The world is changing faster than many of us can deal with it. Change is not a new phenomenon, but the pace has accelerated since the Renaissance and shows no sign of slowing.
One thing that remains a constant though – Charlatan’s and false prophets stand on every corner (virtual and substantial) ready to lead us to a simpler view of reality. A reality where the weary can take comfort in an understanding of the world that can be summed in a paragraph or 10 seconds sound bite.
One area where charlatans abound is climate science. As an environmental professional with nearly 30 years of experience I find myself increasingly at odds with many of my colleagues on the issue of climate change.
I have followed the debate since the early 1990’s when I was pretty solidly in the warming camp based on my understanding of the general greenhouse theories and the limited data we had at that time to explain 20th century warming of the climate.
Beginning with the publication of the now famous Mann “Hockey Stick” in 1998, I began to have serious doubts about the science that was increasingly being used to support ever more alarmist statements about warming of the climate.
Mann’s statistical manipulations of tree ring data presented a past that was very different than the one I was familiar with from geology, where hundreds, and possibly thousands, of studies support a much more variable climate over the past 2,000 years and throughout geological history. A history that has largely existed with far higher levels of CO in our atmosphere than now.
The “Hockey Stick” affair made me think more about climate, and also about the political implications of its publication and subsequent adoption by the UN’s IPCC in its 2001 assessment report to bolster its message on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). I looked closer into the science that was being used to bolster the IPCC’s warnings about CO2 and its cause and effect relationship with global temperatures.
What I began to see about 2004 was an growing gap between the science and the political message. The AGW political message was not evolving with new scientific data that, thanks to the increased funding in climate sciences, was arriving in ever greater quantities. The science however was providing better support for natural causes for the late 20th century warming than for human generated greenhouse gases – the central pillar of the IPCC and its supporters.
As many may recall, 2004 coincided with a major change in the way the climate debate was characterized. Suddenly, it seemed, we began to hear that the science was settled and that the only people still doubting the AGW story were in the hire of big oil. We were told that Exxon-Mobile was doing a tobacco industry shuffle to confuse the people and that the science supported only one conclusion – that CO2 emissions from human activity were leading to death and destruction of biblical proportions.
I have little doubt that humans have had impacts on our environment. I make a living looking at some of these impacts. Where I have a problem with the AGW folks is not that we have such an impact, but about what that impact is and how important that impact is on our climate.
Any honest climate scientist will tell you that the models used to forecast changes in temperature due to CO2 are not very accurate. Like all mathematical models used in science and economics, these models look at a limited number factors (the more factors there are, the longer it takes computers to solve the model) where we have empirical evidence that a mathematical relationship exists.
An example of such empirical evidence would be the relationship between CO2 and temperature in a closed system like a greenhouse. The climate models used today combine these empirically derived relationships with other ones until the model contains as many relationships as can be solved simultaneously using modern computers while still being able to reasonably describe the real world. The exercise of fitting the model to the real world is accomplished by adding constants (fudge factors) to ensure that the model output fits actual measurements.
The choice of constants and their values are entirely subjective though, and reflect what is necessary to make the model fit the data rather than the effectiveness of the model to predict what will occur in the future. The usual way to test a model’s effectiveness is to compare the predictions of the model to reality several years or decades after a model is run.
So far the models developed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s have performed pretty poorly. Of three model scenarios developed by NASA’s James Hansen in 1988, and upon which the IPCC began making dire warnings, only the scenario that depended on no growth in CO2 after 2000 is even close to following current temperatures. More recent models developed in late 1990’s and early years of the 21st century are also close to failing in that current temperatures are at the extreme lower limit of their reported error ranges.
So why are these models failing to accurately predict climate? The most likely reason is that they do not incorporate important factors that drive the planet’s climate. Two factors that appear to be missing, or at least undervalued by the model makers, are solar variation and oceanic currents.
In the late 1990’s a group of solar physicists proposed an alternative theory for how the sun might affect climate. Working in relative isolation from the climate research community, this group lead by Henrik Svensmark of the Danish National Space Center in Copenhagen, began devising experiments to determine whether cosmic radiation, solar activity and clouds worked together to regulate global temperatures.
In 2006 Svensmark’s group published the results of his experiments that showed that solar wind related to sunspot activity restricted the amount of cosmic radiation reaching our atmosphere and that cosmic radiation was important in the formation of low clouds above oceans. In other words, when sun spot activity is high, fewer low clouds form, less solar radiation is reflected back into space, and the atmosphere warms. This matched what was seen during the late 20th century when temperatures were rising.
Svensmark’s results have not been fully tested, but are important enough that the European Organization for Nuclear Research is now investing millions of Euros to study his theory using the state of the art CERN research facility in Geneva, Switzerland.
The second major scientific advance in recent years involves our understanding of major ocean currents such as El Nino in the equatorial Pacific and similar oceanic currents in the Atlantic, Indian and northern Pacific oceans.
The rapid elevation in global temperatures that accompanied a strong El Nino in the central pacific in 1997/98 gave pause to many climate researchers. While some climate scientists had already noticed a relationship between the El Nino/La Nina cycle with precipitation over a large area of the Pacific ocean, a review of long term records of the cycles between warm El Nino and cool La Nina circulation in equatorial Pacific currents revealed a loose match with temperature as well as precipitation.
Further analysis has shown that when the El Nino/La Nina cycle (referred to as ENSO – El Nino Southern Oscillation) is compared with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) of the northern pacific and the Atlantic Muti-Decadal Oscillation (AMO) there becomes apparent a clear relationship with temperatures on a global scale.
The precipitous drop in global temperatures during the past year that coincides with a major change in both the ENSO and PDO has highlighted the the link between climate and oceanic circulation. Some groups of climate modelers, such as those at Hadley Centre in Britain and at Georgia Tech in the US are working on variations of the climate models that attempt in different ways to incorporate oceanic circulation.
I am at a comparative advantage to many in how I am able to understand the science that both supports and refutes the AGW theory. My position regarding which side is right is not as yet solid, but has been shifting steadily toward the skeptic’s side in recent years, especially as fear mongering and anti-democratic, anti-science tactics by the AGW folks have become more prevalent.
My background in the environmental sciences has given some experience in dealing with political tactics from environmental activists. These experiences are not in general negative, but I have come to learn that to most of these folks science is a tool that represents certainty only when it supports their positions. When their beliefs are not supported by the science, they attack the uncertainty.
Science is never certain, particularly science that is based on observations of complex natural systems. Climate on Planet Earth is a product of solar, oceanic, geological, and many other semi-independent processes whose complexity and interactions dwarf something as simple as a national economy.
How on earth can Al Gore and his illustrious fellow travelers in the AGW camp say with straight face that the science is settled? Only religion can provide that level of certainty.