Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why "Climate Change" is the Wrong Name for the Radical Atmospheric Change the World has Seen, Atmospheric Problem Denialism, and a Little Attempted Economic Vision,

In terms of furthering good information and constructive understanding on the issue, calling Climate Change by it's current moniker. "Climate Change," is a mistake.

I don't know what it should be called. But calling the issue of long term radical atmospheric change that we now face by its current climate tied sounding name, tends to confuse, lead to mis-focus upon, and mis-construction of the actual issue.

Climate change is the affect. Or one of the affects. The phrase also tends to get us all to focus on the result, not the problem; to often mistake the result for the problem; and, far worse, to confuse any relevant measurement of the problem (atmospheric change), with measurements of the result (past and present observation). 

Since there is a large lag between cause - the problem to be addressed - and affect (that, in turn we won't have much real option on in terms of mitigation and certainly prevention if the underlying problem is not addressed), this confusion between the underlying problem, and its problematic affect, is extremely counter productive in terms of generating even remotely accurate, let alone good, assessments of the situation. 

Good assessment is nevertheless required to strategically know what to do. Or, to know, as some advocate, to do nothing. Yet, oddly, atmospherically knowledgeable, non partisan-ally charged scientists, barely sit in the otherwise enormous do nothing group, In fact, only an extremely low percentage of all atmospherically knowledgeable, non partisan-ally charged scientists, are in the do nothing group. 

When it comes to such "do nothing" (or do little) advocacy oriented scientists, or people who aren't scientists but speak out on the issue and afforded far more international attention than relevant scientists - every site, paper and book by those that this blog author has read - and it's been a lot - are largely filled with misconceptions over the issue, and evince a very poor understanding of it. (That would cover several thousand posts, but it's being worked on.)

Going against most knowledgeable scientists on a subject is a fine thing when one person or a small band of people go against the great majority, and necessary for good science. Not so great when that is all the ammunition that a far larger and generally non scientific, or pseudo scientific group (who then dismiss the great majority of scientists) needs, and, more importantly, the one person or small band repeatedly gets the most relevant things wrong, more generally misconstrues the basic issue itself, or shows incomplete or incorrect understanding of it. Which is exactly what the case has been on Climate Change. Here's a couple examples, and in fact what has served as most of the driver behind the "expert" anti climate change issue support.

Roy Spencer, (along with John Christy, Spencer's Alabama colleague who largely mirrors him) a former NASA scientist, with some knowledge of science, is a classic example, and his work will be examined later, because it has been so disproportionately influential on public opinion, yet is so filled with basic misconceptions, as to be more misinforming than informing. 

Or Roger Pielke Jr. (The linked piece is full of relevant information, but seems unnecessarily mean spirited, and may make almost anyone not automatically inclined to agree with all of the points of the post, to dismiss it and further dismiss valid climate science information therein, and furthers a polarization that is unnecessary and self defeating. I am linking to it here because of the information contained therein, and in the hope that J.R. (or someone) at Climate Progress, an otherwise incredibly knowledgeable expert with an exceptionally researched climate blog, sees this link and considers the point that overt and seemingly heavy handed mocking just further entrenches everybody's position -, when this shouldn't be a "position" issue - and doesn't really help open up knowledge and understanding; which is what this issue needs, and what Climate Progress ultimately works so hard for.)

Pielke, though not really a true scientist, has managed to establish himself as an expert on the topic, and also gets much of the most important basic information wrong. Pielke has often misrepresented the assertions and positions of those he disagrees with, or even the basic facts. From what I've read of Pielke's stuff, I believe it is all in good faith: good faith meaning he believes what he does, and finds interpretations - including of arguments and facts that show him to often be mistaken - to support that belief. As is common, it's really just a question of degree.  I'll post further on this. 

Or Richard Lindzen, the most qualified of the general group, an M.I.T. lifelong contrarian who probably enjoyed all the attention of perhaps being close to the one person in the United States with an advanced understanding of the relevant physics and atmospheric issues, who thinks that Climate Change is not a major issue.

Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist who has done a lot of good work. Not on climate alteration, however. His last major basic idea, to continue to be contrary on an issue that he has a history of being wrong on, but seems to enjoy (or more aptly, seems to enjoy being a contrarian on a largely scientifically agreed upon issue, one - because of his uniquely semi anti climate change stand among actually knowledgeable people - with huge non scientific, pseudo scientific, monied, and political backing), is that cloud cover - or in fact the lack of it, which allows for much more sunlight to reach the earth (warming) but much more thermal radiation to escape (cooling) - cancels out any warming from increased gases. At best, this "cloud cover opening up iris" theory  (think iris of an eye opening) is a haphazard guess, at worst it is a somewhat idiotic theory.  (It's since been largely discredited - and data since has tended to repudiate it as well. The issue of water vapor and clouds is well discussed here.) (Lindzen also creatively argued that cigarette smoking doesn't cause lung cancer.) 

And this alleged multinational leader on the topic, who contradicts himself all over, but does sometimes say Climate Change is a real issue (yay for that) that needs to be tackled (though by tackling, he doesn't really mean do anything about, because of somewhat ridiculous "offsetting benefits," being as a warming climate lessens total deaths from the cold, offsetting its harm, and the like - as he suggested in an extremely ill informed and sophomoric, but "nice sounding" 2005 TED talk - as well as the fact that unique among investments, creating processes and technologies and substitute products are in fact real lost "costs" and not really investments or a part of growth that we should count as value).

He was named as one of TIME's 100 most influential people in the world. And also has almost no real sense of what the climate change issue is. (Though I disagree that his errors, just as with most, are deliberate, rather than instead a result of having a directionally tailored strong belief drive factual study, and the slotting in of selectively chosen and often incorrect facts or even interpretations, to reinforce that strong belief. But it could be oil industry influence, or ultimately, almost the same thing - a fealty to mistaken and outdated, conceptually simplistic, and outdated if still very much mistakenly in vogue, economic assumptions.)

And he is a supposed God of strategic economics. Yet suffers under the common illusion that all short term material value or gain is equally valuable over the long term - and thus that simply adjusting over to processes that don't help undermine our world in the process of building (or bettering) it, are somehow awful for mankind, rather than actually economically beneficial in the long run, in terms of what economic value ultimately is supposed to represent:  Utility, improvement, or gain.

Funny, Bjorn Lomborg - the guy who is so influential on economics and climate change - is pedestrian on economics and has no vision, and basically knows very little about the actual science of Climate Change on which he frequently writes and speaks. (Though he does cite all kinds of meaningless guesses on a tangible "dollar" scale, regarding what various costs of Climate Change will be. Which is far more misinforming than saying "I don't know, nor can anyone really, here is my idea of range, here is why, but a lot of this stuff can't be measured in constant dollars, since it might affect some things more fundamental and absolute than mere widget based economic short term utility measurements ultimately determined by well meaning yet sometimes irrational consumers.")

Lomborg's main economic push, is the entrenchment of old school, outdated economic thinking. According to this common view, by implication, as GDP rises, so does total happiness. Consistently. Making us, for example, something in neighborhood of "10 times happier" today than we were when our GDP was 10 times lower.  Which, it essentially has to do as GDP rises, if real material value stays constant over time, and value represents utility, and that value increases in unchanging, real terms over extensive periods of time. And which, in turn, for any of this TIME magazine top world 100 champion's gospel like accepted and otherwise widely assumed as fact economic pronouncements on climate strategy to not be missing the bigger picture, value has then do as well.

Progress in terms of making more and better things is great. And it has nothing to do with the fact that as humans we do somewhat accommodate to or get used to many secondarily material or tangible things over time regardless of the fact that progress is great. We grow, producing is growing. Even making improvements that may seem like improvements at the time, but really aren't (like Facebook is key to our existence. How are we to know when we don't know? That is what the progress of growth, and economic growth, and change in response to what we've learned, is.

But making more of and slightly better products this year (though far behind ten years from now, and light years ahead of twenty years ago) is not some kind of absolute.  Yet according to these sweeping one dimensional time scale frozen tangible measurement economic valuations that call every change, every adjustment, ever benefit, every improvement, every short term dollar cost on improved energy or agriculture versus yet a bigger T.V. screen a real cost and "harm," is based upon the mistaken idea that we really don't ever adjust or accommodate at all. And as a result, again mistakenly, value stays constant and absolute over time as well.

That is the presumption being made when investment "costs" or shifts to substitute goods and processes that may (or may not) slow down a little material gain are considered true costs, and used as arguments to not address, over the short term, what we are doing that causes far more harm, and, is long term: ongoing, and cumulative (even amplifying) if we don't address it.

Climate change opposition in large part arises due to fear over a large negative long term impact upon our ability to grow and prosper (have a thriving and growing economy over time.) This is reasonable, and natural to think. But it is also misplaced.

When it comes to some membership in the very small percentage club of scientists who think Climate Change is not robustly significant, part of it may still be due to all the misinformation on the topic, and the drive and bonus for being contrarian here. That is, there is far higher funding and radically fewer qualified people chasing that same far greater funding. This is wildly ironic, but apparently unseen: for one of the many arguments used to discredit climate science and climate scientists anyway possible - not to purposefully discredit, but to find a way to retain one's own beliefs legitimately in one's own mind - is that climate scientists are the ones driven by money. (But no one else apparently is. Unless one doesn't like, or doesn't want to like, their ideas; than anyone is. Or driven by recognition, or to be a "saint," as Mother Teresa so selfishly sought. While, less extreme, but still illogically, Al Gore becomes a selfish but non believing promoter of the green technologies he invests in - even though his environmental passion predates his investments - and not someone who, perhaps less wickedly, instead of investing in what he does not believe, simply, more logically, chose to invest in what he does..., etc.. ultimately reducing all to tautological self belief reinforcing rhetoric, unseen by those so engaged in it.

For there's always another way out. Another "door." Another way to wrangle it. (See the first comment to my last post, dismissing it all as good expert political commentary, and the writer of the last post (me) a political idiot who will never be invited on such a panel, even though the posted video contained largely substantive discussion of a substantive issue, by a panel and host remarkably ill informed on the topic issue, and what they mainly discussed; which is exactly what the post was about.)

Also, for a far wider audience, taking the contrarian position and writing something scholarly sounding (whether it is or is not actually scholarly is not as important as whether it sounds scholarly, and for the author, perhaps to believe that it is, to be able to actually concoct the words), there is the ability to get almost anything, so long as it sounds nice, immediately published: Interestingly however, almost never, in real science Journals, which have a strong peer review vetting process. And which, while reviewers are human and subject to biases like everybody else, also have a transcendent interest in something upon which science depends and fosters: well articulated and scientifically credible theory, presumption and study challenging research and ideas. Not credible seeming to a lay public, websites, news stations, or editorial boards, but to knowledgeable scientists on the issue. (But the wrangle a way out "door" on this one is to allege that Climate Scientists want to silence "critics.." No, they want information, rather than misinformation, to shape our assessment of the situation.But if one is driven by belief, it is not seen as misinformation, but, rather, the "information," "the light" that only reinforces (but in fact allows) the retention of those beliefs.)

Yet, perhaps most notable of all, a remarkably disproportionate amount of this same contrarian angling is even highlighted in the press. The same press which needs to appear "balanced," and so feels if the argument is between the earth being flat and being, essentially, round, it must present "both sides" in order to be non-biased - and so present as the "reasonable middle ground, the idea that the earth is a very narrow, long obelisk - rather than simply illuminate on the issue, including facts in dispute, and on various perspectives based logically upon relevant facts or reasonable suppositions, not falsities, tautologies, or misinformation.  

This is the same press that rarely substantively lays out to the public exactly what the problem is and why it is a major problem, yet is still consistently being accused of being "biased" in favor of Climate Change advocacy by opponents of it. Perhaps if the press simply laid out the main critical underlying facts, and in particular if proponents of advocacy did the same, opposition, or at least some, would do what ideally we all want to do - namely, pursue what is real, and why it is so. And maybe handle a problem - a challenge - that is really all of ours, and our future's - a lot better.  Which doesn't so much depend upon whether we build 4 widgets today, or 6. But does depend on how we shape our future. 


It's not that I'm trying to defend "conventional wisdom." In fact, some of what you'll read in here goes against conventional wisdom. Or even, more relevantly, since the issue is a science one (what to do is, on the other hand, a strategic one), that I'm trying to defend the silly "97% scientific consensus." Much conventional wisdom is wrong. (But take note that a lot is also right.)

Science is a little different. Of course its pursuit, or assertion, produces mistakes. But science is by definition the pursuit of objective, physical truth, however flawed And the mistakes of convention tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Particularly when they go against the entire basis of an argument. (Say, like the silliness, which never made sense, of castigating eggs, rather than at least just low density lipo-protein, and, as we later learned, but yet still modern medical tests rarely reflect, the small particle size lipo-proteins, etc. And even that was a portion of a general theory, not it's whole. Medicine may, however, be a poor example.)  

Climate change, despite all the rhetoric and "belief" on the topic (when, despite accusations fast and furious all around, belief not only has nothing to do with the issue, but is near the very opposite of it), is not quite at the level of "the theory of gravity"; but it is pretty close.  The basics are known. The fact of our "likely" major affect, however ill defined both "likely" and "major affect," is, known. 

The Climate Change issue is also extraordinarily politically and even ideologically tinged, and driven. Though for the most part, the idea that "green types" are ideologically driven to believe it is a bit far-fetched, or certainly overdone. That is, human nature moves each of us in slightly different general patterns of perception, no doubt; but most people don't want more government annoyance and rules or higher gas prices just for the sake of more rules and annoyance, etc. 

Whereas on the flip side, though seemingly unrecognized by such practitioners, the ideological drive, is huge. It is driven by many things. Often mis-perception of the issue. A lot of misinformation. And often furthered, or at least very often not helped, ironically, by those trying to advocate for it: by dismissing the concerns or perceptions of others; by taking it for granted everybody knows what they know, or "should" know; or that everybody knows the same thing - as if the world of disbelief out there, directly and radically altering the nature of both our national and global discussion on the issue, as well as response, didn't even exist; and also by a lack of focus on explicating what the issue actually is - which again few people know - and which, again, is then further exacerbated by over reliance upon "climate change" as the description of the problem.

But this one sided if largely consciously unrecognized tendency, or self reinforcing need, is most often driven - or "fueled" (so to speak) - by largely misplaced long term economic fear. It is. ultimately, a largely misplaced fear in that changing how we produce only changes the nature of GDP; which already is abstract and reflects plenty of things that are less than optimal or even counter productive as it is. (Think "health care," juxtaposed over the trillions, not billions, trillions we spend on it each year, for instance, and many many many billions on many (not all) pharmaceuticals, which yet do more harm than good, and, worse, also cover up root causes or real health improvement solutions.) Sensible redress of highly counterproductive and ultimately destructive energy patterns doesn't necessarily lessen GDt (it is just as likely to increase it long term). It certainly doesn't destroy it. And the implicit idea that we need to slowly harm our world in order to "produce," is ultimately inane

Yet with all of that, 97% of scientists still assert that the problem is a very real one.  And an even significantly higher percentage of advanced scientists with some intimate knowledge of the issue, do. And most of those say it's pretty major.  Ignoring that is pretty foolish.

The other interesting fact here, recently suggested along with several other good points in the NY Times by Henry Paulson, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, is that effective action doesn't require 100% certainty. It requires a knowledge of probability that in combination with the harm (technically, multiplied by the harm, with perhaps extra value added in for really harmful scenarios that a person would be willing to do more to avoid (hence the idea of "insurance")), justifies action.

The real threats here are so monumental that even just a (mistaken) belief in a reasonable chance of them justifies sensible action.  This is not, however advocacy for the idea that action is sensible on climate change by comparing the average range of harm with the act of amelioration. (Response is sensible because it is extremely unlikely that the net energy balance of the earth can be radically altered without some sort of attendant radical alteration in climate - which is ultimately driven by energy. And because of a few slightly more complex reasons why it is problematic to radically, and suddenly (geologically) shift over to a climate very different from the one we and the species we rely upon evolved under, and in which the world we live in was shaped - in many ways, literally - and why conditions on earth right now are very specifically far more apt to change extra radically in response to radical net energy changes, than not quite so radically - though with either outcome ultimately being huge to mankind.)  

It is to point out that opposition has been so entrenched, so intent upon the belief that climate change is a hoax, a bunch of hooey, or insignificant, that even common sense strategy that we would otherwise all generally largely agree on (debating the ranges and approaches) somehow gets falsely turned into "nervous climate change alarmism," yet not "nervous economic alarmism" - in that multiple degree ambient temperature increases, and the ocean's non linear rising, is okay (IPCC projections only take into account rise from thermal expansion, but ignore ice melt, which is also illogical); whereas changing the nature of our GDP over to more productive, and in many cases also far less polluting processes, is not.

And the issue gets very poorly assessed, with mountains, Grand Canyons' full, of misinformation and concocted wrangling around and irrelevant dismissal of the most basic facts, and flooding the Internet, most media outlets, and politicians offices. Often righteously believed, which the pro Climate Change crowd's near constant, somewhat contemptuous, and often wildly incorrect dismissal of it all as all simply big oil company and (random Joe Citizen) purposeful lies, only worsens, rather than helps.  

That entrenchment flies in the face not of 97%, but of basic facts. Underlying radical atmospheric, geologic time, and molecular absorption facts that calling the issue "Climate Change" only further obfuscates, and falsely, moves the issue away from, and further toward an issue of "climate observation." 

Observation is great, particularly in science, which ultimately emanates from it. But the problem here is already observed and incontrovertible. 

It is that the net energy balance of the earth is radically shifting. 

It is doing this because of a simple fact, that seems to often get overlooked, yet largely defines the issue: The level of long term greenhouse gases in our atmosphere - the same molecules that in very small relative number alone are responsible for the earth not being a frozen ball of rock - have collectively risen to levels not seen on earth in at least a few million years, and that are still rising rapidly, directly (and sometimes even precisely) attributable to specific, anthropomorphic, practices and usages.  

These gases trap heat (thermal radiation) originally received in largely short wave form (what we think of as sunlight, the limited visible spectrum and a little bit consisting of just slightly shorter wavelengths, and slightly longer), as that heat, initially absorbed, later rises in longer wavelength forms off the earth's surface up through the atmosphere. If it's not trapped, it escapes back to outer space. If it is trapped, much of it is retained by the earth/atmosphere system. The more that is trapped, the more heat that is retained.

This is not what causes a huge rise in temperatures. This causes a little warming of the atmosphere. What will cause a huge rise in temperatures is the increasing net energy balance of the earth.  Which is also incontrovertible. (Though all over the Internet, equations and overly big worded sentences are thrown out by non experts in this field, who nevertheless win awards by conservative news sites to show that energy is not increasing (or greenhouse gas levels don't matter) with such inanities as "the earth has to be in balance" (followed by five pages of misapplied equations and gobbledygook), "so you can see that net energy is not rising, because the energy in has to equal the energy out!"  Or some such. When it doesn't. The energy in has to equal energy out, plus or minus energy retained.

In theory the earth is always in "radiative balance." In reality it's not. Cloud cover, which constantly changes, is a significant contributor to the total reflectivity of the earth. And the higher the reflectivity, the more solar radiation (sunlight plus what we don't see that is close in wavelength to sunlight, some UV and a little lower wavelength infrared red) simply gets reflected back out to space, where with its narrow wavelength window, tends to be too large for electronic atmospheric molecular absorption, and too small for vibrational atmospheric molecular absorption (the main type of absorption that causes atmospheric greenhouses to trap and re radiate thermal radiation emitted from the earth's surface).
The process of extra emitting (when the earth - which is 70% ocean - is warm relative to the atmosphere, think of a bathtub warming a cold bathroom), or less emitting.

But if  extra or lessened emissions don't keep a constant radiative balance, net energy will be lost or gained, through a longer term heating or cooling of the earth. (Oceans, surface, and ice and snow, which can warm but not melt, soften, partly melt, or melt.) What we've seen is some of the increased trapped heat not immediately re emitted, or not then re emitted yet again when some of that is trapped and ultimately contributes more warmth back to the surface, through either lessening or negating emission (the air is warmer than the surface or less cool relative to the surface than it would otherwise be), and slowly start to change the temperature of the earth.

With more greenhouse gases in the air, more emitted heat is trapped, more energy is retained. If it is a big difference (and the overwhelming thought is that a change on the order of several million years is pretty big), that retained heat won't only just mildly heat the atmosphere but will start to significantly impact the otherwise reasonably stable systems that shape and create earth's long time climate given the level of incoming sunlight (which we can't change),and trapped atmospheric heat (which we can). Most of which, given where the earth is in its long term geologic cycle (snow and ice formation and so forth) relative to the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases and what similar levels have entailed in the past (much less snow and ice formation) when warmed, can and at some point inevitably will produce a whole host of significant changes toward more even more warming, until a new stases or overall balance is reached.

We're already starting to see early signs of such changes, and there is a big lag between the cause and affect here.  Additionally, and, most significantly- since it's the thing we can control - we are adding, rapidly, to total long term heat trapping gas levels. The more we add, the more increasingly compounding is the effect upon basic stabilizing structures such as ice caps, permafrost, and oceans.

All of this, however scantily laid out, is pretty basic, though it can be amplified or affected by water vapor and clouds (as briefly referenced above in discussion on Richard Lindzen, and addressed here and elsewhere).

Yet almost everything is written under the sun (no punt intended) to come up with ways to discredit this idea. But the basic idea is the basic physics of the planet. And it doesn't change just because we don't understand or don't want to understand the geologic concept of time or what this means in terms of lags and cause and effect, or the unambiguously non linear nature of this problem (or the basic reasons why it is non linear - though starting with slowly and then not so slowly melting surface ice along with an increasingly warming ocean, which over the long run drives climate, along with the increased (and yet still increasing) level of heat trapping molecules in the air, gives a good beginning indication...)

This, save for an occasional (or even less than an occasional) repeatedly wrong Richard Lindzen, is why nearly every serious non politically ideological scientist with intimate or deep knowledge of this issue recognizes the same basic problem, though through what ranges and with what precisely pinpointed results are of course debated, and uncertain. And why many are pulling their hair out over the level of discourse on this topic, where there is an endless sea of highfalutin prose with all sorts of twists, turns, and proclamations in high spirited and often largely worded language, with sneaky conclusionary sentences that make no sense:

Here's a classic example among literally millions, where, in this one, "CO2 has nothing to do with it, because there's excess CO2 in the air." That is, levels don't matter! Just "enough" or more than enough to keep the earth a comfy 59 degrees on average, not the 0 degrees it would be without it, and perfect for mankind the last few million, as if we ourselves had orchestrated it from above, and notwithstanding the four billion years of geologic history, and basic physics, that contradict it. That is, there is no more heat to be trapped. Every last drop of it coming off the surface is already being trapped and re-radiated by the few CO2 and sundry other non noble gases in the air as it is. Oh, wait, that's Venus. Where it's like 800 degrees.

Yet again, consider the eloquence and advanced theorizing that led to a simply made up conclusion that has little to nothing to do with the arguments stated. And here's a similar, but slightly harder to discern example (and it's (poor but exasperated) counter, then a response to that citing an "oh help" comment as proof, that, even though posted by yet another climate skeptic, was actually saying "oh help" to the original post) Yet so fervently believed! And so on it goes. That has been the ideological nature of this issue, and the biggest impediment on it to truth, and ultimately good assessment. Assessment which is necessary for the best and most sensible response -whatever that may be - in keeping with our own long term interest in the world on which we live, and depend, and upon which our children, and grandchildren, will too.

(Edited and slightly revised on 7/19/14)

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