Vox Populi

Readers here tend to be pretty knowledgeable about climate science, and about science in general. Perhaps we should remember that many people — including some among the strongest supporters of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — are not so knowledgeable.

For instance, I recently found out about a post on DailyKOS about the “Global Online Climate Change Brainstorm – November 14.” I just found out about it this morning.

It’s a great idea for different groups to collaborate on a common goal and to brainstorm about how to further the cause. But one thing about the DailyKOS post troubled me. Namely, this:

Why are we doing this?

• The world is warming. Satellite records show that in the past two decades, the process of warming has sped up. 2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record.

• Without drastic action, we risk temperature rises of 6°C or more by the end of this century. This would be a catastrophe.

Let me express skepticism about these claims.

First, about “the process of warming has sped up.” I’m not aware that satellite records show that warming has accelerated in the past two decades. In fact I’m quite confident that they don’t. As regular readers know, I’ve studied temperature time series in detail, both from satellites and from ground-based observations, and I have the “skillz” to do that. Global temperature over the last three-and-a-half decades, according to surface temperature and satellite records, is indistinguishable from a linear increase plus autocorrelated noise.

Maybe when they say “sped up” they’re comparing the modern warming rate to that prior to 1975. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me — and they certainly didn’t make that clear. The simple interpretation of the claim is that warming is proceeding faster now than it was just two decades ago. Trouble is, there’s no evidence of that.

Now consider “2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record.” That’s true — if one uses the GISS surface temperature data set. In fact, for GISS data this year will almost certainly be the hottest on record. But there are other data sets. I think GISS is the best available, but according to HadCRU this will probably not be the hottest year on record — close, but no cigar. More troubling is that the “on track to be” comment follows mention of the satellite record, and I doubt that either of the most popular satellite data sets (RSS or UAH) will set the record this year. They might, but it’s unlikely given the switch to la Nina-type conditions. Perhaps I’m being too critical, but I think at least some qualification (like “according to NASA”) should have been mentioned.

As for “… we risk temperature rises of 6°C or more by the end of this century,” we do. But — it’s disputable whether 21st-century temperature increase is likely to be that large. The probable range of climate sensitivity is 2 to 4.5 deg.C/doubling of CO2, and we may well exceed doubling CO2 this century but we may not. And even if we do, the thermal inertia of the climate system means we won’t realize the full warming due to greenhouse gases until decades after the increase. So there’s a good chance that warming this century will be less than 6 deg.C, it may well be only half that. But the statement offers no caveat, no qualifier. And exaggerating the likely warming is hardly necessary; only half the indicated warming, a “mere” 3 deg.C, can be disaster enough.

I’m sure the post wants people to know just how dangerous the coming climate changes are. But there’s plenty to worry about within the limits of actual expectation. How about heat waves like this last July in Moscow becoming a once-every-ten-or-fifteen-years event? How about sea level rise of “only” a meter? Or that increased drought that worries BPL (and others) so much?

On blogs like this, we tend to “make speeches for each other.” But the masses of people are untouched. Their politics, and their science, are confined to bread and rent.

Perhaps we need to initiate some serious, well crafted outreach. Let’s get real, hard scientific information out there, to the voting public and to the advocates of saving the earth and human civilization, in a way they can understand — both technically and viscerally. And I don’t mean using phrases like “indistinguishable from a linear increase plus autocorrelated noise.” That just makes people roll their eyes and get bored. We need to express our message in a way that’s accessible, crystal-clear, and 100% unimpeachable.

Perhaps it’s much more valuable, and much more necessary, to educate “Joe the Plumber” than it is to show Anthony Watts the error of his ways.


59 responses to “Vox Populi

  1. “Perhaps it’s much more valuable, and much more necessary, to educate “Joe the Plumber” than it is to show Anthony Watts the error of his ways.”

    I agree, and that is why I spend most of my efforts on newspaper blogs following articles concerned with global warming.

    I assume that there are far more uncommitted readers following newspapers than the various websites devoted to global warming issues.

    Each one of whom has a vote.

  2. Here’s an example of bad misstating of a report by the media, that ends up with a headline more inaccurate than the Daily Kos quotes, I think:

    Global temperature to rise 3.5 degrees C. by 2035: International Energy Agency

    Global temperatures are projected rise 3.5 degrees C. over the next 25 years, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday, meaning that governments worldwide will have failed in their pledge to hold global temperature at a 2-degree increase.

    In fact, the IEA press release said:

    Rising demand for fossil fuels would continue to drive up energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions through to 2035, making it all but impossible to achieve the 2°C goal, as the required reductions in emissions after 2020 would be too steep. The New Policy Scenario trends are in line with stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases at over 650 parts per million (ppm) of CO2-equivalent (eq), resulting in a likely temperature rise of more than 3.5°C in the long term.

    But the estimate of emissions by 2035, and the long term 3.5°C rise were confused by the CSM. 3.5°C would be very worrying, and far faster an increase than anything we’ve seen yet.

    • Yes Barney, that one showed up in the Huffington Post, and I commented that the number sounded wrong.

    • Actually, the CSM article is fine – the headline is what’s wrong, where the confusion lies. Most often written by someone other than the journalist – we called them sub-editors, or subs when I last worked on big media (in the days of manual typewriters).

      • No, the very first sentence of the article says the 3.5°C rise will be in 25 years, ie by 2035:

        “Global temperatures are projected rise 3.5 degrees C. over the next 25 years, the International Energy Agency said …”

        The sub-editor has used that as the basis for the headline, I think. So I think the journalist is primarily to blame.

  3. The problem I’ve had a few times recently is running into “skeptic” arguments which are obviously silly but to see the flaws in them you need to understand a handful of basic facts about global warming. One was with Joe the plumber (actually, I don’t know his name and he was a general builder though I did get a few ideas looking at some plumbing he’d installed), one was a friend with a degree (many years ago) in environmental science and one was a relative with a degree civil engineering.

    You can’t derail the conversation with a mini lecture on the relevant points. On the other hand, you can’t just say “that’s ball cocks” or whatever but not backing the argument up without seeming to be arguing from authority or just being plain argumentative so it’s difficult to know how to respond.

    I suppose ideally you should come up with a one-line reply which allows the other person to either push for more information if they feel like it or at least walk away with a bit of doubt in their mind if they don’t. I wish I could think quickly enough to come up with such replies on the spot rather than the next day.

    Any other options?

    • Don’t really know what the arguments were about, but if they are good friends it might be a good idea to take a less confrontational, more conversational approach. Possibly by appealing to or engaging their curiosity.

      You could argue from something they know (e.g., that the microwave oven works) to the something in a somewhat less charged context (how the microwave oven works) to the physical basis for the greenhouse effect or what have you. Or showing them a bit of the technology — if they happen to be into technology — or getting them interested paleoclimate on account of their interest in dinosaurs or what have you.

      And if you can’t immediately answer a particular problem, don’t lose your temper or anything. Don’t make a fuss. Remain calm, may be even smile, but come back with something the next day that will engage their curiosity and deal with the points you wanted to make but in a more detailed fashion than you might have made them if you had actually been ready the day before.

      Anyway, the approach you take will depend upon the context. Their background and interests. The specific points to be made. What you and your friends have in common. What you have available or can reach for later. Conversation is afterall an artform. It helps to remain relaxed. Things will come to you more naturally that way — relaxation permits the subconscious to work for you.

      You don’t have to make every point that you could make or respond to every point that they make on the spot. In fact I would oftentimes advise against responding to every point that they make. Doing so is likely to make someone defensive — to make them feel like it isn’t just one argument or another that you are disagreeing with but that somehow you are disagreeing with them as a whole.

      As for the points that you could make but don’t it is good to have a few points in reserve. You will oftentimes get the chance to make them later — more often than you might think — and maybe at that point do so in a more well-prepared manner. But you let the opportunity present itself — so that given the context the point is a natural part of the conversation.

      • In two cases I just dropped the subject leaving the other person with, I suppose, the feeling that their point of view was reinforced. In the other case I responded to part of the argument but lost the thread of the conversation and didn’t tackle what I saw as the fundamental problem.

        In all of the cases it was the other person who brought up the subjects and in no case would it have been possible for me to be “less confrontational”. That’s not to say, by the way, that I haven’t been confrontational about this sort of thing on other occasions; in one of the ones I dropped and the one I only partly responded to the other person knew this and was probably, in part, trying to goad me.

        Most of us are fairly ignorant about global warming. I find it fairly easy to talk to people who’ve spent some time reading up on the subject (e.g., following this and similar blogs) as we understand this and can help fill in gaps in each other’s knowledge. The problem I have is with people who’ve got most of what they know about the subject from denialist newspaper columns who tend to be so ignorant they don’t even know how ignorant they are.

        My question, I guess, is how to chip away at this self-satisfaction without turning them off with a mini-lecture.

    • Ed, recommending SkepticalScience.com is a great fallback…

    • Ed,
      I’m intrigued by your situation as is matches my own, but let me share an extreme example: I got skilled at rebuking the denialist arguments that got routinely and anonymously posted in my employer’s break room. You might describe it as an intermittant cold war over a couple years where everyone knew who I was but my adversary’s identity was elusive. Eventually, a friend observed who the denialist literature was coming from: my employer, the owner, the man himself. I’ve decided if I haven’t convinced him, I’m not going to, and arguing with this person causes me too much anxiety.

      In general, I recommend the socratic approach where out of interest for their position you get them to explain it all the way to the foundations, and hopefully, along the way there will be ample opportunity to show them how an inquisitive thinker would question some of the foundations.


    • All I can suggest is to try to convey a sense of the weight of the evidence. Don’t get bogged down in one detail, but explain that each core part of climate change science is supported by multiple lines of evidence, from different measurements.

    • Ed, never underestimate the power of open-ended questions.

      For example, you may wish to ask the skeptic “What level of information would you need to see to convince yourself on (insert topic)?” or “Just what would it take to convince you?”

      I suspect you’ll find the open-ended questions will immediately divide your audience into two camps:
      1. Those who lack the information needed to make the educated choice
      2. Those for whom no level of information will suffice

      The Yooper

  4. Over the years I found that one of the best ways of providing convincing evidence to the “vox populi” was by linking them to some of the the very clear explanations and graphs provided by Tamino in past articles.

    So I bookmarked such articles as “Riddle Me This”, “You Bet”, “Stupid”, “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, “Wriggles” and “Not Computer Models”, which dealt with common misconceptions in a way that most people could understand.

    Unfortunately, such articles are no longer available: attempts to link to them result in a “Page Not Found” notice. So the vox populi is somewhat more vox ignoramus than it otherwise might be, if you will forgive my Latin.

  5. The probable range of climate sensitivity is 2 to 4.5°C, with 3°C being the best estimate (AR4).

    [Response: Right you are. My mistake.]

  6. On NASA versus CRU, a search for global land and ocean for 2010 brings up a NOAA press release. So people looking for a feel for something current aren’t going to see these other series.

    So just a question. My rudimentary understanding is that GISS/NASA better covers the Arctic. As long as the Arctic is getting warmer faster than much of the rest of the globe, wouldn’t we expect GISS to come in higher than CRU?

    • JCH:
      Actually, GISS does a very poor job of covering the Arctic. DMI does a much better job as it uses hundreds more temperature readings. That is why GISS is the outlier on current global temps.

      [Response: More bullshit. DMI is a reanalysis product, its arctic temperature estimates are the output of a *computer model* which, although driven with actual measurements, are not actual measurements. Furthermore, DMI switches between reanalysis models (from ERA-40 to NWP T511 to T799) midstream.]

  7. “Perhaps we need to initiate some serious, well crafted outreach. Let’s get real, hard scientific information out there, to the voting public and to the advocates of saving the earth and human civilization, in a way they can understand — both technically and viscerally.”

    Over at skepticalscience we are trying to do something like this. There is going to be a campaign beginning soon to disseminate documents focused on educating the general public on climate science and global warming. If you’re at all interested in having a look at the documents in question or being incorporated into it, you could contact john cook. We have a few professors already jumping on board.

  8. This touches on one of the biggest frustrations in finding answers to “sceptics.” I spend a considerable time trying to spread a little of the truth in many places and in different countries I have no background in science: none at all. When I attended school, science was not a very important subject and the atomic=c bomb had not long been unleashed.

    However, it is not “Joe the Plumber” that you should be thinking of. It is that sector of the public that may well be as well educated as the scientists, but differently educated. What is needed is the simple and direct answers when addressing the sceptics who are almost always scientifically illiterate.

    One problem I frequently have is the inordinate time it takes to find answers to a particular point. In many of the science blogs – Real Climate is not good for this – a reference will be found in the comments. That requires an age to search through hundreds of comments.

    The Search functions could be improved as one step.

  9. It is a long time since I encountered a skeptic who was actually interested in answers to his questions about climate science.

    The questions have a life and purpose of their own, said purpose being the maintenance of comforting doubt. Discomforting answers are not welcome; they will be dismissed with a chuckle and a shake of the head: “I dunno, it’s all just a theory, anyway. Did you see the game, Sunday?”

  10. …I don’t mean using phrases like “indistinguishable from a linear increase plus autocorrelated noise.” That just makes people roll their eyes and get bored. We need to express our message in a way that’s accessible, crystal-clear, and 100% unimpeachable.

    I know, the normal 5- or 10-year running average plot (with/without error bars) should be sufficient, but it’s so … dry and unappealing. What to do? A better picture for the masses? A picture is worth a thousand words, and all that jazz…

    Well, mixing Greek and Latin for a moment, perhaps what’s needed is a graphicus populi.

    So point your browser over to Gareth’s or CEJournal. Gareth’s Hot Topic has a post based on Tom Yulsman’s stitched graphic post at CEJournal. I (smugly) knew what it was immediately I saw it at HT, but then a giant leap wasn’t really required, seeing what Gareth usually posts on and I’ve seen the base graphics before and that struck a chord. Tom Yulsman’s idea of putting the graphics together, though, well I think that is a sort of Eureka! moment. Genius. Now I can get a feel for what this graphic illustrates just by looking at the GISS hard numbers, but the picture… it must surely say something to Joe the Plumber.

    But it looks like a wider colour gamut is going to be required for the next 30 years’ data.

  11. David B. Benson

    I suggest graphs based on the Palmer Drought Index. These might be further refined into graphs of (decreased) agricultural productivity.

    Every likes and needs to eat.

  12. If UAH averages 0.407 for the remaining two months, 2010 will tie 1998.
    So far, November is in record territory (according to channel 5), but temps could fall off a cliff at any moment given the strength of the La Nina.

    • cce wrote:

      So far, November is in record territory (according to channel 5), but temps could fall off a cliff at any moment given the strength of the La Nina.

      It has been noted that the world temperature anomaly doesn’t start to climb until an El Nino begins to fall off. Essentially the warm water is mixing with the rest of the oceans and I presume presenting a greater surface area to the atmosphere. Do you know if the same thing works in the case of a La Nina — with the cooling effect on global temperature becoming a major factor only as the La Nina begins to fall apart?

  13. People farm at Piggly Wiggly. They have no idea that drought means plants die, or that large numbers of livestock get sold for slaughter. Don’t farmers have sprinklers?

  14. My son doesn’t even try to convince them. Instead, he says, “You know what really p***es me off? The Ay-rabs (or racial epithet if the conversation partner is totally wacko) are stealin’ our dollars and institutin’ Sharia law. I say, let’s build a whole bunch of solar plants and all that s**t. That’ll show the b**tards.” And they respond, “Yeah, righteous, man!”

    Seriously, I don’t know how to reach the willfully ignorant. After all, Idiocracy was not about the future.

  15. Daniel J. Andrews

    notjonathan. Not sure I’d use that argument in that form myself, but it certainly seems a worthwhile way of reframing the issue. Wonder if it would work on a large scale…e.g. imagine Faux News promoting green energy projects and selling it by saying how it will marginalize those who hate our freedoms?

  16. You wanna get science to look good in people’s eyes? Don’t debate extremists. Have debates with the enviros. Yield some ground. Stick to good science. “Sea level rise will be 6 feet by end of century!”
    “Well, it could be 6 feet, but the best prediction out there is for 3 feet by 2100.”
    “The Copenhagen Consensus says that scientists have underestimated all the changes so far.”
    “That’s true, a lot of impacts have been underestimated. A couple have been overestimated. Methane, for example.”
    “The important ones like sea level rise have been underestimated.”
    “Science by its nature is conservative — we scientists don’t aim to be the first to make a prediction, we aim to make the right prediction, and so when new evidence comes in suggesting things are changing faster than previously thought, these findings are judiciously studies and that takes time.”

    • Except, Steve, that as soon as you admit that the threat is sufficiently serious to begin considering consequences, your first step needs to be bounding those consequences. Building a sea wall 4 feet high will be worthless if sea levels rise 6 feet. We are now at the engineering stage. The science has been known for a century.

      • The first question I ask doubting Texans is “given the hoax, how high should we make the 1904 seawall at Galveston?” A lot of calculatin” commences. Suddenly, they like fudge.

        Galveston, of course, was badly flooded by Hurricane Ike. They say the 1904 (plus some additions) seawall worked.

  17. Whether or not we double CO2 from pre-industrial levels this century depends on emissions scenarios, and which of those you believe depends on many variables, one of which is the degree to which you think humans will continue to burn fossil fuels despite mounting evidence of harm… So of course nobody can predict exactly what will happen. Taking the most pessimistic view the latest US election suggests, emissions would be expected to grow at least 4-fold this century, as they did over the 20th (bringing the rest of the world up to year-2000 US standards of fossil energy use, basically).

    That means we could be sending 100 billion tons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere by century’s end, adding 8 to 10 ppm per year to CO2 levels. So CO2 could easily reach 800 ppm by 2100; that’s a little over 1.5 doublings from pre-industrial. So that would be 3 to 7 degrees C at equilibrium. Yes, there’s some transient delay; on the other hand there’s some risk sensitivity is higher than this, or will increase with rising temperatures, or that rising temperatures will themselves trigger carbon feedbacks that increase things more.

    I.e. 6 C by 2100 is NOT much of an exaggeration, when coupled with the “risk of” qualifier. I don’t see any reason to downplay the worrying end of the spectrum of risks in this sort of context.

  18. I mean, it would just be nice to cut the deniers out of the picture entirely.

  19. I’ve used that argument online–in a more “sanitary” wording. Not sure how effective it was, but it surely is a reasonable point to make.

  20. For some people talking about ‘the weather’ is more useful. For example, talking about last year’s heat wave and how they seem to be getting more frequent. How big bushfires used to occur once every 10, 20 or 30 years, and now they are happening every couple of years. Musing on how many 100 year floods we’ve had lately. Then linking all this to carbon emissions.

    Maybe refer to the loss of land in Bangladesh; the record droughts in the Amazon. Even the melting of ice in Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica – although often those places are too remote for people to relate to.

    People can do what they want to with graphs (like fudge them or pretend not to understand them), but it’s harder to contest what is taking place right before your eyes.

    Finally, what can be done about it. Often people don’t want to talk about it or even refuse to accept global warming because it makes them feel powerless and out of control. People relate to solutions, it makes us feel we can do something about it. Even if it’s accompanied by ‘I’m not a greenie, but….(eg: I cut my power bill by 30% just by turning off the computer at night)’

  21. Tamino,
    I entirely agree with your last sentence:

    “Perhaps it’s much more valuable, and much more necessary, to educate “Joe the Plumber” than it is to show Anthony Watts the error of his ways.”

  22. I guess I’m Vox P. In the congressional hearings that just closed, there was an exchange between Michaels and Santer. On most AGW sites where this is being discussed, they think Santer demolished Michaels, but…

    ja curry:

    “Panel II: Some fireworks between Santer and Michaels; Michaels seemed to come out on top. Michaels has some interesting stuff in his written testimony on attribution in the latter half of 20th century. …”

    I am too unskilled to decide. I thought Santer’s explanation that Michaels was using indirect numbers was devastating, but I have no way of knowing if my hunch is correct or not.

    If it was devastating, how could Curry not see that? I must be wrong. What did she see in what Michaels was saying that she liked?

  23. JCH, you are assuming that Judy has the foggiest notion what she is talking about. Judy has demonstrated repeatedly that this is not a sound assumption.

  24. David B. Benson

    JCH, Curry has gone emerita as the saying is these days.

  25. JCH, any links to add to what you quoted?

    I found the prepared testimony via this site:


    The presented remarks are quite interesting–particularly the comments of Dr. Lindzen, which present a not-unexpected blend of rhetoric and somewhat opaque technical nit-picking.

    The site doesn’t seem to have the questions from the Committee members and the responses thereto, though.

    • Lindzen made a couple of major gaffes, and nobody picked up on it. I dropped my jaw when he interjected that “You can’t compute a global mean temperature” as he was trying to sort of explain what a temperature anomaly was. There was a second one too, can’t remember it though. He did however set Rohrbacher straight wrt the idea that a trace gas can’t have much heating effect. Light bulb for Rohrbacher (hopefully), if the switch isn’t broken. Richard Alley seemed to talk some sense into him too.

  26. It’s Panel II, so click on panel II. Scroll down the transcript, and click on the next next to 30:24 (I just want to comment briefly on what Dr. Alley…):


    That is where the exchange begins.

    • Well here’s the money quote in the comments from JA’s post:

      Why doesn’t the IPCC include the major forcing, trade winds?

      Silence from JA :)

    • Also, the quality of people bothering to post on JA’s blog can be calibrated by noticing that a quick read leads to Stephen Mosher being perhaps the strongest “uh, no, you and PM are fucked up” response.


      Stephen “Piltdown Mann” Mosher.

      Fuller and Mosher, cashing in on Climategate.

      Being a nearly lone voice pointing out that JA’s new hero PM is full of it.

      Good lord.

      • Ditto on all of that. Those were my first thoughts. I have no vocabulary to describe it.

        But some heavyweights are getting into some pretty interesting exchanges over there.

        I noted an A. Lacis left a link to a paper on the subject at hand to which nobody responded. I doubt he dropped it in there for no reason.

  27. You can watch the whole thing–it’s archived at C-SPAN:

    Ben Santer made some great points, and he made them immediately and forcefully (saying bluntly, twice, that Michaels was wrong and/or was misleading the Committee). He called Michaels on citing a range of -0.2 to 0.0 W/sq. m. for the estimated aerosol forcing since 1950. Santer immediately stated that this value was for the indirect effect thereof (i.e cloud effects) and that for the direct effect, the best forcing estimate was -0.5 with a confidence level that does not cover zero. He made an even better point IMO by pointing to Michaels’ slide about the estimated GHG forcing over that time, and noting incredulously that it (1) there were NO error bars on it, even though Michaels had just waved his arms and said “the error bars on these estimates are huge” and (2) the Michaels estimates showed a resolution of .001 units!! Just what I remember–there was more.

  28. But to directly address the topic of the post:

    Everyone should watch this question and OUTSTANDING response by William Geer starting at the 48:15 mark and going for a couple minutes:

    Faaaaaaaar too few people get this essential point!!!

    • David B. Benson

      Since I don’t do video, what is the essential point?

      • That seemingly small temperature differences (as assessed by our typical sense of scale) of a degree or two can have very large effects on biota, and that shapes of thermal niches–and population positions within them–are very important. This goes a long ways toward explaining non-linearities and threshold responses to temperature changes. See:
        Kingsolver, JG. 2009. The Well Temperatured Biologist. American Naturalist 174:755-

      • What is the essential point? That you need to learn to do video!

        Congressmen starts his question with talking 1 or 2 degrees, and how people don’t see that is such a big deal. Then he says it’s his understanding that many species live close to the upper bound of their tolerance – temperature. The biologist explains the plight of life that is not human in habitat adaptation and biological adaptation. In my own words, life is a delicate miracle of toughness and weakness and the absolutely incredible.

        Those who take National Geographic, November 2010, page 36, a wondrous photograph of a mountain goat that had descended a sheer cliff to lick salt. There is nothing under him. He’s leveraged between sheer walls. How did he learn to do that?

        The biologist talks about mountain goats – where are they going to go?

        Is that goat tough and smart and adaptive? Amazingly. Is he weak? I guess he’s saying the mountain goat went up to that habitat because he was too weak for everywhere else. He can’t read a book and learn where he can go in North China – Curryland. He might find his own proverbial land where things are actually better for him in a rapidly changed world, but he might not, and this wide array of complicating factors the biologist describes are stacked against life that is not human. We’re imposing this on this mountain goat, and he has no vote.

        “No adaptation without representation!”