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Some Popular Global Warming Factoids

Feature

John Eades

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.6, November/December 2014

Norman Mailer coined the word factoids to describe facts that have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, but once they do appear they are accepted without question. Some global warming deniers are especially fond of them.

Factoids, according to Norman Mailer, are plausible statements made with great authority but no empirical backing. Even those of us who pride ourselves on our critical faculties sometimes accept them unquestioningly on the assumption that the author or reporter who made them has checked them out properly, so it’s okay to believe or repeat them. Mailer might have added radio and television to his list and, today, certainly, the Internet—the medium that seems to have been especially conceived for the promulgation of factoids.

Journalists, politicians, letter writers, and media pundits who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) seem to be unusually factoid-prone. What follows is my attempt to “de-authoritize” a few of their apparently unsinkable favorites. Factoids being what they are, I do not expect to succeed.

They Can’t Even Get Tomorrow’s Weather Forecast Right

“Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we are asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future” (Crichton 2003).

Like the late Michael Crichton, MD, novelist, film producer, and trusted adviser to President G.W. Bush, many people believe that climate scientists make weather forecasts far into the future. This would mean predicting day by day, and for an extended period (like the 2090s), morning, noon, and nighttime temperatures for New York, Tokyo, Paris, Copenhagen, and a multitude of other places around the world. Besides being a battle lost in advance, such an effort would also be quite pointless, since to understand the global impact of climatic change, we don’t need hour-by-hour weather maps for every locality on the planet. We do need things like the planet-wide average of the surface temperature. Almost all climate scientists now agree that this is rising, and that the main culprit is our loading of the atmosphere with ever more CO2 by the burning of ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels. What this extra warmth will mean for life on Earth in the coming decades depends on factors like the future consumption of these resources.

Volcanoes Are Worse Than Fossil Fuels

“That volcano in Iceland has totally erased every single effort made by the world’s governments through the Kyoto Treaty. And there are around 200 active volcanoes on the planet spewing out CO2 and ash at any one time—EVERY DAY” (Tipp 2011).

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was, as such things go, peanuts. It nevertheless disrupted airline services worldwide, giving Derek Tipp, an outspoken conservative AGW dissenter from the United Kingdom, an opportunity to reassert his oft-repeated claim that volcanic CO2 vastly exceeds fossil CO2. This is quite simply not true. As vulcanologist Terry Gerlach explains in a highly readable article published by the American Geophysical Union (Gerlach 2011), anthropogenic CO2 emissions total more than 30 Gt (gigatons) per year; volcanic ones typically measure a mere 0.25 Gt.

Airliners were not endangered by Eyjafjallajökull’s minuscule CO2 emission but by the potential clogging of their engines by ash, which was carried by prevailing winds into busy air corridors. All volcanic eruptions release sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the upper atmosphere as well as ash. Here it reflects some of the sun’s rays, later falling to the ground in the form of raindrops laced with sulfuric acid (acid rain). So not only does volcanic activity not heat the world, it cools it, at least until the SO2 and ashes have both been rained out.

Eyjafjallajökull’s global cooling effect was small. Pinatubo’s, in the Phillippines in 1991, was not: it produced a global temperature drop averaging about 0.3° C, which persisted through 1992 (USGS n.d.). While Tipp claims that Pinatubo “spewed out more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race had emitted in its entire YEARS on earth,” he is strangely silent on the 1815 Tambora, Indonesia, eruption (USGS n.d.). This, the most dramatic volcanic event in recorded history, cooled some parts of the globe by more than 3° C and caused Europe and North America to experience in 1816 what came to be known as the year without a summer.

Nothing New Here

“Climate has always been changing and will continue to change forever. This ‘Global Warming’ scam will go down in history as just another example of how easy it is to fool most of the people most of the time.”

This anonymous critic of a January 2014 Cape Breton Post article on global warming apparently doesn’t realize that the very fact that climate is always changing destroys his own argument. Droughts, floods, famines, etc., induced by climate change have been identified as the culprit in the decline, and sometimes the extinction, of many ancient civilizations (Fagan 2004). Those events were usually regional or local, and were not foreseeable by their victims. The present one is different: we can see it coming, it is global, and it is faster and bigger than any that has occurred for many thousands of years.

Far Too Little Fossil Fuel CO2 to Affect Climate

“As a percentage of the atmosphere, CO2 is up a mere 69.59 parts per million since 1959” (Mulshine 2009).

The idea that the change in atmospheric CO2 since preindustrial times is far too small to cause large-scale climatic effects is widely advertised as a killer argument against AGW. Observation and experiment, however, teach us just the opposite. To keep its temperature constant, Earth must radiate into space the same quantity of heat as it receives from the sun each second. Laboratory studies first made about 150 years ago show that the oxygen and nitrogen, which respectively comprise 21 percent and 78 percent of the atmosphere, are almost transparent to this outgoing infrared radiation, but that the CO2 component, even at its 280 ppm preindustrial level, absorbs a sizable fraction of the heat radiated from the surface within the first 10–20 m.1 Without these 280 ppm, the preindustrial world would consequently have been some 10° C colder than it in fact was. In this context, quoting its level as a percentage of the total atmosphere is quite meaningless. Furthermore, the present warming trend did not start in 1959 but at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and since the CO2 component of the atmosphere is now 400 ppm it is up 43 percent, not the Star Ledger journalist’s “mere” 69.59 ppm.

It’s Only a Few Measly Degrees Anyway

“Global Warming? Somebody tell this man why a few degrees of extra warmth are bad!” (Catholic Online 2013).

The man in question is Gov. Paul LePage (R.–Maine). A few degrees may not sound like much when day-to-day, even hour-to-hour temperature fluctuations of a few degrees at a given place go almost unnoticed. Why, then, asks the governor, are we trying—without conspicuous success—to keep global warming below 2° C when that extra warmth sounds like good news?

The weakness of this argument is that short-term changes in local weather are useless for putting long-term, global, climatic ones in context. A much more reliable yardstick is the change, clearly archived in Antarctic and Greenland ice cores, that marked the end of the last ice age. This climatic event literally redrew the map of Europe, North America, and elsewhere by melting millions of square kilometers of ice sheets and raising the global average sea level by something like 100 meters. Yet the ice core record shows that these changes resulted from an average global temperature rise2 of only 5° C.

Nevertheless, we survived. Would we even notice the one meter rise in sea level and the 3° C temperature change predicted by 2100 for the “business as usual” scenario of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? First, only a few million people were around in 10,000 bc to experience the consequences of that change, and those who were could move without much hindrance if they didn’t like the way things were going. Now there are 7 billion of us, many living in populous cities near or below sea level. Still more live in low-lying areas of countries like Bangladesh and the Netherlands and in parts of the United States like Florida and Louisiana. A one-meter sea level rise would oblige many of these people to move. We read stories almost daily about the difficulties associated with present-day population movements. If migration at this level is such a big problem, our tightly interconnected world will face far worse ones by 2100.

Sneaky Activists Changed ‘Global Warming’ to ‘Climate Change’

“The terminology in the upcoming environmental debate needs refinement. . . . It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming.’ . . . While global warming has catastrophic connotations to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge . . .” (Luntz 2002).

The above comes from a strategy document submitted to the Bush administration in 2002 by Frank Luntz, a prominent Republican strategist. AGW deniers nevertheless insist that it was global warming activists and not the political establishment of the time that replaced the term global warming by climate change, when they realized that their climate projections were all wrong. Since climate change can mean lower as well as higher temperatures, they would then be covering themselves against the possibility of the planet getting cooler instead of warmer. In fact the two terms were used interchangeably until about 1998 when the IPCC settled upon the latter, apparently at the insistence of oil-producing countries and the United States (Poole 2007).

Melting Ice Cannot Raise Sea-Level

“If you have a glass of water with ice cubes in it, as the ice melts, it simply turns to liquid and the water level in the glass remains the same . . . (so that) even if polar ice caps melted, there would be no rise in ocean levels.”

This proclamation, made by Rush Limbaugh on a June 1992 radio talk show, has had a long shelf-life. It is correct for ice cubes already floating in a glass, and for the arctic ice cap, which is also afloat.3 However, adding ice cubes to the glass will clearly change the water level. This is the situation for ice melts in Greenland and Antarctica, where kilometers-thick layers of ice aren’t floating in the sea but are anchored to the underlying land masses. As for the added ice cubes, the ice doesn’t even have to melt: if part of it becomes detached from the main mass and slides into the ocean, it will displace the same amount of water as if it had first melted and then run off.

At the moment global sea level increases by about 3mm per year. Most of this comes from thermal expansion of the oceans as the temperature goes up. The contribution from melting ice is small; it would dominate only if Greenland and Antarctic ice melts took off in a big way.

It’s Just Computer Models . . .

“The greenhouse fearmongers rely on unverified, crudely oversimplified models to finger mankind’s sinful contribution . . .” (Cockburn 2007).

The late Alexander Cockburn was a frequent contributor to The Nation, where he was famous for the “take no prisoners” style of his usually left-leaning writings. Global climate, or General Circulation Models (GCMs) apply the laws of nature (Newton’s laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, etc.) to calculate the time evolution of the atmosphere, the oceans, the polar ice, etc., under the influence of natural phenomena like volcanoes and solar variation, as well as human activities like fossil fuel burning and cement production. GCMs are not perfect, notably in the area of cloud formation, but they are constantly being refined as more and better data, faster computers, and improved computational techniques become available. Rejecting their results out of hand as unverified and oversimplified is a bit like treating the laws of nature as some kind of optional extra that you can ignore if you don’t like the conclusions they lead to.

Calculations need input data. These are not just made up; they come from present and past measurements of temperatures, ocean salinity, fossil fuel consumption, and so on. And of course scientists are well aware of the garbage in-garbage out effect. Several such models developed by different research groups around the world reproduce well the observed pattern of rising temperature since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Furthermore, when they are run with the anthropogenic part taken out, this “good fit” to the observed pattern becomes a very bad one. Assumptions about future fossil fuel consumption can be included in the data, and this is where the predictive value of GCMs comes in, and much of the uncertainty.

Uncertainty ? So You Can’t Trust the Models . . .

“Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. . . . You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate” (Luntz 2002).

Luntz was here effectively advising George W. Bush to accept nothing short of absolute certainty in projections of future climate. Yet no measurement can be made with infinite precision, and much of the art involved in observation and experiment lies in estimating margins of error and refining techniques to reduce them as far as possible. The fact that the several independent GCMs in existence cross-check within their estimated margins of error is robust evidence that they are basically correct. To most nonscien­tists, however, the words error and mistake are synonymous. So Luntz is arguing that honestly admitting that global warming science can never be absolutely right is admitting it is just plain wrong.

Exhaled CO2 Exceeds Fossil Fuel Emissions

“I exhale carbon dioxide. I don’t want those guys following me around with a meter to see if I’m breathing too hard” (Romney 2011).

We inhale about four liters of CO2 per day but exhale about 350 liters. If we didn’t do this we would die, as this additional CO2 is a waste product of our metabolism. Annual CO2 exhalations from humans and animals amount to a few Gt, so even if it were necessary to include breathing among the global warming culprits, its contribution would be small compared to the 30 Gt anthropogenic total. However, we need not, in fact should not, take exhaled CO2 into account, since the additional 346 litres is just what we absorbed from the grains, fruits, vegetables, etc., in our diet, and was itself absorbed by these foodstuffs from the atmosphere when they were growing. Since anabolic processes in our food animals convert dietary plant material into tissue, meat eating accounts for part of the 346 liter total. CO2 exhaled by both animal and human life simply goes back into the environment as part of a closed cycle.

Conclusion

The individuals quoted above were doubtless expressing honestly held opinions. Belief is, however, no guarantee against being wrong. Most of their factoids are indeed long-dead horses, still being flogged as sure-fire winners in arguments against climate science. While not all AGW critics make such errors, those who do often make the most noise, so their factoids go viral all the more quickly. And they are certainly not alone in falling into the factoid trap—some environmentalists with strong opinions on the topic can and do fall into it too.

One last factoid will be especially annoying to SI readers: the claim that skeptics in the CSI sense are not real skeptics about global warming because they don’t categorically reject claims made by the thousands of scientists worldwide who spend their entire careers doing climate research. This charge has frequently been leveled at the Skepticalscience.com website, http://www.skepticalscience.com/fixednum.php, which addresses many more factoids than space permits in an article such as this one. There is no adequate defense to this allegation except perhaps to remind offenders politely of the wise words of Sir Walter Raleigh: “The Skeptick doth neither affirm nor deny any position, but doubteth of it, and opposeth his Reason against that which is affirmed or denied to justify his non-consenting.”

Or maybe not. He got his head chopped off.


Notes

1. CO2 absorbs heat most efficiently just where the earth radiates it most strongly, at wavelengths around 14–16 micrometers. The absorption length goes up with increasing altitude, down with increasing CO2. The figure quoted is an approximate sea level average.

2. The average temperature rise inferred for the polar regions some 12,000 years ago is about 9° C. Then, as now, this was about twice the global average.

3. Briny seawater is denser than the pure water ice formed in it. Consequently, melting sea ice does raise the level by a small amount.

References

Catholic Online (News Consortium). 2013. Global warming? Somebody tell this man why a few degrees of extra warmth are bad. Online at http://www.catholic.org/news/green/story.php?id=53482.

Cockburn, A. 2007. Is global warming a sin? Online at http://www.creators.com/opinion/alexander-cockburn/is-global-warming-a-sin.html.

Crichton, M. 2003. Aliens cause global warming. Online at https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~scranmer/SPD/crichton.html.

Fagan, B. 2004. The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization. London: Granta.

Gerlach, T. 2011. Volcanic versus anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Eos, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union 92(24): 201–203.

Luntz, F. 2002. The environment, a cleaner, safer healthier America. Online at https://www2.bc.edu/~plater/Newpublicsite06/suppmats/02.6.pdf.

Mulshine, P. 2009. Do the math: What’s wrong with this global warming argument? Online at http://blog.nj.com/njv_paul_mulshine/2009/05/do_the_math_whats_wrong_with_t.html.

Poole, S. 2007. Unspeak—Words Are Weapons. London: Abacus, pp. 42–46.

Romney, M. 2011. Mitt Romney: I exhale carbon dioxide. Online at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1111/68709.html.

Tipp, D. 2011. Comment on The Bore Hole. Online at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/the-bore-hole/comment-page-8/#comment-207905.

USGS. N.d. Volcanoes and the weather. Online at vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Glossary/VolcWeather/description_volcanoes_and_weather.html.

John Eades

John Eades, PhD, is a graduate of Liverpool University. As a CERN senior physicist he carried out research on antihydrogen and antiprotonic helium in collaboration with Japanese and European colleagues for several years until his retirement. He is now affiliated with Tokyo University.