PENNING: Climate change subject causes more heat than light

Dec 8, 2011

Others have doubts about the particulars behind this claim and the projections that come from it.

But attempts to discuss the topic rationally seem to generate more warming instead of illumination.

In spite of Al Gore and others trying to settle the issue rhetorically by asserting oversimplified mantras, there is much about the science of climate change that is still open to rational and scientific consideration.

Attempts to persuade people to the global warming cause by demonizing those with doubts can only be counter-productive, because that’s more propaganda than science. No one likes to be told to accept something “because I said so.” This may be why a Pew Research Center poll last week showed that those who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” is down from 79 percent in 2006 to 65 percent this year, and those who think there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming due to man-made activity is down from 47 percent in 2006 to 38 percent currently.

The discussion needs to continue and should do so productively, which is best done by employing the scientific method.

Since the early 1900s, thanks to philosopher of science Karl Popper, scientific theories were considered more legitimate if they could not be “falsified.” In other words, attempting to disprove science is part of science, not a denial of it.

In that spirit, we can consider a list of reasonable questions about the claims in the climate change mantra.

Is the current observable temperature warming trend significant? Some high-temperature records have been set in the past decade, but records have only been kept for 150 years. Temperatures were much higher in earlier eras, and consequences were not catastrophic.

Read on.

A related question has to do with man being the cause of global warming. The Keeling Curve is a measure of the parts per million of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere measured since the late 1950s. The scale does go up since the first measurements; but one can wonder if the span of 60 years is long enough to assert that this spike will continue to go up, or whether it will level and reduce again in the future.

Such a question is reasonable given that — as pointed out in an article in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic — there was a massive surge of carbon in the atmosphere 56 million years ago in what is called the Paleocene-Eocene era. The magazine rightly notes that this carbon increase is unexplained, and certainly was not the result of man-made causes.

We have to consider that the increasing temperatures in merely the past 60 years have multiple causes, with some of them being natural. While humans burning fossil fuels may be part of the cause, the natural scientific question would be: What percentage of the variance in global temperature increase is explained by man-made causes?

That leads to a long-standing scientific caution about correlation and causality. Just because the increase in the number of factories and automobiles correlates with increased C02 in the atmosphere, it does not necessarily mean that one is the cause of the other. And again, if it is causal, what portion is caused by humans and what are the other variables?

Measurement error is another scientific reason for skepticism. There have been more than 1 billion temperature readings, but the whole Earth’s surface has not been measured. Measurements have been taken in different ways in different countries, potentially leading to inconsistent data.

The “urban effect,” in which a concentration of tall buildings increases surface temperature, could skew data. And the satellite data and computer models used versus actual thermometer readings in many cases could be inaccurate.

The question of whether all scientists agree, a common assertion, is also cause for skepticism.

Leaked e-mails from climate scientists — one in 2009 and another just last month, as reported in the Guardian in the UK — shows efforts by some scientists attempting to publicly “smear” their skeptical colleagues, control who is part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and expressing doubts about the conclusions and predictions of some climate change studies.

Those expressing science-based skepticism include professors of atmospheric science, directors of centers on climate science, and state climatologists for several U.S. states. They stress that water vapor accounts for five-sixths of warming attributed to greenhouse gases, and that extreme weather is not increasing to any significant degree.

If you want to win climate change arguments by saying you believe the scientists, you’ll have to specify which scientists you believe, and on which aspects of climate research.

The bottom line is that the subject of climate change should be based on science — not assertion, over-simplified rhetoric, or blind belief or denial.

Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made this point especially well in his recent guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal: “Global warming alarmists betray their cause when they declare that it is irresponsible to question them.”

Indeed, most academic journal articles include a section called “limitations,” in which authors recognize potential flaws in the research method or conclusions. If more climate change scientists would acknowledge limitations, it’s more likely that citizens would acknowledge the parts of their work about which we can be certain.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist

Comments

grandhavenguy01

Here is something to think about...

Oil is not just dinosaur poop...it is actually energy from the sun. It is the combination of minerals, biological processes and light from the sun that, over the course of millions of years, has turned into what used to be plants and other living things into this black stuff we call, "oil". Very simply however, it is still just stored solar energy.

Currently, the sun gives our planet about 1368 watts of energy per square meter. Much of this energy is converted to heat, which gives our little green-blue world enough heat to keep us cozy. The rest is reflected back into space, or used up by the life on the planet.

My conundrum is this: How can the Earth NOT be affected by the extra solar energy we add to the Earth's atmosphere by the consumption of oil, especially since our world's lungs (trees) are being removed at such an alarming rate? Even if the Earth has a natural long-term warming and cooling cycle, it would seem as though simple 3rd grade math can help us realize that we are contributing:
(Natural Solar Energy) PLUS (Manufactured Solar Energy) MINUS (Trees) = WARMING.

If you ask me, I'd like to error on the side of caution and take steps to reduce our levels of fossil fuel consumption and create and expand our renewable resources. I would hope that humanity hopes the same.

markhuizen

Tim, Thanks for a very well written, researched and interesting column. Unfortunately, you will soon be attacked as a backwoods hick who has no right to say these blasphemous "facts' in a public forum. You will soon be berated by people, such as Doug "oxygen farts" Furton, that this debate was settled long ago, by people such as him, with an academic pedigree, so us commoners wouldn't have to worry about those pesky facts.
The scary thing, Tim, is man-made global warming is being taught as fact to our 4th graders at GHAPS. I posed this question to our community last year and was disappointed by the apathy of the parents of our children, surprised at how I was attacked by some members of our community, and shocked that the whole thing, which is still a theory, is accepted by most people as fact.
More power to you, Tim, and thanks for stating the obvious, that it is still is and will always be, a theory.

DougFurton

Unfortunately, Mr. Huizen, you did not read my column about global warming or my related Letter to the Editor with an open mind. I did not claim that the debate has been settled, and that we should all not think about the issue critically. Quite the contrary, in fact, if you read objectively.

As Mr. Penning points out in his excellent commentary, and as your post here confirms, the idea of global warming is so inflammatory that rational, objective dialog about the issue is today nearly impossible.

It is only through rational, objective dialog -- at least free from name calling and stereotyping -- that we will be able to come to understand fully the truth about global warming.

One day, the anthropogenic origin of climate change will be more than a "theory" -- it will be reality. Maybe one that favors mankind, maybe one that does not. The sooner we find out, the better. On that I'm sure we can all agree.

markhuizen

You're right. I probably didn't read it with an open mind considering the headline was "Global Warming Is For Real". I did not see where you said the debate was still open. Even in your posting above, you assert "One day, the anthropogenic origin of climate change will be more than "theory" -- it will be reality". Translation: 'The sooner we convince and/or quiet the critics, the better." Regardless, my initial point long ago was why are the public schools teaching FOURTH GRADERS that man-made global warming is a FACT. You just agreed the debate is not settled?? I would agree that having high school kids research and debate the issue is appropriate. However, reading books to 9 year old children that say global warming is caused by man does not leave them with the impression the debate is open. Maybe that's what the global warming supporters intend ..... since they can't convince all of the scientific community or adult population, they'll target the kids.

noncuratlex

I agree. This is an absolutely slippery slope, teaching children about global warming in our schools. For example, once they started teaching "round earth" theory in schools- to the children- this still contested "theory" became more or less generally accepted, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Find out more on how to fight the "round earth" lie at http://theflatearthsociety.org.

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