Confused about climate

2008-09-21

in Canada, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment, Writing

I have a Google Alert set up that forwards news stories including the terms “Canada” and “Climate Change.” Every day, it provides a few very misleading items, usually published on personal blogs or the canada.com network: a group of publications including the Vancouver Sun, Province, and Chilliwack Times. A piece in the latter caught my attention the other day, written by Jack Carradice. It seems worth examining in some detail. It reads like a grab-bag version of grist.org’s collection of invalid ‘sceptical’ arguments.

Complexity and uncertainty:

One aspect becoming very clear is that the science of climate change is much more complex than many seem to believe and much of the science involved is not well understood. In fact, it is beginning to appear that we know little if anything about some of the factors related to climate change.”

This is true but misleading. As discussed here before, the core facts about climate change are now beyond dispute. The biggest uncertainties have to do with feedback loops, the timing of impacts, and specific higher-order outcomes arising from human-induced temperature change.

Carbon dioxide not the cause:

The notion that man-caused carbon dioxide emissions are the sole cause of “global warming” and that man can control climate change in any meaningful way has pretty much been proven as nonsense.

While it is true that CO2 emissions are not the sole cause of climate change, this statement is simply false. The Fourth Assessment of the IPCC – the most authoritative scientific assessment of climate science – concludes that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” It states further that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” Non-CO2 factors that influence climate change include emissions of nitrous oxide and methane, as well as deforestation. The fact that there are non-CO2 contributions in no way diminishes our certainty that human carbon dioxide emissions cause the planet to warm.

The role of water vapour:

Some of the basic facts the public have not been made aware of are that water vapour is the primary greenhouse gas accounting for up to 90 per cent of the greenhouse effect.

Nobody denies that water vapour is the greenhouse gas with the largest effect. What one needs to remember is that the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is determined by the temperature (just like how you can stir more sugar into hot water than cold). As such, water vapour magnifies the effect of CO2 emissions.

Natural emissions are larger:

Also that 90 per cent of annual carbon dioxide emissions come from natural sources and have nothing to do with the burning of fossil fuels.

Gross natural emissions are larger than human emissions, but they are balanced by natural absorption. Human beings add about 29 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year through the burning of fossil fuels. Some gets absorbed into the deep oceans, but much endures in the atmosphere to cause warming.

Necessity of CO2:

It is not generally publicized that carbon dioxide is essential for plant life and without it we would all die of starvation.

Nobody denies this either, and you would need to be thick-headed to believe that climate scientists advocate the elimination of all CO2. As Carradice correctly points out, the natural greenhouse effect is essential for maintaining an appropriate temperature for life on earth. Of course, it is incorrect to say “Some CO2 is necessary, therefore the more of it around the better.” The lesson from one hundred years of ever-more-detailed climatic science is that there is good reason to fear the consequences of anthropogenic climate change.

Solar radiation changes:

The effects of changes in solar radiation also seem to be overlooked by many observers.

Not by the IPCC. The Fourth Assessment Report concludes that changes in solar irradiance produce 0.12 watts per cubic metre of radiative forcing. CO2 produces 1.66 watts per cubic metre, while methane, nitrous oxide, and halocarbons produce 0.48, 0.16, and 0.34 respectively.

Methane from Indian cows:

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide… By some calculations if India reduced their population of sacred cows by 25 per cent it would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas going into the atmosphere by the same amount as taking every car and truck in Canada off the road.

These assertions oddly contradict others above. They acknowledge that both methane and CO2 are greenhouse gasses and that emitting them warms the planet. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head whether livestock emissions in India are bigger than automotive emissions in Canada, but making the comparison requires accepting the basics of climate physics.

Climate has always been changing:

Forget the climate change hysteria. Climate has always been changing.

True. Indeed, if humans were suddenly dropped into many of the states the world has experienced, we would have a tough time surviving. There is every reason to think that long-term natural climate change might eventually produce conditions adverse for human beings. What anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are doing is accelerating those dangers enormously. Whereas the natural carbon cycle is largely a matter of geology, subduction, and volcanoes, we are liberating the carbon in fossil fuels at a break-neck pace.

In short, Jack Carradice’s piece is an orrery of errors: rife with every form of misunderstanding and misinformation. It is hard to imagine a ‘news’ story that would do a worse job of informing readers about the realities of climate and climate science. Some of the points are entirely valid, but they are woven into an incoherent tapestry alongside errors and distortions. The article says simultaneously that climate change isn’t caused by human activities and that it is, that more CO2 would be bad and that it would be good, that concern about climate change is misplaced and that it is valid.

Hopefully, readers of the Chilliwack Times will be discerning enough to reject Carradice’s muddled position and read something both accessible and accurate on climatic science, such as Andrew Weaver’s “Keeping Our Cool,” Richard Alley’s “The Two Mile Time Machine,” or Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan September 21, 2008 at 10:49 am

“Hopefully, readers of the Chilliwack Times will be discerning enough to reject Carradice’s muddled position and read something both accessible and accurate on climatic science…”

I have little hope of this. In fact, even replacing “Chilliwack” with considerably less hick-ish places, I would still have little hope.

Milan September 21, 2008 at 12:32 pm

I actually think most mainstream publications are starting to come around to a decent understanding of climate science. The National Post, The Vancouver Sun, The Province, and some affiliated papers deserve to be singled out as uniquely unwilling to publish nonsense.

Litty September 21, 2008 at 12:46 pm

The editor seems to be:

Ken Goudswaard
kgoudswaard@chilliwacktimes.com

You should send a letter for them to print.

Milan September 21, 2008 at 12:53 pm

One more thing about Canada and India.

Weaver’s book explains that between 1900 and 2002, total Canadian carbon dioxide emissions have been about 22.6 billion metric tonnes. Those from India have been about 23.1 billion metric tonnes, despite how their population has been thirty-four times larger on average.

That helps craft a decent response to the argument: “Big countries like India and China matter, whereas Canada does not.”

Paul Henderson September 22, 2008 at 12:50 am

I’m a reporter for the Chilliwack Times and despite Tristan’s comments that imply those of us in the Fraser Valley are a bunch of hicks, many of us are a lot more enlightened than you might think is possible past your Kitsilano or West End neighbourhood. Put your laptop down, put your latte down, and get up off your seat at Starbucks and look beyond your insulated little world and you might be surprised what’s out there.

Most of us know Carradice is a moron, I intend on writing a column in response, but in the meantime, a letter to Ken (yes, kgoudswaard@chilliwacktimes.com) by this articulate and informed blog writer (sorry, I forgot to catch his/her name) would be great and I’d hope we’d find a place for it.

Keep it up.

Milan September 23, 2008 at 2:45 pm

I did send a letter to the editor. No response so far.

sangeeta September 24, 2008 at 1:42 am

Indian cows provide milk AND gobar gas, alternative fuel source. Cows in other parts provide both milk AND beef.

The calculations are obvious, more so, taking into account the beef consumption the world over.

. October 3, 2008 at 4:48 pm

As natural emissions of carbon dioxide are
very much greater than those from human
activities, surely the effect of man is
insignificant?

The exchange of ‘man-made’ carbon dioxide between
man-made emissions, atmosphere, ocean and land,
is about 7 GtC per year, as shown in Slide 12, which
also shows much larger natural exchanges between
atmosphere and ocean (about 90 GtC/yr) and
atmosphere and land (about 60 GtC/yr). However,
these natural exchanges have been in balance for
many thousands of years, leading to the pre-industrial
concentration of CO2 remaining steady at about
280 ppm (see Slide 14). The effect of the additional
man-made emissions is to unbalance the budget
and lead to the rise in concentrations seen since
about 1850,

Climate change and the greenhouse effect
A briefing from the Hadley Centre
December 2005

. October 6, 2008 at 11:49 am

A guide to facts and fictions about climate change

About half of the solar energy entering the top of the Earth’s atmosphere eventually reaches the
surface where it is absorbed. Much of the solar energy is absorbed by the Earth’s surface and then
released as infra-red radiation, some of which is absorbed by greenhouse gases such as water vapour,
carbon dioxide and methane. The greenhouse gases act like a blanket over the surface of the Earth,
keeping it around 20 centigrade degrees warmer than it otherwise would be, which is a phenomenon
known as ‘the greenhouse effect’.

Increases in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere enhance the greenhouse effect
and, on average, lead to further warming. It has been long established that carbon dioxide strongly
absorbs infra-red radiation. The IPCC 2001 report pointed out that carbon dioxide is “the dominant
human-influenced greenhouse gas”, and is responsible for more than half the warming due to changes
in atmospheric concentrations.

Based on direct analysis of gases found trapped in cores of polar ice, it is known that the atmospheric
concentration of carbon dioxide for several thousands of years before 1750 was about 280 parts per
million. Between 1750 and 2000, during which industrialisation has occurred, the concentration rose by
about 31% to 368 parts per million. The IPCC report noted that the current concentration of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere has not been exceeded during the past 420,000 years and that “the rate of
increase over the past century is unprecedented, at least during the past 20,000 years”.

Matt June 16, 2009 at 12:57 pm

“…despite Tristan’s comments that imply those of us in the Fraser Valley are a bunch of hicks, many of us are a lot more enlightened than you might think…”

This brings up the interesting point that you have to be able to engage everybody on this issue, because it takes everybody to get onboard to solve the problem. Setting up an ‘us vs. them’ scenario just alienates a portion of your audience you have to reach.

To Paul: you point was a good one, but you diminish it by yourself stereotyping “…put your laptop down, put your latte down…” irony or not.

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 2:36 pm

“I’m a reporter for the Chilliwack Times and despite Tristan’s comments that imply those of us in the Fraser Valley are a bunch of hicks, many of us are a lot more enlightened than you might think is possible past your Kitsilano or West End neighbourhood.”

Did I say that people in Chilliwack were less likely to understand the issue than people in the West End? Let’s look at what I said:

“I have little hope of this. In fact, even replacing “Chilliwack” with considerably less hick-ish places, I would still have little hope.”

So, what I said is I “have little hope”, whether the place is Chilliwack, or a “considerably less hick-ish” place.

It’s funny how people can interpret you to mean the opposite of what you said, as soon as any stereotypes are employed. This is decent evidence for how destructive emotions can be in reasoned debate. What I said was the stereotype is irrelevant, that I’d have “little hope” either way. But of course, because I called people from Chilliwack “hicks”, what’s assumed is that I’m saying is that people in the West End are more capable at dealing with the problem.

Matt June 16, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Here’s what I observed:
A) You implied people from Chilliwack are hicks
B) A guy from Chilliwack was offended
C) The offended guy then offered up his own stereotype of the type of person he thought you were

I don’t think he interpreted your statement the opposite of what you meant, because you did mean to call people from Chilliwack hicks. He just didn’t pay attention to the rest of your point.

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 6:47 pm

If you actually read what Henderson wrote I think you’ll see it differently.

“many of us are a lot more enlightened than you might think is possible past your Kitsilano or West End neighbourhood.”

“Most of us know Carradice is a moron,”

So, he specifically interpreted “hick” to mean unenlightened and unable to recognize that the Environment minister was being a moron. What I had said was I had little hope for the public to recognize this, whether they were hicks or not. So, I didn’t differentiate between hicks and non-hicks on the basis of being able to recognize that Carradice was a moron. So, other than what is included in the stereotype of “being more hickish”, I didn’t assert anything about “enlightenment”. Specifically, I asserted that I would not expect to see a difference between the “hicks” from Abbotsford and other groups in other regions, insofar as ability to deal with any complex issues.

So, we can agree that Henderson was offended that I implied people from Chilliwack are more “hickish” than people elsewhere. But, unsurprisingly, we’ve all used the appearance of a stereotype as an excuse to read me saying the opposite of what I actually said.

So, all that’s left of Paul’s “point” which might be “good” is that “many of [people in Chilliwack] are a lot more enlightened than you might think is possible “

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm

As for trying to defend Chilliwack’s reputation as enlightened, of course there are many exceptions to every trend – but any electoral region which elects a conservative federal government thinking they will actually act on climate change is expressing a collective stupidity. Either you think climate change isn’t very important, or you think they will act sufficiently. So, either you’re ignorant, or you’re gullible. Have your pick.

And of course, this applies just as much to Surrey, where I am from, as it does to Chilliwack, or any other region that votes repeatedly for one of the wrong parties.

Matt June 16, 2009 at 7:37 pm

…I had little hope for the public to recognize this, whether they were hicks or not. So, I didn’t differentiate between hicks and non-hicks…

I can’t speak for the other guy, but I understood what you were saying. Having said that, there was an implication that if a “smart” person can’t understand climate change, a “hick” really won’t be able to get it. In that sense you did differentiate, and being from Chilliwack, you might be offended, and apparently that guy was.

…but any electoral region which elects a conservative federal government thinking they will actually act on climate change is expressing a collective stupidity.

I seem to remember you arguing in favour of the Provincial NDP which also did not have a very comprehensive climate change policy. I wouldn’t classify you as ignorant; I remember you arguing you weren’t just voting on the climate change issue, and that you might assign other campaign platforms more priority. It’s unfair to say that the people of Chilliwack aren’t doing exactly that, voting for the issues they give priority, but rather they’re ignorant or gullible.

It is a tough job, but an apolitical approach to educating people about climate change is best. Having said that, come election time, you may want to say, “well, the Conservatives do a poor job of addressing the issue and because of this you may want to consider prioritizing climate change and casting your vote for [insert other party].” Or, alternatively, maybe if a large Conservative base takes on climate change as an issue they’re concerned about, the party itself will be forced to adjust.

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Again, I don’t have time to deal with people who assume that someone I say is invalid simply because it contradicts something I said in a previous conversation. Consistency is a virtue in a single coherent argument, not in arguments across time. Anyone who maintains the same positions too long probably isn’t seriously engaged in dialogue.

As for the Provincial NDP, their position on climate is problematic. However, I don’t think that a carbon tax on fuel at the level the liberals have instituted is a serious effort to curb gas use. More money for transit and more responsible forestry policy would also seriously affect CO2 emissions. Allowing the existence of a carbon tax to simply guarantee “intelligent” votes to the liberals is a pretty short sighted way to look at climate politics. Also, since climate change is a global problem, a case could be made that the most important level of decision making is global, second federal, third provincial, and last municipal.

But, as usual, no one wants to talk about how the Liberals changed forestry practices when they were first elected, or how that has affected road building costs or overall fuel consumption by the industry, or the distances commuted by those who couldn’t leave the deserted small towns after mills were given permission to shut down.

It’s pretty pathetic, actually, how poorly the forest industry is understood in B.C. in general. People understand the tariff issues re softwood lumber much better than they understand their own domestic forestry policy. But, that’s a by-product of living in a de-politicized society.

Matt June 16, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Again, I don’t have time to deal with people who assume that someone I say is invalid simply because it contradicts something I said in a previous conversation. Consistency is a virtue in a single coherent argument, not in arguments across time. Anyone who maintains the same positions too long probably isn’t seriously engaged in dialogue.

The election was only a month ago, and it was only three months ago that you accused Milan of a “one-plank view” when he stated he wouldn’t vote for the NDP based on their climate policy. Hardly a vast expanse of time has past between then and now. Anyway, my point is/was that you now also have a one plank view if you think people from Chilliwack vote Conservative because they are either ignorant or gullible when it comes to climate change. Maybe they just don’t prioritize that issue, like you implied you yourself doesn’t.

Having said that, most people are ignorant of the details of climate change. The word ignorant though, carries a negative connotation that most people take to mean “stupid.” So now we’re at a point where it sounds like you’re arguing that those hicks out in Chilliwack are either stupid or gullible, which isn’t a very fair characterization. Why is it a problem to concede that maybe that wasn’t the most sensitive phrasing you could’ve used, as opposed to complaining that you were misunderstood (which I don’t think you were)?

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 11:43 pm

“Why is it a problem to concede that maybe that wasn’t the most sensitive phrasing you could’ve used, as opposed to complaining that you were misunderstood (which I don’t think you were)?”

Can you please explain how I was understood correctly. I’ve already gone over this in detail, and won’t explain it again.

Can you also explain why you are asking me why I have a problem conceding that my phrasing was not as sensitive as I could have used? Because, I’ve already pointed that out:

“It’s funny how people can interpret you to mean the opposite of what you said, as soon as any stereotypes are employed. This is decent evidence for how destructive emotions can be in reasoned debate.”

Also, I don’t understand why you phrase the “sensitive phrasing” versus “misunderstood” as an opposition? There is no contradiction in saying that my lack of sensitive phrasing might have contributed to the mis-understanding. Which, incidentally, is what I’ve already argued for. Usefully though, I made a jab about electoral choice which allowed you to stab me with the NDP issue, so you can avoid dealing with my entire account of what it was that I actually said up to that point, which, since you are still phrasing this as an opposition, you obviously find some fault with.

Tristan June 17, 2009 at 12:04 am

“Anyway, my point is/was that you now also have a one plank view if you think people from Chilliwack vote Conservative because they are either ignorant or gullible when it comes to climate change.”

Seriously? Do you think this is a good argument?

Is it good to have a one plank view? When? When not? Is this one of which kind of situation?

Anyway, I can retract this if you want. I don’t really care about having the right answer concerning how well informed the decisions of rural voters are on the subject of climate change. From my experience, rural people are either much more or much less aware of the ethical import of our lives than urbanites. But, who cares about my experience, it’s no more valid than anyone else’s.

Concerning, “Hardly a vast expanse of time has past between then and now. ” – the idea that someone’s ideas could change but only over vast expanses of time – what are we, granite? Why is it so hard to fathom that I might have decided climate change is more important than shorter term humanitarian concerns?

Matt June 17, 2009 at 2:30 pm

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to bring up a previous and relatively recent post to emphasis a point. But seeing as in 1 to 3 months time your position will be totally different, what’s the point in arguing now.

If being misunderstood is an issue, then attempt clarity.

Tristan June 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

“Hopefully, readers of the Chilliwack Times will be discerning enough to reject Carradice’s muddled position and read something both accessible and accurate on climatic science…”

I have little hope of this. In fact, even replacing “Chilliwack” with considerably less hick-ish places, I would still have little hope.

Again, there is nothing unclear about this. What it says is I have little hope about the ability of average newspaper readers anywhere to be discerning enough to reject Carradice’s muddled position. If someone wants to interpret this to mean that people elsewhere are much more likely to reject Carradice’s position than those in Chilliwack, which is the opposite of what it says, they are free to do so.

As for the idea that arguing is useless because people change their positions, this is simply absurd. If the fact positions changed based on arguments led us to dismiss arguing altogether, this would destroy the very means by which positions change, and positions would not change. So, then, in the absence of argument, would argument all of a sudden have a point? But wait, if we start arguing, our positions might change, become “totally different” to what they were before, so there is no point. This is just nonsense. The point of discussion or argument is to let your ideas be challenged. If one was not interested in ever changing one’s position, its very easy – one can simply refuse to enter into meaningful dialogue with anyone who disagrees. I’m not a massive fan of Dawkins, but this it seems is his main criticism of religion, and it is spot on.

Emily June 17, 2009 at 7:15 pm

“Usefully though, I made a jab about electoral choice which allowed you to stab me with the NDP issue, so you can avoid dealing with my entire account of what it was that I actually said up to that point, which, since you are still phrasing this as an opposition, you obviously find some fault with.”

Hey, hey. Enough with the jabbing and stabbing. Put down your damn latte. I think it’s time for someone to get off of their high-Kitsilano horse, and stop with the accusations and tense emotional responses.

Tristan June 17, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Who drinks Lattes anyway? Laa-teh-da!

Milan June 17, 2009 at 11:19 pm

I like the chai soy lattes.

Also, how about those wildly inaccurate stories in the Chilliwack Times?

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