TW Viewpoint | Is Climate Change a Hoax?

October 18, 2017 | Jonathan Riley

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Is climate change real? Is it a hoax? Let's review what scientists in their field of study have concluded and try to gain an unbiased basic understanding of what is happening to our planet.

First things first! Peer-reviewed scientific journals, preferably written by scientists holding doctorates within their relevant fields of study, such as Climatology, Meteorology, Geology, and any other relevant interdisciplinary fields within physics, chemistry and biology are the generally accepted benchmarks for reliable data. With that being said, I will not be quoting from Al Gore or Bill Nye, and will intentionally avoid any disreputable scientists who are assumed to be on the payroll of big oil or political parties with an obvious agenda or bias. With the disclaimer out of the way, if you have any additional credible sources or verifiable corrections that add weight to either side of the argument please comment below.

Chapter 1 - Carbon Dioxide

Since 1958 the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii has been recording atmospheric levels of Carbon Dioxide. This graph shows the measurements started by Dr. Charles David Keeling, hence the name "Keeling Curve." Scientists try to gain a greater historical understanding of the climate by examining geological material that records historical changes in our climate. Tree rings and ice core samples are two examples of geological sources which scientists examine in order to obtain "Proxy Data". Proxy data are simply historical readings extracted from nature, potentially providing estimated changes to our climate going back thousands of years before recent records began.

Here is a graph provided by NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) displaying proxy data for levels of Carbon Dioxide from ice cores going back 400,000 years; up until Keeling started taking measurements in the 1950's. Even when excluding proxy data, there is a sufficient evidence that CO2 has increased since records began; recently having risen above 400 parts per million.

Chapter 2 - Global Temperatures

Weather measurements taken from around the globe for land, ocean and satellite data, have been used to try and calculate the average global temperature. There are four main datasets used to calculate the global temperature. HadCRUT4 from the UK, GISTEMP and MLOST from the US and JMA from Japan. Here is a chart displaying the average global temperature readings from these four main datasets. Obviously this does not include proxy data but instead the graph shows that since 1880 the temperature has increased on a global average by about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit), with two thirds of the increase occurring since 1975.

Regionally, temperature records from proxy data show that throughout history there have been significant fluctuations in temperature. In Greenland, for example, the British Antarctic Survey (which also examines ice cores from Greenland) discovered that there have been several abrupt changes to our climate in the past, albeit relatively gradual over time. However, they state that at one point "The temperature increased by more than 10°C within 40 years." It is important to state that obviously regional temperatures only paint part of the global picture and as the publication concludes, the conditions when these abrupt changes occurred cannot be compared with the climate today, largely due to the different concentrations of CO2.

There are numerous factors which affect the calculations of global temperature. For example, the population of the globe has increased from 1.2 billion to 7.5 billion since records began. Methods of reading temperatures have changed and technology has improved, affecting historical accuracy. The majority of readings come from the US and Europe with very few datasets from areas with a low population density, such as the North and South Pole. These and many more varying factors require obvious adjustments to measurements and also affect historical readings. Berkeley Earth provides a detailed analysis behind the requirements for temperature adjustments.

Chapter 3 - Correlation vs Causation

One key statement that must be stated is that "Correlation does not equal causation." That is to say, CO2 levels and temperature readings show signs of correlation since 1850, but so would the data on shark attacks and ice cream sales. Just because two measurements correlate, it doesn't mean that one is affected by the other.

So is there a causation argument when looking at the correlation of temperature and CO2? One of the more recent peer reviewed journals on this topic titled "On the causal structure between CO2 and global temperature" concluded that scientists "…were able to confirm the inherent one-way causality between human activities and global warming…". This journal was written by Thermodynamics, Oceanography professor Dr. Adolf Stips who appears was funded by the European Commission. The conclusion that increased CO2 does in fact cause a global temperature increase is supported by another journal written by Harvard Paleo climatologist Dr. Jeremy Shakun titled "Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation". Although by no means exhaustive, let us conclude for now that there is evidence of the global temperature increase as a result of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

Chapter 4 - Anthropogenic vs Natural Causes

Is there evidence that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are anthropogenic - that is CO2 emitted by human activity? As far as I can tell, this is the core issue. The majority of the scientific community consider this as "settled science" and shout down the minority who think otherwise. The IPCC (or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are 95% certain that the burning of carbon fuels and other anthropogenic factors are the main causes for increased CO2 levels. If this is true, then it stands to reason that mankind could and should try and reverse this trend, despite there being, currently, no viable solution. If it is false, then we have unnecessary carbon taxes and potential global unrest, especially from developing nations. Food riots and other forms of civil unrest have been directly linked with skyrocketing food prices-prices which increase when crops are used to create biofuels instead of feeding hungry populations.

Chapter 5 - Climate Models

Climate models are used to predict the direction in which our climate is heading based on physical principles or scientific laws of observation. The models accuracy is determined by trying to recreate historical climate records, this method is called 'hindcasting'. If the climate model is able to accurately recreate the past, then it is assumed capable of accurately predicting the future. Climate models rely on a relatively short period of observational data in which to test their accuracy. Hindcasting can only be properly measured to the earliest records from around 1850. Prior to this there is only proxy data to indicate climatic conditions which has a significant level of inaccuracy. The National Research Council writes that

"While proxy indicators are extremely important, even crucial, to climate reconstruction, their limitations should be kept in mind. The most significant are:

  • It is not always clear whether the signal they record reflects only local conditions, or is representative of regional or global conditions.
  • Their accuracy is often unknown or untested."

There are also numerous natural variables that need to be considered.

  1. El Nino and La Nina - the global temperature is irregularly affected by fluctuating phases of heating and cooling of the Pacific Ocean. NOAA has a good description of these phases and how erratic and impacting they can be.
  2. Atmospheric Aerosols - Volcanic eruptions, desert dust and human-made aerosols (or pollution) all result in cooling the climate. This is important to understand, as some may assume that pollution or erupting volcanos increase global warming. The opposite is true with regards to the effect of aerosols. Aerosols reflect infrared heat and prevent the heat from entering our atmosphere. NASA has a detailed description on Atmospheric Aerosols.
  3. Solar Activity - Sunspots and Solar flares increase and decrease in activity. It has been observed that the sun has an 11 year cycle, creating warming and cooling effects to our climate. The magnitude of this effect is still uncertain but Astrophysicist Dr. Kim Kwee Ng from Stony Brook University wrote a journal in 2016 called "Prediction Methods in Solar Sunspots Cycles" in which he states "…recent attention has been focusing on the possible forthcoming new ice-age like climate,… This effect would have a serious impact in our life. An understanding of the sunspots activity and a long-term planning would help us to better prepare with the changes." It has been claimed that anthropogenic climate change has delayed the next ice age.
  4. Other Variables - Climate models have to account for the level of CO2 saturation (because there is a limit to how much heat CO2 can absorb), the levels of excess heat being absorbed by the oceans, the resulting higher levels of precipitation and the varying effects this can have on the climate. Climate models are not accurate enough to measure the effect of cloud coverage.

The computer models used by scientists attempting to predict the state of the climate over the next century are on average 500,000 lines of computer code and must account for a significant number of uncertain variables with accuracy decreasing with more variables and over longer periods of time. The IPCC stated that "The climate system is a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible." Inaccuracies have been defended by stating that models were too conservative and have underestimated anthropogenic global warming over the past two decades.

Chapter 6 - Scientific Consensus

The scientific consensus is that mankind is the main cause of increased CO2 and subsequently an increased global temperature. Consensus, however, should carry little weight to the argument. Scientific conclusions are either right or wrong, they are not right because the majority are in agreement. It should not matter whether there is 1 or 100 scientists concluding anthropogenic global warming. When Einstein submitted his paper on the theory of relativity a book titled "100 Authors against Einstein" was published, to which Einstein retorted "If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!".

Chapter 7 - Media, Politics and Industry

Perceived bias is one of the biggest roadblocks in trying to determine whether or not climate change is anthropogenic. What do I mean by bias?

  1. If a scientist is funded by an oil company then you could conclude that the research would favour the oil company.
  2. If a scientist is funded by a government looking to increase revenue from carbon taxes, or to win the popular vote in elections then you could conclude that the scientist will show a bias towards extreme climate change scenarios.

One thing is for certain, alarmist scenarios attract a larger audience. Doomsday predictions are always going to gain a larger amount of media attention. Environmental Journalists build their careers on reporting on severe weather patterns and extreme scenarios. According to NOAA, the frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes are decreasing, at least in the United States, yet media coverage might lead you to believe they are increasing in frequency.

Government funding for climate science has skyrocketed and whilst this has improved our understanding on climate change it also adds to the potential bias.

Chapter 8 - Conclusion

In general, the first half of this video referenced the compelling science behind the arguments for alarming climate change. The second half covered some of the arguments raised by scientists who are considered "skeptics".

Scientific research shows the climate is changing but how we react to this data is in question. In the book 'On Being a Scientist' it states that "Scientific knowledge is achieved collectively through discussion and debate." The bottom line is that we are here to tend and keep this planet, not to pollute and harm our environment. The scientific community would better serve this planet by cooling the rhetoric and by regathering some of its decorum; by communicating without name calling, labelling and dismissing expert opinions that do not fit the mold.

Perhaps scientists and mankind in general should rekindle some of its humility and realise that not everything is under our control. Our existence and the natural world around us, and its climate, are evidence of design. To quote the father of modern science: "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."

I am Jonathan Riley for Tomorrow's World Viewpoint.

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