Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Chills me to the bone

Writing at AOLNews.com, meteorologist Paul Yeager starts a February 1 piece this way:
A massive snowstorm is slamming America's midsection - again. New York City just set a record for January snowfall. The South has experienced bitter cold, snow and ice this winter.

If the Earth is getting warmer, why's it so darn snowy and cold?
AAAAAHHHHH!

Do we still have to argue this? Do we still have to deal with this canard? Are people still spreading this "Where's your global warming now, huh?" crap?

Apparently so, he said with a deep sigh, apparently so.

So let's go through it one more time. Short-term phenomena are just that, short-term. It's impossible to attribute a single storm or even a single cold, snowy spell to anything more than normal variations in weather, just as the same is true for a single heat wave. As I have written several times before here and elsewhere, no one cold winter disproves global warming any more than one hot summer proves it. Only a trend over a period of a fair number of years (climatologists suggest 30) is revealing. Which means the snows and storms of this winter in the US in and of themselves tell us nothing one way or another about climate change. Period

To be as fair as I can to Yeager, he acknowledges that early on, writing that "short-range weather events have little to do with the climate change debate." But he sullies that central point in three ways: First by immediately preceding that statement with "opinions about climate change vary greatly," second by including the word "debate," both of which falsely imply there is a genuine scientific debate, and third by having the first "expert" quoted being Roy Spencer.

Roy Spencer, for pity sake.

Don't know who Roy Spencer is? Well, for starters he's a meteorologist (not a climatologist) who now holds the title of Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and makes much of his work with NASA.

He's also something of a fruitloop.

You can get an idea of his style at his most recent blog post, dated January 31, in which he starts out with a clich├ęd slam of Al Gore (Just what the hell is it with the nanny-nanny naysayers' obsession with Gore?) and ends up by counterposing "those who read all of Reverend Al’s sermons" with those "who are still capable of independent reasoning and thought."

Back in October 2009 a naysayer at MMFA held Spencer up as an authority and referred to two links at his site. I'm posting below what I wrote in response, somewhat edited for length, because I think it gives a broader sense of how Roy Spencer argues his points and what kind of "authority" he is. (The links to Spencer's posts in the following are from the original.) After saying I looked at the links and was "unimpressed," I said this:
For example, the first link says that "global warming theory starts with the assumption that the Earth naturally maintains a constant average temperature." That is a crock. I don't know of anyone who's ever said that. The average temperature of the Earth has varied by a good number of degrees over time.

What the Earth will do is seek an equilibrium, a balance, between energy in and energy out - but there are so many things that can disturb (and have disturbed) that equilibrium from the very-predictable and very-long term (such as the precession of the Earth's orbit) to the somewhat predicable (such as the radiance of the Sun) to the relatively unpredictable (such as large-scale volcanic activity) that no one would rationally claim that "the Earth naturally maintains a constant average temperature." It's a straw figure.

What global warming theory says is that an equilibrium that had persisted for several hundred years if not longer is being disturbed by human activities that have lead to the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with the result that the average temperature of the Earth is rising as the climate seeks a new equilibrium.

So right at the top he misstates what he's supposedly critiquing.

He refers several times to "forcing and feedback (loosely speaking, cause and effect)" - but that is, again, wrong. A "forcing" is something that drives climate in a certain direction. An "effect," the result of a forcing, isn't a "feedback" unless it is a new forcing. One of the big dangers of global warming is the development of positive feedback loops [where forcings produce new forcings in the same direction] such that the temperature would continue to rise even if we generated no additional greenhouse gases.

[On to] the other link you give. There, he says "The main arguments for global warming being manmade go something like this: 'What else COULD it be? After all, we know that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations are sufficient to explain recent warming, so what's the point of looking for any other cause?'" That is such a stinking pile that I'm grateful that Smell-o-Vision is still fictional. I mean, how many ways could that be wrong? For one, CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas, but it's not the only one or even the most powerful one. (Methane, for example, is 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 is.) For another, the idea that scientists are simply dismissing out of hand any other possibility is not only ridiculous, it is a puerile slam on the entire community of atmospheric scientists.

So much for the links, what about the author himself? Dr. Roy Spencer is a leading nanny-nanny naysayer on climate change. His 2008 book Climate Confusion not only argued that human impact on the climate is so small as to be safely ignored, he claimed the very best thing we can do for the world's poor is to keep on right on doin' exactly what we're doin' now.

But he's rather more than that. For one, he's a creationist, having said in 2005 that creationism "actually had a much better scientific basis than the theory of evolution." For another, he was a "scientific advisor" to something called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, which declared itself to be "committed to bringing a proper and balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development."

He's associated with both the Heartland Institute, a right-wing outfit promoting "free market" solutions to just about any problem you can think of, including global warming, and the George C. Marshall Institute, a right-wing think tank.

In 2004, he wrote that "either you believe that the world has been created for mankind's use, with a certain resiliency and stability, or you believe it is just a cosmic accident, fragile, and overly sensitive to our meddling" - a particularly interesting statement in light of his repeated efforts to prove the climate is "insensitive" [- that is, unlikely to be affected by human activity]. In that same article he compared toxic waste to deer droppings.

A year earlier, he and a partner had published an analysis that claimed that the troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, was actually cooling, not warming. Two years later it turned out they had screwed up the calculations and the troposphere was actually warming, and warming in a way that was in large agreement with global warming computer models. Despite having to admit they were wrong, the pair said "our view hasn't changed," that is, even though they were wrong, they were still right.

Two final tidbits: One, in 2007 he asserted that "very few scientists in the world - possibly none - have a sufficiently thorough, 'big picture' understanding of the climate system to be relied upon for a prediction of the magnitude of global warming." Which is probably why the IPCC, for example, relies on the combined effort of a few thousand scientists in relevant disciplines from around the world - and why, by his own words, Spencer's lone-wolf nanny-nanny naysaying is not as impressive as some here (eagerly) find it.

And two, he also insists that despite his connections to the Heartland Institute, which has gotten a good deal of money from Exxon-Mobil, "My research has always been 100% U.S. Government-funded." Which would seem to be a poke in the eye to those who claim that researchers keep finding new support for anthropogenic global warming because "that's where the grant money is."
I'll here add one other bit: He has argued that both environmentalism and "evolutionism" - that is, acceptance of the scientific reality of evolution - are religions and that teaching evolution in schools violates the First Amendment's separation clause.

So yes, short-term weather tells us nothing about long-term climate change. But no, you do not want to go to Roy Spencer as your first source. Or second. Or fifty-third. Or - how many sources are there?

Footnote: If you want the unedited version and more of the same exchange from which the above is taken, I posted my side of it here. That longer exchange also contains the acknowledgment that when I referred to carbon dioxide as "the most abundant greenhouse gas" I should have said "the most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas," the one for which we are responsible for the increase and the one, therefore, that we can do the most about. In terms of pure abundance, water vapor far outstrips carbon dioxide.

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