warming because they could make more money on it. (I wish I knew how that worked!)

Recently, Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of the American right wing, claimed that scientists made up the term “Polar Vortex” in order to advance tax and spend liberal ideas. The famous NBC weatherman, Al Roker, and others, noted that the term “Polar Vortex” was already there, as a term referring to a real thing, and Roker even showed the term in use in his meteorology textbook from the mid 20th century. Indeed, here is a Google Ngram Viewer result of a search for the term “Polar Vortex” in all the books Google has indexed:


Note that the term is way old, predating 1950, and had a peak in usage druing the late 80s and through the early 90s, probably related to an increased rate of study of this phenomenon that happened because of concern over the Ozone Hole.

Fighting with words was codified by, if not invented by, the Ancient Greeks. It is called sophistry, or at least, is a subset of that practice, whereby arguments are made in large part on the basis of rhetorical style or method. You see people do this all the time. If someone you know is in a grumpy mood, or does not want to admit they’ve made a mistake, they may resort to a sophistic argument.

“Sorry I’m late, I got lost because they changed what’s on the corner of your street and it confused me.”

“They never changed what’s on the corner of my street.”

“Yes they did, there used to be a coffee shop, now it’s a pet grooming place.”

“Yeah, but it’s still the same building, they never changed what’s on the corner. You got lost because you don’t like me any more.”

That sort of thing.

Science denialists look silly when they do this sort of thing, but apparently they don’t know that. And, the method is related to the back-pedalling bicycles. You can always shift the conversation to the apocryphal shift between the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” implying a conspiracy among scientists, when the going gets tough.

This seems to happen a lot with hurricanes. When the Bush Administration wanted to avoid taking responsibility for a poor response to Katrina, someone actually said that the major damage done to New Orleans was not due to Katrina, but rather, to flooding. This idea was bolstered by noting that the hurricane had made landfall at a different time and place than the flooding. That, in turn, was based on the idea of “landfall” being related to the location of the eye of the storm; but the eye of a hurricane is tiny compared to the entire storm, which may be hundreds of miles across.

We saw this again with Sandy. Sandy was a pretty bad hurricane, but it lost its hurricane status just before making “landfall” (though the leading edge of the storm had been on land for a long time already). Just before hitting land, Sandy integrated with another storm system, which actually made the thing a super storm with much more impact than just a hurricane, but in so morphing changed enough that it no longer fit the definition of a hurricane. Then it hit New Jersey and New York. So, those who wish to deny the importance of hurricanes simply claim that when Sandy flooded Manhattan and the New Jersey shore, and caused widespread damage, loss of life, and injury in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, that did not count as a hurricane related event. Sophistry.

But Galileo!

The final dimension of argument I want to mention is perhaps the silliest of all, and we see it in widespread use far beyond the area of climate science denialism. The idea is simple. All major advances in science have come about when almost everyone thinks a certain thing but they are all wrong, but a small number of individuals know the truth, like Galileo’s attack on a geocentric universe.

While it is true that such things have happened, in history, they have not happened that often in science. For example, Einstein’s revision of several areas of science fit with existing science but modified it, though significantly. Subatomic theory did not replace the atom, but rather, entered the atom. The discovery and characterization of DNA was a major moment in biology, but the particulate nature of inheritance had long been established. Darwin did not change the existing science of nature, but rather, verified long held ideas about evolution and, dramatically, proposed a set of mechanisms not widely understood in his day. Science hardly ever gets Galileoed, and even Galileo did not Galileo science; he Galileoed religion. Even his insightful contribution was accretive.

There is a demented logic behind the Galileo claim. If every one thinks one thing, and one person thinks something different, that high ratio of differential is itself proof that the small minority is correct. But the truth is that consensus, or what we sometimes call “established science,” is usually coeval with alternative beliefs the vast majority of which are wrong, most of which do not even come from the science itself, but rather, from sellers of snake oil, individuals or entities that would benefit from the science being questioned, or from individuals with delusional ideas. Even if there is now and then a view held by a small minority that is actually more correct than the majority view, we can’t establish veracity by measuring rarity. Chances are, a view of nature held by only a few is wrong. This simple numbers game is not how we should be seeking truth, but if one does engage in the numbers game, then dissenting views of established science can be assumed to be wrong, if you were going to place a bet.

Climate Science Denialism along Multiple Dimensions

It seems to me, and others have noted this, that there is an uptick in the activity levels of climate science denialism. This seems to have started just prior to the release of the first draft documents of the IPCC report on climate change last year. Perhaps it is also being fueled by efforts linked to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Denialists have recently used the fact that about one or two percent of the Earth’s surface is experiencing a dramatic cold wave, which is quite possibly an effect of climate change, to question global warming, even in a winter where the Earth is exceptionally warm. Sophistry abounds.

There is so much cherry picking going on that I fear for a shortage of cherries, which really should be reserved for making pies and jam. Backwards pedaled bicycles are whizzing about. But the denialists do not seem to have increased in number or even reach.

Last November, there was a project called #ClimateThanks in which people were asked to tweet thanks, using the #ClimateThanks hashtag for those individuals and organizations who have been doing or promoting the results of good climate science. The denialists jumped on that bandwagon, producing numerious anti-science tweets and retweets. But if you look at the tweets and the tweeters from the denialist gaggle, while they were many most had few followers, and some of the tweeting entities even seemed to have been made up or brought out of mothballs for the purpose. They amounted to little more than a large collection of small wanna-be-Galileos.

It’s probably true that the biggest problem we have in advancing a productive conversation about climate change is the tenacious insistence on false balance in the media. It isn’t just FOX News that thinks it’s OK to place real science and politically motivated propaganda on the same stage, as though they had equal merit. False balance, which may be spreading as a phenomenon in major media at a time it should be diminishing, is probably the best friend of the denialist community.

Meanwhile, the denialsts have repeatedly shown themselves to be wrong, along many and diverse dimensions.

About the author / 

Greg Laden'

Greg Laden is a science communicator and teacher who has studied the relationship between human evolution and ecology, climate change during the Holocene, and African and North American prehistory. He has addressed, mostly through his writing on National Geographic Scienceblogs, the science of climate change, and has presented several talks and workshops on this issue. He is currently writing two books, one on fieldwork in the Congo and the other, a novel, on life in the upper Midwest and Plains in a post-climate change world. He strongly hopes that the novel remains fiction rather than prediction. Greg lives with his wife and two children in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

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    Nolan White March 2, 2014 at 11:57 am -  Reply

    Greg, keep me posted on your findings. This article is very informative. After seeing Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” misrepresent the success of wind farms and solar energy (such Cylindra), I did some research. It’s confusing. Last week, someone on NPR said America has 800 such farms, yet online it appears to be over 14,000. Whatever the number, I’m wondering how many have failed. Why would CBS’s Stahl point out less than 10 failures and give the impression that alternative energy is a failed experiment?

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