Posted by: bmeverett | December 24, 2012

OK, so where are we on Climate Change?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992 and provided for annual meetings called Conferences of Parties or COPs. The first (COP-1) was held in Berlin in 1995. Believe it or not, we just finished COP-18 in Doha, Qatar. For 18 years, the UN has held an annual climate change meeting to call in vain for serious action on climate change. Eighteen up, eighteen down. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, is about to expire with no meaningful results. The Climate Community ought to do some soul-searching about why this is true.

Twenty-five years ago, the fledgling Climate Community became convinced of the apocalyptic nature of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, they have tried to convince the public that their viewpoint is not only correct but obvious. Arctic ice is melting and glaciers are retreating – prima facie evidence of climate change. Supporters of their view, including President Obama, often say, “I believe that climate change is real.” The argument, however, is not that simple. The climate changes continuously – and always has. The issue is not whether the atmosphere is warming, but whether the warming is accelerating due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Physics can’t answer this question directly. We know that increased carbon dioxide concentrations can trap heat and cause global warming. The direct impact of projected levels of atmospheric carbon, however, would cause only slight future warming – more or less the rate we have seen over the past 100 years. The Climate Community is arguing that the warming will accelerate not because of the direct effects of carbon, but because of the indirect feedback effects, particularly of cloud formation, creating a positive feedback loop that accentuates the warming.

This is a much harder case to make. Atmospheric warming is likely to increase cloud formation. Clouds do trap heat, amplifying the warming effect of atmospheric carbon. Clouds also reflect sunlight from their tops, thereby reducing atmospheric warming. Which effect is more powerful? The answer is we just don’t know. The Climate Community is making an assumption here, and it can only be tested by actual experience. In other words, the Climate Community has made a prediction, and we need to see if it comes true. So what’s the evidence to date?

NASA maintains an official data set of global temperatures from 1880 to the present, compared to the average temperature over the period 1951-1980, which you can find at There are, of course, lots of methodological issues around this data series, but let’s take it at face value. You can see a clear warming trend over this period of somewhat less than one degree. This warming is the first step in the climate change argument. By the 1990s, we were experiencing some real heat with 1994, 1995 and 1998 the warmest years on record. Then a funny thing happened. Although the global temperature stayed relatively high, it stopped increasing. Only two of the last 13 years (2005 and 2010) have been warmer than the 1998 record. Two years (1999 and 2000) were unusually cool. The trend line over the last ten years has been absolutely flat. So what are we seeing here? A validation of the climate hypothesis? Natural climate variation? Accelerated warming? Warming at the same rate as in the past? No warming?

In reality, we are still not seeing evidence of the positive feedback loops that are central to the Climate Hypothesis. Here’s where the Climate Community needs to be very careful. Instead of acknowledging the ambiguities in the evidence, the Climate Community insists that the evidence is there for everyone to see. Bid drought in the West? Obvious evidence of accelerated warming. Hurricane Sandy? Obvious evidence of accelerated warming. These arguments work only on people who either believe the Climate Hypothesis as a matter of faith or are not paying very much attention. These arguments simply don’t hold up to even a cursory review of the evidence. Over time, making bad arguments can only undermine the credibility of the people who make them.

The Climate Community likes to blame oil companies, “climate deniers” and timid politicians for the failure of the climate change agenda. The first of these complaints is getting quite stale since it’s been several years since any of the major oil companies has said a word in opposition to climate legislation. Even ExxonMobil, the greatest “climate criminal” of them all according to Greenpeace, has learned that it has no standing with the public to opine on this issue. ExxonMobil now confined itself to simple statements about its past successes and future intent to reduce its own carbon emissions.

The reality is that The Climate Community has failed to make its case to the American people. This failure is particularly embarrassing in light of the incredible support the Climate Community has received from academia, the Democratic Party, Hollywood, the broadcast networks, the New York Times, Washington Post and Economist, the UN and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Polls show that most people believe that carbon emissions create some sort of problem. The Climate Community’s strident insistence on the apocalypse, however, has gotten no more traction with the public than the doomsday predictions of the Mayan calendar.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will issue its Fifth Assessment Report in 2014. It will be interesting to see how the IPCC deals with the increasing ambiguity of the evidence. Will they (as they should) accurately characterize the ambiguities or will they continue to overstate the case for carbon reductions? In other words, will we see “evidence-based policy analysis” or “policy-based evidence analysis”? The Climate Community would do well to tone down its rhetoric, stop demonizing those who disagree and stop demanding an end to debate. They should instead make their case carefully and thoughtfully acknowledging the uncertainties. “Run for your lives!” is never a good policy recommendation in the US. If they can’t make this “pivot”, their standing with the public will erode.

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