Thursday, October 29, 2009

My climate change, part 1 of maybe 4 or 5

October 15, 2009, was Blog Climate Action day, a day where bloggers registered at spoke to the issue of anthropogenic global warming. I didn't sign up because 1) I didn't want to answer the application form's question "how many RSS subscribers do you have" (is null the same as zero here?) and 2) I can't commit to any deadlines.

Recently, I reconnected with a high school friend who asked how I got obsessed with climatology. Answering her question retraces a path of discovery that has some scientific methodology worth sharing:

My earliest climate science memory is from the 1980s: I recall joking with a friend that greenhouse gases could lead to warming or cooling (some confusion over aerosols that cool, gases that warm, and negative feedback effects that cool after being triggered by warming). I wasn't deriding the science; rather, I was demonstrating what I call the NASA space pen effect. When I first heard the joke that NASA spent millions on a pen that writes in space while the Russians used a pencil, I didn't care if it was true or not; I just liked the humor, and NASA can take a joke. And, in a way I was laughing at myself because I have two "NASA" space pens. There are always surprises in any scientific endeavor, many of them humorous, and scientists are the ones who deserve the credit for discovering and sharing these surprises, often revealing excellent senses of humor about their work. However, by the late 90s, the humor about climate change had taken a different tone, a tone I'm glad I haven't participated in.

In the mid-90s I read a book by John Emsley, The Good Chemicals Guide, in which one chapter heaps scorn upon global warming activists. I soon forgot most of the caustic verbiage he laid on environmental groups, but his argument that there was a saturation point for the warming effect of CO2 did stick. I felt some relief that global warming can't be as bad as some environmental groups say. Also in the later 90s I remember a statement from scientist that anthropogenic climate change has sufficient evidence to warrant concern. At this time I became uneasy taking information from secondary sources, so I decided to subscribe to the primary scientific literature, that is, to see what they really say in respectable journals like Nature or Science. Why Nature or Science and not some book published by the Cato Institute, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, or some other think tank? But for the grace of God, there go I.

Nature and Science were the most frequent sources for articles I read in Scientific American and Science News or heard on public radio. I also worked for a publisher of science journals where we kept Nature on hand as a reality check. Somehow, I knew to look to reputable sources, and this is a key decision point that many climate enthusiasts (or global warming denialists and alarmists) fail at.

Ten years of Nature: I started my first issues of Nature back in 1999 and haven't missed one since. At first, it was clear that I had been away from any science training for too long. I slowly absorbed the articles on natural sciences; and climatology, to my delight, drew upon many of these areas: oceans, atmosphere, astronomy, chemistry, geology. My goal in reading was to punch holes of deeper understanding and eventually connect the space between. For example examining a paper on temperature reconstructions I learned of using isotopes of oxygen to estimate temperatures; then I would recognize this technique when cited in other articles. Eventually, I become well-versed on how this was done and could use this knowledge to assess the credibility of writers in popular media.

Most striking about the scientific literature, however, was how un-striking the tone in a scientific paper is. Scientists speak cautiously about their findings, about what can be inferred or not from their results. For example, I read the paper that claimed the first observational evidence of a greenhouse effect and they didn't pronounce the global warming denialists as conclusion driven, ignorant, politicized, wrong; rather they said, should further studies corroborate our results then ours is the first observational evidence of the greenhouse effect, and then went on to say how further studies could address the weaknesses in theirs – this is a key point. Scientists try to anticipate all the criticism they will get and explain how it affects the robustness of their findings. Hence, every paper includes it's own devil's advocate.

So, when writers in popular media dismiss climate science, saying things like, "scientists are in it for the grant money," our attributing CO2 for rising temperatures as a "nice guess", or calling the whole endeavor "junk science", I knew one thing for sure: the writers of these phrases do not read the primary scientific literature.

There's a lot for one post. Later I'll cover the following, but not necessarily in the order shown here: