World's Fair

I recently attended the TEDxVancouver event, which was wonderfully done and also useful for being able to network with a lot of interesting people. There was, however, one thing that irked me – nothing to do with the conference logistics but rather a statement or two issued by one of the speakers, Patrick Moore.

Just a little background on Patrick: he’s one of the founders of Greenpeace, with a major role in the evolution of the organization in its earlier days. However, currently, he’s a little more well known for his climate change skepticism views, and particularly his advocacy for nuclear power.

Anyway, at the beginning of his talk, he essentially outlined a few points to suggest that anthropogenic climate change is all a ruse, a sentiment he backed up with what can be summarized (and since I just signed up for twitter the other day) in the following <140 character phrase.

"Earth has not actually been getting any warmer in the last 10 years. Oh yeah, the ice in the Antarctica doesn’t even seem to be melting.

It’s a compelling statement and certainly easy to digest, but I thought I’d take a minute or two to weigh in a little here. I’d like to explain why I think that kind of statement (which happens to be classic climate change denialist prose) is a great example of spinning things to meet your own particular agenda.

Or as Jane Austen might say, “Badly done… Badly done…”

So let’s start with a few take home points – two actually:

1. Predictions of how things will be in the future are largely determined by the formulation, evaluation, and ultimately validation of climate models.

2. That in the world of climatology, drawing conclusions from observations seen in 10 year, or even 20 year spans, is statistically weak.

So, what do these points mean exactly?

Well, the first is to understand that when climatologists attempt to predict climate trends, they do so with the help of computers. They do this, because looking at this scientific puzzle is not like a conventional science experiment where you can test your ideas by comparing something against a control sample. We can’t say:

“Let’s take Earth here, and then compare it to this other Earth over here. On my Earth, I’ll raise the CO2 by so much, and on this other Earth, I won’t raise it at all. Of course, then I’ll have to wait 50 to 100 years or so, and then we can all get together with our calculators and compare graphs and stuff to try to figure out what’s going on.”

Obviously, you can’t really do that sort of thing in these circumstances, which is why you resort to computers attempting to model how things “will go.” Here, it’s a little bit like the Matrix movie, where there are these overarching algorithms and equations to try and explain the physical world. It works because physical laws, by and large, are entirely dependable. A classic example is the first law of thermodynamics: which some of us might remember as fancy talk for energy not being able to be created or destroyed – it just moves around. But if you think about it, a law like that (which can be eloquently stated in mathematical terms) is really important because it sets real boundaries on how things should be in the physical world.

Now, if you take the thermodynamic law as an example, and kick it up a notch, by applying other scientific principles, other scientific laws, some of which are very nuanced relating specifically to atmospheric conditions, water considerations, etc (the list can go on), hopefully, you can see that you have an opportunity to start to develop a reasonable representation of what climate reality might be.

And to be honest, these models have been getting better and better all the time. Why? Because, scientists keep learning more and more about the physical laws behind climate trends, and also because, computers have just gotten better, more powerful and in a freakishly fast pace.

At this point, however, you could still say that a fancy climate model is just that – a fancy climate model. Which is why, all models, to pass the scrutiny of the scientific community, have to be validated. This is just saying that there needs to be some way of ensuring a sort of quality control on the predictions.

How does one do this? Well, there a number of ways, but common examples include running the model backwards in time. i.e. since it is a mother algorithm, it should also be able to correctly represent things that have already happen, i.e. things where we do have good data on (a.k.a. the concept of the weather channel is not a new thing!). For example, let’s start the model at 1958 (when CO2 was first carefully measured at Mauna Loa), enter info on CO2 levels for the next 50 years, and then run the model to see if the climate warming trends match up with observed records.

Another example is taking these same models and validating them by seeing how they perform in special circumstances where notable weather related variations occur. These might be big things like El Nino, or say the year when such and such a huge volcano spewed a ton of stuff into the air.

I guess the point is, is that these models are our window to the future and scientists, as a whole, are pretty convinced by them because (1) they’ve been earnestly picked over and validated, and (2) they continue to be validated by the weather we see year to year.

Which brings me to the 2nd point: that not seeing a temperature rise in the last ten years or so doesn’t really mean too much.

The reason for this is because this trend still fits within the predictions of existing climate models (the same ones that say that our current CO2 production pace is bad news down the road). More importantly, the 10 year trend is really too short and narrow for climate timescales.

Let’s use an analogy here. Say you’re trying to plan a wedding, or bbq, or anything, where you hope to be outside, and you want to pick a particular day in the year to have the best chance of sunshine. Chances are, you would not base your day on only what happened the year before. That would be statistically risky. You might not even base it on only two years worth of data, and really, if you want to hedge your bets, you’d want an opportunity to look at many records of that day as possible. All through this, you can actually calculate probabilities along the way, and at some point even make calls on what might be a good number of years to look at all in an effort to feel pretty good about your chances.

Now, in our climate prediction case, we’ve got a much meatier scenario. One that is already looking at much larger timespans in a number of different ways (i.e. yearly average for temperature, as well as trying to project decades down the road). Again, you can reflect on the last ten years of climate data, and you can probably guess that that would be better than say reflecting on the last 2 years of climate data. But the long story short is that folks have done statistical analysis on this sort of thing, and it turns out that focusing on something like a 10 year trend is just not a reliable way to overturn the long term predictions. This, by the way, is also why climate models aren’t about predicting “weather” – which is something very specific to day to day considerations and also exact locations.

- – -

So where are the references for all of this talk? Well, lucky for us non-climatologists, there’s the UN’s IPCC report (in my opinion, the policy makers report is required reading for everyone who cares about the environment). And despite the flaws of how the UN operates, it’s generally agreed that its desired mission is to look into things of global consequence. In other words: poverty is bad, conflict is bad, inequity is bad – and so what can we do about it. Therefore, the IPCC report is essentially a global recognition that the Earth’s climate needs attention, that there’s something going on there.

And how does the IPCC work? Well, it’s an attempt to draw in expert folks, often the best in their fields, from all sorts of relevant areas, lots of them, and to get them to weigh in on the climate issue. Not only that, and this is the tricky part, they have to come up with a consensus statement. Not an easy task, because there are many scientists and academics in the report who do have opposing views.

However, at the end of the day, it works. And this is because the fact of the matter is that the robustness and elegance of experimental design is universal. There are empirical ways to determine whether an experiment is done well or shoddily, and this is something a scientist in his/her respective field is trained to do. Oh, and with the last version of the IPCC (4th version, released in 2007) it’s quite a few of them as well:

People from over 130 countries contributed to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report over the previous 6 years. These people included more than 2500 scientific expert reviewers, more than 800 contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors.

At the end of the day (and I may be niave here), that’s a huge collective of expertise, and you would presume that most if not almost all of them do this work to live up to Karl Popper’s ideals – i.e. trying, in a rational, objective, and testable manner, to get as close to the “truth” as possible.

All to say that Patrick, I suspect, is not on this report – partly because it’s likely that he is no longer a practicing ecology scientist, and partly, because the statements he’s making here really aren’t about the field of ecology. Even so, I’m not saying the IPCC is perfect – it’s far from it. But right now, it’s the best we’ve got. And the “best we’ve got” (as oppose to careless spin) is exactly the sort of thing we need for a global challenge of this magnitude.

(Sidenote: Didn’t get a chance to go into the Antarctic ice thing, but I will… it’s a great example of how nuanced these things can be. I can send a notice of this via twitter, @dnghub if folks are interested but don’t want to miss it).

Comments

  1. #1 Jordan
    November 23, 2009

    Austen might say, “Nicely done… Nicely done…”

  2. #2 Fiona
    November 23, 2009

    You should also tackle the “how can we trust climate models when we can’t even predict tomorrow’s weather very well.” Ugghh… ticks me off anytime a denialist goes into that argument.

  3. #4 David Ng
    November 23, 2009

    Thanks dhogaza, Will take a good look at that geoscience Nature paper.

  4. #5 Justin Ritchie
    November 23, 2009

    Even though I thought Patrick was unwise to denounce anthropogenic climate change, especially without presenting a serious discussion of experimental evidence to back up his claims, I really appreciated his talk. He was able to highlight something that few public speakers do: the economic decisions being made around climate change are focused on substituting new technologies that aren’t necessarily better in any way except for reducing only one particular waste stream coming from industrial civilization. Yes, CO2 is a very harmful byproduct of combustion but, for example, replacing the 800 million cars world wide with electric cars will induce scarcity in lithium and use massive amounts of the remaining oil supply… and oil supply that is rapidly reducing in output . The most important challenge of the first half of the 21st century is energy scarcity and sadly no one is focusing or acknowledging that fact.

    However, none of that detracts from that fact that this was an awesome post David!

  5. #6 David Ng
    November 23, 2009

    Hi Justin,

    Thanks for the comment about Patrick’s view on how society is responding to the climate issue: this is in terms of using mitigation and/or adaptation policies that explore and focus on a limited number of possible ideas. That part of the talk, I actually have no problem with – for instance, I’m a great believer in multifaceted problems not having magic bullets or “one size fits all” solutions. And this one is much too complex and nuanced for that. Debate and discussion in that kind of terrain is always a good thing.

    I happen to think that nuclear, for instance, is certainly worth a good look-see (and geothermal is pretty cool). But the fact of the matter is that when he advocates for this kind of mindset, he does himself no favours by carelessly misinforming others on other parts of his argument (in this case, the science).

    At the end of the day, it just ends up feeling like a tactic, and I know I become instantly wary of anything he has to say. If he can play tactics for the starting point of his talk, the place where he provides some context to his discussion, maybe he can play them throughout.

    Related to this, he made one comment where I think he was trying to imply that global warming might be pretty good for Canada. i.e. it’s cold up here right now.

    That is actually true. We’re a developed country, pretty sophisticated in the grand scheme of things, and we have the capability to adapt and maybe even, as many have suggested, thrive on climate warming.

    But it totally misses the point – in that societies situated in places where the temperature rise is not a precursor for thriving (i.e. it’s already hot, and the rise will be even more detrimental), are unfortunately often the same places that can’t as easily adapt (i.e. they are poorer developing countries).

    It’s really a slippery slope for the people living in these areas, and for Patrick to clarify his discussions with a comment that suggests, “It’s going to be good for us up here” is a little troubling to say the least.

  6. #7 Neuro-conservative
    November 24, 2009

    What odd timing for this post. You don’t get out much, do you?

  7. #8 David Ng
    November 24, 2009

    Oh I do, neuro-conservative, I do.

  8. #9 dhogaza
    November 24, 2009

    Even though I thought Patrick was unwise to denounce anthropogenic climate change, especially without presenting a serious discussion of experimental evidence to back up his claims, I really appreciated his talk

    Why? He’s been going on about environmental/conservation science-based issues for a long time. And he’s exposed himself as, essentially, being anti-science.

    Who the hell pays attention to this man?

  9. #10 Neuro-conservative
    November 24, 2009

    Ah yes, I see. Those weren’t the droids you were looking for. Move along.

  10. #11 DebbieV
    November 24, 2009

    Ah yes, I see. Those weren’t the droids you were looking for. Move along.

    Is it me or is it ironic how the denialist is referring to a “mind trick” as his/her way of trying to convince us of their views.

  11. #12 Hosting
    November 24, 2009

    If he can play tactics for the starting point of his talk, the place where he provides some context to his discussion, maybe he can play them throughout.
    ———–
    Hosting

  12. #13 Neko Shousui
    February 16, 2010

    From http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250872/Climategate-U-turn-Astonishment-scientist-centre-global-warming-email-row-admits-data-organised.html

    Jones discussed the highly contentious “medieval warming period.” If global temperatures were warmer than today back in 800-1300 A.D. — about a thousand years before Henry Ford’s assembly lines began spitting out automobiles — it suggests that natural factors have a large hand in climate change, a concession that climate alarmists are loath to make. Jones said we don’t know if the warming in this period was global in extent since paleoclimatic records are sketchy. If it was, and if temperatures were higher than now, “then obviously the late 20th century warmth would not be unprecedented.”

    “Professor Jones also conceded the possibility that the world was warmer in medieval times than now – suggesting global warming may not be a man-made phenomenon.”

  13. #14 Richie
    October 30, 2010

    You seem to be deluded by your belief in global warming as a religion. Why don’t you pay more attention to what the IPCC say and I quote

    “There remains the possibility that hitherto unknown aspects of the climate and climate change could emerge and lead to significant modifications in our understanding.”

    Now they quote “significant modifications”…. hmmmm not minor but significant! that should tell you a lot about Global Warming Theory!

    Is this massive uncertainty because of the huge range in IPCC climate forcings data and I quote

    “Other climate change mechanisms resulting from human activity are more uncertain (see later); calculations that take into account these other positive and negative forcings (including the role of atmospheric particles) indicate that the net effect of all human activity has caused a positive climate forcing of around 1.6 Wm-2 with an estimated uncertainty of about ±0.8 Wm-2.”

    I assume you understand that the climate forcing estimates are paramount to global warming theory? So the IPCC and Royal Society say that the man-made climate forcing could range between 0.8Wm-2 to 2.4Wm-2, which is 3X, therefore perhaps this is why there is such a huge difference in the climate models as it depends what forcing data they decide to use so subsequently we cant really say anything important about todays weather models!!!

  14. #15 Isaias
    February 18, 2011

    Global warming is not real and it should be obvious to anyone looking at the total picture. I certainly hope this article is of interest and that is has propelled thought. The goal is simple; to help you in your quest to be the best in 2007. I thank you for reading my many articles on diverse subjects, which interest you. source: weathercast forecaster

  15. #16 Rob
    March 2, 2011

    To say it’s “the best we’ve got”, is not good enough to send the world into a tail-spin.

    That’s the sort of statement that has caused war and misery since the dawn of man-kind.

    I support alternative energy and have since i was 13 (35 years ago) and and strongly believe in all nations and people being self-sufficient but, to ruin poor peoples lives and create a new religion on the basis of “the best we have”. no thankyou.

    I suggest we all support alternatives over the next 50 – 100 years at which point technology will have advanced to the point where all emissions will have been managed, unless we create new ones on the way.

    To suck out billions, no trillions of dollars out of already established and new growing economies based on extrapolated computer models is just irresponsible.

    Although it is trendy and may ingratiate one to there current peers.

  16. #17 Jason Borne
    May 4, 2011

    How so?

  17. #18 Mike W
    June 14, 2011

    So If 10 years is too short a measure to use, is 40-50 years any better a measure?

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