Global luke-warming: Is the threat of climate change overstated?
In an interview with OilPrice.com, climate blogger and former TV meteorologist Anthony Watts says carbon dioxide will heat the Earth somewhat, but by the time we get to full saturation we’ll have likely have moved on to other energy sources anyway.
We couldn’t pin down global warming, exactly, so now it’s re-labelled as climate change, which is an incredibly vague loaded term that no-one fully understands. The difficulty of pinning down this “wicked problem” has produced more uncertainty than ever and rendered the subject the purview of politics that has polarized the public and turned the issue into something reminiscent of the dark ages and conjuring up of weather-focused demons.
Amid these dark ages, the voice of former TV meteorologist and meteorological instrumentation specialist Anthony Watts has become unusually controversial. The knee-jerk reaction of a polarized public has been to place him in one of two climate change camps, and to categorize him as a “denier”. But Watts insists his latent climate change scepticism is pragmatic and based on his experience as a meteorologist and a long process of connecting the scientific dots. His message, he says, is misunderstood, and he best describes himself as “lukewarm” on the issue. He believes that climate change is happening, but that there’s no need for panic.
Anthony is also the publisher of the most visited website on climate science in the world, www.wattsupwiththat.com
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Watts discusses:
• The difference between “global warming” and “climate change”
• Why CO2 is partially responsible but oversold
• Why recent major weather events cannot be linked to CO2
• Why we should be more worried about another ice age
• Why carbon taxes won’t have any effect on the whims of Mother Nature
• How the climate debate has taken on religious proportions
• Why the Keystone protests are all for show
• Why Mother Nature will be the final arbiter of truth
• What we should and shouldn’t be doing to address global warming
• Why “climate change” has become a favorite bogeyman
• Why scientifically we’ve only scratched the surface of climate change
• The simple physics of the urbanization “heat sink” effect
Interview by. James Stafford of Oilprice.com
Oilprice.com: We see a lot of confusion among readers over the terminology here. What is the difference between “Climate Change” and “Global Warming”? Which is the more loaded term, and why?
Anthony Watts: “Global warming” suggests a steady linear increase in temperature, but since that isn’t happening, proponents have shifted to the more universal term “climate change,” which can be liberally applied to just about anything observable in the atmosphere.
Right now, the favoured tactic is to link any severe weather event to climate change while ignoring the history of such events, claiming they are new and unique. "Climate change" is like a universal bogeyman these days; the problem is that climate has always changed. For example, the climate of the past has been warmer than today as well as colder as indicated by ice core isotope records.
Oilprice.com: No one seems capable of walking a pragmatic line on this issue, and the process of thinking and connecting dots appears to be entirely disallowed by both camps. Would you agree that the main problem with this debate—and the reason it has been so successfully hijacked by politics and business interests—is that the masses cannot digest it in anything other than black and white terms?
Anthony Watts: The premise of the issue for proponents can be summed up very simply: You put CO2 in the atmosphere and it makes it warmer, that’s bad. The reality is that the Earth’s climate system is far more complex than that: It isn’t just a linear relationship between CO2 and temperature, it is a dynamic ever-changing one, and climate is tremendously complex with hundreds of interactive variables and feedbacks.
Predicting an outcome of a chaotic system over the long term is a very, very big task, one that we’ve really only scratched the surface of. Dr. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech describes it as a “wicked problem”. But it is being popularly portrayed as a simple black-and-white problem and few really delve much beyond the headlines and the calls for action to understand that it is really many shades of grey.
Oilprice.com: As a former TV meteorologist and a developer of weather data dissemination technology, can you tell us more about how your background lends to your “pragmatic scepticism” on climate change? (Related article: China's Smog Becoming an International Issue)
Anthony Watts: In TV, if I was wrong on the forecast, or the temperature reported was inaccurate, I’d hear about it immediately. Viewers would complain. That immediate feedback translates very quickly to making sure you get it right. With climate, the forecast is open-ended, and we have to wait years for feedback, and so the skill level in forecasting often doesn’t improve very much with time. Also, I’ve had a lifetime of experience in designing and deploying weather instrumentation, and like with forecasting, if we don’t get it right, we hear about it immediately.
What I learned is that the government weather service (NOAA) had it right at one time, but they’d dropped their guard, and my recent study (preliminary) shows that not only is the deployment of weather stations faulty in siting them, but that the adjustments designed to solve those issues actually make the problem worse.
Oilprice.com: Is there any way to remove the “camp” element from the issue of climate change? How far do disastrous weather events—like Hurricane Sandy—go towards reshaping the climate change debate?
Anthony Watts: The idea that Hurricane Sandy, a minor class 1 storm, was somehow connected to CO2 driven “climate change” is ludicrous, especially when far worse storms existed in the same area in the past when CO2 was much lower. Hurricane Hazel in October 1954 is a case in point.
In my view, the only way to null out the “camp” element is via education. Looking at the history of severe weather, there really aren’t any trends at all. Both the IPCC and The Journal Nature say this clearly, but activists persist in trying to link severe weather and CO2 driven “climate change” because since temperature increases have paused for about 15 years, it is all they have left. But even that doesn’t hold up when you study the data history:
There is also some peer-reviewed analysis which goes into some depth on this subject. This analysis concludes that "there is no evidence so far that climate change has increased the normalized economic loss from natural disasters."
Oilprice.com: Your message on climate change has been controversial among those who believe this issue is the gravest one facing us today. In what way do you think your message is misunderstood?
Anthony Watts: They think and promote that I’m categorically a “denier” in the pay of “big oil” (for the record, I’m paid nothing for this interview) in an effort to minimize my views, while ignoring the fact that I was actually on the proponent side of warming at one time. Now, I’d describe myself as a lukewarmer. Yes, it has gotten warmer, CO2 is partially a factor, but catastrophic predictions of the future just haven’t held up when you look at the observed data compared to the early predictions.
Oilprice.com: An article that recently appeared in The Independent said that public concern over climate change has slumped to a 20 year low. In fact, only 49% of people now consider climate change a very serious issue--far fewer than at the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis in 2009. Why do you believe this is and how do you see public perception changing in the future?
Anthony Watts: Most people aren’t stupid. When they can observe for themselves that the claims of the past 30 years aren’t adding up, and that the only ones left sounding the alarm are the activists, it tends to color one’s viewpoint.
Mother Nature will be the final arbiter of truth on this matter, and so far she simply refuses to cooperate with the claims that have been made about “catastrophic warming”. In addition, most people see climate change as something intangible--they can’t sense it, so they tend not to worry about something they can’t perceive.
Finally, many of the “solutions” that have been proposed are to increase taxes on energy, and even the simplest person knows that a tax won’t have any effect on the whims of Mother Nature. For example, efforts to reduce gasoline consumption for the supposed benefits this will bring to climate in California have succeeded, and now that gasoline tax revenue has declined, the state plans to increase it 3.5 cents in June. That’s certainly not a good way to reward people for reducing energy use. That voracious appetite for mandates of “consume less, tax more” turns people off to such causes.
Oilprice.com: Would it be fair to say that the debate has taken on “religious” proportions?
Anthony Watts: Yes, because like some religious issues, facts don’t seem to matter to true believers much anymore. The graph of global weather-related disaster losses from Pielke Jr. and the recent editorial in Nature where they say “Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming,” haven’t made a dent in many believers’ efforts to turn regular everyday weather events into something they claim should be feared as part of “climate change”.
We think we’ve come so far from the dark ages where people feared the weather as the work of demons and witches, yet here we are today with an nearly identical argument where demons and witches have been replaced with energy companies.
Oilprice.com: You’ve spoken at length about urbanization and the “heat sink” effect. Can you explain how this does or does not tie in to the overall concept of global warming?
Anthony Watts: It is rather simple physics really. First, let’s draw on personal experience. Anyone who has ever stood near a brick wall that was exposed to sun during the day can feel the heat radiating off it at night. That’s the heat sink effect for the energy from sunlight, and it is re-emitted as Long Wave Infrared (LWIR) at night, which has the propensity of heating the air near the surface due to its interaction at the molecular level with water vapor, CO2, and other gases. That’s the basis of the greenhouse effect.
Our society has metamorphosed from mostly rural agrarian to one with a great amount of modern infrastructure in the last century. While cities certainly have more infrastructure, so do even our small towns. Readers that grew up in small towns 30-50 years ago can surely note the addition of infrastructure by their own personal experiences. This infrastructure is primarily asphalt, steel and concrete, all of which will absorb solar energy during the day and re-emit it at night as LWIR, warming the local environment near the heat sink.
The issue that I have documented--thanks to a new weather station siting rating system from Michel Leroy and endorsed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)--is that weather stations with a greater surface area of such heat sinks within their thermometer view shed (~10 meters radius) tend to have a warmer temperature trend for the past 30 years. The signal manifests itself primarily at night by elevating the minimum temperature, which in turn elevates the average temperature.
Oilprice.com: And is there any coherent data out there that would demonstrate how much of the rise in temperatures over the last 100 years is a result of carbon dioxide?
Anthony Watts: I think what is left of the signal--i.e. the trend from the compliant weather stations that don’t have heat sink effects--can be attributed to CO2. That value appears to be half of what NOAA claims. (Related article: Analysing the Link between Air Pollution and Heart Attacks)
Oilprice.com: Ultimately, then, do we have the ability to accurately determine how much of global warming is attributed to man-made causes and how much is evolutionary climate change, so to speak?
Anthony Watts: Again, as Dr. Judith Curry says, climate is a “wicked problem”. Separating the definitive signals from the noise is a real challenge, especially when the signals are so small. In my view, the uncertainty is larger than the signals being coaxed out of the noisy data.
Oilprice.com: With all of this in mind, what should we be doing to address global warming? What SHOULDN’T we be doing?
Anthony Watts: I think on the issue of energy-related CO2 right now, energy conservation and energy efficiency efforts will bring the most gains. Wind and solar require fossil fuel backups to manage their inconsistent energy production, which changes with the whims of weather, so they really aren’t making much of a dent.
For the long term, I think we need more efficient uses of the fossil fuel-based energy we harness now, perhaps with more emphasis on cleaner natural gas, combined with a long-term better nuclear energy program, one that adopts a method that doesn’t have long-term radioactive waste storage issues. A Thorium-based rather than Uranium-based reactor program would address this problem, and China has already started this because the Chinese have the long view.
Thorium reactor designs have been around since the beginning of the Atomic Age, but they were discarded in favor of the Uranium designs due to the availability of refined Uranium as part of the burgeoning nuclear weapons programs initiated world-wide.
Thorium reactors are a much cleaner way forward to a stable electrical energy supply in my opinion, and maybe in 50-100 years, we’ll finally get fusion to work in a way that gives us a production level net gain, and by then fossil fuels for electricity generation will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, we just need to have the courage to take it slow and steady, rather than panicking about “catastrophic climate change”, which clearly isn’t happening.
Oilprice.com: Are there any genuine environmental concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline? Are there genuine long-term climate concerns over this pipelines dirty tar sands content? What about other concerns—like the dubious methods being used by TransCanada to acquire private land in Texas, for instance?
Anthony Watts: Well, here’s the thing: That oil is going to be burned no matter what. Either it ends up in the US via Keystone XL, or it ends up in China and India via a West coast pipeline through Canada if Keystone is rejected in the US. The line in the tar sands environmentalists are drawing over KXL isn’t going to make a bit of difference to the use of the oil and its effects on climate. The environmental protests are all for show and without substance.
Oilprice.com: On your blog, you posted the results of an LSU study suggesting that “Snowball Earth”—an event 635 million years ago in which Earth was covered by ice—was real and that this was reversed by an ‘ultra-high carbon dioxide atmosphere’. The basic premise of the study is: “The story is to put a time limit on how fast our Earth system can recover from a total frozen state. It is about a unique and rapidly changing post-glacial world, but is also about the incredible resilience of life and life’s remarkable ability to restore a new balance between atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere after a global glaciation.” How can this contribute to the on-going climate debate?
Anthony Watts: The Earth is resilient and self-regulating--just look to the past to see how it has self-stabilized. It has a built-in thermostatic mechanism and the temperature has been remarkably constant during the recent Holocene, though it was warmer in the past. Via technology, we can always apply ways to keep cool, but we really can’t get out of the way of advancing mile-thick ice sheets when the next ice age starts making an appearance. I think we worry about the wrong problem; cold is the biggest threat to humanity, not warmth.
Oilprice.com: You call yourself a “pragmatic skeptic” when it comes to the concept of global warming. What makes your skepticism pragmatic?
Anthony Watts: I believe it is happening and always have since 1988 when I first saw Dr. James Hansen make his pitch before the Senate. Though later, I discovered it was ginned up with some stagecraft. (seen in this video). CO2 is certainly a factor, but the issue has been oversold, and in many cases the solutions to limit CO2 are far worse than the problem to begin with. Humans have adapted to changing climate for millennia. The idea that we have to maintain a static climate is patently absurd. One of the big oversells is the way CO2 in the atmosphere and its effects on returned heat are portrayed as a linear relationship, when the actual response of long wave infrared (LWIR) in the atmosphere is logarithmic and can reach a saturation point where additional CO2 has little additional effect. The Long Wave Infrared (LWIR) response to CO2 in the atmosphere is finite, once the effect is saturated, no further temperature gains will be possible.
Given that CO2 has a logarithmic, not linear effect in returning energy to Earth’s surface, this suggests that a crisis of temperature from a doubling of CO2 is not likely. This low sensitivity near saturation is supported by the lack of observed warming at the surface for more than a decade. Why then do we need to act now?
So I’m pragmatic in the sense that yes, CO2 will heat the Earth somewhat, but by the time we get to full saturation we’ll have likely have moved on to other energy sources anyway. And, there seems to be some tangible benefits from a warmer planet, though activists only want to point out the negatives.
I was once very much sold on the idea that we needed to do something and do something fast. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I started to question the issue because the data didn’t fit the claims. One piece of data that was a “light bulb moment” for me came from a small study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 1996 by Jim Goodridge, former California State Climatologist.
I reasoned that if CO2 was the dominant effect as I was being told, why did population density matter to temperature?
Oilprice.com: Anthony, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Anthony has just published one of the most important posts in Watts Up With That history and strongly suggests you visit the following link: A bridge in the climate debate – How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change
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