Thoughts on Challenging the Climate Orthodoxy

I have over several months been answering questions about my climate positions -- I think for a woman's school project but I honestly can't remember any more.  Anyway, I answered a question for her today and though I did not spend a ton of time on it, I thought I would share.

She asked:

Why do you find it unproductive to argue for something based on how many experts are agreeing to it? Wouldn't it be hubris to dismiss the fact that a number of experts are contradicting you on a subject that is pretty complex and is something that isn't nesessarily understood intuitively?

http://www.climate-skeptic.com/2010/05/my-interview-on-climate-with-esquire-middle-east.html .You state “I find judging science by counting scientists to be unproductive.”.  

Why do you believe it is unproductive to take such a point into serious consideration?

The way I see it. there is this kind of logic:

A math student works on a very complicated math problem from his homework and has all his justifications for his answer. However, it turns out that his math professor has a different answer-- which is saying something important. It would be a slippery slope for the student to posit that his answer is right and the professor's answer is wrong just because the justification he came up with on his own always leads him back to the same answer. (That is, unless he found out an explanation for why his professor got that answer, like say-- maybe the professor never worked out the problem by himself and looked at an answer key which was wrong.)

My off the cuff responses to the student:

  • This is not a simple math problem.  It is a super complex multi-variable chaotic system in which we are trying to attribute changes in one output variable (temperature) to a single input variable out of thousands or millions (CO2).  I think the majority of the hubris (given the state of our knowledge) is on the certainty side, not the doubting side.  I would observe, by the way, that many of the exact same people who use this "you must respect the experts" argument against climate skeptics themselves challenge many expert assertions, e.g. that minimum wages reduce employment or that GMO's are safe, that are supported by at least as many experts in those other fields.  You would be unusual if you personally do not disagree with some proposition that most of the "experts" support.
  • The way folks often describe science when trying to criticize climate skeptics sounds to me a lot more like religion than science.  Saying that there are fundamental assertions that one cannot challenge is a feature of religion, not true science.  Science is about having a theory, making predictions from that theory, and if those predictions consistently turn out to be true, then gaining confidence in the theory.  Many of global warming predictions have been wrong -- they have overestimated temperature increases to date, hurricanes and tornadoes are not getting more frequent, droughts are not getting more frequent, etc (do not confuse the frequency of these events in the news with their actual underlying frequency -- go live with the data at the NOAA to see that all these severe weather trends are dead flat).  But no one goes back and relooks at the model or theories and those that do point out these shortcomings, eg. skeptics, are threatened with censure.  Does not sound like science to me.
  • I am not without relevant expertise.  Though I don't have as deep of climate knowledge as some, I know a lot about modeling chaotic multivariable systems (in finance and economics) and know exactly what the shortcomings of models are and can recognize the patterns of many mistakes in climate that I have seen in other fields of modeling.  Further, the key difference skeptics have with alarmists is the expectation of strong positive feedbacks in the climate accelerating temperatures greatly.  My major and research work in college were in dynamic systems and feedbacks.  Climate scientists are positing that there is more positive feedback in the climate system than exists in any other stable natural system we know about.  That is worth some skepticism if one understands feedbacks.
  • The experts in climate would be a lot more credible if they were more transparent and open to discourse.  Instead, they frequently refuse to release their data (even on government-funded projects) for replication and carefully engineer peer review panels so no one who actually disagrees with them are on it.  It has been years since any climate "expert" has agreed to participate in a public debate.
  • The most important answer is that what the "experts" are saying and what the media and the general public are saying the experts are saying is completely different.  There is a bait and switch going on, where the majority (though maybe not the most vocal) of the experts are very careful and conservative (little c) in their claims, but they are portrayed as being all-in en masse on the most outrageous and spectacular of the claims by activists.  I would refer you to this article, but I will reprint below the key part to your question:

So let's come back to our original question -- what is it exactly that skeptics "deny."  As we have seen, most don't deny the greenhouse gas theory, or that the Earth has warmed some amount over the last several year.  They don't even deny that some of that warming has likely been via man-made CO2.  What they deny is the catastrophe -- they argue that the theory of strong climate positive feedback is flawed, and is greatly exaggerating the amount of warming we will see from man-made CO2.  And, they are simultaneously denying that most or all of past warming is man-made, and arguing instead that the amount that is natural and cyclic is being under-estimated.

So how about the "97% of scientists" who purportedly support global warming?  What proposition do they support?  Let's forget for a minute a variety of concerns about cherry-picking respondents in studies like this  (I am always reminded by such studies of the quote attributed, perhaps apocryphally,  to Pauline Kael that she couldn't understand how Nixon had won because no one she knew voted for him).  Let's look at the actual propositions the 97% agreed to in one such study conducted at the University of Illinois.  Here they are:
 
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
 
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
 
The 97% answered "risen" and "yes" to these two questions.  But depending on how one defines "significant" (is 20% a significant factor?) I could get 97% of a group of science-based skeptics to agree to the same answers.
 
So this is the real problem at the heart of the climate debate -- the two sides are debating different propositions!  In our chart, proponents of global warming action are vigorously defending the propositions on the left side [see chart in the original], propositions with which serious skeptics generally already agree.   When skeptics raise issues about climate models, natural sources of warming, and climate feedbacks, advocates of global warming action run back to the left side of the chart and respond that the world is warming and greenhouse gas theory is correct.    At best, this is a function of the laziness and scientific illiteracy of the media that allows folks to talk past one another;  at worst, it is a purposeful bait-and-switch to avoid debate on the tough issues.

I could have also said that there were several times in class when I challenged the teacher on a math problem answer and I was right and they were wrong.  My wife-to-be was actually in one of these classes and can testify to the fact.

By the way, I find the last point I made about bait and switch to be surprisingly similar to problems I have arguing net neutrality.  The problem is that the FCC's actions under Obama were NOT net neutrality, they were applying early 1900's telephone regulation which pretty much killed innovation in that industry to the Internet.  Unfortunately, everyone calls those regulations "net neutrality" so if you oppose these dumb counter-productive regulations one is somehow against net neutrality when in fact it is nothing of the sort.

  • joe the non climate scientists

    "The experts in climate would be a lot more credible if they were more transparent and open to discourse. "

    I think the climate scientist would be credible if they would correct the activists and quite making unsupportable claims
    3 foot sea level rise by end of century
    climate change causes migration
    climate change causes wars
    or most everything else posted on skeptical science.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    This is easy. Those who favor the global warming CO2 argument tend to be socialist or if not politicial will benefit from the socialist policies and taxes that the "fix" requires. This was never about warming or climate or science it was always about politics, socialism power and money. Now I recognize and accept that some people, perhaps many people are on the climate/CO2 bandwagon with neither political nor science being their motive. They are merely followers or useful idiots. The bottom line here is that this whole AGW thing is just a scam and all the proof in the world won't change the mind of those who will benefit from this meme because they are in it for the power and money they hope it will bring to them.

  • irandom419

    I'm shocked you'd say such a thing. That could be taken to mean that they'd only disagree with models whose outcome they don't like.

    "And finally, there is Yucca Mountain the computer model. This Yucca
    Mountain is the most difficult to see, let alone understand. It is the
    virtual product of a program called a Monte Carlo simulation that
    calculates how much risk the real mountain’s specific flaws—water
    percolating through the rock, groundwater flowing beneath, potential
    earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—will pose over the thousands of years
    that the waste will remain dangerously radioactive. In its ethereal
    way, this ghost of Yucca Mountain embodies both the technocratic hubris
    and the gambler’s faith in the odds that have brought us to the brink of
    a decision whose consequences, as acknowledged by everyone involved, we
    cannot foresee."

    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2001/09/yucca-mountain-nuclear-roulette/

  • steamboatlion

    There's another important step in the disagreement - even if one accepts the most alarming claims about the climate - what to do about it. That's when we step into the realm of economics - how to address the "problem" in the most cost-effective way. Funny how those who scream "you must listen to the 97% of scientists" don't scream "you must listen to the 99% of economists."

  • Unknown Commenter

    Climate change causes volcanoes and meteor crashes.

  • morganovich

    i would add one key item to your response:

    it is not consensus that matters, but predictive value. if 90% of weathermen agreed that it was going to rain in the morning on wednesday, three weeks from now, you still wouldn't believe them and certainly would not go out of your way to incur expense presuming they were right.

    it's funny how no one trusts a weatherman about a forecast 2 weeks in the future, but, suddenly, if we try to extrapolate the same things 100 years into the future, it seems totally credible. it isn't. the best arguments against climate alarmism are the alarists own models. they have exhibited such pitiful predictive value as to not even look wrong but to basically appear like gibberish.

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/12/14/the-real-ipcc-ar5-draft-bombshell-plus-a-poll/

    =this graph pretty much says it all. this is not from some "fringe" publication funded by "big oil" or some other such bugbear or trope. this is right out of the UN's IPCC AR5 report. note that the data before 2000 doesn't count. the models were made in 2000, they knew the past data, and it's easy to rig a model to fit the past. but look at the future. it's been a total miss.

    the low end of the IPCC scenarios actually involved a DROP in co2 levels. instead, we got a co2 rise that considerably exceeded the worst case scenario. when you get a worse than worst case key input and a better than best case output, your model is junk. any 5th grader could see that.

    yet the IPCC used this result to claim in the "summary for policymakers" (which, oddly, is published first before the science chapters are even finished, a practice that raises some interesting questions) to claim they were nbo more sure than every that they were right.

    we believe people whose predictions are shown to be accurate. you design a bridge, it stays up, carries predicted loads, and OK, we validate the architectural principles you used. but this bridge fell down. it's a pile of wreckage in the bay. why would we give the builders credence as experts?

  • joe - the non climate scientis

    climate change also cause Sandy to arrive the land funnel into NYC at both high tide and during the new moon.

  • joe - the non climate scientis

    I will add the a couple of points on the models and the activists comparison to the accuracy.

    1) they frequently use Hansens model pointing out how close/accurate it was after the 2015/2016 el nino. What they activists dont point out is that A) the model the use is the model C scenario and it is the revised model C which showed a lower rate of warming that the original model C
    2) The observed temps are cyclical - just like everything in nature - similar to a sine wave - The observed temps only reach the modeled amounts in Model C in the crest of the sine wave , ie during the el nino years. If the models were really accurate, the projected temps would be in the middle of the cyclical sine wave

  • stan

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/06/22/a-response-to-dr-paul-bains-use-of-denier-in-scientific-literature/

    "The issue of difficulty is key. Let me tell you in a few short words why I am a skeptic. First of all, if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures! Seriously. Not one human being on the planet would look at that complete record — or even the complete record of temperatures during the Holocene, or the Pliestocene — and stab down their finger at the present and go “Oh no!”. Quite the contrary. It isn’t the warmest. It isn’t close to the warmest. It isn’t the warmest in the last 2 or 3 thousand years. It isn’t warming the fastest. It isn’t doing anything that can be resolved from the natural statistical variation of the data. Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA and MWP restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

    Furthermore, examination of this record over the last 5 million years reveals a sobering fact. We are in an ice age, where the Earth spends 80 to 90% of its geological time in the grip of vast ice sheets that cover the polar latitudes well down into what is currently the temperate zone. We are at the (probable) end of the Holocene, the interglacial in which humans emerged all the way from tribal hunter-gatherers to modern civilization. The Earth’s climate is manifestly, empirically bistable, with a warm phase and cold phase, and the cold phase is both more likely and more stable. As a physicist who has extensively studied bistable open systems, this empirical result clearly visible in the data has profound implications. The fact that the LIA was the coldest point in the entire Holocene (which has been systematically cooling from the Holocene Optimum on) is also worrisome. Decades are irrelevant on the scale of these changes. Centuries are barely relevant. We are nowhere near the warmest, but the coldest century in the last 10,000 years ended a mere 300 years ago, and corresponded almost perfectly with the Maunder minimum in solar activity.

    There is absolutely no evidence in this historical record of a third stable warm phase that might be associated with a “tipping point” and hence “catastrophe” (in the specific mathematical sense of catastrophe, a first order phase transition to a new stable phase). It has been far warmer in the past without tipping into this phase. If anything, we are geologically approaching the point where the Earth is likely to tip the other way, into the phase that we know is there — the cold phase. A cold phase transition, which the historical record indicates can occur quite rapidly with large secular temperature changes on a decadal time scale, would truly be a catastrophe. Even if “catastrophic” AGW is correct and we do warm another 3 C over the next century, if it stabilized the Earth in warm phase and prevented or delayed the Earth’s transition into cold phase it would be worth it because the cold phase transition would kill billions of people, quite rapidly, as crops failed throughout the temperate breadbasket of the world.

    Now let us try to analyze the modern era bearing in mind the evidence of an utterly unremarkable present. To begin with, we need a model that predicts the swings of glaciation and interglacials. Lacking this, we cannot predict the temperature that we should have outside for any given baseline concentration of CO_2, nor can we resolve variations in this baseline due to things other than CO_2 from that due to CO_2. We don’t have any such thing. We don’t have anything close to this. We cannot predict, or explain after the fact, the huge (by comparison with the present) secular variations in temperature observed over the last 20,000 years, let alone the last 5 million or 25 million or billion. We do not understand the forces that set the baseline “thermostat” for the Earth before any modulation due to anthropogenic CO_2, and hence we have no idea if those forces are naturally warming or cooling the Earth as a trend that has to be accounted for before assigning the “anthropogenic” component of any warming.

    This is a hard problem. Not settled science, not well understood, not understood. There are theories and models (and as a theorist, I just love to tell stories) but there aren’t any particularly successful theories or models and there is a lot of competition between the stories (none of which agree with or predict the empirical data particularly well, at best agreeing with some gross features but not others). One part of the difficulty is that the Earth is a highly multivariate and chaotic driven/open system with complex nonlinear coupling between all of its many drivers, and with anything but a regular surface. If one tried to actually write “the” partial differential equation for the global climate system, it would be a set of coupled Navier-Stokes equations with unbelievably nasty nonlinear coupling terms — if one can actually include the physics of the water and carbon cycles in the N-S equations at all. It is, quite literally, the most difficult problem in mathematical physics we have ever attempted to solve or understand! Global Climate Models are children’s toys in comparison to the actual underlying complexity, especially when (as noted) the major drivers setting the baseline behavior are not well understood or quantitatively available.

    The truth of this is revealed in the lack of skill in the GCMs. They utterly failed to predict the last 13 or 14 years of flat to descending global temperatures, for example, although naturally one can go back and tweak parameters and make them fit it now, after the fact. And every year that passes without significant warming should be rigorously lowering the climate sensitivity and projected AGW, making the probability of the “C” increasinginly remote."

  • AtlantaDude

    I'd like to forward this to some people, but it needs to include the chart you refer to in the last section

  • slocum

    "When skeptics raise issues about climate models, natural sources of warming, and climate feedbacks, advocates of global warming action run back to the left side of the chart and respond that the world is warming and greenhouse gas theory is correct. "

    Scott Alexander has been referring to this kind of thing (which happens in a number of contexts) as a 'Motte and Bailey' argument:

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/

  • Rick C

    "I could have also said that there were several times in class when I challenged the teacher on a math problem answer and I was right and they were wrong."

    Nothing like watching your linear algebra teacher fill up 3 or 4 blackboards with a proof for one equation, then go "oops" and erase the whole thing and start over to make you realize "expert" isn't "omnisicient".

  • CC

    I debated a prominant climate modeler and he was the rudest most arrogant person ever. I even cited one of his own papers to make my case. He insulted me personally, did not respond to any point I made, hand-waved about the models being "true", etc.
    In the debate about impacts, the greening effects of rising CO2 are always ignored. Flatout lies are told, like that droughts, floods, fires, storms etc are "already" worse when even the IPCC extreme events report in 2011 could not find any such evidence. The stuff about sea level rise is particularly hilarious because even when motivated to find rise, the IPCC never goes over about 1.5 feet (still too high, current rates give 8 inches by 2100) but advocates show NYC or half of florida under water, which is just nuts. Or they take a study showing Antarctic ice will all melt in 3000 years and say "see, it will all melt" as if time doesn't matter.

  • marque2

    Monti Carlo simulations are a fraud. When you look at the data you can use standard statistics to come up with the answer. Monti Carlo sounds fancy and is more likely to believed - even with same results. It is similar to a few years back to everything being "fuzzy" logic which turns out is just implementing statistical assumptions.

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  • Q46

    After 4 billion years a trace gas in the atmosphere suddenly takes charge of the climate some time around the late 1970s for no apparent reason at a time when it is at a significantly lower concentration than in numerous periods in the past.

    You can see why people turn to religion and faith in the high priests to explain that, rather than the proper scientific process.

  • joe - the non climate scientis

    I am just in awe that the climate scientists can accurately predict a 1 meter rise in sea level by the end of this century. I am in far greater awe that the science is so accurate that they can predict a rate of sea level rise that is 4-5 times the current rate

  • John Tyler

    In case anybody has not noticed, climate models have NOT been able to replicate (model) the historical climate.
    This really is all you need to know.
    If climate models were reliable, they should easily be able to do this. But they cannot.

    If a mathematical and/or physical model cannot reproduce actual HISTORICAL test data and/or behaviour, then how can any one seriously claim these same models can predict a future event or outcome(s)?

    We are supposed to believe that an atmospheric TRACE GAS, CO2, which constitutes 0.04 PER CENT ( i.e., 4 parts in 10,000) of the atmosphere, is the primary determinant of climate. That's right folks, the "other" 99.96 per cent of atmospheric gases play little to no role in climate.

    Sure.

  • ben

    Well said. Warren, I would also be interested in your view on what you think are the strongest points of the alarmist camp and of the (non-activist) scientific community supporting large scale action. I simply cannot discern a coherent policy argument from alarmists, and I am not sure non-activist scientists feel confident enough about the quantitative fundamentals (eg magnitude of net feedbacks) to advance any major interventions yet, but perhaps that is because I havent yet read enough in this space.

  • Zachriel

    Coyote: It is a super complex multi-variable chaotic system in which we are trying to attribute changes in one output variable (temperature) to a single input variable out of thousands or millions (CO2).

    Many variables are included in modern climate models. However, as the Earth can only gain or lose heat radiatively, it is possible to determine equilibrium temperature from a somewhat limited number of variables; insolation, greenhouse effect, and albedo. The fact is that if you increase the greenhouse effect, the Earth's surface temperature will tend to rise.

    Coyote: Saying that there are fundamental assertions that one cannot challenge is a feature of religion, not true science.

    You can certainly challenge scientific assertions, however, it would behoove you to account for the consensus.

    Coyote: But no one goes back and relooks at the model or theories

    Of course they do. Every day. The most important issue is determining climate sensitivity. A new study, using a modified energy budget approach narrows the range of climate sensitivity to 2.2-3.4ºC with a most likely value of 2.8ºC. See Cox et al., Emergent constraint on equilibrium climate sensitivity from global temperature variability, Nature 2018.

    Coyote: I know a lot about modeling chaotic multivariable systems (in finance and economics) and know exactly what the shortcomings of models are and can recognize the patterns of many mistakes in climate that I have seen in other fields of modeling.

    You seem to be confusing climate change and global warming. While greenhouse gases will almost inevitably lead to surface warming, the distribution of the extra heat leads to chaotic changes in climate, which are difficult to predict.

    Coyote: Climate scientists are positing that there is more positive feedback in the climate system than exists in any other stable natural system we know about.

    There are all sorts of positive and negative feedbacks in nature. A hurricane is a stable storm structure largely due to positive feedbacks. In the case of global warming, the primary positive feedbacks are due to water vapor affecting transient climate response, and ice cover affecting equilibrium climate sensitivity.

    Coyote: Instead, they frequently refuse to release their data (even on government-funded projects)

    Data and methods are generally available.

    Coyote: I could have also said that there were several times in class when I challenged the teacher on a math problem answer and I was right and they were wrong.

    One-upping a single teacher and upending an established consensus are quite different things. To do the latter will require strong evidence.

  • Zachriel

    stan: if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures!

    What will those climate scientists come up with next! In any case, you're right. However, humans would not necessarily prosper if suddenly thrust into one of those previous climate conditions.

    stan: Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA and MWP restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

    It's the rapidity of change, and the expected continued increase that is worrisome, not the current temperature anomaly.

    stan: There is absolutely no evidence in this historical record of a third stable warm phase that might be associated with a “tipping point” and hence “catastrophe”

    Huh? The fact that it is bistable implies that the middling position is not stable, and that there are positive feedbacks that push the system into one of the two phases. For instance, if something warms the system (perhaps an orbital variation resulting in increased insolation), the oceans can no long hold as much CO2 increasing the warming, the ice melts increasing the warming. Contrariwise, if something cools the system, the oceans can hold more CO2, increasing the cooling, the ice forms increasing the cooling.

    stan: AGW is correct and we do warm another 3 C over the next century, if it stabilized the Earth in warm phase and prevented or delayed the Earth’s transition into cold phase it would be worth it because the cold phase transition would kill billions of people, quite rapidly, as crops failed throughout the temperate breadbasket of the world.

    The next glacial period was due in about a thousand years. That has been postponed indefinitely, but was far enough out not to be a serious threat. The signal from anthropogenic global warming also overwhelms the signal from a Maunder Minimum type event.

  • Zachriel

    morganovich: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/12/14/the-real-ipcc-ar5-draft-bombshell-plus-a-poll/ =this graph pretty much says it all.

    If you add the last several years to your graph, observations are right in the middle of the projected range.

    GISS 2017, 0.9°C

  • Zachriel

    marque2: Monti Carlo simulations are a fraud.

    Monti Carlo methods are a standard statistical tool, often used for chaotic systems where there are multiple degrees of freedom.

  • Zachriel

    Q46: After 4 billion years a trace gas in the atmosphere suddenly takes charge of the climate some time around the late 1970s

    Actually, greenhouse gases are important for modeling historical climate, and is one of many influences on climate. However, these other influences do not explain the current warming trend, while basic physics points to increases in greenhouse gases.

  • marque2

    It is still just statistics and probability, just performed multiple times, while varying the parameters slightly for each iteration. Maybe, there are some legit uses, but in the consumer world they are grossly misused. As an example, you still find brokerage companies that will offer a Monti Carlo analysis of your portfolio, which certain assumptions to see if you will have enough funds to retire. Well this is no different than calculating the assumed value followed by using standard statistics to come up with a standard deviation, and then you tell the client to shoot for the 95% mark (2 standard deviations). Or you get marketing literature sent to you showing how this fund, or this advertising method is great for you and we used Monti Carlo analysis to show the future results. These are all scams with a fancy sounding mathematical tool to make it sound legit. I still submit, for most purposes where Monti Carlo was attempted, it was more for marketing, and bombastic value and your regular statistics would come up with the same results.

    It is great for your broker to show you, look at all these trunks and branches and leaves from this Monti Carlo - well we will just assume you need to invest based on the top 95% (oh brother - what two standard deviations, amazing)

  • joe - the non climate scientis

    Zach - at what point in time do you project the sea level will rise so that the coastline will be where it is depicted in your map

  • Zachriel

    joe - the non climate scientis: at what point in time do you project the sea level will rise so that the coastline will be where it is depicted in your map

    The map has nothing to do with current warming, but was in response to stan's argument concerning geologically ancient climate conditions.

  • elysianfield

    "I think the climate scientist would be credible if they would correct the activists and quite making unsupportable claims
    3 foot sea level rise by end of century
    climate change causes migration
    climate change causes wars
    Joe,
    the question is not that these outrages might occur, but rather whether human activity is/was the cause...that issue is political, and those politics will produce further outrages, aside from climate. Without the politics, it is a rather benign subject.