Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Climate change and the phantom pause menace

Pete Sinclair, he of the Climate Denial Crock of the Week videos, has a new production that I can’t recommend highly enough, so here it is:

A few notes:

Of course “global warming” hasn’t “paused”, regardless of what the climate change deniers would have you believe. The fundamental issues: The amount of heat being trapped by greenhouse gases and the amount of heat being radiated to space haven’t changed, except to become slightly less accommodating of human interests. That means the heat is going somewhere, and the answer, as we know now, is that it’s going into the oceans. Over 93% of the additional heat energy from global warming winds up there, in fact.

Pete mentions that we might have put too much emphasis on air temperatures, a conclusion I reached sometime back. You see it in the news and splashed across the blogosphere and on Twitter — it’s almost impossible to escape — the constant hammering of heat records. Given that less than 7% of the retained heat shows up as warmer air, I can only ask: Just how fucking stupid were we? And yes, I was guilty of making this same mistake, even if less often than others.

The reasons we were so enthralled with air temperature records are obvious: We have a long record of them, they’re easy to measure, and they’re the most immediate way in which people not suffering from drought, floods, forest fires, and other much more painful and dramatic climate change impacts experience what we’re doing to the environment: They’re sweating like hell and hoping for relief and an explanation. So when climate communicators talk about how there’s been X new high temperature records set in the US this year and only Y records lows, people can directly and viscerally relate to those facts. But we’re also throwing away a lot of nuance and virtually guaranteeing that every downward or sideways blip in temperatures will be trumpeted by the deniers as if it proves something, which it doesn’t.

Once again, I go back to the old metaphor we’ve all heard: Loaded dice. Even if your dice are altered to favor higher values, the laws of probability tell you that you can still roll not just a two, but even a series of them if you throw the dice enough times. But the average of a large number of rolls will be higher than you’d see from an unbiased set of dice. When you roll a twelve, was it because the dice were loaded, or was it because, as the deniers would tell you, twelves always come up? (By the same token, we should not practice fire safety when camping because there were forest fires long before human beings stumbled onto the scene.)

A scientists says in the above video that the ocean is the most accurate thermometer we have for measuring climate change, which is undoubtedly true. But even there we have to be careful not to take too narrow a view, as sea level rise is caused by a combination of thermal expansion plus runoff from melting terrestrial ice and pumped groundwater. And as we saw recently, one part of the planet, in this case Australia, can have such heavy and sustained rain that it causes a temporary dip in the sea level. The ideal situation would be to have so many temperature probes at various places and depths in the oceans that we could monitor the movement of heat throughout them in fine detail. Sadly, we don’t have anywhere near that level of equipment in place, and it’s highly doubtful we will anytime soon.

Our biosphere is not just complicated, it’s perversely so; it’s not just a system, but a hierarchical system of systems. That complexity and interrelatedness should push us to be all the more determined to study and understand and monitor it, and also to be all the more cautious in modifying it, sometimes in ways we don’t know enough to predict, with our waste products.

3 comments to Climate change and the phantom pause menace

  • Dan

    “That complexity and interrelatedness should push us to be all the more determined to study and understand and monitor it, and also to be all the more cautious in modifying it, sometimes in ways we don’t know enough to predict, with our waste products.”

    Bugger that, let’s jump up and down on it, see what happens. Sorry, long day, more constructive response some other time!

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – Tamino at Open Ming has a post up concerning the influence on realized warming that seems relevant to your researches on the degree of committed warming.

    Quote (while giving la Carry a well deserved slagging):
    “As the graph labelled “POGA-H minus HIST” shows, the influence of natural variation, at least that part of it from ENSO, has been cooling, not warming, and if we want to assign a percentage we should say that natural variation has been responsible for about negative 25% of global warming.”



  • William

    Of course, air temperature (at some altitude) is the critical variable with respect to radiation balance, so it is the obvious thing to go for.