In Praise of Sound Thinking

As someone who spends a lot of his blog time criticizing others, I would like to highlight some excellent writing and good ideas.

Over at the UK’s Telegraph, Professor Eric Wolff makes a reasoned, thorough and sober case for the consensus view on climate change. It’s one of the best articles I’ve read this year.

One passage struck me (But click the link and read the whole thing): “A planet designer with a blank sheet might decide that the best possible climate was a little warmer or colder than ours. But change is what is difficult. In the past, when climate changed, species died out, evolved, or migrated to maintain a similar habitat or lifestyle, as did human populations. Now we are expecting a rather fast change, and there is no empty space for anything or anyone to migrate into.

In any case, science gives a range of possible outcomes for a given emission of carbon. This range has a specific meaning: our best estimate is somewhere in the middle of the range, and the top end and the bottom end of the range are as likely as each other.”

Meanwhile, over at Judith Curry’s blog, Nic Lewis is equally as cogent as  a member of the ‘loyal opposition’, writing about climate sensitivity. He thinks it’s lower than most members of the consensus and offers calculations to support his point of view.

But almost in passing, he makes a point that I’ve been struggling to articulate for some time now, writing “Unfortunately, the response of biogeochemical systems to projected changes in atmospheric CO2 and climate is currently poorly understood. Inadequate scientific understanding of land and ocean carbon cycles is reflected in CMIP5 ESMs exhibiting great variation in carbon uptake in response to projected changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration and GMST, and hence substantial uncertainty in atmospheric CO2 concentration towards the end of the 21st century.”

The discussion about human contributions to climate change has centered on physics and I think relies too much on it, to the exclusion of biological, chemical and geological responses and interactions. Physicists parameterize these responses and interactions, but it often seems like they tuck them into a neat little box with unseemly haste and don’t think overly much about them afterwards.

I think this leads to surprising results, and these surprises don’t seem to be welcome at the physicists’ table.  I think recognizing the difficulty physics has in dealing with bio/geo/chemical responses is something Freeman Dyson has identified without naming, contenting himself to just say models don’t capture it very well.

At any rate, one conversation I would love to see is between Wolff and Lewis. Two scientists who can use the same data and honestly come to different points of view without being hostile–who’da thunk it?

physics vs. science


10 responses to “In Praise of Sound Thinking

  1. The calmer consensus apologists seem to cluster their arguments around the rate of change while ignoring that the rate of change in the climate has in fact been unremarkable. Please tell us more about the excellent cartoon.

    • Hunter,

      The rate of change observed to date is arguably unremarkable. The projected rate of change, if accurate (I am dubious) would be quite remarkable. And the rate of CO2 change, if long continued, would be remarkable.

      • I can project that a 50 mile wide asteroid on a hyperbolic trajectory travelling at 85000 kph will hit the N Atlantic and devastate Earth and even describe it scientifically, to boot.
        That does not make it plausible.
        Same for the repeated, failed and deceptive claims about pH. If long continued, the rate of CO2 level change will level off in terms of %.
        There has also been a remarkably unremarkable outcome from all of these changes, which for skeptics, is not remarkable, but was predicted.
        Real scientists would be looking for answers to why their predictions have failed so predictably. Instead the climate kooks are seeking to silence their critics.

  2. Hi Tom…

    WRT the “Phytoplankton love carbon dioxide” thing at Bishop Hill you linked to…

    The net effect of increased coccolithophore activity is usually to increase ocean acidification and drive CO2 into the atmosphere (at the expense of bicarbonate in the ocean). This is because they also sequester calcium carbonate, which has a net acidifying effect.

    I discussed this at Climate Etc. with manifold references:

    …Including the surprising possibility that whaling may have had as much to do with recent pCO2 increases as fossil emissions. (IMO unlikely but can’t be ruled out.)

    Given the effect of increased coccolithophore populations, if they really are increasing in response to industrial CO2 emissions, this could easily lead to a positive feedback which could kick in at any time and drive much of the anthropogenic CO2 fraction that the ocean seems to have absorbed back into the atmosphere.

  3. AK, it seems that the record gives us good reason to be dubious of global triggers just waiting to be sprung at any time.
    The phytoplankton are tying up huge amounts of CO2 and mostly sinking that carbon to the bottom of the ocean.
    As whale populations rebound, I wonder what impact that might have?

      • Your linked posts are interesting. So a more convincing study would have looked at diatom populations in comparison and contrast. I do believe the record indicates clearly that pH is not going to save up for the big one and then wham! get us.
        CO2 is not the control knob of climate movement.
        If climate response to CO2 increases really was high symptoms of that would have shown up already. Also at this point it seems clear that far less is understood about the carbon cycle than is considered important by our climate catastrophe community.
        However it is pleasant to see how some of the truly big players in the biosphere like planktons are being considered. Now for critters like termites….

      • I do believe the record indicates clearly that pH is not going to save up for the big one and then wham! get us.

        I don’t. But I’ll admit I regard it as improbable.

        IMO the main cause→effect process is in the other direction: coccolithophore populations increased due to other reasons, and have contributed to the rise of pCO2 in the atmosphere.

        The contribution could be negligible, substantial, or anywhere in-between.

        But that’s all just opinion. Not nearly enough study has been done, and as for modelling…

      • AK,
        The data points I seem to recall in this is that life forms like termites, planktons, even nematodes, either outweigh the biomass of humanity and/or emit more CO2 or other GHG’s.

  4. The crux of Wolff’s argument is found in this statement:

    “In any case, science gives a range of possible outcomes for a given emission of carbon. This range has a specific meaning: our best estimate is somewhere in the middle of the range, and the top end and the bottom end of the range are as likely as each other. ”

    There are two problems here. First is that the top end of the range comes from climate models while the bottom end comes from observations. Second is that there is no longer a “best estimate”.

    From AR5 WG1 SPM Note 16: “No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies.”

    And last I heard, “a lack of agreement” was the exact opposite of a “consensus”.

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