Global Warming and the Posture of Skepticism

Thu, 2008-02-28 18:21Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Global Warming and the Posture of Skepticism

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. There was my latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine – the “Magazine for Science and Reason” – and on the cover were the words:

“Let's Cool It on Global Warming–Bjorn Lomborg.”

I was stunned.

I started my professional career working for Skeptical Inquirer. My last book was excerpted there, and I'm currently a contributing editor.

Typically, the magazine debunks real nonsense–pseudoscience, claims about the paranormal, quack UFO visions, that kind of thing. And I'm totally with them: Crop circles are a prank, there's no Bigfoot or Nessie, and that untested herbal remedy you're taking might well be dangerous.

And yes: The face on Mars is just an interesting rock formation.

So what on earth was Skeptical Inquirer doing publishing someone like Lomborg–who, as I have shown here at DeSmogBlog, and as others have shown elsewhere, remains scientifically inaccurate when it comes to discussing the real risks posed by global warming?

Lomborg consistently–and irresponsibly–downplays the worst case scenarios that we have to worry about if we just continue to unrepentantly pollute the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. And sure enough, here he is doing it in Skeptical Inquirer, right at the outset of his article:

 

Man-made climate change is certainly a problem, but it is categorically not the end of the world. Take the rise in sea levels as one example of how the volume of screaming is unmatched by the facts. In its 2007 report, the United Nations estimates that sea levels will rise about a foot over the remainder of the century. While this is not a trivial amount, it is also important to realize that it is not unknown to mankind: since 1860 we have experienced a sea level rise of about a foot without major disruptions…We dealt with rising sea levels in the past century, and we will continue to do so in this century. It will be problematic, but it is incorrect to posit the rise as the end of civilization.”

This is claimed by Lomborg and Skeptical Inquirer to be the approach supported by “facts and reason.

But in fact, it's nothing of the sort.

First of all, it's not like we can suddenly stop worrying about sea level rise after the year 2100. Furthermore, the United Nations estimate cited by Lomborg is being outrageously misused. That UN report (PDF) fully admitted that its sea level rise projections for the year 2100 do not include “rapid dynamical changes in ice flow.”

Which, of course, is what everyone is really afraid of.

Here's the glaringly obvious and completely terrifying fact: If we don't do anything about global warming, if we just let it rip, we run the risk of eventually (no one knows exactly when) destabilizing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. And if these fall in the ocean we're talking about a sea level rise of many feet, not inches, and the resultant loss of major coastal cities, like New York.

How do we know this? Well, in a part that Lomborg doesn't cite, the self-same United Nations report explains: “The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 m of sea level rise.”

That's the world we're heading back to if we don't alter course quickly. In ignoring this fact, in simply pretending that all we have to do is worry about an inch of sea level rise, Lomborg is disqualifying himself from being taken seriously.

So what on earth is Skeptical Inquirer doing publishing him?

I think several things are going on here. One is simply that Lomborg employs the rhetoric of “science and reason” even as he actually abandons both. But alas, for someone who doesn't really know anything about global warming yet prides him or herself for supporting critical thinking, Lomborg might sound convincing.

Still, Skeptical Inquirer certainly ought to know that not everyone who claims to have science on his or her side actually does. Anti-evolutionists claim the support of science. So did tobacco companies. Indeed, they helped spin off an entire “sound science/junk science” movement that is basically dedicated to calling good science bad and bad science good.

But I think something else is going on here as well, far beyond naievete. A few issues back, Skeptical Inquirer published a very respectable two-part series of articles by Stuart Jordan laying out the mainstream scientific position on global warming (see here).

This was all to the good.

But perhaps in part because the organized “skeptic” movement in the US has so many overlaps with global warming denying free-market libertarianism–for complex reasons that I can't really address here–Jordan's articles caused a Skeptical Inquirer reader uproar, leading to several further responses from the author (see for example here).

And now, suddenly, we find Skeptical Inquirer publishing Lomborg.

I really support Skeptical Inquirer. I want it to do well. But to preserve credibility, it needs to cast aside the skeptic-libertarian readers who simply refuse to accept the overwhelming reality of global warming.

In this sense, publishing Bjorn Lomborg–whose claim to the mantle of science and reason cannot possibly be sustained–was a huge step backward.

 

 

Comments

Keith, thanks for the link, it fills in some gaps in my knowledge of the MSU's.

I'm afraid that I do not know of any sites with the GISS information you are seeking. It may be worthwhile to contact the guys at RealClimate since if anybody knows they should. Another route is Tamino's blog, he has just started an Open Thread post:

http://tamino.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/open-thread-2/

There are a lot of knowledgeable people frequent that site, perhaps some one there will be able to help you.

Ian Forrester

Ian, consider this, it speaks for itself:

1979:01-1992:12
———————————————
GISS 0.000783764** (0.094C/decade)
HadCRUT 0.000460122** (0.055C/decade)
RSS_MSU 0.000498964 (0.060C/decade)
UAH_MSU 1.71035E-05 (0.002C/decade)

1993:01-2001:12
———————————————
GISS 0.00174741** (0.210C/decade)
HadCRUT 0.00147990** (0.178C/decade)
RSS_MSU 0.00221135** (0.265C/decade)
UAH_MSU 0.00217023** (0.260C/decade)

2002:01-2008:1
———————————————
GISS -0.00091450 (-0.110C/decade)
HadCRUT -0.00270338** (-0.324C/decade)
RSS_MSU -0.00208111 (-0.250C/decade)
UAH_MSU -0.00130882 (-0.157C/decade)

Copied from:
http://wattsupwiththat.wordpress.com/2008/02/29/interesting-plots-of-temperature-trends-the-4-global-temperature-metrics-according-to-basil/#comments

Schoneveld said: "Copied from: http://wattsupwiththat" If I really told you what I think of that site I'd probably be banned from this site. You call yourself a scientist and the only sources you cite are junk-science sites.

Shame on you.

Ian Forrester

You mean to say that, in contrast, desmogblog is a real science site? Don't make me laugh! Look Ian, as long as you fail to point out what is wrong with the data, your condemnation of "whatsupwiththat" is baseless and just another ad hom.

If you can show that they invented or manipulated the data, why not post the prtper data here or on their website? Or, ask me to do it for you since I doubt you would lower yourself to visit Anthony's site.

Your hubristic "shame on you" makes me laugh; how often haven't you used that line? It's pathetic and another demonstration of your self-righteousness. Stick to the data and don't try to put people down just because they happen to disagree with you.

If it wasn't for people like me and a handful of other skeptics your site would be merely self-congratulatory and incestuous. We instigate debate and keep your site lively. Be thankful for that. And if you think I give myself too much credence why don't you just ignore me.

The numbers you give from that "site" are no place close to what GISS gives. You are just showing how incompetent you are if you believe Watts site is giving any sort of valid scientific information.

By the way DeSmMogBlog does not claim to be a "science site" they are just out to show how incompetent the AGW deniers are and how they distort the truth. Without people like you DeSmogblog would have no one to talk about about.

Ian Forrester

Nice: citation and data
Missing: Title (e.g. Acceleration in Global Average Ocean Warming) and foot or citation with brief explanations of variance (say, UAH_MSU's). Also, relation to the immediate matter at hand. ...also, though not Science Canon, bath beads or vodka or something (maybe just an explanation of what you think you just won) for Ian.

And isn't it ironic that it's a NASA group that somehow takes it upon themselves to use surface instrument data when much more consistent satellite data is available?

zog:

"NASA (Hansen et. al.) attempts to correct the deficiencies by applying undefined `corrections'. Not too many years ago, handling empirical data like that was known as `cooking'."

Source of this claim? Or maybe you confused climate model parameters with raw climate data?

By the way, it's "et al.", not "et. al.".

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Frank Bi, http://globaldumbing.tk

[double post zapped]

"United Nations report explains: "The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 m of sea level rise.""

What?! How is that possible? There weren't any SUVs and George Bush wasn't even born then.

Evidently, homo sapiens managed to survive somehow.

First off,

1. The major factor in the glaciation cycles was changes in the earth's orbit relative to the sun.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdB_p7dmAwU

2. The Sun/Orbit does not play a major role in the climate change of the last 40 years though. Something which even most "skeptics" grudgingly admit.
http://greyfalcon.net/solanki2003.png
http://folk.uio.no/nathan/web/statement.html

3. What explains the current warming though quite well is 4 factors working in tandem. Although even thats a simplification.
http://greyfalcon.net/lean2005.png

4. No, even if your thinking about using that silly argument about Mars either.
http://greyfalcon.net/mars
http://greyfalcon.net/mars2

_

Second off, you're forgetting this little thing called "population".
http://www.efn.org/~patrickb/grf.jpg

Certainly when one could literally migrate towards the poles to seek cooler weather, that was no bigee.

With a population the size we got now, and national borders, thats virtually impossible. Especially considering the climate change being experienced is nearly 10x faster than previous iceages.

By the way, "the oldest fossil evidence for anatomically modern humans is about 130,000 years old". Coincidence?

http://tinyurl.com/yu7l75

So saying that "homo sapiens managed to survive" some catastrophe 125,000 years ago is a bit of an overstatement.

Besides, the "homo sapiens managed to survive" argument is dumb anyway. Homo sapiens survived the Black Plague, homo sapiens survived Stalin, homo sapiens survived Hiroshima... so all these things are perfectly fine and acceptable?

You can see how "skeptical" the "skeptics" are about their stuff.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Frank Bi, http://globaldumbing.tk

"So saying that "homo sapiens managed to survive" some catastrophe 125,000 years ago is a bit of an overstatement."

So homo sapiens didn't actually survive that "catastrophe"?

Thanks for setting us straight.

Well, their farms, roads and skyscrapers did not survive. (Sarcasm for trolls too dumb to notice)

Rob does not understand that a few humans could survive climate change back then, but most of the 6 billion humans living now will not survive the collapse of agriculture due to the unstable weather caused by global warming.

Then that explains why nobody on Earth lives near the equator.

Sorry, were the words "unstable weather" and "agriculture" too big for you, Rob?

Please define what you mean by "unstable weather". Is there any period in recorded history when the weather has ever been "stable"?

Stupid; the ten thousand or so years when humans developed agriculture has been stable enough to allow us to expand.

Are you honestly too stupid to understand how a population can collapse when its main source of food disappears?

"...most of the 6 billion humans living now will not survive the collapse of agriculture due to the unstable weather caused by global warming." You mean the collapse of agriculture caused by longer growing seasons?

I don't see the point of VJ's exaggeration. I don't see the point of half of the 'discussion' here. There's no support for the claim that AGW will kill most of the humans currently on the planet. There's no support for the claim that AGW will generally be good for agriculture (most predictions are for a deleterious effect).

Steve L, most humans rely on agriculture for food. Agricultural collapse means not enough food will be produced year after year after year. How many human beings can the earth support without agriculture? 3 billion? I doubt it.

I assume your opinion is based on your extensive academic research?

No?

Ah, well then.

Do some research, troll, on how many humans the earth can support without agriculture; a few hunter-gatherers... what else? Oh yes, and the oceans are becoming acidic because of all the CO2 they've been absorbing, so there probably wont be many fish available either.

Steve L., we can hope it won't get that bad, but we can't be sure it won't. (Edited to add: just my opinion, not based on specific research)

"Do some research, troll, on how many humans the earth can support without agriculture"

Oh, so can we assume that you have done this research, Professor? Please share your data sources and methodology with us.

While you're at it, please explain what compelling evidence leads you to the extraordinary notion that agriculture is about to vanish?

Illiterate troll.

And so endeth another of Professor VJ's edifying discourses.

VJ, you are like a clown with a head wound -- you never fail to entertain.

And the oceans shall start to boil and an angel of death will descend to stand at Gore's right hand and smite the unbelievers who will descend into hell while the annointed few will live forever in a carbon-free paradise.

Take me Lord, for I have seen the light!

"Besides, the "homo sapiens managed to survive" argument is dumb anyway. Homo sapiens survived the Black Plague, homo sapiens survived Stalin, homo sapiens survived Hiroshima..."

It stands to reason, then, if humans can survive real catastrophes, then surviving a hypothetical catastrophe should be a cinch.

"if humans can survive real catastrophes, then surviving a hypothetical catastrophe should be a cinch"

No, it means "surviving a catastrophe" is a pretty low threshold to cross, and not a very useful one.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Frank Bi, http://globaldumbing.tk

Wow. Just, uh, ... wow.
You're not too bright, are you Frank?

Troll.

Who says this issue is solely about risks to human survival? Prosperity seems to be valued about as much.

"Certainly when one could literally migrate towards the poles to seek cooler weather, that was no bigee."

Yes, a piece of cake. 125,000 years ago, primitive humans would have simply hopped in their Fred Flintstone SUVs and cruised to the North Pole -- assuming, of course, the concept of North or South Pole even existed. And, assuming, of course, anyone ever noticed any climate change within their 20-year lifespans -- since 125,000 years ago, they probably lacked the benefit of PR firms to set the panic in motion, as who's wise counsel we enjoy nowadays, right here.

"With a population the size we got now, and national borders, thats virtually impossible."

Good point. Nowadays people spend their entire lives in the same village in which they were born -- unlike those globe-trotting cavemen. Yes, if you had to name the one thing which differentiates us from our ancient ancestors, it is our complete lack of personal mobility. And, of course, who could ever imagine crossing a national border? Absurd!

"Especially considering the climate change being experienced is nearly 10x faster than previous iceages."

Indeed, it will be a race against time. If I hope to escape the horrific fate of feeling imperceptibly warmer by 1-2 degrees, I will need to flee to the Arctic. I've got almost 1000 Km to cover in only a century. I'd better start driving first thing in the morning. Pray for me.

Which part of the phrase "sea level rise" do you not understand?

More "skeptical" "science" from the "skeptics", as always.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Frank Bi, http://globaldumbing.tk

Lomborg has taken an IPCC projection out of context and used it in a way that the authors warn against. That's pretty crappy. Why are people writing about a new Gore religion regarding ice cubes? Too chickenshit to tackle Lombborg's deliberate deception?

"Why are people writing about a new Gore religion regarding ice cubes?"

Because a new denialist talking point just came from on high. And when a new denialist talking point comes along, the thing to do is to ignore everything else and start propagating it like crazy.

That's what "skepticism" is about, isn't it...

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Frank Bi, http://globaldumbing.tk

[double post zapped]

As a long time skeptic and subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer, I don't have a problem with them publishing Bjorn Lomborg.

First off, it is not unusual for magazines to publish dissenting opinions, and it is, in fact, a useful thing for them to do, if for no other reason then it prompts commentary like that you've posted here. Without occasional self-examination, skepticism becomes just another dogma.

Secondly, whatever you think of his methodology, Lomborg does make one excellent point: given limited resources for dealing with a problem, it behooves us to do what we can to get the most mileage from those resources. In some cases this may mean investing in short-term mitigation of effects, rather than long-shot attempts at changing causes which are not completely understood. If we can --maybe-- cool the planet only by regressing society to a medieval-like culture for the next 500 years, it may well be that the benefit is not worth the cost. At the very least, it's a question worth examining.

--
Dr H

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