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Open Letter to the Board of Supervisors

July 25, 2014 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet No Comments

For the Public Input Session on September 3, 2014

Excerpts from the following article will be presented to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors on September 3, 2014 at the public input session.

“The vital signs reflect “the largest changes that we’ve been able to witness in the historical record,” said Tom Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The planet is changing more rapidly … than in any time of modern civilization.”” NBC reporting on new NOAA analysis [1]

Thank you for continuing to give the public the opportunity to express our views. At the last public input session on July 16, 2014 I and a few others discussed the current requirement for LEED silver certification which applies to county government construction and which according to a Loudoun Times article [2] the Board is considering dropping. I recommend not only improving the current requirements but extending them to private new construction as well. I’m not necessarily endorsing LEED as the solution but note that it is well documented and nationally accepted and we already have county staff trained in the LEED process.

While I appreciate and agree with the economic arguments presented at the last BOS public input session, justifying the investment in distributed solar energy and other energy conserving strategies, the real economic argument has to do with avoiding certain climate catastrophe if we continue business as usual which is essentially no energy and environmental policy at all. As I pointed out even climate scientist and human-caused global warming denier Judith Curry acknowledges that “a catastrophe is possible.” Thus among people who understand the science the disagreement is only about the probability of a catastrophe ranging from Curry’s “possible” at one extreme to ecologist Guy McPherson’s “unavoidable” at the other. No knowledgeable person is claiming a catastrophe isn’t possible. There is also some disagreement over the extent of this catastrophe from mere economic collapse to self-extinction. A middle ground might be that economic collapse is unavoidable but we can still save civilization. It is that serious.

We can state two things with certainty. Human-caused global warming theory is entirely consistent with all physical sciences and supported by volumes of physical evidence from diverse scientific fields. By contrast denial is not only inconsistent with science but is even self-inconsistent so that various denier arguments contradict each other. As we’ve seen the “Mars argument” contradicts the “cosmic ray” and the “natural variation” arguments while all three are wrong. As near as I can tell all denier arguments are irrational. That may seem like an exaggeration but there are two ways to show that it is not. The most reliable is to read the relevant scientific text books, the peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and the IPCC reports but frankly this is beyond the available time and patients for most Americans.

Alternatively, one can examine each denier argument in turn and show how it is wrong or irrational or more likely both. But this too is exhausting. The web site Skeptical Scientist does an excellent job of debunking denier arguments and I recommend it. Still I propose a simpler method. There are very few people who are both knowledgeable of climate physics in some capacity and who are also deniers. One such person is Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Conveniently he has published a list of 11 arguments which he believes are the most compelling support for denial. We can address the first argument. If it is both demonstrably wrong and irrational I propose we are done. We can assume Spencer is knowledgeable enough to have made his most compelling argument his first and we can be sure that his list contains all the best denier arguments.

Spencer’s number one objection to the science [3]: “No Recent Warming. If global warming science is so “settled”, why did global warming stop 15 years ago, contrary to all “consensus” predictions?” This is one of the most widely used denier arguments. As it has propagated through the denier community it has taken various forms but the original argument is that global warming stopped in 1998. This argument is irrational because it does not address any underlying science. There is no explanation as to why an apparent stoppage might suggest that the science is unsettled or in what way the science is unsettled. A cause-effect relationship is not established. The argument is wrong because it isn’t even true.

Figure 1 shows the Global surface temperature [4] between 1979, the start of the satellite era in meteorology, and 1997, after which in 1998 deniers claim global warming stopped. I’ve also plotted the trend line using linear regression. Apparently everybody agrees that the Earth warmed during this time and that 1997 was the warmest year on record up to that time.

Figure 2 shows four possible projections of the future temperature. The green line shows the evolution of Earth temperature assuming global warming had stopped. But at the time Spencer did not just predict that global warming was going to stop. He had estimated that the lower troposphere temperature had been cooling by about 0.046 degrees C per decade in a paper written in 1997 but published in 1998 [5]. No physical explanation was given for why the temperature should be cooling and indeed this estimate turned out to be false. We can assume that Spencer would have predicted this cooling trend going forward and it is shown by the blue curve. The purple line extending the previously drawn red line shows the climate evolving at the same rate. An observer combining knowledge of physics with cognitive psychology might have assumed that despite the warnings of the scientific community, humans would accelerate their emissions and thus would have projected the orange curve showing global warming accelerating exponentially along with emissions.

In figure 3, I’ve superimposed the published global surface temperature up to 2013 onto our four projections. Visual inspection shows that both Spencer’s pre-event prediction and his post event explanation are “empirically dead wrong”. Using extreme event statistics [6] we can calculate the probability that global warming stopped in 1998 is less than 0.002 percent. In fact the probability that the rate of warming did not accelerate is only one percent. Global warming did not stop or even slow down since 1998; it accelerated. And Spencer’s actual prediction back in 1998 can only be characterized as bizarre.

Figure 4 shows the origin of the Spencer myth. By starting with the peak temperature of 1998, he ignores 0.25 degrees or fifteen years’ worth of warming as if it had never happened. The most powerful el Nino ever recorded occurred in 1998 which raised the surface temperature considerably by dumping heat stored in the oceans into the atmosphere. The subsequent decade has been dominated by la Ninas and they have historically been among the coolest years; since the Pacific Ocean sucks heat out of the atmosphere during la Ninas.

I invite the board and in fact any member of the Loudoun County public to submit any denier argument including a source which they believe might be factually correct and rational and we can examine it together. If we were to discover a rational and true argument that would be very good news indeed but physical reality and our experience with denier arguments cautions us that isn’t likely. After examining just a few of the “better” denier arguments hopefully we can give up believing in nonsense and all get on the same evidence-based page. And we can start immediately to take the necessary steps at the local, regional, national and worldwide level to avoid Judith Curry’s catastrophe.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/#/science/environment/climate-scientists-see-very-rapid-declines-annual-noaa-report-n158681

[2] http://www.loudountimes.com/news/article/loudoun_county_reconsidering_green_energy_policy432

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/may/06/top-ten-global-warming-skeptic-arguments-debunked

[4] http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~kdc3/papers/coverage2013/series.html

[5] Christy, J.R., R.W. Spencer, and E.S. Lobl, 1998: Analysis of the merging procedure for the MSU daily temperature time series. J. Climate 11: 2016–2041

[6] http://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/statistics.pdf

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