Dr. Roger Stritmatter writes:
For your information, I pass on this letter, which has just been sent to Anthony Brandon, WYPR station manager. If you think it is suitable, I would be glad to see it appear as a guest blog on Watt’s Up. Thank you for being such an important part of my education on this topic.
2216 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21218
As a sometime contributor and frequent listener to public radio, I’ve got a gripe. Having put off many times writing this letter, and knowing from experience how almost impossible it is to effectively negotiate the gauntlet of your phone-in process to make a live comment, I’m finally unable to keep silent any longer. Since some things that I am going to say may easily be twisted the wrong way by some, let me clarify something for the record: I’m writing this as a lifelong environmentalist and outdoorsman with a strong environmental ethic. Anyone who thinks to put me in another box is mistaken. My check from the petroleum industry never arrived, and I’m not an apologist for that dirty, violent, and hopefully moribund industry.
With that caveat, let me get to the point: today’s story on Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) has finally put my patience to the test. Yes, I appreciated a great deal about the story. Like many, I did not know that much about Humboldt – who he was, what he discovered or knew, or what a first-rate thinker and role model he was. I am grateful for the opportunity NPR stations provide content that can productively distract the thinking part of the American (and other) audience from the Donald show, with the rest of the crash cynical opportunists of the Church of the corporation Party of the holier rollers in big money. I will not be voting for St. Fiorini, Dr. Carson, or the man with the expensive toupe and the big ugly mouth, even if I might seem in this letter to adopt a perspective more associated with the “right” than the “left.” In fact I normally admire the way NPR covers controversial topics from a perspective of enlightened impartiality that strives to live up to journalistic standards of excellence, particularly when confronted with interviewees who say things like “this type of interview must end” simply because they lack the informed intelligence or the facts to convince anyone that what they happen to believe in is inevitable and sanctified by God.
There is only one issue I hear discussed on NPR that causes me to routinely turn off my radio because I have learned from experience that the coverage I am going to hear is more designed to scare me than to inform me. Let me explain by way of a single example. In today’s coverage you assure your viewers that the differences observed in the flower and fauna patterns of two Ecuadorian mountains, comparing Humboldt’s data to today’s, are the result of “global warming.” Now it should be obvious that Humboldt’s data set, assuming it withstands today’s peer review standards (which it seems to me, without close study, it probably does), is a great gift to humanity from a gifted mind. That is not the issue.
The unasked, but critical, question is whether those data are being used in a fully scientific way in the present.
I don’t think they are, at least in most discussions.
Let me explain why.
Anyone who has gained a position of authority on the topic of “global warming” within an organization of your type should know very well the history of the four major recent solar minima periods (from 1550 onwards), during which periods global temperatures definitely declined, often with catastrophic consequence, for extended years. There are other significant minima going backwards that are also relevant to this discussion, and surely we all know that if we go back far enough we will emerge on the far end of our current interglacial period and begin to ponder, little more than 12,000 years ago, a world with two miles of ice on top of what is today Manhattan. So let’s be clear. We had nothing to do with the fact that there’s no ice on top of Manhattan in 2015.
Since then the planet has also experienced (among others) periods of intense warming, such as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP, c. 950-1250), when temperatures all over were even warmer than they became during the late 20th century (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/08/23/the-medieval-warm-period-in-the-arctic/). When one adds to this clear evidence for the coincidence between the flourishing of Minoan and Roman civilizations during earlier climate maxima of our interglacial era (http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-klima7.htm), it begins to become evident how poorly NPR, along with other media outlets, has really been about informing its listeners of the larger scientific context in which these issues deserved to be discussed. It is true that the fact of the MWP, being a scandal to modern “climate scientists” such as Michael Mann or Kevin Trenberth, has come recent under attack as an inconvenient truth. But numerous studies have confirmed, and continue to document, its existence, duration, and worldwide character (http://joannenova.com.au/2012/07/medieval-warm-period-found-in-120-proxies-roman-era-similar-to-early-20th-century/), despite attempts of not-entirely-scrupulous revisionists to whitewash it out of history (http://joannenova.com.au/2009/12/fraudulent-hockey-sticks-and-hidden-data/).
The particular cold snap we might wish consider in relation to Humboldt’s data set on mountain flora and fauna is the Dalton minimum (1796-1820). The previous minima were the Sporer (1460-1550) and — the deepest and most of all in recent memory — the Maunder (1645-1714). All these downturns in global temperature, punctuating our otherwise balmy interglacial, correspond to known periods of human misery. When temperatures go down, disease, starvation, crime and warfare all go up.
The Dalton should interest us immediately because of the close overlap in timing with Humboldt’s life; the episode is usually dated to have begun when he was twenty years old and ended when he was 44. According to the best information I can find, Humboldt’s data were recorded in 1802, six years into the minima.
This raises the distinct possibility that the alleged changes in the data set are not the result of “global warming” at all!
They seem just as likely, on the face of it, to be the result of the fact that Humboldt’s observations were made during a minima, and we are currently nearing the end (most likely) of a maxima. No coverage of “global warming” that is not informed in this manner about the history of climate, and especially its relationship to human suffering or ease (it starts to become apparent that what we really should fear the most is not an increase, but an unanticipated decrease, in world temperatures) is worth your viewer’s time and attention. When temperatures fall, crops fail, starvation strikes, and disease increases. People die in large numbers.
The truth is that the theory and science of “global warming” is a far more ad hoc and subjectively determined affair than NPR ever lets on. Many “climate scientists” were raised on computer models, understand little else, and in the dearth of their own experience ask us to put a faith in them that their own history of inquiry calls into question if not disproving once and for all. Even if one has by now given up counting the number of times the IPPC projections of runaway warming induced by the extension of trends from the 1990s coupled with unwarranted assumptions of positive feedback were wild overestimates that have been securely and repeatedly falsified by the facts (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/08/25/trenberths-ipcc-claim-of-no-predictions-by-ipcc-at-all-refuted-by-ipccs-own-words/), it might be worth noticing that, by many of the best models, there has been no statistically significant increase in global warming for 18 years and counting now (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/09/04/the-pause-lengthens-yet-again/).
This is called by some “the pause.” Others, more plausibly in my estimation, call it the peak.
Now of course we all know that the western United States has been in terrible drought. I visited California, Oregon, and Washington this past summer and I’m very aware of the pain that is being inflicted in that region due to the current water shortage and attendant wildfires. If the proposed mechanisms by which Co2 emissions can produce changes in global climate were not in themselves open to so much legitimate doubt, one might be inclined to assume that such a mechanism is the obvious if not certain cause of the drought.
Unfortunately (or, depending on your point of view, fortunately….), there are other possible reasons for the problem. One is natural cycles of western US drought and rain, which we know have varied heavily over the last thousands of years. As one recent survey concludes, “A glance into the history of the Southwest reminds us that the climate and rainfall patterns have varied tremendously over time, with stretches of drought many decades longer than the one we are experiencing now” (http://origins.osu.edu/article/west-without-water-what-can-past-droughts-tell-us-about-tomorrow ).
Another clear contributing factor to the current California drought, as verified by NOAA (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/12/08/noaa-researchers-offer-new-insights-into-predicting-future-droughts-in-california/), is cyclical patterns of Pacific cooling and warming that function, so far as anyone knows, entirely independently of human activity, known as ENSO or El Nino Southern Oscillation.
A third possible variable, although under-studied from what I can tell, is desertification set in motion by chronic greedy over-logging of native timber, a process that seems to have very possibly altered the regional climates of the western United States, since trees store and release large amounts of water, and in the case of Redwoods depend upon, and probably help to create cycles of through their respiration, fog for a significant part of their own water supply. Such biotic processes, by which plants help create the conditions for other life by creating cycles of water flow that cannot exist without them, are well documented in other cases (see, for example, http://www.betterglobe.com/published.aspx/Public/PlantingTrees?aid; for a more critical view of what plants by themselves can accomplish, and suggestion that animals and plants together can modify climates to increase habitability and biomass, http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/seeing-drylands-trees-42998).
A recent spate of studies reports that a decline in California coastal fog now threatens the surviving Redwood populations of the state. These studies usually say that “global warming” it the cause of this decline. But desertification from over-logging, combined with the ENSO, seems like a more probable culprit. One recent study covered in Wired magazine (http://www.wired.com/2010/02/fog-decrease-threatens-coastal-redwoods/) reports that since the early 1900’s the California “temperature difference between inland and coast went down, mainly because the coast was heating up even faster than inland. That reduced the force to pull fog ashore.” But what would have caused coastal temperatures to rise faster than inland ones? Surely not “global warming,” which by definition cannot in itself cause differential warming patterns of this kind. The most likely answer should be obvious: logging off large tracts of the coast forests that cooled these coasts when they were still the homeland of Native Americans, before the great “log off” of the 19th and 20th centuries.
If deforestation is the cause, or, as is more likely, along with ENSO or other natural cycles, part of the cause, of the present drought (as was suggested to me this summer by a northern California colleague) then public resources should be allocated to reforestation, not into policies guided by the assumption that an excess of atmospheric Co2 can be blamed for the problem. Certainly it is a proven fact in other regions that reforestation can make significant contribution to pushing back deserts and creating local microclimates that support life by creating or enhancing water flows through local systems.
Such natural cycles are important to understand, if we hope to understand our own potential to disrupt them. That warming increases global atmospheric Co2 through known mechanisms is one of the most basic features of the natural system that we have allegedly disrupted. But if warming causes increased Co2, what causes the warming to begin with? In focusing on Co2 as the independent variable in the equation, today’s “scientists” would appear to have badly misconstrued the nature of our predicament.
My own evolution from “true believer” to global warming skeptic (please stop calling us “deniers”) started when I became aware that Al Gore, in his Inconvenient Truth, misrepresented the character of the relationship between Co2 and warming signals in the geologic record. Co2 is not the causal factor; in the record, temperatures start to rise or fall several hundred years before Co2 follows them in either rise or decline. This is not rocket science. We know why it happens. When temperatures rise, our oceans outgas Co2, just like a Coke bottle does when you remove it from the refrigerator.
Look, I have no doubt that humanity is capable of seriously disrupting natural systems. What we are doing in polluting our oceans with plastic right now is a good example. Our bees, and with them the entire history of flowered plants and therefore our own agricultural systems, are at great risk now from our corporate-industrial-agricultural practices, which have bred them to become dependent on artificial subsidies of antibiotics on the one hand, and threatened them with pesticide poisoning on the other. Our remaining rainforests are being logged at a precipitous rate, threatening the “lungs” of our planet. If we are not careful, and the nations of the world do not cooperate, we will add to these threats the irreversible overfishing of critical ocean species on which we now depend for food. To my way of thinking, it is shameful when poor science about “global warming” is allowed to dominate our public radio stations instead of programming that could help us to solve these and other real problems as well as contribute to a more scientifically robust debate about climate. NPR needs a higher standard of professionalism, one smart enough to know that there really is a vigorous and valid scientific debate about anthropogenic global warming, contrary to what Mr. Gore assured us at the same time he was misrepresenting the science.
A better science advisor than Mr. Gore (for whom I voted in two presidential elections) is the pseudonymous commentator Lone Pine, at topicx.com, who in a discussion convened — appropriately enough – in the Humboldt County forum on the topic, “What role do you think humans play in Global Warming?” (http://www.topix.com/forum/county/humboldt-ca/TK8OFVLNETQS2HSGA/p200) recently wrote:
Even small changes in the sun’s output are going to have profound influence on weather and crops on Earth, and on the advancement or retreat of glaciers, forests and deserts – perhaps even on trade, architecture, war, human population and the spread of disease. A resting sun – the current downturn is being called a “solar lull”– should be of far greater concern than the chance (and it is only just a chance) that idling SUVs and flatulating cows will alter the atmosphere and, indirectly, increase the frequency and intensity of severe weather.
When we last witnessed a solar lull of similar magnitude [compared to that we are now entering] (in the early decades of the 19th century), our planet had just finished a warming period not unlike that of the 20th century. The onset of what was known as the Dalton Minimum meant harsh, harsh winters in North America, Europe and Russia, along with some intense droughts and famines.
Some have even compared the slow cycles we are currently entering to the granddaddy of all solar lulls, the 17th century Maunder Minimum during which average Northern Hemispheric temperatures were nearly 2C below where they are now.
It seems unlikely temperatures will get as cold now as they did then, or for as long. In addition to greatly reduced solar activity, the 17th century also had more intense volcanic activity than any century since and more than any century dating back 1,000 years before it.
During the 1600s when the sun was weaker, there were also six “climatically significant eruptions” that expelled enough ash and particles to cause lower temps worldwide for a year or more – perhaps even for a decade in some cases.
Politicians and activists need to stop obsessing on manmade climate change and focus on what to do about three decades of COLD.
NPR listeners deserve a less emotional, less alarmist, and more scientifically nuanced discussion of the relationship between climate and human activity, one that starts from acknowledging the existence of very great and still poorly understood patterns of natural variation as well as admitting that numerous unresolved questions of scientific merit are raised by the dependence of “climate science” on assumption, unknown variables, and sometimes highly dubious methodologies. When you report that the difference between Humboldt’s data and today’s is a result of “global warming,” without even mentioning the distinct possibility that there is another cause for it, you are cheating your audience of something you should be defending: the right to consider real alternatives about how both science and politics might operate. I admit, when you look at the Donald Show, it is easy to think that those on one side of this question are the angels and those on the other side are crass opportunists taking handouts from the oil industry to support bad science. Sorry, it’s not so. Above all, we need a discussion that also contemplates the distinct possibility, now supported as likely by an actively growing number of informed scientific observers, that the real risk to the future we want for our children and grandchildren is not warming, but serious, widespread, and potentially disruptive cooling.
Thank you for your consideration.
Roger Stritmatter, PhD
Professor of Humanities
Coppin State University