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Monday, January 29, 2007

Climate-change quackery

Posted By on 01.29.07 at 12:11 PM

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The Heartland Institute has been promoting Fred Singer and Dennis Avery's new book Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years, so I took a look. The book isn't just wrong -- it's systematically dishonest.

Singer and Avery keep starting to argue the science, then switch to contending that fears about global warming are exaggerated and that proposed remedies will be counterproductive. By page three they're hyperventilating: "Will people give up the scientific and technological advances that have added thirty years to life expectancies all over the globe in the last century?" (Later they call their adversaries scaremongers.)

At first that seemed like an odd stylistic quirk, but it's actually a feature. Their implicit logic -- never stated outright for obvious reasons -- is that if activists exaggerate storm and flood fears, or slap their prefabricated solutions (solar! conservation! organic farming!) onto this problem, then there must be no problem after all. The logic is laughable, but it allows the authors to blur the distinction between sensation-mongering activists and professional climate scientists. (That's worse than being mistaken. Mistakes can be corrected through open debate; sliming the process by which we do that is far more dangerous.)

The book's explicit claim is that because there's a 1,500-year climate cycle (apparently based on solar variation), no other climate change is going on. Again, the conclusion doesn't follow, and the initial premise is dubious.

Most of the book consists of throwing mud at the findings of peer-reviewed climate science and seeing what sticks. The mud is of low quality, but since this is a blog and not a book, I'll limit myself to four examples.

Page 36: "CO2 has been a lagging indicator [in the last three ice ages and subsequent warmings], its concentrations rising about eight hundred years after the temperatures warm ... additional evidence that CO2 is not the forcing agent in recent global climate changes." Singer and Avery quote a 2003 article (PDF) published in the peer-reviewed journal Science to this effect. But they don't mention that the warming episodes in question lasted about 5,000 years! So the fact that CO2 didn't start the warming doesn't mean it had no role in the (much larger) warming that followed. It's as if they were arguing that gravity doesn't exist because someone pushed  a car that was sitting still at the top of the hill. Technical details here from a coauthor of the original paper. (For the record, honest disputants fully lay out the other side's arguments before attacking them and don't cherry-pick them to create a false impression.)

Page 132: "Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas ... have demonstrated" that there was a worldwide medieval warm period warmer than today, so there's no problem now. Again, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise, and the premise is questionable -- in fact, it has been questioned by several climate scientists, writing in Eos (behind a paywall, summary here if you scroll down to "Myth #2"). The climate scientists had serious criticisms: Soon and Baliunas counted as "warm" any place that appeared to be wetter OR drier OR warmer than it was in the 20th century; they took evidence scattered over a 500-year period (800-1300) as signifying a global change; and they compared their results to the 20th-century average, when the relevant comparison should be to the last part of the 20th century. CAVEAT: I haven't read the article or the criticism. My point is that when Singer and Avery present Soon and Baliunas as having "demonstrated" something -- and then fail to mention, much less address, professional criticisms of their work -- they're deceiving their readers, not engaging in reasoned dialogue.

Page 39: Antarctica is cooling. Another case of cherry-picking and twisting a peer-reviewed publication, well answered by its author Peter Doran (previously blogged here).

Page 11: Satellite temperature records show little warming; surface records show more because of the urban heat island effect. Temperature records must be corrected for all kinds of biases; this particular discrepancy has been accounted for, and when it is, the result is a rising temperature record that can be explained only by climate models that include human CO2 pollution. Details here. Singer and Avery cite a 2004 paper Singer coauthored that analyzes temperatures from only 1979 to 1996 -- allowing them to avoid dealing with inconvenient warming data from the last decade.  Full-scale demolition of that paper here, if you need further evidence that Singer, Avery, and their backers -- including Chicago's own don't-think tank, the Heartland Institute -- aren't serious participants in the discussion of these issues.

BTW, over the years I haven't hesitated to call bullshit on environmentalists when appropriate, such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. His persistent refusal to acknowledge that he was wrong is intellectually corrupt in much the same way Singer and Avery's book is.

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