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A political cartoonist's take on the 'Gore Effect'
2008 sees a sea change in the face of the global warming debate.

When I began writing about global warming climate change, public outcry was tremendous.  Amid a sea of media stories about the sins of our wasteful lifestyle, no one wanted to hear about contradictory research, conflicting data, or skeptical scientists.

Now, over two years later, a funny thing has happened. The roles have shifted. My stories are the staid and ordinary ones.  It's the fellows predicting flood, famine, and disaster who are generating all the controversy.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. What happened? 

2008 was the year predicted to be the "hottest in a century".  Instead it became the coldest of the decade. It was the year the North Pole would "melt entirely, allowing you to swim to it".  Instead, nuclear-powered icebreakers became trapped in unseasonably thick ice. It was a year of record-breaking cold and snow, everywhere from Baghdad to the beaches of Malibu. It was the year the "Gore Effect" entered the public vocabulary, as whenever global warming protestors got together to march, they were met with blizzards and ice storms. Let's hope schadenfroh isn't a sin.

Polls are clear.  Despite the media's increasingly shrill tone and ever-more unrealistic predictions, the public has lost all faith in global warming. After all, how many times can you say that this time the science is now finally proven, without being laughed at?

In some respects, that's good.  It means less chance of implementing incredibly damaging policies, policies that will have disastrous impacts on standards of living, especially among the poor.

In other ways, it's bad. The overselling of inconclusive conjectures as "proven science" is leading some to distrust science itself. Given that, I think the year should conclude with a reminder of just what the scientific debate -- minus its alarmist media trappings-- is really all about.

As a moderately well known skeptic, I sometimes surprise people when I say I believe in global warming. If we define the term as, "man is having some impact on global temperatures", then the evidence is fairly clear. That statement in itself, though, means nothing. Are we impacting it enough to matter? Can CO2 cause catastrophic climate change?

That debate revolves around a single number, one so important we have a special name for it.

Climate Sensitivity
How much will the earth warm if we double the amount of atmospheric CO2, or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases? That value is called climate sensitivity. If all else remains equal, it’s fairly easy to calculate: about half a degree C, a figure accepted by most proponents and skeptics of AGW alike. It's also a value far too small for concern. With that sensitivity, the planet would warm by maybe a quarter of a degree by the year 2100. Yawn.

But there's a wrinkle in that simple calculation. As greenhouse gases rise, other things change as well. Some are positive feedbacks, which lead to more warming. Some are negative feedbacks, which counteract the warming. Scientists in the modeling community tend to believe positive effects predominate; they bandy about sensitivity values from 2C all the way up to 6C or more. Observational earth scientists (primarily geologists, meteorologists, and some atmospheric physicists) tend to believe negative effects dominate, and that the actual value may be even smaller than 0.5C.

The problem is that no real evidence exists for strong positive feedbacks. Worse, they seem contradicted by the paleoclimatic history of the planet, which has never experienced runaway warming even when CO2 levels were ten or more times higher than they are today. Over geologic time, CO2 correlates very poorly with temperature, leading one to conclude that it's a very weak greenhouse gas.

There is other evidence against a high sensitivity. But the real point is this. Whichever side is right, the media (and a few researchers) have forgotten one of the basic rules of science. Until a theory can predict the unexpected, it should always be viewed critically. The ancient Greeks knew the stars moved, and they had a thousand theories to predict why it would keep happening.  Until we can explain past climate shifts and successfully predict future trends, global models are educational toys. Not indisputable evidence.

Some pundits are calling 2008 the year global warming was disproven. I prefer to call it the year science triumphed over alarmism.

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By Delegator on 12/31/2008 11:31:19 AM , Rating: 3
I think the main lesson here is that we need to take a measured look at the question from BOTH sides. For example:

Funny how the gloaters now ignore the fact that 2008 was the 10th hottest year on record, or that it was predicted even by global warming (old term) researchers to be cooler than previous years.

Taking one year of data as proof or disproof of a long term trend is silly at best, bad science at worst. The point of science is the continuing effort to understand what is going on around us. The strength of science is its ability to correct mistakes over time. But, while that is a strength of the scientific method, is has historically been a weakness in individual scientists.

So, while alarmists on one side and critics on the other dig deeper into their entrenched positions, it would be wise for the rest of us to keep a level head and look at both long and short term data, and try to make sense of it.

By Jim28 on 12/31/2008 1:49:41 PM , Rating: 2
Depends on the date of prediction. True the closer it got to 2008 the more you heard that 2008 would be cooler.

In 2006 that was not the case, nor in the firt half of 2007.

Hell in 2007 they said 2008 would be the year that the North Polar Ice cap would complete melt. Did that happen?

So far their level of predictive skill has been lacking, and they are constantly tweaking and fudging there models to get them to agree with observational data.

Some of their problems have to deal with resolution issues and computer power issues true. But saying they predicted 2008 would be cooler than 2007 while in the latter half of 2007 as proof of the prowess of their model's predictive skill is simply ludicrous. That is just as good the weatherman saying that tomorrow it will not rain. What about 10 days from now. Or in this context, what about 10-15 years from now. Looking at the data from the 1990s, nobody predicted that 2008 would be cooler than 2007 or that the general global warming trend would level off.

By Decoy26517 on 1/3/2009 6:57:07 AM , Rating: 2
I'm curious, who are the "they" in: "Hell in 2007 they said 2008 would be the year that the North Polar Ice cap would complete melt" ?

I've never heard anything about the Ice caps melting completely. But a lot of people here are stating that it was supposed to happen because they said so.

By Bruce Frykman on 1/6/2009 7:44:35 PM , Rating: 2
Funny how the gloaters now ignore the fact that 2008 was the 10th hottest year on record, or that it was predicted even by global warming (old term) researchers to be cooler than previous years.

How do we know that? I dont know of any way to establish the earth's temperature today let alone 100 years ago.

I am aware of claims to the contrary; but then there are people who claim they can glean quite a bit of accurate information by reading chicken guts as a proxy. Sure they say they can see all sorts of stuff in those guts that we can't - does that mean that you and I should "believe" that they see stuff that we can't?

If so is this really "science" or is something more required of its practitioners?

Now I really dont mind them claiming they can see stuff I can't as long as they don't try to make me sacrifice my daughter or my freedom on the premise.

"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?... So why the f*** doesn't it do that?" -- Steve Jobs

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