Friday, July 6, 2007

Peering Into the Puddle of Gore’s Melted Scientific Claims (Part 1)

The Chicago Sun-Times recently published a piece scathing some of the claims made by proponents of the view that climate change is happening, is man-made, and is dangerous. Namely, it was Al Gore to which the attack was directed, and its targets were Gore's main theses set out, respectively, in his books The Assault on Reason and An Inconvenient Truth (AIT).

On Reason (a book which I have not yet found time to read), the article author draws attention to Gore's argument that genuine intellectual and reasoned debate and discussion has declined - and is even under attack - in the US (hopefully this blog can help with that), but uses AIT, and Gore's scientifically-based arguments therein, as a way to essentially make a tu quo que argument against Gore: that because Gore apparently does not engage in reasoned and intelligent discussion via AIT, Gore is a hypocrite (and therefore wrong in Reason?)

Whether or not climate change is happening, is man-made, and is dangerous, is not the main issue in this post. To address that question, I direct you to the summary provided by NewScientist's article entitled Climate Change: A Guide for the Perplexed, which isn't so much the final word on the issue as it is a good start for any curious observer of this issue who is, well, looking for a credible and reliable place to start. What is at issue is whether the article's author makes a strong case against Gore's claims, and whether or not the piece is worthy of being referred to as "skepticism".

There are a number of claims in this article that I would like to address. When reading any article written about scientific conclusions, it is important to double-check the papers from which they cite and see whether or not they really support the conclusions drawn from them. I think that we can agree that any respectable skeptic, if he or she is out to find the truth, should check to see if a game of Chinese Whispers has not occurred and to make sure that everyone has interpreted everyone else correctly. Otherwise, there is no point in being a skeptic.
The Article's Discussion
James M. Taylor, the author of the Sun-Times article, presents several strings of argument and research that are meant to discredit the claims that Gore makes in the slideshow presented in AIT. On the one hand, some of them are strong, and make for some startling and persuasive (but probably unfair) criticisms of Gore’s presentation. (However, it’s unclear how some of these are supposed to support the notion that Gore has distorted the discussion in the way he refers to in Reason.) On the other hand, Taylor draws some quite unjustified conclusions from the research he cites. I will go through both hands in their turn, and in no particular order.
Wind Shear?
Gore's claim about hurricanes is probably the most familiar and relevant to Americans who have seen (and who have heard about) AIT. The author touts that research done in 2007 argues that hurricane activity (i.e. either the amount of storms or the strength of storms) will not increase this century due to increased “wind shear”. This seems to directly contravene Gore’s points. Yet, the article states only that this may be the case, and that more research needs to be done on the subject. Indeed, they state:

“Based on published connections between large-scale environmental parameters and hurricane activity [e.g. Emanuel and Nolan 2004], the changes shown here alone would not suggest a strong anthropogenic increase in tropical Atlantic or East Pacific hurricane activity during the 21st Century; although other regions (e.g. Indian and western/central Pacific Oceans) show consistent changes towards more hurricane-favorable conditions… Thus, it appears that – in the tropical Atlantic and East Pacific Oceans - the increase in vertical wind shear could partly mitigate the increased thermodynamic tendency towards increased storm intensity. However, it is important to note that it is only in the tropical Atlantic and East Pacific Oceans that there is a projected increase of shear during the local hurricane season. In the West Pacific and Indian Oceans, the models projected along-term decrease in vertical wind shear through the 21st Century.” (pp. 8, 23)

Besides which, Gore made his claims in 2006, before these modeling experiments were published. It is not fair to criticize Gore’s conclusions given that they were made before this paper was published. Still, as you can see, the conclusions do not necessarily refute Gore, although they comprise interesting addenda that he ought to draw attention to (perhaps in a podcast?). Gore isn’t wrong; but he is in need of an update.

A Cooling Ice Sheet in Antarctica? Which part?

It is not entirely clear where Taylor wants to go with this one. It seems as if he is claiming that Gore was wrong to be talking about melting in the Antarctic at all. He disputes Gore on three fronts: that Antarctica is melting, that it has warmed, and that it will melt much in the future. But, in fact, Gore kept most of his discussion to the West Antarctic ice sheet, and not Antarctica as a whole (which has indeed cooled somewhat). The Western ice sheet is indeed melting in certain parts. Any foray into the data will show you that, while most of Antarctica has cooled (or has not warmed), the West ice sheet has experienced warming. Taylor cites the IPCC’s statement that it does not expect Antarctica to melt much in the 21st century, in hopes (I think) of showing that Gore was wrong to say that it would melt quite a bit in the 21st century. The only point to keep in mind, of course, is that Gore did not give any predictions as to how much or when the ice would melt in Antarctica.

Growing glaciers in the Himalayas?

Onto the point about the Himalayas. Taylor simply gets wrong the main conclusions of the Journal of Climate paper he cites, and I fear (although I don’t know) he may have made up the last quote he claims to have taken from it. Whereas Taylor implies that this research shows that glacier growth in the Himalayas refutes claims that they are shrinking. The Journal of Climate paper, instead of showing that all of the Himalayan glaciers are growing - and much less than refuting global warming claims - said this:

“The observed downward trend in summer temperature and runoff is consistent with the observed thickening and expansion of Karakoram glaciers, in contrast to widespread decay and retreat in the eastern Himalayas. This suggests that the western Himalayas are showing a different response to global warming than other parts of the globe.” (Abstract)

If I remember correctly, Gore kept his discussion to the eastern glaciers located closer to China and India; it was around this point in Gore’s discussion that he turned to the potential effects of lowering glacial water runoff in these regions. It probably would have been important for him to include the western glaciers in order to illustrate that climate change is complex. But insofar Taylor is concerned, global warming claims are thrown into question by this research. My question – and indeed every skeptic’s question – should be: how?

I’ll write a little more on this article later, but what I have presented so far is, I hope, enough to show you that careful reading and fact checking are indispensable parts of any critical appraisal of an article – especially an article reporting on a very complicated and nuanced scientific issue such as climate change. However, Gore is not squeaky clean on this issue. Yet, I think that we can diagnose, with increasing confidence, that this article as just another symptom of the “decline of reason” that Gore talks about in Reason.

Look out for Part 2 of this post, which will be put up shortly.

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