Climate alarmists are so frustrated by their losing the debate — both in public opinion of the importance of “climate change” as an issue and in climate data itself — that their response to even the most docile of questioning is to belittle the questioner and, after saying “Trust me, I’m a scientist,” bombard readers with misuse of statistics and misleading implications.
The most recent example comes from Mark Buchanan, “a physicist and science writer,” who penned an obnoxious little screed for Bloomberg View attacking hedge-fund manager Cliff Asness of AQR Capital for having the temerity to write a paper questioning alarmist claims of impending climate doom. This even though Asness and his co-author, Aaron Brown, state up front “we are not challenging climate science; we are not climate scientists.”
If anything, Messrs. Asness and Brown are far too gentle with the warmists, for example by using a largely land-based data set that shows more warming than the satellite (troposphere) data — the latter measurements having been instituted in part due to fear of inaccuracy of land measurements for a variety of reasons.
Buchanan’s note is entitled “Asness Should Manage Money, Not the Planet.” Despite his patronizing tone, perhaps thinking it is he who should manage the planet, Buchanan actually agrees with most of what Asness and Brown write regarding extrapolation of data. He should have stopped there, because in his own argument Buchanan offers only misleading conclusions and mischaracterization of fact.
Buchanan says that Asness’s reasoning “makes sense only if you ignore how physics actually works.” So now that we’re all so impressed with Buchanan’s snobbery and assured that we must respect his authoritah — although he’s also not a climate scientist — he offers us this, which portends to be an insight but which instead devastates his own claims about climate data and every criticism he offers of Asness and Brown — because Buchanan himself ignores how physics actually works:
The Asness-Brown projections suffer from a similar lack of insight, only worse. In this case, the ignored catalyst is carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that causes enhanced retention of heat energy from sunlight. We know that global warming has gained momentum along with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has gone from only 280 parts per million in the pre-industrial era to about 400 ppm today. We also know that the concentration will accelerate, given the rate at which we’re producing carbon dioxide. As a result, we should expect accelerating temperature change.
There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll give it the old college try:
• What exactly does a “powerful greenhouse gas” mean? First, the vast majority (roughly 75%, though with fairly wide error bars) of the “greenhouse effect” is caused by water vapor and clouds, not CO2. Second, among the remaining greenhouse gas contributors, CO2 has a large weighting (estimated between 10% and 25% of total greenhouse effect) not because it is “powerful” in the sense that most people would use that word but because it has a much higher atmospheric concentration than other greenhouse gases. For example, methane, the third most important greenhouse gas after water vapor and CO2 has less than 1/200th of the atmospheric concentration of CO2 but is, according to the left-wing Environmental Defense Fund, “in the first two decades after its release…84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.” So is CO2 really “powerful”?
• The statement that “global warming has gained momentum along with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere” makes three statistical errors: First, it cherry-picks a starting point; second, it overstates the results of one data set and ignores a credible data set with contradictory results; and third it implies direct causation. Let’s take each in turn:
1. It is not illogical to pay particular attention to global temperatures in the period since the Industrial Revolution allowed humans to live longer better lives — which corresponded with emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, it remains worth noting that during the existence of homo sapiens the planet has many times been warmer than it is now, including within the past millennium. A chart showing temperatures going back hundreds of millions of years is even more dramatic. So in the long run and in the very long run, it’s difficult to call the temperature changes of the past few decades some sort of important “momentum.”
2. Similarly, in the shorter run, even the largely land-based data set that I wish Mr. Asness had not used as his only source of temperature data shows precious little warming in the past 18 years or in a “five-year running mean.” More importantly, the UAH satellite data show no warming at all since 1997 (which was an El Niño spike) and an essentially flat trend since the early 2000s (well after the end of that particular El Niño.) Not a single UN alarmist temperature model can account for this hiatus in warming — a real occurrence that, again, I wish Mr. Asness had not conceded (or rather conceded that it does not exist) to the alarmists.
3. Finally, multiple studies suggest that atmospheric CO2 concentrations lag rather than lead temperature changes. In other words, to say that global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels have both increased is intentionally misleading: not only is causation not proven in a system as complicated as the earth’s climate (particularly due to poorly understood feedback mechanisms), but the causation could be in the other direction, with warming temperatures causing increased CO2 levels.
• In saying that “We also know that the concentration will accelerate, given the rate at which we’re producing carbon dioxide. As a result, we should expect accelerating temperature change,” Dr. Buchanan demonstrates himself to be either a fabulist or else understanding much less than he pretends to on this subject. It has been known since the 1930s that the impact of increasing CO2 concentrations is roughly logarithmic, meaning that each additional molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a smaller impact on temperature than the prior molecule.
That is why much scientific discussion of the impact of CO2 on global temperatures is in terms of doubling of CO2 rather than a straight-line increase; simply put, the next 120 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 added to the atmosphere will have a smaller effect than the last 120 ppm (which Buchanan seems to find so troubling even though I doubt he can point to a single negative impact of the change).
One analysis suggests that “for the 50-year period ending 1963, for each ppm increase of CO2 there was an associated increase of +0.024°C; in contrast, for the 50-year period ending 2013, the impact on warming was 67% less per ppm.” Indeed, many research papers show a far lower climate sensitivity to CO2 than the UN’s alarmists’ claim. Buchanan’s implication that “accelerating” CO2 concentrations mean equally accelerating temperatures is living proof of Mark Twain’s maxim that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Dr. Buchanan seems like a man who felt as if he just had to write something, ignoring the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln that it is “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” How strange to see Buchanan note near the end of his article that “Asness and Brown acknowledge pretty much everything I’ve said in their paper.” But of course, Asness and Brown said it first. Buchanan, demonstrating with the “fatal conceit” of liberals and academics (I apologize if those terms are redundant), ends up doing little more than offering tripe and deceit in an effort to criticize Asness and Brown while actually agreeing with them.
In a postscript to their paper, Cliff Asness notes that he has received a “large majority of positive responses” while the minority of negative responses “come about equally from people who do not believe warming is a problem at all, and people who believe that catastrophic warming is imminent or even has already occurred.” I’m more or less in the former camp, and as such — even while the primary purpose of this note is to defend Asness against the scurrilous criticism of Mark Buchanan — I would offer a modest criticism of Asness and Brown and suggest some analysis that should appeal to their laudable focus on data.
Asness and Brown write that “No one denies that there are some risks and costs to any amount of warming” (I do in fact deny that, for example, a 0.1 degree Celsius warming has any measurable risk or cost) and further that “there seems to be a scientific consensus that less than 1°C or 2°C of warming would make global warming no more serious than several other environmental issues…”
This concedes far too much to the warmists because it adopts their “risk-only” approach to climate change rather than wondering — a discussion that is strangely absent from the debate — about the benefits of global warming and the adaptability of human beings.
Regarding the former several things need to be addressed:
• Cold is more dangerous than heat: According to data from the CDC, during 2006-2010 approximately twice as many Americans died from exposure to “excessive natural cold” than to “excessive natural heat.”
• A warming planet will make food cheaper and more plentiful: According to the EPA, hardly a haven for climate “deniers,” “Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) can be beneficial for some crops in some places.” One study says that “For a 300 ppm increase in the air’s CO2 content, for example, herbaceous plant biomass is typically enhanced by 25 to 55%, representing an important positive externality that is absent from today’s state-of-the-art social cost of carbon (SCC) calculations.” The same study argues that the “direct monetary benefits conferred by atmospheric CO2 enrichment” reached $140 billion by 2011 and “amount(s) to a total sum of $3.2 trillion over the 50-year period 1961-2011.” Now this study may overstate the benefit on food production of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (or it may understate it), but this is an important question that must be part of an honest debate. It could also be a useful debating point when talking to environmentalists that “Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades,” something that could reasonably be attributed, at least in part, to increasing CO2 concentrations.
• Admitting (as Dr. Buchanan doesn’t) that correlation is not causation, increasing CO2 concentrations don’t correlate nearly as well with global temperatures as they do with per-capita GDP and, most importantly, with life expectancy. It is not that more carbon dioxide is better for our bodies (though it’s also not worse for our bodies because we’re talking about such tiny concentrations — how many Americans can tell you that we’re talking about a gas that comprises 0.04% of the atmosphere?) Instead, it’s that CO2 is a byproduct of the modern industrialized world which produces houses and electricity and clothes and fertilizer to grow affordable food; saying you want to stop CO2 is little more than saying you want to keep poor and hungry people poor and hungry so you can claim to be saving the planet. So much of the impetus behind radical environmentalists (including global warming alarmists) seems due not to love of the planet but rather to dislike of humanity.
Regarding adaptability, humans have survived and thrived through times both warmer and cooler than current world temperatures. The idea that a modest (or even immodest) change in temperatures would be catastrophic for the species implies that we are no smarter or more capable than amoebae, sitting around waiting for the environment to destroy us.
But we’re not blind and stupid and that’s why over the last several decades — including the period with more substantial warming than during the last two decades — the number of heat-related deaths has persistently declined in the United States and in Europe. We adapt, we go into air-conditioned rooms, we don’t work ourselves into heat stroke — we learn, because we prefer not to die. The risk of heat-related death to poorer people living in less-developed countries can similarly be mitigated by encouraging them to industrialize (or otherwise get rich) more rapidly, regardless of the irrelevant-by-comparison impact on carbon dioxide concentrations of moving a country out of poverty.
So I ask Mr. Asness and Mr. Brown: Before conceding harmful talking points to the alarmists, please look at other data sets and consider whether the fundamental premise of the alarmist movement — that global warming poses substantial “risks and costs” to society, or at least risks and costs that outweigh potential benefits — stands up to even cursory examination.
In the meantime, if the best that frustrated alarmist critics of tame, perhaps even timid, questioning of their dogma can manage is to implicitly agree with their critics while showing themselves to be dishonest brokers of information, those of us who actually want people to live longer happier lives can breathe a little easier (including in that tiny bit of extra CO2) knowing that people like Dr. Buchanan realize they’re losing the argument.