Feb 22, 2010

The Weirding of Thomas Friedman [LINK]

In the wake of the CRU climategate and associated scandals surrounding the IPCC's influential assessment reports, Thomas Friedman's New York Times column on "global weirding" comes as a rhetorical cry for help. Read it in full, then judge whether any of my bite-sized comments make sense.

  1. Cold, precipitous weather in the south and warm weather in the Pacific Northwest are typical weather patterns for winters in El NiƱo years. You might even say they're its defining characteristics.
  2. Recent research on the Australian drought has settled on a similar oscillation in the Indian Ocean, with one recent paper providing explicit reason to dismiss increased CO2 as a significant cause.
  3. Friedman argues, correctly, against those who summarily declare that recent heavy snowfall in Washington D.C. serves to disprove global warming. However, he repeats much the same error in casually assigning global warming as the cause.
  4. We used to have "global warming," then we switched over to the more vague term "climate change." I'm not sure if "global weirding" is even more vague, but the point remains: we have traveled from a fairly specific, testable assertion to one that is largely unfalsifiable. Weather patterns trending in any direction might serve as evidence.
  5. Unexpected, outlying, or so-called "weird" weather events are, in fact, quite common, and to be routinely expected given natural variability.
  6. The idea that the "most violent storms" would become "more numerous" is one of the assertions the IPCC was recently found to have made without required proper support from the peer-reviewed literature.
  7. "The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier" ... Amusing that he doesn't go so far as to say that "weirding" makes cold weather even colder, since it's the frigid temperatures throughout the northern hemisphere that made this winter particularly weird, even more so than the local precipitation events. It's not every day people die of hypothermia in Cuba. (Perhaps it would have been too weird for Friedman to say that weirding makes cold weather even colder.)
  8. The hook Friedman uses in his lede is quite disingenuous. There are plenty of substantial grounds for skepticism, yet he focuses on only the most flippant.
  9. While it's true that snowfall in D.C. does not actually disprove global warming, it's certainly legitimate to rub your nose in it to the extent that past outlying episodes of warm weather have been routinely cited as confirmation.
  10. It strikes me as very bad advice for scientists to go on the offensive in trumpeting their climate certainties, when that's exactly the sort of thing that got the CRU & IPCC into such trouble to begin with that they're now struggling to regain their credibility.
  11. Likewise, how is it a good idea that we produce a 50-page report "in language that a sixth grader could understand" on the state of climate science? The IPCC currently produces a large, relatively rigorous document that is boiled down into a much shorter summary document for the benefit of policy-makers and journalists. Most complaints about how the IPCC publishes misleading and exaggerated information concern these dumbed-down summaries. How would the document Friedman describes be formed any differently?
  12. Why should this document only highlight wild exaggerations made by one side? What about the pervasive and false assertion that ice is about to disappear from the North Pole?
  13. "Climate experts can't leave themselves vulnerable by citing non-peer-reviewed research or failing to respond to legitimate questions." Well, this certainly understates the matter, doesn't it? It's not just that the IPCC cited non-peer-reviewed research claiming rapid melting of Himilayan glaciers; it's that it cited bogus, made-up material from activist groups. Likewise, it's not that members of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit simply failed to respond to legitimate questions; it's that they broke the law by evading freedom-of-information requests for data used to support their scientific conclusions.
  14. And what would a climate change article be without a sweeping insinuation about how skeptics are funded? "From the oil and coal companies that finance the studies skeptical of climate change to conservatives who hate anything that will lead to more government regulations"... Note that the latter are characterized as ideologues, while the former are presumably only in it for the money, a rather flexible range of poisonous characterizations.
  15. Accusations of irrational ideological bias can certainly cut both ways. Global warming adherents often see their cause as a moral crusade. If we are indeed on the verge of global catastrophe, with little sign that people are willing to significantly reduce their energy consumption, and little sign of high yields from "renewable" energy sources, wouldn't there be a whole lot more enthusiasm for nuclear power?
  16. Appealing to the precautionary principle, Friedman says "investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and mass transit" makes sense as a form of "insurance." Actually, what we are being asked to do is dramatically lower our energy consumption, which comes at great cost to living standards, and by all accounts would barely reduce CO2 levels or temperature. Such "investments" may arguably be a good idea on their own terms independent of climate panic, but they may just as well be a fantastic waste of time and effort that would be better spent on some more productive end.
  17. Friedman says that regardless of the effects of climate change, rising population means increased demand for renewable energy. Not exactly. It means increased demand for energy from any source, including fossil fuels.
  18. Finally, ice ages do not come and go "slowly." I don't know where he gets this stuff. Here are temperature readings from the last few hundred thousand years, from Antarctic ice core data from the NOAA. Click to enlarge: Granted, the word "slowly" depends on your time frame, but nonetheless those are some pretty wild 10-degree swings. That thick little squiggle on the right, by the way, represents the entire development of human civilization, during what appears to be an unusually sustained warm period. I can think of one "investment" that may be a prudent form of "insurance": come up with any way imaginable to engineer the climate to keep us from dropping into another of those ice ages.

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