I wrote the following column mid December for the Four Corners Free Press out of Cortez, Colorado. Since then it seems that the GOP doesn’t think much of Pruitt’s Red team Blue team idea and his challenge appears dead. Still as I explained at Confronting Science Contrarians I believe Pruitt’s challenge is worth exploring, if only in outline. Beginning with an observation and a pointed question:
Pruitt, questioning the unquestionable is fine.
Now, will you, can you, pay attention to the answers you receive?
Science’s Blue team educates Pruitt’s GOP Red team
A rough outline for exploring the learning opportunities Pruitt's Red Team Blue Team challenge offers for exposing GOP's intellectual dishonesty.
The following column was inspired by a lecture that Kevin Trenberth gave at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado on November 9th, 2017. Pruitt's "challenge" happened to jump into the headlines giving this story the hook that had been alluding me for weeks. Worth noting is that most of what I write here at CSC is intended for readers up to speed on the science and the public dialogue - these columns for the FCFP force me to write for an audience preoccupied with other concerns, which produces a different sort of piece.
January 2018 - Four Corners Free Press, Cortez, Colorado
Early in December U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told lawmakers he intended to organize a “Red team v Blue team” exercise to debate climate change science.
Pruitt is being willfully blind to the fact that the scientific aspects of global warming have already been thoroughly debated by experts. It’s expected that Pruitt will orchestrate a lawyerly winner-take-all debate. One that’s based on rhetorical trickery and a ruthless disregard for facts.
It’s a shame, since we Americans needs a constructive educational dialogue. A debate where honestly representing your opponent’s arguments and data is as important as honestly representing your own data. One where objective learning is the goal, and where truth matters.
Speaking of honestly representing the science, November 9th Dr. Kevin Trenberth (the distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and a lead author for IPCC’s Scientific Assessment in 1995, 2001, and 2007, a giant in the field of climate assessment), gave a talk at the Fort Lewis College Climate Symposium explaining what scientists have learned about our planet. It sounded to me like a potential Blue team opening statement.
Since, today climate scientists and the science itself is under attack like never before it’s critical for more citizens to become aware and engaged. That’s why I want to share what Trenberth explained to us, along with some additional science. Information that makes clear what an internally consistent understanding scientists have achieved.
Trenberth underscored that pretty much all scientists agree. As for the few outliers, they are driven by other causes, such as religious and political inclinations. He explained that: “… as a whole the data are of mixed quality and length. If you were to look at one little piece of it you might be able to be skeptical that climate change is happening, but when you put it all together there's no doubt whatsoever that this is happening.”
Dr. Trenberth went on to use a metaphor of Earth as a patient obviously running a fever. If Earth could go to a doctor, that doctor would start by diagnosing her symptoms. Such as the composition of key components. One of the first symptoms noted would be the atmosphere’s rapidly changing composition.
I’ll add that, the doctor knows these increasing greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, happen to be our planet’s insulation regulator. At around 180 ppm (CO2 parts per million) Earth experiences Ice Ages, at roughly 280 ppm its nice temperate periods, such as those our society evolved in. Today, it’s past 400 ppm.
The physics of this Earthly insulation blanket are understood so thoroughly that a great assortment of modern marvels such as satellite weather imagery and heat seeking air to air missiles, to mention but two, would be impossible without it. That is to say “Atmospheric GHG Theory” is as certain, as certain gets!
We also have a clear understanding of why these greenhouse gas molecules are increasing. We know how much fossil fuels humanity has been extracting and how much has been burned and injected into our atmosphere (and oceans).
We also know how much atmospheric concentrations have risen. That reality was driven home when Trenberth showed us the Keeling Curve of atmospheric CO2 levels being collected at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1958.
On close examination the line graphically illustrates the seasonal ebb and flow in Earth’s respiration. Think inhalation and exhalation of life’s sustaining molecules. What’s terrifying is when zooming out and averaging those fluctuations, the line goes from 315 ppm in 1958, to beyond 400 ppm currently, 85 ppm in 60 years. Compare that to younger Earth which was used to taking around 50,000 years to go up or down by 100 ppm.
The doctor’s prognosis is that more warming will be disruptive to our particular biosphere, the one our current climate regime created, the one it has supported for thousands and tens of thousands of years. The one we are absolutely dependent on. Change is constant, but what’s happening to our Earth this time is something extraordinary.
Trenberth then superimposed global mean temperatures on the Keeling Curve and explained how their similarity was no coincidence. The overall CO2 / temperature correlation is obvious, although there are sections where the two are clearly out of sync.
This is because greenhouse gases aren’t all there is to global temperatures. While Earth’s atmospheric insulation regulates the overall temperature setting, it’s a dynamic living planet with many age old cycles and rhythms interfering and converging with each other.
For example our oceans contain over 90% of our climate engine’s heat. That heat gets moved about in dozens of different currents and oscillation patterns that have profound, but short term effects on the atmosphere, weather and local temperatures, even global temperatures.
But in essence, that’s only moving heat around the globe, impacting weather but not Earth’s overall temperature, that is done by our atmosphere.
In fact, you could say Earth is not heating, Earth is accumulating heat. Increasing GHG molecules are increasingly intercepting and slowing the escape of infrared radiation, thus allowing more to accumulate within our biosphere.
But climate changed before, you say? Yes it did. Looking back into Earth’s deep-time natural variations caused by geologic, planetary and solar forces had big impacts, but none of those factors are in play these days.
Yes, volcanoes drive natural variations with cooling caused by emitted aerosols. Aerosols that have short atmospheric ‘residence times’ measured in weeks.
On the other hand, volcanoes also emit massive CO2 which has an atmospheric residence time measured in centuries, producing long term warming. Incidentally, today human CO2 emissions dwarf current volcanism on the order of 60 to 1.
What about the mid 21st century global cooling? Well, that cooling trend ended as nations took steps to clean their smoggy skies. It turned out sulfur aerosols acted as tiny reflectors mirroring a fraction of the sun’s ultraviolet rays back into space before those rays had a chance to convert into infrared radiation which warms our biosphere, thus driving that not so ‘natural’ cooling trend.
What about last decade’s “warming hiatus”? That was a media farce, the “missing” surface heat was found where geophysics dictated it would be found, in the oceans. No hiatus, our atmosphere’s insulation works 24/7/365.
In a serious debate the Red team would now need to respond to these known facts, not with distractions and drama, but with facts and realistic clearly enunciated challenges and a willingness to learn.
Please note that Dr. Trenberth was not particularly pleased with my connecting his name to Pruitt's Red team Blue team stunt. Dr. Trenberth is a serious scientist with no time for such a circus. He believes it's an awful idea and believes no serious scientist should consider participating. (we have communicated with each other)
I totally agree with him, scientists have done their jobs. They've done the difficult task of accumulating, documenting, digesting, reporting, and filing the substantive evidence. It is now the task of science communicators to convince the disingenuous politicians with their deceptive game playing.