My first post ever about Climate Change (and Patrick Moore)
My first post! This is exciting… I don’t really know what to write about. My day? My current mood? Interests? I feel like this is some sort of dating profile, where I have to write something interesting, but not too much as to scare off potential mates (or in this case, readers).
I suppose I should at least have some sort of description of myself. My name is Tristan, and I am currently a climate change impact assessment scientist studying at the University of Toronto in, you guessed it, Toronto Canada. I also have an Honours B.Sc. degree in Physics at McMaster University. It’s safe to say that I have a particular interest in the physical laws that allow our universe to exist, and an ever deepening interest in how mankind has altered our own world and how these alterations might affect us in the future.
Recently, the following Idea City talk came to my attention http://www.ideacity.ca/video/patrick-moore-the-sensible-environmentalist/. Patrick Moore, ‘the sensible environmentalist’ as he likes to call himself, does not believe in anthropogenic climate change and, in fact, believes we should be emitting more carbon into the atmosphere or plant life could starve (queue face palm). I’ve decided to share my thoughts on his 20:37 presentation because I fear his message is going to be heard and, worst of all, taken as truth. He doesn’t appear to have the slightest idea what he’s talking about when it comes to the climate, mainly because he isn’t a climate scientist and lacks the understanding of the physical laws that govern the climate system. Therefore, everything he puts forward in his talk is his opinion, and nothing else. And of course everyone is allowed to have an opinion, that’s what makes this part of the world amazing to live in. Unfortunately, having an opinion does not shield you from criticism, especially if that opinion is based on bad science.
Moore brings the graph below to the audience’s attention.
Here, he claims that there hasn’t been any statistically significant warming of the climate for the last 18 years and 6 months. This data comes from Remote Sensing System (REMSS) and the raw monthly data can be found here (http://data.remss.com/msu/graphics/TLT/time_series/RSS_TS_channel_TLT_Global_Land_And_Sea_v03_3.txt). In order to convince myself of Moore’s interpretation (which I already know is wrong as you require at least 30 years of climate data to determine any sort of trend), I decided to download and plot the data to see if I can replicate it. Below is my plot of the data from December 1996 to May 2015.
Comparing my chart to the one presented by Moore, it looks identical. From the overall trend to the temperature variations (such as in June of 1998). Aside from the fact that the plot is mislabeled (the anomaly values from the data are in degrees Kelvin, not degrees Celsius), the trend looks legitimate. This can be verified further by calculating the p-value of the data set (a value to determine statistical significance), which is found to be 0.955. If the p-value was below 0.05, then we would say there was a trend in the data with 95% confidence. From what’s been stated thus far, Moore is right, from December 1996 to May 2015 there was no statistically significant warming of the planet according to this data set. However, like most climate change deniers, he has not shown the entire picture. Remember how I said you need at least 30 years of data to determine trends? Well, that’s true. It is the standard practice among all climate scientists. And 30 years is just the bare minimum, we obviously want more if we can get it. But we know that if we have less than this standard, doing a trend analysis is pretty pointless (at the very least, it’s not publishable).
But I digress, suffice to say Moore does not have enough data to come to any conclusion. In addition, this data comes from satellites orbiting the Earth, 14 satellites to date according to the REMSS website. While this technology is fantastic and of course I support, I do not believe it compares to the tens of thousands of weather stations literally spread out on the surface of the Earth. A technology that has existed long before the first satellite was launched into orbit. However, we will stick with the data we have for this example.
Moore isolated December 1996 to May 2015 for one purpose, to fit his assertion that anthropogenic global warming is a fallacy. The REMSS data set goes back as far as 1979. So one must ask: Why not use all of the data? What’s so important about December 1996 to May 2015? Isn’t more data better than less data? It’s from here I decided to do my own analysis. Below is the full dataset (January 1979 to December 2015).
I certainly see a trend here, quite a significant trend actually. And remember that p-value we calculated before? Guess what? I calculated it again. And with the full data set the p-value turned out to be 2.2 x 10^(-16), well below the 0.05 threshold. So, we can say with confidence that there is a statistically significant trend in the data. Notice how there are dips in the data, and then the temperature increases, and decreases again? This is due to the variations in solar output. There exists an 10–11 year cycle from when the Sun’s output goes from maximum to minimum. What’s interesting to note here is that the trend is increasing, despite the consistent variations in temperature. In it’s simplest terms, climate change is the change in the value of the mean temperature over a given period of time (if temperature is your reference climate variable). An important distinction we need to make here is that of climate variation, which is the fluctuations about the mean. Variations in climate do not change the mean, they simply fluctuate around the mean. What we are seeing in the plot above is the variations in climate, with an increasing trend (or increasing mean) over time. Another way of viewing these variations is to ‘detrend’ the data. Meaning, remove the increasing trend in the data without losing the characteristics of the variations. A detrended plot of the REMSS data is shown below.
All we have done here is remove the increasing trend so that the mean is now 0. The magnitude of the variations in the temperature anomalies has not changed. Notice the large peak at approximately 1998? Unfortunately, I do not have an explanation for this spike at this time. This wasn’t a solar maximum year, but solar activity was increasing. Perhaps this is the cause? Of course, other factors play a role as well in governing surface temperature, such as volcanic eruptions (eruptions = atmospheric cooling), percentage of ice cover, urban development, etc. All of these play a role in what the temperature of a particular region (and in turn, the world) will be.
It’s pretty clear, based on this example anyway, that Moore ‘cherry picked ' the data that suited his narrative. There is no other reason for him to choose the time frame he eventually used, other than to have the trend analysis appear to be 0. Just so you are aware, from the full data set, the slope was determined to be 0.0000336 degrees Kelvin per month. Sound small? Turns out this is 0.0123 degrees Kelvin per year (or 0.123 degrees Kelvin per decade). This would suggest that, from 1979 to 2015, the planet warmed 0.4428 degrees Kelvin. Certainly not the zero value Moore quoted. Oops.
Another plot in Moore’s presentation is below.
Here Moore claims that the Earth was 16 degrees Celsius warmer approximately 55 million years ago. So what do we have to worry about, right? That’s way above the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2 degree C threshold. And nothing could have possibly happened to life on the planet during this time because, obviously, we are here, right?. Wrong.
Turns out this plot (which Moore didn’t generate by the way) comes from the report Nikolov and Zeller 2011 (unified_theory_of_climate_poster_nikolov_zeller.pdf). The funny thing about this report (I stress the word report, as it is not a peer reviewed paper), is that it bases it’s model on the past solely on the surface pressure of a planet. Seriously? Only surface pressure? Going to ignore things such as the biosphere, cryosphere, ocean currents? Sure! Why not.
But no, really, this is just bad science. I am unaware if Moore knew this when he decided to use this particular figure. Upon first inspection, I believed the source of the figure was from Hansen et al (2008) as it might suggest. However, this just states that some of the data used comes from the Hansen et al paper. The Hansen study clearly shows (if you have access to it, I suggest giving it a read) a correlation between CO2, CH4, and NO2 from ice cores, dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The study did use delta-O-18 (the ratio between Oxygen-18 and Oxygen-16), however this was for determining the deep ocean temperature, not surface/atmospheric temperature. Moore also failed to mention that, according to scientific literature, the Eocene Thermal Maximum is believed to be associated with an increase in greenhouse gases. In addition, temperature values varied at different latitudes on Earth — temperature changes at the poles (particularly in the northern hemisphere) was much more significant than at the equator — similar to what is happening at present. Long story short, Moore’s interpretation above is wrong (surprise!).
There is one thing I can agree with Patrick Moore when it comes to climate change, it is a difficult subject to debate and discuss. A significant number of factors need to be considered — with temperature not the only factor. Aside from the information above, Moore also suggest that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, ocean acidification is a fabrication, and that there is no correlation between CO2 and temperature (a claim he later contradicts by suggesting that temperature actually increases CO2 concentration).
If you have made it this far, please take one thing away from this post — be skeptical of the information that is presented to you, regardless if you agree with the source or not. One thing I believe needs to be addressed in the modern world is scientific literacy. This does not mean that everyone should understand the most complex forces of the universe. But people who want to engage with scientific discussions should know what questions to ask and know how to double, triple and quadruple check your theories / facts / sources. Something obviously Moore lacks.