“Adjusted development” (Climate change denial)


In a Phil Plait column on climate change this week, one reader posted a contrarian response. When asked to provide evidence of his claims, the reader told those he was arguing with to find it themselves. I sometimes encounter persons who erroneously shift the burden of proof, but this was a rare instance of someone adding the preposterous stipulation that their opponent provide the point they were arguing against.

For good measure, the reader added that any evidence on climate change doesn’t count if it comes from the NOAA, NASA, the International Panel on Climate Change, or skepticalscience.com, a website dedicated to the topic. Hey, it’s called climate change denial for a reason.

A couple of weeks prior to this, I read a column by Jay Taylor at the Liberty Alliance that also espoused the denialist position. To this, I posted my boilerplate response to such assertions:

“The central question of this issue is whether deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels contributes to more CO2 and other greenhouse gases, thus driving up average global temperature.

“99.8 percent of articles published in peer-reviewed journals over the past 25 years have concluded the answer is yes. If Taylor has evidence to the contrary, he is encouraged to submit his findings, methods, data sets, etc., to Science, Nature, or some similar publication. Instead, he bypasses peer review and takes his message straight to a sympathetic audience; doing so is the number one sign of pseudoscience.”

A reader responded to this by warning the government will use the issue to try and regulate businesses and power companies. This is the argument of consequences fallacy, and it bypasses the central point of whether the planet is warming and what’s causing it.

Later, the reader wrote that volcanoes are more responsible for rising temperatures than humans are. In truth, volcanoes cool the temperature. Volcano eruptions pump aerosols into the stratosphere, and these aerosols increase the reflection of radiation from the sun back into space. As to the carbon dioxide that volcanoes release, a 2010 study by climate scientist Pierre Friedlingstein showed that human activity normally releases about 35 gigatons of CO2 into the air each year, compared to about one-quarter of one gigaton from volcanoes.

I have yet to respond to the reader, but I assume his take on Friedlingstein’s data would be the same as his view of other scientists and their publications. He wrote, “The peer reviewed claim is a joke. Environmentalism is a religion to the left. It is defended as boldly as Allah by a Muslim. Both produce the same result. Misery for all who don’t subscribe to their point of view.”

Actually, I have yet to see a climate change denier stoned to death. But even if climate science were a religion with bold defenders, that would say nothing about the validity of the claims that are being made or denied. And dismissing peer review as being 5,000 climate scientists fabricating data in order to enrich themselves and provide the government cover to launch a Marxist-style takeover of the oil, gas, and coal industries is the definition of denial.

Making the scenario even more implausible is government hostility to the climate change position. Sen. James Inhofe has been the most conspicuous climate change denier in Washington, D.C., but he is danger of being usurped by Rep. Lamar Smith. In fact, it was Smith’s accusation that scientists are producing fraudulent data that Plait addressed in his latest column.

One of the deniers’ favorite talking points is that warming has slowed. This only works if you use 1998 as your starting point because there was an unusually strong el Niño season that year. Using any other year as the starting point shows a warming trend. However, this weak point for deniers became even more hobbled when NOAA published recalibrated data that showed the slowing since 1998 was less than had been thought.

Smith described this scientific recalibrating of data as an altering of the truth in order to push a nefarious agenda. However, let’s look at what really happened when past climate change data was recalibrated. First, the NOAA set up 114 pristine temperature stations. These stations include three temperature sensors that measure every two seconds and automatically send in data though a satellite uplink.

A frequent denialist argument is that urban heat sources can give contaminated data – and they are right. And these are the types of mitigating factors that are accounted for in the recalibration that Smith is describing as fraudulent and conspiratorial.

Scientists have been recording weather station measurements worldwide for 150 years. This data is used to determine Earth’s average temperature. However, over this century and a half, stations have moved, instruments have changed from mercury thermometers to electronic sensors, the time of day the temperature is taken has changed, and cities have sprouted around the stations. All of this opens the possibility of the temperature record being unreliable. To find out how much temperatures have really changed, scientists have to consider how the measurements were taken and under what conditions, then adjust accordingly.

As mentioned earlier, the adjusted data shows the slowing trend since 1998 is less pronounced than what scientists had thought. However, it also shows that the overall warming trend in the last 150 years is slightly less than thought. This finding is inconsistent with the theory that scientists are being paid to fabricate data to falsely make it appear things are heating up.

There was very little adjustment made for the period 2004 to 2015, consistent with improvements in equipment and methods over the years. Lead author Zeke Hausfather explained, “Over the last decade there are plenty of issues with the raw data, but they tend to roughly cancel out in their trend effects.”

NOAA’s adjustments account for faults in raw data and ensures temperature change is more accurately reflected. It works, even producing one result that deniers would like. Of course, this only further illustrates the evil shrewdness of the conspirators. Smith said the NOAA “conveniently issued its news release that promotes this report just as the administration announced its extensive climate change regulations.”

Sounds like he needs an attitude adjustment.

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