Monday, July 06, 2009

Layman's 1-minute guide to smart thinking about climate

You don't even have to look at the science to know.
(but if you want to, there are smart vs. not-so-smart ways to do so)
'I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen...We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going.' ...up to 90% of the Sierra snow-pack could disappear...'
- U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu (*)
(so yes, it matters; see what two with a track record for prescience, climatologist James Hansen (pdf) and Nobel economist Paul Krugman, say about where we're headed if we continue to delay taking action. )

How can you, a nonscientist, get the best climate science understanding for the least effort? Here are a variety of smart approaches, from the speediest approach down to more time consuming ones.

* Quickest: See what reputable groups say. In short, there is a scientific consensus - see this huge list of reputable orgs, including - to my knowledge - all the major scientific societies who've weighed in.
(yes, it's fine to rely on this "consider the source" strategy; we do it all the time. Here's the credibility spectrum.)
(Q: but what about "oh, the scientists are all biased"? Answer: a critical look finds the evidence is against this claim.)

* See the evidence: read The Science of Global Warming - How do we know we're not wrong? (pdf).
(In short - multiple lines of evidence and theory all point the same way; and predictions have been borne out.)

* Understand why there still seems to be controversy among the public:
- Cranking up the back-and-forth noise is an effective PR strategy to delay action on climate: when the noise hides the signal(i.e. the actual information on the threat), the public stays ill-informed and won't pressure for action.
(Climatologist Gavin Schmidt points this out.)
- Watch You CAN Argue with the Facts, exposing fossil fuel industry efforts to manipulate the public.

* Or, if you have time in spades, you can know thine planet's "enemy"*, by checking out some claims from a contrarian climate blog. A smart strategy for doing this: wait about a day, then scan the headlines at my climate-related science blog aggregator Warming 101 for a post debunking it*; typically someone will have done so*.
(I checked out the claims at a local contrarian blog for an entire month, in Sept 2007; it's not worth doing again. I'd started out assuming good faith misunderstandings, and got increasingly frustrated as my corrections had zero effect on the ensuing output of the blogger, a strong-willed local emeritus engineer; unfortunately the tone of my comments reflected this.)
(There's no shortage of contrarian websites you can try this calibration with. These sites commonly tout short-term variation as contraindicating longterm trends - they confuse weather(short term) with climate(long term), and they lump weathermen in with climate scientists. They'll also tout "lists of experts" rich in folks with no climate expertise; e.g. the anti-regulation group The Heartland Institute still lists biochemist/molecular biologist Bruce Ames among these "global warming experts", six months after Ames wrote them pointing out that he had never claimed to have any climate expertise.

* Become an expert yourself; learn the physics of climate from U. Chicago climatologist Ray Pierrehumbert's "Climate from First Principles" ( read it now, or when it's published by Cambridge University Press.)

And please, talk, gently, about the threat posed by climate change, to your less-clued-in friends and neighbors; we're all in this together, we should be on the same side. It matters; and you owe it to the young people you know.
(And if you still don't care, keep in mind that they will care, and they'll be choosing your nursing home.)

"If only it were true that all that was at stake was a debating society trophy." *

my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

Surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
... *

"My measure is to imagine how this will all read to youngsters in 50
and 100 years, if they look back to assess how well we did by them,
managing what would become their world." *


Anna Haynes said...

I do feel some guilt, personally, at my own inaction on this - it's been about 25 years since I first learned of the climate change threat, when paleobotanist Andy Knoll gave a lecture pointing out how we were perturbing the atmosphere, in the intro bio class at Harvard that I was a TF for. We - and I - have wasted a lot of time.

papertiger said...

Anna, you waited until the Earth was in a ten year cooling period to work up the gumption to speak out?
Ease your over burdened conscious.
The Earth is at zero temperature anomaly.
The trend is a hefty -1.45 °C per century.
Hope for your greatgrandchildren's sake that sunspots return.

Anna Haynes said...

Note to readers: commenter "papertiger" gets his information from our local contrarian, so cut him some slack.

Conveniently, Must-read NOAA paper smacks down the deniers: Q: “Is there any question that surface temperatures in the United States have been rising rapidly during the last 50 years?” A: “None at all.”

NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; here's their response(pdf) to the SurfaceStation folks like our local contrarian.

(and readers, I have no idea what the graphs at the motls site pt linked to really mean, since the axes don't have meaningful labels. (pt, that's another way to assess credibility - if someone puts up a graph but doesn't show what it's a graph *of*, you'd be wise not to fall for it)

Anna Haynes said...

(on the other hand, the NOAA-provided graph is well worth a look - to quote Romm at ClimateProgress (who also shows it),
"Imagine all the effort by Watts and his cohorts at and WattsUpWithThat have expended examining some 70% of the 1221 stations around the country — and all they ended up proving is that the best stations give the exact same output as all the rest of the stations!"

Anna Haynes said...

and to repeat - "If only it were true that all that was at stake was a debating society trophy."

papertiger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anna Haynes said...

I deleted a comment by a crackpot or troll, I don't know which, who's understandably hiding behind a pseudonym; he's a regular over at our local contrarian's blog, so if you want exposure to him you can get it there.

Another quick way to assess credibility - any "skeptic" who includes the anomalously-hot year 1998 in short-term(again) measurements is trying to pull one over on you; 1998 was a well-understood anomaly (strongest El Nino on record, I believe).

A decade does count as a short term measurement, as you can see from the amount of year-by-year temperature variability in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration graph - a graph which itself only covers 60 years, and which doesn't (i.e. can't) show the additional temp increase that's known to be already in the pipeline from the basic physics of the CO2 we've already dumped in the atmosphere (what we've seen so far is only around half of what we've done). (Which brings up another way to assess credibility - anyone who tries to focus only on the temp rise so far, is only telling half of the story-so-far.)

How those people sleep at night, I do not understand.

Anna Haynes said...

A correction, where I said "any 'skeptic' who includes the anomalously-hot year 1998 in short-term(again) measurements is trying to pull(put) one over on you" I was jumping to conclusions in assuming malice; it could just be ignorance.

(which isn't so good either; nfortunately some folks would rather flaunt their ignorance than fix it)

climatesight said...

My blogging software tells me what links people clicked on to get to my site. I like to go through them from time to time.

A minute ago I was on Joanne Nova's site - noise vs trends, people - and I felt a little depressed about the future of our species.

Then I came here and felt much better.

Good to know there's others out there who care about the future of people and are willing to perform honest risk management upon the threats which become apparent.

Something will be done. Even if it's not enough.

Anna said...

Thanks for the kind words, climatesight - I tell you, knowing that people like you are out there really helps.

Anna said...

This is good too, if you want to get just a little deeper than "go with the experts' consensus" -
What you need to know to be certain that global warming is real (" don't have to understand the complex science of climatology to speak intelligently on global warming - as long as you know four key facts and have a basic grasp of logical reasoning, you can make a bulletproof case that no skeptic can answer.")

and a quote -
"Scientific knowledge is the intellectual and social consensus of affiliated experts based on the weight of available empirical evidence, and evaluated according to accepted methodologies. If we feel that a policy question deserves to be informed by scientific knowledge, then we have no choice but to ask, what is the consensus of experts on this matter."
- Naomi Oreskes

and another -
"What's the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we're willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?"
-- Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland