Twarguments about climate change

Some of the folks I follow on Twitter engage in periodic arguments about climate change, whether or not it is happening and the influence of human activity on this change. I don’t engage in these arguments personally because I don’t really know enough about this issue (I admit to being wishy washy in this as in most things). But with 40-odd years in science and engineering and 20 years working in complex systems, I think I do know enough to say that many of the statements made by climate change believers and non-believers prove nothing at all.

Basically, the earth’s climate is an immensely complex, dynamic system that is influenced by a huge number of variables. We do not understand the relationships between many of these variables (e.g. El Nino and sunspots). Therefore, our climate models are gross simplifications of reality. If we had thousands of years of data, we could maybe refine these models but at best we have just over 100 years of data so our model validation is necessarily limited. However, observations suggest that the earth’s climate is becoming warmer and current climate models suggest that human activities (agriculture and industry) are contributing to this via methane (primarily cow’s farts but also some industrial leakage) and CO2 emissions from burning carbon-based fuels.

This suggests to me that we should take actions to reduce methane and CO2 emissions because it is possible that the climate models are right and if they are, the consequences are severe. We will run out of carbon-based fuels eventually anyway so it makes sense to look at alternative means of energy production so long as these don’t do more harm than good to the environment.

However, it is also possible that the climate change models are wrong and that there is some other factor which we don’t understand and can’t control that is affecting the earth’s climate. Unfortunately, politicians especially in the US, make the incorrect assumption that because this is possibly the case then it must necessarily be true and nothing needs to be done.

Turning now to the twarguments about climate change there are 3 positions taken that are not really justificable.

1. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is dominated by human influences so it must be true. Science is not about democracy. If the ‘vast majority’ of scientists suddenly decided that Einstein was wrong on the basis of some incomplete physics models, then it would not mean that this was true. Scientists are human and those who have built their career on climate modelling (and depend on government grants) are loath to admit failings (and some climate scientists have behaved very badly e.g. Climategate scandal).

A book that all scientists should read is ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. He points out that the history of science is dominated by paradigm shifts where the vast majority of scientists believe one thing and reject all evidence to the contrary. This only changes when some (often younger) scientists take a contrary position and finally convince the community of a new position.

2. Event X (say extent of Antarctic sea ice or slower temperature growth than predicted by models) contradicts other observations that the earth is warming so it can’t be true. This is also a pretty weak position. There is no need for warming to be uniform for it to be damaging and warming takes place over many years. This is simply another piece of data that should be added to the dataset to allow models to be refined.

3. The influence of greenhouse gases is proven so these have to be the major contributors to climate change. It is certainly true that gases such as methane and CO2 are greenhouse gases and trap heat. But we know so little about natural climatic cycles that we simply cannot know whether or not these are dominant. As I said, it makes sense to me to take a risk-averse position on this but the notion that it has been proven that our current observed climate changes are necessarily a result of gas emissions resulting from human activities is simply nonsense. These do correlate with human industrial activity and population growth but correlation is not causality.

The public have a right to know about scientific thinking and climate issues are incredibly important. The current journalistic presentations on these issues are mostly utterly simplistic and consequently, it is perhaps unsurprising that these twarguments go on. Sadly, too many scientists are unwilling to admit the complexity of this issue and communciate directly with the public in terms they can understand. Until we do this, we will not have public understanding of climate science and pantomime arguments (oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t) will continue.

13 thoughts on “Twarguments about climate change

  • November 10, 2014 at 5:44 pm
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    Good piece Ian. However with your first point I think it is logical for a non-scientist to accept that the view of the majority in a field is correct whilst accepting that this might be adapted or even abandoned in the light of future research and evidence. Otherewise how does a non-scientist decide how to proceed when scientific issues like climate change become matters of politics and public policy?

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    • November 10, 2014 at 5:54 pm
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      Chris

      I agree it is extremely difficult for non-experts (including me). Generally speaking, science doesn’t happen in the public domain and scientists can argue amongst themselves knowing that there are all sorts of qualifications and uncertainties. In this case, unfortunately, climate scientists have to do their work under public scrutiny and I don’t think that they really know how to do this or how to communicate the complexity of the issues effectively with the public. It is also sadly the case the science funding is not objective (I was involved with it for 30 years and knew how to play the system) and it is very difficult to get funding to support research into unfashionable views. Hence, scientists all tend to jump onto a bandwagon. So the majority taking a position is not that surprising.

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  • November 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm
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    Ian, I appreciate that but still feel there is no choice for non-experts like me other than to accept the experts’ majority view. I also agree with you completely that “we should take actions to reduce methane and CO2 emissions because it is possible that the climate models are right and if they are, the consequences are severe. We will run out of carbon-based fuels eventually anyway so it makes sense to look at alternative means of energy production so long as these don’t do more harm than good to the environment.”

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  • November 10, 2014 at 6:23 pm
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    If I may use a rather naff analogy: When you insure your car fully comp (and let’s say the car’s worth £20k) would you pay a premium of £100k per year? It may be over-simplified, but I think that’s exactly what we’re doing with drastically reducing our carbon dioxide emissions.

    It is certainly NOT proven that CO2 is forcing climate change but there seems to be a lagging correlation between increase in temperature and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (completely different, of course, to emissions). Equally, it is not proven just how much each of methane and carbon dioxide facilitate the retention of warming.

    And as Ian has said in this piece, it is also not proven at all what proportion of current warming is down to man’s emissions of these so called “greenhouse gases.”

    I think that if we are going to spend far more than the car is worth then it is better to spend it where we know it will help – in defensive measure like the Thames Barrier. (Just one daft example, but you get my drift.)

    This mad chase to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels when there is currently an abundance of this low cost energy is massively damaging to industrialised economies and those economies who quite rightly demand modernisation themselves. It is appalling selfishness for green NGOs to encourage third world countries into expensive power generation like solar & wind, but that is what’s happening.

    The world’s fossil fuel reserves will last hundreds of years. We should use this time to look at practical lower cost power generation systems and not continue this insane rush to cut “carbon emissions.”

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  • November 11, 2014 at 2:56 pm
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    Ian, This is a very disappointing piece. You cannot say “I don’t really know enough about this issue” and “we know so little about natural climatic cycles”, without doing due diligence and learning about the science. The new IPCC report provides incredible detail on what we know and don’t know about climate change, including detailed analysis of both natural and anthropogenic factors. If you’re not willing to study the report itself, there are plenty of good summaries out there. Here’s mine:
    http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2013/10/what-does-the-new-ipcc-report-say-about-climate-change/

    Your jabs at “some climate scientists have behaved very badly” and “too many scientists are unwilling to admit the complexity of this issue and communciate directly with the public” are way off base. “Climategate” was entirely a made up news story, part of a concerted attack on climate scientists by those who are unwilling to accept the consequences of climate change, who were subsequently exonerated in every formal review of the allegations (see for example, http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climategate-CRU-emails-hacked.htm). Climate scientists have been desperately trying to communicate what they know for decades, and to provide clear information to those who are willing to hear it. Try reading the books by Jim Hansen (Storms of My Grandchildren), Stephen Schneider (Science as a contact sport) and Michael Mann (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars) for clear direct communication from leading scientists. If you want to understand the real reasons why people still have twitter arguments about this, read George Marshall’s book “Don’t even think about it”.

    Finally, saying “but the notion that it has been proven that our current observed climate changes are necessarily a result of gas emissions resulting from human activities is simply nonsense” is just flat out wrong. The real problem with climate change is that people who have not studied climate science in any detail think they can make statements like this. It’s really sad to see you do this.

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    • November 11, 2014 at 5:40 pm
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      Steve

      Thanks for your response. I am quite happy to admit my lack of knowledge on these issues, which is why I advocate a precautionary approach. In no way am I suggesting that we should ignore climate change or fail to take action – I think I made this clear in the post.

      My comment on climate scientists behaving badly did not claim that fraud was committed but the report makes clear that the university did not respond to freedom of information requests to release data and code (which was largely paid for from public sources). To my mind, that’s behaving badly. I don’t know if this model has now been open sourced – if it hasn’t, it should be. (I think this about all software developed with public money – climate science is not a special case).

      You know as well as I do that models cannot PROVE anything – and models of complex systems with unknown unknowns have inherent and unresolvable uncertainties. My limited understanding of the IPCC models suggests that they have tried to take natural factors that they know about and understand into account but I have not seen any public acknowledgement of the possibility of unknown unknowns.

      Scientists, who should know better but who claim such proof undermine their own credibility. (I don’t think that the IPCC report claims proof only a high level of probability, which is perfectly consistent with what I say).

      I find arguments such as ‘the vast majority of scientists think that…’ really quite unconvincing. Scientists follow prevailing trends – so in the 1980s, I am willing to bet that most computer scientists thought that formal methods were the answer to software quality improvement, If you challenged that view, you didn’t get funding. My guess is that the same is true in climate science so it’s not surprising there is agreement. This doesn’t mean the view is wrong – just that it’s a weak argument.

      I stand by my comment on climate scientists failure to communicate with the public. Writing pop science books doesn’t really reach that many people(Hansen’s book is not in the top 100,000 Amazon best sellers). Where are the climate scientists on TV explaining this is a really complex issue rather than leaving it to journalists to oversimplify? Of course, part of the problem is there are no academic kudos for public communication but I for one would definitely like to see scientists engaging directly in more public debate rather than leaving this to journalistic proxies.

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    • November 11, 2014 at 7:21 pm
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      Thanks Steve – your comment on the software engineering irony was telling. But there’s a couple of things here that I’d take issue with:

      1. You don’t acknowledge that the university did not respond to Freedom of Information requests. Irrespective of how tiresome these are and the resouurce requirements, taking this attitude is simply not acceptable. FoI is fundamentally important and universities have to be whiter than white here. Ignoring FoI is as unacceptable as saying ‘I don’t have time for equal opportunities because I’m doing important research’.

      2. You say that it is impossible for climate scientists to engage in public debate because they cannot stand up to attacks by those with vested interests. Yes, this is a problem but we cannot be defeatist here. Using media such as blogs is one way of getting around the control of media by vested interests.

      The software engineering issues are challenging. There’s a lot more awareness of the issues now and even some resources. But the model that PhD students write code (and of course they only do as much as they need) still pertains and until this changes then it’s hard to see how things will improve.

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  • November 12, 2014 at 1:34 am
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    Ian,
    I don’t have any beef with your precautionary approach, but I do find it puzzling that you make a number of claims about what climate scientists are doing wrong, as if the distorted portrayal of climate science (or indeed any science for that matter) in the media is anything scientists have control over. So they should be on the telly? Off the top of my head, I can name dozens of climate scientists who will gladly appear on TV and explain what they do. They never get asked. And then you say if they can’t do that they should blog. They do. Lots of them. And still they get criticized from all sides. It’s a classic “blame the messenger” mentality.

    Some other points:
    Your points about the FoI requests are still way off base. The data that was being requested was surface temperature records collected by a variety of national weather services around the world, many of whom treat their data as proprietary, because they’ve been partly privatized and need revenue from this data to support their operations. And the FoI requests were frivolous anyway – it would be more appropriate to view them as part of a denial of service attack on a scientific lab: http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2009/11/open-climate-science-or-denial-of-service-attacks/

    …and then you go on to say “don’t know if this model has now been open sourced – if it hasn’t, it should be”. The CRU doesn’t build climate models, so I think you’re just repeating someone else’s misinformation.

    You say “Scientists, who should know better but who claim such proof…”. Who? I’ve interviewed more than 50 climate scientists in my field studies, and not one has ever suggested the models prove anything. Do you have examples?

    You’ve never seen any public acknowledgement of the “unknown unknowns”? To what do you refer? If you mean physical phenomena that might be missing from the models, this is known as structural uncertainty, and is widely discussed both in the literature and in the assessment reports. Ask any climate scientist about this, and they’ll happily talk about it until the cows come home. See for example:
    http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2010/01/agu-day-3-part-c-how-good-are-predictions-from-climate-models/
    But you can’t blame the scientists for the poor treatment of this in the media.

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    • November 12, 2014 at 8:27 pm
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      Steve

      I don’t think that we really substantially disagree – I don’t claim to have any detailed knowledge in this area and I certainly haven’t read primary sources as you have.

      I have had some experience with FoI requests and learned that the wrong thing to do is to ignore them, irrespective of whether or not they seem to be frivolous. A perfectly reasonable response is that data is proprietary and they have to address the request to the data owner. Ignoring FoI requests just makes you look bad. Perhaps the East Anglia folks didn’t behave badly but naively.

      My response on proof started because people on Twitter were claiming that some data ‘proved’ models were right/wrong and I wanted to make clear that models cannot prove anything. You did say ” “but the notion that it has been proven that our current observed climate changes are necessarily a result of gas emissions resulting from human activities is simply nonsense” is just flat out wrong. ” which is why I reiterated the comment on proof.

      Unknown unknowns, by their very nature, cannot be included in models. An unknown unknown is a relationship between system elements that we don’t know about so have no idea how it might affect the results. Is this what you mean by a structural uncertainty? An unknown unknown in a climate system might be the possibility that there is a relationship between the Earth’s magnetic field and warming – say the climate became warmer in the years before the field flipped (which I believe is historically overdue). Ever complex system I have seen have unknown unknowns that come along and bite you when you least expect them.

      The media issues are challenging. Scientists (in general) have made a poor job of media interactions and I would rather see us talk directly rather than through journalists. But this requires skills that we often don’t have and the problem is that we get no professional recognition for developing these skills. Scaring people simply doesn’t work (people are still smoking) nor does politically unrealistic statements e.g. the oil must be left in the ground. I don’t have any answers here.

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  • November 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm
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    This is a very interesting piece, Ian. I do not claim to be an expert on either scientific methodologies or the actual science but here are my reflections. They do not get us anywhere but I had five minutes to spare!

    Firstly, I do get fed up with articles in the media, and comments on social networks, that confuse or blur a number of issues. In particular, the concepts of “global warming” and “man made global warming” are sometimes used interchangeably. If the latter exists then it is a subset of the first.

    Secondly, on the question of whether man made global warming exists, I would want governments to err on the side of caution and take the same line as Chris Townsend and go with the majority of scientists, (noting that once upon a time most thought the earth was flat), However, governments and the ‘green lobby’ need to be far more savvy about the solutions. Thus, the race to build windfarms is certainly very expensive and almost certainly not just ineffective, but probably counter productive in many places because of the destruction of peat etc. I have gone from an anti-nuclear power person to a supporter of it as a potentially more effective solution to our energy needs. There also needs to be a recognition that what we do in the UK will have a miniscule impact on carbon emissions in relation to what needs to happen in China, India, Brazil, the USA etc. That in itself means we need to change our approach.

    Thirdly, far too many people seem to think that what is happening today, or this month or this year is evidence one way or the other of climate change. If the ice cap is smaller/larger this year it means nothing. The trends we are talking about need to be considered over very long periods indeed.

    Finally, and connected to the previous point, it’s interesting to reflect that despite the debate taking off over the last few years I first learnt about global warming theories in A level Geography classes in 1973-75, and again whilst studying meteorology and climatology in the late 70s as part of my first degree. I can still visualise a chart that showed temperature changes over several hundred thousands of years – a series of waves with marked peaks and troughs. But on each upwards and downwards curve were lots of smaller cycles of peaks and troughs. And on each of these there were further smaller cycles each with their own peaks and troughs. In short, we could, say be in a macro warming phase but with temperature falling for the next few years/millennia or whatever. Or the reverse.

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  • November 12, 2014 at 4:19 pm
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    This is a nice thoughtful piece. There is a vast amount of stuff written on twitter and blogs about climate change, most of which is either complete nonsense or greatly exaggerated spin – from both sides. You are quite right that the claims made prove nothing, no matter how many times the IPCC claims that “human influence on the climate system is clear” or Tom Nelson describes climate science as a “scam”.

    It can be overemphasised that the climate system is as you say, hugely complicated and poorly understood, and that climate models are a gross over-simplification and massively over-damped, which is presumably what has led to the naive view that every little wiggle has to be “explained” as a response to some kind of “climate forcing”.

    Re your point 1, I wrote a post on the meaninglessness of the consensus argument
    https://ipccreport.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/the-consensus-was-wrong/

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