Disputing the ‘consensus’ on global warming

Salon liked my post “How do we really know humans are causing global warming?” but wanted something more in-depth and … serious. The result is “The cold truth about climate change: Deniers say there’s no consensus about global warming. Well, there’s not. There’s well-tested science and real-world observations [that are much more worrisome].”

James Hansen read the first draft and wrote me back, “Very important for the public to understand this — why has nobody articulated this already?” I don’t know the answer. All I can say is that while I was writing the article, the central point dawned on me:

The more I write about global warming, the more I realize I share some things in common with the doubters and deniers who populate the blogosphere and the conservative movement. Like them, I am dubious about the process used by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to write its reports. Like them, I am skeptical of the so-called consensus on climate science as reflected in the IPCC reports. Like them, I disagree with people who say “the science is settled.” But that’s where the agreement ends.

The science isn’t settled — it’s unsettling, and getting more so every year as the scientific community learns more about the catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions.

The big difference I have with the doubters is that they believe the IPCC reports seriously overstate the impact of human emissions on the climate — whereas the actual observed climate data clearly show they dramatically understate the impact.

I point out many instances of this in the article. For instance, “The recent [Arctic] sea-ice retreat is larger than in any of the (19) IPCC [climate] models” — and that was a Norwegian expert in 2005. Since then, the Arctic retreat has stunned scientists by accelerating, losing an area equal to Texas and California just last summer


The Salon article also discusses why I think “the scientific community, the progressive community, environmentalists and media are making a serious mistake by using the word ‘consensus’ to describe the shared understanding scientists have about the every-worsening impacts that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are having on this planet.” Part of the reason is that “When scientists and others say there is a consensus, many if not most people probably hear ‘consensus of opinion’ ” whereas, as I explain, “science doesn’t work by consensus of opinion. Science is in many respects the exact opposite of decision by consensus.”

Another reason is that the IPCC ‘consensus’ clearly understates what we face from uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions. As the article concludes:

Why are recent observations on the high side of model projections? First, as noted, most climate models used by the IPCC omit key amplifying feedbacks in the carbon cycle. Second, it was widely thought that increased human carbon dioxide emissions would be partly offset by more trees and other vegetation. But increases in droughts and wildfires — both predicted by global warming theory — seem to have negated that. Third, the ocean — one of the largest sinks for carbon dioxide — seems to be saturating decades earlier than the models had projected.

The result, as a number of studies have shown, is that the sensitivity of the world’s climate to human emissions of greenhouse gases is no doubt much higher than the sensitivity used in most IPCC models. NASA’s Hansen argued in a paper last year that the climate ultimately has twice the sensitivity used in IPCC models.

The bottom line is that recent observations and research makes clear the planet almost certainly faces a greater and more imminent threat than is laid out in the IPCC reports. That’s why climate scientists are so desperate. That’s why they keep begging for immediate action. And that’s why the “consensus on global warming” is a phrase that should be forever retired from the climate debate.

The article is long, so my final paragraph was cut:

I do believe in science. And I do believe in real-world observations. Perhaps the central question of our time is whether those who don’t will stop those who do from saving the planet.

I’ll make the final sentence the basis of a future article.

For now, I’ll try to follow my own advice and stop using the word consensus…

UPDATE: The Salon article has a typo. On page 3, it should say that sea-level rise from 1993 and 2006 has been “1.3 inches per decade“. I’ll get it corrected as soon as possible, which will be a few hours since they’re on the West Coast. My apologies.

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9 Responses to Disputing the ‘consensus’ on global warming

  1. But it’s not just the people you’re thinking of when you say “deniers,” Joe. The prospect of things actually, really getting bad in the future is difficult for people to process. I know the feeling and don’t like it myself. It’s a feeling of dread that I only think goes away when you’re trying to do something about it -trying to get the information across and get some action happening.

    And the longer we go without much of anything happening – certainly not at the national level and sparsely at the local level – the closer we see those tipping point that the best of science is warning us about.

    So good on ya for writing that article and may more people begin to do something about it.

  2. Ronald says:

    I can understand why you want to distinguish between what are the ‘opinions of Climatologist scientists’ and what the ‘science, data and real world observations’ are. It’s the science, data and real world observations that are driving climatology, not the opinions of Climatologists that would be the stronger argument and I’d have to agree with you.

    I don’t know if that’s enough to change the debate. I wish it would. But as someone who has worked thru (struggled) with Rationalism, Empiricism and Kants ‘Pure Reason’ I wasn’t confused (I think) with what the IPCC and Climatologists meant by consensus. That the IPCC report is just the minimum possible political consensus that the UN could put out and that what actually is going to happen could be worse.

    Louis Pasteur ran a test on sheep and anthrax. Fifty sheep were given the anthrax vaccine and fifty sheep were not given the vaccine and they were all put into a grass field that had anthrax and were allowed to graze. After 48 hours all the sheep that were vaccinated were alive and all the sheep that weren’t were dead. Before the test, the scientific consensus of the Sorbonne’s and world wide scientists was that Pasteur was wrong, it’s not little bugs that made people sick, it’s the failure of our body organs that caused us to get sick and die. The scientists didn’t think that little things like microbiology could affect big things like our body. The opinion of Louis Pasteur meant nothing to these scientists who laughed at Pasteur’s theory, until the test. They didn’t believe in the opinion of Pasteur, only the test. Except after the test and then they listened to Pasteur’s opinion.

    Climatologists just have to be really right about something that will save millions of lives, then people will listen to you. To late? That is the tragedy, isn’t it.

    Maybe you are on to something, but how do you teach millions of people the philosophy of science in so little time?

  3. Dano says:

    IMHO Ronald gets at the nub wonderfully.

    An old GF used to receive weekly envelopes from multitudinous fuzzy-bunny environmentalist organizations, all pleading weekly for money to solve some crisis.

    Now I’m sure that the alarmism got old for millions, fostering an environment where ‘alarmist’ can be tossed around like an epithet (like ‘liberal’) for anything denialists oppose.

    Trouble is, these fuzzy-bunny organizations know that there is too much for all of us to pay attention to, therefore we need extra help to have our attention drawn to x, y, or z.

    “Lord! save us from outrage fatigue!”



  4. David B. Benson says:

    This seems to me to be an excellent approach.

    Hope it plays well in Peoria…

  5. David B. Benson says:

    Here is a link to a piece on abrupt climate change. Maybe a focus on this uncertainty would play well in Peoria?

  6. bishop hill says:

    I thought someone had recently shown that the reduction in Arctic sea ice had been caused by a change in the winds rather than AGW.

  7. Joe says:

    No. The warming pushed the ice to a thinning point that made them more vulnerable to Arctic winds. The Arctic may be experiencing a period of stronger winds — but that itself may be due to global warming.

  8. Paul T. says:

    Ralph Keeling had an interesting analogy for the IPCC and climate science, which he explained on a UCTV panel with James Hansen. He likened the discrepancy to a train. At the front of the train you have the opinions of scientists based on their work and observations. Following behind all of those opinions is the IPCC, in the caboose position. It takes time for the caboose to make it to the position the engine once had. Obviously not the TGV in his analogy.

  9. Dave says:

    Let the backpedaling begin!