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Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence:

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:31 AM GMT on January 28, 2009

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence:

Here at the beginning of the Obama administration there is a shift in mindset unlike any I have ever seen. During my years in the U.S. government, the science agencies didn’t get significant attention until a year or more into the new administration. This year we see science getting attention from the beginning, and, for example, there was a nominee for NOAA administrator announced prior to the inauguration. (Jane Lubchenco from Wikipedia, Professor Jane Lubchenco, More on Obama science appointees). Along with this new emphasis on science there are people and groups trying to position themselves. This includes those who fight against the government taking action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Climate change is, presently, completely linked to consumption of energy. Consumption of energy is required for successful economies and societies. Energy insecurity and economic weakness will trump climate change, as long it is isolated as a separate issue. This is already seen in recent polls that show decreasing public acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and its consequences. (For example, Pew Poll, Rasmussen Reports, New York Times Story) It is heartening to me, however, to see President Obama not isolating climate change as an issue, and stating that environmental sustainability needs to be integrated in policies across the board.

Scientists often state that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report provided definitive and unequivocal documentation about the observations and predictions of climate change. A carry away message is that the Earth has warmed and it is virtually certain that much of this warming is directly related to the activities of humans. As this information flows out of the scientific community others take the information and carry forth their messages and advocate their positions. Al Gore, for example, has taken forth the message of climate change and the havoc that it will cause. Mr. Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize – a prize of both merit and politics.

It is the propagation of science-derived information outside of the climate community that will determine how this information is used. Since climate change impacts all of society, there are those in all sectors who will analyze the information and take a stand. For example, within the past few months I have been made aware of a paper by a law professor at Berkeley, Daniel Farber, who, after analyzing climate predictions and the rigors of the IPCC process determined that climate predictions are deserving of legal status Farber’s Climate Models: A Users Guide (See also, link). Like scientific information about smoking and lung cancer, assigning legal standing to the knowledge we have about climate change sets the stage to evaluate whether or not we use this information responsibly. Throughout academia, government, and corporations, people are taking stock of the knowledge of climate change and making plans. Their motivations range from strategies to better manage resources such as water, to anticipating the impact climate policy might have on their activities, to looking for opportunities for new ways to provide energy and manage carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

On this background of deliberation and preparation to address the challenges of climate change are the voices of those who feel that climate change is bogus, of low priority relative to other problems, or the clamor of self-interested scientists. Some of these voices are anchored in reasoned advocacy and some are anchored in what qualifies primarily as the rhetoric of belief – belief as opposed to a science-derived knowledge base.

There are two primary sources of fuel for this rhetoric. The first is drawn from the polls of public opinion and a constant quest to find and amplify voices in the science community that can be classified as dissent from the dogma of the IPCC. That is, that the Earth has warmed and it is virtually certain that much of this warming is directly related to the activities of humans. The second is the casual, isolated interpretation of the now ever present environmental information.

Public Opinion and the Consensus of Scientists

The rhetoric that is fueled by the interpretations of opinions and consensus is consistent with that seen in many previous societal discussions motivated by scientific investigations in both environment and public health (see Antilla, 2005). Much of it is fueled by recent opinion polls showing climate change as a less important issue in the face of the economic and energy challenges that we currently face. (For example, Pew Poll, Rasmussen Reports, New York Times Story) There is also this constant extraction of statements by scientists who are viewed as skeptical of global warming and as challenging the doctrine of mainstream (for example, Senate Minority Report January 14, 2009).

It is not surprising that the importance of climate change weakens in the eyes of the public in the face of economic or energy troubles. But there is at least one curious aspect of this study of consensus and opinion. It is circulating on the web that those who call themselves climatologists overwhelmingly agree with the basic conclusion that the Earth will warm as a consequence of the activities of humans (97%). The number of meteorologists who agree with that basic conclusion is far smaller (64%). (Mongabay.com report of Poll, Doran and Zimmerman, Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change). First, there are many flavors of meteorologists and many climatologists come from the ranks of meteorologists. (Disclosure, I am a meteorologist.) Second, I have noticed for years that especially amongst broadcast meteorologists, there is a high level of skepticism about the basic conclusions of climate change. Why might this be?

An argument I have often heard is that if we can’t forecast the weather beyond a few days, then how can we forecast climate credibly? A comparison that I have developed is the following: (Rood / Models (3) Predictable Arguments) Imagine that you live on the ocean shore or the shore of Lake Michigan. The wind blows the waves. It is virtually impossible to predict individual waves, but if the wind increases it is certain that the water will rise higher and erosion of the shore will increase. Does the inability to predict the more or less random aspects of the wave field mean that you should ignore the fact that the water will rise? The climate is being forced by increased surface warming; the physics is astoundingly simple, but the system is astoundingly complex and full of seeming randomness.

In the case of the creeping collapse of consensus, there has been circulated a list of several hundred scientists who are throwing off the shackles of the doctrine, many of whom are prominent in their fields. ( Notably: Senate Minority Report January 14, 2009, Sheppard / Climate: Change You Can’t Believe In). Within the group on this list are many flavors of skepticism. There are some who simply choose not to believe the quality of the observations and models and the integrity of the IPCC. There are some who make cogent arguments that climate change is not as important as some of the other problems we face. A group has evolved who consider themselves balancing the advocacy of some scientists. (Yes, scientists can and do take positions based on beliefs other than the hard conclusions of their research.) There are those who challenge the consensus and there are those troubled by the amount of detail that can be drawn out of the climate observations and models. Often, these criticisms are targeted at the attribution of regional impacts, such as drought, to climate change when there are other plausible and more likely explanations of the localized events. Finally, there are some in the group who are by their nature contrarian; it is their personality, their style, and it has been of value to them in their careers.

The focus on whether or not scientists are in consensus is not a knowledge-based argument. The efforts to argue that there is a lack of consensus in the climate community take isolated comments made for a variety of reasons and amplify them. It is good for distraction; it is good for entertainment.

There are many thousands of scientists, and while large groups of individuals often share many like-minded values and beliefs, they are never in lockstep on the details of all aspects of their beliefs. It is not expected that in a community of thousands of scientists that there is a uniform chant of doctrine. This is especially true given the very nature of scientific investigation of an enormously complex system. Challenging conclusions is part of the scientific method. Scientists tend to reduce problems to pieces to isolate processes, to determine cause and effect. How these pieces are tied together is not unique; the unification is subject to argument. The question for climate change at this point is --- are there fundamental errors in our formulation that would change the basic conclusion that the Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change?

Anecdotal Environmental Observations

There are three current observations of the environment that are being used to challenge that the globe is warming. These are the cold weather in much of the U.S. and Europe, global observations of sea ice, and the lack of sunspots on the Sun.

It has been cold in the East and Midwest of the U.S. and Western Europe and this has stoked reports that global warming is a bogus idea. ( Lou Dobbs Video). The key conclusions of the IPCC are that the Earth has warmed, will warm more, and that the activities of humans are largely responsible for this. That the globe as a whole will warm does not preclude periods of cold as weather systems stall and take on the characteristics of wintertime continents. It still gets dark at the North Pole in the winter, and when the Sun does not shine it gets cold. There is natural variability of the climate and unvarying warming year after year is not demanded by the tenets of global warming. (Rood / Cold in a Warm World, Rood / Cold in the East) Furthermore, if we get away from the eastern part of the U.S. and go to the West, we see many warm states. The weather in Alaska has been stunning. (Masters \ Fire and Ice) There are cold regions and warm regions; there is nothing to establish or challenge the robustness of the conclusions of the IPCC report.

The second piece of geophysical evidence that has circulated the Internet recently is the fact that, currently, during the Northern Hemisphere winter the total area of the ocean covered by sea ice on the planet, north plus south, is comparable to those amounts about thirty years ago. At best this is a naïve observation, and at worst a deceitful way to make a point. The important measure of sea ice is the amount of sea ice that is present in the summer when the Sun is up. Related to this is the thickness of the sea ice in the winter, which determines if the sea ice can last through the summer. (Masters \ Averaging together Antarctic and Arctic Sea Ice …) The North Pole is a place where climate change is amplified. The last two summers have seen the Northwest Passage open; they have seen record melt. The persistent low levels of summer ice in the Northern Hemisphere remains a compelling observation that is consistent with the basic conclusions of global warming by greenhouse gases. (The South Pole is a place where the climate is expected to be relatively stable. This is due to the layout of the continents and the oceans as well as the fact that much of Antarctica is at very high altitudes. {Rood / Cold in the East) Recent papers document that there is slow warming at the South Pole as well (Steig, 2009).)

The final piece of observational information that is fueling current controversy is the fact that sunspots are at a sustained minimum. We have much evidence that when sunspots are low, the Earth’s climate is cool. Therefore, some are led to conclude that the current sunspot minimum will provide natural cooling. This is, in fact, accounted for in climate models, but it is true that the scientific community has not closed the book on the role of solar variability in climate change. The observed climate impact on Earth is larger than the models predict. However, it is still quite small when compared with the impact due to greenhouse gases. Even looking as far back as the Little Ice Age, approximately 400 years ago a period of sustained sunspot minimum, the observed average surface temperature difference was less than a degree different from the long-term mean. (For example, Anderson, 2008) With global warming we are soon expecting two or more degrees centigrade due to greenhouse gases, a far larger number. (Rood \ Solar Variability Series)


These recent observations and measures of opinion motivate conversation, but they do not challenge the fundamental conclusions of climate change science. The Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. Yes there is natural variability, but we can definitively attribute much of the warming to the activities of humans. Majority opinion to the contrary does not make this less true. It is only a convenient belief that abrogates responsibility.

Whenever there is uncertainty, it can always be used to keep ideas from converging. This is part of discourse; it is part of scientific investigation. It can evolve in obfuscation and diversion. It is also true that argument and rhetoric are a normal part of the response to scientific investigation that addresses issues of environmental consequence (Antilla, 2005). It is important to understand the role and motivation of those who challenge the conclusion of the climate change community; it is important to evaluate the credibility of message and the risk of acting on that message relative to the risk of not acting to mitigate climate change and to prepare for adaptation to climate change. The responsible must conclude that it is necessary to prepare for climate change with progressive and growing deliberateness. We have a unique opportunity to be ready for the future.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.