Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Crux of the Climate Change Issue and Misinformation Quandary

A while back, University of Alabama at Huntsville Scientist Roy Spencer, who has a history of the same kind of errors always going in the same direction, managed to get a study published under an implicit theory that "clouds drive climate," rather than also serve as a response to it.

The study was sufficiently flawed that the editor of the science journal involved ("Remote Sensing") took responsibility for its publication, and chose to resign over it; citing the degree and type of the error, which went outside the normal curve of "mistake" in the highly professional and well vetted world of academic journal publishing. He also, however, blamed not only himself, but the scientists involved in the paper, which itself was not only comprised of "fundamental error" and "false claims," but which was written as if the scientific arguments or views with which the authors tried to take issue, did not even exist.

By both trapping earth surface radiated thermal radiation on the one hand, but increasing the earth atmosphere albedo (and thus reflecting more solar radiation directly back into the upper atmosphere and space) on the other, clouds of course play an enormous role in weather.

And while clouds also help shape a large part of climate over time, they form as a result of underlying climatic conditions. Unlike long lived atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, ice sheet and permafrost conditions, incoming solar radiation, and ocean heat concentrations, clouds are extremely ephemeral, and ever changing on an exceedingly short basis.

Thus, the idea that clouds, formed by evaporation and atmospheric water vapor (which serves as a very important but extremely short lived and changing greenhouse gas) don't reflect a response to the fundamentals that drive climate, but serve as a key driver of climate, is far fetched.

Seemingly far fetched arguments are fine - even needed - in science: they check conventional thinking and sometimes lead to great breakthroughs, and often better understanding. But the most critical focus when presenting a potentially far-fetched argument, is of course foremost to assess the arguments against it, and help illustrate where and why they are in error.  Spencer, and his colleague William Braswell, rather astoundingly, simply ignored all the "arguments" that went counter to the rather strange claims they made.

This is not just bad science.  It is, fundamentally, almost anti-science.

There is a lot of pseudo science on the issue of climate change, widely, repeatedly, and passionately promulgated around the world - and in the U.K., the U.S., and Australia in particular - that often terribly misconstrues the issue:

Consider the wildly popular notion of claiming that Climate Change is not real or major, since "antarctic sea ice extent has been growing," despite the far more relevant fact, usually completely ignored, that total polar ice - arctic sea ice, antarctic sea ice, northern polar land ice sheet mass, and southern polar ice sheet mass, has been greatly diminishing; and diminishing at an accelerating rate. (The arctic sea ice extent is also more relevant than the antarctic extent because the arctic is open water, and historically has had a solid ice cover through the summer months - which is starting to change - while the Antarctic is land. And so antarctic sea ice - a little further away from the pole - has largely disappeared traditionally during the summer months. So unlike in the north, a complete disappearance wouldn't comprise nearly as radical of a change. And it is more relevant since the rate of change - diminishment - in the arctic, has been massive in comparison with the rate of change - augmentation - in the antarctic region.)

To pick out one of the four areas of polar ice melt to argue one way, when all four, far more relevantly, illustrate the exact opposite, would be considered remarkable in any other area of scientific inquiry; yet passes for routine, and acceptable, when it comes to Climate Change Naysaying. ("CCN")

While Climate Change Naysayers have falsely turned the issue of ice melt into a refutation of Climate Change, the issue of ice melt is actually the opposite, and very relevant:

Even small changes in ice sheet mass can have large climate consequences.  Additionally, the increase in antarctic ice sea ice extent masks key regional shifts, and is slowly increasing due to major changes in the Southern Annular Mode ("SAM" winds), pushing the new ice northward and allowing new formation, and also likely due to increased glacial melt insulation. More importantly, the rate of loss of arctic sea ice- which in some regard is again a more important indicator since the north pole is mainly open water while the south pole is a continent (Antarctica) is about 10 fold (~1000%) faster than the rate of antarctic increase. And that rate of decline of arctic sea ice itself is profound, and, accelerating.

The massive ice sheets at both ends of the earth stabilize our climate, and have kept us in the moderately temperate to occasionally frigid (i.e, "encroaching glaciation") range of the Ice Age period we are currently in, and have been  in for over a million or more years. (Note that our alteration of the long term greenhouse gas concentrations now extends back at least several million years, to a time period pre-dating the current ice age with its massive ice sheet structures at both ends of the planet.) And these ice sheets are also now melting: And melting at an accelerating rate, at both ends of the earth.

To thus claim that the earth is not warming - as is now routinely done, and which even forms a good portion of Climate Change denialism, "skepticism" and confusion - during a short term geological period of consistently high (and even on a shorter term basis, still very moderately increasing after a very high shorter term increase in the 90s from the decade before) is both preposterous and extraordinarily misleading, as the earth is still accumulating heat - which is what matters - and at an accelerating pace.

Energy going into melting ice sheets will not be reflected in geologically short term ambient air temperatures. Yet we over focus on current air temperature as if this defines Climate Change, when right now, ambient air temperature is the least important aspect of a problem that ultimately reflects the changing (increasing) net energy balance of the earth.

And much of this accumulating energy is going into melting these ice sheets; melting permafrost regions (within which are over a trillion tons of carbon - almost double the amount of total carbon in the atmosphere right now - much of which will be released in the far more atmospheric heat energy absorption and re radiation intensive CH4, or methane, form, and ultimately a positive feedback loop); and, most notably of all, heating the world ocean - and doing so at a geologically massive, and, accelerating, rate.

In fact, according to the World Meteorological Organization's annual 2013 report (emphasis added):
About 93 per cent of the excess heat trapped in the Earth system between 1971 and 2010 was taken up by the ocean
From around 1980 to 2000, the ocean gained about 50 zettajoules [10 to the 21st power] of heat. Between 2000 and 2013, [the ocean gained] about three times that amount
Part of the ignorance on this issue - which is not just lack of knowledge, but incorrect knowledge and conclusion constantly, and often aggressively promulgated to the world and media - is fed mainly by non scientists, or scientists in other fields than those directly connected to climate change, who have either been misled on the issue themselves (further reinforced by a massive number of wildly popular, highly insular, and self reinforcing anti Climate Change websites and even media outlets); or - though often quick to project the argument of "belief" outward onto others - by ideological belief or scientifically irrelevant conflation of the actual science of the issue, with concern and presumption over possible political and economic ramifications and assumptions of it.

And part of it has been fed by a few, if rare, actual climate related practicing scientists, such as in the case of the far too disproportionately influential Roy Spencer, among a few others - such as, for example, John Christy, who, ironically, is also at the very same University of Alabama at Huntsville as Spencer.

Spencer (as well as Christy and the small handful of others), is far too disproportionately influential in part because he is one of the very few actual practicing climate scientists who takes a dim view of the idea that radical long term atmospheric heat energy re absorption will significantly alter future climate; and in large part it is because of the massive use, constant exposure, and promulgation of any possible seemingly credible argument or arguer in support of Climate Change Naysaying.

But Spencer's strange cloud argument was not novel, nor creatively expressive of the flaws in current understanding, nor an improvement upon or even contribution to it; but instead, consisted of hype and base misrepresentation masquerading as science.

Notably, although tens of thousands of such "papers" have been "published" by anti Climate Change organizations and lobbying groups, very few if any have been been published by vetted scientific journals that actually undermine the basic theory of Climate Change itself.

Naturally, Climate Change Naysayers have a theory for this as well - as when one wants or needs to have a belief, self-plausible appearing theories are infinite. Hence it's a "conspiracy," that all of the "Climate Change" refuting "studies don't get published in any of the fully vetted and highly professional and rigorous scientific journals - even though the basic process of science relies upon contention, questioning and constant re-examination, and there is far more interest, and likely even fame, in scientifically (not rhetorically) showing our massive and still ongoing alteration of the long term nature of our atmosphere to not be a big deal future climate wise. So such studies, if valid, or at least reasonable and not based upon basic misconstruction or misinformation, would be welcome, and a big deal.

There is just no solid argument for it because the only thing keeping Climate Change from being so slam dunk clear that it would be more patently obvious to the non scientific, is that it is in the future, it scans a broad range of time, and it covers a broad range of general responses which due to the very nature of climate itself can't realistically be broken down into concise pathways of short term precisely predictable and in advance measurable (until, somewhat, after the fact) change, as opposed to broader and longer time frame scale change.

And of course there is massive desire to believe that we are not affecting the environment, so that we "don't have to" change; don't have to shift what are probably long term counter productive agricultural practices for a whole host of reasons; don't have to have rigorous and open minded economic conversations about just what really defines economic progress and freedom long term, what measures it, and what really contributes to it; and perhaps most of all, don't have to to actively rather than passively switch off of fossil fuels upon which we have grown so "comfortable." (With former President George Bush even going so far to call our reliance upon oil an "addiction" in his 2006 National State of the Union Address) or infringe upon what some see as a basic, inviolate, "God given" right - namely, very cheap fossil fuel energy.

For despite the hype to the contrary, the cherry picking of select data, the constant conflation of the normal process of scientific correction, adjustment and learning with refutation of Climate Change itself, and the constant assertion that a failure to be able to precisely predict that actual short term geological path of Climate Change itself means that the issue of major climatic shifts is therefore not valid, the basic Climate Change theory - contrary to what is often so loquaciously if misleading expressed - is fairly straightforward, if imprecise:

Greenhouse gases absorb and re radiate mid to long wave thermal radiation (surface heat emission, whereas incoming, and immediately re reflected solar radiation, is mainly in short wave form), that would otherwise continue to radiate upward into the upper atmosphere and space. And a radical shift in their concentrations to levels not seen on earth in millions of years will likely be masked for quite some time upon a "relatively" stable climate system; but, as the underlying conditions of that stability - earth albedo, ocean energy, ice sheet presence, permafrost coverage, and the ongoing increased (and still massively increasing) thermal absorption and re radiation itself, in conjunction with the increasingly changed underlying conditions - all change, will ultimately and invariably have to fundamentally alter that system.

Roy Spencer is not trying to figure out the nature of this change, what contributes to it, and what we can learn about it; but, along with a large portion of the world and in particular online and lobbying community, is instead trying to refute it, and for very specific reasons. And his wacky, and widely repudiated "contrarian" study that not only misrepresented his findings but oddly also even failed to address the substance of the very theories he was attempting to repudiate - in, lo and behold, the direction of concluding that Climate Change is "much less significant" - was no coincidental happenstance simply arrived at through objective analyses of the relevant science, facts, and data. It was in fact instead very purposeful, and part of a broader pattern that has nevertheless conditioned itself to believe it is really simply following the "better" science.

Part of the problem isn't just the constant perpetuation and amplification of misinformation and issue misconstruction itself by interested, misinformation, conspiracy theory, or ideological led groups (along with often facilitatingly poor explication, and a lot of presumptive "conclusions" over what an average individual should somehow know in a veritable sea of misinformation on the issue by some groups concerned with the issue or even the massive misrepresentation on it) - but a good portion of the media itself. This includes, among others "talks a good game" but misinformation radical Glenn Beck's provocative online "magazine" Blaze; Forbes; and the widely misnamed "Fox News." (It is misnamed not because of the fairly ironic "Fox" title, but because it should be Fox Advocacy, as it is really advocacy couched as news - something, when recipients believe they are getting actual "fair and balanced," to use Fox's constantly iterated term, "news and analysis," which is far more effective than outright advocacy at influencing belief.)

Let's take an example, tying it into the Spencer paper so flawed, that, questionable action or not, the editor of the publishing paper resigned over it.

So how did Fox News handle this story? A search of all Fox Roy Spencer related articles made no substantive mention of any error, retraction or correction.

Yet here, in marked contrast, is the very first sentence of Fox's online story about the study itself.
Has a central tenant of global warming just collapsed?
Famous comedian and satirist Jon Stewart was one of the first to categorize the extensive use of Fox' News question marks as a form of veiled advocacy; that is, opinion, often extreme opinion, pushed across as if it were investigative analysis.

The study covered a period of about 10 years - from 2000 - 20009. Given the enormous range of climate variability itself, let alone one expected to shift (and one that is starting to show such signs, "oddly" coincidental or not), and as the climate is expected to shift over time, the heightened expectation of increased weather and overall variability, and unpredictability, ten years is a remarkably short period to draw contrary conclusions from.

Making the assertion that Climate Change is much less relevant than previously thought, based upon ten years of temperature of "random" cloud cover, misses what the Climate Change issue really is. Far more problematically, yet for reasons again never illuminated, it also relied upon the wild presumption that cloud cover, even though an ongoing ephemeral phenomenon, is largely irrelevant to the process of anthropogenic or atmospheric heat re radiating molecular driven climate change, and yet itself an initial driver of climate rather than at least in part a resultant conditional phenomenon, or in part, "result," of it.

Again, this goes against the entire body of scientific knowledge on the subject. Which itself is fine if there is a coherent reason offered as to why; but more potently, the argument makes little sense, and again, there is no coherent reason (or any reason) offered as to why.

Climate change, as noted in this previous link, more accurately refers to "the long term geologic history of earth, and the recent rapid additions to the long lived concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to levels not collectively seen in at least several million years; and the expected, if somewhat uncertain, range of likely and even severe changes to longer term climate in response."

The issue or "theory" sits somewhere between the "theory" of gravity and a strong hypothesis, based upon basic earth physics; our long standing geologic record; the earth's tendency to somewhat easily shift and change climatically as it is; and the geologically radical, outstandingly rapid, and still ongoing change upward in the atmospheric level of long lived greenhouse gases.

And the scientific theory is that this change is likely to bring about a lagging, possibly jagged, almost certainly non linear, increasingly volatile, and short term unpredictable (and long term unpredictable in terms of being exact or precise) shift or series of shifts in our climate: With our long term climate overall, ultimately shifting over to a new, stable stases, well after current atmospheric concentrations of long lived greenhouse gases, from a geologic perspective, have stabilized. (Right now, from a geologic perspective, far from stabilizing, they are essentially shooting straight up.)

Models try to capture this as best as they are able, and invariably get caught up in the problems of trying to pinpoint with accurate precision, what future climate is not only going to be, but exactly when it will be as well, and along what exact path it will follow as well.

This would be a difficult if not near impossible task with respect to just basic climate alone. It is even more so when the atmospheric concentrations of long term heat trapping gases have shot up to geologically radical levels - leading to far more re radiated atmospheric heat, and over time, the increase in energy build up of the earth itself: Something - with respect to warming ice sheets, increasing net ice melt, increasing permafrost subsurface temperatures, and ocean temperatures - also, again, correspondingly observed.

Yet the inability to exactly pinpoint both the precise degree of average ambient rise or just change, as well as the precise almost geologically meaningless path on a nearly year to year or decade to decade basis, has been widely mistaken for the efficacy, vitality or sensibility of the "Climate Change" phenomenon itself, and again, also aggressively and repeatedly promulgated as another false repudiation, or refutation, of it.

Yet regarding that Fox story - of which a google search provided not a one follow up correction, even after the Spencer study, prompting a major headline proclaiming the Climate Change theory itself to have been all but undermined, was largely repudiated and shown to be hogwash, including even by the publishing Journal itself, here are the second and third sentences :
Climate change forecasts have for years predicted that carbon dioxide would trap heat on Earth, and increases in the gas would lead to a planetwide rise in temperatures, with devastating consequences for the environment.But long-term data from NASA satellites seems to contradict the predictions dramatically, according to a new study.
Yes, according to a study - albeit subsequently left out by Fox - so fundamentally flawed, by an author who has a systematic pattern of always making mistakes in the same direction, and apparently strong non science oriented reasons for doing so, that the two year editor of the journal resigned over it. Not over pressure, but over the egregiousness of the mistake and "most likely problematic" falsity of the claims, according to the editor himself.

Yet nevertheless, without ever a subsequent correction to be found, here are the fifth and sixth sentences of the Fox article:
"The satellite observations suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show,” [Spencer] said. The planet isn't heating up, in other words.
Except, it is:

Net ice melt is increasing. Glaciers and ice sheets are warming and melting not just in the arctic, but the antarctic as well.  And again, at an accelerating rate. Subsurface temperatures in permafrost regions, which cover over a fifth of the globe, are increasing (even faster in some areas than the ambient surface air temperature above them). And the oceans, which cover almost three quarters of the globe, are gaining warmth at a rate that is many times, and according to one scientific study, 15 times (or fifteen hundred percent) faster than at any time in the past ten thousand years.

And, less important than the above changes, but still notably, overall temperatures over time - as in climate, the longer term, not shorter term, trend matters - are increasing, in a way that is already geologically unusual, with almost all of the 20 warmest years on record in the past 25 years alone, and, astonishingly, 13 of the 14 warmest years ever on record - even with the oceans still warming when they should have cooled to keep the air so consistently warm if the globe itself wasn't still warming - all occurring in the past 14 years.  And, though somewhat minor, but simply augmenting the general trend a little more, according to the National Climatic Data Center, the "meteorological" summer (June, July, and August) was the hottest on record. (It was the fourth hottest according to NASA), and 2014 is on track to possibly become the new hottest year ever.

But Fox, before ending up the piece with one of the more tame quotes on the matter (and on Spencer) by Texas A & M atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler, calling it "incorrect," further honed its powerful and completely unsubstantiated underlying "Climate Changes is not really real" message veiled as news, by publishing what not only dances near the edge of pure fiction, but crosses firmly over the line into it:
James Taylor, a senior fellow for environment policy at conservative think-tank The Heartland Institute, wrote at Forbes that the meaning of the new research is clear -- and it compromises what he called a "central premise of alarmist global warming theory."
Yes, Taylor - a paid advocate for the Heartland Institute, itself designed and funded specifically for the purpose of repudiating the concept of Climate Change - did write that. And Forbes, another near constant (but not always) Climate Change misinformation media source, did publish it.

Yet most scientists (although suddenly the word scientist, in an overt attempt at wildly spun advocacy - the opposite of news reporting, almost by definition -  means "alarmist," not scientist, in every single of the many pieces that Forbes has "published" by Taylor), note that Spencer is not really practicing science here; that the paper got some of the most basic things backward; that Spencer has a scientific history of being repeatedly wrong, and always in the same direction; and that while it is nice to model, Climate Change refers to the long term general expected effect over time from what has been a multi million year geologic change in a matter of a mere few hundred years, much of which has occurred in the past 50 or so years alone. Not models.

But for Fox, one of the leading sources of "news" in America and the leading and, according to studies, not just the most watched, but the "most trusted," of the very few national cable news channels, it was not actual climate scientists, but James Taylor - a lawyer who took science classes in college, and a paid advocate who works for a center specifically designed for the purpose of refuting Climate Change, - who is the science expert that Fox nevertheless elected to quote in terms of the article, and achieve Fox's seeming aims:  namely, to undermine and refute the idea of Climate Change and, it seems, any real understanding of the issue that doesn't align with its extreme (if common in the Internet and its extremely self selecting and self reinforcing) and highly misinformed view that Climate Change does not pose a significant threat of major, non linear, climatic shifting, with major to massive consequences for the specific world in which we evolved, and built up our civilization upon.

And so the powerful beat of misinformation continues to reverberate through the land, and alter the informational landscape upon which a democracy, for good analysis, assessment, and decision making, relies.