On tolerance for ‘alternative facts’ in the climate change debate

I have just spent the last couple weeks on twitter having heated discussions with a variety of climate change specialists (and many self-styled experts) regarding a tweet I posted on January 12, 2017. The tweet presented a quote from a Mashable.com interview with Dr. Michael E Mann where Dr. Mann made this incredible statement:

“It is the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that our the burning of fossil fuels is not just having ‘an effect,’ but (a) is most likely responsible for all of the warming we have seen over the past half century and (b) is already having damaging impacts on all sectors of our economy,” 

My tweet asked the climate scientists on my feed whether they agreed with the statement specifically the use of the word “all”. My expectation was that a reasonable core of climate scientists would agree that Dr. Mann had overstepped the science. This was not the case. Instead, what I got was overwhelming support for Dr. Mann with not a single non-skeptic initially commenting negatively. It was as if Dr. Mann was the pope and the climate community his congregation. Nothing he said could be considered to be anything less than the truth, even if it took huge convolutions of logic to make it true. In the last couple weeks the term “alternative facts” has entered our lexicon. Well in the next few paragraphs I want to unpack Dr. Mann’s “alternative fact” and see if it is indeed defensible. Then I will go into what I feel this means for the climate change debate.

I think we can all agree that the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases have resulted in some global warming. But that is not what Dr. Mann said in his email. Instead he went several steps further. He said that it is the “overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that “burning of fossil fuels” was “most likely responsible for all the warming we have seen in the past half-century”. To be absolutely clear, he didn’t say “all anthropogenic emissions” but only those associated with the “burning of fossil fuels”.

I think we can also all agree that the IPCC represents the consensus view on climate change. Let’s look at what the IPCC has to say about the anthropogenic causes of global warming. There are lots of potential sources, but the easiest place to look is in the AR5 Summary for Policymakers. You don’t even have to go too deeply into that document; all you have to do is look at Figures SPM.1. It presents the “Total annual anthropogenic GHG emissions (GtCO2eq / yr) by groups of gases 1970 – 2010”. According to this graph the major sources of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are:

  • fossil fuel combustion and industrial uses – 65% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • forestry and other land uses – 11% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • methane – 16% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • nitrous oxide – 6.2% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • fluorinated gases – 2% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions

Later in Chapter 11 the IPCC clarifies that Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (AFOLU) is responsible for just under a quarter of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. The EPA suggests that the number is 24% and that this is from the cultivation of crops, livestock and deforestation. The IPCC also indicates that 2.4% of global carbon dioxide emissions are the result of the production of cement.

We can stop there because we are already done. Had Dr. Mann simply said “most” in lieu of “all” he would have been correct but that is not what he said. According to the IPCC the burning of fossil fuels AND industrial uses are responsible for 65% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless one is willing to believe that 65% of the global greenhouse gas emissions were responsible for 100% of the observed warming then he cannot be right. Were that the case then someone would have to explain to me how that remaining 35% of the emissions know not to effect the planet so we can teach the rest of the emissions their trick.

The argument that was most commonly made by Dr Mann’s supporters on my Twitter thread was that if it weren’t for aerosols, volcanoes etc… we would have observed greater that 100% of the observed current warming. They argue that based on this it is “likely” that Dr. Mann is correct. While that is an interesting argument it means nothing in this context of this quotation because Dr. Mann explicitly stated that “burning of fossil fuels” was responsible for “all of the warming we have seen [my emphasis] over the past half century“. Observed warming takes into account the negative forcings associated with aerosols; and so brings us back to the original question. It is clear that 65% of the emissions were NOT responsible for 100% of the warming; rather it is clear that 100% of the emissions were responsible for 100% of the observed warming; that is how the climate works.

As a minor side note, several individuals noted that the second half of Dr. Mann’s quotation “is already having damaging impacts on all sectors of our economy” is also demonstrably wrong. This is easily proven since many sectors of our economy have seen little or no effects (and according to some literature some have seen net positive effects), to date, due to climate change. Now that is another kettle of fish that I don’t have time to discuss today but I leave it out there for consideration.

Going back to my original point the question arises: why did not one climate expert step up and say: “You know what; Dr. Mann may have overstated the effects of fossil fuels in his statement”? Why instead did several individuals (including climate scientists) step up to support Dr. Mann’s clearly incorrect statement? To be clear, my twitter feed is not the be all and end all on the topic of climate change. So I did a few searches to find if anyone had been critical about his comments in any of the other usual venues and instead all I found was…crickets? There were lots of comments about the story but none questioning Dr. Mann’s statement. The entire community was mute as Dr. Mann spread his “alternative facts”.

It has been suggested that the Donald Trump’s reliance on alternative facts is something of a loyalty test. That by watching how people respond to the alternative facts he can test their allegiances and know who is going to be loyal and who is not. While I would never put Dr. Mann in the same box as Donald Trump; I would suggest that this is an exactly parallel situation. This is a situation where Dr. Mann’s loyal supporters have decided to give Dr. Mann a pass on the facts, possibly as a sign of loyalty. The problem is that unlike Donald Trump, who is a politician and known for stretching the truth, Dr. Mann is supposed to be a man of science whose credibility rests entirely on that fact that he is supposed to stick to the facts. So when he doesn’t there will be repercussions. The obvious one is that Dr. Mann is one of the faces of climate change science. In a time where we need credible leaders to fight the misinformation being spread by the Trump loyalists having one of your top leaders make claims that are easily discreditable is not a good thing.

Many might ask why I am harping on such a little point? Well the answer is that the monomania of activists like Dr. Mann; and let’s be clear here in this scenario he was acting as an activist not as a scientist, about fossil fuels is resulting in bad policy decisions. As reported by the IPCC, 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from sources other than the burning of fossil fuels. If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow the climate change issue would not go away. We have to deal with that other 35% of emissions as well. The activists who have fixated on fossil fuels ignore the bigger picture that the aim of the game is to get to a scenario where we are no longer seeing a monotonic increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. This means addressing 100% of the problem not just 65% of it.

Remember there is still low hanging fruit out there that can be addressed immediately. Sending a couple hundred million dollars worth of equipment, men and supplies to Indonesia to put out those peat fires would have a bigger effect on global greenhouse gas emissions than eliminating every car in the United States which will cost trillions. Putting money into stopping the deforestation of the Amazon would be a much better way to spend a dollar than another carbon capture facility in Saskatchewan and would have the added benefit of saving vital ecological niches as well. We need clear thinking on the climate change file and that means real facts and not factoids and sound-bites. So c’mon folks be brave, speak truth to power. When someone makes demonstrably incorrect claims in your name isn’t it time to speak out?

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20 Responses to On tolerance for ‘alternative facts’ in the climate change debate

  1. wodun says:

    Interesting blog post. I would take it a step farther. Mann wasn’t just wrong in stating that fossil fuels are responsible for all of the warming but the implication that there was no natural warming. The climate isn’t static and absent humans, the climate would have been warming or cooling, most likely warming considering we are in an interglacial. It is one thing to say that humans can affect the climate but it is another to deny that there are natural forces at play.

    There is a problem in the alarmist community where they have propagated the myth that the climate doesn’t change and that changes are solely because of humans. That is problematic for a number of reasons but one of them is because it leads people to believe that we can stop the climate from changing. It also creates a false sense of security in dealing with an uncertain future. I believe the fear of an uncertain future to be an evolutionary one, deeply ingrained in our humanity. It has been the motivation for many movements, especially our first nature worship religions where sacrifices had to be made to appease the nature gods for a good harvest. There are direct parallels to the sacrificial policy proposals from the alarmist community.

    The intricacies of human nature are just as much at play here as science, perhaps more so.

    If people were really worried about climate change, which happens with or without humans, then the policy proposals would be different and trend toward mitigation and adaptation rather than the useless goal of stopping climate change. Planning for uncertainty would just include effects of warming but the effects of cooling because we are still in an ice age and who really knows when the ice sheets will return?

    Once again, it is one thing to say you can stop humans from affecting the climate and another to say you can stop the climate from changing. Also on the first point, it is impossible to have zero impact because it is impossible for any lifeform to exist without destruction. And it also ignores the benefits to nature from the existence of humans just as possible benefits from warming are ignored in favor of the narrative of apocalypse.

    Like

    • Chester Draws says:

      The world warmed considerably between 1860 and 1960, yet all the warming after 1960 is due to humans? That doesn’t even begin to sound reasonable.

      When I first started looking into the global warming thing it was made generally made clear that man was accelerating the pre-existing natural warming. Since then things seem to have regressed in the warming camp, so that now all warming is man-made. It doesn’t make me any less sceptical that reasonable positions are being abandoned for unreasonable ones.

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  2. mgaudet34 says:

    Thank you for your post Blair. This is astonishing but really not surprising as the AGM industrial machine is in full blow back mode since November 8th. I actually think it is ridiculous statements like these that will work to swing people towards a more balanced discussion and more people will begin to challenge their narrative. It will take time and the thankless effort of people like yourself, in continuing to challenge them at every step. Thank you for what you do.

    Like

  3. There is little reality or honesty in most climate change discussions.

    Many are upset about the imagined negative effect on climate of Trump when an honest assessment of Obama’s policies would show they have had and will have zero effect on our emissions.

    Leaders need to set good examples. Obama spent about US$90M on long distance vacations during his 8 years in office. And he just took his 2nd long distance vacation in as many months. Trump may not care about climate change but at least he does not pretend to give a shit.

    An honest assessment of the latest temperature and ice loss data would lead any rational person to conclude we have an emergency. Yet all of our responses to date are lame and serve only to make us feel like we are doing something.

    The only action that might help is a contraction in total consumption through some combination of reduced per capita consumption and fewer people. Given our high debt levels this probably means an economic crash and depression. But a prolonged depression may be preferable to what faces our grandchildren.

    Given feedback loops even an economic depression may not be enough to head off disaster. We would be wise to get started. But we don’t even talk about what has to be done.

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    • Canman says:

      An honest assessment of the latest temperature and ice loss data would lead any rational person to conclude we have an emergency.

      There is nothing about climate that is an emergency. “Climate emergency” is an oxymoron! Maybe the increasing temperatures and Arctic ice melt will put in motion a permafrost and clathrate, methane releasing replay of the PETM that turns us into Venus, but it’s still not an emergency. At worst, this is still something that will take centuries, if not millennia. Whatever happens, humans will need and demand lots of energy. I think the best prospects are with 4rth generation nuclear.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Derek says:

    You are right to highlight the absurd proclamations by Dr. Mann. He is not alone in making nonsensical and over-the-top claims. Many of these are debunked by Paul Homewood at his website Not A Lot Of People Know That. Such stuff is readily reported in the media without any criticism. Sadly many people simply read the headlines and never look any further. In reality the warming is mild and over the past twenty years it has only been at a rate of 0.06 C per decade. So much for an emergency!

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  5. Steve McIntyre says:

    Claims about “damaging impacts” on “all sectors” are worth challenging. From time to time, I’ve tried to get activists to identify what damaging impacts have actually occurred. Results in evasion. Theresphysics surprisingly denied that he and his associates even held that view and denied that it was a view held by activists.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Douglas MacKenzie says:

    You might have missed a possibility, Blair, and that is simply that most intelligent people that delve very deeply into the whole climate change scenario end up in a silent majority Lukewarmer camp, and simply allow the hypists like Dr. Mann to make steadily more incredible statements. This possibly on the assumption that hypist’s misrepresentations will backfire on them in the reasonably near future. For example, the 2009 prediction “climate scientists say the Arctic could be completely ice free in the summer by 2012.”

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  7. jimm says:

    You state in part “….rather it is clear that 100% of the emissions were responsible for 100% of the observed warming; that is how the climate works.” I am not clear as to whether this has been firmly established.

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  8. robert stathers says:

    You stated above that ” It is clear that 65% of the emissions were NOT responsible for 100% of the warming; rather it is clear that 100% of the emissions were responsible for 100% of the observed warming; that is how the climate works.”

    Really? That is how the climate works? I have never seen a published reference from a scientific journal that attributes 100% of the change in warming solely to increases in greenhouse gases. The IPCC reports do not state that. How do you know that part of is not attributable to changes in ocean heat storage, ocean currents, albedo, cloud cover, solar irradiance, volcanic activity, or fifty other variables that influence weather and climate? Five hundred million years of climate proxy data surely defies that presumption too, doesn’t it?

    Ultracrepidarianism is very dangerous, it leads to religious-like beliefs that seriously degrade your ability to think logically and scientifically. Heave off your biases and think like more like a trained scientist. Same as for Dr. Mann. He has shown his cards many times before and they have been clearly shown to have nothing at all to do with science.

    It is time we all gave CO2 a lot more respect. I challenge you all to read more about radiation emission spectra, climate physics, nonlinear systems, complexity theory, photosynthesis, paleobotany, and particularly about what little that we do know about paleoclimatology. Learn about the carbon cycle and look into the history of carbon dioxide for the past 4.5 billion years that the earth has been around. It will surely make you quit fussing about what has happened in the last forty years. You might be surprised to learn that there are good reasons why we should be trying to increase the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. There may come a day when we are burning limestone with nuclear energy to improve our atmosphere, not tilting at wind machines to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’. In the meantime the green religion makes some people feel better and there is really not any great rush to make change. We will bumble through somehow or other.

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  9. wert says:

    Judith Curry had a good piece on the percentages. As we don’t really know how the temps had developed without AGW, it is fairly difficult to do meaningful statements about the percentage. This is a fairly complex semantic (and mathematical) problem, causing Monty Hall like effects.

    But this is a minor issue. The big issue is the mob mentality. Our Mann is right, thus I’ll try to be on his side. I’m on Mann’s side and I’m right, so Mann is right. And attack starts if you try to suggest the overwhelming majority is just a dream in his head.

    This illness will not end before the mob stops. Twitter and FB help the mob mentality to continue.

    Like

  10. Martin Normanton says:

    To A chemist in Langley: You say : Dr. Mann made this incredible statement:
    “It is the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that our the burning of fossil fuels is not just having ‘an effect,’ but (a) is most likely responsible for all of the warming we have seen over the past half century and (b) is already having damaging impacts on all sectors of our economy,”
    “The IPCC has to say fossil fuel combustion and industrial uses [account for] 65% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions”

    Note the different words, “warming” and “emissions”. This is significant because over half of human emissions are currently absorbed out of the atmosphere into land and ocean sinks, i.e. by increased growth of plants and soil organisms on land and by the same processes plus dissolution in the oceans. So currently less than half of all human emissions stay in the atmosphere. Since emissions from fossil fuel burning are more than half of all human emissions Mann’s statement is technically correct. I say currently absorbed as with further increases in temperature and CO2 levels these sinks will fail and then REVERSE. It seems that they are already slowing down.

    It is however misleading if taken to imply that we need not bother about other sources of increased atmospheric CO2 for two reasons:
    1. Nearly all scientists think that the current atmospheric CO2 level of 450ppm gives no more than a 30% chance of restricting global temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade.
    2. Dr James Hansen (of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University) and other researchers in the USA and internationally have looked at sea level rise during past inter-glacial periods and at how glaciers respond to warming (an area not previously on the radar of climate scientists). They have concluded that a 2 degree centigrade rise poses a high risk of massive long term sea level rise from melting land ice, notably Greenland and East Antarctica. Combined with increased storm intensity from warmer oceans this would put a significant part of the best agricultural land and many cities under water. There is an article on this in The Guardian (UK) at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/mar/22/sea-level-rise-james-hansen-climate-change-scientist . Google “Hansen sea level rise climate change” for more. He originally published in 2015without waiting for peer review in the hope that it would influence the Paris talks, which it failed to do. In March 2016 the peer reviewed version was published with no major changes, see http://www.atmos-chem-phys.net/16/3761/2016/acp-16-3761-2016.html

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    • Blair says:

      Are you trying to be silly? His argument is not correct and you explain why in your comment. Emissions don’t know where they come from? Under your incredible theory the fossil fuel burning knows to stay out in the atmosphere causing warming while the land use emissions carefully hide themselves in sinks? That is not how it works. There are sources and sinks and they all ignore the source of the emissions so some of the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are absorbed into the ocean and some cause heating. some of the land use emissions cause heating and some are absorbed by forests tec…So no Dr. Mann is not correct.

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      • Martin Normanton says:

        Yes, I understand that emissions don’t know where they come from.
        It was when I spotted the wording difference, Mann saying all the WARMING difference, while the IPCC say 65% of all EMISSIONS, that I realized that maybe Mann was trying to say, however badly expressed, that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is roughly the same as the emissions from fossil fuel burning. If the scientists who agreed with his statement put this interpretation on it, then they are correct to agree.

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      • Martin Normanton says:

        So thankyou for getting me to clarify what I meant.

        Like

      • Blair says:

        Since fossil fuels make up about 65% of the emissions they would make up about 65% of the warming. This is consistent with the science and frankly I have not seen a single scientist support Dr. Mann’s statement because it is silly. 65% of the emissions are responsible for about 65% of the warming while 35% of the emissions are responsible for about 35% of the warming. The fact that the fossil fuel numbers are comparable to the actual increase is purely coincidental and if we decreased our burning of fossil fuels while increasing our bad land policies etc..that coincidental relationship would not be the case.

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  11. Martin Normanton says:

    Blair you say “I have not seen a single scientist support Dr. Mann’s statement” .But the whole point that A chemist in Langley is making is “My tweet asked the climate scientists on my feed whether they agreed with the statement specifically the use of the word “all”. My expectation was that a reasonable core of climate scientists would agree that Dr. Mann had overstepped the science. This was not the case. Instead, what I got was overwhelming support for Dr. Mann with not a single non-skeptic initially commenting negatively”. So I am proposing a possible explanation for this. To my understanding Dr. Mann’s statement appears silly, and I said “It is however misleading if taken to imply that we need not bother about other sources of increased atmospheric CO2”

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  12. Kevin Edge says:

    Recent stat I go by is that 80% of scientists will not assign a % anthropogenic contribution – because it can’t be known!

    Like

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