Moments of Revelation

Dr Iain Stewart holding a rock

Dr Iain Stewart holding a rock

Over the past few days I’ve worked my way through the three-part BBC series, Climate Wars, hosted by Dr Iain Stewart, a geology professor with a very cool Scottish accent. An excerpt from this series was featured in one of Peter Sinclair’s videos, which looked quite fascinating, and anything Peter refers to as “brilliant” is probably worth watching.

Worth watching indeed. I’d recommend anyone and everyone to watch this series. It’s basic enough for someone with little to no knowledge of this issue, yet presented in such a compelling way that the most experienced climate scientist wouldn’t get bored.

One of the film’s major strong points was simply the way it was organized. Dr Stewart traced the history of both the science and the politics around climate change, splitting it into three parts:

Part one: Scientists had known for decades that anthropogenic greenhouse gases could cause warming of the Earth, but now, following thirty years of aerosol-induced cooling, global warming was starting to show; almost every year was record-breaking. James Hansen was the first to “stick his neck out” – testifying to Congress that he believed anthropogenic climate change was underway. He later claimed that he had weighed the risks of being wrong and looking stupid, versus doing nothing and not telling the world about such a huge potential threat. Sort of like an early Greg Craven, I suppose. I found this part to be the least interesting of the three. It also began strangely – Stewart mentioned a letter to the US president, signed by top scientists, which warned of an impending ice age. I’d never heard about this before. Does anyone else know more about this letter?

Part two: The skeptics fought back as strongly as they could, questioning absolutely every scientific claim regarding global warming. I found this to be absolutely fascinating; it solidifed a lot of issues in my mind and helped to unify my knowledge on the topic. Stewart went through the research which showed that the Earth was warming as a result of human activities – and showed how all the yelling from skeptics helped to make the theory even stronger. He also “infiltrated the walls” of the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change, which I found to be absolutely hilarious. They had a comedian making bad jokes about how New York could handle some global warming, Monckton and Singer making their usual accusations of fraud (Stewart remarked that “when these become the talking points, then I know that the scientific debate is really over”), and Patrick Michaels publicly admitting “Yes, the second half of the century did show some warming, and it was the result of human activities…..and now you all hate me for saying that…….” Dr Iain Stewart explained that, even though the controversy doesn’t really exist anymore in the scientific literature, the claims of skeptics still live on in the popular media and on the Internet. Instead of fighting a scientific battle, they’re now doing public relations.

Part three: Scientists knew that humans were causing global warming, but how bad would it be? After the brilliance of the second part, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the last segment quite as much…….but I was proven very, very wrong. It both terrified and fascinated me. Terrified because it discussed the Younger Dryas, something I hadn’t really heard of before, where it warmed about 5 C in just a few years. So far beyond anything I thought was possible. When this research was released, the idea that the climate was steady and slow-moving could no longer be embraced.

And then it fascinated me because it was the first time that climate models seemed really, really cool.

The idea of modelling something – anything – on the computer is somewhat unremarkable to me. I am of the generation that literally grew up using computers; I vaguely remember playing astronaut addition games on Windows 3.1 when I was four. I have seen so many things digitalized; the prospect of modelling climate is obviously immense, but it doesn’t amaze me.

But then Dr Stewart made a “dishpan climate model” with a spinning bowl, water with some dye, an ice-cube Antarctica, and a Bunsen-burner Sun. He set it all up and before long… could actually see regular patterns in the water’s movements that looked like the prevailing winds. It was so, so amazing. Even more amazing than a complex model on the computer because it was real and tangible and you could touch it. Like a little Earth on the countertop. All of the complex processes of our climate eventually come back to these simple factors. (I want to make one myself. But I don’t have one of those spinny things.)

And then I started wondering what computer modelling would be like, and remembering how much I loved physics last year, how I liked to put four or five algebraic equations together and solve it all in one complicated step to reduce error. Manipulating variables and shifting things around. Like a little puzzle. I was remembering how much I love hard math problems, because you actually have to use your brain, try everything you can think of, stretch the limits of your logic…..and you feel such a sense of accomplishment when you finish that all the work is worth it.

Is a climate model just a really large and complex collection of equations and puzzles that have to fit together in the right way? It would be pretty cool if it was. I knew that studying climate change required a lot of math, but this is the first time that I can see a clear path showing how an issue I care deeply about could coincide with aptitudes I enjoy.

Comments (8)

Free Speech

It hasn’t been long since I changed my comment policy, and already I’m getting complaints of censorship. I’m obviously not too concerned about the validity of these sources, but I thought I should address the issue regardless.

There are two reasons I will moderate a comment:

1) If you make a scientific claim which isn’t common knowledge (ie, you don’t have to cite “humans are causing climate change” or “the stratosphere is cooling while the troposphere is warming”), and don’t provide a citation from a legitimate peer-reviewed source to back up your statement, I will replace your comment with [citations needed].

For example, I would moderate comments such as these (all of which I just made up – nobody actually posted these):

Humans cannot be causing global warming. Volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, and there have always been volcanoes and they have never changed the climate. The warming is obviously caused by the sun.

Climate sensitivity is very low – about 0.5 C. Read this post by Joanne Nova.

As Sallie Baliunas found, the medieval warm period was much warmer than today. This was very good for the Vikings and their grapes so we shouldn’t be worried about global warming.

The regular readers and commenters of ClimateSight will spend so much time debunking these common claims, which have been repeated endless times, that we won’t be able to move forward in our discussion. For example, compare the level of useful discussion on this post to this post. Whether or not you’re trying to, if you’re posting statements which claim to invalidate anthropogenic global climate change, with no scientific backing, you’re wasting our time. If you’re deliberatly wasting our time, of course we’re not going to include you in the discussion. If you’re genuinely interested and have heard these statements and want to know more, refer to Coby Beck’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic. It’s by far the most comprehensive list of common misconceptions on the web. We’d just be repeating similar arguments anyway….

If you’re getting into more complicated arguments with lots of math, you still have to cite your basic conclusions. Keep in mind that I am just a lowly high school student who doesn’t know any calculus. I can’t possibly assess people’s arguments on their content – so I trust the “peer-reviewed” credential more than any amount of logic.

2) If you post something which is inflammatory, aggressive, insulting, politically extreme, a personal attack on a respected scientist, a random grumble about Al Gore, etc, your comment will be replaced with [inflammatory]. Here are some examples (again, made up):

Al Gore is EVIL and he just wants to tax us all!!!!!!!!!!!! What about the ice ages where it warmed without anyone driving hummers!!!!!!!! That’s his INCONVENIENT TRUTH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Any form of liberal government will never, ever, work, and regulations should never be allowed, no matter what the threat is. All regulations should be suspected as government influence on our lives and incomes.

You are an alarmist and a quasi-religious zealot. You’re just believing what Hansen says because it fits with your preconceived conclusion. Did you know that Hansen adjusts all the temperature data before he graphs it? There’s good reason to suspect that GISS is committing fraud.

When I encounter comments like these, it’s pretty obvious that you’re not interested in having a useful discussion, and just want to yell at people. You’re not helping the quality of the discussion one bit.

There’s a difference between deleting comments like these – which waste everyone’s time and patience – and participating in what we call “censorship”. Censorship is the practice of suppressing ideas and free speech by eliminating someone’s form of communication to the world. I am in no way practicing or endorsing this. You are more than welcome to start your own blog and yell about Al Gore all you want, or to go and comment about CO2 lagging temperature on any other blog you find. A better example of censorship would be how Watts removed Peter Sinclair’s video from Youtube – how else was Sinclair supposed to get his videos out to the world?

There are lots of places to say what you want elsewhere. But here I am the editor, and I am not going to publish comments which will sabotage our discussion. I am going to cater to the requests of those who respect this blog and wish to further the discussion, not those who wish to delay it.

Inflammatory statements are quite obviously inappropriate in a useful discussion. Additionally, keep in mind that science is not built around the pillars of completely free and unrestrained speech, as Brian pointed out. If it was, Nature and Science would have to publish absolutely every submission they received, whether or not it was correct or legitimate. In the real world, however, if a study were to make unusual claims without appropriate evidence or citation, it would go right out the window.

You can say whatever you want. But if it’s inflammatory or lacks citations, and you try to publish it here, don’t complain if it gets deleted.

(Making up all those moderation-worthy comments was kind of fun, though!)

Update: RealClimate has a great quote which sums up my feelings on this issue:

“Comments that accuse as of bad faith, fraud and dishonesty are not ways to move forward any conversation – how can you have a dialog with people who don’t believe a word you say? We choose to try and create a space for genuine conversation, which means weeding out the trolls and the noise. This is an imperfect process, but the alternative is a free-for-all that quickly deteriorates into a food fight. There are plenty of places to indulge in that kind of crap. There are only a few places where it’s not and we are not embarrassed to try to make this site one of them.”

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Climate Change and Evolution

Many advocates of anthropogenic climate change are also advocates of the theory of evolution. The two are often used in analogy in many different ways. In particular, skeptics of the two theories are often alleged to be either the same people or using the same tactics to spread public confusion.

I am not strongly religious, and I fully accept evolution. I understand that some others do not as it conflicts with their spiritual beliefs. I understand that alternative theories have failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny in the peer-reviewed literature. It is my opinion that these theories of creation or intelligent design should remain religious beliefs, and not attempt to be passed as objective science.

But I really don’t mind if people out there don’t believe in evolution. I couldn’t care less.

My feelings are exactly the opposite on anthropogenic global climate change. Why?

The difference between the evolution debate and the climate change debate is that the latter has consequences for the real world. Endless public debating and alternative theories about climate change could easily spread confusion and delay action to mitigate the threat. Indirectly, public debating on climate change, rather than leaving the debate to the scientists and taking action based on their conclusions, poses a threat to our future and our way of life.

Debating on evolution, in contrast, isn’t like that. At worst, it could slow down scientific progress in the area of biology. It could offend people. But could it wipe out our civilization? Of course not. Could climate change? Even the most skeptical person has to admit that it is a possibility.

Comments (20)

Denial Depot

Over at A Few Things Ill Considered, I was introduced to this site.

I’m almost positive that it’s satire. What do you think?

Whatever it is, it’s hilarious. Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

“It’s Friday afternoon at the IPCC climate lab. Dozens of government funded climate scientists are hunched around a big computer frantically feeding in dodgy punch cards. They’ve had it easy the rest of the year, not even wearing their lab coats most of the time, but this week is different. The IPCC report is due out on Monday and they must get those warming projections as high as possible before release.”

But worse we find out these satellites are using microwaves to measure ice! As an experiment I took a glass of ice and put it in a microwave oven…….I did observe the microwaves melting ice. So is in fact arctic ice decline being caused by sustained subjection of arctic ice by microwave radiation emitted from NASA satellites?”

“As well grounded climate skeptic bloggers we immediately become suspicious of this record because it shows a warming trend. We know that the surface record shows only Urban Heat Island bias and AC Unit Warming bias in this period. Yet neither of these effects will be picked up by satellites, so why do the satellites still show warming? Something is wrong. The #1 tool of the avid skeptic is imagination. So lets put our imagination to use and gather together some seeds of doubt. With luck some of these seeds will survive to grow into full blown talking points.”

“Why are the so-called experts silent about all the snow that is everywhere? Well it’s most likely because they are all shut indoors all day with their climate models. That’s right, they are so busy playing Climate Tron that they haven’t the foggiest idea what is going on outside anymore.”

Also check out the great lesson in exponentials.

Have fun!

Comments (7)

New Comment Settings

In response to a very drawn-out debate regarding complex scientific topics, I have changed the comment policy of ClimateSight. Thanks to the many commenters who helped shape this new policy, in particular Hank and Richard.

The new policy is as follows:

If you have something to say, you are more than welcome to leave a comment. However, if you make a scientific claim, like “modern times are warmer than any other period in the past millenium”, or “bristlecone pine data is unacceptable for use in proxy reconstructions”, you must provide an acceptable reference.

For our purposes, an acceptable reference must be peer-reviewed, whether it was published in a journal (but not Energy and Environment!) or is a statement from a professional organization like the NAS. The source cannot have been discredited since its publication.

Blogs don’t count. Reputable blogs will always reference their scientific claims, so all you have to do is take the extra step of checking out their citations. (If they don’t have any citations, what does that tell you?) This requirement eliminates a lot of the misrepresentation and drawn-out debates which are all too common on climate science blogs.

How does that sound? Any suggestions for further improvement?

You know, collaborating with others like this really helps me understand why peer review works. There’s no way I could make such improvement on ClimateSight without the help of our commenters.

Update: Thanks to all of your suggestions, I’ve altered the policy yet again. We’ll see how many revisions it’ll have to go through before it’s finalized. Peer-review at its finest. I’ll also put this comment policy in the sidebar so it’s visible on every post.

If you have something to say, you are more than welcome to leave a comment. However, if you make a scientific claim which is not already common knowledge – like a new theory or a recent statistic – you must reference a legitimate peer-reviewed source (ie, not Energy and Environment!). The source cannot have been recently discredited (ie, don’t reference the 1000-year temperature reconstruction by Sallie Baliunas).

Blogs don’t count. Most reputable blogs will reference all of their scientific claims, so all you have to do is take the extra step of checking out their citations. If they don’t have any citations, what does that tell you?

Any failures to comply with this comment policy will be deleted.

Comments (24)


Background information is important.

This is what I was thinking while I was reading “The Twenty Three (and Growing) Smoking Guns of Global Warming” on the Heartland Institute website, while researching for quotes to use in my post A Well-Documented Strategy. The introduction reads,

“Before you read this essay, I ask you to forget everything you have learned about global warming…..Your job is to review the study with unbiased eyes, and grade the project based upon how sound the science is in supporting the conclusion.”

Robert Wagner, the author, seems to equate background information and expertise with bias, as “[climatologists'] funding depends on carbon being the cause of global warming.” He does not trust climatologists, or any sort of expert in this issue, as their salary seemingly depends on AGW.

If you read the article while “forgetting everything you have learned about global warming”, it has an internal logical flow. If you rely upon your background information and expertise – even if you’re not a scientist, just a nerdy volunteer blogger like me – their conclusions fall apart.

This is most obvious when the article pulls out the old “CO2 lags Temperature” crock. It makes perfect sense – how can carbon change temperature if it’s actually the other way around? – until you read a little further into other sources.

Then they go on about Christy’s satellite data. Which seems to support their conclusion, until you find out that it’s been discredited multiple times and Christy has now retracted his data.

They have a throwback to the early days of climatology when everyone believed that the bands of radiation CO2 absorbed overlapped so much with water vapour that extra CO2 wouldn’t make a difference. They phrase this in a way that makes it seem like this is the current theory.

They take the correction that GISS made, where 1934, not 1998, was found to be the warmest year in the US, and conveniently remove “in the US”, implying that 1934 was the warmest year globally.

All of this works… long as you don’t read anywhere else. The author says to you, “Forget everything you know, and only accept what I tell you, as well as the blog posts and newspaper articles that I cite.” Knowledge from anywhere else is seen as “biased” because climatologists are just out for grant money to increase their personal wealth. Yes, the only credible source out there is the Heartland Institute. So of course their articles have an internal logical flow… long as you obey their instructions to only believe their articles.

What a creepy form of censorship. What an underhanded way to manipulate the reader. How is the Heartland Institute allowed to exist without some sort of disclaimer? How does anyone take them seriously?

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Why Is it So Cold???!!!!

Anyone who lives in the north-central United States, or most areas of Canada, can agree with me here: Spring and summer have been incredibly cold this year.

Yesterday, I asked a climatology prof that I know, “Is there a reason for this? Or is it just a fluke?”

There was a reason, as he explained. And it’s incredibly cool (to me at least) and in no way proves that global warming is all wrong.

Let’s help the story along with a map, courtesy of World Atlas (doodles and arrows are my own).


The jet stream (the black curvy line on the map) is the boundary between the cold polar winds and the warmer temperate winds. In the Northern Hemisphere, when the jet stream is south of you, your area will be cold. When it is north of you, it’ll be nice and warm.

The northwestern Pacific has been warm this spring and summer. This warmth is pushing the jet stream further north. BC is experiencing the effects of this change – it’s had unseasonably hot, dry conditions, which are aggravating their already-worrisome forest fire problem.

When the jet stream peaks northward, the prof explained, it has to follow that with a trough. The peak on the West coast was very strong, so the trough further eastward, in the continental US and Canada, has also been very strong. Areas as far south as Chicago have had many days where the jet stream is south of them, so they’re submerged in polar air.

So all spring and summer, the jet stream has been “stuck” in the (very approximate) shape you see above. As an El Niño just began, our area would usually expect a warm winter. However, should the jet stream stay stuck in this shape…..we might have a colder winter than normal. The Prairie winters are bad enough already. I can only imagine the “so much for global warming” comments which would happen if such a winter came to pass.

So, in a strange way, our area has been so cold because somewhere else has been really warm. This can’t prove that the Earth is warming, as no single event can.

But it certainly doesn’t disprove it.

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Sinclair Wins

As I noted on my last post about this issue,

“I will consider the issue a true victory for Sinclair when he re-uploads the video on his account.”

It is a true victory for Sinclair!

As he writes on his DeSmogBlog post,

“In accordance with established YouTube guidelines, I filed a “counternotice”, affirming, “under penalty of perjury, that I have a good faith belief that the material  was removed or disabled as a result of a mistake or misidentification of the material to be removed or disabled.”

As of today, I have received the following confirmation from YouTube:

” In accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we’ve completed processing
your counter-notification regarding your video:

This content has been restored and your account will not be penalized.”

I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude to YouTube, to all those who advised and supported me in this effort, and most especially, to Anthony Watts and, for providing invaluable exposure to my video series, and greatly increasing my traffic and visibility.”

The newly reinstated video is imbedded in that post, or you can watch it here.

Hooray for truth winning out.

Comments (1)

Very Scary Stuff

One of the most worrying positive feedbacks of our current climate change lies deep in the Arctic permafrost and the ocean – methane hydrates. Methane loosely bonds to water, which freezes and lies stable…..until it melts. When it gets warm enough, the methane breaks apart from the water and is released into the atmosphere, or is dissolved in the ocean and then slowly released.

There is an enormous amount of methane in the form of hydrates up north – using its GWP, enough to “double” the amount of CO2 (even if it doesn’t all convert to CO2), if I remember correctly. This feedback is not included in climate models, as nobody really knows when or at what point huge amounts of methane could be released.

Unfortunately, we have evidence that it’s starting to begin. CORDIS and BBC report that a study in Geophysical Research Letters has discovered methane plumes rising from the ocean floor. Right now the methane is dissolving in the water, but we don’t know whether or when it’ll reach the atmosphere. Even if the methane stays dissolved, the acidity of the ocean will increase, which can damage marine life. Even if this begins as only an impact, not a feedback, the Arctic is stressed out enough as it is.

I didn’t expect to hear news like this for quite a few years. As one of the authors says, “Our survey was designed to work out how much methane might be released by future ocean warming; we did not expect to discover such strong evidence that this process has already started.”

Reminds you a bit of Larsen-B, doesn’t it?

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Nobody Knows What’s Happening

About a year ago, the Canadian Conservative government announced that it had a plan to cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions 20% from 2006 levels by 2020. The new regulations were scheduled to come into force on January 1, 2010. I was pretty happy – skeptical of Stephen Harper’s ability to carry this out, and wishing it was an even greater reduction – but still happy that progress was being made.

A few months ago, there was one article buried deep in my local newspaper that announced that the Harper government was giving up on this plan. They didn’t want to hurt the economy, or trade with the States, or something like that, so they were going to wait until the Waxman-Markey legislation was fully implemented. That meant they wouldn’t do anything on the issue until 2012, and even then it would take until 2016 for the laws they’d agreed on to come into force. I recall one interviewee in the newspaper saying that it was pretty ridiculous for a prime minister these days to expect to take no action on climate change for his first 6 years in office – and expect to get away with it.

These sort of political decisions usually make their way through the Globe and Mail, CBC, Rick Mercer, and Maclean’s pretty quickly. But this time, I only read the one, half-hidden article, and despite an extensive search, couldn’t find any other mention of it. I was amazed.

As I mention Canada’s (in)action on climate change in a (hopefully soon to come) video I’m working on, I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight. So I went through the Environment Canada website, which, believe me, is not an easy task. Every time I clicked on a link that said “action” or “Canada’s action plan” it lead me to a page that said “Copenhagen is coming!”

Eventually I found the page that described the 20% by 2020 plan – “Turning the Corner”. It hadn’t been updated in over a year – the last announcement was from August 9, 2008. There was no mention if the plan had been abandoned or postponed. And yet it still said,

“Proposed greenhouse gas regulations are expected to be published in the Canada Gazette later this year, and the regulations finalized in 2009 to come into force as planned on January 1, 2010.”

So they hadn’t done anything on this plan for a year, but were still claiming that it would come into force in four months, all the while making no admission of its abandonment and hoping nobody would notice.

I asked a coworker, who had been just as confused as I was. We called the help number at the bottom of  the page, which, unfortunately, was the central information line for all of the Government of Canada. The employee who answered seemed to know even less than we did regarding Canada’s climate change plans.

“I can’t find anything,” he said. “What’s the name of the report?”

“Turning the Corner,” we replied.

“Okay. Just hang on while I type that into Google.”

Eventually we were sent to another federal website (which is so hidden that I can’t even find it again) which apparently dealt with greenhouse gases. It turns out that all they did was measure Canada’s emissions, and require any industrial plants that surpassed a certain amount to report this to the government – but not have to reduce them. Nowhere was there mention of Turning the Corner or any other kinds of regulations.

The environment section of Harper’s website was even worse. Words like “emissions intensity”, “clean air”, “home energy efficiency”, and “environmental leadership” were tossed around, assuming that nobody would read between the lines to discover how little Harper was actually doing about climate change.

The government employee on the line also gave us the number of the Environment Canada deparment. We called them and were given the number of the secretariat for greenhouse gas management. We called that number and got the answering machine. It was 2:00 PM on a Monday. We’ve never heard back.

Does anybody in Canada actually know what’s going on with climate change? Why isn’t anyone demanding answers? Is our country really so apathetic one way or the other?

At least in the States there’s a major opposition to cap-and-trade, so the government can’t pull the wool over your eyes too easily. At least it’s a controversy which is visible to the public

If any Canadian readers actually know what’s happening, or have any more information, please leave comments – this is far too important to ignore.

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