Judging Global Warming As A Scientific Theory
The supporters of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) claim that they have science on their side. Time and again we are told that the debate is over, the science is settled and consensus among the world's scientists reached. If that is true, why are so many scientists coming forward to oppose and denounce the climate alarmist's theory? To understand the true nature of the climate change debate it is necessary to understand what a scientific theory is and how to judge a theory's validity.
The debate over global warming and its possible human causes has become the defining scientific controversy of our time. Opinions vary regarding the severity of the problem among both scientists and lay people, though there are some who claim the threat is so immense and so immediate that all doubters should be silenced. The arguments presented to the public are mostly simplistic and cursory, usually accompanied by images of calving glaciers, melting icebergs and smokestacks belching clouds of pollution. The public debate has become vicious and nasty, filled with personal attacks and insults.
As disturbing as this shift from reasoned scientific discourse to acrimony is, it is not the most troubling aspect of the global warming debate. The most troubling aspect of the global warming controversy is what it reveals about the level of scientific understanding among the general populace. There is a growing disconnect between the scientific community and the general population. This is a consequence of the ever-widening knowledge gap between scientists and non-scientists. Science and the technology it has made possible are the foundations of our modern civilization. Unfortunately, what science is, how it works and what scientists do is not well understood by the general public.
The public's perception of scientists has never been accurate and it certainly hasn't been helped by the popular media. Scientists are portrayed as intelligent bumblers, like the “Doc” in Back To The Future; cold, emotionless automatons like “Mr. Spock” on Star Trek; or crazed, power-mad villains like “Doctor Octopus” of Spider Man fame. In truth, scientists are just regular people with the same feelings, foibles and failings as everyone else on the planet—they just happen to have a lot of specialized knowledge about some facet of science.
So what is science? Science is based on the scientific method and scientists are practitioners of that method. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, the scientific method consists of “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Or, as more succinctly put by Meg Urry, “Scientists observe nature, then develop theories that describe their observations.”
Science is both a body of knowledge and an approach to understanding nature by gaining more knowledge. It is based on gathering empirical evidence. Empirical means simply what belongs to or is the product of experience or observation. If you can touch it, smell it, feel it, see it or measure it, it's empirical. An important point is that, in order to be testable, a theory must make predictions about how nature behaves. A theory that makes no predictions can not be tested and is therefore useless to science. So what is a scientific theory? Most simply put a theory is an explanation of how nature works.
Often, people will dismiss a scientific idea by saying “it's just a theory,” as though a theory is just someone's opinion or something made up on a whim. This could not be more wrong. To be accepted as a scientific theory means that the ideas expressed have been examined and tested by many scientists, not just the one who first proposed it. Theories that have endured the test of time come as close to “fact” or “truth” as anything known to science. Scientists tend to shy away from absolute terms like fact and truth, because they would give the impression that a particular theory is absolute and never subject to change. In science, nothing is above challenge or immune to modification. When a theory has survived for several hundred years, and its author has departed this life, it may be elevated to being a law—but in science, even a law is subject to change.
In this way, the accumulated body of knowledge that is science continues to grow. New, better theories replace or supplement older ones. But always new theories must be in agreement with others that are accepted as valid. A new idea cannot contradict a large volume of accepted theory. Not because the weight of the old theories makes them inviolate, but because the new theory would have to offer satisfactory explanations of all the things the old theories had explained. As Marcello Truzzi put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”
In 1988, the IPCC was established by two UN organizations, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to evaluate the risk of climate change brought on by humans. Over the past 20+ years the IPCC has issued four major reports and dozens of lesser papers all promoting the theory of anthropogenic global warming. As written in the IPCC charter:
The IPCC does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters. Its role is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change, its observed and projected impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.
Not surprisingly, the IPCC has found that global warming is out of control and being caused primarily by human activity. Supposedly, all manner of disaster lurks just ahead because of humanity's nasty habit of burning fossil fuels. First we will examine the AGW theory itself before testing the theory by examining a number of its major predictions. As we shall see, the claims made by the IPCC and other global warming alarmists are indeed extraordinary, while the evidence is often lacking.
Global Warming As A Theory
What is anthropogenic global warming? It is a scientific theory that claims human activity is responsible for increasing Earth’s average temperature over time. It is based on our limited understanding of Earth’s climate, imprecise measurements of historical temperatures using proxies, and derives its future temperature predictions from computer models. The statement we gave in our book, The Resilient Earth, is as follows:
The average temperature of the Earth has been rising in recent decades and will keep rising in the future. Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. Anticipated effects include rising sea levels, repercussions to agriculture, slowing of ocean circulation, reductions in the ozone layer, increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes and extreme weather events, lowering of ocean pH, and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
The statement above summarizes the main points being made by those backing human-caused global warming. Some of the terms used sound technical and scientific, particularly the phrase “anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” Since science speak tends to put off the public and confuse the news media a simpler version was created that goes like this:
- Greenhouse gases cause Earth’s climate to warm.
- CO2 is a greenhouse gas.
- People generate a lot of CO2.
- Therefore, people cause global warming.
This statement glosses over an imposing amount of detail but is much more effective than an accurate description given our sound bite oriented society. Since this framing of the problem is missing the essential evidence actually supporting the AGW theory a simple argument was needed to quell any objections from non-supporters. That argument was the claim of “scientific consensus.” I will touch on the consensus argument at the end of this article.
The natural processes that create and regulate Earth's climate form a gigantic, extraordinarily complex heat engine powered by energy from the Sun. Earth's climate is perhaps the most complicated natural system science has ever tried to understand. The fundamental sciences—chemistry, physics and biology—are all intimately involved, along with a host of more specialized scientific disciplines. To gain an understanding of climate change requires knowledge of geology, archeology, anthropology, oceanography, meteorology, astrophysics, paleontology, glaciology and computer science. Practically every natural science has a role to play.
A few of the relationships and feedback loops that affect climate. After Robock.
As stated previously, the cornerstone of modern science is the testability of theories. This means that a theory must make predictions about the way the physical universe behaves, so that it may be tested by investigators other than the theory's originators. When a prediction made by a theory is confirmed it helps to strengthen the theory’s claim to correctness. When a prediction made by a theory is shown not to be true it weakens the theory, possibly invalidating the theory all together. A number of claims have been made by the proponents of human caused global warming. We will now examine five of the major outcomes predicted by the global warming alarmists.
Melting Greenland Glaciers
In the late 1990s, streams of ice flowing into the sea from the great Greenland ice sheet had begun speeding up. As the glacial ice faces receded global warming proponents pointed to the shrinking ice cap as proof that catastrophe lay just around the corner. But the evidence does not support that claim.
In 2009 glaciologist Tavi Murray and ten of her colleagues from Swansea University reported “Its come to an end… they’re not in runaway acceleration.” Glacial modeler Faezeh Nick of Durham University in the UK and her colleagues found similar behvior when they modeled the flow of Helheim Glacier. They reported: “Our results imply that the recent rates of mass loss in Greenland's outlet glaciers are transient and should not be extrapolated into the future.”
The Helheim glacier waxes and wains but isn't running away.
The same seems to hold for the melting of Antarctica's glacial cap and claims of disappearing Arctic ice. Many experts were calling for a new record low for the Arctic ice pack this summer but that has not happened. “During the first half of August, Arctic ice extent declined more slowly than during the same period in 2007 and 2008,” states the August 18, 2009, ice report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “It is now unlikely that 2009 will see a record low extent.” Much to the dissapointment of several scientific expeditions and commercial concerns so far this year, neither the Northwest Passage nor the Northern Sea Route has opened.
For more details see “Greenland's Ice Armageddon Comes To An End,” “Disappearing Arctic Ice Is Latest Climate Falsehood” and “Melting Antarctic Ice Part of Natural Cycle.”
Rising Ocean Levels
Sea levels could rise, they have changed significantly in the past. According to the IPCC AR4, it is estimated that sea level rise will be 7 to 15 inches (18-38 cm) in a low scenario and 10 to 23 inches (26-59 cm) in a high scenario. This is based on multiple models, which all exclude ice sheet flow due to a lack of reliable published data. With high confidence, the report predicts that coastlines will be exposed to increasing risks such as erosion and that “Many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise by the 2080s.”
But sea levels are always changing and scientists have had little success predicting change in the past. Mr. Gore has asserted that sea levels will rise up to 20 feet due to melting ice sheets “in the near future,” but then Gore is not a scientists and it is a mystery that anyone would listen to him in the first place.
According to the EPA, an estimated 50 to 60 years of data are required to obtain linear mean sea level trends having a 1 mm/yr precision with a 95 percent statistical confidence interval. Satellite data are not available for a multi-decadal time series needed to separate out medium-term variability from long-term change. In other words, all the predictions of rapidly rising sea-levels are based on insufficient data. The measurements are within the margins of error or not of sufficient duration to detect long term trends. According to the University of Colorado at Boulder Sea Level Change Analysis, sea level has actually flattened since 2006. Hydrographic observations demonstrate an apparent cooling of the ocean since 2002, which would imply up to a 2 mm drop in sea level (E. W. Leuliette & R. S. Nerem).
Nils-Axel Mörner, former head of paleo-geophysics at Stockholm University, has been studying the subject of sea-level rise for 35 years. He has been observing changes in ocean levels in the Maldives, one of the first places expected to disappear under the waves, and found no evidence that they are in peril. Satellite altimetry data collected over the past two decades tells the same story. His best estimate is for a rise of a couple of inches by the end of this century. Dr. Mörner says: “the sea level is not rising.”
This won't happen any time soon.
The reason why Dr Mörner is so certain that these claims about sea level rise are wrong is that they are all based on computer model predictions, whereas his findings are based on “going into the field to observe what is actually happening in the real world.” Another scientist who has done just that is Cliff Oillier from the University of Western Australia's School of Earth and Environment. According to a 2009 paper by Dr Oillier: “ Graphs of sea level for twelve locations in the southwest Pacific show stable sea level for about ten years over the region. The data are compared with results from elsewhere, all of which suggest that any rise of global sea level is negligible.”
For more information see “Melting glaciers, shrinking polar ice and rising oceans?,” “High Sea Level Along U.S. Atlantic Coast Due To Ocean Current And Wind Changes,” “Article concedes sea level computer model 'predictions could be flawed or flat wrong',” and “Sea Level Rise: An Update Shows a Slowdown.”
Extinction of the Polar Bear
Global warming alarmists have predicted that there will be mass extinctions around the world because of the ravages of temperature rise. One of the species that has been used as a poster child for this hypothesis is the polar bear. An example of charismatic mega-fauna—attractive big animals—the polar bear is a popular creature from the remote and exotic Arctic. Though bears in their modern form have been around for at least 5 million years, the white bear of the Arctic is an even newer resident of planet Earth.
Our knowledge of the development of polar bears is well-documented by fossil transitions. Scientists theorize that between 100,000 to 250,000 years ago, during the mid-Pleistocene, a number of brown bears became isolated by glaciers. While many probably perished on the ice, they did not all die out. The survivors' offspring underwent a rapid series of evolutionary changes in order to adapt. Some think this was possible because of the small population, and extreme selection pressure. The end result was a new species of bear adapted to harsh Arctic conditions—the polar bear.
Now there are claims that polar bear numbers have been plummeting because of melting polar sea ice and that the polar bear will soon go extinct because of global warming. The US EPA was even cajoled into declaring the species as “threatened” by the eco-activist lobby. No TV special on global warming is complete without a few pictures of the “endangered” polar bear precariously balanced on a melting ice-flow.
In the 1950s the polar bear population up north was estimated at 5,000. Today it's 20- to 25,000, a number that has either held steady over the last 20 years or has risen slightly. In Canada, the manager of wildlife resources for the Nunavut territory of Canada has found that the population there has increased by 25%.
Mitchell Taylor, a polar bear biologist with the Canadian government, confirms what Inuit hunters have said for a long time: polar bears who live along the southeast coast of Baffin Island, in northern Quebec, and the northern coast of Labrador are healthy, and growing in numbers. “The Inuit were right. There aren't just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears,” Taylor said, in an interview. Writing in the Toronto Star, in 2006, he stated: “Of the thirteen populations of polar bears in Canada, eleven are stable or are increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present.”
Do these guys look threatened?
Global warming might actually be helping polar bears in that area. A reduction in ice cover creates better habitat for seals, which are the bears' main food, while on land blueberries, which the bears adore, become more plentiful. Taylor says he's seen bears so full of blueberries they waddle. “Life may be good,” said Taylor, “but good news about polar bear populations does not seem to be welcomed by the Center for Biological Diversity. It is just silly to predict the demise of polar bears in 25 years based on media-assisted hysteria.”
It should also be noted that recently Dr. Taylor was dis-invited from attending a meeting of environmental scientists in Copenhagen. The reason given was that Taylor's views were “extremely unhelpful.” So much for scientific objectivity and open-mindedness. For more information see “Polar Bears on Thin Ice, Not Really!” and “U.S. Senate Report Debunks Polar Bear Extinction Fears.”
More Frequent Hurricanes
Weather is caused by the exchange of heat among land, sea and air. The IPCC thinks it very likely that there will be an increased frequency of warm spells, heat waves and events of heavy rainfall due to global warming. They also call for an increase in areas affected by droughts, intensity of tropical cyclones, which include hurricanes and typhoons. These predictions have led to breathless news anchors attributing any storm activity to global warming, even though there has been no detectable trend in storm activity for over a hundred years.
Hurricane Gordon from orbit. Source NASA.
Hurricane expert Dr. Bill Gray stated that historical records “indicate that Atlantic and global tropical cyclone activity over the last century and particularly over the last 30 years has not increased.” Gray, now retired, has publicly denounced attempts to link hurricane activity to global warming. According to him, “this is one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people.”
NOAA's official paper on recent tropical storm activity states: “NOAA research shows that the tropical multi-decadal signal is causing the increased Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995, and is not related to greenhouse warming.” Even so, global warming experts continue to confidently predict increasing tropical storm activity.
Historical records do not indicate a rising trend for either hurricane frequency or strength, as shown in the Illustration above. Moreover, a recent study of ships' logs and other records from the Caribbean have extended that lack of increase back over 318 years. It seems that the worst decade for hurricanes on record was the 1690s, during the depths of the cold period known as the Little Ice Age.
For more information see “Hurricanes and Hot Air” and “A document-based 318-year record of tropical cyclones in the Lesser Antilles, 1690–2007.”
All of these natural catastrophes identified above are supposed to be due to rapidly rising temperatures. According to the IPCC 1998 was the hottest year of the past century and the 1990s the hottest decade. Recently NASA had to adjust its readings for the past century. After the “restatement” 1934 took over from 1998 as the hottest year on record in the US, and 1921 moved into third place above 2006. The 1930s became the hottest decade. Significantly this is not an isolated case.
The future according to climate change alarmists.
There have recently been adjustments to NASA IR satellite data and NOAA sea surface temperature readings. It seems the only thing less trustworthy than a politician's promise is official climate data. None the less, for decades this wonky data has been fed into massively complex climate models to produce “evidence” for future climate warming. In 1988, NASA’s in house climate alarmist James Hansen presented a prediction of steadily rising temperatures to Congress. How does that prediction match up with reality?
As you can see Dr. Hansen was just a bit off in his predicting. Indeed, none of the climate models used by the IPCC, NASA's GISS or any other climatologists managed to predict the current downturn in global temperature. Despite this well documented history of failure we are still told we must take immediate action to avoid the ravages of anthropogenic global warming.
Add to these embarrassing failures newly documented evidence that many of the temperature reporting stations used by NASA are missing. According to Steve McIntyre, writing on the Climate Audit website, a surprising number (97) of NASA stations included in their inventory appear to contain no information whatever in the actual NASA data set. It seems that NASA and NOAA continue to have data quality problems from both their satellites and from ground stations.
How is all this uncertainty reported it the popular press? As with recent new articles that claim the Arctic is rapidly warming, the media contains only selected reports that support the alarmist view. According to Dr Roger Pielke Sr. “These articles are an excellent examples of the cherrypicking of particular published papers to promote the very narrow perspective of the journalists.” The story in the media is that temperatures are rising, the world's glaciers are melting and polar bears are drowning. In reality the temperatures aren't going up outside of normal variation patterns, the same is true for glacial melting and the polar bear is doing just fine, thank you.
For more information see “Global Warming Numbers Wrong,” “No Data For Some NASA Stations” and “Arctic Temperature Reporting In The News Needs A Reality Check.”
Global Warming Summarized
The predictions examined here are not the only ones made by the IPCC and their followers: plague, pestilence and famine, among other calamities, have also been prophesied by the global warming doomsayers. For an overview of some of the more ludicrous predicted maladies see “Shrinking Sheep, Kidney Stones and Bear Attacks.” The absurdity of the dire predictions made in the name of global warming seems to know no bounds. And what about that scientific consensus we have been told about over and over?
To quote my favorite passage from Michael Crichton: “The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics… In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.” Or as my co-author Allen Simmons puts it “you don't get a bunch of scientists together and take a vote on the speed of light.” Science is not about opinions, not about polls, and certainly not about what is currently considered politically correct. In short, consensus science is bunk.
Recapping, five out of five predictions made by global warming alarmists, based on the theory of anthropogenic global warming, have been shown to be inaccurate or out right false. Greenland's glaciers are not about to disappear, sea-levels are not rapidly rising, polar bears are not going extinct, hurricanes have not become more frequent or more violent, and temperatures are currently going down, not up. The predicted outcomes of AGW simply are not coming to pass. As we stated in The Resilient Earth:
After examining the science, the IPCC's claims and predictions, and the possible impact realistic levels of global warming could have on our world, we conclude that there is no imminent threat—not to nature, people or human civilization.
What do these failures portend for the science of the theory itself? As UK Scientist Dr. David Bellamy, a former global warming advocate, has said: “The science has, quite simply, gone awry. In fact, it's not even science any more, it's anti-science. There is absolutely no proof that carbon dioxide is anything to do with any impending catastrophe.” There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from looking at the evidence for AGW—Anthropogenic Global Warming, as stated by the IPCC and in the media, is a failed theory.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
[ The information in this post was taken primarily from our book The Resilient Earth and represents the second half of my presentation to the Scientists for Truth conference held during August 2009, in Springfield, Mo. For information from the first half of the presentation please see “The Grand View: 4 Billion Years Of Climate Change.” ]