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Thursday, October 14, 2021

George Will: Willful Ignorance About Climate Change


The Washington Post recently published an op-ed on climate change by aging political commentator George Will.  (August 12, 2021,, too bad about the paywall).  Will’s commentary appears to be drawn exclusively from a book by noted climate-change denier Steven Koonin.  George Will has been a climate-change denier since at least 2007, holding forth on a variety of ideas which were either false at the time or have been subsequently debunked. 

There are very basic errors of fact throughout Will’s current column.   His talking points seem to drawn from the early 1990s, and he is oblivious to the quantity of definitive data about the climate that has been gathered over the past 30 years.

Will begins by saying, “There is a low ratio of evidence to passion in today’s exhortations to combat climate change.”  Ridiculous.  Climate change is probably the most intensively studied scientific topic in history, with tens of thousands of scientific reports written by thousands of scientists.  Over the last three decades, scientists have implemented monitoring systems specifically designed to measure the impact of greenhouse gases on the global climate.  We are closely measuring incoming energy from the sun; energy radiating from the earth into space according to wavelength, measuring the impact of greenhouse gases; the temperature and heat content of the oceans to 2000 meters, the temperature of the air from the surface to the stratosphere, the mass of the ice caps, the area, thickness and age of Arctic sea ice, the melting of continental glaciers; the temperature of the ocean surface; global changes in sea level; the CO2 and methane content and isotope chemistry of the atmosphere, etc.  Considering all of these data, the IPCC 6th Assessment Report reaches a clear conclusion: that warming of the global climate due to human activities is an unequivocal, established fact.

The early draft of Volume I of the IPCC 6th Climate Appraisal runs over 3500 pages, written by about 300 authors.  The full report, when completed, will involve about 700 authors.  The US Fourth National Climate Assessment weighs in at over 1500 pages by 300 scientists from 13 US government agencies.  These follow on three decades of earlier reports with contributions from thousands of scientists, representing tens of thousands of scientific papers.  There is not a lack of evidence regarding climate change.

Will repeats the hoary comment that the climate is always changing, which is completely irrelevant.  The point is that the climate is rapidly changing now due to human emissions of greenhouse gases, and we know it.  This self-induced fiasco will cause substantial harm to people and nature in coming decades, and has already begun.  Past changes have no bearing on our problem. 

Will complains that science has limited ability to disentangle human and natural influences in the climate changes during the Little Ice Age (1450 – 1850), or in the cooling period from 1940 – 1980.  Will is misconstruing lack of data for a lack of understanding.  Using Will’s reasoning, if a doctor is unable to diagnose the cause of death for King Francis II of France (1544 – 1560), why would anyone go to a doctor today?  The answer is obvious; it is because the doctor looking at today’s patient has MRI images, blood chemistry, and a host of other diagnostic medical tools.  Similarly, the instrumentation for earth systems implemented in the past 30 years allows us to clearly diagnose what is happening to the climate now.

Will states that sea level has been rising a few millimeters a year for 20,000 years, and cites a source which denies that sea level has been rising over the past century, or that melting of ice-sheets is currently higher than in the past.  These points are patently false.  Sea level rose sharply at the end of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, but stabilized about 5000 years ago.  In the past 5000 years, sea level has risen only about a meter, rising at a rate of about 0.2 mm/yr to the present (Lambeck et al, 2014; also R. Rohde, Berkeley Earth, from other published data).  Sea level is a proxy for climate, and stable sea level implies a stable climate in the last five millennia.  According to satellite measurements, the current rate of sea level rise is now 15 times faster than the past 5000 years, and accelerating. Continuous coastal sea-level measurements dating from the 1800s also verify the acceleration of sea-level rise.  Melting ice accounts for about 60% of that rise, with thermal expansion of the warming ocean accounting for the rest.  Will’s point in the same paragraph, about relatively little change in the average warmest temperature in the United States is cherry-picking the various parameters (change in lowest temperature, change in average temperature, change in winter temperatures, etc.) to find the parameter with the least change, in a deliberate attempt at obfuscation and distortion.

Sea level stabilized about 6000 years ago, meaning that climate also stabilized after deglaciation following last ice age. 

Will disputes media reports that hurricanes are increasing in number and intensity.  The concern about hurricanes is not about what has happened thus far, but what will happen as climate change advances.  The sea surface temperature is rising.  Hurricane strength and frequency are driven by higher sea surface temperatures and will inexorable become stronger and more frequent in the future.  Scientists are not correlating hurricane strength to greenhouse gases and making an extrapolation; scientists are forecasting stronger hurricanes because they understand how things work.

Hurricane wind speed versus sea surface temperature, modified from Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth.  Higher sea surface temperatures will inevitably mean stronger hurricanes.  Sea surface temperatures are inexorably rising.

Will attempts to deflect responsibility for rising CO2 from the developed world to the developing world, citing plans to increase fossil-fuel power production in India and China.  In this, Will is neglecting the 150-year history of fossil-fuel use by industrialized countries, which have brought us to the brink of climate disaster, where we stand today. 

Will concludes by referencing a “previous UN report” (not cited) which projects minimal economic harm from climate change.  There is no indication of when this report was written, or my whom.  But that report does not reflect the views of the climatologists of the IPCC, or US scientists who wrote the 4th National Climate Assessment.  The IPCC 1.5 Special Report states: “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.” (Summary for Policy Makers, section B.5.)  Likewise, the United States’ Fourth Climate Assessment (2018) states: “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth….Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.” 

George Will is misguided and uninformed about climate change.  Will has read one discredited book by one discredited scientist, who is not a climatologist, instead of the well-documented publications from respected institutions of science.  Will’s column is part of the general celebration of ignorance and lies which characterize the Conservative movement, on issues from the treatment of COVID-19 to the 2020 election loss by Donald Trump.  George Will’s column on climate change is a classic example of Willful Ignorance. 


George Will’s recent column.
Will’s former statements about climate change.
IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C.
IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Volume I, The Physical Science Basis, 2021.

Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume I, Physical Science 2017.
Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States, 2018.
Lambeck et al, Sea level and global ice volumes from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene, 2014.
Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth, Holocene Sea-Level Chart, 2005.
Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth, Tropical Storm Wind Speed Versus Water Temperature, 2017.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Global Warming, Natural Cycles and Unicorn Farts

 "The suggestion that natural causes are contributing to global warming is entirely speculative.  If someone proposes that natural causes are warming the earth, they need to identify, observe and quantify the specific process that is occurring.  It may be true that unicorn farts, rather than greenhouse gases, are warming the earth over the past century.  But the burden of proof is on the unicorn advocates.  They need to find the unicorns, observe and measure the heat generated per unicorn fart.  They need to demonstrate that unicorn farts are sufficient to account for a significant portion of global warming, and to either discredit the physics of greenhouse gases or to identify a previously undetected heat sink on the scale of the global ocean to account for the displacement of greenhouse gas heat.  They also need to demonstrate that unicorn farts are delivering heat to the surface of the ocean and cooling the stratosphere.  The notion that “we just don’t know what is warming the earth” is not a viable statement.

I recently had a call with a staffer for Alaska’s more conservative U.S. Senator.   I had made a trip to DC, and Alaska’s Congressional Delegation will usually make time to meet with constituents who travel 3350 miles from home.   I had sent meeting requests to both Senators, and the moderate Senator’s staff contacted me, and we had a good discussion of climate change.  The more conservative Senator’s office contacted me after I sent a complaint comparing their non-responsiveness to the moderate Senator.  In my call with the staffer, I discussed the points on my agenda:

1) That we needed to cut CO2 emissions 50% by the year 2035 and to zero by 2050, to avoid a climate disaster. 

2)  Achieving those cuts will be very difficult and costly.  Real climate solutions need to be affordable, scalable, timely, environmentally acceptable, and technologically mature.  There are no currently viable solutions, as global upscaling of renewable energy runs into problems with increasing costs and timeliness. 

3)  We cannot count on negative emissions technologies to provide a climate solution due to similar issues with global scaling of these technologies. 

4)  Historically, the United States disproportionally contributed to the climate crisis, and we will be held responsible, accountable, and liable for damages to other nations in the future. 

5)  Because we are disproportionally to blame, we are morally obligated to lead the world in reducing emissions. 

6)  In the case of south-central Alaska, replacing our fossil-fuel electrical generation will require about 1000 new wind turbines, plus short-term and seasonal energy storage.  Powering a full fleet of electric vehicles will require at least another 1000 wind turbines, and replacing space heating by fossil fuels will require at least another 1000 wind turbines, all to be accomplished by 2050.  For reference, building an 11-turbine wind farm near Anchorage required a decade of planning and two years of construction.

7) A carbon tax is the best way to meet emission reduction goals, starting small, and increasing until renewable energy or carbon sequestration is commercially justified.

The staffer listened politely to my sermon, at points offering small interjections.  He commented that the Senator sponsored legislation to reduce the permitting obstacles to building more wind turbines.  I responded that it was a nice ideological gesture, but the real problem in building more wind energy wasn’t permitting, it was the availability of capital.  The great majority of cost for fossil-fuel generation is in fuel expense, which is spread out across the life of the power plant.  The great majority of cost for renewable energy is in capital, which must be funded up-front.  The staffer added that it was an exciting time for renewable energy; and that there was much interest and activity in Congress for doing more.

At the end of our conversation, I took issue with one of the Senator’s canned response letters regarding climate change.  The Senator’s previous position was that we don’t know how much of climate change is due to human greenhouse gas emissions, and how much is due to natural factors.  I said that was false.  “It is?” questioned the staffer, sounding surprised.  “Yes”, I replied.  “That’s complete bullshit.  All of climate change is due to human influences; one hundred percent.  There are no natural processes or cycles that are adding heat to the earth to the degree and over the time frame that we have observed global warming.”  Shortly afterward, we concluded the call. 

In retrospect, I wasted a good opportunity to provide a real explanation to someone who could make a difference in forming policy.  In the fashion of introverts everywhere, here is what I should have said. 

Global warming is by now a well-quantified problem.  The physics of greenhouse gases has been understood for 125 years.  The physics of global warming has been well-quantified since the 1980s, when satellites began measuring incoming solar radiation, and outgoing radiation was measured at the surface, and at various altitudes up to the stratosphere, and later by satellites.  What was happening to that heat was still somewhat uncertain in the 1990s, but in the early 2000s instrumentation was devised to measure the temperature of the ocean to a depth of 2000 meters, and to monitor the mass of the polar ice caps, Arctic sea ice, and continental glaciers.  The system of measuring surface temperatures was also improved with the addition of satellite observations.  Considering all of this information, we now have twenty years of comprehensive measurements for the earth’s heat budget. 

The first point is that heat from greenhouse gases is fully sufficient to account for the heat now appearing in earth’s heat sinks, with an imbalance of only a few percent.   If a natural source of heating existed, it would raise another problem – what is happening to the heat from greenhouse gases?  In order to validate a natural source of heat, either the physics of greenhouse gases needs to be overturned (which isn’t going to happen), or we have somehow overlooked a heat sink on the scale of the global ocean.  This also is extremely unlikely. 

A second point is that any alternative explanation of global warming must also explain the pattern of heat flow.  Observations show that the oceans, which absorb more than 90% of the heat from greenhouse gases, are warming from the surface downwards.  This implies heating at the surface, either from increased solar radiation or by conduction from the atmosphere.  We have forty years of satellite observations of the solar radiation, conclusively proving that the solar radiation is declining slightly, not increasing.  Any speculative natural process for global warming must necessarily deliver heat to the surface of the ocean, from the atmosphere.  This rules out any speculative heat source involving ocean currents or cycles.

A final point is that there are no known natural systems adding new heat to the earth over the past five decades.  Geologists, oceanographers, and meteorologists have done a pretty good job over the past 200 years, identifying the processes operating on the earth's surface.  No process that would add new heat to the planet's surface, over the time that global warming has occurred, has been identified.  Natural systems do have some cyclicity that affect the global climate.  Ocean cycles generally operate over periods of a decade or less, not over the multi-decade time scale that we observe heat appearing in earth systems.  But one important thing to note is that these natural cycles are zero-sum; they redistribute heat but don’t add new heat to the earth.  As noted above, solar radiation varies according to the eleven-year solar cycle, but there is no continuing warming persisting beyond those cycles. 

The argument that natural causes are contributing to climate change is entirely speculative.  If someone is proposing that natural causes are warming the earth, they need to identify, observe and quantify the specific process that is occurring.  It may be true that unicorn farts are warming the earth, rather than greenhouse gases.  But the burden of proof is on the unicorn advocates, to find the unicorns, observe and measure the heat generated per unicorn fart.  They need to demonstrate that unicorn farts are sufficient to account for a significant portion of global warming, and to either discredit the physics of greenhouse gases or to identify a previously undetected heat sink on the scale of the global ocean, to account for the displacement of greenhouse gas heat.  They also need to demonstrate that unicorn farts are delivering heat to the surface of the ocean, and cooling the stratosphere. 

The notion that “we just don’t know what is warming the earth” is not a viable statement. 


Written testimony of climatologist Zeke Hausfather to the US House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, , p. 13, 3/12/2021

“Our best estimate is that approximately all of the observed global mean surface temperature warming since the 1950s is due to human emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Natural climate “forcings” such as changing solar output, variations in the Earth’s orbit, and volcanic activity would have likely led to a slight cooling over the past 70 years in the absence of human influences on the climate.”  

IPCC 6th Assessment Report, Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers, 8/9/2021 (draft)

“A.1 It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” – Policy-makers’ Headline Statements, first line. 

“Human influence on the climate system is now an established fact:…It is unequivocal that the increase of CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) in the atmosphere over the industrial era is the result of human activities and that human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere.” Pg. TS-8

“Table TS.1:  Synthesis:  Warming of the global climate system since preindustrial times], Observed Change Assessment – Established Fact; Human Contribution Assessment – Established Fact.”  Pg. TS-33.

‘Less than 1% probability’ that Earth’s energy imbalance increase occurred naturally, say Princeton and GFDL scientists, Liz Fuller-Wright, 2021.

“[Shiv Priyam Raghuraman] and his co-authors used satellite observations from 2001 to 2020 and found that Earth’s “energy imbalance” is growing….’It is exceptionally unlikely — less than 1% probability — that this trend can be explained by natural variations in the climate system,’ said Raghuraman.”

Anthropogenic forcing and response yield observed positive trend in Earth’s energy imbalance, Reghuraman et al, 2021.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

2020 Climate Review; Global and Alaska

 Unsurprisingly, the global climate in 2021 continued to warm and to experience climate-related disasters.  Global air temperature tied 2016 as the warmest year on record.  Oceans continued to warm, and marked the warmest year on record.  Oceans absorb about 95% of heating from greenhouse gases, and thus have a more consistent increase in temperature.  

According to Carbon Brief, CO2 emissions in 2020 fell by about 7% compared to 2019, due to economic cut-backs during the Covid-19 epidemic.  Nevertheless, average atmospheric CO2 ended the year at about 413.5 ppm, a rise of about 2.5 ppm over 2019 (ESRL/NOAA).  That rate of increase is not significantly different than the previous decade.  For reference, pre-industrial levels of CO2 were about 280 ppm.

Alaska had a relatively mild 2020 in terms of climate change, cooler than recent years, with temperatures in the range of temperatures of the 1980, but still warmer than earlier decades.  There were fewer climate-related wildfires, and the warm-water "blob" in the Gulf of Alaska did not develop during 2020. Nevertheless, the long-term trajectory of climate change in Alaska is still clear.

 Low soil moisture results in dry plants, which cause wildfires to burn hotter and faster.  Low soil moisture also causes dead undergrowth, which provides fuel-loading to forests, increasing fire danger.
Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth prepared the chart above.  Annual averages of precipitation and temperature during the California fire season are shown in a color spectrum ranging from cool to warm colors representing 20-year intervals.  The chart shows a slow progression toward warmer temperatures, with the most significant change in the last twenty years.  Note that the ten largest wildfires, and the ten most destructive wildfires all occur in the warmest & driest quadrant of the chart.  The amount of change in the past 40 years is dramatic, and sobering if these trends continue over the next 40 years.

Alaska had a relatively moderate year regarding climate events in 2020.  Nevertheless, the long-term trends remain.  NOAA published a report card indicating that changes in the Arctic are likely to be permanent.

 The chart shows temperature change since 1945.
Arctic temperatures are rising two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, as a consequence of feedback factors from loss of snow and ice.  This effect was predicted in climate models by the Jasons' report in 1979.  Note also that air temperatures over land has warmed more than the oceans. 
Oceans absorb about 95% of heat retained by greenhouse gases.  The absorption of heat, and evaporative cooling, keeps air temperatures over oceans lower than over land.  Therefore, air temperatures over land are increasing faster than the global average, which is inconvenient, because we live on land.
Alaska temperatures clearly show the impact of Arctic amplification.  North Slope temperatures in the fall season have been sharply higher since the mid-1990s, due to early loss of Chukchi Sea ice.

Thunderstorms have become measurably more frequent near Fairbanks since about 1990.  The state's biggest wildfires typically occur near Fairbanks, and are most often caused by lightning.
Alaska's climate continues to change rapidly, and future decades are likely to bring serious, detrimental change.