Sunday, December 13, 2009

Five scientific terms you can't say in local news media

(Part 4 of my climate change epiphany. See also part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5)

In 2001 I observed a contradiction: a climatologist of the Cato Institute said in a press release that a study in the Feb 8 issue of Nature undermined the basis for an anthropogenic greenhouse effect. How convenient. I subscribe to Nature, and I examined the article expecting proof that there were two sides of the global warming debate. This would fit with my bias that there must be two sides to everything.

The Cato climatologist said the study showed that black carbon (soot)—an aerosol--had a net warming effect. But the computer models summarized by the IPCC assumed aerosols impart a net cooling effect, and this assumed cooling effect was thought to be masking some of the expected warming. But according to the Cato climatologist, the Nature article showed that aerosols could not account for the missing warming, therefore, CO2 must have even less of a warming effect.

But reading the Nature article, I noticed:
  • It was a computer modeling study, so Cato was using a modeling study to refute other computer modeling, which may be defensible, but then why not mention that it too was a modeling study?
  • The modeling was done for only one (black carbon) of several types of aerosols.
  • The article made no claim that their work undermined the IPCC reports. I, still a science paper neophyte, wondered if the Nature authors were aware of the IPCC. I checked the references, and there was mention of the previous IPCC report.
Soon after, I received my own copy of the IPCC Third Assessment Report (you can follow along by opening up to page 48) where a graph summarizes the warming and cooling effects of various components of the climate system. And on this graph (remember the report was released Jan 20; Nature article appeared Feb 20), black carbon from fossil fuel burning is shown to have a slight warming effect with a large margin of error. The Feb 20 Nature report was merely addressing the range of the error, not undermining the assumptions on aerosols. It appeared that the article had been spun before an audience that was unlikely to read it for themselves.

The summer of 2004 was noticeably cooler than what is typical in our region. A regular columnist in my local paper noticed the cooler weather, and after calling computer modeling “junk science”, he linked the cooler weather to Republicans. No joke, he said, “Republicans control California’s governorship, and Congress. Yet this summer has been cooler and air pollution levels are down throughout southern California”.

It’s a common error, to confuse weather and climate, and an even more common error to publish such nonsense. Long term energy policy will affect climate indirectly, but no turn over in membership in government affects a season’s weather, despite the fact that we had cooler weather after electing Republicans.

I countered with an essay for the Community Forum column. I’ve included the essay below, but I think this paragraph represents most of what I was trying to do, show that climatology is a continent, not an island, in the scientific world:

“Climate models merge the work of many specialties: paleoclimatology (the study of past climate inferred from coral, tree rings, gases in ice cores, and chemical isotopes in fossil-forming plankton in ocean sediments), atmospheric chemistry (how gases, aerosols, and particulates are formed, interact, and are removed), hydrology (water cycles), oceanography (currents, heat, salinity, photosynthesis). There are so many specialties, scientists, and publications involved that we must be skeptical of anyone claiming to understand these well enough to call them junk science.”

I received a polite letter from the editor. He encouraged me to write on this issue, but what I submitted was too technical for their audience and may be better suited for a science journal. (No. I got this from a science journal; it needs to be in the paper!) Also, considering the length of my words, I should consider aiming for fewer.

And I tried. I struggled with several drafts but each time I omitted key areas or misled through over simplification. I even asked if I could use illustrations. No.

We hear of media bias, especially liberal media bias. But I could not get my rebuttal and explanation published because of an anti-technical bias. Their columnists can say “junk science” and that it’s “hot air”, but I can’t say “chemical isotopes in fossil-forming plankton”. Worse, so many of these articles, letters to the editor, and community forum columns cite credible scientific papers or scientists, but use an interpretation fabricated by various institutes. Naturally, I was incensed a few months later when a Community Forum article cited the work of a well-known glaciologist to discredit anthropogenic global warming. I’ll write on this next in “Am I getting only liberal science?"


My unpublishable essay from August 2004; if anything is insightful, I credit my reading of Nature:

If climate research demonstrates an unambiguous human-caused greenhouse effect, implementing appropriate corrective action will remain controversial. For example, it may be unfair and unscientific to limit fossil fuel consumption and not cement manufacture; or government regulations may be costly, too restrictive, or misguided. If mitigation solutions are market-based, objections to the unpleasant conclusions of climate scientists will decrease. But for the market to mitigate human-induced climate change, it will need better information, starting with the correction of numerous misconceptions about climate science.

One misconception is the belief that climate models are junk science: As in chemistry, physics, and weapons testing, computer models are our best chance of understanding phenomena that too complex to solve on paper and beyond controlled experimentation. Climate models merge the work of many specialties: paleoclimatology (the study of past climate inferred from coral, tree rings, gases in ice cores, and chemical isotopes in fossil-forming plankton in ocean sediments), atmospheric chemistry (how gases, aerosols, and particulates are formed, interact, and are removed), hydrology (water cycles), oceanography (currents, heat, salinity, photosynthesis). There are so many specialties, scientists, and publications involved that we must be skeptical of anyone claiming to understand these well enough to call them junk science.

Another misconception is the notion that a regional or short-term weather trend supports or discredits climate models. Climate models do not have the resolution to tell what's in store for a specific region, whether it's a good time for a drive among the vineyards, or not. They calculate general trends, such as averages of temperatures, precipitation, and wind direction, with resolutions varying between 200 km and 50 km. Finer resolutions will result as scientists continue to test their models against real phenomena. Climate researchers state their models' limitations, and the field has a well-published timeline projecting milestones for improvement.

Climate models are used in a variety of studies besides global warming. For example, in India scientists are trying to use them to predict their monsoons. Other scientists use them to examine natural effects hindering the recovery of over-exploited fisheries. Brief progress in the acceptance of climate models occurred in 2001 when the models showed that North America acts as a net carbon sink, meaning its forests, soils, and peat lands were absorbing more CO2 than North Americans were emitting. This lent support for rejecting the Kyoto protocol, which was doomed regardless, but I suspect these results-oriented skeptics failed to grasp the complete scenario described by the carbon sink modeling: the climate models showed North America to be a net carbon sink in wet and cool years; in dryer and hotter times the stored carbon gets metabolized by soil microbes and animals and North America becomes a net emitter of CO2. By 1999, the northern hemisphere went back to being a net carbon source.

Finally, changes in greenhouse gas concentrations affect more than climate. Oceanographers and ecologist are studying the effects of known increases in CO2. Rising CO2 levels may be changing species composition of pristine rainforests, preferring softwood species and vines (commercially and ecologically less valuable) over the densest understory trees. The pH of seawater is changing as the oceans absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere. Oceanographers are examining what this change portends for the ocean's food chain. Paloeoclimatologists are searching the geologic record for evidence of times when atmospheric CO2 and ocean pH reached levels similar to levels projected for the near future. Should they find these layers, they will learn whether the CO2 levels, ocean pH, and rates at which these changed, created conditions favorable to the agriculture, aquiculture, and economy needed today by six billion humans.

In 2001 president Bush exercised his right of a scientific review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the science was sound and the conclusions valid with some qualifications. Their reply was a definitive act, like the Supreme Court choosing a president, which should be cautiously accepted so we can examine the implications.


Philip H. said...

Great rebuttal. You've learned the key lesson that too many of our scientists colleagues fail to heed - communicating with the general public requires dumbing down the nuances of climate science to a point that they are ALMOST useless. Of course, your editro missed a huge chance to educate his reading public, but he's probably right (and sadly so) about word size and readability.

Were I to offer any advice, I would suggest looking for a professional editor in your area who can edit one of your essays for publication in the local paper. They can often be found iN Craigs List or the local paper. Google can probably turn up a few. Used just once, such a person would be able to deliver you a product that would more then likely be published, and thus give you an example of how to write baout this issue. granted, I might cost a bit - but if you seriously want to get published, I'd think about it.

Mean time, I'm reading and liking.

jg said...

Thanks for the encouragement, and that's great advice about editing services.

I soon learned that denialists can create stories faster than I can create mine (a quality issue).

I started a different strategy about a year ago. I work climatology into my illustrations that I use with my astronomy presentations. For example here's one I use to intrigue people about the fascinating topic of astronomical forcing on climate:

Earth's orbital changes (simplified)

So, I don't talk about global warming, rather, I describe astronomical forcing as an underlying concept, hoping it may be a route by which someone would choose to learn more. The few times I've shown this, it has led to some off-line discussion, e.g., people asking if orbital changes could be responsible for global warming. When prompted, I usually have something to say.


Philip H. said...

That's a great response as well. Being a fisheries oceanographer, when I do science or policy discussions the climate link is a natural (!) and I very rarely miss an opportunity to add it.

One other thing - you might want to tag all the posts in this series with a common word or phrase, so that someone wanting to pull up the whole series and read it can easily do so. Blogger has really great tools for that.