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!
Author Michael Shellenberger’s career has been one of climate activism. He was named one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment back in 2008. He and co-author Ted Nordhaus wrote the ground-breaking book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which won the 2008 Green Book Award. He now runs Environmental Progress, which has two goals: to lift all humans out of poverty, and to save the natural environment.
Recently, he penned a letter that was originally published at the Forbes website. However, it was quickly taken down, because it didn’t conform to the narrative that Forbes is trying to impose. This isn’t the first time Forbes has published a reasonable article that was then removed for violating its orthodoxy, and it probably won’t be the last. After all, as more people learn the science behind global climate change, aka global warming, more articles challenging Forbes’ dogma will surface. Some of them will probably make it past the censors, but when their heresy is later exposed, they will be put on Forbes’Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Fortunately for all of us, Shellenberger’s organization has defied the Inquisition and has published the article that the censors at Forbes removed. I encourage you to read the entire article, but in brief, Shellenberger offers an apology on behalf of those who have been trying to frighten you regarding global climate change, aka global warming. Why is he apologizing? Because he knows enough science to realize that
Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem.
Unfortunately, as his letter says, he stayed silent about the science because he believes that cutting carbon-dioxide emissions is a good thing. Thus, he worked alongside the fear-mongers without speaking out against their anti-science rhetoric. Now, however, he thinks that the assault against science has gotten out of control, and he was forced speak out.
I encourage you to read his entire apology. Not only will you learn some good science, you will see how an honorable person admits that he acted wrongly.
When you read or listen to the news, you are faced with dire predictions about global warming, aka “climate change.” For example, ABC news states:
Global warming will be twice as severe as previous estimates indicate, according to a new study published this month in the Journal of Climate, a publication of the American Meteorological Society. The research, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), predicts a 90% probability that worldwide surface temperatures will rise more than 9 degrees (F) by 2100, compared to a previous 2003 MIT study that forecast a rise of just over 4 degrees.
Of course, a 9 degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperature will produce catastrophic results. How did the researchers come to the startling conclusion that there is a 90% chance it will happen? They used a computer model that attempts to simulate global climate under different scenarios. The problem, of course, is that the prediction is only as good as the model.
On average the models warm the global atmosphere at a rate three times that of the real world. Using the scientific method we would conclude that the models do not accurately represent at least some of the important processes that impact the climate because they were unable to “predict” what has occurred. In other words, these models failed at the simple test of telling us “what” has already happened, and thus would not be in a position to give us a confident answer to “what” may happen in the future and “why.”
Why are the models so bad? Because we don’t really understand climate science well enough to model it. A recent paper by Professor of Atmospheric Science Da Yang and his graduate student, Seth Seidel, provides a crystal clear example of what I mean. The paper’s abstract begins this way:
Moist air is lighter than dry air at the same temperature, pressure, and volume because the molecular weight of water is less than that of dry air. We call this the vapor buoyancy effect. Although this effect is well documented, its impact on Earth’s climate has been overlooked.
Because of its lower molecular weight, water vapor is less dense than air at the same temperature, so air with a lot of water vapor floats in dry air at the same temperature and pressure. As the paper says, this is well documented. However, no one thought to see how that might affect the earth’s climate. Well, these two scientists decided to do just that, and based on their calculations, it actually cools the atmosphere.
Here’s a simplified explanation for why: In the tropics, we find regions of wet air and regions of dry air. At the same elevation, the regions must have roughly the same density. Otherwise, the less dense region would rise. Thus, if I have a stable region of wet air next to a stable region of dry air, the dry air must be warmer, so it has the same density as the wet air. Thus, at any given elevation, the dry regions will be the warmer regions. Well, water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas, so wet air doesn’t allow as much energy to escape from the earth as dry air. Since the dry air is warmer, there is more energy in it. That means the energy is more concentrated in the air that will allow more of it to escape. This, of course, results in the earth getting rid of more energy, which causes it to cool.
Now here’s the interesting part: the author’s calculations show that this effect becomes magnified the higher the ocean temperature. In other words, if the tropical oceans warm up, this effect will end up producing even more cooling. This is an example of a negative feedback system, where a change produces an effect that resists the change. The earth’s climate is full of negative feedback systems (see here, here, here, and here, for example). This is exactly what you expect for a well-designed system, and the earth is a very well-designed system.
In their paper, the authors state that the climate models from which dire warnings are generated have the ability to simulate this effect, but they don’t. They suggest that climate models should be adjusted to take the effect into account. Of course, I agree. Whenever we learn more about climate dynamics, the models should be updated. However, my point is much more basic: This is a well documented, well understood aspect of the atmosphere, but until now, no one has thought to see its effect on the earth’s climate. After investigation, it is found to produce negative feedback, which makes earth’s climate more resistant to change. If this well documented, well understood aspect of the earth’s atmosphere has not been properly taken into account in the climate models that are forecasting doom and gloom, how in the world can we put any faith in them?
I have made two posts so far cautioning people to be very skeptical of science-related Facebook posts (see here and here). In general, you should be skeptical of anything on any social media site, but science is easily skewed and misrepresented, especially when people are trying to show their own virtue by championing some cause.
One case in point comes from the Australian bushfires that are wreaking havoc throughout the country. My Facebook feed recently showed me the image you see on the left. The person posting wanted to make me aware of how devastating the bushfires in Australia have become, so he posted this picture. While it does indicate an incredible level of devastation, it isn’t really true. There are two problems with the image. First, it looks like a satellite photo that is showing the fires burning right now, but it is not. It is an image that was developed on a computer, and it doesn’t show how Australia is burning right now or at any other time in the past. Each “flame” in the image represents a fire that burned sometime this season. In other words, it shows any region of Australia that had a fire this season, but it shows that region as on fire right now. In fact, many of the fires depicted on this image have been extinguished.
There is a bigger problem that is common with all visualizations of this kind. When you make an image like this, you need to add “fire” in the region where there is or was a fire. However, the image represents something very, very large. Suppose there was a fire that burned three square miles. That’s a big fire, but in this image, it would be represented by a red dot that is one millionth the size of the image. Thus, it wouldn’t show up. In order to make it show up, you need to make it bigger. However, that makes it look like more than three square miles were burned.
This issue is called “gridding.” When dealing with a large object, it must be partitioned into small sections by drawing a grid. If the sections in your grid are very large compared to the areas that you are depicting, the resulting depiction is deceptive. So, in fact, even considering all the fires that have happened so far this season (extinguished or not), they haven’t covered as much of Australia as the “flames” on this map.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the fires in Australia are nothing to be worried about. They most certainly are devastating! They probably represent the worst bushfires in the past hundred or so years. That’s a bit hard to tell, because some of the most devastating fires in Australia occurred in the past, when news coverage wasn’t very good. We know, for example, that in 1851 widespread bushfires killed at least 12. In 1939, bushfires killed at least 71. While it does look like the current bushfires are burning a larger area than any of the previous ones, it is hard to say that with certainty. Regardless, the image above definitely overstates their severity.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) are the workhorses of the bacterial world. They are found in every human being and most warm-blooded animals, but they are also found in laboratories all over the world. Because they are easy to care for, reproduce quickly, and have a genome that is reasonably well-understood, they are a popular subject of study among biologists. In addition, they end up producing a lot of chemicals that we need but are unable to produce ourselves. For example, insulin is a protein that all people need, but some people don’t make enough of it (or don’t respond well enough to it) to remain healthy. That leads to diabetes, and one treatment for diabetes is regular insulin injections.
While the insulin in pigs and cattle is close to what we find in people (and was used to treat diabetes for a long time), the best insulin for most diabetics is human insulin. Unfortunately, even with the best technology available, we aren’t good enough chemists to make insulin, but simple organisms like bacteria are. As a result, scientists have learned how to insert the human gene for insulin into a bacterium, which allows the bacterium to do the chemistry for us. As a result, much of the insulin used to treat diabetics today is human insulin produced by E. coli bacteria.
Unlike some species of bacteria, however, E. coli have to eat in order to get the energy and raw materials they need to do that chemistry. This ends up producing carbon dioxide as waste. To reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then, it would be nice to produce chemicals like insulin from an organism that does not produce carbon dioxide in order to live. There are technical problems with that, however, so right now, diabetic insulin (and many other medically-related chemicals) adds to humanity’s “carbon footprint.” There are two ways to fix this: Either figure out how to use organisms that don’t have to eat (like organisms that make their own food through photosynthesis) or change E. coli so that it doesn’t have to eat.
In a recent study, scientists have been working on the second alternative and have experienced some success. As a byproduct, they have produced something that can be used to test creationism.
Coral are amazing animals. They live in a mutualistic relationship with algae, giving the algae a safe home in exchange for some of the food that the algae make through photosynthesis. The variety of colors seen in a coral reef are a result of this relationship. However, coral sometimes expel their algae, turning white. This is called “coral bleaching,” and it generally happens when the water is warmer than usual. the Australian Marine Conservation informs us:
Coral bleaching is a global crisis, caused by increased ocean temperatures driven by carbon pollution.
This has become a common mantra in the “global warming is going to kill us all” movement, because coral reefs are so fundamentally important to the health of ocean ecosystems. Indeed, it has become so important that if you question what the global-warming alarmists say, it can lead to dire consequences.
Consider, for example, the case of Dr. Peter Ridd. Some of his colleagues at James Cook University published work indicating that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was on the verge of collapse because of global warming. Dr. Ridd dared to question that narrative, pointing out the data that indicate there is nothing unusual about the bleaching events that have been occurring at the Great Barrier Reef and that the reef has about the same amount of healthy coral as it did back in 1985. For that transgression, he was fired. While a court has ruled the firing unlawful, the university plans to appeal the ruling. Regardless of what happens at appeal, it is clear that the firing was anti-science. Criticism of data, even data related to sacred cows such as global warming, is the hallmark of good science. To squelch such criticism is a direct assault on the progress of science.
Of course, the real question is whether or not global warming is a threat to the oceans’ coral reefs. The answer remains unclear, but the balance of the evidence indicates that it is not. For example, one study of the Great Barrier Reef shows that bleaching events were more common several hundred years ago. According to that study, bleaching events hit their peak in the 1850s. There is also some indication that bleaching is an adaptive mechanism and is not necessarily bad for the health of a coral reef.
I had another blog post planned for today, but I decided to put it off because over the weekend, I got three questions regarding the fires in the Amazon. People are concerned, mostly because of irresponsible articles like this one:
It’s the classic example of a story that is technically true but absurdly misleading. Indeed, the National Institute for Space Research has never seen the number of forest fires that it is currently seeing in the Amazon. However, as the article notes, that research program started in 2013. So yes, over the past six years, this is the worst year yet. However, if you just broaden your scope a bit, you will see that there is nothing unusual about this year.
While the National Institute for Space Research has only been collecting data about forest fires since 2013, researchers at the Global Fire Emissions Database have been studying them since 2003. That’s almost three times as long. What do their data tell us? Well, all you have to do is go here. It gives you a handy graph that shows you the total count of fires in the Amazon region by year.
To make it stand out, I thickened the green line, which represents this year. As you can see, this year is pretty much dead center compared to the past 16 years. If you go to the link itself, you can put your cursor over the year listed under the graph, and you can see each year clearly. If you do that, you will see that 2003-2007 were all worse than this year, with 2005 setting the record. The data are actually more detailed than this. You can click on areas of the Amazon region on the left part of the website and see data for each region. If you click on “Amazonas,” for example, you will see that a few days in 2019 did set the record in that region.
UPDATE (08/27/2019): It does seem that there is something unusual happening in the Amazon right now. According to this source:
…the fires were at average levels through to mid August, and then there was a huge uptick.
Why was that? Seems that it started when the farmers in the state of Para declared a “‘dia do fogo,'” or “day of fire” on August 10th. They said they did this in order to show to Bolsonaro that they want to work and that the only way to clear pastures for them to work was with fire (report in Portuguese here), This was spectacularly “successful” and there was an immediate increase in fires which continued through the following weeks.
So there is unusual fire activity right now – more than the standard land-clearing fires for agricultural use. The added fires are the result of political protests.
Does this mean we have to believe what Dr. Shaviv says when it comes to earth’s climate? Of course not. However, it does mean that he is a recognized expert in the field. Even when I disagree with experts, I still try to pay attention to what they say and the data they produce, because they know more than I do when it comes to the issue I am investigating. Thus, while I certainly don’t have to agree with the conclusions of any given expert, I do have to at least try to understand the data the expert has collected and why he or she thinks they point to a certain conclusion. If I don’t do that, I am no longer thinking scientifically. After all, the only way you can make a scientific conclusion is to consider all of the data. Ignoring data because I don’t agree with the source is not scientific; it is emotional.
Why am I bringing this up? Because last night, I was scrolling through a news feed and noticed a Forbes article entitled, “Global Warming? An Israeli Astrophysicist Provides Alternative View That Is Not Easy To Reject.” Obviously, that title was very interesting to me, so I clicked on the link. Unfortunately, what I found was a message that said:
After review, this post has been removed for failing to meet our editorial standards.
We are providing our readers the headline, author and first paragraphs in the interest of transparency.
We regret any inconvenience.
This seemed rather odd to me, so I decided to do some digging. What I found did not reflect well on Forbes.