19 Jan 2009

Mr Ward's Many Mythtakes

This was in response to a denialist letter in the local rag.

Mr Stephen Ward makes all the usual debunked arguments, in all the usual ways.

He starts off characterising the science of global warming as a series of assumptions, when in fact they are a rock-solid scientific theory supported by thousands of peer-reviewed papers and literally billions of measurements. The evidence supporting what he calls "assumptions" is a mountain of data assembled by every climatologist, biologist, glaciologist, geologist and meteorologist around the world, working at times with intense rivalry as well as frequent co-operation. The "assumptions" he quotes are exactly the conclusions reached by the IPCC, representing the most conservative views and least controversial avenues of study. Proven? Get a few PhDs, then say otherwise.

He follows with the old saw about a scientific consensus on cooling in the 1970s. There was no such thing. There was a global journalistic scare story derived from a single paper suggesting we were due for a return of the ice age because the warm period was longer than any of the previous ones. If anything, the fact that we were not sliding into an ice age is evidence for human impact on the climate stretching back even before we started burning fossil fuels. There is a suggestion that farming and forest clearance kept the world at a warmer than natural level for the last 5000 years.

The article he quotes talks about a trend of 20-30 years. The period in question (1945 to 1975) was dominated by massive industrial growth on the back of coal-burning and car fumes, which release soot and sulphates into the atmosphere. These make clouds with smaller droplets, reflecting sunlight and cooling the surface of the earth in a phenomenum called Global Dimming - a very real and accepted aspect of climate calcualtions. Since the various attempts to eliminate dirty coal fumes across the US and Europe, this form of human pollution has diminished (although it is coming back around India and China) and the underlying warming trend from CO2 has therefore returned with a vengeance.

We then get a few cherry-picked snippets of data. 1998 was, indeed, one of the warmest years on record following a ferocious El Nino event. What he ignores is that climate is about long trends of 10, 50, 100 years and more. Any single year is just noise in these trends. The global temperature rise over the 100 year period from 1906-2005 was 0.74°C. The warmest year between 1880 and 1980 was 1944, 0.2°C above the overall mean. In the past ten years every single year has been more than 0.3°C above the mean, with one, 2005, more than 0.6°C above the mean, beating 1998 into a cocked hat.

Included in all Mr Ward's misinformation is a claim that the main sources of data are satellites and remote sensing equipment, and that these are both showing cooling trends. This is simply false. The main sources of data are the thousands of weather stations around the world, and the temperature measurements logged by hundreds of ships' captains aboard sea-going vessels. There were no satellites nor remote sensing stations between 1880 and 1970, and the ones deployed since 1970 all, with no substantial exceptions, support the measurements taken on the ground.

Mr Ward winds up this abundance of ignorance and falsehood with an appeal to reason. We should balance job creation against the dangers of climate change. It makes me wonder what, amidst all his denials that climate change is happening, he thinks those dangers are? Does he think it will get a little stormier, maybe have a few more floods and heatwaves and lose some seafront properties to gently lapping waves?

No, Mr Ward. That level of ignorance must be addressed.

There has only ever been one period in Earth's history when it has experienced the runaway global warming we are now faced with. When the Canadian and Russian permafrost releases gigatonnes of methane, and seas warm to release teratonnes more from frozen methane clathrate on the seabed, then we will have a global extinction event on a par with the Permian-Triassic extinction event. Try arguing for a third runway when 96% of all marine species and 70% of all land vertebrates (including everything bigger than a mouse that can't survive on dead and decaying things) are dead and gone.

To put it in insurance terms for you. The level of risk is the termination of everything that makes human civilisation possible, from mass food production to the ready availability of fresh water. That's 99.9999% of current global GDP gone. The chance of this cost being incurred over the next 100 years or so, given the prevalence of (frequently wilful) ignorance on the subject, is currently around 10-15%. This can be reduced to maybe 1% if everyone starts doing something significant right away.

As your insurer, I know that you probably won't be able to pay your premiums after about 2050, as you will be too worried about the 2 billion refugees from Asia and Africa trying to take your Big Mac and Fries. So, I offer you a choice of two 40-year annuities. Either pay 1% of Global GDP for 40 years to reduce the risks, and another 1% per year insurance premium to meet the costs of failure, or spend nothing on risk reduction, and 5% of global GDP (starting in ten years time after it is too late) to make sure I will rebuild civilisation after your grandchildren have died of starvation.

Your choice - don't let me pressure you. We need to be rational about this. Only, could you pay me in rocket fuel so I can build my luxury retreat in space.

The Standard seems to remove articles after a week, so the original link is now dud. Alistair Waugh (the originator of the discussion) got right of reply last week, and now another denialist has chimed in with more garbage.

The permanent locations are PDF files
Mr Waugh's opener
Mr Ward's myths
Mr Waugh's reply
Mr Hemmingway's excuse

My reply in a new post, shortly

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