"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Climate Disruption

Simon Donner takes on the great "climate change" vs. "global warming" debate. He argues, albeit somewhat tentatively, for capitulation; we should call a thing what everybody else calls the thing:
Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage. Do a Google search for "global warming" and "climate change". With "global warming", the term the public is more likely to use, a "skeptical" site comes up second [note: search is done from Canada, others may find different results].
Let me take the opportunity to remind everybody that I'm on record taking the opposite position in my RealClimate article "Imprecision of the Phrase 'Global Warming'"

The problem in capitulating to the common usage is that the common usage is woefully imprecise. As I said in that article:
If someone asks me in my capacity as a climate scientist whether I “believe in “global warming”, they are not asking the question in a literal sense. They are asking “what am I to make of this confusing topic called “global warming”?

In the end they are usually asking some combination of questions like 1) whether greenhouse gases are accumulating? 2) whether the greenhouse effect is established science? 3) whether global warming has been observed? 4) whether future climate change is expected to be big enough to worry about? 5) whether cooling at a single location falsifies the “theory”? 6) whether to expect super-hurricanes? 7) whether the Gulf Stream will shut down instantly glaciating Scandinavia and Britain? 8 ) how you can model climate when you can’t predict weather? etc. Often they will bounce incoherently from one to another of these sorts of exasperatingly-missing-the-point sorts of question.

Once in a while someone will have more sophisticated questions like 1) what’s the magnitude of the anthropogenic forcing compared to natural forcings? 2) what’s the lag time in the system response? 3) what is the magnitude of the most disruptive plausible scenarios? 4) what’s the likelihood of the discontinuous shifts in system regime? etc., When I hear people asking the right questions it makes my day, but it’s pretty rare.

What people outside the field universally don’t mean by “global warming” though, is “a tendency for the global mean surface temperature to increase”!
The first trouble in talking about "global warming" is that when you do, you are already in an area where communication is problematic. And shifting goalposts is a key tactic of obfuscators everywhere. "Nothing could be better than early retirement on Maui, and a peanut butter sandwich is better than nothing, so a peanut butter sandwich is better than early retirement on Maui." That sort of thing is their stock in trade. By starting the conversation with an ambiguity, you leave yourself open to all manner of trickery.

Since I wrote that piece, a whole new set of problems has arisen with "global warming", in that the global mean surface temperature has become an unhealthy obsession of the crowd that calls themselves "lukewarmists", i.e., the McIntyreans. Pretty much the only thing they care about is the observational and proxy record of global mean surface temperature. If "global warming" is the theory, and the observational record (mostly unforced) is ambiguous, well then, we can all go home and do business as usual, can't we?

The bizarre fascination with Mann and Jones, the obsession with every little bounce up and down of the satellite record, all of this turns climate policy into a sport, where the amateur critics of science "root for" downturns in the curve and we find ourselves idiotically hoping for equally meaningless upticks. The actual implications of accumulating greenhouse gases are utterly lost in the shuffle.

The issue, of course, is completely miscast. The global mean surface temperature (or if you insist on hair-splitting, the fourth root of the mean of the fourth power of temperature, which is the arguable alternative and which behaves very similarly) is an interesting and useful diagnostic, especially in the study of paleoclimate. But it isn't what we are worried about.

The global mean temperature does not cause impacts.

Local shifts in climate cause impacts. Changes in the radiative balance cause changes in circulation which cause changes in local climate. Human activity causes changes in radiative balance. Carbon dioxide is the biggest and most difficult but by no means the only component of human forcing of radiative balance. The local changes we are seeing are roughly as expected, and are already meaningful and are accelerating. Errors in our understanding are unlikely to be benign. Those are the salient facts.

Obsession with global mean temperature is a debating trick of the opposition. The fact that people are searching on "global warming" means we have to use it as a tag. But we shouldn't use it to mean what the people searching on the term mean by it, because the very use of the term is generally a sign of confusion.

"Global warming" means an increase in the mean surface temperature of a globe. That's all. It applies to any physical spherical object, typically a planet or a large moon. It applies on many time scales. It isn't itself a problem, and doesn't itself require a response. On the time scale of human forcing, it is an expected symptom of anthropogenic climate change.

Some go with "climate chaos" which has two problems: 1) it prejudges the scope of the problem and 2) it raises nomenclature confusion with a relevant mathematical concept. I think "climate disruption" is a good name for the problem.

Image: Dan Farber, a law professor, who I hope has mercy. It's a great picture.


Padraig Tomas said...

"Once in a while someone will have more sophisticated questions like 1) what’s the magnitude of the anthropogenic forcing compared to natural forcings? 2) what’s the lag time in the system response? 3) what is the magnitude of the most disruptive plausible scenarios? 4) what’s the likelihood of the discontinuous shifts in system regime?"

The above questions are well worth talking about. In depth. And repeatedly.

I have heard Richard Lindzen, to give a prominent example, compare the warming for the past 50 years with the amount of temperature change seen in any give day at any given location, and conclude that there was nothing to cause concern in the changes that have been seen in global average surface temperature. A discusion of expected change in the context of what is known about previous natural changes in climate, both in terms of comparisons of magnitude and of impacts would be a great help.

As anyone who is familiar with my attitude towards these laybels (global warming or climate change)knows I am not very picky, although I can be when one gets down to brass tacks. It is worth noting the spin that is put on the choice to use various laybels by those who stoop to disreputable tactics. I am thinking of folk within the American Republican party who call the work of climatologists a hoax, and have no qualms about slandering their opponents.

The polarized nature of politics will not be healed by the use or disuse of the phrase "global warming." This is not to say that the use of other terms can't be a problem, particularly the question of what laybels to use with respect to those one disagrees with. For example, those who repeatedly missquote their opponents in a willful and malicious manner should be called liars. In all of this there is difficulty, and it is un-avoidable.

To cite another example, I have heard, many times, people objecting to the use of the phrase greenhouse gas because the gases in question do not behave exactly as a green house does. I have seen this in the context of arguements that were based on the notion that climatolgists, or atmospheric physists, or (most often) lay people concerned about the issue had not a clue about the physics (i.e. let me tell you how it really works, and therefore "very very not the IPCC").


Padraig Tomas said...

Climate disruption is a good laybel. It is a very good laybel. The question that influences me is, "who does the obfuscation?" The question that follows is, "how can the deceptions be answered?"

I don't have any thing like a sure fire answer.

Conservative talk radio is the home of the Big Lie, and people listen.

Frank O'Dwyer said...

As a layman albeit one who reads a lot about climate, I would say it is a huge tactical error to abandon the term 'global warming'. As it is, the denialists pretend that 'climate change' has been substituted for 'global warming', as some kind of weaselly change of stance on the part of climate scientists ('oh we just meant things would change, see, it could get warmer OR colder').

They also pretend that this is some kind of recent change, in line with some purported recent 'cooling' etc - and they get away with this in spite of what CC in IPCC stands for and the fact it was founded in the 80s. How much worse will it be and how much more will they get away with it if you actually do change terms now?

'Climate change' and even 'climate disruption' also smuggles in a strong sense of 'our theory is unfalsifiable', as denialists can easily (and already do) argue that no matter what change happens it is consistent with 'change' and 'disruption'. While I know this argument is garbage I think that (just like 'look, snow!') you underestimate its superficial appeal at your peril. Even laymen on your side of the aisle have to work hard to understand why these arguments are wrong - we all have these cognitive biases and these guys know very well what they are doing.

I would suggest that if you must use another term it should be as well as, not instead of, 'global warming'. i.e. global warming leading to climate change, climate disruption, or whatever. You must always mention both. Anything else looks like backing off original claims. I also think 'global heating' is a better term than 'global warming' but it is probably too late to start using that.

Steve L said...

I very much appreciate your arguments here, and I think you are right. Getting noticed on google is important, but not important enough to warrant changing the meaning of what 'we' say. I just typed "global warming versus climate change" into google and got a decent list of sites. This NASA page was fourth:
I think that having references to such webpages about differences in meaning, etc, is useful for public education. At least I think it's much better than trying to hide those differences by re-defining a phrase to be more inclusive of imprecise usage. (It would be helpful if your argument popped up on google as well. A good set of "global warming versus climate change" essays could really be valuable.)

Regarding your comments on hoping for upticks in temperature, I'm wondering if there are any data for this. I mean, I know it happens because I worry to myself that Arctic sea ice has increased a little, and this will be used to attack 'my' credibility (I'm no climate expert). But how much 'hoping' actually occurs, and what is its nature? I'm interested in the psychology of it (and I know you have an inside scoop on psychological matters).

Is it petty, like simply wanting opponents to be embarrassed? Is it strategic, like hoping for upticks during important international negotiations? Is it pride, like hoping things follow predictions (rather than exceeding them) to show that 'we' know what 'we're' doing? I can imagine all of these contributing to this awful sport. I think it would be more interesting to know how much these or other things are going on in the heads of experts. This sport is a waste of even my time, so I'd like to learn if it's a problem more generally and how to combat it.

Michael Tobis said...

Frank, your use of the word "tactical" disturbs me somewhat. I'll have to think about it, but basically the whole problem seems to be that we have allowed things to be cast as a contest or a battle in the first place.

There is much politics to be done once people understand the merits of the situation. I argue that the term "global warming" does not contribute to understanding. You take the position that it weakens a political position, but I am arguing that the politics cannot properly proceed until enough people actually understand the merits of the case.

We are actually arguing different cases, and this is important.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Seems that "CO2-caused environmental disruption" might be even more accurate, given that problems like increased ocean acidity are not strictly climate ones.

The latter is something that has been largely (if not entirely) ignored by the media.

But hey, who cares about a 0.1 decrease in the pH of the oceans? (other than ocean scientists, of course

If "journalists" can't get the simple science right, how can we ever expect them to understand logarithms?

That's math.

Oh my God, run for the hills.