Burning Down the AGW Denialist Billboards

Following on last week’s post I’ve decided to write a little more on climate change. In particular, I want to address in an informal way four issues that come up again and again.

CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, but it is the most important one, and most of it is put there by humans.

The focus in the global warming discussion is on fossil “carbon” in the form of CO2 gas. There are other global warming related gases, but this is the main one. We often hear people complaining that water vapor is a more important greenhouse gas, or that there are other greenhouse gases, etc. The reason that none of that is important, and that this question is nothing other than a poorly executed canard, is this: Global warming is caused by the atmospheric release of carbon previously trapped in solid or liquid form during ancient times. With that carbon trapped, the earth is a bit cooler, with the carbon in the atmosphere, the earth is a bit warmer. That is the part that matters.

While large climate changes have happened in the past, they are always bad news for the organisms living on the planet.

Have you ever heard about the famous genetic bottlenecks the human species went through? A bottleneck is when almost all the individuals of a species die off. Our recent bottlenecks were caused by climate change.

The earth has been much much warmer (and colder) in the past. In fact, than it is now. It was so warm that dinosaurs lived within the arctic circle! So, given this, why do we care about global warming?

Well, the truth is, global warming probably isn’t that important. If we put all that carbon that was at one time in the atmosphere back, and make a warmer earth, we’ll just have a warmer earth. Life will go on.

Of course, the ecology of the planet will be entirely different, and most living species will have a hard time adapting to that change. There will be a mass extinction. But I wouldn’t worry about that mass extinction as much as other mass extinctions. A mass extinction caused by a cosmic impact could actually kill off ALL life instead of just a whole bunch of species, and could have a much longer recovery time if it happens to not kill everything. But a warming-related mass extinction may not be so bad.

Many humans will die miserable deaths, but in the larger scale, that is of no great consequence.

There is one small problem…if there is enough warming and the warming is fast enough, the cyanobacteria in the ocean could face a major die-off, which in turn would cause oxygen-breathing organisms to die off. But again, lots of other organisms would survive, so life would go on. But, well, whatever.

There is natural variation in climate, but it is easy to see the long-term anthropogenic warming as something added.

Short term natural variation such as El Nino cycles can be fairly intense, and it may be difficult for an individual to understand that over medium and long time scales AGW is occuring. There is also “natural” variation in the direction your car goes as you drive between two distant points…you don’t drive in a perfectly straight line, which might take you through people’s yards and across rivers where there is no bridge, and so on. You drive on roads and there is some back and forth that happens along the way. You don’t go, “OMG, we’re varying back and forth in our exact direction! We’ll never get to where we are going!!! We can’t possibly understand or measure our direction or know or plan where we will end up!!!! OMG!!!”

Well, some people do, but most people get that there are different signals of variation in time-series phenomena and, even so, it is possible to understand longer-term trends. And with respect to climate, we do understand and there is a warming going on now.

The effects of global warming have already started to occur.

People often say that we can’t be sure if the effects of global warming will be severe, but this is one of the most offensive things people say, because it overlooks the things that have already happened, including the moose dying off in Minnesota (for a local example) and the millions of people who have died with desertification in North Africa (to provide one of the more tragic examples). The effects of global warming are not confined to the future.

A related question is about the link between global warming and severe weather events. There is a link, though the link to each kind of weather event is not clearly proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by multiple scientific studies. And never will be, because it is hard to do that and probably not necessary. The link is so impossible to avoid that it is not necessary to work out the proximate mechanisms to the level that would be.

A lot of well-meaning people claim that you can’t connect a particular hurricane or other weather event with global warming “because it does not work that way.” But those well-meaning people are wrong, exactly because it DOES work that way. Weather events are linked to the process of movement of excess tropical heat energy towards the poles and towards the outer atmosphere. With a warmer earth there will be more severe and more extreme weather events. Some specific types of weather events may not increase in magnitude, while others do. But overall, more warming = more “weather,” which will be in the form of more rain in a given rainfall, more wind-related events, and yes, even more snow under certain conditions.

Think of it this way. You can’t blame a given convenience store robbery on poverty during a period of crime rising with worsening economic conditions, but when the business association meets and 14 store owners were robbed since the last meeting (rather than the old average of, say, 1 or 2) then you can blame that phenomenon on the crime rate/poverty connection (assuming there is a connection). We can blame increased severity of weather events on global warming because it makes perfectly good scientific sense to do so.

Can AGW denialists ever be convinced that AGW is real?

I had a global warming denialist on my blog a few months back. He kept pointing out that it was just as warm in Minnesota at one point in the past as it is now, so there is no global warming. I explained that he was cherry picking and misinterpreting the data. He fought back until I posted a couple of items that fully and indubitably proved that he was in fact being intellectually dishonest. He went away and has not been back.

I don’t expect these dyed-in-the-wool cranks to change their minds, but it is appropriate that those of us who do have bits and pieces of the internet in our charge keep the dialog honest and progressive. The denialists are putting up offensive, inaccurate, one-liner billboards. We are burning the billboards down with science. It is worthwhile work, important work, and it can even be fun on occasion.

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9 Responses to “Burning Down the AGW Denialist Billboards”

  1. December 16th, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Katherine says:

    Oh. Verbally and metaphorically burning them down. Gotcha. Though I read the whole thing just to find that out, it was well worth the read! Thanks.

  2. December 16th, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    NewEnglandBob says:

    I have been reading “Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World” By Nick Lane and he mentions the severe climate changes in the last 4 billion years like the snowball earth and the times of little or no oxygen or of much higher oxygen and the extinctions due to heat or cold or volcanoes or asteroids etc., none of which humans could survive. AGW has been shown to be real and the overwhelming vast majority of the scientific experts are on board.

  3. December 17th, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Joel says:

    Greg, don’t imagine you are making any headway against the denialists of the world. They have more resources to spread doubt than all the researchers in the world combined. They have no problem promoting outright lies as truth and will boldly defend those lies against a mountian of scientific facts.

  4. December 17th, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    My experience is teaching me that there probably will not be a willingness to accept the reality of AGW no matter how well you present it until people finally internalize the economic factors of continuing to deny it. I have found that most conservatives lack the basic understanding of the concept in macroeconomics of “opportunity cost” when it comes to societal issues such as education, vaccination, health care, and a switchover to less damaging energy sources as renewables.

    When technology and the delivery system develop to the point at which the initial startup costs of the technology result in a cost that is less in terms if pennies/btu than the current cost of reliance on carbon, people will finally start to see that the environmental costs associated with reliance on carbon fueling just weren’t worth it; but if the coral that are dying out and the tops of remote Appalachian Mountaintops that are being dynamited to access coal remain distant from the fuel pump and they can fill up for $30 they just aren’t going to take the time to read articles such as this one.

    That being said, this approach is necessary for those of us who don’t have your background in the issues of climatology because it helps us explain to the people we see on a daily basis what is wrong with the denialist arguments and perhaps will start to learn how to look at it with a more critical and analytical eye.

  5. December 17th, 2009 at 8:19 am

    The Pale Scot says:

    Not that I disagree with you overall position, but I believe the majority of CO2 production is emitted from natural sources, ideally, the carbon is cycled into the biosphere within 5 years. Man made CO2 is overwhelming the system. This is what gives the denialists cover.

  6. December 17th, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Pale: That depends on how you count and what you count . Yes, there is a lot of CO2 emitted by plants, bacteria, and animals and some by volcanoes, and it is cycled and often trapped (see comments above about trapped) and there is a cycling time, but if you want to know the simple measure of given X CO2 in the atmosphere daily on average now, vs. 200 years ago… there is an excess and nearly 100% (or maybe more than 100%!) of the excess is human.

    Atmospheric CO2 varies these days naturally (over thousands of years) between about 190 and 280 ppm. We are currently pushing 400. The difference is all us. As time goes by, the denialists get less and less cover!

  7. December 17th, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    khan says:

    I have lived in the same place in Ohio for 30+ years. Fellow gardeners & bird watchers can tell you that something is amiss.

  8. December 17th, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    One of my first non-science jobs that had to do with writing involved negotiating with Arlo Guthrie for a piece for a newspaper, and editing it (which meant pretending to not touch it …. he was being a real prima donna about it). It was a story about him driving his tractor out on the ice and falling through owing to thin ice caused, in turn, by global warming. That event would have happened a year or two earlier (not far from where I grew up). And that would have been in about 1980.

    Here, not far from where I live now in Minnesota, ;there is a lake that had one of the state’s two major winter fishing contests every year. Two years ago through seven years ago (over a five year period) the tournament was canceled for three owing to thin ice. For several previous years it was a close call, and now and then cancelled. But decades ago, for like a half century, the lake reliably froze over.

    Now that tournament no longer runs at all beasuse it is too unreliable

    Oh, you know the lake, by the way. Have you ever seen the news reel of crazy Minnesotans jumping in the lake with bathing suits on? Well, that is done in a few places, but THE place is on the same lake. If you’ve seen that news reel, you’ve seen the lake.

  9. December 18th, 2009 at 9:11 am

    The Pale Scot says:

    Sure Greg,

    What I meant is that on a yearly basis the total emissions from natural sources are over 50%, where as back in the day they were 100%. But the denialists hang their hat on the fact of that majority number “Nature creates more CO2 than man, ergo, we’re not at fault”. Conservatives hate the idea of joint and several liability, at least when they’re not profiting.

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