Climate Disruption


Simon Donner takes on the great “climate change” vs. “global warming” debate. He argues, albeit somewhat tentatively, for capitulation; we should call a thing what everybody else calls the thing:

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage. Do a Google search for “global warming” and “climate change”. With “global warming”, the term the public is more likely to use, a “skeptical” site comes up second [note: search is done from Canada, others may find different results].

Let me take the opportunity to remind everybody that I’m on record taking the opposite position in my RealClimate article “Imprecision of the Phrase ‘Global Warming’

The problem in capitulating to the common usage is that the common usage is woefully imprecise. As I said in that article:

If someone asks me in my capacity as a climate scientist whether I “believe in “global warming”, they are not asking the question in a literal sense. They are asking “what am I to make of this confusing topic called “global warming”?

In the end they are usually asking some combination of questions like 1) whether greenhouse gases are accumulating? 2) whether the greenhouse effect is established science? 3) whether global warming has been observed? 4) whether future climate change is expected to be big enough to worry about? 5) whether cooling at a single location falsifies the “theory”? 6) whether to expect super-hurricanes? 7) whether the Gulf Stream will shut down instantly glaciating Scandinavia and Britain? 8 ) how you can model climate when you can’t predict weather? etc. Often they will bounce incoherently from one to another of these sorts of exasperatingly-missing-the-point sorts of question.

Once in a while someone will have more sophisticated questions like 1) what’s the magnitude of the anthropogenic forcing compared to natural forcings? 2) what’s the lag time in the system response? 3) what is the magnitude of the most disruptive plausible scenarios? 4) what’s the likelihood of the discontinuous shifts in system regime? etc., When I hear people asking the right questions it makes my day, but it’s pretty rare.

What people outside the field universally don’t mean by “global warming” though, is “a tendency for the global mean surface temperature to increase”!

The first trouble in talking about “global warming” is that when you do, you are already in an area where communication is problematic. And shifting goalposts is a key tactic of obfuscators everywhere. “Nothing could be better than early retirement on Maui, and a peanut butter sandwich is better than nothing, so a peanut butter sandwich is better than early retirement on Maui.” That sort of thing is their stock in trade. By starting the conversation with an ambiguity, you leave yourself open to all manner of trickery.

Since I wrote that piece, a whole new set of problems has arisen with “global warming”, in that the global mean surface temperature has become an unhealthy obsession of the crowd that calls themselves “lukewarmists”, i.e., the McIntyreans. Pretty much the only thing they care about is the observational and proxy record of global mean surface temperature. If “global warming” is the theory, and the observational record (mostly unforced) is ambiguous, well then, we can all go home and do business as usual, can’t we?

The bizarre fascination with Mann and Jones, the obsession with every little bounce up and down of the satellite record, all of this turns climate policy into a sport, where the amateur critics of science “root for” downturns in the curve and we find ourselves idiotically hoping for equally meaningless upticks. The actual implications of accumulating greenhouse gases are utterly lost in the shuffle.

The issue, of course, is completely miscast. The global mean surface temperature (or if you insist on hair-splitting, the fourth root of the mean of the fourth power of temperature, which is the arguable alternative and which behaves very similarly) is an interesting and useful diagnostic, especially in the study of paleoclimate. But it isn’t what we are worried about.

The global mean temperature does not cause impacts.

Local shifts in climate cause impacts. Changes in the radiative balance cause changes in circulation which cause changes in local climate. Human activity causes changes in radiative balance. Carbon dioxide is the biggest and most difficult but by no means the only component of human forcing of radiative balance. The local changes we are seeing are roughly as expected, and are already meaningful and are accelerating. Errors in our understanding are unlikely to be benign. Those are the salient facts.

Obsession with global mean temperature is a debating trick of the opposition. The fact that people are searching on “global warming” means we have to use it as a tag. But we shouldn’t use it to mean what the people searching on the term mean by it, because the very use of the term is generally a sign of confusion.

“Global warming” means an increase in the mean surface temperature of a globe. That’s all. It applies to any physical spherical object, typically a planet or a large moon. It applies on many time scales. It isn’t itself a problem, and doesn’t itself require a response. On the time scale of human forcing, it is an expected symptom of anthropogenic climate change.

Some go with “climate chaos” which has two problems: 1) it prejudges the scope of the problem and 2) it raises nomenclature confusion with a relevant mathematical concept. I think “climate disruption” is a good name for the problem.


Image: Dan Farber, a law professor, who I hope has mercy. It’s a great picture.

Hope for Texas: Moderate to Large El Nino

Speaking of El Nino, the forecast is definitely for a moderate event at least this winter. Some groups are calling for a large event.

This is great news for us here in south-central Texas, and where drought conditions are currently extreme. It’s been six weeks of remarkably hot and dry weather even by local standards. It amazes me that so many plants are still looking healthy. Soil moisture is so close to zero as not to make a difference.

Fortunately, El Nino (negative SOI) correlates positively with precipitation. Unfortunately, there’s several months ahead before we collect on this promise.

I wonder, though, what a strong El Nino event might do for public perceptions of climate change. We might be due for some strange episodes. I have some pretty clear memories of the great Montreal ice storm in the 1998 El Nino.

We’ve been trained to say that “no individual event can be attributed directly to climate change”, and talk about loaded dice, etc. The next really big El Nino we will put us in uncharted territory, though. I wonder if the campaign to get El Nino language into the climate debate territory isn’t partly just an effort to deflect the attention to climate change that whatever weirdness we see in the next year might bring.

Even so, speaking as a Texan, (and I may live to regret this) if you’ve got some El Nino handy, bring it on down to my place, honey! It can’t be much worse than what we’ve got already.

High but Surmountable Cost, Except for Pride

Very interesting rebuttal to the “high cost” arguments I endorsed recently in an article by Adam Stein on Grist.

I don’t buy the argument that responding to climate change is “an opportunity” for society at large. An atmosphere sensitive to CO2 is worse than an atmosphere not sensitive to CO2. The “cost” may be exaggerated, but that doesn’t make it cost-free or a small matter.

There are also reasons that it is very over-optimistic to set the rate of progress in information technology as achievable in energy technology. Joe Romm explains this repeatedly, e.g., here.

At least one huge cost at this point is pride though. The market libertarians will have a very hard time admitting that climate forcing is at the least an important exception to their principles. They have painted themselves into a corner, and the rest of us are sort of stuck there along with them.

They have recently been doing a really impressive job fooling themselves that the evidence is piling up on their side. They will, eventually, be genuinely surprised when the problem fails to go away. I wonder when the realization will set in. Alas, I am not holding my breath.

Food and Carbon Dioxide

The NYTimes, peculiarly and I think inappropriately in the “Media and Advertising” section, has an article on the connection between meat and carbon emissions. It’s interesting enough. I think the vegetarians have a point, very much unlike the “vegetable-mile” people, who complain about how far your food has travelled, who as I will explain in an article soon, have it fundamentally and deeply wrong.

I don’t have much to add right now, except to point out that anyone who wants to follow up on the “University of Chicago Study”, given that the Times astonishingly and inexcusably does not even deign to name the researchers (thank you Media and Advertising section) should look for Eshel and Martin, Earth Interactions, Vol. 10, pp. 1-17, March 2006, available here.

National Review Gets Real

Can the Wall Street Journal be far behind?

Quark Soup
points out that the libertarian-conservative-republican (US) magazine National Review has a cover article conceding the reality of anthropogenic warming. You have to subscribe to read the article (I intend to read it over coffee at Borders, frankly) but here’s the (current as of this posting) link for confirmation.

Update: The web is pretty cool sometimes. Apparently the author has written in with a link to a PDF of the article.

All they tell the nonsubscriber is this:

It is no longer possible, scientifically or politically, to deny that human activities have very likely increased global temperatures; what remains in dispute is the precise magnitude of the human impact. Conservatives should accept this reality — and move on to the question of what we should do about it. This would put us in a much better position to prevent a massive, counterproductive intervention in the U.S. economy.

By Jim Manzi