Why you should be a global warming skeptic

The debacle of the leaked emails, data and code from the University of East Anglia showed that reputed global warming scientists were petty and cheaters. As always, the pursuit of excellence is often at the expense of rigor.

To put a stop to growing skepticism, Scientific American published Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense. They rehash what most scientists (me included) accept :

  • Climate warming is real in the sense that the climate today is slightly warmer than the climate a few decades ago as far as we can tell;
  • Climate warming may be caused, at least in part, by CO2;
  • Human beings emit CO2.

The telling tale is often in the question that are not being asked. That is the most important lesson any new scientist must learn about research papers and science in general. What points are omitted from the discussion?

Here are some questions I have asked myself about Global Warming. Feel free to help me find answers:

  • Why should we fear climate change on the long run? And isn’t it inevitable?
    About 16,000 years ago, you could walk from France to Ireland on Doggerland. Between ice ages, the ice sometimes disappears at the poles. Antartica was once a green continent with temperate forest filled with animals. The penguins did not original evolve on ice, they adapted to the cold. Millions of years ago, the Earth was much warmer. Not long ago, the Vikings colonized Greenland where they grew cereals, raised animals and traded with people living near the North Pole. We know that the people in Sweden and Norway become able to grow new cereals far north during the Viking era and their population grew. That seems good? The Romans made grew grapes and citrus in Britain: In Roman times, Britain had a slightly warmer climate than now; and, with 500 to 600mm of rain a year, Northamptonshire is at the lower end of the British precipitation range, which would have meant fewer fungal problems. The area would therefore have been suitable for grape production (source). Wasn’t that nice? Why should we freak out today about changes?
  • Can global warming be stopped or significantly reduced if we change by a small amount our CO2 production? With India and China ramping up their standard of living, surely nobody expects more than a stabilization of our CO2 production on the short term? Globally, we won’t reduce our oil production until we run out. If the US stops using oil, India might just pick up the slack. That is for certain.
  • Is global warming necessarily harmful? Intuitively, Montreal could benefit from a little warming. If farming conditions improve in Canada and Siberia, we may produce more food globally. You may think about the equator, but the equator’s climate tends to be determined by solar radiation, long term climate changes after mostly the Earth away from the poles.
    And even near the equator, the cold is often more dangerous than the warm weather.
    In India, cold deaths outweigh heat deaths by 7-to-1. Globally, about 1.7 million deaths are caused by cold a year, more than five times the number of heat deaths. (USA Today)
  • Even if there is a net cost, can we make sure that whatever we do to stop it does not cost more?

    “Climate-economic research shows that the total cost from untreated climate change is negative but moderate, likely equivalent to a 3.6% reduction in total GDP. Climate policies also have costs that often vastly outweigh their climate benefits.” (Lomborg)

  • If global warming is unavoidable, shouldn’t we try to adapt our farming technology? What about fruits and vegetables able to grow with little water and under intense heat? How do we preserve the productivity of the soil under a difficult climate?
  • What is the best way to protect vulnerable countries? Will a small reduction of our production of CO2 save them from chaos if chaos there is?
  • Since the 1970s, it is likely that we have had the technology to monitor Earth’s temperature at various points on the surface. Though it excludes most of the surface because we don’t live on the ocean and cannot put thermometers there, we also have satellites that may capture indirect measures of the surface’s temperature. However, how do you know how warm the globe as in 1930 or 1810 or 1560 or 1102? You cannot know. You have no measurement. You have models, but a model without a measurement is nothing. You do have indirect measures. You can dig into the ice, or look at very old trees and their growth patterns. So how do we know that it was colder back when the Vikings colonized Greenland and lived off the land there? You can state that you know that it is warmer today than ever, but how do you know?

Daniel Lemire, "Why you should be a global warming skeptic," in Daniel Lemire's blog, December 8, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

31 thoughts on “Why you should be a global warming skeptic”

  1. One bad aspect of the whole thing is sensational reporting in the news media. Almost every day, New York Times or other big name newspapers start a series on “Climate refugees in Bangladesh” or something like that. Here is a report from MSNBC (http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/12/07/2144395.aspx ). I was curious about it. But when I looked inside, I found that the “Climate refugees” are actually people who lost their homes due to river or sea erosion!!

    Come on!! The whole Bengal delta (for most part, in Bangladesh) was formed this way. The author mentions erosion, but fails to mention the emergence of new land on the Bay of Bengal. For the last 20 years or so, Bangladesh has definitely lost some part of its coastal islands (like Bhola or Hatia or Sandwip). But at the same time, it is gaining several square kilometers per year (e.g. in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nijhum_Dwip). In fact, the rate of the new land is perhaps higher than erosion.

    Global warming is indeed a real problem. But a large part of reports like this take phenomena happening in Bangladesh for hundreds of years, and try to portray a grim picture.

    Let’s hope the real science wins, and not the hype.

  2. @gandhi

    *) It is unlikely that China and India will reduce their consumption of goods and oil in the near future. Even if they were to reduce it slightly, it is not certain that it would stop or diminish Global Warming.

    *) India and China have much better technology and government than Africa. Bad farming conditions in Africa will certainly lead to more chaos. China and India are more resilient.

    *) If farming conditions improve in Canada and Siberia, it is possible that the overall food production may increase.

  3. “Can global warming be stopped or significantly reduced if we change by a small amount our CO2 production?”

    The consensus is we’re already in store for an awful lot of warming. What’s at stake is how bad the situation is going to get.

    Also, the small amount is given by politicians. Scientists say we need an 80%+ reduction of CO2 by 2050; I’ve heard 25-40% by 2020.

    Given this, there’s a lot of talk about adaptation. Here’s a good recent article:

    “Is global warming necessarily harmful for everyone?”

    If we get to the upper end of what’s possible, there won’t be winners. At the low end, a few places get cooler, but mostly weather just becomes more extreme.

    “What is the best way to protect vulnerable countries, such as most of Africa? Will a small reduction of our production of CO2 save them from chaos?”

    Small reductions? No, I’m with the scientists on this one. It’s nice that politicians are moving us in the right direction on emissions, but we need to get back down to 350 ppm of CO2. That means deep cuts.

    A lot of the things we’ll need to do to cut emissions are actually good for us. Quebec has enormous potential for wind energy. Most of our emissions come from transportation, and that’s something we can run with electricity.

    Boosting public transit and cleaning up air quality, we’d save hundreds of lives a year in Montreal. And our energy money would circulate back into our own economy.

  4. @Daniel

    Thanks for the link regarding adaptation.

    I think that anyone who thinks we may achieve a reduction of CO2 by 2020 is far more optimistic than I am. If anything, I expect our production of CO2 to keep increasing!

  5. @Bannister

    I stick by what I wrote:

    “Most likely, there is no conspiracy. Large communities of scientists do not lie. They may be wrong, but never on purpose. However, they are often misguided.”

  6. Can global warming be stopped or significantly reduced if we change by a small amount our CO2 production? With India and China ramping up their standard of living, surely nobody expects more than a stabilization of our CO2 production on the short term? We won’t reduce our oil production until we run out. That is for certain.

    >> Whom do you mean by we? Canadians, world population, western countries?
    The per capita production of the CO2 for developed countries is significantly higher then Chindia! Adopting a why me attitude will only make things go down on slippery slope?

    Your post smells of White/ Western Supremacy.
    US, Europe forget Canada are no longer in control of the world. If china and india dont see any point in reducing the consumption, the future is quite gloomy!

    There are other benefits of reducing
    reliance on oil, like energy security.
    In end the return on investment for renewable sources can be very good.

    As far as Skepticism is considered, i would suggest you read about Prof.Nicholas Talebs argument.

    Falsifying statement: ” CO2 production is leading to increase in global temperature” is incorrect.
    The Real statement that needs to be falsified is :
    ” CO2 production does not affects the environment ”

    Regarding better for Montreal:
    Yeah if you are living as a tribe, hunting and fishing and growing
    your crops, then its Awesome for you.
    But sadly given that you can blog, you are part of a large complex networked world, i think this much statement is sufficient for you to understand effect of change in such complex system that world today is!

    I fail to understand your comment about africa?
    Why western people so much bothered about africa when more poor
    people live in India and china, maybe because they find them as threat.
    The Africa comments smell of hypocrisy, why dont you understand that if there is going to be chaos its going be nearly everywhere.

  7. ” CO2 production does not affects the environment ”
    please note that above statement can be falsified very easiy

  8. sorry if my post was rude but, the undefined “we” and care about “africa” while neglecting India and China really got me!

    Also i wonder how you can even pose a question ” Its good for montreal! the why should i case?”

  9. @Preston do we want to wait a century to be sure, or do we act now?

    Between the time it took us to suspect tobacco caused cancer and the time we proved it with absolute certainty, we could have saved many lives. The PR firms that argued we didn’t have enough proof to legislate are now doing the same thing on the climate issue for Exxon.

    On that topic, check out http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=522784499045867811#

  10. Politically, whether global warming is happening (which it is) and whether humans are a major contributing factor (which we are) and whether this is a serious problem (which most scientists claim it is, but this is the part of the problem with the most wiggle room) shouldn’t mean a thing.

    My perspective has always been that it doesn’t matter if global warming is as pressing a concern as most scientists currently claim. It’s naive to think that we _aren’t_ altering our environment and naive to think that our alterations aren’t eventually going to cause problems. Now that we know this, it’s irresponsible not to do anything about it.

    That being said, I agree that it’s valuable to look at the issue from all sides and to reopen the debate continually. Ideas had a good podcast about this a couple of months ago called “The Deniers,” featuring Lawrence Solomon, who wrote a book of the same name. While I am convinced by the evidence presented to me that global warming is a serious concern, I am always open to discussing it.

    One point you didn’t add is that all this focus on global warming tends to divert the public’s attention from other, just as pressing environmental issues (which was sort of what I was getting at in my first paragraph). We’re still doing things we _know_ are bad for the environment and turning a blind eye in the name of business, money, or sheer apathy. While it’s important to “go green” and reduce emissions, I want to “go green” comprehensively. I don’t just want to reduce my carbon footprint; I want to reduce my mercury footprint, my non-renewable forestry footprint, my non-degrading polymer footprint. . . .

    Of course, this is kind of hard when politicians take gas-hogging airplanes to international conferences to thumb their nose at other countries and declare their intentions not to do anything about emissions _or_ other environmental concerns. . . .

  11. You should take a look at Gwynne Dyer’s talk on Big Ideas [1]: the subtext is the US military is very concerned about climate change. For instance, let’s say the Indus loses 50% of its volume from changing weather patterns. Suddenly Pakistan and India have to share half as much water. Chances are we could negotiate a settlement, but it is a very scary proposition.

    Personally, I’m starting to think that climate change underpins, or will underpin, many other issues in the world, not least of which is ensuring everyone gets enough to eat (not to mention spread of disease, warfare, species loss).

    [1] http://www.tvo.org/TVO/WebObjects/TVO.woa?video?BI_Lecture_20090509_834122_GwynneDyer

  12. The Earth has been both much warmer and much cooler in the past. The whole of human history is short compared to that longer timescale. The period over which we have careful measurement is insignificant compared that longer time.

    Our theory for predicting climate is progressing, but still almost completely uncertain over any longer period. Running models to compute climate over decades is an interesting exercise, but unlikely to be accurate.

    Human activity has effects that could cause both warming and cooling. The net effect, and in what proportion to the Earth’s natural changes, we cannot calculate. We do not know nearly enough to predict the Earth’s natural long-term changes in climate. While we lack that understanding, we cannot assign the human portion.

    The human influence on climate is a fascinating question, but not one we could possibly answer in a few decades. My judgement as a student in college – decades back – was that theory and evidence would be insufficient for at least a century. Since then … nothing of substance has changed.

    This is a subject I have visited before.

    While I am all for moving off fossil fuels (and other non-renewable resources), using climate change as a justification is a bit bogus. The science of climate cannot be far enough along to accurately assign the human effect on climate.

    That the “scientific community” accepted human-caused “Global Warming” as a faith – long before the science was possible – I continue to find shocking.

  13. I too do not believe in conspiracy, at least in large scale. (Small conspiracies are very possible, but may not be necessary.)

    What shocked me was the short period between “interesting theory” to “widely believed”, when the science could not yet possibly be there. I did not think such a thing was possible with “modern” scientists.

    Surprised the hell out of me….

  14. you said you are skeptical about climate change, but you are skeptical on a possible solution to avoid it, in the post.

    And, the very single reason to make a hype around that, is that many people prefer to tackle the problem with sacrifice than circumvent it and adapt to live in a rotten, twilight world, which humans, being extremely hard to die, would surely manage to.

  15. There’s an aspect of all this global warming/energetic crisis/oil ending/whole ecology stuff that no one seems to consider. A key point to really understand what’s going on, and possibly to provide a solution, is investing on research.
    All scientific research: not only climatology, but also physics, mathematics, computer science — they will need them to make models and run simulations.
    Once I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, and found out that if you’re a physicist, you are actually harming the energy-saving cause if you stop doing research in order to buy and install an energy-saving light bulb (cue light bulb+scientists jokes).
    The best thing we can do to solve the problem in our position is researching. And ask for more research funds. For one, I bet we would be a giant step ahead out of the crisis if all the time devoted to single-user, inefficient “make-your-own-compost” were devoted to helping scientific research instead.

    Science is an important way out the global warming problem — people just seem not to consider it.

    (disclaimer: I am a mathematician, I probably just want more funding)

  16. @Federico Poloni: research will take decades. Existing technology is good enough, and we need to deploy it *now*. For more on this, see: http://climateprogress.org/2009/04/06/breakthrough-technology-illusion-global-warming-solution/

    @Downes “adapting” is something we’ll need to do even at 450. Hopefully we avoid runaway climate change. The scariest scenario imo is melting of permafrost releasing methane.

    @Lemire These kinds of feedback loops are the big question mark, both in the climate science and the technical/political solutions. It’s also why I’m a bit more optimistic about China and India. The big positive feedback loops are on energy efficiency, city planning and renewables.

  17. @Preston Venus was not my argument. I spoke of runaway climate change.

    That humans are contributing to the greenhouse should be beyond dispute. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, we put millions of tons of it in the atmosphere every day. You can quibble on the proportions if you want, but that much is certain.

    The issue of energy is a red herring. Most observers realize that efficiency is a better deal. See
    (or http://climateprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/mckinsey-low-carbon-cost-curve-2009-big.gif for the image)

    In any case, those are current numbers. Cost curves for solar and wind are still bringing prices down.

    The issue of whether warming is good or not is a moral and political question rather than a scientific judgement. Maybe we’ll grow grapes for wine in the UK while sub-Saharan Africa sees more droughts. But then, to make an educated guess about this we’d have to take models seriously rather than claim they’re a “joke”.

  18. All good questions. But they take a limited, short-term view.

    People represent global warming as though it will get a few degrees hotter and then stop. That’s what discussions of ‘adaptation’ and ‘significance of reduction’ are based on.

    In fact, we probably won’t stop global warming of a certain degree. It will get warmer, agriculture patterns will change, Montreal will become a wet-winter city.

    But then… it will continue. If we go over 450 ppm (we are currently at 390, climbing at about 20 or more ppm per decade) we get runaway global warming which might not stop until we look like Venus.

    People don’t use the phrase ‘the greenhouse effect’ any more. They should. Rainy and warm means steamy; steamy means energy enters the atmosphere but doesn’t escape. Our greenhouse gas becomes water vapour, not CO2, and there’s no way to fix that.

    ‘Adapting’ to global warming means abandoning 99 percent of the human population, building heat-proof underground bunkers, or (more likely) escape into space before the planet becomes uninhabitable.

    None of this is being described in the media. It should be. What we are getting from the media is not (despite your commenters) ‘scare tactics’ but quite the opposite – large doses of ‘everything as usual’.

  19. A Greenhouse is an enclose building, no wind, no clouds, etc…Not like our planet..So let’s stop using the word GH.
    350ppm? A greenhouse operates CO2 (1200ppm) to increase food production.
    Venus? Why the comparison? Because CO2 is 96% CO2 and (800F) Mars 95.3 CO2 and -80F.
    The Earth is .036% CO2 and 56F average. So let’s not use the planets has an example.
    Conspiracy? I do not know. That said: When Mann releases his graph it was accepted by the scientific (consensus) IPCC, NASA, UK MET, NOAA etc. were all on Board and it gave us Kyoto.
    Is one look at the IPCC reviewer we find M Mann. Take a look at NASA and we find again M Mann. UK MET also shows M Mann involvement. NOAA we have S Schneider who is also an IPCC reviewer and work at NASA and is also involved with the UK Met… And this little search can be done with Gavin S, Jones, and Hansen etc with the same results. They peer review each other as stated by the Wegman report.
    One cannot help but ask questions about the whole process.

  20. @Daniel You are assuming that “Global Warming” is a problem that a) is human-caused, and b) needs to be solved. Either could be false.

    Also, why the so-common assumption that a slightly warmer climate is bad? This does not make sense.

    We do have real and certain problems that need to be solved. In the end, a large part of those problems come down to energy. We need abundant, sustainable, long-term sources of energy. We need sufficient mid-term sources of energy. We also need to find a solution for organizing economic activity that functions over current change (what theory we have is a joke).

    These are all very solvable problems, and all problems that need solving.

    Odds are we are in a natural long-term warming period (possibly nudged a bit by human activity). Odds are that a slightly warmer Earth is a net long-term benefit to human-kind – not a problem.

    As to Earth becoming Venus-like, all the primary factors are wrong. Earth is further from the Sun, has a much thinner atmosphere, a different kind of atmosphere, and a fossil record of relatively modest climate excursions.

  21. Daniel ..take a look at The editor for WIKI ..William Connelly(IPCC)( NASA)( Mann) and the circle start all over again.

  22. @Preston L. Bannister
    These are all very solvable problems

    There are contrarian views.
    As a uber-contrarian myself I bet that both the catastrophist and cornucopian views are false, there will be messy times but mankind has been thru some before.
    Likewise for the climate, it seems obvious that there is trouble to expect from global warming AND that this is a golden opportunity for some to implement various juicy scams to fill their pockets not aiming the least to solve any problems, carbon tax and trade yay!

  23. About consensus…

    You are interacting with a small amazingly powerful computer, using a graphical user interface, connected to a world-wide network of billions of computing devices.

    At what point was this future the consensus view?

    The time when my main interest was shifting from Physics to small computers is same period in which I first read the speculation about the possible effect of human activity on climate.

    I have no problem differing from consensus. 🙂

  24. Yes, it’s true that Earth has gone through hot and cold stages, but what makes now different from the past is the effect of human beings. You see oceans are capable of absorbing large amounts of CO2 released into the atmosphere but the emissions now supersede the ability of oceans. hence we need a cut down.
    Also speaking of advantages of a slightly warmer Canada and Siberia,
    it needs to be understood that global warming doesn’t just heat up the world but also disrupts the weather patterns. In India, where I live the rains have been on and off and it has affected agriculture sector a lot. There are cases of too much leading to floods and no rains in some areas leading to drought.

  25. @Preston L. Bannister

    At what point was this future the consensus view?

    As you know “Prediction is difficult, especially of the future” but in this precise case there were at least Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart.

    I have no problem differing from consensus.

    It doesn’t seem to me that you are differing that much from the consensus, the range from “business as usual” to “pie in the sky cornucopians” covers may be 95% of the opinions, though quite vocal the tree-huggers and primitivists aren’t that numerous.

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