In case you’re still not sure

First of all, I’m sorry for such a long absence! ‘Twas season of travel, midterms and stress, but that’s now all in my past and I’m currently looking forward to a weekend of relaxing with my friend who goes to BU, Hannah Feder, and some silly-costumed celebration. Pictures to come!

Before all this, however, I had a very well-done and interesting lecture yesterday in my Global Warming Debate class that I can’t get off my mind and feel should be shared. Even though this is my blog full of my thoughts, I have to give COMPLETE credit for all the ideas in this post to my professor, Jack Williams, without whom I wouldn’t have these interesting insights and resources. So, thank you Jack.

Today, professor Williams spoke to those who, despite tons of green-climate-warming-eco hubbub still feel uneasy when they hear the occasional boisterous news reporter, columnist, or politician cite that global warming is one great big huge joke. In fact, in May, a Pew Research Center Poll was released which says that only 54% (down from 71%) of Americans believe that “the earth is getting warmer.” So what gives?

And what are we supposed to do with all this differing information?

“Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [>90% likely] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers, 2007

“Could it be that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American People?” – Senator James Inhofe, Aug. 28 Senate Speech, 2003

Well, according to Williams, our best bet is to side with the scientists, which in this case overwhelmingly concur that the world is, in fact, warming as a result of human activities. Although we are unsure of what the future will hold as far as the impacts, how to stop it, how much it’ll cost, how long it’ll take to stop (there are a million other what-ifs), at this point the questions of “is the world warming” (yes) and “is it due to humans” (yes) are pretty much settled.

To expand on his point, he went through a series of points and myths that frequently come up in the media.

1. “There is no scientific consensus” or, “The IPCC does not represent the scientific community.”

The IPCC represents the most current and accurate work of hundreds of scientists that is rigorously reviewed by thousands of other scientists. To say that the IPCC is not a consensus is simply incorrect and is pitting the vocal minority against the vast majority on this issue.

In fact, Stanford professor Naomi Oreskes, in her essay, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” reviewed 928 abstracts of peer reviewed literature with the phrase “global warming” and found that 75% of papers agreed with IPCC consensus (world is warming and humans are responsible), 25% took no position, and NO papers disagreed!

(if you want to read the essay, you may download it here.)

2. Next, he noted that there were a few names that continually come up in popular media regarding climate change skepticism whose credentials or science may be hazy or not within the scientific consensus, yet still receive a disproportionate amount of attention. Here are a few names to look out for:

1. S. Fred Singer

Credentials:  Director, Science and Environmental Policy Project, affiliated with Cato Institute (conservative think-tank).

Position:  world is warming –but due to natural variability (1500-year cycle)

2. Patrick Michaels

Credentials:  PhD Ecological Climatology UW Madison(!)  Professor of Environmental Science at U. Virginia, Former state climatologist for Virginia

Position:  The gamut… has backtracked over time… the world isn‟t warming, CO2 isn’t responsible, the warming will be small.

3. Timothy Ball

Credentials:  Former instructor at the University of Winnipeg.  Describes himself as “emeritus.”  Published 4 papers over his career

Position:  World has been cooling since 1998

4. Richard Lindzen (he’s the most credentialed of the group)

Credentials:  MIT Professor, widely recognized as bright guy.

Position:  World is warming –but negative feedbacks will stabilize system. The “Iris Hypothesis.” This is a reasonable theory, but there is no evidence for or against it at this time.

5. Arthur Robinson

Credentials:  Unclear, co-founded the “Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine”

Position:  world is warming but due to natural processes.

6. Sallie Baliunas

Credentials:  Astrophysicist at Harvard, scientist at George C. Marshall Institute (Conservative think tank)

Position:  world is warming but due to natural processes (solar)

7. Bjorn Lomborg

Credentials:  economist and statistician at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.  Known for The Skeptical Environmentalist and just-published “Cool It:  The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.”

Position:  World is warming and we are responsible.  But costs/minimal risks don’t justify action.

8.George Will

Credentials:  Washington Post Columnist.

Position:  General suspicion of environmentalists; argues that recent warming has been minimal.

3. Next myth: “climate scientists aren’t listening to alternative viewpoints.” or, “Climate scientists are in it for the federal grant money”

While it is unlikely, there is truth to the fact that it cannot be disproved that climate scientists are or are not working for the money. However, the fact that they define themselves as scientists and not environmentalists says something. A scientists is someone who (usually) neutrally searches for information and truth about how the world works. If he or she says the world is warming: it is simply a reflection of their research. Williams said his findings have been that scientists are usually motivated first by curiosity second by fame and recognition, and that money is more of a means to an end for points one and two. An environmentalist, on the other hand, advocates for the cause and is more involved with social aspects.

It’s important to differentiate.

4. “Glaciers at location x have been advancing” or “temperatures at location x have been cooling.”

These are examples of cherrypicking data by location. There are hundreds of such examples. Yes, there have been glaciers that have advanced or temperatures that have cooled, but when compared with global averages and trends, the data overwhelmingly suggests these cooling situations are anomalous. Next time you hear that temperatures in the Sargasso Sea are relatively low or glaciers on Kilimenjaro are advancing, check out some other locations to see if this may serve as evidence about the global energy budget to dispute global warming, or if it’s just situational.

5. “1934 was the warmest year on record” or “The world has been cooling since 2000.”

These are examples of cherrypicking based on time window (and sometimes location). First, ’34 is closely tied for the warmest year on record for the US with 1998 and 2005, but for the globe, 1934 isn’t even close to even being in the top ten warmest days. You could say,

2008 was actually the coldest year of the decade, therefore things are cooling.”

Or, you could say, 2008 was the 9th warmest year on record and, 1998, 2005 and 2009 are the three warmest years on global record, and 8 of the last 10 years are in the top ten warmest years over a 150 year record.

There are many other claims (“the satellites show cooling,” “the supposed global warming is due to the Urban Heat Island Effect”….), but as with all the others listed here, this lecture taught me that just as when any other scientific claim is made, it’s important to check the reasoning behind it and the credentials of the writer/speaker/source of information. Maybe a scientists did publish a fact-based article about global warming, but if it was published in The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (as in the Sargasso Sea example) or one of writer George Will’s columns, it may be worth taking it with a grain of salt.

A misconception is that climate scientists are able to predict the future and think they’re never wrong. Yes, scientists have been wrong in the past and I don’t think there are many who claim to know what the future holds. But, there are many, many indicators that the world is, in fact, warming. So as a consumer of the media (or any non-scientific member of society) it’s important to be critical when you hear statements rejecting climate science. While it may be easier to hear, it won’t be easier to be unprepared and there’s no use in arguing about if the world is warming, when we have plenty of arguing to do about what to do about it! Plus, as I often argue in this bog, I believe that the changes to society that are made in an effort to curb global warming might actually end up improving our society, culture, communities, and lives on the whole.

What do you guys think about all this?

Have a great Halloween,


P.S. Are you interested in learning more? Prof. Williams recommended these websites:

Grist skeptics page



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2 thoughts on “In case you’re still not sure

  1. Gemma-Jayne Hudgell says:

    Jenny, my dear,

    absolutely. I’ve been studying the human past for (OMG) 14 years now, with a focus on the long-term (we’re talking past three million years). I’ve had to consider a fair amount of climate study as part of understanding the concepts associated with human evolution. So yes, the climate fluctuates; in fact the last 3 million years contain what we term the [latest bunch of!!!] ice ages. Bt you know what? The climate has fluctuated THE MOST (especially in terms of CO2) in the past hundred years or so; in fact perhaps the last 50. Sounds pretty convincing to me. So even if not everyone believes in a straight warming trend (I, as an archaeologist/anthropologist, and all other archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists that I know DO seem to believe it’s warming up, incidentally), then there’s still incontroversial evidence that the climate is f*cked up, and is directly associated with humans. Come on. Smoke a cigarette or spray something smelly in an enclosed space and see what happens. Six billion people in an enclosed ecosystem…and nothing happens? I think not.

  2. Very good concept, I like how you convey the msg.

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