Questions I have about the “settled science” around Climate

In response to a recent post shared on the Kastens Farms Facebook page, I wanted to share my thoughts on the topic of current climate theory. Let me lay a few things down just so folks don’t have to work with too many assumptions as to my underlying motivations. Firstly, I have Graduate degree in Geography, and while at KU, was trained and worked on various funded Earth Science research projects for many years, additionally I have participated in the peer review process as both contributor and reviewer. It is my love of Human Geography that drives much of my concern on the particular topic of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). History shows us quite clearly that periods of global warming have been good to us as a species while periods of global cooling have been bad. Right now we are putting all of our eggs in one basket (to the tune of one billion dollars per day globally) based on our assumption that we are smart enough to fully model the Earth’s climate, and can reliably forecast decades into the future.

I have no political allegiance when it comes to most things, but especially when it comes to science. We live in a world today where folks are so “tribal” for lack of a better word, that once in one of the tribes, you are expected to buy everything that tribe is selling. Skepticism against the party line of a tribe gets you expelled or worse. Maybe it’s because I grew up with cynical Baby Boomer parents, or came of age as a cynical & skeptical Generation X slacker, but I’m not a club (tribe) person by nature and just can’t buy into (or even understand) the idea of party line thinking. Everything from social programs to energy regulations should be evaluated in the terms of science and economics, and not tribal association. Now don’t read “economics” as being devoid of the “human” component. For example, a conservative might despise the idea of a minimum wage as simply a market distorting mechanism, while a liberal promotes a minimum wage largely from a sympathetic position. An Economist will look at the bigger picture in determining what the “perfect” minimum wage should be to maximize benefit to all involved actors.

I have no desire to be an activist or climate blogger or anything like that. For me personally as a farmer, global warming or global cooling present opportunities from a business standpoint so I have no personal economic incentive for either to be “proven” one-way or the other. Ok, enough said, this isn’t going to turn into a multi-page thesis but rather just provide folks with what I see as “red flags” and why I believe we are putting too much confidence in the currently accepted theory. Keep in mind that I’m not claiming global warming does not exist (it most assuredly has/does both in larger cycles (recovery from last glacial period) and in smaller cycles (since the little Ice Age (LIA)). I have been trying to stay informed on this topic for the past 5 or so years but it’s exceptionally frustrating to shake “facts” out of anything (maybe why so many folks have simply latched on to the party line belief). The “red flags” below don’t come from any group, scientist, blogger, media person or other. Rather, frustration in fact finding led me down the road of looking at the data itself and forming my own questions. I may not have the skills or training to build a model that grows clouds to measure the change in short-wave radiation reflection, but I do feel quite comfortable in looking at existing empirical data sets (such as the currently accepted global temp databases) as well as commenting on the performance and application of models.

 

My main goal here is not to prove/disprove any theory but rather to lay out the “red flags” cause me to NOT believe the “science is settled” when it comes to AGW.

  1. My first red flag is just simple common sense, based on my work and understanding of Earth systems. The Earth’s climate is chaotic, evolving, adaptable and infinitely complicated. It is not a mechanistic machine (as is assumed by models) but rather should be thought of as a “living breathing organism”. A model is only as good as the underlying assumptions and I find it quite arrogant when folks claim the “science is settled”, implying that we not only know every single interaction out there, but also that we can model them accurately. Working with plant growth simulation models in the 1990′s I gained a firsthand look into what it took just to grow a plant in a simulation model (and growing a plant is like playing with tinker toys compared to modeling the climate). Plant growth simulation models were never designed to predict future yields but rather to evaluate how changes to the system impact near-term plant parameters. Empirical models for predicting future yields always smoked simulation models because they are not encumbered by the myriad of errors that naturally arise and accumulate in a simulation framework due to lack of understanding all relationships, or due to the inability to accurately describe known relationships statistically. Likewise Global Climate Models (GCM’s) were never designed to predict future climate conditions but rather to facilitate understanding how the climate works and looking at near-term relationships between variables in support of meteorological needs. However today, they are used to predict up to 100 years in the future and promoted as undeniably accurate. That’s just crazy, and also why their predictive failure was to be expected (see more in point 3).

     

  2. When one looks at warming trends, we are only interested in the rate of warming (not the absolute temperature at any given time since we’ve been constantly warming since the LIA in the near-term, and since the last glacial in the long-term) as that is the measure that “implies” a deviation from normal conditions. The historic assumed rate of natural warming is approximated to be around 0.4C/Century. From roughly 1980-1998, the rate of warming was in excess of what is assumed to be from natural causes. This roughly 20 year time period served as the basis to rightly ignite the discussion on climate change because it was out of the “norm”. Today, we are sitting at between 14-17 years (depending on dataset used) now with a “rate of warming” lower than that assumed from natural variability. So we are still “warming” per se, but not only is this current rate not in excess of what science considers due to natural causes, but actually at rates below what is assumed from natural causes. Neither of the “tribes” understands this (or if they do, choose to ignore it or cherry pick components that serve their needs at the time). For example, I see many reports from the left today that the “pause in warming” is not really a “pause” as our absolute temperatures are still building and are higher today than they were historically. So although it’s true we are warmer today than 50 years ago, we would have expected that no matter what, since our average warming due to natural causes is assumed to be 0.4C/century since the LIA. Conversely, from the right I see articles calling this pause “global cooling” and although the slope is currently cooler than the historic trend, it’s most certainly not real “global cooling” until we see a sign change in that slope. Both tribes are simply taking liberties with the data to shape the conversation with their base and reinforce their respective party/tribal lines. In politics, abrupt adjustments in position (regardless of the strength of the data) cannot exist as such change would assuredly be picked up by the opposite tribe as “weakness”. This tribal behavior can be seen in all aspects of politics and thus is not unique to positions on climate science.

     

    In the big picture what all this means is that we had roughly 20 years where the rate of warming was above what was to be expected from natural causes, and now we’ve had roughly 15 years where the rate of warming has been below that associated with natural causes. The net effect is still a warmer planet today than yesterday, but the take home message is that we’ve now had almost as many years with the rate below the trend as we had with the rate above the trend. That alone should create a healthy skepticism towards our understanding of climate science and consequently our ability to forecast accurately into the future with the current GCM’s.

     

  3. As would be expected when using simulation models for prediction, The GCM models haven’t just performed poorly, they’ve performed dismally over time as almost all forecasts from the current family of models are beyond a standard deviation away from reality. As someone that relies on models for both prediction and quantification, I find it quite interesting that the dismal performance of the models has not caused the climate science community to “step back” for a re-look at things as that is what would happen in any other field of science. There aren’t any bridges built on an engineering model whose forecasts fall a standard deviation away from reality, yet we are shaping global energy policy with exactly such models. Instead, we have a doubling-down on the models abilities to accurately predict the future by the politicians. That I feel is driven by the climate science “industry” that has developed over the past 20 years. Problems always arise when science mixes with politics as it leads to an industry being created. Most science should be cold, calculating and skeptically driven when it comes to any topic of study. Poor performing models are either scrapped or put back on the rack for a complete rebuild after such a poor performance history normally. But when there are billions of research dollars at stake (as well as folks reputations and ego), it doesn’t work this way once a “science” has become an “industry”. The goal of an “industry” is to remain status quo or grow, whereas the goal of science is to “get it right”. Those are mutually exclusive goals, yet that’s the world we find ourselves in today.

So to sum up, from the standpoint of a human geographer, it concerns me when we put all of our efforts solely in one direction, especially when that direction is “shown” primarily through models, while the current empirical data actually might be pointing in a different direction. We are spending a trillion dollars every three years on a “problem” that was really expressed only in a short 20 year time window. We really don’t have that good of an understanding of the climate in detail, thus we can’t even predict accurately in the near-term. Additionally, we now have 15 years of “reality” that suggests that we might not even have a problem at all. Going further, there is starting to be a body of research out there suggesting we might actually be moving towards a period of global cooling (where the slope actually change sign) based primarily on changes to the solar cycle. Let’s hope this latter condition does not “prove” accurate because we’ve just spent 20 years of labor and cash preparing for the exact opposite world.

 

Dietrich Kastens     First Draft 1/18/14