June 29, 2008

I Did A Little Climate Modeling In College...For The Money, Though. I Swear!

I'm sure I'll have the wonderful experience of being called a "climate change skeptic," or even better, a "climate change denier." The second term has the one-two punch of making it seem like I don't believe in climate change (I do. It changes from day to day, season to season. It's always changing.) and it uses a pejoratively loaded term like "denier" which makes it sound like I'm ignoring some basic truth while at the same time drawing comparisons to terms like "Holocaust denier." Just take a little look in my dictionary:

Skeptic: noun; 1) a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions. From skepsis 'inquiry, doubt'.

Deny: verb; 1) refuse to admit the truth or existence of.

See the difference? In one, you are questioning opinions; in the other, you are refusing to admit the truth. Big difference.

In any case, my feeling is that open questioning and debate are key components of scientific inquiry. Those who shout "the debate is over!" too often seem too desperate for the rest of us to believe them.

Now, on to the main course.

This is one of the best articles I've read discussing computer modeling--and its shortcomings--as it relates to climate change studies.

"The IPCC issues predictions for 20- to 30-year periods into the future, and updates them every 6-7 years, so in practice its current predictive capabilities can never be evaluated against real world data. As Tebaldi and Knutti observe, 'climate projections, decades or longer in the future by definition, cannot be validated directly through observed changes.'"

But more importantly, groups like the IPCC have created a "no-lose" situation. If the predictions from 20 years ago are correct, then the response is "see? We told you so!" If the predictions are incorrect, the response is "well, those predictions were based on the old models. We know much more now. Watch and see; we'll be right for the next 20 years." And so on.

Think I'm wrong? Read this:

The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth's climate seems to be _______ ____. Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the ________ trend, as well as over its specific impact on local weather conditions. But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century. If the climatic change is as profound as some of the pessimists fear, the resulting famines could be catastrophic. "A major climatic change would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale," warns a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, "because the global patterns of food production and population that have evolved are implicitly dependent on the climate of the present century."

Sounds pretty familiar doesn't it? You'd know enough to fill in the blanks with the terms "warming up" and "warming," right? Except you'd be wrong. Fill in those blanks with "cooling down" and "cooling," and you have an article from the April 28, 1975 issue of Newsweek. Want to see a little more?

There are ominous signs that the earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production - with serious political implications for just about every nation on earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only ten years from now.

And this little gem:

Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or divering[sic] arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve.

Yeah, that's right. Just 33 years ago, scientists were suggesting melting the arctic ice cap! The same one that we're now being warned will melt and kill us all! Okay, I'm exaggerating, but I think you can see my point. No? Well, what about this little nugget from an NPR report on the Argo system, which measures ocean temperature up to a depth of 3,000 feet:

Since the system was fully deployed in 2003, it has recorded no warming of the global oceans.

"There has been a very slight cooling, but not anything really significant," Willis says. So the buildup of heat on Earth may be on a brief hiatus. "Global warming doesn't mean every year will be warmer than the last. And it may be that we are in a period of less rapid warming."

I won't bother making fun of Willis for equating the terms "less rapid warming" and "slight cooling," but I will point out that the report also states "In fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of global warming involves heating up ocean waters." So, of course the article is critical of the global warming theory, right?

That could mean global warming has taken a breather. Or it could mean scientists aren't quite understanding what their robots are telling them.

Wow. Global warming exists, damn it. This new info means either it just stopped (but only temporarily), or these scientists are just too dumb to understand the data. But global warming exists. So with a "less rapid warming" of our oceans (combined with satellite temperature measurements--which some people seem to think are more reliable than ones on the ground--that also seem to be showing a "less rapid warming"), where is all this heat going to?

Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research says it's probably going back out into space. The Earth has a number of natural thermostats, including clouds, which can either trap heat and turn up the temperature, or reflect sunlight and help cool the planet.

That can't be directly measured at the moment, however.

"Unfortunately, we don't have adequate tracking of clouds to determine exactly what role they've been playing during this period," Trenberth says. It's also possible that some of the heat has gone even deeper into the ocean, he says. Or it's possible that scientists need to correct for some other feature of the planet they don't know about.

Or maybe it was carried away on the wings of fairies. Are you kidding me?! We're talking about making climate policy decisions that could themselves have serious repercussions and we don't know "where the heat is going"?! We can't even track the freakin' clouds?!

I think the debate is far from over. And for some people, that's a really inconvenient truth.

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