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The cold truth about climate change

The cold truth about climate change

Deniers continue to insist there's no consensus on global warming. Well,
there's not. There's well-tested science and real-world observations.

By Joseph Romm

Feb. 27, 2008 | 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

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 they believe the IPCC reports
seriously overstate the impact of human emissions on the climate, whereas
the actual observed climate data clearly show the reports dramatically
understate the impact.

But I do 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
ever-worsening impacts that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are having
on this planet. When scientists and others say there is a consensus, many if
not most people probably hear "consensus of opinion," which can -- and often
is -- dismissed out of hand. I've met lots of people like CNBC anchor Joe
Kernen, who simply can't believe that "as old as the planet is" that "puny,
gnawing little humans" could possibly change the climate in "70 years."

Well, Joe, it is more like 250 years, but yes, most of the damage to date
was done in the last 70 years, and yes, as counterintuitive as it may seem,
puny little humans are doing it, and it's going to get much, much worse
unless we act soon. Consensus of opinion is irrelevant to science because
reality is often counterintuitive -- just try studying quantum mechanics.

Fortunately Kernen wasn't around when scientists were warning that puny
little humans were destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer. Otherwise
we might never have banned chlorofluorocarbons in time.

Consensus of opinion is also dismissed as groupthink. In a December article
ignorantly titled "The Science of Gore's Nobel: What If Everyone Believes in
Global Warmism Only Because Everyone Believes in Global Warmism?" Holman W.
Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote:

What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged "consensus" arrived at
their positions by counting heads?

It may seem strange that scientists would participate in such a phenomenon.
It shouldn't. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof. Many devote
their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses, especially
well-funded hypotheses, they've chosen to believe.

Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent journalists to embrace
the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the orthodoxy. For
them, a consensus apparently suffices as proof of itself.

How sad that the WSJ and CNBC have so little conception of what science
really is, especially since scientific advances drive so much of the
economy. If that's what Jenkins thinks science is, one would assume he is
equally skeptical of flossing, antibiotics and even boarding an airplane.

(Note to WSJ: One reason science works is that a lot of scientists devote
their whole lives to overturning whatever is the current hypothesis -- if it
can be overturned. That's how you become famous and remembered by history,
like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.)

In fact, science doesn't work by consensus of opinion. Science is in many
respects the exact opposite of decision by consensus. General opinion at one
point might have been that the sun goes around the Earth, or that time was
an absolute quantity, but scientific theory supported by observations
overturned that flawed worldview.

One of the most serious results of the overuse of the term "consensus" in
the public discussion of global warming is that it creates a simple strategy
for doubters to confuse the public, the press and politicians: Simply come
up with as long a list as you can of scientists who dispute the theory.
After all, such disagreement is prima facie proof that no consensus of
opinion exists.

So we end up with the absurd but pointless spectacle of the leading denier
in the U.S. Senate, James Inhofe, R-Okla., who recently put out a list of
more than 400 names of supposedly "prominent scientists" who supposedly
"recently voiced significant objections to major aspects of the so-called
'consensus' on man-made global warming."

As it turned out, the list is both padded and laughable, containing the
opinions of TV weathermen, economists, a bunch of non-prominent scientists
who aren't climate experts, and, perhaps surprisingly, even a number of
people who actually believe in the consensus.

But in any case, nothing could be more irrelevant to climate science than
the opinion of people on the list such as Weather Channel founder John
Coleman or famed inventor Ray Kurzweil (who actually does "think global
warming is real"). Or, for that matter, my opinion -- even though I
researched a Ph.D. thesis at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on
physical oceanography in the Greenland Sea.

What matters is scientific findings -- data, not opinions. The IPCC relies
on the peer-reviewed scientific literature for its conclusions, which must
meet the rigorous requirements of the scientific method and which are
inevitably scrutinized by others seeking to disprove that work. That is why
I cite and link to as much research as is possible, hundreds of studies in
the case of this article. Opinions are irrelevant.

A good example of how scientific evidence drives our understanding concerns
how we know that humans are the dominant cause of global warming. This is,
of course, the deniers' favorite topic. Since it is increasingly obvious
that the climate is changing and the planet is warming, the remaining
deniers have coalesced to defend their Alamo -- that human emissions aren't
the cause of recent climate change and therefore that reducing those
emissions is pointless.

Last year, longtime Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn wrote, "There is
still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making
any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend. The
greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified
computer models to finger mankind's sinful contribution."

In fact, the evidence is amazingly strong. Moreover, if the relatively
complex climate models are oversimplified in any respect, it is by omitting
amplifying feedbacks and other factors that suggest human-caused climate
change will be worse than is widely realized.

The IPCC concluded last year: "Greenhouse gas forcing has very likely (>90
percent) caused most of the observed global warming over the last 50 years.
This conclusion takes into account ... the possibility that the response to
solar forcing could be underestimated by climate models."

Scientists have come to understand that "forcings" (natural and human-made)
explain most of the changes in our climate and temperature both in recent
decades and over the past millions of years. The primary human-made forcings
are the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we generate, particularly carbon
dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas. The natural forcings include
fluctuations in the intensity of sunlight (which can increase or decrease
warming), and major volcanoes that inject huge volumes of gases and aerosol
particles into the stratosphere (which tend to block sunlight and cause

A 2002 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences warned, "Abrupt
climate changes were especially common when the climate system was being
forced to change most rapidly." The rapidly growing greenhouse warming we
ourselves are causing today thus increases the chances for "large, abrupt
and unwelcome regional or global climatic events."

Over and over again, scientists have demonstrated that observed changes in
the climate in recent decades can only be explained by taking into account
the observed combination of human and natural forcings. Natural forcings
alone just don't explain what is happening to this planet.

For instance, in April 2005, one of the nation's top climate scientists,
NASA's James Hansen, led a team of scientists that made "precise
measurements of increasing ocean heat content over the past 10 years," which
revealed that the Earth is absorbing far more heat than it is emitting to
space, confirming what earlier computer models had shown about warming.
Hansen called this energy imbalance the "smoking gun" of climate change, and
said, "There can no longer be genuine doubt that human-made gases are the
dominant cause of observed warming."

Another 2005 study, led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, compared
actual ocean temperature data from the surface down to hundreds of meters
(in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans) with climate models and

A warming signal has penetrated into the world's oceans over the past 40
years. The signal is complex, with a vertical structure that varies widely
by ocean; it cannot be explained by natural internal climate variability or
solar and volcanic forcing, but is well simulated by two anthropogenically
[human-caused] forced climate models. We conclude that it is of human
origin, a conclusion robust to observational sampling and model differences.

Such studies are also done for many other observations: land-based
temperature rise, atmospheric temperature rise, sea level rise, arctic ice
melt, inland glacier melt, Greeland and Antarctic ice sheet melt, expansion
of the tropics (desertification) and changes in precipitation. Studies
compare every testable prediction from climate change theory and models (and
suggested by paleoclimate research) to actual observations.

How many studies? Well, the IPCC's definitive treatment of the subject,
"Understanding and Attributing Climate Change," has 11 full pages of
references, some 500 peer-reviewed studies. This is not a consensus of
opinion. It is what scientific research and actual observations reveal.

Ignoring all the evidence, doubters and deniers keep asserting that the
cause of global warming isn't human emissions, but is instead natural
forcings, primarily the sun. Last year, brief presidential candidate Fred
Thompson commented on claims that planets like Mars were supposedly also
warming -- an idea debunked by RealClimate. Thompson said sarcastically:

I wonder what all those planets, dwarf planets and moons in our SOLAR system
have in common. Hmmmm. SOLAR system. Hmmmm. Solar? I wonder. Nah, I guess we
shouldn't even be talking about this. The science is absolutely decided.
There's a consensus. Ask Galileo.

The view that the sun is the source of observed global warming seems
credible mainly to people who are open to believing that the entire
scientific community has somehow, over a period of several decades, failed
to adequately study, analyze and understand the most visible influence on
the Earth's temperature. Such people typically cannot be influenced by the
results of actual research and observations. Those who can should visit
Skeptical Science, which discusses deniers' favorite arguments. In one
discussion, the site explains that the "study most quoted by skeptics
actually concluded the sun can't be causing global warming." Doh!

And that brings us to a recent study by the Proceedings of the Royal
Society, which examined "all the trends in the Sun that could have had an
influence on the Earth's climate," such as sunlight intensity and cosmic
rays. The study found that in the past 20 years, all of those trends "have
been in the opposite direction to that required to explain the observed rise
in global mean temperatures."

Those trying to prove the sun is the sole cause of warming have a double
challenge. First they would have to show us a mechanism that demonstrates
how the sun explains recent warming, even though the data shows solar
activity has been declining recently. (In the past, increased warming was
associated with an increase in solar activity). They would also have to find
an additional mechanism that is counteracting the well-understood warming
caused by rising emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The doubters
have done neither.

But then the doubters aren't interested in things like data and observations
and peer-reviewed research. If they were, why would they keep pointing out
that, historically, global temperature rise precedes a rise in carbon
dioxide emissions by a few hundred years -- as if that were a reason to cast
doubt on the impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases? Rep. Joe Barton
said to Al Gore:

I have an article from Science magazine that explains a rise in CO2
concentrations actually lagged temperature by 200 to 1000 years. CO2 levels
went up after the temperature rose. Temperature appears to drive CO2, not
vice versa. You're not just off a little. You're totally wrong.

Yes, historically, glacial periods appear to end with an initial warming
started by changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun. This in turn leads
to increases in carbon dioxide (and methane), which then accelerate the
warming, which increases the emissions, which increases the warming. That
amplifying feedback in the global carbon cycle is what drives the global
temperature to change so fast.

But while this fact seems to make doubters less worried about the impact of
human emissions, it makes most scientists more worried. As famed
climatologist Wallace Broecker wrote in Nature in 1995:

The paleoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being
self-stabilizing, the Earth's climate system is an ornery beast which
overreacts even to small nudges.

That is, you need a trigger to start the process of rapid climate change.
Historically, that has been orbital changes, or sometimes, massive natural
releases of greenhouse gases.

Now humans have interrupted and overwhelmed the natural process of climate
change. Thanks to humans, carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have
been for millions of years. Even more worrisome, carbon dioxide emissions
are rising 200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years.

If the "Earth's climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts to even
small nudges," what will happen to people foolish enough to keep punching it
in the face?

That brings us to another problem with the word "consensus." It can mean
"unanimity" or "the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned." Many,
if not most, people hear the second meaning: "consensus" as majority

The scientific consensus most people are familiar with is the IPCC's
"Summary for Policymakers" reports. But those aren't a majority opinion.
Government representatives participate in a line-by-line review and revision
of these summaries. So China, Saudi Arabia and that hotbed of denialism --
the Bush administration -- get to veto anything they don't like. The deniers
call this "politicized science," suggesting the process turns the IPCC
summaries into some sort of unscientific exaggeration. In fact, the reverse
is true. The net result is unanimous agreement on a conservative or
watered-down document. You could argue that rather than majority rules, this
is "minority rules."

Last April, in an article titled "Conservative Climate," Scientific American
noted that objections by Saudi Arabia and China led the IPCC to remove a
sentence stating that the impact of human greenhouse gas emissions on the
Earth's recent warming is five times greater than that of the sun. In fact,
lead author Piers Forster of the University of Leeds in England said, "The
difference is really a factor of 10."

How decent of the IPCC not to smash the last hope of deniers like Fred
Thompson, whose irrational sun worshiping allows them to ignore the
overwhelming evidence that human emissions are the dominant cause of climate

How else does the IPCC lowball future impacts? The 2007 report projects sea
level rise this century of 7 to 23 inches. Yet the IPCC itself stated that
"models [of sea level rise] used to date do not include uncertainties in
climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor do they include the full effect of
changes in ice sheet flow."

That is, since no existing climate models fully account for the kinds of
feedbacks we are now witnessing in Greenland and Antarctica, such as dynamic
acceleration of ice sheet disintegration or greenhouse gases released by
melting tundra, the IPCC is forced to ignore those realities. The result is
that compared to the "consensus" of the IPCC, the ice sheets appear to be
shrinking "100 years ahead of schedule," as Penn State climatologist Richard
Alley put it in March 2006

According to both the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, neither Greenland nor
Antarctica should lose significant mass by 2100. They both already are. Here
again, the conservative nature of the IPCC process puts it at odds with
observed empirical realities that are the basis of all science.

It's no surprise then that three scientific studies released in the past
year -- too late for inclusion by the IPCC -- argue that based on historical
data and recent observations, sea level rise this century will be much
higher than the IPCC reports, up to 5 feet or more. Even scarier, the rate
of sea level rise in 2100 might be greater than 6 inches a decade!

And it's no surprise at all that sea-level rise from 1993 and 2006 -- 1.3
inches per decade as measured by satellites -- has been higher than the IPCC
climate models predicted.

The deniers are simply wrong when they claim that the IPCC has overestimated
either current or future warming impacts. As many other recent observations
reveal, the IPCC has been underestimating those impacts.

# Since 2000, carbon dioxide emissions have grown faster than any IPCC model
had projected. # The temperature rise from 1990 to 2005 -- 0.33°C -- was
"near the top end of the range" of IPCC climate model predictions. # "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 unexpectedly rapid
expansion of the tropical belt constitutes yet another signal that climate
change is occurring sooner than expected," noted one climate researcher in

This last point, though little remarked on in the media, should be as
worrisome as the unexpectedly rapid melting of the ice sheets. As a recent
study led by NOAA noted, "A poleward expansion of the tropics is likely to
bring even drier conditions to" the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, Australia and
parts of Africa and South America. Also: "An increase in the width of the
tropics could bring an increase in the area affected by tropical storms."
And finally: "An expansion of tropical pathogens and their insect vectors is
almost certainly sure to follow the expansion of tropical zones."

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 make 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.

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