Critique of a Climate Skeptic’s Skepticism

In an editorial published in the London Free Press titled, “Predictions on climate a big hoax,” (Sept. 17, 2013) Ezra Levant shows a riveting combination of ignorance, conspiracy theory, and irrationality. The article discusses a recent paper in Nature Climate Change (see Fyfe, Gillett & Zwiers, 2013, Nature Climate Change 3:767-769), which found that nearly all of the 117 simulations of a set of models (note: 117 simulations not models) predicted higher rates of warming than those observed, rightly suggesting an “inherent bias” as Mr. Levant points out. This inherent bias, which he goes on to attack, is not a conspiracy by environmentalists or scientists as is implied in the LFP article, but it is simply due to a lack of scientific knowledge.

                A major influence on climate that is still poorly understood is the world’s oceans. The oceans are vast, encompassing about two thirds of the earth’s surface. Water can absorb a lot of heat before it changes temperature: that is why it takes so long to boil a pot of water. As well, water has a strange property where it is most dense at 4°C (39.2°F). This means that the deepest parts of the world’s oceans are probably 4°C (I say probably because the deep ocean is still largely unexplored and uncharacterized – we know very little about it). Heat energy from the surface of the ocean can be conducted to the deep ocean, reducing the warming that we might expect in the ocean from warmer air temperatures. Since the ocean can absorb so much heat, the oceans have a stabilizing effect on our climate. So when climate scientists included just a small part (only 8%) of the world’s oceans in their climate models (see Kosaka & Xie, 2013, Nature 501:403-407), they found that it is the ocean temperature and heat absorption that has made the climate warming since 1998 “almost unmeasurable” as Mr. Levant retorts. The overestimate of warming produced by the first article I mentioned is likely due to neglecting the effect that the oceans can have on climate.

                Climatic changes typically take place on the order of hundreds to thousands of years. Given how rapidly we have changed our climate in the past 150 years or so, a ten year pause in warming shouldn’t herald hoorays and huzzahs that climate warming has stopped – instead we should be very disturbed, because clearly there is something that is absorbing all the extra energy trapped in the atmosphere from the CO2 we have been pumping into the atmosphere, and when whatever that reservoir is becomes saturated, it is possible that warming will accelerate beyond our worst-case scenarios. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change is due out this week, so we shall see what the outlook is for climate this century.

                Just remember to read between the lines when you read articles from writers who are skeptical of scientific evidence: it can be very easy to misinterpret scientific information that comes directly from a scientific article, and many of these skeptics latch onto words that agree with their worldview, while ignoring all the other evidence.

Stay safe and stay informed,
– Joe

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