Kerry Emanuel Boston Globe Opinion: Climate Changes Are Proven Fact

Dr. Kerry Emanuel from MIT wades into the climate change debate with an opinion piece in the Boston Globe.  Dr. Emanuel has not been particularly outspoken on the climate change topic but has from time to time participated in debates and forums that have provided an opportunity to opine.  On the heels of Hurricane Katrina, his 2005 Nature paper on the power associated with hurricanes received considerable international attention and served to focus the world’s attention on the effects of climate change on tropical cyclones.  Plenty of bandwidth has been used here at CA to discuss his work.  His papers are heavily cited on a variety of theoretical topics and he has been awarded countless accolades during his academic career.

Emanuel’s name does not figure into the CRU emails and his work has been peripheral to much of the hubbub associated with temperature proxies.  He has worked with Mann on hurricane issues, but mainly in the realm of statistics and paleotempests.  No commentary or emphasis on what he wrote, leave that to the comments, which will [should] be of considerably higher quality than the nonsense in the Boston Globe comments accompanying his editorial.  Here goes:

OUTSIDE SCIENTIFIC forums, contemporary discussions of the phenomenon of global warming are now so heated that one wonders whether they are contributing to the phenomenon itself.

With all the interest in alleged misdeeds of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and hacked email exchanges among climate scientists, it is easy to lose track of the compelling strands of scientific evidence that have led almost all climate scientists to conclude that mankind is altering climate in potentially dangerous ways. Recent suggestions by gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker that the scientific community is split on this issue have unfortunately added fuel to this largely manufactured debate.

A few essential points are undisputed among climate scientists. First, the surface temperature of the Earth is roughly 60 F higher than it would otherwise be thanks to a few greenhouse gasses that collectively make up only about 3 percent of the mass of our atmosphere.

Second, the concentrations of the two most important long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, have been increasing since the dawn of the industrial era; carbon dioxide alone has increased by about 40 percent. These increases have been brought about by fossil fuel combustion and changes in land use.

Third, in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F. And fourth, global temperatures have been rising for roughly the past century and have so far increased by about 1.4 F. The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years.

Disputes within climate science concern the nature and magnitude of feedback processes involving clouds and water vapor, uncertainties about the rate at which the oceans take up heat and carbon dioxide, the effects of air pollution, and the nature and importance of climate change effects such as rising sea level, increasing acidity of the ocean, and the incidence of weather hazards such as floods, droughts, storms, and heat waves. These uncertainties are reflected in divergent predictions of climate change made by computer models. For example, current models predict that a doubling of carbon dioxide should result in global mean temperature increases of anywhere from 2.5 to 7.5 F.

The uncertainties in the models, theory, and observations of climate change and associated risks and the sheer complexity of the problem provide many rounds of ammunition for the agenda-driven, be they apocalyptic or denialist. For the lawyerly, with the ability and will to cherry-pick the evidence, there is much ripe fruit to hurl in the increasingly heated climate wars of our generation.

But when the dust settles, what we are left with is the evidence. And, in spite of all its complexity and uncertainties, we should not lose track of the simple fact that theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models – however imperfect each is in isolation – all point to ongoing, potentially dangerous human alteration of climate.

It is easy to be critical of the models that are used to make such predictions – and we are – but they represent our best efforts to objectively predict climate; everything else is mere opinion and speculation. That they are uncertain cuts both ways; things might not turn out as badly as the models now suggest, but with equal probability, they could turn out worse. Science cannot now and probably never will be able to do better than to assign probabilities to various outcomes of the uncontrolled experiment we are now performing, and the time lag between emissions and the response of the climate to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations forces us to make decisions sooner than we would like. We do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty, which will never come, nor does it do anyone any good to assassinate science, the messenger.

We have never before dealt with a problem that threatens not us, but our distant descendants. The philosophical, scientific, and political issues are unquestionably tough. We might begin by mustering the courage to confront the problem of climate change in an honest and open way.

Steve: Also see Emanuel in MIT debate linked from here.


55 Comments

  1. Mark Buehner
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:42 PM | Permalink

    I’ve got little problem with this. Generally what he says is true, and within his realm of expertise. What is not within his realm of expertise or the facts he laid out is whether our current and assumed future temperatures are a cataclysmic problem for the human race. Considering that THAT is the only truly relevant question, his post is of limited value. Paleotemperatures are critical in answering that question, because if the earth has been warmer than this in other human eras, we potentially have less to worry about. Furthermore, climate scientists are neither technology nor anthropology experts. If CO2 does end up being a menace to the human race, but not in the immediate future, it might well be in our best interests to adapt in the short term and seek a silver bullet technologically in the long term. But again, climate scientists aren’t equipped to answer that question.

  2. Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:43 PM | Permalink

    I thought that he worked to choose his words very carefully, though he arguable overstepped with the following quote. The waffle-word “potentially” makes it a little ambiguous.

    And, in spite of all its complexity and uncertainties, we should not lose track of the simple fact that theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models – however imperfect each is in isolation – all point to ongoing, potentially dangerous human alteration of climate.

    Do ALL of the theories, observations, and models point to ongoing potentially dangerous human alteration of the climate? I’d say that some do not.

  3. ryanm
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:45 PM | Permalink

    So, who is not agenda-driven?

    The uncertainties in the models, theory, and observations of climate change and associated risks and the sheer complexity of the problem provide many rounds of ammunition for the agenda-driven, be they apocalyptic or denialist. For the lawyerly, with the ability and will to cherry-pick the evidence, there is much ripe fruit to hurl in the increasingly heated climate wars of our generation.

  4. Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:48 PM | Permalink

    Third, in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F

    And if the feedback is negative then there could be no increase in temperature at all.

    And fourth, global temperatures have been rising for roughly the past century and have so far increased by about 1.4 F. The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years.

    Res ipsa loquitur

    I suppose that the facts do speak for themselves in this case

    Why can’t these people discuss things at at least some level of technical sophistication

    • Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:47 PM | Permalink

      Third, in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F

      I should have added the precept that is taught in the first lecture of any signal processing or networks course. Open loop performance does not predict closed loop performance. Or equivalently, the performance in the absence of feedback is no predictor of performance in the presence of feedback.

      KE’s statement is essentially meaningless.

  5. Follow the Money
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:51 PM | Permalink

    it is easy to lose track of the compelling strands of scientific evidence

    Strands? To me, a native English speaker, the word connotes flimsiness. Certainly not the writer’s intent–consciously.

    Would a lawyer tell a jury “The strands of evidence prove my client is not guilty.”?

  6. Bad Andrew
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:54 PM | Permalink

    “But when the dust settles, what we are left with is the evidence. And, in spite of all its complexity and uncertainties, we should not lose track of the simple fact that theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models – however imperfect each is in isolation – all point to ongoing, potentially dangerous human alteration of climate.”

    Just wanted to point out respectfully that theories and complex models are not evidence.

    Andrew

  7. vboring
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 3:58 PM | Permalink

    “We have never before dealt with a problem that threatens not us, but our distant descendants.”

    1970s population bomb
    Storage of Nuclear waste
    Long term Deforestation causing desertification
    Peak Oil
    Destruction of natural fisheries
    Bankrupting Social Security
    Erosion of Midwestern soil that feeds a large fraction of the World

    Are the first that come to mind.

    • Metro Gnome
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 7:35 PM | Permalink

      He meant “If you don’t consider those other pesky things”.

  8. RickA
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:01 PM | Permalink

    “We have never before dealt with a problem that threatens not us, but our distant descendants.”

    I don’t know who he means by “we” – but genetic data shows that “we” were almost wiped out 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. The human race was down to a very very small population, which then regrew.

    So, I would say that humans have dealt with problems which threatened our distant descendants many times before.

    I bet the last ice age was no picnic either.

  9. RomanM
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:02 PM | Permalink

    [Bold mine:]

    That they are uncertain cuts both ways; things might not turn out as badly as the models now suggest, but with equal probability, they could turn out worse.

    Not likely! Not knowing two probabilities is NOT the same as saying they are equal.

    • Armand MacMurray
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:32 PM | Permalink

      That’s exactly what struck me. Since he’s a professor at MIT, that implies that the wording was NOT due to incompetence.

    • oakgeo
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:24 PM | Permalink

      Reminds me of a comment that my sister’s ex-boyriend made years ago about how easy it was to find oil: “You drill a well and either you find oil or you don’t… it’s a 50:50 probability.”

      Having said that, Emanuel’s statement of “equal probability” is certainly a step back from the 100% alarmist POV so often seen and heard, so I welcome his foray into the climate change quagmire.

  10. Old Dad
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:02 PM | Permalink

    I’m sorry to see another scientist enter the political pig sty. As the old saying goes, you just get muddy and the pigs like it.

    I do support Prof. Emanuel’s call for the science to be debated in an open and honest way, and the Op-Ed pages of the Globe are probably not a good venue for such debates, nor is the concensus, settled science blather the right approach.

    It does no one any good pretend that climate science hasn’t been seriously discredited–rightly or wrongly. The appeal to authority simply won’t work. Al Gore, et al have seen to that.

    snip–politicking

  11. BillyBob
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:03 PM | Permalink

    “The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years.

    Translation: I believe in the hockey stick.

    Or

    Translation: The MWP started 1100 years so it doesn’t count. (See 1,000 years referenced above)

  12. KevinM
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:03 PM | Permalink

    “in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F.”

    OK thats 1 degree C.

    “the concentrations of the two most important long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, have been increasing since the dawn of the industrial era; carbon dioxide alone has increased by about 40 percent.”

    In other words he admits that human carbon emissions would account for less than half a degree celsius without feedback.

    “Disputes within climate science concern the nature and magnitude of feedback processes involving…”

    Gee, sounds like the disputes are pretty important.

  13. kmye
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:05 PM | Permalink

    That they are uncertain cuts both ways; things might not turn out as badly as the models now suggest, but with equal probability, they could turn out worse.

    Statements along these lines have always bothered me. I’ve never been an all-star with figuring probability, but doesn’t an “equal probability” of things erring on either side here assume at the very least that the prediction(s) are basically spot-on in the middle of the range of possibilities to begin with? Or can you, in fact, makes this equal probability claim about any guess where you have imperfect knowledge?

  14. Neil Fisher
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:08 PM | Permalink

    It is easy to be critical of the models that are used to make such predictions – and we are – but they represent our best efforts to objectively predict climate; everything else is mere opinion and speculation.

    Since the models are not currently able to predict with complete, or even some defined, accuracy I’d suggest that the models themselves are “mere opinion and speculation”. That they represent our best efforts is not in doubt – that they are other than opinion and speculation is.

    • Dagfinn
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:40 PM | Permalink

      Yes, I think this is a basic fallacy: assuming that sophisticated methodology implies validity. Put some numbers and formulas into a spreadsheet and you have something that you might say is more than “mere opinion and speculation” because it’s mathematical. By the same token, astrology can also be favorably compared to opinion and speculation.

  15. Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:10 PM | Permalink

    Dr. Emanuel, sir, do you deep down believe this? I am from Missouri :) , so show me the data, show me the code. You lost my acceptance of any of your statements when you use ‘hacked email exchanges’ as an assertion of fact. What evidence do you have that support the phrase hacked email exchanges? The evidence that I am aware of, sir, that is highly likely to be solid; is that of anthropogenic local warming.

    You also lose me when you say that the two most important ‘greenhouse gases’ are carbon dioxide and methane. Dr. Emanuel, why do you so dismiss the role of dihydrogen oxide? Fully 70% of the planet’s surface is covered by dihydrogen oxide. This molecule undergoes phase changes from solid to gas, liquid to gas, gas to liquid, solid to liquid, liquid to solid, and gas to solid every minute of every day. Even if carbon dioxide and/or methane are important IR active species on the margin; it seems to me to only be true only where the IR active species dihydrogen oxide does not dominate the real atmosphere’s IR activity.

    By dismissing the rest of the biosphere’s local alteration of the environment (cavalierly so it seems to me) you seem to be missing a potentially large confounding factor in your and the rest of your colleagues analyses. Are you really so sure that you are not making vast conclusions from half vast data?

    In conclusion, you and your colleagues seem to be asking the rest of us to be risking life, liberty and property for absolutely nothing if, and/or when it is shown that your premises and assertions assume facts not in evidence nor are facts in the real state of Nature, of which one is the assumption of stationarity.

    Is the weather ergodic? Who is John Galt :) ?

  16. Redbone
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:15 PM | Permalink

    Kerry “the machine” Emanuel?

  17. David P
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:17 PM | Permalink

    “The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years.”

    It seems to me from the structure of his essay that he asserts that the above statment is an “essential point[]…undisputed among climate scientists.” After several years of following the AGW debate, I believe that such a conclusion is completely untrue and wholly unsupportable.

  18. kramer
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:20 PM | Permalink

    When he says “the surface temperature of the Earth is roughly 60 F higher than it would otherwise be thanks to a few greenhouse gasses that collectively make up only about 3 percent of the mass of our atmosphere” is he including water vapor? Water vapor is consider a GHG and is the dominant one.
    …yes includes water vapor, variable around the globe tho, so it is a difficult quantity to generalize.

  19. Gary
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:23 PM | Permalink

    snip–Scott Brown and the Boston Globe don’t pertain here

  20. Alan Wilkinson
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:25 PM | Permalink

    Considering that the Viking settlements in Greenland got wiped out in a decade or two I find it hard to believe his claim that present changes are “larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years”.

  21. Dave Dardinger
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:27 PM | Permalink

    Ok, guys. Didn’t anyone else note the blooper he made with respect to greenhouse gasses?

    First, the surface temperature of the Earth is roughly 60 F higher than it would otherwise be thanks to a few greenhouse gasses that collectively make up only about 3 percent of the mass of our atmosphere.

    Second, the concentrations of the two most important long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane…

    The 60 deg F includes water as a greenhouse gas; for one thing it’s only possible to get up to even 1% of the atmosphere mass if you include water. But in the second part he totally ignores water as a greenhouse gas. If you’re going to ignore water because of its variable concentration (thus the tricky word “long-lived”, then you shouldn’t throw in the 60 deg f point which mostly concerns the concentration of water in the atmosphere. (And vice versa, of course.) To those not aware, it sounds like a 30% increase in THE most important long-lived greenhouse gas should result in a large increase in the greenhouse effect.

    • Mike J
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:14 PM | Permalink

      Temperature sensitivity to Co2 is completely unproven. Ice core evidence shows that Co2 increase after temperature increases, therefore is not causative. At best the correspondence is an interesting theory. To base an entire civilisation’s economic future upon this one premise is draconian and has little to do with science or concern for the environment.

    • Dave Dardinger
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:30 PM | Permalink

      Re: ChallengerIV (Feb 15 16:42),

      Water vapor is largely a feedback process

      As a gas, yes it’s a positive feedback. But H2O exists in three phases and as a solid (snow or ice clouds) or as an atmospheric liquid (clouds) it is largely a negative feedback. I’d say more, but Steve tends to snip these sorts of discussions.

    • An Inquirer
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 8:15 PM | Permalink

      No direct control over water vapor? Perhaps your assertion is true over most of the earth’s surface (i.e., oceans), but we have affected water vapor over Cities and agricultural land — and I suspect (as the data has pointed out) that increased water vapor has affected local temperatures.

  22. Kenneth Fritsch
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:28 PM | Permalink

    Is not that why they call these little essays opinion pieces? I would assume from the way Emanuel’s piece is written that he merely wanted to state where he comes down on the issue of AGW. Now that we know (some of us already knew) lets move on.

    • ryanm
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:43 PM | Permalink

      I took notice since he is seen as an outsider and particularly fair-minded. His sterling reputation carries considerable weight, and his opinions are therefore worth reading. He has been known to change his mind on the hurricanes and climate change debate when new or different evidence comes to light. He isn’t a true believer in my estimation.

      • David P
        Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:41 PM | Permalink

        Good recall, Tim. I had forgotton that he was part of that. He did not strike me as “paricularly fair-minded” in that panel discussion. His comments left the impression of his being fully in the AGW paranoia tank. He rehashed all the old standards re: climate skeptics (in the pay of polluters, beyond their ken, etc.)

      • Michael Smith
        Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:44 PM | Permalink

        I must second what Tim says. Kerry’s performance on the MIT panel showed that he is anything but “fair-minded”. He made several highly dubious, completely unfounded assertions and accusations that reveal a deep bias and a disturbingly non-objective attitude toward the evidence.
        —Like what? Drive-by-blogging…

  23. Debreuil
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 4:38 PM | Permalink

    “That they are uncertain cuts both ways; things might not turn out as badly as the models now suggest, but with equal probability, they could turn out worse.”

    That is the big one. There is being wrong in the middle of your error bars, and there is to be wrong and not a meaningful result. The former only happens with a good understanding of the most significant domain. In climate, major things like vapor and clouds are very poorly understood, and measured temps are not fitting the predictions, so it is essentially a guess (or still a proposition if you like). The words “equal probability” are very poorly chosen.

    Not to mention, “they represent our best efforts to objectively predict climate”… If that is true, either I’ve been dreaming or he’s been sleeping.

  24. Curt Fischer
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:09 PM | Permalink

    Overall I think Prof. Emmanuel’s editorial should be welcomed by everyone interested in debating climate science. In general I read it as (1) a jumping off point for beginning scientific debate as well as (2) a reminder that climate science is more than just temperature proxies, and (3) a reminder that debates about climate science are different from debates about some climate scientists’ past conduct.

    At a more detailed level, I am interested in hearing David P elaborate his criticism made at 4:17 pm. What part is disputed by climate scientists?

    vboring’s comment does go a long way to show that Dr. Emmanuel may have overstated his claims in the final paragraph. Maybe it’s just me, but that isn’t enough to make me doubt much of the rest of what he’s written. Overstating the bottom line seems like par for the course with newspaper editorials.

    Many other commenters seem hung up on this line: “That they are uncertain cuts both ways; things might not turn out as badly as the models now suggest, but with equal probability, they could turn out worse.” I agree it is a poorly worded sentence that implies an unwarranted level of mathematical rigor. But I could easily accept a less-precisely-worded alternative. Maybe something like “the models represent our best estimate, but they are only estimates, reality may turn out to be better than the models predict, but of course, it may also turn out to be worse.”

  25. Steve Oregon
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:12 PM | Permalink

    “theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models – however imperfect each is in isolation – all point to ongoing, potentially dangerous human alteration of climate.”

    That is wrong.

    The problem is “point to” being treated as evidence or proof.

    The Theory is a essentially a claim.
    The Observations are presumptions of linkage.
    The Models are not evidence.

    But in the context of the IPCC and AGW all three have been embellished, contrived, falsely connected, manipulated and shown to be fatally flawed.

    Dr. Emanuel’s assessment sets aside, as “alleged misdeeds”, all of the undermining and mounting problems with climate science. It is easy to lose track of the full spectrum of the skeptic’s debunking when you don’t follow it while clinging to the tired bantor of “almost all climate scientists conclude that mankind is altering climate in potentially dangerous ways”.

  26. ianl8888
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:17 PM | Permalink

    –snip Boston Globe’s editorial policy should be taken up with them

  27. lnocsifan
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:18 PM | Permalink

    “Third, in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F.” left out the following caveat: and the feedbacks are not well-known and could have virtually eliminated the effect.

    He should have been honest and revealed his conflict of interest. How much grant money has he received owing to his being on the AGW bandwagon? Having worked with fellow scientists for 40 years, I know that between truth and money, a higher-level scientist almost always makes a compromise: half-truths and twice the money.

  28. Wayne Richards
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

    UK John:

    You want spring and sunshine to come? We’ll welcome you in Vancouver. Thanks to El Nino we’re having to truck snow for hundreds of miles in order to run the winter olympics. It’s costing us a bundle!
    But I don’t mind. Shirtsleeve weather here, give or take the rain.

  29. Craig Loehle
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:27 PM | Permalink

    Once again, warming that began in 1850 is being attributed to GHG increases that were almost entirely after WWII. If you allow for a possible periodic ENSO-type signal, and factor that out and only look at post-WWII rise after doing so, there is very little warming signal to be concerned about (per a paper I have submitted). That is, the “evidence” he cites for warming due to GHG is only a consistency argument, not a proof, and is predicated on the assumption that the sun is inactive as an agent of climate change.

    Second, the claim that warming is just as likely to be more than models predict as less is false. As the models have gotten better, the upper range of projections has come down from each IPCC report to the next. In addition, the assumptions built into the models all have the characteristic that they tend to amplify warming–from assumptions of a constant lapse rate determined humidity, to how clouds are fudged in, to assumptions about magnitudes of CO2 source feedback, to the clumsy way convection is handled, to assumptions about low solar forcing, to leaving out cosmic ray effects (need I go on?). If any of these non-physical “parameterizations” and assumptions are wrong, warming will be less. Plus, the models are calibrated against the Hadley and GISS temperature histories, which we know do not remove UHI and land use change effects and have dubious adjustment procedures (ie, they warm too rapidly esp in recent decades). Fix these data and model estimated climate sensitivities will be too high.

    • Michael Smith
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 6:11 PM | Permalink

      Dr. Loehle, those are excellent points.

      Is the paper you submitted available for reading now, or should be wait for its publication?

    • Ausie Dan
      Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 7:42 PM | Permalink

      It is very hard to take the article seriously.
      Dr. Loehle has is completely correct.

      Human CO2 emissions have been increasing exponentially, every since James Watt invested the steam engine.

      Global temperature (per NCDC) has been increasing linearly for over 300 years and has been measured, more or less accurately, since 1880.

      This linear trend has been overlaid by a 65 year zig zag, plus minor short term fluctiations (caused by El Ninos, volcanos etc).

      Professor Phil Jones now agrees, there’s nothing un-natural about the 20th century warming.

  30. Craig Loehle
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:30 PM | Permalink

    I would also like to point out that a few degrees of warming plus more rain and CO2 might be the best thing for life on earth since the last ice age ended. That includes agriculture. Which we need.

  31. Latham
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:36 PM | Permalink

    I’ve modified the article as it should have read. It really took very little to make it correct:

    Science and Climate Change

    Inside scientific forums, contemporary discussions of the basis of global warming theory are now so heated that one wonders whether they are contributing to the phenomenon itself.

    With all the interest in the misdeeds of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and revealed email exchanges among climate scientists, it is easy to lose track of the strands of scientific theory that have led some climate scientists to conclude that mankind might be altering climate in potentially dangerous ways. Recent suggestions by gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker that the scientific community is split on this issue have fortunately brought attention to this debate.

    A few essential points are undisputed among climate scientists. First, the surface temperature of the Earth is roughly 60 F higher than it would otherwise be thanks to water vapor and trace greenhouse gasses that collectively make up only about 3 percent of the mass of our atmosphere.

    Second, the concentrations of the two most important trace greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, have been increasing since the dawn of the industrial era; carbon dioxide alone has increased by about 40 percent. These increases have been brought about by fossil fuel combustion and changes in land use.

    Third, in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F. And fourth, global temperatures have been rising since the end of the Little Ice Age and are estimated to have increased by about 1.4 F in the past century. The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years except for the Medieval Warm Period.

    Disputes within climate science concern whether there is historical evidence that current warming is unnatural as well as the nature and magnitude of feedback processes involving clouds and water vapor, uncertainties about the rate at which the oceans take up heat and carbon dioxide, the effects of air pollution, and the nature and importance of climate change effects such as rising sea level, increasing acidity of the ocean, and the incidence of weather hazards such as floods, droughts, storms, and heat waves. These uncertainties are reflected in divergent predictions of climate change made by computer models. For example, current models predict that a doubling of carbon dioxide should result in global mean temperature increases of anywhere from 2.5 to 7.5 F.

    The uncertainties in the models, theory, and observations of climate change and associated risks and the sheer complexity of the problem provide many rounds of ammunition for those who see that the science is far from settled. For the lawyerly, with the ability to find the cherry-picked evidence, there is much ripe fruit to hurl at institutions which promote their own self serving agenda with this type of evidence.

    When the dust settles, what we are left with are these uncertainties. And, in spite of all its complexity, we should not lose track of the simple fact that theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models are imperfect and dangerous human alteration of the climate is not knowable, and even more important, beneficial human control of the planet’s naturally changing climate may never be possible.

    It is easy to be critical of the models that are used to make such predictions – and we are – but they represent our best efforts to objectively predict climate; even though they amount to nothing more than mere opinion and speculation. That they are uncertain cuts both ways; things might not turn out as badly as the models now suggest, but with equal probability, they could turn out much better. Science cannot now and probably never will be able to do better than to assign probabilities to various outcomes of the uncontrolled experiment we are now performing, and the time lag between emissions and the response of the climate to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations forces us to be watchful but to not pursue courses of action for which we do not know the consequences. We do have the luxury of waiting for more scientific certainty, which will eventually come. Solid, proven, irrefutable science will be the messenger.

    We have always been asked by someone to deal with a problem that might threaten us, and our distant descendants. The philosophical, scientific, and political issues are always presented as unquestionably tough. We should begin by mustering the courage to confront those defining the problem and insist that they prove their case in an honest, open, and scientific way.

  32. Robert
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:45 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for posting. A thoughtful and compelling article. However, I think Mr Emanual forgets that there have been previous warmings and coolings in the last 5000 years of equal or greater magnitude and rate to which we have no real explanation.
    How then can we be so sure that whatever factors were at play then, are not at play now? And yes, why does he limit the time period to the last 1,000 years?

  33. Martin Ackroyd
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 5:51 PM | Permalink

    Dr Emanuel said: “We have never before dealt with a problem that threatens not us, but our distant descendants.”

    I think he has overlooked the problem of how we (or our distant descendants) deal with long-halflife nuclear waste.

  34. JamesG
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 6:02 PM | Permalink

    The word “evidence” has rarely been so abused.

  35. Adam Soereg
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 6:08 PM | Permalink

    The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years.

    He is a true believer. Like many others, he claims that the ‘observed’ (or ‘estimated’) 20th century warming is unprecedented and almost certainly unnatural.

    The reliablity of the temperature record of the past 1000 years became questionable. We can’t be sure that tree rings are valid temperature proxies, because of their massive divergence from instrumental data in the last decades.

  36. Tom Kennedy
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 6:42 PM | Permalink

    The problem with the conspiracy theory of history is that people are just not clever enough to run a ‘long lived’ successful one. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try!

    Phil Jone’s mea culpa interview and the genuineness thereof has bothered me. Was this done as part of a PR plan to manage the message? And when might we expect the other shoe to drop? True enough, the admissions winkled out of him have been most satisfying, but the timing of the release of his interview on Friday evening is a very familiar political ploy to let the furore die down while everyone is on weekend and then Moveon. I further take note that on this particular weekend the Olympics opened and Valentines day so the PR types have shown they are not oblivious to everything.

    Emanuel’s article from a putative outsider, showing up on Monday, to Jone’s Friday looks suspiciously like the second part of a political set piece and means that the AGW project continues unabated. What these guys need is more mitigation.

  37. Reid of America
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 7:16 PM | Permalink

    Emmanuel says “It is easy to be critical of the models that are used to make such predictions – and we are – but they represent our best efforts to objectively predict climate; everything else is mere opinion and speculation.”

    Emmanuel actually believes that climate scientists can “objectively predict climate” with models and super-computers. I find it difficult to take anybody seriously who believes in such fashionable nonsense. Note to Dr. Kerry, models are opinion and speculation.

  38. Craig Loehle
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 7:20 PM | Permalink

    “the past 1000 years”–people love to compare annual recent temps with smoothed proxies, which will inevitably give more extremes for the recent. How you join them up is also uncertain.

    I would add that very little effort has been put into determining how much CO2 the oceans would really release when warmed up. A history of ocean temperatures is still not clearly established and the rates of turnover of water with depth is still poorly understood.

  39. Rich Horton
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 7:53 PM | Permalink

    Considering Emanuel’s own work on hurricanes seems to be designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate I have a hard time accepting advice from him. His PDI (power dissipation index) measure which he attempted to use to show a AGW signal in the hurricane record, was dependent largely upon inadequacies in the time series data for its supposed explanatory power. And, he had to know it.

    Actually, I’ve wondered in the past if there was something outright duplicitous about Emanuel’s 2005 Nature paper.

    In any event, I’ll wait for a more credible voice.

  40. Dun
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 8:31 PM | Permalink

    “The exact relationship between the elements of scientific models and whatever true reality lies out there is not of major concern. … It makes absolutely no difference whether or not an electron is ‘real’ when we apply the model of electrons flowing in an electronic circuit to design some high-tech device. Whatever the intrinsic reality, the model describes what we observe, and those observations are real enough.” (Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, Prometheus Books, 2007, p.229)

    That, I suppose, is what American “pragmatism” (not Peirce’s, by the way) has done to science: who cares about reality (truth) when all we need is a model that allows us to manufacture something that “works” (i.e., serves someone’s purposes). A high-tech device? No problem! A major public scare? No problem! Have model, will travel.

    And yes, Kerry Emanuel is right: “We do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty, which will never come [since we stopped looking for it], nor does it do anyone any good to assassinate science, the messenger [since he’s already been beaten to within an inch of his life].”

    But, after all is said and done: 1) ex falso (even if it is a model) sequitur quodlibet; 2) from truth only truth follows. That used to be the logic of science, when it was still the search for truth. It isn’t the logic of the model builders.

  41. Dane Skold
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 8:31 PM | Permalink

    ” And, in spite of all its complexity and uncertainties, we should not lose track of the simple fact that theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models – however imperfect each is in isolation – all point to ongoing, potentially dangerous human alteration of climate.”

    This sentence made me laugh out loud. It is the article of faith and abandonment of the scientific method.

    “…Actual observations of the planet…” There is no reliable observation of planetary temperature over any time span sufficient to determine a temperature trend to a degree of statistical certainty. PERIOD.

    Inferring global warming on the existing information is NOT SCIENCE regardless how much such as the good doctor wish it were so.

    In law…if you have the facts, pound the facts. If you have the law, pound the law. If you have neither, pound the table.

    There is much too much table pounding and too little raw data publication.

  42. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Feb 15, 2010 at 8:55 PM | Permalink

    It’s an editorial policy here that there’s no point trying to prove/disprove AGW in three paragraphs. Every such discussion is the same. Sorry about that.

    It’s not that the issues aren’t important – they are. But editorially I’d rather approach it through smaller issues such as cloud feedback or something like that.

    Also see Emanuel in MIT debate linked from here.

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    […] Kerry Emanuel Boston Globe Opinion: Climate Changes Are Proven Fact Dr. Kerry Emanuel from MIT wades into the climate change debate with an opinion piece in the Boston Globe.  Dr. […] […]

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