I would almost count it unethical that the New Scientist has a thing that looks like a blog post (an article you can comment on) that has some science in it, but that you have to be a paid subscriber to comment on. WTF New Scientist? What are you trying to pull?

But that’s OK, I’ve got a blog and can comment here.

Link between global warming and drought questioned
14 November 2012 by Fred Pearce

THE world has been suffering more droughts in recent decades, and climate change will bring many more, according to received wisdom.

“Received Wisdom” means stuff we were told, passed down to us from authority or tradition, that we accept generally unquestioned and that becomes part of our belief system even if the science or other data does not support it. Pearce either thinks that the global warming-drought link was made up and passed on (by whom? I don’t know) as opposed to being the result of consideration and research by involved and knowledgeable scientists, or he does not know what “Received Wisdom” means. Either way, this should be clarified.

Now it is being challenged by an analysis that questions a key index on which it is based.

Predictions of megadroughts affecting Africa and the western side of North America may be wrong. We could even be headed for wetter times, says Justin Sheffield of Princeton University.

What you are seeing here is a misdirection used by many climate change science denialists, having to do with the time frame of global warming. Droughts affecting Africa are predicted? Sorry, guy, but they’ve happened already and are in progress now. The link between global warming and drought has to do with the regional water cycle, and the idea that if things warm up you get more evaporation in some regions and higher concentration of rainfall, so drought and floods ensue. If you look at the temperature-specific effects of global warming by region, you’ll see that certain areas of Africa and souther hemisphere land masses show more warmth earlier, and they also show more drought earlier. The idea that the effects of global warming are something of the future is a standard denialist lie, and I’m thinking Fred Pearce doesn’t know that. Droughts in Africa, the circum Mediterranean region, and Australia are old news, and the link to global warming is highly likely.

The problem with the PDSI, says Sheffield, is that it does not directly measure drought. Instead, it looks at the difference between precipitation and evaporation. But since evaporation rates are hard to determine, it uses temperature as a proxy, on the assumption that evaporation rises as it gets hotter.

Mostly, that is a reasonable assumption, holding ambient moisture in the air constant, because of physics and stuff.

Sheffield points out that temperature is only one factor influencing evaporation. He inferred evaporation rates using the Penman-Monteith equation, which includes factors such as wind speed and humidity, and found “little change in global drought over the past 60 years” (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature11575). His new calculations back up his own previous analysis that the most significant of recent droughts mostly occurred in the 1950s and 60s, before global warming got going.

If global warming increases evaporation and changes the water cycle to cause drought, then why have we ruled out droughts in the 50s and 60s as irrelevant? There is a general pattern. Climate on a round planet with a sun (like this one) will tend to be driven by equatorial factors, and similarly, the effects of global warming have probably worked their way out from the equator. Ruling out drought in the 50s and 60s, one hundred years after the start of wholesale burning of coal, is rather absurd. Some effects of Global Warming have become very strong in recent decades, especially in the Arctic, but others have been more slow and steady during the entire time of industrial burning of mainly coal. Sea level rise should give a good indicator of whether or not Global Warming is a thing that only counts from 1970, as the article implies. Let’s have a look at that:

I chose that graph because it is one used by global warming denialists to deny that global warming is real by pointing out that an alleged change that would come with global warming happened before their imagined start of climate change (recently). But no, this is a phenomenon that has been going on for a while.

So, no, major events that have fundamentally changed the distribution of bioms in the 1950s and 60s near the Equator can not be disassociated from this process.

It may well be that the PDSI is not the best measurement for drought, but the arguments made here by the New “Scientist” reek of global warming denialist illogic. I look forward to a spirited discussion among actual drought experts over the coming days. If there is something interesting, I’ll report back.

Meanwhile, New Scientist, you should let people comment on the stuff you put out freely. Paid-to-comment in a world where no one else does that produces the appearance of bias. I would think you would not want to do that.

Comments

  1. #1 Ed
    New York
    November 14, 2012

    Is it known why there was an interglacial period about 120,000 years ago when most of the ice on Greenland melted?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    November 14, 2012

    Ed, it is known that the last interglacial was about the same as the present interglacial minus global warming, globally. There was less ice during that period because heat was distributed differently.

    So now you know.

  3. #3 adelady
    city of wine and roses
    November 14, 2012

    I know I sound like an old fart saying this, but New Scientist used to be so much better. Once upon a time I bought it each and every week without fail. Looking back it was probably a dead tree version of what now comes online through sites like ScienceDaily. But with the bonus of a few extended items on some topics each week.

    Fred Pearce I used to not think about at all – but now with irritation and occasional disgust. We expect and allow for the occasional mis-step in tone or factual content by journalists. Nobody’s perfect. Too many “mis-“steps in only one direction, leads us to conclusions we’d rather not make. I now mistrust some items _because_ Fred Pearce has written them. I’ll only accept what he’s written if it’s confirmed by reliable sources.

    He neither knows nor cares about me. But the magazine gets no subscription, online or other, from me and I’d rarely buy the thing more than once a month. I expect I’m not alone. They’d need to be getting a whole heap of new, regular purchasers to make up for the loss of however many long-time readers, reliable purchasers, they’ve lost. It’s not really down to Pearce, it’s the fact that the editorial policy now thinks his stuff is OK that’s the core of the problem.

  4. #4 Michael Le Page
    November 15, 2012

    I too find this claim surprising. But the article is based on research published in a top journal. To accuse New Scientist of denialism for covering it is an absolutely ridiculous over-reaction. Not least given the other content in the same issue – did you notice the cover story and editorial?

    Finally, ironically, one of the reasons why commenting is usually restricted to subscribers or people who have registered for free is that articles on climate change used to gets hundreds of stupid comments from climate deniers.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2012

    Michael, the article starts out with an unfounded and important assertion: That the link between drought and climate change is “received wisdom” … That is a problem, and I made that clear in my post.

    Yes, the NS also puts up good articles, lots of them. They are still in the mode of journalizing “false equivalence” in the area of climate change and they need to be criticized for this as long as they do it.

    I’m not sure what to think about the restriction on access. I’d like to see a list of the science sites that require that you pay to comment. I think it would be a very short list. It is probably true that this restrict the level of difficult of maintaining a comment section, but on the other hand, everybody else has this problem. Just being a solution to a problem is not automatically a good solution to a problem, and I for one do not welcome a trend towards making people lay to play on the Internet.

    Having said that, I’m now off to accuweather where Climate Change denialists have taken over the comment section!

  6. #6 guy dempster
    uk
    November 15, 2012

    My suspicion is aroused that New Scientist receives money from megabucks carbon industry “interest groups” to publish these articles which serve their agenda. I’ve noticed this trend. The journal has lost my respect.

  7. #7 Richard Chapman
    November 15, 2012

    I just read that in Germany it’s an offense to deny the Holocaust. I have no doubt that at some point in our future it will also be an offense to deny anthropogenic global warming.

    The stakes are high. Our Planet is also our prison. We cannot escape. If it becomes a hell hole, we die. The day when it becomes illegal to be an idiot (not my first word choice) about the climate changes cannot come too soon for me.

  8. #8 toby
    November 15, 2012

    Richard, to the best of my knowledge it is not a crime in German to privately deny the Holocaust, but it is an offense to do so in the context of incitement to hatred at a public political meeting. Most civilized countries have similar laws.

    I find your suggestion to make climate change denial a criminal offsense so outrageous that I suspect you are just trolling. Denial of the harm of smoking, or denial of evolution, were never ciminalised, or even suggestion made of such a thing. To have done so would have handed the deniers a gratuitous victory.

  9. #9 Richard Chapman
    November 15, 2012

    @toby

    If the Earth was in serious peril, then openly denying that peril would be putting the World at a greater risk. I’m not talking about the current situation and the current crop of climate change deniers. I’m talking about the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect. If our best scientists came to the conclusion that we were coming up on a tipping point of a runaway greenhouse effect and we had 50 – 100 years to turn it around, then I believe that would be the time to effectively shut down all apposing voices.

    One thing that bothers me; I have yet to hear anyone rule out a runaway greenhouse effect. Most likely that’s due to the fact that it’s so unlikely. Let’s hope that’s the reason anyway.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    November 16, 2012

    @Richard: I have heard that, if we were to burn all of the known coal reserves in the world within a short period (a few hundred years or less), we would put enough CO2 into the atmosphere to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. The reason this is considered unlikely is because most people expect one of two things to happen first: (a) we develop technologies that allow us to get essentially all of our energy needs from either non-carbon (fusion, wind power, solar, etc.) or carbon-neutral (i.e., biomass) sources; or (b) civilization collapses to the extent that we will have no need to use energy at such a prodigious rate.

    I’m hoping for option (a), myself. But I fear option (b) is more likely, and in such a world outlawing climate change denialism will be unnecessary.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    November 16, 2012

    The extinction of Coral and disruption of the food chains associated with coral systems is not a RGE, but it is bad, has happened before when the earth was naturally warm enough for this to occur periodically. The earth is now naturally cooled down enough that this won’t happen unless we release the Kraken, as it were, in the form of fossil carbon.

    Sea level rise varies a lot, a multi-dozenn foot rise in sea level (including depression associated with it) is well within the range of current warming and is very likely to occur if we pass a threshold with glacial ice. That would not be RGE but it would be a disaster. (Denialists will say it would not be a disaster because we need to rethink cities anyway.) That could happen under CURRENT atmospheric C conditions. It may in fact already be happening. It is probably a step-wise process.

    If blocking air masses start to become normal, we can expect deep freezes north of some wavy moving line and heat waves below it, and hurricanes plowing into the US and Canada’s east coast all the time (most atlantic hurricanes follow a course that would do what Sandy did if the blocking masses were there all the time). We can probably adjust to hurricanes constantly hitting the Northeast, but for the sea level rise, which means, essentially, moving those damn out of date citeis.

    RGE is highly unlikely. Long before it happened fully (i.e., no liquid water on the planet) we would all be cooked. Not metaphorically. Cooked because the RGE is literally when the atmosphere is hot enough that water always boils or evaporates and hardly ever occurs in liquid form. But long before that happens we have a goodly number of disasters to encounter first.

    The thing is, the conditions for some of these are not in the future. They are now. it just takes a while to unfold.

  12. #12 Tony Wilson
    November 18, 2012

    @toby @Richard

    There’s a crucial difference between publicly denying the Holocaust and denying climate change.

    One, denying the Holocaust, is intended to stand as an early guard against the danger of reenacting a past sin. to function as a form of national atonement and mostly as a freely chosen expression by modern Germans of the repugnance they feel at what their ancestors did.

    Perhaps you can think of other nations who could use a dollop of that kind of humility also, given their collective history.

    Denying climate change is not comparable to denying the Holocaust- the model is all wrong.

    Denying climate change is more like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, or in this case, “no fire” in a burning theater- you’re misrepresenting an fast-approaching, life-threatening reality, and because you are doing this, people die.

    Is it illegal? When considered in the abstract, then a good case can be made that what deniers are doing is illegal right now, if it can be shown that they know they’re lying or there’s a reasonable expectation that they know they’re misrepresenting reality. Deciding that someone is lying is the everyday, humdrum business of courts everywhere.

    But there’s historical context to support Richard Chapman’s assertion that lying about climate change should be and even already is a crime.

    After WWII, the Allies wanted to prosecute the Nazis under the rule of law, but they had a big problem. The Germans had not broken any law by killing the Jews in Germany. They had only applied their horrifying own laws to their own citizens. They were a sovereign state and entitled to pass and prosecute what laws they saw fit.

    The solution for the Allies was to create a new category of crime, post-hoc, and charge the Nazis with committing that crime. That new law was called “Crimes Against Humanity” and the legal sleight of hand used by the Allies was the assertion that this crime and the lawful injunction against committing it, implicitly existed at all times and at all places.

    In reality, at the time, Crimes Against Humanity was just an academic concept largely being kicked around by intellectuals in the European cafes and universities .

    The lesson here is clear. The law will not permit crimes of enormous magnitude to go unpunished. Perps who think are immune from prosecution because what they did was not illegal in some very narrow technical sense are advised to confine their criminal activity to limited-effect, noxious things like tax evasion. Thinking they can engage in behavior which consigns millions to die and force society to let them get away with it only indicates that they don’t understand the deep raison d’etre and workings of criminal justice.

    In the case of wanton, depraved actions which lead to the mass death of innocents, criminals should know this- the law will go where ever they lead and, with great certainty, the law will not permit itself to be subverted in either spirit or utility by criminals who think they have found a legal black hole through which they can smuggle the death of innocent millions .

    The engineers of denialism, the primary sources who are self-consciously working to subvert what they know is the truth have a lot to worry about. The ultimate safe house for their activity- their claims that they sincerely believed what they were saying- will be soon be demolished. Proving that someone was lying or believed they were likely misrepresenting the truth is a near-future technology we will acquire presently. Lying, even to yourself, is not a no-cost event in your brain, and one day soon we will be able to detect that activity with near 100% certainty.

    Even before that technology is achieved, we have the means to prosecute them. The defense that they “really believed it” is every bit as penetrable as the defense of “just following orders” was. It ‘s efficacy decreases with the magnitude of the crime and the body count.

  13. #13 hinschelwood
    November 19, 2012

    by Fred Pearce<

    That's actually all you need to read to know that the article is going to be crap. See Deltoid on Pearce's DDT denialism for more fun.

  14. #14 hinschelwood
    November 19, 2012

    Damn, didn’t close the blockquote…

  15. [...] 2012/11/14: GLaden: I didn’t realize the New Scientist was a tool of climate science denialism… [...]