Friday, February 1, 2008

Bob Carter on Climate Change (Part IV)

Carter starts part 4 with a discussion of the urban heat island effect, which he thinks has significantly affected our ability to talk about global temperatures. Now, it's true that the heat island effect needs to be taken into account, and happily, the 2007 IPCC report has taken the first steps towards doing just that. Current research into the effect will likely not satisfy those who believe that it has significantly skewed the data, but several scientists have attempted to quantify the heat island effect, and the consensus is currently that the effect is not very significant.

It's true that some weather monitoring stations have been placed where temperatures would be expected to be higher than the surrounding areas. Carter refers to Anthony Watts' work, and Watts' old blog is actually a fantastic resource for seeing exactly what this means. If you haven't checked it out, you absolutely must. But this phenomenon has been the subject of several studies, and apparently other weather monitoring stations have also been placed in statistically cooler areas, like parks, which would tend to skew the data towards lower temperatures, and while the result isn't completely neutral, it can't account for the whole warming trend over the past century.

I'm glad to see that Steve McIntyre got a mention in this presentation. Poor Ross McKitrick (McIntyre's partner in the discussion of the hockey stick controversy) must feel terribly left out! But unfortunately, Carter talks about McIntyre in order to dredge up a piece of information that I was really hoping he wouldn't dredge up: the whole 1934 controversy. This issue has been widely discussed, and if you take it seriously, the reasonable conclusion is that it doesn't really matter, except to show that climate scientists are human, and mistakes are to be expected. Good thing the IPCC doesn't base its statements on any single study, but rather on its appraisal of the state of scientific research, or else this might be relevant!

But returning to the heat island effect, Carter points to some problems in a paper written by one of the co-authors in a major study of the heat island effect as evidence that the IPCC couldn't have properly accounted for it. But take a moment to think about that. The 2001 IPCC report (not the latest one) does rely heavily on the work of Jones et al. And part of that "et al" was apparently this Wang fellow. Wang wrote a completely separate paper which discussed the urban heat island effect in China (incidentally, Wang's paper is not directly cited in the section regarding land-surface air temperatures in the IPCC report). And some other guy wrote something which accused Wang of fabricating something in his paper.

Now, we have no way of knowing whether Wang could have defended himself against this accusation, or who this guy is who's leveling it. And we also have no idea whether the accusation has anything whatsoever to do with the paper Wang wrote with Jones. And really, it's Jones' paper that we care about, even though it's only one of a number of papers that the IPCC considered when writing its evaluation of the heat island effect. So I'm forced to wonder, what the hell does this prove about anything? Is this honestly the best case against the IPCC's assessment of the heat island effect? Before I watched this video, I was of the opinion that the heat island effect was a new field of research, and we shouldn't jump to any conclusions about it, even if the IPCC thinks that the evidence points towards it having a negligible effect. But what does it say that Carter had to resort to this kind of argument? Perhaps the IPCC's case is even stronger than I thought!

With that, Carter's assault on the science of global warming is complete. It should be clear that his case doesn't really work, even though some of his arguments do point to areas of considerable uncertainty in climate change science. I'm also forced to wonder how he takes his presentation seriously; if I can pick apart his arguments, then how can he possibly think that they're right? Isn't he supposed to be the climate scientist? I honestly don't know what to say. Perhaps I've just been brainwashed by the alarmist Kool-aid I've been served by the scare-mongering climate scientists!

But even though he's just completely dismissed the basis for believing that global warming is a problem, he moves into a discussion of the economics of climate change. So apparently, despite the fact that we have no reason to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, and all our predictions are nonsense, we can still coherently talk about the costs and benefits of the climate change that we have no reason to believe will happen, because apparently the estimates of the costs and benefits aren't completely worthless if the premises they used in their calculations are completely false. But because I think Carter's flat wrong about the science, I'm interested to hear what he has to say about the economics.

William Nordhaus is indeed one of the central figures in the climate change debate, having come up with the conclusion (famously relied on by Bjorn Lomborg and others) that climate change will not be anywhere near as damaging as might otherwise have been expected. As I mentioned in my last post, a lot of people who say this come to their conclusion by discounting future damage by some "social discount rate," and Nordhaus is actually who I had in mind when I said that. Because Carter mentions Nicolas Stern, it's worth pointing out that Stern doesn't discount, and a large part of the difference between their conclusions is the result of that fact. But nevertheless, the article I linked in my first post discusses what I think about the sort of argument Carter gives here.

In closing, I want to say that while this has been a worthwhile exercise for me, it's important to note how much work it just took for me to do this. The fact that climate change skeptics are generally ignored is, I contend, merely a testament to this. It takes time and energy to deal with nonsense, and frankly, most people have better things to do. In fact...why did I do this on my Thursday night? Bummer! But anyway, I hope that somehow, this was helpful to someone; I'd love to hear what people think!


Anonymous said...

The issue goes beyond the science into the proposals of what should be done about climate change, and that is where I think the scare mongering gets most ridiculous. The scientific community does seem to accept that some degree of human caused climate change is occurring, but there is great uncertainty in these estimates. I have also seen credible critiques, notably at

Beyond that though I don't think anyone has offered a credible solution. Certainly there are technologies being developed that will have some impact in the future but development of new technology requires free and open markets and in which private actors can reap the benefits of innovation. Any sort of massive regulation would be a huge drag on the economy and likely result in less carbon emission improvement in the long run. Remember people throughout the world have to be wealthy enough to purchase energy from whatever source we propose. If we retard economic growth then developing countries will continue to rely on cheap dirty fuels for a much longer period of time.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for reading! I certainly agree that the "solution" to the climate change issue isn't contained in the science alone. Even if we knew exactly what was going to happen, we still wouldn't know what to do. That's why if you look around, you'll see that most of my effort on this blog has been dedicated to figuring out the ethical ramifications of climate change. It's also why I tried to avoid making any statements about policy in this post, which was directed only at the scientific side of the discussion. Thanks for the comments, and thanks even more for the time you spared to read my work, but I assure you that you're preaching to the choir; I ain't no alarmist.

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