seen a lot of mixed messages about the state of the planet's
climate lately. Many people desperately want to believe
that it's all been a misunderstanding (or better, a
Conspiracy) and that we can all go about our business as usual
with a clear conscience. While the evidence of a warming
planet is clear, the arrival of Autumn each year throws the
public into renewed confusion over what "global warming" is
supposed to mean.
One Newsletter won't answer all the questions, but I'll try
to put a few things in perspective for
you. To respond or send a personal
message to me, please do not reply to this message, but
instead please visit my contact
page or use my personal email address.
Has the Scientific Establishment co-ordinated a worldwide
program of misinformation about climate data? No, it has
not. How can I be so sure? Simple: no such
Establishment exists. Science is not an organization,
but a disorganized, leaderless crowd of extremely bright,
ambitious individuals all acting in their personal best
Those interests are:
1. Discovering the truth about things through observation
2. Promoting one's career by systematically producing
unassailable research of the highest standard;
3. Promoting one's career by systematically disembowelling
the shoddy, misguided research of those other
knuckleheads - I mean, of one's esteemed Fellow Scientists.
I know that Scientists are passionately, deeply committed
to all three of these principles, because I have grown
up with, lived with and worked among Scientists my entire
life. I also know that they are not part of some global
conspiracy. Sure, there has been the occasional secret
handshake and conspiratorial glance, but these are mostly
about laboratory politics, not global co-ordination.
Even laboratory politics is something Scientists aren't very
good at, because it's always the administrators who end up
with the nicest office furniture. And so, frustrated in
political matters, Scientists tend instead to focus their
attention on finding out the truth.
Here's how these principles operate in practice. A
crowd of scientists will gather around a hot
topic. As long as that topic holds out a reasonable
chance for scientists to advance knowledge and thereby advance
their careers, scientists will continue to
experiment, argue, debate, question, test, attempt to
replicate findings, and otherwise harass the topic and each
other. When there is no further opportunity to make new
discoveries about a proposition or to publicly expose the
ignorance of other scientists in relation to it, the
crowd moves on to something else. We outsiders have
named this event "Reaching a Consensus."
When the science crowd is allowed to operate in an
unfettered manner away from the media spotlight, the long-term
result is extremely reliable, high-quality research. A
Consensus means that some of the brightest, most ambitious,
well-informed and anal people on the planet with every
incentive to discover any kind mistake, have ripped apart the
research piece by piece and were unable to find fault with so
much as the spelling or punctuation.
One offshoot of these three operating principles is the
inherent impossibility of any kind of collusion, conspiracy to
falsify data, the formation of scientific cartels, and other
such things that would interfere with the truth. Even
when such things have begun to happen, they get exposed and
dealt with fairly promptly.
It is therefore worthwhile to remain wary of "experts" who
only lately entered the field and claim to know more about it
than those who spent decades doing the research while
enduring the most vigorous scrutiny. One is also advised
to be wary of politicians who use preliminary,
unverified findings to gain or consolidate power.
There are also those who are willing to say anything,
even entirely make up data out of thin air, if it helps
them get media attention or sell a book.
What do we know about Climate Change? The scientific
crowd reached a consensus on the basic facts more than a
decade ago. The long-term trend in the average
temperature of the atmosphere and oceans is clearly
upwards. In around 1880 it broke away from the normal
pattern of natural variability, and is moving upwards much
faster than any previous natural trend. All the evidence
clearly reveals that it is a direct result of human activity,
specifically the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels.
How do we know that? The amount of carbon contained
in the year-on-year increase in oceanic and atmospheric carbon
dioxide is roughly equal to the amount of carbon burned in the
form of coal, petroleum, and gas each year. Also, the
amount of oxygen contained in the year-on-year increase in
CO2 is roughly equal to the observed
decrease in atmospheric oxygen each year. Therefore
there is no mystery as to where the extra CO2 is coming from. What's more, carbon that
has been underground for millions of years has a noticeably
different radiological signature to carbon that cycles through
our atmosphere, plants, and oceans on a regular basis.
That difference shows up in the additional CO2 we find in the atmosphere each and every
year. Yes, we know exactly where it is coming from and
how it got there.
But CO2 is only a small percentage of
the atmosphere, and it's actually good for plants. Isn't
it? You don't need very much CN (cyanide radical) in the
body before it becomes a problem, either. It's not the
quantity that matters, it's what it does. CO2 fine-tunes the amount of thermal energy
retained by the atmosphere or released into space. More
CO2 = warmer planet.
And the plants? You and I and the food we eat have
gotten used to a certain temperature range and a certain level
of CO2/O2 in the
air. I happen to like food, and I wouldn't be too keen
on this system breaking down. At no time in the last
400,000 years have CO2 levels in the
atmosphere been this high or increased this rapidly. And
before that? Who cares! That climate may not have
been capable of supporting this many people and the number of
plants and animals we depend on for survival. Only the
more recent climate history is relevant to our survival.
What does it mean? One thing to understand is that it
has little to do with the weather or the seasons. There
will still be summer and winter; some days will be warmer,
some colder. Some years will be cooler overall, others
will be warmer. You may even get several
down-trending years in a row. None of these things are
of the slightest consequence to the study of the climate.
Consider, for example, the financial markets. Does
the price of a single issue going down one day mean that the
economy is in trouble? Of course not. What about
an index, or even the average of all listings?
Nope. One day's price movement of even all the
worldwide market indices has little to do with the long-term
state of the economy.
Macroeconomists look at sharemarkets from the earliest
beginnings to the present and observe that it has basically
been an unbroken upwards trend. Only when they zoom in
on the little wiggles in the line do they see evidence of the
occasional recession or depression.
Day traders, on the other hand, rarely look at 50-year
index charts, but focus on minute to minute price movements of
a single issue. The overall economy means nothing to
them; they can make or lose money as easily whichever way it
The TV weatherman is like a day trader, interested in the
hour-by-hour temperature of specific locations. Climate
scientists are like macroeconomists, looking at an entire
planet over hundreds of years. They have very little to say to
one another. But every time there is an extreme weather
event, some ignorant journalist asks, "Would you say this
proves or disproves Global Warming?"
The best answer to this inane and inevitable question was
one I heard on the radio a few days ago, given by an astute
"Well, Kent, if you analyzed thousands of such
events over hundreds of years, the pattern that emerges may
have some meaning. Otherwise, what is the significance
of reporting that, say, Google closed 2 points up on the
day? Would you say that means the recession is
If someone calls himself a "climate change skeptic," he is
probably not really a skeptic at all. True skeptics are
not smugly self-assured of a certain point of view, and a
skeptic would never selectively ignore large chunks of
data just because they contradict a cherished
belief. Only by having a strong desire to believe that
it isn't so and by selectively ignoring clear evidence can
someone deny today that the long-term temperature trend of
this planet's climate is upwards, and that we did it.
Just as in financial matters, the best advice is this: Do
your own due diligence using information from credible sources
that you trust.