Near the beginning of J. K. Rowling's 4th Harry Potter novel, Harry and friends attend an exciting international Quidditch match. In an opening ceremony, leprechauns drop heavy gold coins on the crowd. Attendees rush to gather them up, and readers only discover 20 chapters later that leprechaun gold vanishes after a few hours. It's not real gold, it just looks like the real thing for a brief time. Rowling is quite artful here in portraying a sharp distinction between appearance and reality, a common theme in the series. Much of the plot revolved around the difference between the reality the reader knew, of Harry's knowledge of the threat from his enemy Voldemort, and the appearance to the general public, or even to high authorities, that all was well. Denial of the reality of a looming threat was rampant. The leprechaun scene also nicely characterizes the general public's frequent distraction by the latest shiny new drama or scandal, without ever having time to look deeply into the underlying reality.
And thus it is across far too much of our political landscape now. Whether on health care, economic recovery, war, or the struggle for renewable energy and fighting climate change, we, the general American public, are far too readily distracted by leprechaun gold. When the shiny new thing drops in our laps, we greedily scoop it up and invest our time in it. And just as, or even before, we start to realize this gold is not real, a new distraction pops up, whether deliberately or out of pure mischief, and we move on, never fully reconciling the fact that all the gold we just collected has vanished.
I was particularly struck the other day in reading Lawrence Krauss' latest Scientific American column, where he quotes himself from a dozen years previously:
The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.
This is the real enemy in our world today. On climate, every piece of nonsense spouted by deniers is, when you look at it carefully, either logically invalid, blatantly contradicts actual observations, completely irrelevant, or in some other way simply not a sensible claim. Leprechaun gold. Spend the time, and even those completely unfamiliar with the subject can understand why it's wrong. John Cook's Skeptical Science is a wonderful summary of those details for the vast majority of the arguments we hear from that bunch.
But, in online discussion, in debate, in those media interviews, even in standard news stories like the latest brou-ha-ha, there is somehow never the time to go into any one claim in that much detail to see why it's so wrong. Meanwhile the deniers have moved on to a new claim, and another, and another. And by the time they've done a dozen of the top fifty even the most skilled start repeating themselves but their audience doesn't have the attention span to notice, and there's still no time to look at any one claim in detail. And the shear number of different pieces of nonsense they put out makes it look like they've got something - but they don't. Every one of those somethings vanishes on closer inspection.
The peer-reviewed literature is different. Although there are occasional exceptions, in order to make it past referees and editors in a normal scientific journal the arguments in a scientific paper have to fundamentally make logical sense. The purpose of peer review is to provide a "deep look" at the one particular claim or effort that a new paper is reporting on. The occasional lapses in this process happen either from that first "deep look" not revealing a fundamental problem that becomes evident later, or more often from a failure to even take that deep look in the first place. Editors and journals that let nonsense through more than on rare occasions are justifiably not held in high regard by the rest of the scientific community. This is why it is extremely rare for any of these "denier" ideas to actually make it into the respected scientific literature - they are leprechaun gold, and there is nothing real behind them. Even those that do make it in, while they may garner disproportionate media attention initially, generally fall by the wayside and are ignored after a few years because they are proven wrong in one respect or another.
But the deniers have no lack of outlets outside of the scientific literature. Blogs, radio talk shows, major media interviews and reports, movies and TV specials, and even massive books that look like there must be something to them. Examine each of those items closely and you find a very consistent pattern of superficiality. On the surface, each argument made by these folks sounds plausible. If you haven't heard the argument before, it may seem somewhat convincing. Hear the same claim from three or four different sources and the average person becomes convinced of their truth without almost no further consideration. But if you actually take the time to dig deep and fully understand any one of these claims, it simply falls apart. Sometimes because they have misinterpreted or put in an illogical context a few tidbits of real scientific information; other times they are parroting something that has no basis in fact whatsoever.
An example chock-full of such nonsense is Australian geologist Ian Plimer's recent book Heaven and Earth, currently #2 (behind Al Gore's Our Choice) on Amazon.com's climatology best-sellers list. After criticism, Plimer challenged George Monbiot, environmental columnist for The Guardian newspaper in England, to a debate on the matter. Unstructured verbal debates unfortunately strongly favor nonsense-spouting, since it is far easier to repeat talking points than to show why they're all simply wrong. Monbiot came up with a list of specific questions about his book for Plimer to respond to in writing before he would agree to a verbal debate. Mobiot posted a copy of his letter to Plimer which is well worth reading in full. The following are some excerpts pertinent to understanding the sort of problems Plimer's book contained:
There are dozens of grave concerns raised by scientists about alleged false claims, misrepresentations and distortions in your book Heaven and Earth. Were I to try to represent them all, this post would run to many pages. So I have chosen just a few. The criteria I have used are as follows:
- These statements are either right or wrong, sourced or unsourced.
- They are critical to your argument. If they turn out to be false, they torpedo your thesis.
- If your claims are correct, you should be able to answer my questions briefly and easily.
2. Figure 3 (page 25) is a graph purporting to show that most of the warming in the 20th Century took place before 1945, and was followed by a period of sharp cooling. You cite no source for it, but it closely resembles the global temperature graph in the first edition of Martin Durkin's film The Great Global Warming Swindle. Durkin later changed the graph after it was shown to have been distorted by extending the timeline.
In your book it remains unchanged.
Tim Lambert has reproduced the graph here.
a. What is the source for the graph you used?
b. Where was it first published?
c. Whose figures does it use?
d. How do you explain the alteration of both the curves and the timeline?
4. In your discussion of global temperature trends, you maintain that:
"NASA now states that […] the warmest year was 1934." (p99)
a. Are you aware that this applies only to the United States?
b. Was this a mistake or did you deliberately confuse these two datasets?
7. You claim that:
"About 98% of the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere is due to water vapour." (p370).
"The Earth has an average surface temperature of about 15C […] If the atmosphere had no CO2, far more heat would be lost from Earth and the average surface temperature would be -3C." (p366)
Again you give no source.
a. Please provide a reference for your claim about water vapour.
b. Please explain how your two statements (98% of the greenhouse effect is caused by water vapour and 18C can be attributed to CO2) can both be true.
8. You cite a paper by Charles F Keller as the source of your claim that:
"satellites and radiosondes show that there is no global warming." (p382)
This is what the paper says:
"The big news [is] the collapse of the climate critics' last real bastion, namely that satellites and radiosondes show no significant warming in the past quarter century. Figuratively speaking, this was the center pole that held up the critics' entire "tent." Their argument was that, if there had been little warming in the past 25 years or so, then what warming was observed would have been within the range of natural variations with solar forcing as the major player. Further, the models would have been shown to be unreliable since they were predicting warming that was not happening. But now both satellite and in-situ radiosonde observations have been shown to corroborate both the surface observations of warming and the model predictions."
a. How did you manage to reverse the findings of this paper?
b. Was it a mistake or was it deliberate misrepresentation?
10. You state that:
"Volcanoes produce more CO2 than the world's cars and industries combined." (p413)
This is similar to the claim in The Great Global Warming Swindle, whose narrator maintained that:
"Volcanoes produce more CO2 each year than all the factories and cars and planes and other sources of man-made carbon dioxide put together."
But you do not provide a source for it.
This is what the US Geological Survey says:
"Human activities release more than 130 times the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes".
a. Please provide a reference for your claim.
b. How do you explain the discrepancy between this claim and the published data?
So, you would think if Ian Plimer honestly believed the things he had written in his book, he would look into each of these, and either find some justifiable reason for his statements, or find that he had made an honest error and get it corrected. The logical response to such devastating questioning is to either stand by your claims, or to clearly recognize their error and correct them. But that's not how Plimer responded to Monbiot's request at all. RealClimate has some useful commentary on the completely unrelated questions (disguised versions of more of the "hottest skeptic arguments") that Plimer sent Monbiot by way of response.
This is standard operating procedure for those who have gone this far into non-science. If you try to pin them down on any specific claim they have made, as Monbiot did with Plimer, they squirm and fidget and start spouting completely new stuff to drown out the questions on their first claims. They almost never defend their claims in detail, they just move on to new ones. And then, after a suitable time has passed for devastating critiques like Monbiot's to be forgotten, some member of the denial community starts spouting the already-debunked claims all over again, and we're back at square one. Or more accurately, two steps behind, given the ever-increasing urgency of action on the matter.
There are rare exceptions - but even then, when you look at the original claim it seems to evaporate or morph over time into something of far less significance than originally trumpeted by hangers-on and major media outlets. Witness the McIntyre-Briffa Yamal tree-ring mess. The original claim from the "skeptic", Steve McIntyre, was as usual ambiguous, but appeared to accuse a scientist, Keith Briffa, of picking a small number of specific trees in his reconstruction of temperatures in order to make the 20th-century warming (the "hockey stick") appear in his data. This was clearly how McIntyre's statements were interpreted by his hangers-on and, for example, The Telegraph of London which somehow claimed McIntyre had proved "the global warming industry is based on one massive lie". In reality, as the RealClimate post points out, evidence for 20th century warming comes from a huge number of completely unrelated sources, and certainly does not rely on tree rings. The purpose of tree ring chronologies is to try to figure out ancient temperatures, not modern ones. And of course not all trees are good measures of temperature, so some of what McIntyre claimed was true - but also perfectly good science. Briffa (or actually, his Russian colleagues) chose trees that matched the modern temperature rise because that indicates those specific trees are sensitive to changes in temperature. McIntyre's argument, such as it was, was entirely backwards.
Unfortunately, the recent hack into the CRU web server has taken down the server that held Briffa's thoughtful response. Some of it along with further discussion is available from DeepClimate. In any case, the result was a response from McIntyre that he never meant to imply Briffa was cherry-picking, that everybody has just misunderstood him. Tim Lambert has the best summary of the situation at that point.
So McIntyre appeared to be making a very specific allegation against a certain climate scientist, one which was picked up very widely, but then when the details were looked into by everybody involved, he ended up backing off that claim, stating he'd never meant it in the first place. His original statements on the matter could be interpreted several different ways of course, they were ambiguous enough (i.e. nonscientific). What he actually did mean by the whole mess remains a mystery to me, at least.
But this particular ambiguity pattern is not limited to McIntyre. There are many practitioners among the more sane-sounding "skeptics" out there. Roger Pielke Jr. for example seems to have mastered the art of ambiguous misinterpretable statements that at first sight cast doubt on climate science. This is really just another variation on the standard denier operating procedure - once again, not standing up for the claims you are making. In this case, (in addition to moving on to something else) stating that that wasn't really what you were talking about in the first place.
Some of this is just not-quite-innocent mischief, from the leprechauns among us. And some of it comes from the already-duped, trying to pawn off their leprechaun gold before it vanishes. But some of it is deliberate fraud and misrepresentation. That is not speculation on my part - Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science demonstrated a wide variety of areas where political action on behalf of some major corporations was clearly and deliberately distorting the scientific discourse. James Hoggan's recent book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming looks at the same issues in the specific case of climate change. The same "think tanks" and in some cases the same people (including physicist Fred Singer) that tried to sow doubt about the scientific consensus on harm from smoking, have been doing the same thing for years now on climate change.
Both the mischief and the fraud have real negative consequences on our world.
Our actions of our own free will are guided by our internal predictions of the future. What impact will this or that choice have on ourselves, on our families, on our nation, on the world? We cannot know the future for certain, but the more accurate information we have about the present or past, and the more specific knowledge we can glean from scientific understanding of consequences of current trends, the better we can predict. Those who provide reliable predictions are rewarded with great trust: so much depends on that knowledge of the future.
The future is at least as critically important at higher levels of human organization - the corporation, the nation, and particularly in international cooperation. Value in stock markets is governed almost exclusively by anticipation of future growth and earnings. Detailed analyses of the recent past and analogies with other companies in an industry, or with the growth of other industries, are the tools of that quite imperfect prediction system. Other markets are predictive of other outcomes; markets are even used for political predictions (some of these are probably not legal for US citizens). The high salaries and prominence given to the "punditocracy" rests on their skill at prediction - though in some cases it may also be their skill at shaping the future that is more valued. As a group they do seem strangely immune to evaluations of past failings - but humans have always had a hankering for following false prophets, so that may just be something innate.
When the leprechauns throw out their false gold to us and we run after it we do more than lose a little bit of time in a worthless pursuit. What they are doing, mischief-makers or fraudsters, is generating doubt in heretofore highly reliable predictors of the future - the scientific community. One power of science is in its almost uncanny predictive abilities. Newton's laws allow prediction of precisely where a projectile weapon will fall, from cannonballs to modern missiles. The laws of quantum mechanics allowed prediction of certain special effects in semiconductors and their reliable translation into ever-more powerful electronic circuitry. Medical studies and observations allow prediction of a variety of possible diseases given a person's present condition and various kinds of continued behavior. Smoking causes cancer (and much else).
Now in a field where there are still open questions, individual scientific studies often are over-hyped by media coverage in one way or another, so that the public may get the feeling the science is flipping back and forth from one position to another. By not representing the totality of scientific opinion but rather focusing on just a few involved individuals and their latest results, these sorts of reports are themselves part of the false gold we have to learn to ignore. Scientific consensus, the totality of research in a given area, does build slowly, but it is nearly inexorable in the direction of greater certainty about what the world is telling us.
Where there still is significant uncertainty then the future predictive power is of course going to be low. So the most important thing to get reliable predictive power from science is understanding levels of uncertainty. The most recent IPCC report (AR4 WG1 is here) attaches a level of uncertainty to ever major conclusion about climate change, and also compares with the previous report. In almost all instances the certainty of conclusions concerning the magnitude and consequences of warming have only increased.
The recent update from some IPCC participants, the Copenhagen Diagnosis, is not quite as careful about assessing the certainty of its statements, but notes a number of areas where developments in the science since the 2007 IPCC report have raised further cause for concern about future warming. In particular they note a study from Meinshausen et al (2009) that determined to limit warming by 2 degrees C (above which the changes are "likely to cause major societal and environmental disruptions through the rest of the century and beyond.") we have a 75% chance of accomplishing that if we limit emissions of fossil CO2 between 2000 and 2050 to 1000 Gigatons. In the first 9 years of this century we have already used up 350 Gt of that 1000. The "diagnosis" plots a set of curves with a slightly more generous emissions limit of 750 additional Gt (but with only 67% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C) here:
Figure 22. Examples of global emission pathways where cumulative CO2 emissions equal 750 Gt during the time period 2010-2050 (1 Gt CO2 = 3.67 Gt C [sic - actually the other way around]). At this level, there is a 67% probability of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2C. The graph shows that the later the peak in emissions is reached, the steeper their subsequent reduction has to be. The figure shows variants of a global emissions scenario with different peak years: 2011 (green), 2015 (blue) and 2020 (red). In order to achieve compliance with these curves, maximum annual reduction rates of 3.7 % (green), 5.3 % (blue) or 9.0 % (red) would be required (relative to 2008). (Source: German Advisory Council on Global Change; WBGU 2009).
If we act soon, by 2011, then the rate of emission reductions needed to stay within this 750 Gt limit (under which there's still a 1/3 chance of dangerous levels of warming) is dramatic, but not unreasonable. At 3.7% per year reduction rates, that suggests a 27-year depreciation of current fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure (coal and natural gas electric generators, oil and gas burners in homes, industrial fossil fuel use, most current forms of transportation). But waiting just nine more years before starting to turn around cuts the needed depreciation time to just 11 years (9% reduction rate).
So, if the world heeds the warnings of the scientists and does act to limit future emissions along these lines, that has significant implications on any capital invested in fossil fuel infrastructure from this point forward. If the world acts now, that impact will not be so bad, but certainly should be a guide to future investments. If the world waits near another decade, the action required then will be far more drastic, and investment losses far worse.
What if the world does not heed the scientists' warnings? The Copenhagen Diagnosis document concludes (p. 51):
* Global mean air-temperature is projected to warm 2C - 7C above pre-industrial by 2100. The wide range is mainly due to uncertainty in future emissions.
* There is a very high probability of the warming exceeding 2C unless global emissions peak and start to decline rapidly by 2020.
* Warming rates will accelerate if positive carbon feedbacks significantly diminish the efficiency of the land and ocean to absorb our CO2 emissions.
* Many indicators are currently tracking near or above the worst case projections from the IPCC AR4 set of model simulations.
If 2C is bad, heading toward 7C warming (or more, beyond 2100) is close to unimaginable. The next few decades will make very clear one way or another whether the scientists are right on all this. I have little doubt that if the world does not act now, the evidence of continued warming will eventually compel us to take far more drastic action, as the above figure suggests, even while droughts, terrible storms and sea level rise play havoc with our cities, food supply, and much of human and non-human life on the planet.
But there's a lot of leprechaun gold out there that casts doubt on such conclusions. Every one of these claims is wrong, when examined in detail (if you can actually pin the purveyor down to any detail in the first place). The need for critical thinking, questioning the things you hear, is more urgent now then ever.
Nonscientific members of the public do not need to be condescended to on this - every person is capable of looking closely at a given claim, pinning it down and watching it, reading up on it, seeing if it stands the test of time. What are the criticisms of the claim, do they make sense? For example, you might have heard that "global warming stopped in 1998". The truth is that the 2000's, for the world as a whole, were the warmest decade in recorded history, and each year was by most measures warmer than all but one or two of the preceding century. That doesn't sound like cooling. Read John Cook's summary response on the issue, and then think about why somebody might have thrown you that piece of leprechaun gold. Should you trust them on other claims of this sort? I'd suggest not.
As in Krauss's comment that I quoted at the beginning, our present-day society is far too tolerant of "blatant ... nonsense". At the least, members of the general public need to first recognize that nonsense for what it is - pick a claim you hear and investigate it - and on repeat evidence stop buying whatever the purveyors of that nonsense are selling. Make sure you have real grounds for it, but when it's clear: vote them out of office. Boycott their companies. Move your investments and your plans for the future over to those who actually know what they're talking about. You will not be sorry; if enough of us do this, there are many challenges in this world that will become surmountable. Not least of them, the climate our grandchildren will inherit.
This is really a fundamental cultural change - not an easy one, but one that is tremendously important to the vitality of democratic society. If people want to make strong arguments, sure, let them make them. But make them clearly, and stick around to defend them. Those who gallop on to the next claim without bothering to support their first (or acknowledging error) should be resoundingly ignored from here on out.