Straw alarmism

So much is said in the political catastrophe surrounding climate change that I can’t quite imagine anyone keeping up with it. However, rbutr has informed me that one particular pseudo-anonymous article at something called the “Independent Journal Review” (or “IJReview”) could do with a closer look, and so I shall oblige.

The IJReview discusses James Lovelock’s recent about-face in which he describes his previous position on climate change as “alarmist” (a word that tends to be thrown around rather loosely — I’ll come back that later). The IJReview doesn’t cite the original source — an MSNBC phone interview with Lovelock — but rather several secondary authors. This indirection doesn’t alleviate the irony of the IJReview’s own political cartoon poking fun at MSNBC for selective editing and taking things out of context (which appeared alongside the article at the time of writing). Presumably, unreliable sources become reliable when you don’t cite them directly.

The level of snark in this article is on the silly side of normal, with “hardcore environmentalists” described as “money-grubbing” and “power-grabbing”, a connection based on some undiscovered logic by which, I suspect, I could also prove that 1 = 2. There’s also the condescending use of “confesses” and “admits” to describe anything said by a stereotyped individual that doesn’t conform to the stereotype.

First, a word about Lovelock’s Gaia Theory/Hypothesis, which (as I understand it) supposes that the Earth/biosphere behaves as a single composite organism. There is no supernatural or spiritual element to this. Gaia, though named after a Goddess, is not supposed to actually be one; it is merely a statement about large-scale self-organising phenomena. Nonetheless, a religious movement called Gaianism seems to have grown up around a silly misunderstanding1 of Gaia, and Lovelock himself seems to suffer casual ridicule for it. The title of this article describes him as the “Guru” of Gaia Theory, while James Delingpole has him pinned as the “High Priest” and “founder” of Gaianism itself.

Continuing in this vein, the IJReview article states:

James Lovelock, the veritable Pope of Gaia Theory, has taken global warmists to task for treating manmade climate change like a religion rather than valid science. Poignantly, [Lovelock] claims that for many the green religion is replacing the Christian religion.

The second sentence is accurate — Lovelock did say that — but he makes a similar claim about the religiosity of climate change deniers. It seems obvious, therefore, that Lovelock draws a distinction between people who broadly accept that climate change is real and people who approach it with religious fervour (those he terms “greens”, though obviously some will disagree with that).

That there is a “green religion” (or equally a denier religion) is not necessarily an unreasonable claim to make; all large political movements seem to have a quasi-religious element to them, and this probably tends to really annoy any independently-minded thinkers who come into contact with them. However, one cannot confuse the “green religion” with actual science or economic modelling conducted in actual research institutions, which convincingly (for the non-religious) points to the need to do something about carbon dioxide. It does not take an environmental activist to realise this, but like all religions2, the “green religion” incorporates some ideas that are actually sensible.

Now let’s look at Lovelock’s actual message, as quoted by MSNBC:

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.

“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.

“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.

I find this curiously dismissive3. The millennium has no particular significance for science, and what makes 12 years a “reasonable” time? We know for a fact that the temperature trend has been steeply upwards for decades. If you ignore enough data — say, by picking an arbitrarily-recent starting point — you can always prove that, well, you don’t have enough data. If there are inexplicable fluctuations, the take-home message for laypeople is not “everything we know is wrong”, but “fluctuations are noise, and we’ve already seen the signal”.

Moreover, Tamino reports on a paper by Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf, published in December 2011 (months before Lovelock’s above remarks), which concludes that all five major global temperature datasets do show statistically significant warming since 2000, with no evidence that the rate of warming has slowed. The authors achieved this analysis by removing known sources of natural variation, which seems to put paid to the substance of Lovelock’s assertion that “we don’t know what the climate is doing”. I suspect the climate science community knows a lot more than Lovelock gives it credit for.

We also ought to ask this: what precisely is “half-way to a frying world” supposed to look like? What was it exactly that Lovelock expected to happen by 2012 that didn’t happen? Perhaps it was elucidated in his 2009 book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning — the volume he has now essentially disowned. It received a positive review by Tim Flannery at the time, who begins:

James Lovelock’s latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning… has an important message. In a few years, or a few decades at most, abrupt changes in Earth’s climate will begin, which will end up killing almost all of us and cause the extinction of almost all life on Earth. The tropics and subtropics will be rendered uninhabitable by this shift, and the few survivors will cling to favoured regions such as Britain and New Zealand. Lovelock believes there is little we can do to avert our fate, for the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihood irreversible. In his view the best we can hope for is personal survival in a world of warring nations or, if we are particularly unfortunate, a world ruled by warlords.

It must be said that this is alarmist, and well out-of-step with the IPCC’s projections, as Flannery acknowledges. I certainly haven’t heard the IPCC make any such dramatic short-term predictions. The main concern was always for the long-term when a litany of positive feedbacks are predicted to accelerate the rate of temperature increase. Nothing spectacular was supposed to happen as early as 2012 (though there are certainly worrying signs in the form of, for instance, Arctic ice depletion, glacial melt, ice shelf collapse and extreme weather events that, put together, are highly improbable in a world without climate change).

I’ll put Lovelock himself aside for the moment, while the IJReview article does some value-adding to his remarks:

The major issue with climate change acolytes is that they rarely if ever quantify the effect of man’s activities on climate change. Well, let me help them: It is a little more than 0.28%, based on Department of Energy statistics and verifiable scientific data.

“Veritable scientific data” is rather too strong a turn of phrase. The linked webpage was written by one Monte Hieb, who performs a calculation based on a suspiciously low number for the human contribution to CO2 levels — 11.880 parts per million.

(A quick aside: the 11.880ppm figure is then used to calculate that the human CO2-only contribution is 3.207% of all greenhouse gases minus water vapour by volume. The actual purpose of that very specific percentage — quite aside from its utter fictitiousness — is unclear, but it seems to have formed a core factoid in the climate denialist arsenal.)

Hieb cites another webpage by one Tom V. Segalstad as his source for the 11.880 ppm figure. Segalstad doesn’t seem to give us that figure explicitly4, but does produce his own calculations. He argues that the observed ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere puts an upper limit of about 4% on the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that resulted from burning fossil fuels.

But this is highly misleading, as explained here. CO2 molecules in the air are continually recycled. Those that originated from fossil fuels are mostly re-absorbed by the biosphere, but in doing so they displace naturally-produced CO2 molecules that are then left in the atmosphere (rather than being absorbed themselves), resulting in an overall increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Perhaps only 4% of atmospheric carbon dioxide originated from fossil fuels, but a much larger proportion is there indirectly as a result of fossil fuel burning. The ratio of carbon isotopes has no direct bearing on the human-caused change in overall CO2 concentration.

What we do know, according to the US EPA, is this:

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by almost 40% since pre-industrial times, from approximately 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in the 18th century to 390 ppmv in 2010. The current CO2 level is higher than it has been in at least 800,000 years.

If this improbable spike were due to natural processes, it’s a hell of a coincidence that it happened so quickly after the industrial revolution.

Now, in backing cautiously out of this particular rabbit hole, we also discover that Hieb is actually talking about the greenhouse effect, which isn’t the same thing as climate change at all.

The IJReview article follows this up with another link that tries to imply that CO2 cannot be a problem because it’s only a trace gas. That’s a straightforward non-sequitur; it simply doesn’t follow. (To assuage intuitive doubts, consider that cyanide is lethal at the concentrations we’re talking about for CO2.) The linked article also trumpets the logarithmic effect of CO2 on temperature, which is a great insight to throw at the climate modelling community who know that perfectly well and who must routinely deal with things a lot more complex than log functions (with apologies to the less mathematically-inclined).

We’ll return to CO2 concentration shortly. For now, we’ll instead confront this concoction of denialist memes:

Fellow enviroscientist Phil Jones, he of Climategate fame, admitted that there had been no global warming since 1995 in February 2010. Lovelock seems to refer to Phil Jones of the infamous “hockey stick” graph  when he declares that it is a “sin against science” to fudge data.

Climategate” has become a mythological scandal, along with the “infamous hockey stick”, that must be mentioned at all opportunities. Lovelock and others have rushed to judgement on the basis of selected stolen private emails — inherently flaky evidence. More than two years later, no allegation of “fudging data” has been sustained that I’m aware of. One wonders what Lovelock or the denialists actually want to happen over the matter, after the various investigations found no actual wrongdoing5. Do they simply want more investigations? Or should we just ignore the real findings and pretend that everyone was guilty of all the things we feverishly imagined about them?

That aside, Phil Jones emphatically did not “admit” there had been no warming since 1995, and he would have been lying if he had. Jones actually said:

I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.

This was poorly summarised as “no statistically significant warming”, which of course morphed into “no warming”. Statistical significance is nothing but a arbitrarily-chosen threshold level of probability; its absence does not alter the fact that Jones did observe a 0.12 degree/decade temperature increase. The issue is rendered irrelevant by the findings of Foster and Rahmstorf (and probably others), as mentioned above.

The IJReview article also has a swing at the “hyperbole” of James Hansen’s warning over the mining of Canada’s tar sands, where Hansen says:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

It’s worth contrasting this against Lovelock’s retracted predictions of global doom. The trouble is that Hansen actually knows his climate science, so you can’t dismiss him quite as easily as Lovelock. His idea here seems relatively straightforward: there’s enough carbon in those tar sands to wreak havoc. The world has been operating for some time on the basis that 450ppm was the “safe limit” for CO2 concentration. Hansen generously allows 500ppm in his article, but others have suggested that 350ppm is closer to the mark (which is a problem, because we’re already at 396ppm and rising). Hansen is simply comparing the projected future CO2 concentration to the reconstructed past. In effect, he’s citing precedent. This isn’t alarmism — it’s a reality check.

The IJReview article then makes a final digression into fracking, at which point my interest in the matter is finally exhausted. Lovelock seems to like the idea of fracking as well, but at the moment I don’t know enough to comment.

Although it’s an interesting exercise to write these articles, it’s unfortunate that there’s so much material. The IJReview article is a good example of a game of Chinese whispers played between people who already know what they want to hear.

  1. I suspect there is some overlap with the people who also try to coerce Quantum Theory into some sort of new-age religion. []
  2. Scientology is probably excepted here. []
  3. Indeed, a lot of what Lovelock has been quoted on recently appears to boil down purely to flippant cynicism: collectively we’re idiots, everyone is also an idiot individually, and nothing will help. Cynicism of that magnitude irritates me because it’s intellectually lazy, fundamentally useless and diverts attention from attempts to solve (or even understand) the problems we face. []
  4. I can only speculate that 11.880ppm was a product of some unseen conversation or calculation. []
  5. The investigations did find that Freedom of Information requests had been mishandled, but this has nothing to do with science per se. []