(My LAST Piece on “Climate Change,” I Promise)

The Debate is finally over on “Global Warming” – Because Nobody will Debate

I am deserting from the Climate War.  I will never write another climate article or give another climate talk, and I’ll bite my tongue and say oooooooooooom when I hear or see the sort of exaggerations and certainties about the dangers of heat-trapping gasses that tend to make my blood boil at their absurdity.  For a decade I’ve been a busy soldier for the scientific method, and hence a “skeptic” to climate alarmism.  I’ve said all I think and know about this repetitive, unresolveable topic.  I’ll save hundreds of hours a year for other pursuits!

This is not like my pledge to my wife after a marathon that “I’ll never do another one.”  This is real.  There is simply too little room for true debate, because the policy space is dominated by people who approach this issue not like scholars weighing evidence, but like lawyers inflaming a jury with suspect data and illogical and emotional arguments.   

The believers in human–induced catastrophic climate change, strongly represented among the liberal and radical left of American and international politics, have won the mainstream media and government battle for the conventional wisdom, but lost the war for policy change.  None of the governmental and few of the institutional and individual actors who claim to fear climate change will take real steps to reduce their use of energy, choosing instead to put on phony shows of “green-ness” and carbon-trading shell games.  So it’s over, on both fronts. 

I guess I should be happy, since in the other two areas, and blogs, in which I expend professional and personal blood, sweat, and tears (the American empire, and school “reform”) I am usually in agreement with the radical left, and never win.  I nod my head happily when reading the Nation magazine and listening to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, yet am sadly on the losing end of the policy fights in my areas that they describe.  Politicians and well-paid reformers continue to double down on the disaster of nearly 30 years of the blame-the-teacher, mistest-the-student regime, and U.S. arms and training for dictators have reached new heights under every president from Carter to Obama. 

Finally, I’m a winner, but for all the wrong reasons.  The leaders of the big governments who control global policy aren’t avoiding change because they disagree with the conventional wisdom.  They’re avoiding change because it would be politically uncomfortable for them.  Thank goodness, because the change they’re mouthing would be more than uncomfortable for developing countries.  It would be a disaster, de-industrializing them and taking decades off their citizens’ life expectancy.

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Climate Claims and Fears Can Drive You Crazy

I never expected to be in the Climate War.  I have enough wars to fight as an anti-imperialist and an activist supporting development and democracy in Africa against a U.S. policy of backing dictators and American corporations.  Only by chance did I get drafted for climate duty.  About 10 years ago, when a graduate student in my class on international research statistics wrote a required analysis of any peer-reviewed study in the field, she chose a journal article on some aspect of climate science.  Her paper reported data and conclusions about human-induced global warming that were so weak and illogical in their own terms that I gave her a poor grade, noting: “You can’t have read this study carefully.”  She protested, and brought me the article, and indeed I saw that one of the most respected names in climate science and climate policy was writing flights of fancy and getting them published in refereed journals.  I raised her grade, of course, but not all the way to an A, because she had been so smitten with the credibility of the author and the journal that she forgot to check his logic.

Since then I have assigned hundreds of climate articles as I taught and learned about the physics of climate, the construction of climate models, and the statistical evidence of extreme weather.  My justification to my department has been that there may be no issue in global politics more important to more people worldwide than the claim of catastrophic, human-induced warming.   If it’s true, billions will suffer from its effects if we do not act; if it’s false, billions will suffer from needless restrictions on energy, growth, and life expectancy if we do act.  Africans will be foremost among those suffering in both cases.

As an academic, in both employment and inclination, I wanted to learn, to promote inquiry and debate, and that it why I now need to stop.  My blood simply boils too hot when I read the blather, daily, about climate catastrophe.  It is so well-meaning, and so misguided.  I feel like I am watching the modern version of Phrenology, the racist “science” of skull shape that permeated academia and public opinion about Africans and Africa-Americans throughout the 19th century in Europe and white America.  That conventional wisdom conveniently justified colonialism and segregation as systems in which intelligent and benevolent whites ruled colored people.  And it pains me to see climate hysteria spread, because Africans again could pay the price.  It will inevitably put pressure on Western lenders like the World Bank to reduce funding for power generation in Africa, leading to less economic growth, less personal income, and lower life expectancy.

When the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) butchers basic statistical concepts in its findings and its charts; when students call on their universities to divest from energy companies and their presidents argue financial impact but proffer the assumption that greenhouse gasses are a threat to survival; when advocates of African development call for the World Bank to block energy projects; or when the Nation magazine publishes a call to lower the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 400 parts per million to 300, which would require an end to all world industry for 100 years, and has a picture of the globe on its cover with the caption, “It’s not warming, it’s dying,” I become a man on the verge of doing something I’ll certainly regret.

I don’t want to be driven to crime like climate alarmist Peter Gleick, who stole, leaked, and attributed forged materials from the pro-growth Heartland Institute in 2012, or the climate skeptics who stole and leaked the “Climategate” memos from the University of East Anglia’s Central Research Unit (CRU) in Britain in 2009, facing certain moral sanction and possible criminal investigation.  I don’t want, to cite Gleick’s partial confession, to wake up and find that “my judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts” that disrupt “the rational public debate that is desperately needed.”    

I don’t want go raving around, making absurd statements like President Obama, UN Secretary General Ban, or World Bank President Kim.  Obama has long been delusional on this issue, speaking of a coming catastrophe and seeing himself as King Canute, stopping the rise in sea-level.  But he really went off the chain in his state of the union address this year.  “For the sake of our children and our future” he issued an appeal to authority with no authority behind it:

We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late.

There is no judgment of science, overwhelming or other, that human-induced warming has led to any of the events cited.  In fact, there is little conclusive science on the causes of these extreme events at all, except to say that like their predecessors at earlier times in recorded history, they require rare coincidences in many weather building blocks and are unpredictable.

Then Obama pulled out the IPCC’s illogical last refuge, the hoary claim that “the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15.”  That record started in 1860, when a 150-year warming began that even the IPCC concedes had nothing to do with industrial emissions in its first 75 years.  At the high point of a warming period you will of course have a concentration of high years!  And of course this trivial claim says nothing about the cause of the warming, or the temperature in previous warm periods, of which we would probably find quite a few since the end of the Ice Age 15,000 years ago, if we had always had today’s measuring devices.  (A 100,000 year oscillation in our orbit of the Sun from perfect circle to five percent elliptical drives temperatures up and down on the order of 20 degrees, and we happen to be at the high end right now.) 

Ban, in a speech on the “Threat of Climate Catastrophe,” recently warned that “if we continue along the current path, we are close to a 6 degree increase.  You all know the potential consequences:  a downward global spiral of extreme weather and disaster; reversals in development gains; increases in displacement; aggravated tensions over water and land; fragile States tipping into chaos.”  Actually, the IPCC’s models, which are fundamentally mathematical data-fitting exercises with little real-life scientific basis, predict a 4 degree rise at most over 100 years, but actual temperatures have been running at about one-third of that rate in the 30 years since the models first made that prediction. 

Kim tells us: “If we do not act to curb climate change immediately we will leave our children and grandchildren an unrecognizable planet.”  That’s sort of like the CRU’s David Viner saying in 2000, a decade before two winters of dramatic snowfall on England’s green and pleasant land: “Children just aren't going to know what snow is.”  Acting for children is definitely a big theme here: an analyst at a left-leaning think-tank wrote about yelling out the names of Obama’s children when subjecting herself to arrest as part of a campaign to block the Keystone oil pipeline.  Fortunately the World Bank has not followed another hip American campaign and tried to reduce today’s 400 parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere to 350, which would require an end to all industry on earth for 100 years.  The Bank still funds power plants based on coal and gas.  Coal is an inexpensive African resource that can be scrubbed with modern technology to eliminate the real pollution, which is not carbon dioxide but sulfur dioxide, and gas has nearly no dangerous residue when burned.

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“The Debate is Over” Indeed

“The debate is over on Global Warming.”  That statement has been popular for 25 years with a group I call the catastrophists.  During this period they have held true to their claim, consistently refusing to engage in debate, as opposed to polemics.  As a result, the catastrophists have perversely made it true for all of us, as not just public discourse but scientific inquiry, not just interpretive models and statistical studies but the basic data itself, about human influence on global climate have all been hopelessly politicized in a scurry for money, loyalty, and reputation.  Finally, the catastrophists are right: the debate is over, because the fundamental elements of a useful debate are lacking.

I define a catastrophist as someone who insists that any debate is dilatory and therefore immoral because the evidence is so clear and overwhelming that:

Catastrophists are generally environmental activists, politicians, and journalists.  They come from the rich tradition of Malthusians, Luddites, and Greens, by which I generally mean the apocalyptic, anti-growth, environmental left.  They still celebrate tarnished figures and institutions, such as:

Catastrophists have taken over the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body comprised not of scientists, but of governments.  The IPCC was formed in 1988 not to test the assumption that emissions were driving heat and heat was driving dangerous “climate change,” but to broadcast it.  The IPCC was supposed to be the gold standard for climate claims, but as it become a politicized forum, pushing out scientists who were frustrated by the way careful discussions of findings and theories in its working papers were distilled into political alarms in the summary materials used by politicians and the press. 

The IPCC uses tricks that scientists and statisticians rage about, almost like a mimicking of the classic text, How to Lie with Statistics.  For example, the IPCC claims “90 percent certainty” in its attribution of most of the warming of the past 50 years to human causes.  All scientists know that using this phrase implies that a statistical test has been performed on random data, leaving only a ten percent chance that the conclusion is incorrect.  But there is no testing, and there are no statistics, involved in the IPCC’s statement -- just a number pulled from thin air. 

The IPCC also featured a misleading trend line chart in its latest report, in which convenient starting points and different time periods were used to show a constantly “accelerating” change in temperature when there was no true acceleration.  The chart was eventually pulled, but the IPCC’s favorite physicist, catastrophist guru James Hansen, continues to use similar tricks in showing temperature and shifts in number of hot days, comparing different time periods of different lengths. 

The IPCC's tricks show that it is too politicized to trust.  In addition to its repeated claims about the recent number of “hottest years on record” it has reversed its earlier judgment that proxy data like tree rings showed that global average temperature was much higher just a few hundred years ago, during the Medieval Warming period.  In either case, the proxy data is so rough that nothing conclusive or meaningful can be said about past temperatures at anywhere near the scale of accuracy we use today, but the reversal was politically significant. 

The reversal resulted from a concerted campaign by catastrophists who saw that the Medieval warming might imply that the cooling afterwards was an oscillation, caused by nothing but the natural regression to a long-term mean.  That, in turn, might imply that the recent warming is just another natural counter to that, without the need for SUV’s to explain it.  The reversal was fraudulent in two ways: technical, by using data manipulation and ignoring error margins to create a “hockey stick” that shows a recent spike up in temperature (the stick’s blade) after a thousand year flat-line (its handle), and theoretical, by arguing that logically the recent increase from a flat-line, even if true, is somehow evidence of human cause.

Finally, the IPCC is flat out wrong about the computer models of the atmosphere that sit at the core of its claim that the recent correlation of carbon dioxide levels and temperatures is a causal relationship.  (Note that the models say nothing useful about the effects of temperature on weather events, which is the holy grail of catastrophists.  Those claims are made from statistical studies of the frequency of rare events, are handicapped by poor data for the past, and are generally inconclusive even in their own terms.) 

There are a few scientists, statisticians, and mathematical modelers among the catastrophists, but most of their peers don’t qualify, because of our caution about data and models.  Let me summarize the more cautious position:

As a statistician who teaches about the fundamental uncertainties of global climate models and the difficulty of finding data series that are good enough and long enough to find a recent trend in extreme weather and sea levels, I have for years scoffed at claims that “the debate is over.”  The climate system is so complex and chaotic, and its many interactions so poorly understood on so many time scales, that I more think that there is little useful information with which to begin, let alone end, a debate. 

“Anti-intellectual, and anti-science,” I would complain, as the catastrophists dominated mainstream debate, turning the noble scientific title of “skeptic” into the horrific libel of being a “denier” of a coming Holocaust.  At least I could be thankful that the domination of mainstream and leftist debate did not translate into domination of policy.  Both rich and poor countries continue to talk down fossil fuels while using them every chance they get, because these low-cost forms of energy have been the source of the economic growth and longer life expectancy the world has experienced in two dramatic waves: the industrialization of Europe, the United States and Japan in the 19th century and the industrialization of Korea, China, India, and others in Asia and to a lesser extent in Latin America and Africa in the 20th century. 

But after a decade of trying to engage in public discourse on the various issues relating to carbon power, now I have concluded that the catastrophists are finally right – the debate IS over on global warming:

Useful inquiry cannot be conducted in this politicized environment, and without useful inquiry, relevant public discourse is impossible.  So much money, and so many jobs and reputations, are wrapped up in the core creation of data and models and the analysis of proposed policies that the debate is effectively over.

Even the language of the issue is politicized.  At first, catastrophists used the term “global warming.”  While not quite accurate (the warming has been concentrated on the higher latitudes, suspiciously near the entirely natural North Atlantic Oscillation), it is something that can at least be measured with a consistent methodology, at least since 1980 and the advent of satellite sensing with global coverage.  One can say today if the average global temperature is rising, and if it is rising in some regions but not others, with much more certainty than before 1980.  In that earlier era, and in the series the IPCC still uses today, global temperature was estimated from averaging data from weather collection stations that stood in as proxies for thousands of square miles of land and ship collection stations that stood in for hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea.  Hilariously, the pre-1980 estimates are accorded respect down to the tenth of a degree, and included in comparisons with the satellite data, when their uncertainty is many orders more massive.

Then, coincident with the satellite data showing a flat line in global temperature for five-year averages from the mid-1990’s to today, the term “climate change” completely replaced “global warming.”  Now, climate is always changing, so this doesn’t mean anything more than when my students tell me that studying abroad “changed their life.”  I always ask: how did their life change, and was it for the worse or the better?

“Climate change” has inappropriately become short-hand for “extreme heat and droughts, extreme rainfall and snowfall (which seem contradictory…), extreme winds, and floods that emerge from them.”  It includes by incorporation a rise in sea-level from warmer water (which expands in size) and melting ice on land (melting sea ice, as in the Arctic, already displaces its weight in sea-level).  Every time the phrase is used, it is loaded, a claim already assumed.  The New York Times reported a rise in carbon dioxide levels with this headline: “CO2 at Level Not Seen in Millions of Years, Portending Major Climate Changes.”  The article provided no evidence, of course, about which changes were portended – and that word itself implies calamitous changes.

What finally brought me to my retirement from the Climate War was my attempt to think through the claims in a recent film about the Maldives Islands that my think-tank had sponsored.  The former president had been a darling of the catastrophists, holding a cabinet meeting under water to show how his country would look if the wicked West didn’t stop warming the planet.  A trip through journal articles, particularly one by a noted sea-level expert, Nils Axel-Morner, that disputed the rise in detail, showed me that the president’s claim is very hard to evaluate.  Nowhere could I find evidence for dramatic changes over the past 40 years in the Maldives -- which of course does not rule out dramatic changes being on the way -- and I discovered that land sinks, and rises, to the clock of its underlying tectonic plates and geological formations as well as to the sea’s clock.  Sea level is difficult to measure because it sloshes around, over tens of thousands of miles, and the measuring devices must be relative to some standard – the land, a dock, the bottom, all of which are always changing. 

So here we are again on the Maldives, facing a question that relies on good historical data, systematic corrections and interpretations, and careful modeling.  I could tell even before I read competing studies how the dispute would go.  Just as with temperature, hurricanes, droughts, and global sea level, interested parties on both sides, skeptics and catastrophists, control the data and its manipulation, as well as the modeling.  Even disinterested scientists are forced into line by the high political stakes, finding themselves either hailed and rewarded or castigated and exiled based on their results.  I realized that no matter how much I studied the issue, I could never trust the data, the manipulation, and the models, because of the partisanship.  And that is why the debate is over.

I’m gonna miss a lot of it – the excitement of learning about modeling, paleoclimate, satellite sounding, the 100,000 year cycles, how ice cores can provide temperature estimates, and the fun of watching students grapple with the possibility that everything they have been taught about climate change in college might be wrong.  But I’m not gonna miss the stress of being the odd man out in my lefty think-tank, or of being in agreement with my usual foes.  All I can say is, to people in both developed and developing countries, I hope I’ve helped just a little bit by being part of the resistance to the plan to de-industrialize your economies.  So far, so good -- not because we skeptics convinced anybody about the dangers of emissions, but because people remain convinced of their benefits. 

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