Which Metrics Best Capture Climate Change?

Mauna Loa reports CO2 concentrations of 404 ppm for February 20, 2015. On the same date in 2015 concentrations were 399 ppm.

Arctic sea ice covered 14,179 million square kilometers as of yesterday. In 1980 it covered 16,182 million square kilometers on the same day of the year.

The January 2016 globally-averaged temperature across land and ocean surfaces was 1.04°C (1.87°F) above the 20th century average of 12.0°C (53.6°F), the highest for January in the 137-year period of record.

Sea level rose by 3.39 mm last year, plus or minus 0.6 mm. Sea levels have risen 72 mm since 1993.

(I can’t believe there isn’t a dashboard somewhere capturing all of these on the same screen. Get to work on it, people!)

These are the measurements that have scientists intensely interested and activists alarmed. CO2 concentrations rising, Arctic sea ice falling, temperatures and sea levels reaching new heights in our short history of keeping good records.

Although I’m not alarmed by these numbers, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be pleased if they were all moving in the other direction. I wish they were.

But these measurements are not scaring the public. Most people in the developed world (40% of the world’s population have never heard of climate change) understand and accept that the climate is changing and we have contributed. But because it isn’t affecting their lives or livelihoods, most just don’t care.

Measuring the wrong things

At the same time as the measurements above are being reported, we also see that our planet’s vegetative cover has risen by 11%, harvests are rising, malaria is falling and economic growth has not been impacted. Those make more of a difference to most of us.

So what metrics are important in the climate conversation? Well, why would anyone besides a scientist care if the Arctic ice was decreasing or the proportion of molecules of CO2 in our atmosphere was increasing? What possible difference could it make to their lives or how they lived them?

Eventually someone realised this and activists tried to substitute metaphors and poster children for metrics when they encountered difficulties implementing their policy agenda. But polar bears stubbornly refused to die and islands stubbornly refused to sink. Malaria didn’t spread and bees didn’t disappear.

Since the failure of that messaging campaign, the activists on climate change have been floundering, forced to relentlessly hammer home the ‘overwhelming consensus’ message, a message that crumbles into dust if examined closely. And even that doesn’t seem to sway the public. In a world where Barack Obama can be called a denier by Bill McKibben and James Hansen is called a denier by Naomi Oreskes, it is clear that climate communications is in need of a reboot.

I would, if advising these yammerheads, counsel small metrics. Go local. Tailor the story to fit the locale. Of course, the same yammerheads call me a denier, so there’s scant chance of them taking me up on it. Pity, that.

To me, it would be smart to talk about the number of ice free days in lakes in the Northern Hemisphere. It would be smart to talk about earlier springs and shorter winters. It would be smart to talk about degrees of latitude in changes of the habitats of plants and animals.

Of course, each of these phenomena have had changes recorded in the past that might equal those they are undergoing now. But they are things that can be measured fairly easily, fairly quickly and… um… fairly.

As for Arctic sea ice, although I wish it were growing in extent rather than decreasing, as someone recently sang, ‘the cold never bothered me anyway.’


21 responses to “Which Metrics Best Capture Climate Change?

  1. Sea-level didn’t actually rise 3.39 mm last year, at the coasts.

    Sea-level rise is not accelerating, and has not accelerated since the 1920s. There are about sixty good-quality, 100+ year records of sea-level around the world, and they all show the same thing: there has been no statistically significant acceleration (increase) in the rate of sea-level rise in the last 85 years or more. That means anthropogenic CO2 emissions do not measurably affect sea-level rise, and predictions of wildly accelerated sea-level rise are based on superstition, not science.

    Here are two very high quality sea-level measurement records, one from the Pacific and one from the Atlantic:

    With atmospheric CO2 at 0.040% by volume, globally averaged sea-level rise at the coasts is just under +1.5 mm/year.

    When atmospheric CO2 was at 0.031% by volume, globally averaged sea-level rise at the coasts was just under +1.5 mm/year.

    The difference is that climate alarmists think the current +1.5 mm/year is catastrophic and caused by human release of CO2, and the +1.5 mm/year 85 years ago was natural and inconsequential.

    However, the similarity between the two numbers — the catastrophic 1.5 mm/yr and the inconsequential 1.5 mm/yr — has confused even some liberals into backing away from the One True Climate Faith. Even President Obama’s former Undersecretary for Science, Steven Koonin, has written that:

    “Even though the human influence on climate was much smaller in the past, the models do not account for the fact that the rate of global sea-level rise 70 years ago was as large as what we observe today.”

    Here’s a list of some good papers on the topic:

    That 3.39 mm number is from satellite altimetry measurements of the open ocean, inflated by the addition of model-derived GIA estimates. It has little relation to anything that matters.

    Most fundamentally, satellite altimeters measure the wrong thing. Their measurements are distorted by “sea-level rise” caused by thermal expansion when the upper layer of the ocean warms. But that is a strictly local effect, which doesn’t affect the quantity of water in the oceans, and doesn’t affect sea-level elsewhere (e.g., at the coasts).

    Sea-level rise only matters at the coasts, but satellite altimeters are incapable of measuring sea-level at the coasts. Tide gauges measure sea-level at the coasts, where it matters, and their data is of much higher quality.

    The best tide-gauge records of sea-level measurements are nearly ten times as long as the combined satellite measurement record, and twenty times as long as any single satellite measurement record, and the tide-gauge records are trustworthy.

    The satellite measurements of sea-level are not. They are subject to a long list of potential distortions, and vary considerably from one satellite to another.

    Steve Case has documented how U.Col. has revised their satellite “measurements” of sea-level over the years:

    The Envisat numbers were revised even more dramatically. Subsequent revisions to data up to ten years after it was recorded approximately tripled the rate of sea-level rise “measured” by Envisat.

    There really are a lot of good reasons to question satellite altimetry measurements of sea-level. Physicist Willie Soon discusses the problems here:

    NASA is aware of the problems with satellite measurements, and they’ve proposed a new mission called the Geodetic Reference Antenna in SPace (GRASP), to try to improve matters. However, that mission has not been funded.

    Refs: http://www.sealevel.info/

  2. Until five days ago, Denmark’s Meteorologiske Institut (DMI) graphed Arctic sea ice extent two ways:

    1. They had a graph comparing the current year to the preceding ten years’ “30%+ concentration” Arctic sea ice extent, with coastal zones masked out. They plotted each year in a different color on the same horizontal timescale, so that you could compare the years.

    2. They also had (and still have) a graph comparing the current year to the preceding four years’ “15%+ concentration” Arctic sea ice extent. (I don’t know how they handle coastal zones in that version.)

    Here are the two graphs. In both graphs, the current (partial) year is plotted with a heavier black line:

    30%+ concentration, with coastal zones masked out:

    15%+ concentration:

    As you can see, depending on which graph you choose, you could “prove” that Arctic sea ice extent is either the highest that it’s been in the last eleven years (in the “30%+” graph), or the lowest that it’s been in the last five years (in the “15%+” graph).

    However, five days ago, on 2016-02-18, DMI discontinued the “30%+ concentration” version, which showed high recent ice extents.

  3. Firstly climate always changes so the question is wrong. Secondly this is simply a standard question that most decent engineers would be able to answer which is “what is the signal to noise” of each type of data.

    And in order to answer that simple question, you first have to understand the noise – that is to say natural variation. And once you understand what is normal – then you can determine whether there is anything abnormal.

    However, you’ve got it arse about face. You’ve decided before you start that the signal is abnormal, so now you are ascribing all change to the “signal” and you are ignoring the noise … except like the pause, the noise does not go away.

    • Well, I yell at the alarmists about ignoring variation and parameterizing things they just don’t understand, so I guess it’s only fair that you’d be bringing up similar issues with me.

      I do think there’s a signal buried in with the noise. I agree that many attempts to tease it out have been less than spectacularly successful.

  4. The apparent impact of those metrics on the weather of the planet is what? Crop yields, up. Life expectancy, up. Famine, down. Drought, storms, etc, flat or down. Then to the metrics themselves. None are credibly sourced and you know it.

  5. None of them, Tom, at least not yet. Let me explain.

    My understanding of the whole AGW paradigm goes something like this: anthropogenic activities increase atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which then serve to, as a primary effect, increase temperatures globally (if unevenly), which then cause numerous secondary effects like changes in sea ice and sea levels, which in turn cause tertiary effects, and so on. Generally, I have no issue with this whole theoretical outline (and if you think I’m wrong, please let me know how/why).

    My issue is that there is fairly good measurement of GHG concentrations, but the follow-on effects are full of uncertainties that get worse the further down the effect tree you go. Measurement issues, model issues, theory uncertainties, natural variations, lack of good historical data – these all add up to enough to make it very difficult – if not impossible – to creditably ascribe anthropogenic factors as the originator of any change in a particular metric.

    So rather than look at the trees, lets look at the forest as a whole. Those anthropogenic activities that are the originator of AGW are responsible for much, much more than just greenhouse gases. They also have enormously increased the global GDP per capita over the last millenium. To me, this increased wealth is the most important metric of human activity. It has allowed better, longer lives for much of the globe. It grants increased resiliance to natural (or unnatural disasters). It will allow better mitigation of any creeping AGW effects that do happen. It has been uneven, yes, but even the lagging parts are catching up now – and good for them, even if they are forced to use coal until they can afford something better.

    So to hell with concentrating on uncertain measurements of an uncertain level of climate change. Let’s put it all in proper context by comparing what we actually know now: greenhouse gases versus global wealth. Right now, global wealth is winning handily.

    Give us real certainty of GHG effects, with measurements that allow us to properly run cost/benefits against global GDP, and then we can talk. Until that point, any metric is just propaganda from one side or the other.

    • kch,

      I’d say that you have a solid understanding this and have provided a clear, concise summary.

    • To my knowledge, not one single economic scenario has included a negative temperature feedback. See e.g. SRES A1FI: exploding economic growth and emissions, but not a dent in 2100 when temperatures are soaring. RCP 8.5 is even unaffected through the 22nd century.

      • I think you are probably correct in pointing out the lack of real feedbacks between climate and economics in futuristic scenarios, but I also think that it really doesn’t matter much.

        In general, I’d say I have less regard for economic projections than I do for climate projections. Too many variables, too much unknown and unknowable, topped with the added bonus of perversity of human nature. Economists can barely figure out what *has* happened, so expecting them to be anywhere close to right on what *will* happen even in the near term strikes me as futile. Out to 2100? Slightly informed fiction, at best.

        Coupling the two projections together just makes the fiction, well, more fictional. Just more grist for the propaganda mills…

    • kch,
      Well summarized. Increased CO2 has been, in any rational measurement, a strong net positive for humans and the Earth. And now CO2 is being acknowledged as responsible for the increased greening of Earth.
      Tom has documented here many times how the Climate Imperialists have misrepresented the problem and evidence and most of all the solutions, time and time again.

      • ” Increased CO2 has been, in any rational measurement, a strong net positive for humans and the Earth.”

        Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. The strong net positive for humans has been technological advancement and industrialization, for which increased CO2 is one of the derivative effects which – taken alone – might very well be negative. Yes, there are positive aspects to increased GHGs, but do they outweigh the negative aspects? I’m not certain.

        What I am certain of is that restricting the massive human improvements available through industrial and technological development is much more detrimental to humans than the any of the effects projected in all but the most catastropically alarmist scenarios.

        And the effect on the Earth’s non-human biota? I’d guess that the downstream effects of GHG increases is probably net negative. However, given that I tend to take a human-centric view of life I don’t find that a very compelling argument against development, particularly since that ship sailed when humans started agriculture.

  6. Mi like a Cubs fan, “wait until next year”. 2014-15-16 are El Niño years. By 2017-8 it should have gone through the full cycle, and we should see the impact of the flattening emissions trends.

    By the way, I see oil production is declining everywhere except in Iraq and Iran. I think all other OPEC is flat out fighting a price war in a Sunni versus Shia conflict, and there’s no spare capacity. World production of crude oil and condensate will now enter an oscillating plateau which is unlikely to ever exceed 85 million barrels of oil per day.

  7. I found the comments a bit vague. I happen to have much more knowledge and information than both of them because my job allowed me to see it, and have seen their arguments back and forth, but I have to limit my participation.

    Tom seems to be a cornucopian, has a fairly optimistic view about fossil fuel resources. On the other hand I understand very well where the remaining oil and gas are hiding, and have read enough about coal to understand it has similar limits (although coal resources are a bit more abundant).

    Isee a limit to the price weak economies can pay for energy. I may also have a more optimistic view regarding the ability of nuclear power and other sources to pick up the load. After all, the key is replacing fossil fuels with something viable.

    I’m not a “peak oiler”, I’m an extremely experienced petroleum engineer. Until a couple of years ago I was a consultant, companies called me to establish whether a given technology had potential, to assure them the reserves they estimated were reasonable, and to help them set prices for oil and gas properties they were buying.

    Thus I didn’t arrive at my opinion by reading peak oil books, I did it when I was sitting down with oil company personnel and we discussed their options to find and extract more reserves. What I saw in many cases was grim. The individual companies have been simply running out of running room. They just don’t have sound ideas to put in place long term projects to have oil and gas production remain steady in the future. Oil in particular is a really difficult problem.

    So my message is simply that cornucopian thinking had better take into account the hash reality that many countries simply can’t afford the cost of energy, and in 20 years things will be even worse.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Fernando. That exchange did leave me a bit hopeful that things aren’t as bad as Rud has been proposing. I think the nuclear future is unstoppable. There even seems to be some glimmers of hope on the fusion front.

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