Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence:

By: RickyRood, 03:31 AM GMT am 28. Januar 2009

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence:

Here at the beginning of the Obama administration there is a shift in mindset unlike any I have ever seen. During my years in the U.S. government, the science agencies didn’t get significant attention until a year or more into the new administration. This year we see science getting attention from the beginning, and, for example, there was a nominee for NOAA administrator announced prior to the inauguration. (Jane Lubchenco from Wikipedia, Professor Jane Lubchenco, More on Obama science appointees). Along with this new emphasis on science there are people and groups trying to position themselves. This includes those who fight against the government taking action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Climate change is, presently, completely linked to consumption of energy. Consumption of energy is required for successful economies and societies. Energy insecurity and economic weakness will trump climate change, as long it is isolated as a separate issue. This is already seen in recent polls that show decreasing public acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and its consequences. (For example, Pew Poll, Rasmussen Reports, New York Times Story) It is heartening to me, however, to see President Obama not isolating climate change as an issue, and stating that environmental sustainability needs to be integrated in policies across the board.

Scientists often state that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report provided definitive and unequivocal documentation about the observations and predictions of climate change. A carry away message is that the Earth has warmed and it is virtually certain that much of this warming is directly related to the activities of humans. As this information flows out of the scientific community others take the information and carry forth their messages and advocate their positions. Al Gore, for example, has taken forth the message of climate change and the havoc that it will cause. Mr. Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize – a prize of both merit and politics.

It is the propagation of science-derived information outside of the climate community that will determine how this information is used. Since climate change impacts all of society, there are those in all sectors who will analyze the information and take a stand. For example, within the past few months I have been made aware of a paper by a law professor at Berkeley, Daniel Farber, who, after analyzing climate predictions and the rigors of the IPCC process determined that climate predictions are deserving of legal status Farber’s Climate Models: A Users Guide (See also, link). Like scientific information about smoking and lung cancer, assigning legal standing to the knowledge we have about climate change sets the stage to evaluate whether or not we use this information responsibly. Throughout academia, government, and corporations, people are taking stock of the knowledge of climate change and making plans. Their motivations range from strategies to better manage resources such as water, to anticipating the impact climate policy might have on their activities, to looking for opportunities for new ways to provide energy and manage carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

On this background of deliberation and preparation to address the challenges of climate change are the voices of those who feel that climate change is bogus, of low priority relative to other problems, or the clamor of self-interested scientists. Some of these voices are anchored in reasoned advocacy and some are anchored in what qualifies primarily as the rhetoric of belief – belief as opposed to a science-derived knowledge base.

There are two primary sources of fuel for this rhetoric. The first is drawn from the polls of public opinion and a constant quest to find and amplify voices in the science community that can be classified as dissent from the dogma of the IPCC. That is, that the Earth has warmed and it is virtually certain that much of this warming is directly related to the activities of humans. The second is the casual, isolated interpretation of the now ever present environmental information.

Public Opinion and the Consensus of Scientists

The rhetoric that is fueled by the interpretations of opinions and consensus is consistent with that seen in many previous societal discussions motivated by scientific investigations in both environment and public health (see Antilla, 2005). Much of it is fueled by recent opinion polls showing climate change as a less important issue in the face of the economic and energy challenges that we currently face. (For example, Pew Poll, Rasmussen Reports, New York Times Story) There is also this constant extraction of statements by scientists who are viewed as skeptical of global warming and as challenging the doctrine of mainstream (for example, Senate Minority Report January 14, 2009).

It is not surprising that the importance of climate change weakens in the eyes of the public in the face of economic or energy troubles. But there is at least one curious aspect of this study of consensus and opinion. It is circulating on the web that those who call themselves climatologists overwhelmingly agree with the basic conclusion that the Earth will warm as a consequence of the activities of humans (97%). The number of meteorologists who agree with that basic conclusion is far smaller (64%). (Mongabay.com report of Poll, Doran and Zimmerman, Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change). First, there are many flavors of meteorologists and many climatologists come from the ranks of meteorologists. (Disclosure, I am a meteorologist.) Second, I have noticed for years that especially amongst broadcast meteorologists, there is a high level of skepticism about the basic conclusions of climate change. Why might this be?

An argument I have often heard is that if we can’t forecast the weather beyond a few days, then how can we forecast climate credibly? A comparison that I have developed is the following: (Rood / Models (3) Predictable Arguments) Imagine that you live on the ocean shore or the shore of Lake Michigan. The wind blows the waves. It is virtually impossible to predict individual waves, but if the wind increases it is certain that the water will rise higher and erosion of the shore will increase. Does the inability to predict the more or less random aspects of the wave field mean that you should ignore the fact that the water will rise? The climate is being forced by increased surface warming; the physics is astoundingly simple, but the system is astoundingly complex and full of seeming randomness.

In the case of the creeping collapse of consensus, there has been circulated a list of several hundred scientists who are throwing off the shackles of the doctrine, many of whom are prominent in their fields. ( Notably: Senate Minority Report January 14, 2009, Sheppard / Climate: Change You Can’t Believe In). Within the group on this list are many flavors of skepticism. There are some who simply choose not to believe the quality of the observations and models and the integrity of the IPCC. There are some who make cogent arguments that climate change is not as important as some of the other problems we face. A group has evolved who consider themselves balancing the advocacy of some scientists. (Yes, scientists can and do take positions based on beliefs other than the hard conclusions of their research.) There are those who challenge the consensus and there are those troubled by the amount of detail that can be drawn out of the climate observations and models. Often, these criticisms are targeted at the attribution of regional impacts, such as drought, to climate change when there are other plausible and more likely explanations of the localized events. Finally, there are some in the group who are by their nature contrarian; it is their personality, their style, and it has been of value to them in their careers.

The focus on whether or not scientists are in consensus is not a knowledge-based argument. The efforts to argue that there is a lack of consensus in the climate community take isolated comments made for a variety of reasons and amplify them. It is good for distraction; it is good for entertainment.

There are many thousands of scientists, and while large groups of individuals often share many like-minded values and beliefs, they are never in lockstep on the details of all aspects of their beliefs. It is not expected that in a community of thousands of scientists that there is a uniform chant of doctrine. This is especially true given the very nature of scientific investigation of an enormously complex system. Challenging conclusions is part of the scientific method. Scientists tend to reduce problems to pieces to isolate processes, to determine cause and effect. How these pieces are tied together is not unique; the unification is subject to argument. The question for climate change at this point is --- are there fundamental errors in our formulation that would change the basic conclusion that the Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change?

Anecdotal Environmental Observations

There are three current observations of the environment that are being used to challenge that the globe is warming. These are the cold weather in much of the U.S. and Europe, global observations of sea ice, and the lack of sunspots on the Sun.

It has been cold in the East and Midwest of the U.S. and Western Europe and this has stoked reports that global warming is a bogus idea. ( Lou Dobbs Video). The key conclusions of the IPCC are that the Earth has warmed, will warm more, and that the activities of humans are largely responsible for this. That the globe as a whole will warm does not preclude periods of cold as weather systems stall and take on the characteristics of wintertime continents. It still gets dark at the North Pole in the winter, and when the Sun does not shine it gets cold. There is natural variability of the climate and unvarying warming year after year is not demanded by the tenets of global warming. (Rood / Cold in a Warm World, Rood / Cold in the East) Furthermore, if we get away from the eastern part of the U.S. and go to the West, we see many warm states. The weather in Alaska has been stunning. (Masters \ Fire and Ice) There are cold regions and warm regions; there is nothing to establish or challenge the robustness of the conclusions of the IPCC report.

The second piece of geophysical evidence that has circulated the Internet recently is the fact that, currently, during the Northern Hemisphere winter the total area of the ocean covered by sea ice on the planet, north plus south, is comparable to those amounts about thirty years ago. At best this is a naïve observation, and at worst a deceitful way to make a point. The important measure of sea ice is the amount of sea ice that is present in the summer when the Sun is up. Related to this is the thickness of the sea ice in the winter, which determines if the sea ice can last through the summer. (Masters \ Averaging together Antarctic and Arctic Sea Ice …) The North Pole is a place where climate change is amplified. The last two summers have seen the Northwest Passage open; they have seen record melt. The persistent low levels of summer ice in the Northern Hemisphere remains a compelling observation that is consistent with the basic conclusions of global warming by greenhouse gases. (The South Pole is a place where the climate is expected to be relatively stable. This is due to the layout of the continents and the oceans as well as the fact that much of Antarctica is at very high altitudes. {Rood / Cold in the East) Recent papers document that there is slow warming at the South Pole as well (Steig, 2009).)

The final piece of observational information that is fueling current controversy is the fact that sunspots are at a sustained minimum. We have much evidence that when sunspots are low, the Earth’s climate is cool. Therefore, some are led to conclude that the current sunspot minimum will provide natural cooling. This is, in fact, accounted for in climate models, but it is true that the scientific community has not closed the book on the role of solar variability in climate change. The observed climate impact on Earth is larger than the models predict. However, it is still quite small when compared with the impact due to greenhouse gases. Even looking as far back as the Little Ice Age, approximately 400 years ago a period of sustained sunspot minimum, the observed average surface temperature difference was less than a degree different from the long-term mean. (For example, Anderson, 2008) With global warming we are soon expecting two or more degrees centigrade due to greenhouse gases, a far larger number. (Rood \ Solar Variability Series)


These recent observations and measures of opinion motivate conversation, but they do not challenge the fundamental conclusions of climate change science. The Earth will warm, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. Yes there is natural variability, but we can definitively attribute much of the warming to the activities of humans. Majority opinion to the contrary does not make this less true. It is only a convenient belief that abrogates responsibility.

Whenever there is uncertainty, it can always be used to keep ideas from converging. This is part of discourse; it is part of scientific investigation. It can evolve in obfuscation and diversion. It is also true that argument and rhetoric are a normal part of the response to scientific investigation that addresses issues of environmental consequence (Antilla, 2005). It is important to understand the role and motivation of those who challenge the conclusion of the climate change community; it is important to evaluate the credibility of message and the risk of acting on that message relative to the risk of not acting to mitigate climate change and to prepare for adaptation to climate change. The responsible must conclude that it is necessary to prepare for climate change with progressive and growing deliberateness. We have a unique opportunity to be ready for the future.

Cold in the East:

By: RickyRood, 06:00 AM GMT am 19. Januar 2009

Cold in the East:

I generally don’t enter into the rhetoric on climate change that percolates up in the mix of journalism and entertainment that is broadcast and blogged. Last week I caught on Lou Dobbs a discussion about climate change and the recent cold, especially in the upper Midwest and East of the U.S. ( Lou Dobbs Video). There was a reprise in the discussion of the arrogance of scientists to imagine that we humans could impact the climate of the Earth. Since then, I have seen prayers thankful that the global warming myth has been set to rest and Mother Earth can return to taking care of herself, having wrested herself from the stranglehold of scientists. (My take on the arrogance argument is here: Arrogance and Arrogance Redux)

Gavin Schmidt at Realclimate.org is much better at responding to stories like Lou Dobbs than I am. Here is his response: cnn-is-spun-right-round-baby-right-round.

This weekend I have been in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Today in Estes Park, Colorado the high was near 50 F. In Colorado, along the Front Range, many of the towns had highs above 60 F. As Jeff Masters talked about in his blog, along with very cold temperatures in the eastern U.S. and Canada there have been very warm temperatures in Alaska and the U.S. West. In his previous blog Jeff talked about the incorrect if not deceitful averaging together of the northern and southern hemisphere sea ice. I suspect that Lou Dobbs could collect together three panelists from California, British Columbia, and Alaska, and they could provide counterpoint to his show last week. It would be just as bogus.

I want to add a point or two to Jeff’s blog on the sea ice in the northern and southern hemisphere. First, I did a series of blogs on sea ice in October 2007. ( Sea Ice North and South, Sea Ice Arctic, and Sea Ice North (The End)). The point of these blogs was that the northern and southern hemispheres really are different in terms of how ice is formed and melted. This difference is strongly influenced by many things, including the distribution of fresh water. The end result of it all was that in the northern hemisphere, the sea ice was formed at the bottom and melted at the top. The processes of formation and melting in the northern and southern hemisphere are different. There is no reason to expect symmetry.

Second, I occasionally see statements of incredulity that the northern and southern hemispheres are different. It is a question I pose in both my dynamics class and my climate change class. It is one of those simple physics questions suitable for Ph.D. qual exams. Why are the poles so different? It lies in the basic structure of the Earth. At the South Pole is a large continent, Antarctica. Antarctica is of very high altitude. The North Pole is ocean, and on the Atlantic side the Arctic Ocean is open to transport of heat from the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream: The geometry of the continents is different in the northern and southern hemispheres. There are warm ocean currents on the western sides of oceans. In the southern hemisphere the ocean is open between the tip of South America, the tip of Africa and Antarctica. The continents in the southern hemisphere do not steer the warm water to the poles. With the configuration of the continents, Antarctica sitting over the pole, with an altitude of greater than 2 km the South Pole is very different than the North Pole.

Tomorrow it will be 65 F in Boulder, 18 F in Ann Arbor. That’s a strong wave.


Figure 1: Here is a map of ocean currents made in 1943. It is from one of my favorite maps places the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas Note in the north, the “Permanent Polar Ice Cap.” It is immediately evident the difference in how the oceans heat the poles. Note specifically the role of the Gulf Stream. Here is a larger version of the map; one you can read.

Blog Number 100: (Should we all move to the city?)

By: RickyRood, 01:30 AM GMT am 11. Januar 2009

Blog Number 100: (Should we all move to the city?)

So this is blog number 100 since I started with wunderground. I’ve spent part of the day wandering around the blogosphere and thinking about climate change and where to go next. What are useful and interesting and unique items to write about? Towards that end, I would be happy to receive input on what you think would be interesting subjects. Also, as I know several experts read this blog, this semester I am especially interested in references that cross disciplines. For instance, if you run across a paper or report in your profession that is an excellent paper on climate change and how it will impact or be addressed by your profession, I would love to hear about it. For example, a year ago one of my students brought my attention to an entire special issue of the U Penn Law Review. Since my class is on breaking down stovepipes to facilitate problem solving, I, often, find new references for my class this way.

One of my goals in the next few months is to start to learn a lot more about the “solution space.” With the new administration we are seeing a lot of positioning about policy and, in particular, people taking positions on cap and trade versus taxes and fees. (I, of course, don’t think that these are two alternatives, but that one (taxes and fees) is a path to the other (cap and trade). See Rood and Thoumi over at Mongabay.com). Just in the last couple of days, the fact that the Exxon CEO has called for a carbon tax has initiated all sorts of accusatory rhetoric. Link to Sayanything.com and Story in the Independent. Once this rhetoric gets spun up, it’s fundamentally useless and uninteresting. I am ultimately interested in what people are really starting to do. I want to be able to bring those ideas to the front.

Over the past year or so it has occurred to me that one of the greatest levers that we might have on addressing climate change is through urban planning. There has been a lot of discussion about “megacities” and the fact that more than half of the people in the world will soon live in cities and that many of these cities are very close to sea level. (See Megacities Projects ). Much of the discussion is about how these cities, these people, are most vulnerable to climate change because of sea level rise. True.

But the cities also concentrate people and, therefore, offer great opportunities of mass efficiency because of improved transportation systems and the ability to use zoning laws and building codes to specify practices and materials that improve efficiency and improve the environment. There are concentrations of transportation, residential buildings, and industries – the primary users of energy. It makes sense that if we are going to support nine billion people, that concentration of people with modern planned infrastructure offers an important strategy for addressing climate change.

Since I have learned, but often forget, that the probability of me having both an original and good thought is very small, of course, there are many others that have already thought about the importance of cities in addressing climate change. Here is the site of the C40 Group - large cities and their efforts to tackle climate change. In fact, throughout the U.S. there have been many efforts to address climate change, both large and small scale. The advantage that cities offer is that through local policy they can magnify, tremendously, the efforts of efficiency that are often associated with individuals. Historically, U.S. federal policy has followed local and regional policy, often as a cry for uniform policy.

Policy: The real issue with policy in the next year will be how to keep climate change initiatives alive and how to evolve effective policy in the face of the economic challenges we face. Already with the fall of oil prices we see the dismissal of alternative fuel efforts which were, six months ago, our future. Perhaps in the spirit of dark humor, as I say in my class, we have only one proven method of significant carbon dioxide reduction - Economic collapse. The examples I use are the Soviet Union and the State of Michigan. I am sure that there are those out there who can bring forward examples that are more in the spirit of optimistic.


Figure 1: My trip to Chicago, 2007. Does every one take this picture?

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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