Thursday, June 22, 2006

Global Warming Revisited

[Update below]

Despite near continuous media attempts to muddle the story and portray the global warming phenomenon as "controversial," within the scientific community, it is a well-observed physical condition that is anything but. Of course, the media are filled with all kinds of people, from dreary know-nothings to high-paid conservative and industry shills. The science community does not generally comprise such a dismal spectrum of creature and for that it usually finds itself under attack by those same said media whores. The current state of the media is something that has caused the science community no end of distress lately and, frankly, it is not likely to end anytime soon. When media clowns like Ann Coulter spout profitable dumb-shows and noise about biology and evolution and do nothing but make money with such unadulterated bullshit, there can simply be no end in sight.

Of note, of course, is the redolent fact that the only science that usually comes under attack are those fields of research that cause either the Christian Right or the oil industry conniptions. By an odd and heretofore unknown selection effect, atmospheric science and evolutionary biology have become somehow infested with dogmatic thick-heads who have no idea how to actually do science. At least, that might be the impression one could get if one were to lend credence to the likes of oil industry harpies and creationists.

Nonetheless and despite middling efforts by the Bush administration, the National Academy of Sciences has just conducted a review of global climate research and has issued a report indicating that the Earth is now hotter than at any time in the last 400 years and possibly for as long as the last 2000 years. It further concludes that the data lead to the not unreasonable statement that
human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming.
After the debates about hurricanes that followed Katrina, another statement leapt off the page:
global warming produced about half of the extra hurricane-fueled warmth in the North Atlantic in 2005, and natural cycles were a minor factor....
This led me to recall one side of a "debate," if one could call the uninformed opinionating that was at the time emanating from the classic right, in the form of a one Charles Krauthammer column. Back then, the Hammer claimed with absolute certitude, as the uninformed often do, that the notable increase in strong hurricane frequency had nothing, nothing, to do with global warming.
This kind of stupidity merits no attention whatsoever, but I'll give it a paragraph. There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period.
This was a bold statement to be sure, considering that hurricanes are actually atmospheric heat engines. Just how Krauthammer arrived at such a certain conclusion was not said; no data were presented, no scientific opinion referenced. But such is usually the case when "pundits" like Krauthammer veer into unfamiliar territory, territory that should require most people to know at least one goddamn thing about the subject before expressing an opinion. At least, in most circles such might be the case. However, in the thoughtless yet lucrative realm of right wing opinionating, knowledge and understanding of a subject hardly appear to be prerequsites to spewing nonsensical bilge across the pages of a national newspaper.

A mere one week after Krauthammer revealed his astoundingly firm and observation-free conclusion, a study was published indicating that warming ocean temperatures and strong hurricane frequency appeared to be correlated.
HURRICANES of the intensity of Katrina have become almost twice as common over the past 35 years, according to research suggesting that global warming could be worsening severe storms.

The overall frequency of tropical storms worldwide has remained broadly static since 1970, but the number of extreme Category 4 and 5 events has risen sharply, satellite measurements have shown.
It is interesting to note the language the scientists further employed regarding this phenonmenon:
it was too early to be certain that climate change is fuelling stronger hurricanes, but such a link would be consistent with the best predictions of the likely effects of warmer seas.

What we found was rather astonishing. In the 1970s, there was an average of about 10 Category 4 and 5 hurricanes per year. Since 1990, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled, averaging 18 per year.

Category 4 and 5 storms are also making up a larger share of the total number of hurricanes. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes made up about 20 per cent of all hurricanes in the 1970s, but over the past decade they have accounted for about 35 per cent of these storms.

Our work is consistent with the concept that there is a relationship between increasing sea surface temperature and hurricane intensity.
Though the data are rather suggestive of such a relationship, what is notable is the uncertainty expressed by the people who have the data and know what they're talking about.

It was said then and it should be stated again:
A pundit used to be thought of as "an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give opinions about it to the public." This fanciful notion has long since faded and the positions of those who may once have been such creatures have been usurped by an entirely new species; creatures so utterly devoid of actual knowledge about the world that little of what they say can be believed. And one can usually see them in the native environment: current event talking head shows. Of course, knowledge is not the good in trade in such habitats. As Besteman & Gusterson state*,
Their skill often lies not in authoritative knowledge of their subject but in their ability to hide their lack of authoritative knowledge.
Hiding a lack of knowledge is crucial to survival in today's pundit climes. And the more loudly it is hidden, the better.
Perhaps the best perk of being a pundit -- how I hate using that word for these tools -- is that it appears one can issue forth almost any kind of wrong-headed statement, make irrational, nonsensical claims even and yet never suffer for it. There is zero accountability for these people and as frequently wrong as the likes of Krauthammer have been in the last few years, one has to wonder, just what would you have to say or write to get your worthless ass fired?
As a further note to this new report, I was fascinated to see the differences in the headlines at various outlets. First, we have a non-committal NY Times:
Science Panel Backs Study on Warming Climate
Ho-hum. Then there is this CNN header, imploring a certain distress:
Study: Earth 'likely' hottest in 2,000 years
Finally, we see the Washington Post, with almost frivolous disregard:
Research: Earth Running a Slight Fever
A fever. How quaint. Surely, with a wet towel, we can bring that down in no time.

I have to give the nod here to the NY Times' Andrew Rivkin. His story is easily the best of the bunch and delivers a nice overview of not only the new report but the studies that led to it and what the controversies have been. It is a good example of quality science reporting, something completely unfamiliar to the likes of Charles Krauthammer.

Update: Interestingly, WaPo has completely changed the headline of their story; all titular frivolity gone. In fact, it appears to be an entirely different story with a different author.

*Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong, ed. Besteman, C., Gusterson, H., University of California Press, 2005, p. 3.


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