This is not helping

Last week it was the abuse of a 140-character context-free nano-report on an hour-long discussion on the challenges of communicating science. This week it’s the credulous coverage of a 50-page report on climate change. Seems that no matter the length of the material at hand, there are plenty of people eager to jump to conclusions without having the decency to stop and think first.


At least there was no slander this time. But damage has been done to the credibility of climatology, thanks to that old adage, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now claims of unwarranted alarms have that much extra traction. I was going to write at length on this case, but as is often the case, Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate has already done the heavy lifting, and I strongly recommend reading his post instead of relying on my precis.

Not that this sort of remedial science constitutes anything like a serious workout for Gavin and the RC gang, of course. Which is my entire point.

Basically, what we have here is a small, previously unknown NGO in Argentina releasing a report that warns of serious threats to the global food supply if climate change continues apace. The only thing that made this report particularly interesting — and therefore newsworthy — was the alleged fact that the warming expected by 2020 is 2.4 °C above pre-industrial levels. Which is crazy talk, as any climatologist would have pointed out had the authors of the study bothered to ask.

This little piece of nonsense means the entire report’s fundamental conclusions are highly suspect, and should have consigned it to the dust bins of history. But the mainstream media being what it is, journalists who don’t even know the very simplest of the basics about climatology were assigned the task of covering of the report’s release. Even the AAAS cranked out a non-critical release, although it was subsequently retracted. Worse, Scientific American bought the story, and continued to get the facts wrong even after the problem was brought to the editors’ attention. The Guardian runs down the whole sordid tale.

How easy was it to tell that the report’s nightmarish scenario is bonkers? Well, given that the world has warmed about 0.8 °C since the start of the industrial revolution a couple of centuries back, the idea that it would warm twice as much in just 9 years doesn’t pass even the most liberal of smell tests. The report’s authors came up with that number by confusing — or conflating as academics like to say — two different ways to measure carbon-dioxide equivalency. There’s a Real Climate post from three years back that explains the science, the basic upshot of which is, you need to take into account the warming and cooling effects of all fossil-fuel emissions, not just those that increase warming, to get an idea of just how all the different outputs will effect the climate. This the Argentinians did not do.

Carbon-dioxide equivalency can be tricky. I took me an embarrassingly long time to get my head around it and better minds than I have found it difficult to grok. It tripped up George Monbiot in his otherwise excellent primer on the challenge of dealing with climate change, Heat. It has led NASA’s chief climatologist, James Hansen to steer clear of the minefield in his papers. A footnote to a draft version of his latest thinking (which, concidentially, he made available about the same time as the troublesome report) warns thusly:

Note that our numbers for CO2, here and elsewhere, always refer to actual CO2, not the less precise and sometimes confusing “CO2 equivalent”. Besides its imprecision, use of CO2 equivalence has another major disadvantage: it promotes the concept of “offsets” to avoid the one essential near-term requirement, reduction of CO2 emissions.

Again, at least there was no slander this time. Both the apocryphal report’s authors and the journalists meant well, and it is nice to see someone paying attention the threats posed by global warming to agriculture as well as media outlets willing to devote more attention to the same. But both the academics and the journalists were crippled by knowing not enough about the subject at hand. Next time, guys, pick up the phone and ask someone whose job it is to be informed before beginning to write.

Comments

  1. #1 darwinsdog
    January 24, 2011

    ..the alleged fact that the warming expected by 2020 is 2.4 °C above pre-industrial levels. Which is crazy talk..

    No on knows how “crazy” such talk is. If positive feedbacks kick in warming may well exceed 2.4^oC by 2020, for all you, or anyone else knows. Synergistic, nonadditive feedbacks involving CH4 release, reduced albedo, declines in primary productivity coupled with massive forest fires, abrupt change in ocean circulation patterns, etc., etc., could contribute to run-away warming in the near future. Homeorrhetic climate regulating systems could well be on the verge of collapse. Your “smell test” is meaningless in the day & age of unprecedented breakdown of global biogeochemical regulatory systems.

  2. #2 kermit
    January 24, 2011

    Would I be remiss in noting that yes, it has only warmed up .8° since the start of the industrial revolution, but most of that has been in the last few decades? Your phrasing could be taken to mean that the rate of temperature increase has been linear.

    While the data do not yet justify the reporter’s assertion, I note that the last few years have shown a distressing *underestimation by most models of the undesirable rate of change.

  3. #3 Lou Grinzo
    January 24, 2011

    It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the “imprecision” Hansen refers to regarding CO2 vs. CO2-eq involves a host of assumptions regarding the ratio of various GHG’s to each other, with methane being by far the most interesting. And that brings in not just assumptions about the levels of all the human activities that produce methane (food production, natural gas leaks, coal mine emissions, etc.), but those vast stores of carbon in hydrates and the permafrost.

    A paper was in the news within the last couple of weeks about how waterways emit much higher levels of methane than previously known. More generally, atmospheric methane has been increasing since late 2006/early 2007, after being essentially flat for several years. My understanding is that we’re still not entirely sure where it’s coming from, but there’s no strong evidence (dramatic, pyrotechnic YouTube videos aside) implicating the Arctic regions.

    Clearly we don’t know nearly enough about the feeds and speeds of this particular GHG.

    But 2.4C by 2020? That would require one heck of a surge in emissions of CO2 and/or methane.

  4. #4 James Hrynyshyn
    January 24, 2011

    Lou et al: Yes it would take one heck of surge. But even if you could get to the neighborhood of 500 ppmv of CO2e by 2020, there would still be decades of lag time before the warming effects of those extra GHGs were felt in the form of higher temperature.

    As darwinsdog notes, an “unprecedented breakdown of global biogeochemical regulatory system” could hike GHGs, but the thermodynamic inertia of the Earth means there’s really no obvious route to an increase of another 1.6 C in as few as 9 years.

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    January 24, 2011

    ..the thermodynamic inertia of the Earth means there’s really no obvious route to an increase of another 1.6 C in as few as 9 years.

    I’m not convinced of the truth of this assertion. Review the 1880 – 2010 graph of mean annual temperatures. Temps have gone from -.4^oC to .6^oC of the 130 year mean, a full degree C of warming, not .8^oC as stated. Smooth the curve and extend it on out to 2020 and it looks like we’ll get at least another .2^oC of warming – 1.2^oC total – if current conditions hold. But notice that 1940 – 1980 steady trend following the ~ -.2^oC in the early ’40s. What caused that? If it hadn’t occurred the curve would be already trending towards 2.4^oC of warming by 2020. What if + feedbacks cause the opposite of that anomaly to occur? There is probably no one + feedback (or – feedback breakdown) that would result in such abrupt warming but several such feedbacks potentiating one another nonlinearly certainly could. I’m not saying that it’s certain, or even likely that such accelerated warming will take place, only that it’s well within the realm of possibility and shouldn’t be dismissed offhand.

  6. #6 mememine69
    January 24, 2011

    It turns out that the climate scientists were the REAL problem all along, not the “evil” right wing neocons . Planet polluting chemicals, created by the trusted scientists made environmentalism necessary in the first place. Scientists are the enemy. Scientists are the very authority and power elite that progressivism should have been fighting all along, not the every day person sentenced to a carbon tax. Academic Scientists not only polluted the planet with their chemicals, they also produced cruise missiles, cancer causing chemicals, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, strip mining technology, deep sea drilling technology and now climate change. Let’s be real liberals again, the real liberals that doubt, question and challenge authority, not the traitors of progressivism who bowed like sheep to politicians promising to lower the seas. Shame on all of you. We should especially challenge any authority that threatens my kids with DEATH BY CO2.

  7. #7 Dunc
    January 25, 2011

    Whether you could construct some extreme scenario in which this prediction could theoretically come to pass or not, the point is that it is very definitely not a robust prediction of mainstream climatology. If it’s physically possible at all, it’s right out at the tail of the probability distribution, and nobody has actually predicted it in a scientific sense. You don’t get to just make stuff up and say “you can’t prove it won’t happen”.

  8. #8 darwinsdog
    January 25, 2011

    Scientists are the enemy.

    Your disapproval is misplaced memem. Science is amoral. Yes, it’s true that “planet polluting chemicals.. cruise missiles, cancer causing chemicals, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, strip mining technology, deep sea drilling technology and now climate change..” are all products of scientific investigation. But it doesn’t follow that, “Scientists are the very authority and power elite that progressivism should have been fighting..” These scientists have just been the tool of corporatists who have driven the application of science to destructive usages for the sake of their own profit and with utter disregard for the well being of the planet, its biotia & people. Scientists per se have very little authority and are by & large not a part of the “power elite” that subverts & co-opts science. Your disdain for the global state of affairs is heartening but to my mind misdirected.

  9. #9 darwinsdog
    January 25, 2011

    Whether you could construct some extreme scenario in which this prediction could theoretically come to pass or not, the point is that it is very definitely not a robust prediction..

    I see your point, Dunc, and think it’s a good one. That you might be involved in an automobile crash while commuting to work today “could theoretically come to pass” but probably isn’t very likely on this given day. That the wreck is going to happen “is very definitely not a robust prediction.” Therefore, there’s no need for you to wear your seat belt. Btw, I notice that you left the e off the end of your user name again.

    What “is not helping,” James, is the propensity to downplay the potential seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, presumably for the sake of gaining wider acceptance of the reality of AGW by a public made skeptical by the propagandizing of vested economic interests. As a consequence of such downplaying you run the risk of yourself being perceived as a mouthpiece for interests served by minimalizing these risks. You’ve heard the old canard, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” I’m sure. While a 2.4^oC increase in mean global temperature by 2020 may be quite unlikely, it’s definitely within the realm of possibility and therefore should be acknowledged as such and prepared for.

  10. #10 Alan
    January 25, 2011

    darwinsdog – From what paleoclimatology tells us the senario you paint for 2020 is extremely unlikely (bordering on crazy). The thermal inertia of the world’s oceans says the Earth’s climate will not turn on a dime as small as a decade.

    OTOH the dampening effect of thermal inertia also means that when see signs of a major collapse it will be several decades too late to do anything about it. Eg: It’s now too late to stop the Artic sea ice from total collapse but the collapse itself has taken 3 decades and is still not finished.

  11. #11 Alan
    January 25, 2011

    mememine69 – The luddite movement was abandon almost 200yrs ago, and for good reason.

  12. #12 darwinsdog
    January 25, 2011

    ..when see signs of a major collapse it will be several decades too late to do anything about it.

    What do you think we’re seeing now, Alan?

  13. #13 ChrisBear
    January 25, 2011

    OK, 2.4C by 2020 is not likely. But what about the veracity of their report on agriculture -when- we see a 2.4C increase?

    Just because it does not happen in 2020, does not mean it will not happen.

    There you go. When I first read about the report, I thought there simply had been a typo made — 2020 instead of 2050 or 2070. But no. The cover page has 2020 in a monstrous font. And the attempt at describing the math that led to their 2.4 prediction makes it clear that 2020 is the date. Which is too bad, because you’re right. When we hit 2.4 above pre-industrial, agriculture is going to be a very different ball game. Which is why it’s too bad this report got the underlying science of climatology so very wrong. — jh

  14. #14 model_1066
    January 25, 2011

    Don’t we have better things to spend tax money on than the primitive superstitions of this doomsday cult called AGW??

  15. #15 darwinsdog
    January 25, 2011

    I’ve by now had time to read both the Fundación Ecológica Universal (FEU-US) report and Gavin Schmidt’s response to it at Real Climate. Schmidt says:

    The erroneous claim in the study was that the temperature anomaly in 2020 would be 2.4ºC above pre-industrial. ..IPCC projections.. show trends of about 0.2ºC/decade, and temperatures at 2020 of around 1-1.4ºC above pre-industrial. The claim is thus at least 1ºC above what it should have been..

    This I agree with. The graph of annual mean temperatures from 1880 to 2010 shows a full degree C of warming (not .8^oC) over that time period. 1880 by no means marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. I’m not certain how much warming took place between the beginning of the IR in roughly 1700, and 1880, but will assume that it was in the vicinity of .2^oC. Given the stated increase of .2^oC/decade currently, I arrive at the figure of 1.4^oC of warming since pre-industrial times by 2020, in agreement with Gavin.

    However, could warming exceed this value by another full degree C by 2020? Yes, I believe it could. The IPCC projections have routinely underestimated the rate and severity of measured warming. They are to be taken as minimum estimates. The reason they tend to underestimate warming is because the climate models they use fail to take into consideration biogeoehemical feedbacks, both + & -, that regulate climate. – feedbacks may be breaking down and + feedbacks kicking in that will result in increased warming at a rate unprecedented at any time Homo sapiens has existed as a species. The argument that the thermal inertia of the oceans will buffer & mitigate such rapid warming is unconvincing because the surface & deep oceans are poorly mixed. Only the volume of ocean above the thermocline is relevant to the issue of thermal inertia and buffering of climatic warming. The bulk of ocean mass is cold deep water that plays no role in any such buffering on any timescale relevant to human concern. The transition from – feedback regulation to runaway + feedback driven warming places an additional 1^oC of mean global warming by 2020 well within the realm of possibility. Again, I am not claiming that this eventuality is inevitable or even probable, only that it’s possible and that no one knows how close to the transition from – to + feedback preponderance Earth’s climatic regulation may be, or that this transition is not already underway.

    Schmidt’s pertinent response to the FEU-US report is this:

    It is likely that temperatures will reach 2.4ºC at some point.. this century, and so the calculated impacts are certainly relevant – just not in 2020.

    This is the same point ChrisBear makes in post #12 above, and it is the cogent point in this discussion. 2.4^oC of warming above pre-industrial levels may take place by 2020 and almost certainly will by 2050 or 2060. Warming of this extent will have profoundly deleterious effects on agriculture and human food security. There’s going to be ~7.8 billion people by 2020 and largely due to AGW even less for us all to eat than the 6.9 billion of us have now. By 2050 there would be around 9.3 billion of us, except.. there won’t be, for this very reason. This is the point. This is what should have been emphasized and discussed, not some presumptive error in rate of warming made by FEU-US. Since James Hrynyshyn and Sharon Astyk both chose to focus on this error rather than on the seriousness of the situation humanity faces, perhaps I can be forgiven for being suspicious of their motives. Could it be that Seed Media management directed their paid bloggers to downplay any content that runs counter to the economic interests of Shell Oil, who buys advertising space on these very blog pages?

    — The notion that I or Sharon would ever, in our darkest moments, consider tailoring our posts to SEED’s or Shell’s directives is so far beyond the pale that such a suggestion could only be made by someone entirely unfamiliar with our blogs.

    And why did I focus on the 2.4 degrees error rather than the agricultural impacts? Because I found nothing in the report that hasn’t been covered elsewhere. The threats posed to agriculture from changes to the water cycle have been well explored in other venues. The only reason this report received any attention, from this blog or the mainstream media, was it’s bizarre math involving the schedule for predicted warming. — jh

  16. #16 TTT
    January 25, 2011

    That you might be involved in an automobile crash while commuting to work today “could theoretically come to pass” but probably isn’t very likely on this given day. That the wreck is going to happen “is very definitely not a robust prediction.” Therefore, there’s no need for you to wear your seat belt.

    If you’re going to absurdly mis-match probabilities, why stop with the relatively insignificant warming rate of 2.4C in 10 years? Aren’t you just COVERING UP for the comparable statistical likelihood that global average temperature is going to rise by 5,000C in the next 48 hours?

    It’s POSSIBLE.

    It COULD happen.

    In an infinite universe where the decimal points on statistical calculations also go on to infinity, we can’t rule it out. It could happen! And worrying about it would be just as reasonable as locking the door on your home tonight. I don’t know why you chose to focus on the less alarming, more industry-friendly conceit of 2.4C over 10 years. Maybe somebody paid you to do it.

    (Seriously, DD? It’s a mediocre article that multiple people find unconvincing, and they’re straight-up saying so. WTF is the big deal about that and where do you get off playing the conspiracy card?)

  17. #17 darwinsdog
    January 26, 2011

    – The notion that I or Sharon would ever, in our darkest moments, consider tailoring our posts to SEED’s or Shell’s directives is so far beyond the pale that such a suggestion could only be made by someone entirely unfamiliar with our blogs.

    Fair enough, James. Since I’m not privvy to the LLC’s policies & relationship with it’s employees, I’ll just have to take your word for it.

    #16:

    (Seriously, DD? It’s a mediocre article that multiple people find unconvincing, and they’re straight-up saying so. WTF is the big deal about that and where do you get off playing the conspiracy card?)

    I found the FEU-US report to be a well-meant, honest attempt to bring peoples’ attention to serious food security issues. As such, the people who issued it should be encouraged, not trashed. Calling it “crazy talk,” “nonsense,” “bonkers,” and “mediocre” “is not helping.” If a calculation error was made this should be pointed out and politely corrected. How is suggesting that a corporation may have directed its employees to cease from engaging in rhetoric that may upset an advertising client “playing the conspiracy card”? This is standard corporate practice. If a McDonalds employee lectured customers on the health risks of saturated fat & cholesterol consumption, for instance, the employer would be certain to intervene. Why should such practice be “beyond the pale” with Seed Media LLC and its paid bloggers?

  18. #18 capsiplex
    January 29, 2011

    And why did I focus on the 2.4 degrees error rather than the agricultural impacts? Because I found nothing in the report that hasn’t been covered elsewhere. The threats posed to agriculture from changes to the water cycle have been well explored in other venues. The only reason this report received any attention, from this blog or the mainstream media, was it’s bizarre math involving the schedule for predicted warming. — jh

  19. #19 anon
    February 8, 2011

    Are you condoning Holocaust denial? Global Warming is a fact, not a theory like gravity, thermodymanics, evolution, magnetism, plate tectonics or radioactive decay. Get with teh program.

  20. #20 MORALESRosalind18
    June 20, 2011

    Don’t have cash to buy a building? Worry no more, just because that’s available to get the home loans to resolve all the problems. Therefore get a small business loan to buy all you need.

  21. #21 Wow
    June 20, 2011

    More linkspam above. At least it’s obviously linkspam, so if anyone thought of using such services would at least click on there with at least some hope of not becoming part of a botnet.