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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Strong opinions

Many people seem to feel strongly that global warming is inevitable. But how can they possibly know?

To have an informed opinion on global warming you'd need extensive knowledge of a wide range of technical subjects. You have to know the historical patterns of temperature change going back hundreds of thousands of years. To be able to calculate how much methane might be released from the ocean floor by warmer water temperatures. To factor in the earth's orbital patterns and how solar variation affects planetary temperatures. To understand the breakdown rate of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. To be able to calculate exactly how much the depletion of the ozone layer will increase water vapor in the atmosphere, and how the increased water vapor will affect temperatures. To understand how the height of the troposphere changes the emission of infrared radiation. (That last bit was lifted from Wikipedia; don't worry, I don't understand it either.)

Any of you who understand all these things and have pondered long on how they will all interact over the next hundred years, please feel free to speak up. Otherwise, please hold your peace.

Thank you.

Yes, the average temperature has increase 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. Yes, Arctic ice is retreating. And yes, human beings are burning fossil fuels and clearing natural vegetation at heretofore unseen rates. And it does seem logical that these activities would have an effect on the atmosphere. This post isn't a brief against the hypothesis of global warming. (I actually think it would be a good idea to cut down on carbon emissions for a number of reasons.) It's merely a brief against people with strong opinions about subjects they can't possibly understand. Most of us can't predict the weather a week from now. We can look at the forecast. But we'd be hard pressed to come up with one on our own.

Predicting global warming is essentially predicting the weather 20, 40, or 100 years in the future.

Al Gore, by the way, is not a scientific expert either. He is a politician with an agenda. His movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was anything but truthful. One example: in order to show how water is being mismanaged, he showed a film of a flowing river, then showed how by the next year it had run dry. He never mentioned that the reason the river had gone dry was because a dam had been built upstream during the previous year. (Perhaps he was too busy turning on the lights in his mansion in Tennessee, which has ten times the carbon footprint of the average American house.)

The global warming debate is a little reminiscent of the controversy years ago over whether the Air Force needed the B2 bomber. Many people seemed to have a strong opinion on the subject, yet very few were scientists, let alone armaments experts. Sometimes these people would be able to quote an expert who leaned their way; yet there were experts on both sides of this issue, and it seemed to me that most of these people would simply pick an expert who leaned their way. (And yes, almost all the people that I knew with strong opinions were liberals.)

It's also a bit like predicting the direction of the stock market, whose path is determined by a myriad of factors, all of which interact in infinitely complex ways, making reliable prediction basically impossible. One thing I learned after twelve years on Wall Street was that the surer a person was of the direction of the market, the more full of it he was.

The same might be said of opinions on global warming. Our planet has gone through five Ice Ages (and subsequent warming periods) in the past 800,000 years. No one completely understands why they occurred. And no one, least of all nonscientists, should feel certain about where we're headed in the future.

It's not a crime to say, "I don't know."

I once heard that true wisdom was knowing what you don't know.

As good a definition as any.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I count myself as a human induced, catastrophic global warming skeptic – particularly in terms of possible magnitude and potential harm to mankind.

In my view there a many problems with global warming calamity camp’s case, and overall it doesn’t pass the sniff test.

CONSENSUS
We often hear that there is scientific consensus that dangerous human induced global warming is upon us. Therefore dissent must be squelched – we don’t have time to debate, we must focus all resources on fighting global warming now!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports list large number of scientists signing on. A problem is that the great majority of them are scientists in fields that have nothing to do with climate science. The IPCC alarmist summaries (and most of the press just reads the summary) published are political documents, not science.

Why the heavy strategic emphasis on ‘consensus’, and using the declared consensus to attempt to end debate and silence dissent? Consensus is a political term, not a scientific one. Science should always welcome debate, with theories continuously challenged. Especially theories that cannot be tested, and therefore rigorously proven, such as human induced catastrophic global warming. The attempts to silence dissent should raise everyone’s suspicions about the motives involved, and above all the strength of the case itself.

Here are four prominent names who do dissent:
- Richard Lindzen, MIT climate scientist
- Roy W Spencer, former NASA scientist, Ph.D. in meteorology
- David Deming, Ph.D in geophysics
- William Happer, Professor of Physics Princeton: who recently requested to be added to a group of 650 ‘dissenters’

MODELING
As you pointed out, climate is a tremendously complicated multivariate problem. Al Gore’s ‘the world is in great peril’ predictions are the product of computer modeling.

It’s not only you and I who can’t predict the weather a week in advance – there is no professional meteorologist, with all the latest high power computers and computer models at his disposal, who can do so either. In fact none of us are surprised, even now in 2009, when the weather forecast for two or three days in advance is flatly wrong.

However, a large part of the population appears to accept that computer models can predict the earth’s temperature 50 years in advance with enough accuracy that we should immediately implement draconian measures that will cause immense human suffering, to attempt to fight that computer model’s output.

Computer models, by necessity, use assumed values for some variables. The computer cannot account for every molecule in the atmosphere, nor every cloud, nor the variations in precipitation, atmospheric water vapor, variations in the brilliance of the sun, etc. etc. Every one of these simplifying assumptions can make a big difference. The bottom line is that you can tweak these variables to get any results you want. The problem is greatly increased with modeling the earth’s climate, where it is impossible to conduct controlled experiments to nail down more accurate values.

I have worked with sophisticated software to model thermal problems related to computers. How simple a computer is compared to the earth’s climate: a computer is usually less than several cubic feet in volume, a lot of data can be measured precisely before being input to the model, etc. Yet, a good result can be considered +/- 20% in this realm, which is orders of magnitude simpler than modeling the earth’s climate.

One well known aspect of computer modeling is ‘fudging’ the data. You make the model, then the hardware comes in, you make measurements and find the model was wrong. Then you go back and start playing with the model’s variables to make it match the results. Today’s climate models cannot recreate the known historical climate (such as the Medieval warm period). That is, they cannot take the known climate data over the past centuries, and make a model that generates those same results. This is a red flag, flying high, on the predictive ability of these climate models.

Remember the 1970’s? At that time the national news story was catastrophic global cooling – and again humanity was at fault. Pollutant particles in the air were supposed to be screening out the sun’s rays. Ooops.


DISASTERS, SEA LEVELS
We are led to believe, by today’s major media, that we are seeing unprecedented natural disasters that are a direct result of global warming. However, for one example, the number of hurricanes each year has been following its usual cyclical pattern for the past century. There are now new wind speed measurement techniques that, for the same storm, allow scientists to record higher maximum wind speeds than in the early 1900’s, This accounts for a small increase in apparent intensity.

Sea levels have been increasing at a constant rate for 20,000 years. During the 1900’s – it was right in the middle of the range. Nothing unusual.

What has changed is that there are greater number of humans living in nature’s ‘natural’ path of destruction than every before, i.e. near the ocean and rivers. So when natural disasters do occur, more people are hurt by them.

FOLLOW THE MONEY
Anyone who thinks that all the PhD’s who are receiving lots of funding to confirm and pump the catastrophic global warming agenda are pure as driven snow and immune from concerns about their next paycheck and financial well being, are na├»ve. A local biology professor told me that its common knowledge that when writing grant proposals, its essential to include something about climate change – even if the grant request has absolutely nothing to do with climate change. You want the grant money, you include something about global warming.

Ever notice that weathermen emphasize hot temperatures, but de-emphasize cold? Around the country, the hottest temperature is news. Or that the predicted high temperature for the coming days is almost always higher than it really turns out to be, rarely cooler? Weathermen were called upon by the Clinton administration to fan global warming hysteria. Seems to me they are still doing it, and hey – it’s a good story for keeping public interest = more revenue.

The earth’s temperatures have been flat since the late 90’s, and a dramatic cooling began two years ago. How may headlines have you seen on this?

BENEFITS OF HIGHER CO2
Happer points out that higher CO2 concentrations are an important factor in the increased crop yields we have seen.

Which is a greater danger to humanity – warmer temperatures or colder? During the Medieval warm period the earth’s temperatures were dramatically warmer than they are today. Humanity flourished. How does humanity do in an ice age? Not so well. If we could set the earth’s temperature by merely turning a dial, where would we set it? According to what I’ve read, even when the earth has been much, much warmer than it is today, the temperature at the equator has been about the same as it is today. If that’s as hot as it gets, how alarming is that?

As CO2 concentrations increase the proportional warming affect decreases. Radiation heat transfer is a function of the temperature of one body raised to the fourth power minus the temperature of the other body to the 4th power. So the heat exchange dramatically increases as the temperature difference between them increases.

THE COST TO HUMANITY
We are being asked to bear tremendous expense to reduce CO2 production to fight the phantom (I believe) catastrophic human induced global warming. This is bad for the economy, bad for the poor. Its also bad in that it diverts resources to all the other more positive places they could and should go – either through the ‘invisible hand’ or through human choice, i.e. if humanity is going to voluntarily invest a massive amount of money intended to benefit humanity, there are better choices.

We could pass a national law that all fruits and vegetables must be fluorescent pink. This would create a huge new industry – lots of genetic engineering, experimentation, maybe new crop techniques. A new ‘fluorescent pink’ economy! Jobs! Yes, fruits and vegetables will cost more, but its worth it! The Green economy is likely not much different.

We should burn all our fossil fuels. As they become more scarce the price will rise and alternative energy will become cost competitive.

Meanwhile, the burden of the proposed CO2 curbing measures will be born by the western world. China will continue to belch untreated exhaust from coal plants into the atmosphere, and kick our rear end economically. We are not in a position to bear the burden that the global alarming alarmists wish to impose upon us.

John Craig said...

Thank you for your extensive comment. You obviously know much more about this than I do. I won't make a hypocrite of myself by even attempting to reply, I don't know nearly enough to do so.