(Nederlandse samenvatting hier) (For a sneak preview, see the bottom line below)
The new ammunition put forward by “skeptics” seems to be the Heartland Institutes’ NIPCC report 2009 (“Climate change reconsidered”). It is made to resemble, at least in format and in name, the IPCC report. According to Dutch “skeptic” (and contributor to the report) Hans Labohm it completely shatters the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) theory (e.g. here, in Dutch). That’s a very bold assertion, which should be backed up by very strong evidence for it to be taken seriously. Let’s take a look at the executive summary…
The preface starts as follows: “Before facing major surgery, wouldn’t you want a second opinion?”
Now that’s funny. I recently described the IPCC process using the same analogy: If you get a second opinion on your health condition, and it confirms what your specialist said in the first place, your trust in the diagnosis probably increases. Now imagine that you collect the interpretations of medical professionals all over the world, and by and large they their conclusions converge to the same broad picture. This happens to be how the IPCC comes to its conclusions.
Their opening statement is actually a strong argument for going with the consensus position on a complex topic. Yet they use it to argue in the opposite direction; very peculiar.
It continues: “When a nation faces an important decision that risks its economic future, or perhaps the fate of the ecology, it should do the same.” (i.e. getting a second opinion)
Huh? Risking our economic future? If they’re talking about the costs of emission reduction, they are seriously exaggerating. Who is being alarmist here? There will be winners and losers, yes, but that’s something entirely different. Everybody has a choice to join the winners or the losers. Different from the horse races, it’s easy this time to predict who (in the long run) will be the winners and who will be the losers. Take your pick.
The usual stuff
The previous NIPCC report has already been commented on by RealClimate, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much news under the sun this time. The same old and tired arguments feature in the current report. The RealClimate article has many links that debunk the various talking points, and I’m not going to repeat all of them here. A presentation from the lead author, Fred Singer, has been briefly discussed at RealClimate as well. It’s a good example of yet another groundhog day. For those who have followed the staged ‘climate debate’, the list of authors is revealing: Many of the usual suspects, with a history so to speak.
There are the usual, to be expected arguments, like that it’s all the sun’s fault. And logical fallacies, like ‘the climate changed before without human activity being involved, so therefore it must be natural now as well’. Try that line of argument in a court of law against a pyromaniac, by saying that forest fires have always happened naturally. It won’t fly, and it reveals that this report is not about science. The good thing is, with such erroneous lines of reasoning, no specialized knowledge is needed to see that.
Degrees of uncertainty
What I didn’t expect, however, was to see otherwise interesting research be put in a context as if it somehow “falsifies the AGW theory”. In many cases, it hardly has any relevance to the attribution of current climate change, or to future projections.
Ironically, their main argument against climate modeling is its associated uncertainty (mistaking it for knowing nothing, and ignoring that uncertainty goes both ways). That doesn’t stop them from putting forward hypothetical feedbacks that have no evidence whatsoever of operating on a globally significant scale. By the way, climate modeling is mocked in the report as merely being “the opinions of scientists transformed by mathematics and obscured by complex writing”. Doesn’t sound like they know what a climate model really is.
The report goes on to describe many hypothetical feedbacks in the climate system. Of course, they are all negative: They counteract the initial warming, independent of the cause for the warming. Their combined effect, is the hope, should be evidence that the climate sensitivity is an order of magnitude (!) smaller than the commonly accepted range (between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees C for a doubling of CO2). Not just 50%, no, a factor of 10, I kid you not. My alarm bells go off. Let’s see what the implications of such low climate sensitivity would be. Any climate forcing (whether natural or human induced) would be so strongly damped as to hardly have any effect on global temperatures. But then how come the globe is warming, and has warmed and cooled in the past? A logical consequence of their theory (negligible climate sensitivity) is that it’s hardly possible for the earth’s climate to change. Indeed, there is no physics-based climate model that can satisfactorily model both the current and past climates with such low climate sensitivity.
Many of the proposed feedbacks involve the cooling effects of aerosols. They suggest that these cooling effects are larger than reported by the IPCC. That is contradicted by climate models providing a very decent match to the observed cooling following a major volcanic eruption (emitting sulfate aerosol in the stratosphere). Moreover, some have argued that a strong aerosol radiative forcing means that the climate sensitivity has to be large in order to still be able to explain the temperature trend of the last 100 years, so they seem to be shooting in their own foot.
They come up with all kinds of hypothetical feedback mechanisms involving more natural aerosol emissions in response to global warming: Dimethylsulfide from marine phytoplankton (although a very intriguing possibility, this has never been confirmed to be a significant feedback mechanism, and there is ample evidence to the contrary, which is omitted from the report), biological aerosols (idem), carbonyl sulfide (idem), nitrous oxide (idem), and iodocompounds (idem), about which they write the following:
“Iodocompounds—created by marine algae— function as cloud condensation nuclei, which help create new clouds that reflect more incoming solar radiation back to space and thereby cool the planet.”
Nou breekt mijn klomp (“Now my clogg breaks”), as I would say in Dutch. This route to atmospheric particle formation may be important at coastal sites with exposed seaweed, but its global importance is questionable to say the very least; at present it could best be considered an interesting thought experiment. Moreover, freshly nucleated particles have to grow by about a factor of 100,000 in mass before they start affecting climate, and a lot can happen to them before they reach the necessary size.
All very interesting research topics, but to claim that they are somehow evidence for negligible climate sensitivity is an extreme example of over-interpretation. In these active areas of research, where no firm conclusions have been reached yet on global significance, they selectively cite only those articles that they can somehow spin to support their desired conclusion. I feel that I’ve read enough of this report to know what it’s worth.
This report exhumes a very strong and unfounded faith in negative feedbacks from nature, which are hypothetical with sometimes sketchy, often contradictory, and sometimes no evidence of actually operating at a globally significant scale. This highlights an inconsistent view of uncertainty, and an unwillingness to weigh the evidence: “If it causes cooling, the uncertainty (or lack of evidence) doesn’t matter; if it causes warming, it’s too uncertain (and no evidence strong enough) to matter”.
How would you know?
Let’s apply some of my own recommendations for non-specialists on judging sources:
- The report clearly misses the forest for the trees.
- It gives a hidden argument for going with the consensus (“second opinion”), but somehow twists that around.
- It’s characterization of the IPCC process has the smell of a conspiracy to it and is full of strawmen arguments.
- To their credit (and my surprise), I couldn’t find any obvious confusion of timescales, such as confusing weather and climate.
- It contains some embarrassing mistakes in basic logic.
- The two way cause-effect relationship between temperature and CO2 is not properly recognized.
- Their strong claim of shaking the foundations of climate science is extremely unlikely; They don’t provide compelling evidence for such an extraordinary claim; They vastly overestimate the likelihood of cooling effects (feedbacks), and underestimate, deny or ignore warming effects.
- They grossly exaggerate the economic risks of emission reduction, and downplay the risk of unmitigated climate change.
- Some of the authors have historical credentials in a relevant discipline, more than a few have not. The list of signatories at the end is very thin on relevant expertise.
- The Heartland Institute is a conservative think-tank and not a reliable source of scientific information.