Climate change: The time for talk is over

The Internet is a huge thing. I try to stay abreast of world and current events, but without a positronic brain, I sometimes miss things.

Today came to my attention an article that was posted at reddit three years ago, and a stunning commentary by an ecological scientist. You know, the real thing – with degrees and experience and stuff, not just 45 minutes of reading something on Fox News.

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It needs to be shared.

The article at Business Insider carries the lede, “Two of the world’s most prestigious science academies say there’s clear evidence that humans are causing the climate to change.”

What’s more impressive was the comment left by user /u/tired_of_nonsense, which I replicate here with the writer’s express permission. If you care about this island Earth we live on, it’s worth the read, in full.

Throwaway for a real scientist here. I’d make my name, research area, and organization openly available, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t like getting death threats.

I’m a perpetual lurker, but I’m tired of looking through the nonsense that gets posted by a subset of the community on these types of posts. It’s extremely predictable.

  • Ten years ago, you were telling us that the climate wasn’t changing.
  • Five years ago, you were telling us that climate change wasn’t anthropogenic in origin.
  • Now, you’re telling us that anthropogenic climate change might be real, but it’s certainly not a bad thing.
  • I’m pretty sure that five years from now you’ll be admitting it’s a bad thing, but saying that you have no obligation to mitigate the effects.

You know why you’re changing your story so often? It’s because you guys are armchair quarterbacks scientists. You took some science classes in high school twenty years ago and you’re pretty sure it must be mostly the same now. I mean, chemical reactions follow static laws and stuff, or something, right? Okay, you’re rusty, but you read a few dozen blog posts each year. Maybe a book or two if you’re feeling motivated. Certainly, you listen to the radio and that’s plenty good enough.

I’m sorry, but it’s needs to be said: you’re full of it.

I’m at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, sponsored by ASLO, TOS, and AGU. I was just at a tutorial session on the IPCC AR5 report a few days ago. The most recent IPCC report was prepared by ~300 scientists with the help of ~50 editors. These people reviewed over 9000 climate change articles to prepare their report, and their report received over 50,000 comments to improve it’s quality and accuracy. I know you’ll jump all over me for guesstimating these numbers, but I’m not going to waste more of my time looking it up. You can find the exact numbers if you really want them, and I know you argue just to be contrary.

Let’s be honest here. These climate change scientists do climate science for a living. Surprise! Articles. Presentations. Workshops. Conferences. Staying late for science. Working on the weekends for science. All of those crappy holidays like Presidents’ Day? The ones you look forward to for that day off of work? Those aren’t holidays. Those are the days when the undergrads stay home and the scientists can work without distractions.

Now take a second before you drop your knowledge bomb on this page and remind me again… What’s your day job? When was the last time you read through an entire scholarly article on climate change? How many climate change journals can you name? How many conferences have you attended? Have you ever had coffee or a beer with a group of colleagues who study climate change? Are you sick of these inane questions yet?

I’m a scientist that studies how ecological systems respond to climate change. I would never presume to tell a climate scientist that their models are crap. I just don’t have the depth of knowledge to critically assess their work and point out their flaws. And that’s fair, because they don’t have the depth of knowledge in my area to point out my flaws. Yet, here we are, with deniers and apologists with orders of magnitude less scientific expertise, attempting to argue about climate change.

I mean, there’s so much nonsense here just from the ecology side of things:

User /u/nixonrichard [+1] writes:

Using the word “degradation” implies a value judgement on the condition of an environment. Is there any scientific proof that the existence of a mountaintop is superior to the absence of a mountain top? Your comment and sentiment smacks of naturalistic preference which is a value judgement on your part, and not any fundamental scientific principle.

You know, like /u/nixonrichard thinks that’s a profound thought or something. But it’s nonsense, because there are scientists who do exactly that. Search “mountain ecosystem services” on Google Scholar and that won’t even be the tip of the iceberg. Search “ecosystem services” if you want more of the iceberg. It’s like /u/nixonrichard doesn’t know that people study mountain ecosystems… or how to value ecosystems… or how to balance environmental and economic concerns… Yet, here /u/nixonrichard is, arguing about climate change.

Another example. Look at /u/el__duderino with this pearl of wisdom:

Climate change isn’t inherently degradation. It is change. Change hurts some species, helps others, and over time creates new species.

Again, someone who knows just enough about the climate debate to say something vaguely intelligent-sounding, but not enough to actually say something useful. One could search for review papers on the effects of climate change on ecological systems via Google Scholar, but it would be hard work actually reading one.

TL;DR’s:

  1. rapid environmental change hurts most species and that’s why biodiversity is crashing
  2. rapid environmental change helps some species, but I didn’t know you liked toxic algal blooms that much
  3. evolution can occur on rapid timescales, but it’ll take millions of years for meaningful speciation to replace what we’re losing in a matter of decades.

But you know, I really pity people like /u/nixonrichard and /u/el__duderino . It must be hard taking your car to 100 mechanics before you get to one that tells you your brakes are working just fine. It must be hard going to 100 doctors before you find the one that tells you your cholesterol level is healthy. No, I’m just kidding. People like /u/nixonrichard and /u/el__duderino treat scientific disciplines as one of the few occupations where an advanced degree, decades of training, mathematical and statistical expertise, and terabytes of data are equivalent with a passing familiarity with right-wing or industry talking points.

I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts.

First, I know that many in this community are going to think, “okay, you might be right, but why do you need to be such an ******** about it?” This isn’t about intellectual elitism. This isn’t about silencing dissent. This is about being fed up. The human race is on a long road trip and the deniers and apologists are the backseat drivers. They don’t like how the road trip is going but, rather than help navigating, they’re stuck kicking the driver’s seat and complaining about how long things are taking. I’d kick them out of the car, but we’re all locked in together. The best I can do is give them a whack on the side of the head.

Second, I hope that anyone with a sincere interest in learning about climate change continues to ask questions. Asking critical questions is an important part of the learning process and the scientific endeavor and should always be encouraged. Just remember that “do mountaintops provide essential ecosystem services?” is a question and “mountaintop ecosystem services are not a fundamental scientific principle” is a ridiculous and uninformed statement. Questions are good, especially when they’re critical. Statements of fact without citations or expertise is intellectual masturbation – just without the intellect.

Toodles. I’m going to bed now so that I can listen to, look at, and talk about science for another 12 hours tomorrow. Have fun at the office.

Edit: I checked back in to see whether the nonsense comments had been downvoted and was surprised to see my post up here. Feel free to use or adapt this if you want. Thanks for the editing suggestions as well. I just wanted to follow up to a few general comments and I’m sorry that I don’t have the time to discuss this in more detail.

“What can I do if I’m not a scientist?”

  • You can make changes in your lifestyle – no matter how small – if you want to feel morally absolved, as long as you recognize that large societal changes are necessary to combat the problem in meaningful ways.
  • You can work, volunteer, or donate to organizations that are fighting the good fight while you and I are busy at our day jobs.
  • You can remind your friends and family that they’re doctors, librarians, or bartenders in the friendliest of ways.
  • You can foster curiosity in your children, nieces, and nephews – encourage them to study STEM disciplines, even if it’s just for the sake of scientific literacy.

The one major addition I would add to the standard responses is that scientists need political and economic support. We have a general consensus on the trajectory of the planet, but we’re still working out the details in several areas. We’re trying to downscale models to regions. We’re trying to build management and mitigation plans. We’re trying to study how to balance environmental and economic services. Personally, part of what I do is look at how global, regional, and local coral reef patterns of biodiversity and environmental conditions may lead to coral reefs persisting in the future. Help us by voting for, donating to, and volunteering for politicians that can provide the cover to pursue this topic in greater detail. We don’t have all of the answers yet and we freely admit that, but we need your help to do so.

Importantly, don’t feel like you can’t be a part of the solution because you don’t understand the science. I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned about economics in undergrad, but that doesn’t stop me from 1) voting for politicians that support policies that appear to have statistical backing aligning with my personal values, 2) making microloans that help sustainable development in developing countries, or 3) voting with my wallet by being careful about the food, clothing, and household goods I purchase. I don’t begrudge the fact that I’m not doing significant economics research, or working at the World Bank, or for the US Federal Reserve. We’ve all chosen our career paths and have the opportunity to contribute to society professionally and personally in unique ways. With respect to climate change – I only work on the ecological aspect of climate change, which means I rely on atmospheric and ocean scientists for models and engineers and social scientists for solutions. We need everyone!

Just try your best to ensure that your corner of the world is in better shape for the next generation when you’re done borrowing it.

t-minus 30 minutes to science

Accepting the reality of human-caused climate change and taking what steps we can to mitigate or at the very least slow it down is an important part of building a world that works for everyone… and every thing.
I’ve posted this before, but it merits inclusion here again, with thanks to Humon.
Gaia
If we don’t do what we need to do now, we’ll be gone – and the Earth won’t miss us.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
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You don’t need people’s opinions on fact.

On May 6th, the government released the National Climate Assessment, 1250 pages long and authored by over 250 people.

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What kinds of people? Government-paid alarmists and corrupt scientists, right? A secret cabal of people who are raising a false alarm to discredit… well, you’ve heard all the counter-arguments, not one of which is worth the powder to blow it to Hell with.

Let’s look at some of what went in to this report: [1]

  • Users and stakeholders were engaged from the very beginning. Everybody could contribute: NGOs, farmer, industry, Native American nations. Many thousands of people consider this as their personal report and have embraced it.
  • The team included former Bush White House officials with climate science expertise who also functioned as lead authors.
  • There were reps from the petroleum and mining industries, economists, agronomists, fisheries experts, and city planners. There were experts that dealt first-hand with the aftermaths of Katrina and Sandy and the droughts and fires and power shortages and the spread of disease in the West.
  • Notice of every meeting was pre-published in the Federal Register, and anyone, any citizen or group at all, was welcomed to come and comment.
  • There was a several-month open review, during which anyone was welcomed to raise concerns or criticisms, and comments were abundant.
  • The report was reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, which is firmly non-partisan.
  • Comments from all of these sources were incorporated to make the report better.
  • There was a public, traceable account for every key finding, so that anyone can look back and see how the finding was arrived at, what the studies were that it was based on, and, it is even possible to follow the account back to the original data for those studies.
  • The conclusions in the report represent a consensus of all of the authors and advisors.  The final vote to approve was unanimous.
  • The report is a product of not just NASA, but a consortium of 13 federal agencies called the US Global Change Research Program. NASA contributed substantially, but so did others, including NOAA/Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Health and Human Services, the Smithsonian, USAID, the Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State. It was a combined effort of many, many people from both private and public sectors.

With all of these sources, with all of this transparency, with the wide diversity of contributors and opportunities for public input – not a restricted subset, but anyone could give input, I trust the results of this report implicitly. The results are incontrovertible. This is not just Al Gore grandstanding for political gain (although I think “An Inconvenient Truth” was right on the money, regardless of its underlying motivation) – this is science. And it works.

The Gallup Poll revealed that 1 in 4 Americans doubt the veracity of climate change. However, what the public thinks of established fact is irrelevant. Some people have such an overwhelming need to be right that they ignore indisputable facts. [2] But in the end, this opposition, despite how well-funded it is and for whatever reason, will fade. There may still be over 400 people in the world who believe the earth is flat, but what they believe changes nothing.
If you have any questions, visit the website. Explore it. Understand it. And do what you can to hold back the tide, even if the trend may be irreversible.
The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] Source: A well-placed official who contributed heavily to the work involved, whom I trust implicitly.

[2] A story from a redditor, /u/RamsesThePigeon:

The year I was in third grade was one of the best and worst of my entire educational experience, and both of those extremes were because of the teacher I had. She was beloved by most of her students – the female ones especially – but had a habit of being passive-aggressive and saccharine towards more difficult pupils. She’d find (or invent) reasons to ignore difficult questions, offer vague threats about impending punishments, or make small efforts to turn classmates against one another. She was not an especially likeable educator, and she became a truly reprehensible one when she insisted that Jupiter was bigger than the sun.

At first, it seemed like a misunderstanding. Our class had just entered into an astronomy unit, and one of our activities was to construct a scale model of the solar system. The reference image we used came from a picture book, and in it, the sun had been reduced in size. The teacher had not noticed this fact, and was therefore operating under the mistaken assumption that Jupiter was our largest celestial neighbor.

Well, I knew better, and I tried to correct her. She replied to me with a tone of aloof dismissal, stating quite clearly that I was wrong. “That’s okay, though,” she said. “After all, you’re in school to learn new things.” Then she smiled sweetly, and I returned to my seat feeling thoroughly confused and frustrated. In the weeks that followed, I engaged in an all-out war against my teacher’s pseudo-science. My father, having heard everything from me, sent me to school with one of his college textbooks, hoping to turn the tide of the battle. My teacher refused to even look at it. “Class,” she said, rolling her eyes, “who can tell Max what the biggest object in the solar system is?”

My face was burning with anger and shame as every other student shouted “JUPITER!”

Things only escalated from there. I refused to back down, despite having been labeled as the class dunce. Each time the topic came up, I tried to offer my evidence… and each time, I was steadfastly opposed by everyone within earshot. Finally, after over a month of torment, our astronomy unit culminated in a field trip to the local planetarium. The show was a breathtaking adventure through our galaxy and the universe beyond, and it left me feeling infinitesimally small… yet strangely empowered. As the lights came up, our guide to the cosmos asked if there were any questions.

“Which is bigger,” I shouted, jumping to my feet, “Jupiter or the sun?!” My entire class sighed in frustration, my teacher barked at me to sit down, and the astronomer looked thoroughly confused.

“The sun, of course,” he scoffed.

A hush fell over the room. After a moment of utter silence, a girl named Melissa spoke up in a condescending tone. “Well, sir, we have a chart that says Jupiter is bigger.” The astronomer looked at her. He looked at my teacher. Then he looked at me with an expression of sympathy.

“Little girl,” he said, returning his attention to Melissa, “if you look at the picture again, you’ll see that the sun is being shown at a fraction of its actual size. Otherwise, it wouldn’t fit on the page.” His gaze moved to his next victim, who had slumped down in her chair so as to be almost as small as her students. “Your teacher should have told you that.”

Upon returning to our classroom, all the students crowded around our reference book. Sure enough, a tiny block of text explained that the sun had been scaled down in the illustration. I declared my triumph, having finally been vindicated. Nobody apologized, my teacher found new reasons to punish me, and I was treated with no small amount of scorn, but I didn’t care. From that day forward, I knew to never be afraid of asking questions, nor of standing up for facts in favor of fiction.

From that day forward – at least until it was taken away – I proudly wore my homemade dunce cap with a smug grin.

This was a teacher. Someone who should have known this bit of close-to-home science knowledge as surely as she knew 2 gozinta 4 two times. But somehow she was ignorant of this fact and clung to it tenaciously, at the expense of humiliating a dissenting student and indoctrinating an entire class with a blatant falsehood.

 

 

 

Pollen: Good for more than hay fever

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Just look at that stuff. Magnified 500 times (the image is colorized), it’s easy to see why some people’s noses and eyes respond unhappily to the invasion of this vegetative sperm. On the other hand, without it plants would reproduce and the world would be left dead and sterile.

It turns out pollen is great for science, as well. Pollen lasts for a long, long time – millions of years when fossilized.  A 3,200-year drought and cold wave destroyed a late Bronze Age thriving society near present-day Tel Aviv and far beyond, and until now scientists had no clue as to why – but pollen appears to have solved the mystery.

According to The Jewish Press,

A study of fossil pollen particles in sediments extracted from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee has revealed evidence of a climate crisis that traumatized the Near East from the middle of the 13th to the late 12th century BCE. The crisis brought about the collapse of the great empires of the Bronze Age.

Even older, analysis of pollen hundreds of millions of years old showed that flowers may have existed as early as the first dinosaurs, according to an article in LiveScience.

Newfound fossils hint that flowering plants arose 100 million years earlier than scientists previously thought, suggesting flowers may have existed when the first known dinosaurs roamed Earth.

Under high magnification, these little grains are beautiful, and it seems very useful to scientific research. But that is cold comfort to those who suffer from hay fever, a malady from which I have been blessedly exempt – but having watched my kids suffer, I have endless sympathy for those who do.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

It’s hot, and getting hotter.

I’ve never taken a locked-in-concrete stance on the issue of climate change because, simply, I don’t understand all the variables. That said, my gut tells me that the amounts of greenhouse gases we have produced since the beginning of the industrial revolution have got to be taking a toll on our global ecology.

Then along comes an article in The Register, claiming that based on a recent study, temperatures are going down rather than up. So I put the question out into the ether, where I happen to have friends and associates who are far wiser about such matters than I, including career professionals in the field. The responses I got back were enlightening, and I summarize them here.

The chart below comes from the Register’s article.

  1.  The first thing to notice is that the cooling trend line in the above chart is deceptive, and that statistics can be made to say anything you want them to. If you were to begin it at the “Little Ice Age,” it would be trending decidedly upward, with a sharp spike noticeable around the beginning of the 20th century.
  2. The data recorded in Esper’s study (again, see the article linked to above) are of interest, and will doubtless be put through the scientific wringer to see how they add to our overall knowledge of the climate and its behavior. Using a single data set, to draw definitive conclusions about long-term trends is not sound science, however, and Esper’s team does not do so. In this case, either the author of this article misunderstood the paper, or – given the Register’s reputation as a bully pulpit for climate-change skeptics – used the data to support its own pre-conceived conclusions.
  3. Esper’s data focuses exclusively on northern Scandinavia, rather than multiple lines of numbers taken globally. An accurate picture of what is happening planetwide would have to be extrapolated from sources such as ice cores, sediments, tree rings and other empirical data gathered at different time points in varying locations throughout both hemispheres. One such chart attempts to pull together a number of different analyses into a single graphic:

Source and key here.

4.   Well-understood orbital mechanics have satisfactorily explained previous warming periods throughout history.
5.   The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which took place about 55 million years ago, saw the temperature of the world rise 6 °C over a period of 20,000 years, resulting in numerous extinctions but also the rise of other modern mammalian orders. While the cause is not yet clear, it appears that a massive outgassing of carbon from the oceans followed by uncontrolled warming created a planet-wide hothouse that took 150,000 years to cool off. Compare this with the Medieval Warm period, a blip on the grid by comparison, which affected only Europe and the North Atlantic; during the same time other parts of the globe were suffering wet spells or severe drought.

My own experience is that it’s hot, and getting hotter. The past six months have broken numerous local, nationwide and historical heat records since recordkeeping began. If the current trend continues, my grandchildren may experience a world that could be 4.3 °F to 11.5 °F hotter than it is today, and such a heat differential will lead to an increase of the kinds of drought and severe storms we have been seeing in the past year. I have lived in the same area in the west for over 40 years. Over time, our temperatures have risen and our precipitation, particularly in the winter, has decreased. This does not bode well for the future, where our desert state depends on scarce water resources for survival; it’s not the kind of world I want to bequeath to my posterity.

The Battle over Climate Change

A recent article in PopSci lays the battle lines out fairly clearly, and it’s not pretty. When solving a crime, detectives still look at the old standbys of motive, method and opportunity. In the battle over climate change, it helps to ask the single question “Who benefits?” In other words, follow the money. While one could make a case for scientists stirring up public outrage with an eye toward prestige and grant money, or politicians using global warming as a vote-getting strategy, it seems far less an incentive than the prospect of billions in profit lost by industries and corporations which will be impacted by increased restrictions on the amount of carbon they are allowed to pump into our atmosphere.

There are places in the world where people are killed for the price of a meal; small wonder that the amounts of money and power that are at stake result in a firestorm of scientific legerdemain, character assassination and even intimidation and death threats directed at honest scientists who are pursuing nothing but scientific conclusions based on empirical data.

When I distil the admixture of data down to its undiluted essence, I can’t escape the conclusion that we are fouling our nest with exponentially-increasing speed, and those who say it ain’t so have a vested interest in keeping climate change off the table. The good news is that despite adversity (eppure si muove!) scientists have a tendency to keep doing science, and the more time goes on, the clearer the picture will become. In the end (if the science is sound) the only skeptics will be meeting in the room across the hall from the flat earth society.

The Old Wolf has Spoken.