Newsweek Global Warming Article “Why So Gloomy?”: Point and Counterpoint
Upsala glacier in Patagonia: 1928 vs 2004.
A few people have emailed me a recent article from Newsweek on MSNBC.com about global warming. More specifically, it is an article highly skeptical about global warming from several perspectives. I was going to blog about the article, but before I did I took the liberty of sending it to an actual scientist to see if she could give me a few talking points. Well, she did far more than that, she supplied me with essentially a point for point counterargument to the entire article. Unfortunately, due to my morbid fear of violating copyrights, I cannot reprint the original article. If you aren’t already familiar with it, please read it here before going on the the critique:
Critique of “Why So Gloomy?”
Courtesy of Amber Kerr
PhD student, Energy and Resources
University of California, Berkeley
Two points jump out immediately:
(1) The PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE. No, we can’t predict everything about future climate. But that’s all the more reason not to mess with it! It is arrogant in the extreme to think that we could predict all the consequences of terraforming our planet – especially since many changes will likely be irreversible.
(2) EQUITY. Yes, it’s true that some people in some locations will benefit from global warming: mostly rich people in northern latitudes. There is almost universal agreement (and dismay) that poor people in tropical latitudes (all ~5 billion of them) stand to be significantly harmed by global warming. Even if wheat will grow better in Canada, and heating bills will be lower in Scandinavia, that’s not fair when people are starving in Niger.
Now, responses to some of his specific points:
* Weather is not climate. It’s completely fallacious to say “We can’t predict the weather next week, so how can we predict the climate 40 years from now?” That’s like saying “I can’t predict what they’re going to serve for lunch at the cafeteria on Friday, so how can I possibly predict that I’m going to get fat by next year if I overeat every single day?” The difference is short-term, chaotic dynamics, versus long-term trends caused by very well-understood causal relationships.
* What does it even mean to say “a temperature where everything is just right?” How would one even define such a temperature? The point is, ecosystems are adapted to the current temperature, because it has been mostly stable for 10,000 years. Current rates of change are alarming in light of the historical record.
* It’s true that there’s no *compelling* evidence for an increase in extreme weather *yet.* But theory predicts that extreme weather will increase as temperature increases. The worry is about the future, not the present.
This is one example of the general pattern of faulty reasoning throughout Lindszen’s article: he’s saying “Oh, we don’t see any problems yet, so why should we worry?” Another example is his point that sea level hasn’t yet risen much. Nope, but it will. The whole point of climate models is to predict things before they happen, so that we can act preventively!
* “inherently untrustworthy climate models… similar to those that cannot accurately forecast the weather a week from now”: This is absurd and Prof. Lindzen, as a meteorologist, knows it. It’s a straight-faced lie.
– First of all, no model is perfect. Models are useful tools but we should, and do, recognize their limitations. To call them “inherently untrustworthy” is just putting a negative, suspicious spin on it.
– Second of all, weather models are not climate models. They use some of the same principles, such as 3D grid cells and land/atmosphere interactions. But climate models use different equations and much different time scales; they are usually run on time-steps of one day. Obviously a weather model can’t be run on one-day time-steps! …I could go on, but you get the idea.
– Third of all, climate models have been validated by using them to predict historical climate events. That is to say, we’ve told them “Here’s the dust that erupted from Mt Pinatubo in 1991; predict what happens to the climate,” and the climate model says “OK” and spits out some numbers that do, in fact, match what really happened. That’s why we have confidence in their ability to predict the future.
* It’s true that the CO2 absorption window will saturate (that is to say, each additional unit of CO2 will have less effect than the previous one), but it’s NOT true that climate models ignore this. They certainly do include it – even simple ones do! I know; I worked with a very simple climate model last summer that explicitly included the saturation effect. Maybe early models didn’t include it, but I think Lindzen is attacking a 20-yr old straw man here. Despite the (modest) saturation effect, we still have plenty to worry about with CO2. Also, nearly 50% of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect is due to non-CO2 greenhouse gases that absorb in windows that are NOT close to saturation.
* Regarding the slight cooling trend in the 1950’s – 1970’s: It’s true that we don’t fully understand this, but we know more than Lindzen lets on. It’s thought to be related to the surge in particulates during that time due to widespread industrialization (and, I think, also intensive agriculture).
These particulates reflected incoming light. It wasn’t until the following decades that the greenhouse gas signal started to overwhelm the particulate signal. Yes, there’s still debate over the exact balance of causes, but it in no way invalidates the fundamental relationships described by climate models.
* Climate modellers tried to “expunge the Medieval Warm Period from the observational record”? I’ve never heard this before. For a long time, the Medieval Warm Period has been openly and widely discussed as an interesting climatic event that we need to better understand. Maybe one, or several, climate modellers ignored it because it was inconvenient, or ascribed it to observational error. Certainly not all climate modellers.
Again, this is just not true!
And finally, regarding his conclusion:
* Yes, certain actions that are undertaken in the name of global warming (like wide-scale ethanol production) could have a net harmful effect.
* And yes, certain sectors in certain locations, e.g. agriculture in the northern countries, could benefit from global warming, at least temporarily.
Both of these things are patently obvious. No problem is universally bad for everyone everywhere. And it’s inevitable that some entities (such as the ethanol lobby) will jump on a bandwagon just to serve their own interests.
Does this mean that global warming isn’t a problem? Does it mean that acting against it would do more harm than good? No!
Again, these are my main responses to the errors that Lindzen repeatedly makes:
– It’s not true that our climate models are “untrustworthy.” They’re not perfect, but they’re pretty good, and have been validated against historical data.
– To the extent that climate models aren’t perfect, that just underscores the need to be cautious, rather than reckless, about changing our climate!
– Even if we haven’t seen drastic effects yet, that doesn’t mean we needn’t worry about the future. The whole point of models is to predict disasters before they happen.
– Yes, there will be some benefits from global warming, but at unacceptable cost to the people who can least afford it: the world’s poor.
A final thought: Lindzen didn’t mention any of the effects on ecosystems; he focuses purely on human costs and benefits. For example, at the current rate of ocean warming, and barring extremely rapid evolution, all coral reefs in the world will be dead before 2100. Does Lindzen care about that?
That’s more than I was planning on writing, and I am honoured to be able to pass it on. Amber also had this to say, which I have moved to here so that her arguments could be presented without preamble:
Thanks for forwarding me this infuriating article. I have a busy day today so can’t reply at too much length, but didn’t want to keep you waiting.
This article is written by Dick Lindzen, who has for decades been a prominent climate skeptic. Most climate scientists are simply fed up with replying to his arguments by now. But, I need the practise, so I will give you my response.
In other words, Dick Lindzen is not exactly a respected voice in the field. I was going to write a blog pointing out the straw man arguments, false analogies, does-not-follow arguments, and other logical fallacies in his article, but I believe Amber Kerr has done a fine job pointing out the factual and scientific absurdity of Lindzen’s claims.
As always, I invite comments.
(The above image is copied from Greenpeace in accordance with their guidelines for public use. Is is not being used for profit and is being used for educational purposes. Amber Kerr’s writings are used with her permission.)