Denying the Climate Catastrophe: 1. Introduction

Last month I outlined my position on global warming to a fabulous audience at the Athenaeum at Claremont-McKenna College.  In doing so, I had a chance to substantially update my presentation materials.  I realized that it had been years since I had posted this presentation as anything but a video, and so I embark over the next several weeks to lay my position out in a multi-part written series.

Table of Contents (updated as new chapters are added)

  1. Introduction (this article)
  2. Greenhouse Gas Theory
  3. Feedbacks
  4.  A)  Actual Temperature Data; B) Problems with the Surface Temperature Record
  5. Attribution of Past Warming;  A) Arguments for it being Man-Made;  B) Natural Attribution
  6. Climate Models vs. Actual Temperatures
  7. Are We Already Seeing Climate Change
  8. The Lukewarmer Middle Ground
  9. A Low-Cost Insurance Policy

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I suppose the first question I need to answer is:  why should you bother reading this?  We are told the the science is "settled" and that there is a 97% consensus among scientists on .... something.  Aren't you the reader just giving excess credence to someone who is "anti-science" just by reading this?

Well, this notion that the "debate is over" is one of those statements that is both true and not true.  There is something approaching scientific consensus for certain parts of anthropogenic global warming theory -- for example, the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that concentrations of it in the atmosphere have a warming effect on the Earth is pretty much undisputed in all but the furthest reaches of the scientific community.

But it turns out that other propositions that are important to the debate on man-made global warming are far less understood scientifically, and the near certainty on a few issues (like the existence of the greenhouse gas effect) is often used to mask real questions about these other propositions.  So before we go any further , it is critical for us to get very clear what exact proposition we are discussing.

At this point I have to tell a story from over thirty years ago when I saw Ayn Rand speak at Northeastern University (it's hard to imagine any university today actually allowing Rand on campus, but that is another story).  In the Q&A period at the end, a woman asked Rand, "Why don't you believe in housewives?" and Rand answered, in a very snarky fashion, "I did not know housewives were a matter of belief."   What the woman likely meant to ask was "Why don't you believe that being a housewife is a valid occupation for a woman?"  But Rand was a bear for precision in language and was not going to agree or disagree with a poorly worded proposition.

I am always reminded of this story when someone calls me a climate denier.  I want to respond, in Rand's Russian accent, "I did not know that climate was a matter of belief?"

But rather than being snarky here, let's try to reword the "climate denier" label and see if we can get to a proposition with which I can agree or disagree.

Am I, perhaps, a "climate change denier?"  Well, no.  I don't know anyone who is.  The world has had warm periods and ice ages.  The climate changes.

OK, am I a "man-made climate change denier?"  No again.  I know very few people, except perhaps for a few skeptics of the talkshow host variety, that totally deny any impact of man's actions on climate.  Every prominent skeptic I can think of acknowledges multiple vectors of impact by man on climate, from greenhouse gas emissions to land use.

If you have to slap a label on me, I am a "catastrophic man-made climate change denier."  I deny the catastrophe.   Really, I would prefer "catastrophic man-made global warming denier" because there is no mechanism by which man's CO2 emissions can affect climate except through the intermediate step of warming.   The name change from "global warming" to "climate change" was, to my mind, less about science and more about a marketing effort to deal with the fact the temperatures had plateaued over the last 10-20 years and to allow activists to point to tail of the distribution weather events and call them man-made.    But we get ahead of ourselves.  We will discuss all of this in later sections.

In this series I will therefore be discussing what I will call the "Catastrophic Man-Made Global Warming Theory."   There are a lot of moving parts to this theory, so I will use the following framework as a structure for my discussion.

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This framework follows the work of the UN IPCC, an international panel that meets every 5 years or so to summarize the state of climate science in general and catastrophic man-made global warming in particular.  While I will obviously disagree with the IPCC canon from time to time, I will try to always point out when I do so.  However, I don't think any climate scientists would argue with the framework I am using here to describe their theory.

The first thing you will see, and perhaps the most important single point you should take away from this discussion, is that the core theory of catastrophic man-made global warming is actually a two part theory.  In part one, which is essentially greenhouse gas theory, a doubling of CO2 warms the Earth by a bit over 1 degree Celsius.  But there is a second part of the theory, a theory that is entirely unrelated to greenhouse gas theory.  That theory states that the Earth's climate systems are dominated by positive feedbacks which multiply the initial warming from CO2 by 3- 5 times or more.

It is this two-part theory that causes me, and many other skeptics, the most frustration in the climate debate.  For when advocates say the science is "settled," they really mean that greenhouse gas theory is pretty well accepted.  But this is only one part of a two-part theory, and in fact the catastrophe actually comes from the second theory, the theory that the climate is dominated by positive feedbacks, and this second theory is far from settled.  But again, I get ahead of myself, we will cover this all in great depth in later sections.

No theory in science has any meaning until it is confirmed by observations, so the bottom half of our framework deals with observational evidence for the theory.   The IPCC claims that the Earth has warmed about 0.8C over the last century, and that [much/substantial/most/all/more than 100%] of this warming is due to man.  The IPCC and many scientists have played with the wording of the amount of warming attributable to man over the years, and rather than deal with that complexity here, we will wait until we get to that section.  But it is fair to say that IPCC canon is that man's contribution to the warming is probably not less than half and could be more than 100%.

Finally, on the right of our framework, this man-made warming has the potential to cause all sorts of changes -- to weather patterns, to animal species, to disease vectors -- you name it.  Pick any possible negative effect -- more hurricanes, more tornadoes, more heat waves, more snow, less snow, lower crop yields, more malaria, more rain, less rain, more terrorism, rising sea levels, displaced persons, more acne, etc. etc. -- and someone has been quoted in the media claiming the link to warming.  When something bad happened in Medieval Europe, it was typically blamed on Jews or marginalized women (via witchcraft accusations).   Today, global warming is the new all-purpose target of blame.

Over many installments and several weeks, I hope to walk through this framework and discuss the state of the science (for those who can't wait, I wrote a much shorter overview here several years ago).  We will discuss parts of the science that are well-grounded -- such as man-made warming from greenhouse gas theory and the fact that the Earth has warmed over the last century.  We will discuss parts of the science I consider exaggerated -- such as the claim of large positive feedback multipliers of future warming and attribution of all past warming to man.  And we will discuss parts of the theory which, despite constant repetition in the press, have absolutely no evidence behind them whatsoever -- such as the claim that we are already seeing negative effects from warming such as more hurricanes and tornadoes.

Part 2 on the greenhouse gas theory continues here.

  • BobSykes

    I agree that the Earth has warmed, and I agree that CO2 is a green-house gas. But I am skeptical that it drives climate, the reason being the Vostok ice cores. They show that temperature changes lead CO2 changes and imply there is another driver at work, probably sun-related. The recent warming also leads CO2 increases. One possible mechanism was proposed by Henrik Svensmark and is related to the solar wind:

  • stan

    Given the complete absence of any quality control in science, I suspect that we 'know' even less than you think. From the standpoint of making an argument, I realize that you can concede all manner of "facts" to the alarmists and still win convincingly. Just saying that it would not surprise me at all if the shoddiness of so much of the research is eventually exposed and we learn that there is a whole lot wrong with the present understanding.

  • Daublin

    It's wonderful for you to continue this fight.

    Strategically, I try to focus more to the policies than on the horrid pseudo-science being used to support them. Though both are worthy of attention.

    If the catastrophe story is true, then partial measures are worthless. The catastrophe story is that there's a tipping point for CO2 after which the Earth is just going to be miserable to live on. If you reduce CO2 emissions, but still leave them high, then the tipping point will still be reached, just somewhat later. Truly arresting the growth of CO2 would require massive changes to society.

    There are no contenders for policies that would really do the trick. The ones that are getting major play are all quite bad on this score. Gas taxes will not do the trick until they are high enough to cause well over half of all vehicle transportation to stop: that includes private automobiles, trains, busses, and electric cars, too. So long as anything like the current fleet is out on the road, there's going to be too much energy consumed for anything but nuclear power to put a stop to the emissions.

    CAFE and Energy Star fall down, as well. The devices they regulate are already reasonably efficient. Further requirements make the devices more expensive--and thus are a gift to the folks creating them--but do little to reduce energy usage. If you include the manufacturing of the devices, then the energy usage often goes net up over the life of the device.

    Alternate energy sources aren't going to do it unless they replace most of the existing power plants. Nuclear can do that, as far as I know, but solar, wind, water, and geothermal are all just way too limited.

    Finally, there's a distinct lack of emphasis on CO2 sequestration. It's hypocritical to say that CO2 is important, but only when it applies to my favorite pet projects. If it's important then it's important, and we should be fighting it. So where are the calls for work on sequestration? It affects CO2 from all sources, and it should be effective if the technology is improved. Sequestration should be the first solution attempted, not the last. Not for someone who thinks CO2 is dangerous.

  • Eric Wilner

    The "dominated by positive feedbacks" premise is what I call "as cockeyed as Trenco's ether", because if the real world did have strong positive feedbacks it would be as uninhabitable as the planet Trenco in the Lensman universe, with wild excursions in both climate and weather in response to small stimuli.
    Our existence is strong evidence for negative feedbacks. The climate system shows signs of being, generally, stable and well damped. (This also puts the kibosh on quantum weather butterflies. If the butterfly effect were real, any adverse climate change could be literally handwaved away.)

  • Joe - A climate scientist


    There is solid scientific evidence that the positive feedbacks know that they are only supposed to kick in when the warming is due to CO2 induced warming. Positive feedbacks have a unique inherit ability to differentiate between the different causes of warming. In fact the positive feedbacks have demonstrated that ability by remaining dormant during any of the prior warming periods yet knowing they will emerge to wreck havoc during any human caused co2 warming.

    FYI - the aforementioned explanation officially qualifies me as a renowned climate scientist.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    Has the earth warmed? Well of course we came out of a global cooling around 1850. Has it warmed as much as the last time we came out of a global cooling? No that would be the medieval warming period that was much warmer than this warming period. So if these warming and cooling periods are cyclical why do we think that this relatively modest warming cycle is caused by humans? Because there is an opportunity for huge power and money redistribution and those that stand to benefit from this scam will not be denied. There is no lie, no false claim, no threat or bluff that will not be made to get what they want. But what if the people are smarter than the warmies think? Bwahahahaha!!!

  • Brennan

    Stop it with the science already, and just look at historical results: "A warmer world is a healthier world."


  • David Zetland

    Nice overview. I'm curious to see your feedbacks post.

  • Chris

    The catastrophic climate warming theory shows a 3x to 5x positive feedback. Anybody who has studied control theory knows that positive feedback of 1x or more leads to a runaway condition, driving the system to "the rails." Which, if true, we're screwed so why bother to do anything to "reduce" the problem? It can't possibly work.

  • Peabody

    Until there are glaciers in Ohio again it's too hot.

  • Joe - A climate scientist

    my explanation below sums up the logic of the AGW scientific theory of positive feedbacks.

    The same AGW logic applies to the 3 foot sea level rise within the next 100 years. Even though all the anctartic ice cores and greenland ice cores show significant volumes of ice during all the prior warm periods, the ice has the inherit knowledge to know it is to completely melt if the warming is human caused due to co2, but only if it is human caused warming.

  • Earl Wertheimer

    'Any Rand' ? I used to bike from Montreal to Boston every year to hear her at the Ford Hall Forum...

  • geran

    (I'm joining the discussion late, sorry.)

    You wrote: "There is something approaching scientific consensus for certain parts of anthropogenic global warming theory -- for example, the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that concentrations of it in the atmosphere have a warming effect on the Earth is pretty much undisputed in all but the furthest reaches of the scientific community."

    I got a chuckle out of "in all but the furthest reaches of the scientific community". If you realize how much the "scientific community" has been corrupted, then yeah, you have to go to the far-flung outposts to find any semblance of actual science.

    CO2 does NOT have a "warming effect". Thinking that it does is the result of years and years of indoctrination. CO2 is a spent fuel. It is not a thermodynamic heat source. The AGW industry has spent billions to delude the public. People are convinced that atmospheric CO2 "traps" heat. It then somehow hurls that heat back to Earth, causing the surface to overheat.

    It's a good horror story, but fails in reality.

  • Toby Joyce

    If you do not even know what the IPCC is, or how often it meets, then I need not bother reading the rest of this.

  • Joshua

    While they meet yearly, they only produce an assessment report about every 5 years or so. In what other ways did he get IPCC wrong?

  • Toby Joyce

    The IPCC is a UN body with a small permanent secretariat in Geneva.

    To produce one report the IPCC have an international "staff" of thousands of unpaid scientists and experts trawling through current scientific publications. The 5-yearly reports are just the tip of an iceberg of continuous reading and review of mammoth proportion to reduce and summarise all the published literature of the previous years into one document (actually three, with special summaries for policy-makers). Since the reports take a year to review and publish, a guillotine is brought down about a year before projected publication date. That means the reports may be slightly out of date when published.

  • jburack

    Totally trivial point. Why is this obviousness relevant to anything claimed here? Also, how can the reports be "out of date" if this is all already settled?

  • lukelea

    One quibble -- actually more than a quibble: The author assumes that each doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to an equal increase in the temperature, other things being equal.

    But according the physicist Lubos Motl (former Harvard Fellow), the relationship is not linear by logarithmic (i.e., the opposite of exponential) . That is to say, while the first doubling may increase the temperature by x degrees, the second doubling will increase it by a significantly less amount. The physical reason (if I understand the argument correctly) is that there is only so much radiation being reflected back from the earth in the narrow band of wave lengths that CO2 interferes with.

    He likens it to painting a room while that was black before: the first coat masques most of the black, the second coat gets rid of most of the rest that is still showing through.

    But he explains it much better than I can:

  • Bill_Woods

    Logarithmic is correct. But that means if CO2 goes up by a factor of 2^n, temperature goes up by a factor of n. So if CO2 goes from 300ppm to 600, temp goes up 1.5–4.5 degrees; if CO2 goes up further from 600 to 1200, temp goes up another 1.5–4.5 deg (3–9 deg total).

    Linear would be: CO2 goes up by a factor of n, temperature goes up by a factor of n. So if CO2 goes from 300 to 600, temp goes up 1.5–4.5 degrees; if CO2 goes up fourfold to 1200, temp also goes up fourfold: 6–18 deg total.

  • John Whitney

    The argument that ice core records show temperature rising prior to CO2 concentrations rising, thus CO2 cannot be the source of historic temperature rises, has been dispelled by numerous climate experts. Unfortunately the author conveniently fails to mention this in his discussion. This fact, in itself, is enough to make me suspicious of the validity of his overall argument. Please see this link for a discussion and rebuttal of this bit of global warming misunderstanding and misinformation:

  • Paolo Pagliaro

    Apart from ignorant comments about Medieval Europe, I appreciated this introduction.