In 2019 Australia was burning. In 2020 Siberia and California were burning. These are only the more recent examples of dramatic extreme wildfire. People are asking if forest fires are linked to climate change.
The experts tell us that yes, the growing extent and increasing severity of wildfires are indeed driven by climate change.
There is only one problem with such nonsense: wildfires are most definitely NOT increasing in severity. How do we know this? The European Space Agency has been using satellites to track global wildfires. At first, their data sets started in the year 2000, and those data sets show that over the past 20 years, there has been a slight decrease in the amount of land that was burned by wildfires.
However, they recently used historical satellite images to increase the length of time covered by their datasets. We can now trace the amount of land burned by wildfires all the way back to 1982. Thus, we have nearly 40 years worth of data that cover the entire world. What do the data show? The graph is at the top of the article. As you can see, there is no discernible trend. The amount of land burned by wildfires changes from year to year, but the average remains remarkably constant.
Like much of what you read about “climate change,” then, the idea that wildfires are becoming more severe or more frequent is just patently false. Unfortunately, no amount of data will stop this false claim from being promulgated, because most people writing about this issue care more about their agenda than they do about science.
North American monarch butterflies perform an incredible migration from their summer breeding grounds to a place where they spend the winter. Most of the monarchs that are born east of the Rocky Mountains travel to Mexico, while those born west of the Rocky Mountains fly to the California Coast. Last year, the headlines about those that travel to California were dire:
Probably the most beloved and recognized butterfly in the United States, the western monarch is essentially on the brink of extinction, said Katy Prudic, co-author of a new report from the University of Arizona that found that the monarchs, along with about 450 butterfly species in the Western United States, have decreased overall in population by 1.6% per year in the past four decades.
Like much of what you read in science news, that’s just not true. The Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation does detailed surveys of western monarch populations, and here are their results for the “Thanksgiving Count,” which is done over three weeks around Thanksgiving:
Looking at the graph, you can see that Katy Prudic is simply wrong. In fact, the western monarch population has both decreased and increased over the past 24 years. Of course, you can also see why the headlines were dire in 2021. The monarch population is barely visible on the graph in 2020. It was the lowest seen in the entire period. So clearly, western monarchs were on the verge of extinction. However, last year’s count shows a population that is the eighth largest in that same time period!
What does this have to do with climate change, aka global warming? First, there have been the predictable attempts to cite it as a cause for the monarchs’ woes. More importantly, however, it shows how dangerous it is to use a trend in nature to make dire predictions.
In both populations, the number of monarchs increased and decreased, but the overall trend for more than 20 years was downward. Then, there was a sudden change, and the decline stopped. This is the way nature works. There is a lot of variation, and tenuous trends in those variations usually don’t mean much.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of value in collecting data like population counts and global temperatures, and it is important to be concerned about apparent trends. A good scientist, however, should understand that apparent trends are not necessarily actual trends. As a result, good scientists should not make definitive predictions based on them.
So far, the most chilling study was published in Royal Society Open Science. The authors of the study collected feathers of dead birds found at selected wind farms and solar energy facilities in California. They found that of the many species killed by these “green energy” sites, 23 are considered priority bird species, which means their long-term survival is threatened. The list is quite diverse, including the American white pelican, the willow flycatcher, the bank swallow, and the burrowing owl.
Now, just because a species is threatened, that doesn’t mean a few extra deaths are going to be a problem. After all, these facilities are in specific places, and bird populations can cover wide geographical regions. A few extra deaths in some regions can be compensated for by more reproductivity in other regions. Thus, the authors used models to estimate the impact that deaths from wind farms and solar facilities will have on the overall populations. They conclude:
This study shows that many of the bird species killed at renewable energy facilities are vulnerable to population or subpopulation-level effects from potential increases in fatalities from these and other anthropogenic mortality sources. About half (48%) of the species we considered were vulnerable, and they spanned a diverse suite of taxonomic groups of conservation concern that are resident to or that pass through California.
In other words, the study indicates that 11 priority bird species that live in or pass through California are now more at risk because of “green energy” sites in that state. Now, of course, this conclusion is model-dependent, and the models might be wrong. However, at minimum, this study identified with certainty that at least 23 species of threatened birds are being slaughtered at wind farms and solar facilities. That should cause people who actually care about the natural world at least some concern. Unfortunately, even though this study was published a month ago, I haven’t seen a single report about it in the popular press.
As an aside, it’s pretty obvious how wind farms kill birds, but how do solar energy facilities do it? The short answer is that we don’t know. What we do know is that birds tend to crash into solar panels. Perhaps they interpret the shiny surface of the solar panels as a body of water where they can land. Perhaps they interpret it as more sky. Whatever the reason, we know that birds are dying at solar farms. Preliminary research indicates that in the U.S., somewhere between 37,800 and 138,600 die each year as a result of crashing into solar panels.
So what’s the take-home message from this study? It’s rather simple:
The “green energy” solutions touted by politicians and the press are not necessarily better for the environment.
The fact is that “green energy” processes are mostly new, so their long-term effects on the environment are mostly unknown. Ten years ago, no one would have thought that wind farms and solar facilities might be threatening the long-term survival of certain bird species. We now know otherwise. And don’t forget the bats. The effect that wind farms have on their populations hasn’t been studied in nearly as much detail, even though more bats are slaughtered by wind farms than birds!
Those who are pushing “green energy” might actually be pushing environmentally-hostile energy without even knowing it. That’s what happens when those who call themselves “environmentalists” ignore science and simply follow the politicians and the press.
Given these facts, it’s not surprising that the doom and gloom headlines about the Great Barrier Reef have been shown to be completely wrong. The Australian Government, in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has been monitoring the health of the reef since 1985. They have collected an enormous amount of data, but I just want to focus on Figures 3, 4, and 5, which show the amount of coral cover in the Northern, Central, and Southern Great Barrier Reef.
The blue lines represent the percent of the area that is covered in coral, and the light-blue shading represents the uncertainty in that value. Notice that in each part of the Great Barrier Reef, there are times when the coral coverage is high, and there are times when it is low. Sometimes, the coral coverage is very low. Nevertheless, right now, coverage is nearly as high as it has ever been. Contrary to what USA Today claimed just two short years ago, then, the Great Barrier Reef has recovered from its low point over the past few decades.
Does that mean there’s nothing wrong with the Great Barrier Reef? Of course not! With less than 40 years of direct study, we really don’t know what the overall status of the reef should be, so we have no idea whether what we are seeing now is good, bad, or indifferent. My point is simply that it’s too easy for scientists and the media to look at a short-term trend (like 2010-2106 in the Northern Great Barrier Reef) and draw irrational conclusions. In the end, that not only hurts the cause of science, but it also makes it nearly impossible for us to figure out how best to care for the creation God has given us.
It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. (p. 5, emphasis theirs)
In other words, more than half of the warming that has been observed since the mid 1900s has been caused by human activity. How did they arrive at that conclusion? The scientists involved attempted to determine the natural variation in global temperature that would have occurred without human influence, and they found that it accounted for less than half of the observed warming that has been observed. Thus, human activities are responsible for more than half.
The problem, of course, is how do you determine how much warming would have occurred without human activity? The way the IPCC did it was to look at the natural variation that has occurred in the factors that are known to influence the temperature of the planet. One of the biggest factors is how much energy the earth is getting from the sun, which is often called the total solar irradiance (TSI). Well, we have been measuring the TSI with satellites since 1979, and while each satellite comes up with a slightly different value (the reason for that is unknown), all of them agree on how it has varied since they began their measurements.
However, in order to properly understand the long-term effect of TSI, we need to go farther back in time than 1979. As a result, observations that should be affected by TSI are used to estimate what it was prior to 1979. These are called “proxies,” and their use is common among scientists who attempt to reconstruct various aspects of the past. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what the best proxies are for TSI, so the details of how it has changed over time varies substantially from one study to another. That’s what I am attempting to illustrate in the figure above. It shows two different graphs for how TSI has changed since the year 1800. Notice the one on the left (from this study) shows that TSI has been quite variable, while the one on the right (from this study) shows it hasn’t varied significantly over the same time period. Both of these studies were published in the peer-reviewed literature, and both use accepted methods for reconstructing TSI from proxies. The difference, of course, is caused by the different preconceptions in each group of scientists. Whose preconceptions are correct? We have no idea.
To demonstrate just how much variation occurs due to these preconceptions, here is a figure from a very interesting study that I somehow missed when it first came out (in 2015). It shows eight different reconstructions of TSI from eight different peer-reviewed studies:
I used the top two graphs to make the illustration that appears at the very top of the post. As you can see, the eight reconstructions are arranged so that the ones which show a high variability in TSI are on the left, and the ones which show a low variability are on the right. What about the “CMIP5” that shows up on low-variability graphs. It indicates that those were the graphs used in the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, which I quoted above.
Think about what that means. The IPCC specifically chose from the scientific literature TSI reconstructions that indicate there has been little variation since 1800. Thus, natural variation in TSI cannot explain much of the variation we see in global temperature. However, if they had used one of the reconstructions on the left, their conclusion would have been much different. In fact, the authors of the study from which those eight graphs were taken showed that if you used the top left reconstruction, you could explain the vast majority of the variation we see in the earth’s temperature. Thus, had the IPCC chosen that reconstruction, their conclusion about the effect of human activities on global warming would have been radically different.
Hopefully, you can see what I am driving at. All eight of the reconstructions above are legitimate, peer-reviewed reconstructions of TSI. If you choose the ones on the right, you reach one conclusion about the extent to which human activities have affected global temperature. If you choose the ones on the left, you come to a completely different conclusion. How do you choose? You choose the ones you think are best. In other words, you choose the ones that fit your preconceptions.
Unfortunately, this inconvenient fact is left out of most discussions of climate change. As a result, most people state what the “science” says, when they are utterly ignorant of how much that “science” depends on the preconceptions of the scientists who produced it.
A reader sent me this article and asked for my comments on it. For some reason, the experiment that is discussed therein escaped my attention, but I read a more detailed discussion of it and found it to be quite intriguing. Essentially, a team of Harvard scientists wants to know if they can block some of the sun’s light so as to counter the effects of global warming, aka climate change. They want to do it by releasing a fine powder of calcium carbonate (chalk) high in the atmosphere. The tiny particles will eventually fall to the ground, but while they are in the air, they will reflect some of the sun’s light so that it never reaches the surface of the earth. That way, it doesn’t have a chance to participate in the greenhouse effect.
Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that global warming (aka climate change) might have serious long-term consequences. As a result, we should look for ways to mitigate the effects, if we eventually find that there will be some. We know the result of cutting carbon dioxide emissions with current technology: people will die. That’s because reducing emissions with the technology we have now makes energy more expensive, and the more expensive energy is, the more people die. (see here and here). Thus, we should examine other methods that might mitigate global warming with a lower body count. That’s what this Harvard experiment is all about.
Are there risks associated with it? Initially, no, because the first experiment, planned for June of this year, would only test the hardware (pictured above). It wouldn’t actually release any powder. If that goes well, the scientists plan a small-scale test that would release no more than 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of the powder. That’s not enough calcium carbonate to produce any negative effects. However, it will allow the scientists to study how the calcium carbonate behaves and whether or not the computer simulations of its behavior are correct.
Of course, the issue is what happens next. In order to change the earth’s greenhouse effect in any significant way, there would have to be a lot more calcium carbonate released, and it would have to be released on a semi-regular basis. That could definitely produce serious, long-term consequences. Nevertheless, there is no way to realistically know what those consequences might be unless the initial tests are performed. Thus, this experiment seems reasonable, at least in the initial stages that have been proposed. It will simply be a way of judging the safety and efficacy of the process. The results won’t be definitive, but they can at least guide the scientists in their future plans.
Here’s the bottom line: We know that all currently-planned attempts to slow global warming (aka climate change) will result in people dying. This new approach might result in that as well, but we don’t know. If experiments like the ones planned by Harvard proceed, at least we can have some data that will allow us to see if this method has a lower body count than the currently-proposed methods. It seems to me that’s something worth learning.
Because I respect her knowledge, intellect, and commitment to science, I read her blog. On Saturday, she posted the transcript from an interview she did for a podcast. I am not familiar with the podcast, and I prefer to read rather than listen. In reading the transcript, I found nothing new related to her views on climate change, but I was fascinated by her historical analysis of the field of climate science. While I encourage you to read the entire transcript, I will highlight what really struck me.
When asked about how climate scientists viewed climate change when she was getting her degrees (the 1970s and 1980s), she said that aside from a few “very rambunctious people,” climate change was not a big issue with scientists. When the IPCC formed in the late 1980s, she said that most climate scientists didn’t want to get involved with it:
They said, this is just a whole political thing. This is not what we do. We seek to understand all the processes and climate dynamics, we don’t want to go there. And that was really a pretty strong attitude, through, I would say the mid nineties, say 1995. We had the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at that point, they’re trying to get a big treaty going. And so defenders of the IPCC started pushing the idea that anybody who doubts us or challenges us, they are in the pay of big oil. After that, it became much more difficult to really challenge all that. And certainly by the turn of the century, anybody who was questioning the hockey stick or any of these other things were slammed as deniers and ostracized. And then after Climategate in 2010, the consensus enforcers became very militant. So it’s a combination of politics, and some mediocre scientists trying to protect their careers. And, they saw this whole thing as a way for career advancement, and it gives them a seat at the big table and political power. All this reinforces pretty shoddy science and overconfidence in their expert judgment, which comprises the IPCC assessment reports.
I found this interesting because as an outsider looking in, I have to agree with her assessment that the IPCC has reinforced “shoddy science.” I don’t know even 5% of what Dr. Curry knows about climate, and I know precisely 0% of what she knows about the internal dynamics of her field. However, after reading each IPCC report (from the 2001 synthesis report on), I was amazed at the shoddiness of the science and the overconfidence they had in their conclusions.
Consider, for example, their view of how humans have impacted the earth’s climate. In 2001, they said that human-emitted greenhouse gases are “likely” responsible for more than half of the earth’s temperature increase since 1951. By 2007, climate scientists had shown that the models used in 2001 were wrong, and they also found new variables related to climate which were poorly understood. Nevertheless, in their 2007 report, the IPCC said that human-emitted greenhouse gases are “very likely” responsible. Over the next six years, climate scientists continued to show that the models used by the IPCC were wrong and continued to find more uncertainties in our understanding of climate. But over that same period, the IPCC decided that that human-emitted greenhouse gases are “extremely likely” responsible.
In real science, when uncertainties grow, the conclusions become more and more tentative. In climate science, the reverse seems to be the case. More uncertainties seem to lead to more confidence in the conclusions. That’s pretty much the definition of shoddy science.
Nowadays, if you want to get funding and become popular in the scientific community, you need to blame any natural calamity you are studying on climate change (aka global warming). For example, salmon populations in the west have been on the decline, and predictably, global warming has been trumpeted as the cause. As one source suggests:
Pacific salmon that spawn in Western streams and rivers have been struggling for decades to survive water diversions, dams and logging. Now, global warming is pushing four important populations in California, Oregon and Idaho toward extinction, federal scientists warn in a new study.
We had determined it couldn’t be explained by high temperatures, low dissolved oxygen or any known contaminant, such as high zinc levels…
Like good scientists, then, they ruled out the “fashionable” explanation and decided to find the real cause. Not surprisingly, they did. They found that urban stormwater runoff could cause the same symptoms that were known to be killing the coho salmon, so the authors painstakingly analyzed the runoff and ran multiple tests.
They identified the chemical that was killing the coho salmon but could not figure out where it came from. Eventually, the researchers found that this chemical was similar to a preservative used in tires, which is charmingly known as “6PPD.” After several experiments, they found that when 6PPD is exposed to ozone and sunlight, it can be broken down into the killer chemical. Thus, the coho salmon are not being killed by today’s favorite boogeyman. Instead, they are being killed by a chemical produced as a result of tire waste.
Now, of course, since the authors of this study seem to be careful scientists (unlike so many that exist today), they are unwilling to generalize their results. Thus, this conclusion applies only to what is killing the coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest. There might be other causes for what is killing the other species, but I hope this motivates scientists to question the “fashionable” explanation of “global warming” and actually do some serious scientific investigation, like this team did. If so, real science might still be able to help us understand (and the hopefully fix) the problem.
If you get all your information regarding climate change, aka “global warming,” from social media or most news outlets, you would think that we are living in a time of unprecedented warmth. However, if you read the scientific literature, you know that climate proxy data from around the world indicate that this is just not true. If you aren’t familiar with the term, “climate proxy” refers to data that scientists use to attempt to understand climate conditions of the past. Tree rings, for example, are sensitive to temperature and precipitation, so it is thought that we can use them to determine past climate conditions. Many climate-sensitive things like recorded harvests, coral growth, pollen grains, etc. can be used as climate proxies. Analysis of such climate proxies indicate that the earth was significantly warmer in the Middle Ages than it is today. Climate scientists refer to it as the “Medieval Warm Period,” the “Medieval Climate Anomaly,” or the “Medieval Climate Optimum.”
Those who are invested in promulgating terrifying stories about the effect people have on the earth’s climate attempt to downplay or disregard this well-established part of the earth’s history, but the data are quite convincing. The latest set of evidence to be added to the pile is an archaeological study from Norway. The first line of its abstract reads:
In the context of global warming, ice patches are increasingly important foci of high-elevation archaeology.
In other words, places like the area examined in the study have been covered in ice for a long time, but now, because of global warming, that ice is melting, revealing what has been entombed there.
What did the melted ice reveal? 68 arrows and five isolated arrow heads. This led the authors to describe the area as “…the most arrow-rich known ice patch site in the world.” They used carbon-14 dating to determine the age of the artifacts, and they say that their finds range from about 700 years old to 6,000 years old. The older the age, the less reliable carbon-14 becomes, so I doubt that any of those ages are really correct. However, we can certainly say that these arrows come from a time long before the Industrial Revolution!
Why do people make arrows? To hunt game. The authors conclude that this area, which has been covered in ice during recent times, was a rich hunting ground during several periods in the past. That means the area must have been much warmer in the past. Now, of course, we can’t make any conclusions about the earth’s climate from just one region. However, it is at a high elevation in the northern part of the globe (latitude 61 degrees). Such areas tend to stay cold, so the fact that it was warmer in the past is best understood in the context of a warmer earth. This adds weight to the proxy data, allowing us to more confidently conclude that there is nothing unusual about the temperatures the earth is experiencing right now.
Yes, the climate is changing. It is always changing. Yes, human activity probably has something to do with it, although the magnitude of that effect is unknown right now. However, the vast majority of the evidence indicates that what we are experiencing right now is not in any way unprecedented.
Carbon dioxide absorbs the infrared radiation that the earth emits, trapping it before it leaves the planet. This warms up the atmosphere, making the earth a haven for life. Obviously, then, the more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere, the warmer it will get, right? Not necessarily! As I tell my high school and university students over and over again: Science isn’t simple! As a result, conclusions that seem “obvious” to most people (even most scientists) are often absurdly wrong. A recently-produced study that has not yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature makes this case about carbon dioxide and global warming, aka “climate change.”
The “obvious” conclusion that more carbon dioxide means more global warming ignores the fact that carbon dioxide doesn’t absorb all the infrared radiation it encounters. Instead, it only absorbs specific wavelengths. In addition, the amount of each wavelength that carbon dioxide can absorb varies with wavelength, the temperature at which the absorption happens, the concentration of the gases in the surroundings, etc., etc. Because of such effects, there comes a time when adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has a negligible effect on the amount of infrared radiation absorbed. When that happens, you have reached saturation, and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide will not increase the atmosphere’s warming.
Now all of this is well known, and most global warming models attempt to include these effects in their calculations. The problem is that they treat them in a crude way. This is understandable, since a model that is trying to simulate the entire atmosphere has to consider a lot of things. As a result, most of them are treated crudely so that the model doesn’t become overwhelmingly convoluted. That’s where this unpublished study comes in. The authors test the effect of treating the science related to saturation crudely, and they say it renders the models pretty much useless when it comes to understanding how carbon dioxide affects the present atmosphere.
How do they come to this conclusion? They consider more than 300,000 different infrared wavelengths that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (water, ozone, methane, and dinitrogen oxide) absorb. They compute how much the gases will warm the atmosphere by absorbing each wavelength. First, they make the computation without considering details like the temperature, the other gases in the atmosphere, etc. This is roughly equivalent to how current models treat the situation. Then, they do it considering all those details, using the present makeup of the atmosphere. They find that in the present atmosphere, the amount that more carbon dioxide can contribute to global warming is 10,000 times smaller than what current models assume. The same can be said for water vapor. For carbon dioxide and water vapor, then, the atmosphere is very, very close to saturation. As a result, more carbon dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere will not warm the planet in any meaningful way. Ozone, dinitrogen oxide, and methane are also close to saturation, but not nearly as close as carbon dioxide and water vapor.
How do we know that their analysis is correct? We don’t. When they compare their calculations of how much infrared radiation is being absorbed for each wavelength to what satellites have been measuring, they see virtually no difference. Thus, their calculations seem to reflect reality very well. However, I am not very knowledgeable about the details, so there might be fatal flaws in their analysis that I am not seeing. Once again, science isn’t simple. I really hope this gets published in the peer-reviewed literature so that experts can weigh in on the conclusions. Unfortunately, I am not confident this paper will get that far. If its conclusions are correct, then there is absolutely no basis for the fear-mongering that surrounds carbon dioxide emissions. There are so many scientists whose careers have been made based on that fear-mongering, they may simply keep the paper from being published.
Fortunately, science is self-correcting. One way or another, we will figure out the details related to this issue. It might take longer than it should, and it might be after terrible decisions have been made based on faulty climate science, but at some point in the future, we will find out whether or not these authors are correct. I hope it is sooner rather than later!