Two Fools and a Scientist

Once upon a time in a galaxy not-so-far away, there were two fools and a scientist. By which I mean, last week at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science, and Technology.

Fool #1 is committe chair congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), who held the hearings to assert his right to subpoena information about ongoing criminal investigations by state attorneys general. His witnesses included fool #2, a law professor by the name of Ronald Rotunda, who decided to include in his testimony some actual science. Oops! I meant “the most extreme misrepresentation of science in recent memory.”

The scientist whose work was so terribly, I would even opine dishonestly misrepresented, is Jerry Mitrovica. He’s a geophysicist at Harvard who specializes in how the Earth’s surface moves around. As such, one of his keen interests is sea level. His work was recently highlighted in an article in Harvard magazine.

Mitrovica and his colleagues have applied some old science to how sea level changes when land ice melts: Newton’s law of gravity. The Greenland ice sheet, for instance, has a lot of mass (about 3 million billion tonnes) and that means it exerts considerable gravitational force on the rest of the Earth, including the oceans. Its gravity pulls the ocean’s water toward Greenland, so it piles up higher around that island, raising the local sea level, not by melting but by its gravity. The flip side is that its gravity actually lowers sea level in regions distant from Greenland.

If the Greenland ice sheet melts, says Mitrovica (and trust me, he knows what he’s talking about) it will raise global average sea level about 7 meters (around 23 feet), but near Greenland it will actually lower sea level. “Near Greenland” means within about 2000 km, a calculation which my own crude approximation agrees with (using that radical alarmist science know as “Newton’s law of gravity.”)

It might surprise you how little of Earth’s surface is within 2000 km of Greenland. It’s shown by the deep blue in this map:


This means that, counterintuitive as it may seem, if you live somewhere in the area colored deep blue, like Norway or Iceland, the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet will actually lower your local sea level. For the rest of us, however, who don’t live in that area, it will raise sea level. In many areas it will actually raise sea level more than the global average of 7 meters. That’s good luck for Iceland, Norway, and Scotland, but bad luck for the rest of us, and extra-bad luck for China, Japan, Australia, India, the Middle East, most of Africa, and all of South America.

All of which is made clear in the article in Harvard magazine. But it was not made clear in the testimony of Ronald Rotunda. He just said that melting of the Greenland ice sheet would lower sea level! His “reference” for this scientific gem was the article in Harvard magazine. Too bad he left out the most important part.

Rotunda also made hay of the fact that Mitrovica prefers working on paleo sea level, because he dislikes the politics which invades the issue today.

Jerry Mitrovica isn’t happy about that. Climate Crocks reports that Mitrovica described Rotunda’s spin on his views about the politics of climate change and its relation to ExxonMobil investigation to be “about as despicable a misrepresentation of my views that I have ever read or heard.” Mitrovica also mentioned that his complaints were about the actions of “climate change skeptics who respond to rigorous scientific work with dismissiveness, insults, and hostility.”

But it was Rotunda’s non-scientific nonsense which brought about an exchange between Rotunda and another committee member, the one with a PhD in Physics, Bill Foster (D-IL). If you want some entertainment, watch the video here.

If you want to get a lot smarter about the subject, enjoy this video of a lecture on the subject of sea level by Mitrovica.

If you want to get a lot more stupid, spend your time listening to fool #1 Lamar Smith. It seems to me that he’s not just stupid, he’s proud of it.

This blog is made possible by readers like you; join others by donating at Peaseblossom’s Closet.


32 responses to “Two Fools and a Scientist

  1. Chris Mooney had a nice piece on Mitrovica’s work back in January

  2. David B. Benson

    And to think we pay them a decent salary plus health insurance and so on…

  3. In the clip of the discussion between Foster and Rotunda, Rotunda twice says the effect is up to 2000 km away. That seems to be perfectly correct. I don’t know what he said that led to the questioning, but it is plausibly just a problem with communication.

    [Response: No it’s not. I think he didn’t say that until he was confronted by Foster — and failure to do so seems to me to be an obvious case of deliberate misleading.

    And even if he did say, from the get-go, that sea level fall would be within 2000 km of Greenland, please tell us *why* he mentioned it at all? Did he mention the additional sea level rise over a much larger area? Why was he, a lawyer working for the Cato Institute, discussing sea level rise (or fall) in a hearing about the legal authority of the House committee over state attorney generals? The *most* generous possibility is that he was simply trying to “muddy the waters” — one of the most common tactics of deniers.

    Tell us if you can, a possible scenario in which his comment was relevant to anything other than spreading uncertainty and doubt.]

  4. The tragedy is it only takes a minute to educate yourself on the physics of sea level

  5. I loved the bit about how the ice ‘contained’ a lot of gravity and that melts away with the ice. I presume this illustrates the guy’s level of scientific understanding. Yes, it’s not actually ‘wrong’, but the way he talks about shows that he’s really very vague about the concepts. Good to see that you have at least one senator with a science PhD. We are desperately short of people with scientific of engineering clue in the UK legislature. We had one scientist in the last parliament, but he (very narrowly) lost his seat this time.

    • Actually, Therese Coffey has a PhD in Chemistry and Matthew Offord one in Geology. There are a few more with PhDs but not in the hard sciences.
      Surprisingly many former GPs, I must say.

  6. A propos “fools”:

    We have to dig deeply into the psyche of politics and economy, to lose any delusions once and for all:

    ” 6.9.2016 – U.S. companies tout climate policies, fund climate skeptics”

    The diagnosis in this case is rather easy:


    My question to the professionals:

    Will that schizophrenic strategy solve climate change? Gnahaha, I don’t expect any answer ;-)

  7. Enjoyed the post, as usual, but was completely, completely baffled by the add for Trump at the bottom on my computer screen ? Don’t even get me started.

    • Erm, I thought, I saw Hillary at the bottom on my computer screen, but that could be just some mistaken identity, as I am not very skilled in politics…

      • That image is far-left propaganda meant to suggest that there is no real difference between Clinton and Trump and that there is no good reason to vote for Clinton. Bernie Bros, perhaps? I preferred Bernie over Clinton because I agreed with every position he took on climate. But anyone who does not see a significant difference between Clinton and Trump is undoubtedly still in need of toilet training.

        [Feel free to delete this comment as needed.]

      • @Timothy Chase

        ” That image is far-left propaganda meant to suggest that there is no real difference between Clinton and Trump and that there is no good reason to vote for Clinton. Bernie Bros, perhaps? I preferred Bernie over Clinton because I agreed with every position he took on climate. But anyone who does not see a significant difference between Clinton and Trump is undoubtedly still in need of toilet training.”

        I am not far left, not far right, not middle. I give a shit about any party, I give a shit about Sanders, Stein, Trump, Clinton and Donald Duck ect as well. I can tell you why:

        The world is ruled by MONEY, not by funny politicians, let alone the citizens:

        ” The income taxes of Mrs. Clinton, along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, showed an adjusted gross income of $10.6 million for 2015″

        ” A Brief History of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton’s Friendship”

        ” The Establishment generally denotes a dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organization. The Establishment may be a closed social group which selects its own members (as opposed to selection by merit or election) or specific entrenched elite structures, either in government or in specific institutions…”

        What does Jason Box say in this video? Well, he says:


        Jason Box

        “… still in need of toilet training.”

        Excuse me, Sir Timothy Chase, what does that mean? I am no english- nor american man, sorry, I don’t know that saying, please could you explain…

        [Response: If you fail to see the fundamental difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then perhaps you fit the description yourself.]

    • Been getting a lot of incitations to have dinner with. I might go, but am afraid of getting stuck with the check.

    • ” If you fail to see the fundamental difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then perhaps you fit the description yourself.”

      Sure, but I still don’t know the meaning of that toilet description. About the fundamental difference: Is it, that Clinton got the better haircut? Is it, that Clinton will save us from climate change?


      [Response: Trump has suggested the realistic possibility of bombing countries with nuclear weapons, Clinton is sane and rational enough to know how idiotic that would be. Trump courts racist and xenophobic voters, Clinton doesn’t. Trump tells outright lies of the most ludicrous nature, then when he’s called on it he says he was “just joking.” Trump thinks painting Mexicans with the broad brush of “rapists” is appropriate, Clinton doesn’t. If you don’t get the difference, you’re pathetic.

      As for “toilet training,” it refers to those who are *so* childish they haven’t advanced beyond the stage at which one would be able to use the toilet without assistance. Perhaps that describes you.]

    • [edit]

      [Response: Your ramblings are neither useful nor amusing. Goodbye.]

  8. Andy Lee Robinson

    Jerry Mitrovica’s lecture is one of my favourites – have watched it several times and often use it in rebuttals.
    Of course, Greenland isn’t the only reservoir of ice on the planet.
    The fools conveniently forget that what is true for Greenland is also true for Antarctica, and its melting ‘fingerprint’ gives the NH a conversely disproportionate larger increase in sea level rise.
    Add glacial melting to the mix, and you find that the Eastern Seaboard gets a triple whammy as they all increase melting, and another couple of whammies from Gulf Stream slowdown and temperature rise (and probably a few more)!
    New York and Washington should be very worried, but such is the power of motivated denial that it seems that those with power would rather allow humanity to go extinct than acknowledge a problem that would cost their sponsors even a slight drop in profit.

    • That was my immediate thought too, Andy. What about Western Antarctica? This is an important question with respect to adaptation here on the west coast of Wales. Although isostatic rebound may reduce the amount of sea level rise due to Greenland deglaciating, deglaciation elsewhere around the globe offers us no such compensation.

      • Andy Lee Robinson

        Indeed John.
        I remember once someone said years ago that if a substantial part of Antarctica were to melt suddenly, it would be decades before sea levels would equalize owing to the tiny height gradient of a few cm over thousands of km, so the rise would be delayed somewhat.

        [Response: I doubt that’s the case.]

  9. I watched the video of Jerry Mitrovica’s lecture too. It is really good. The key thing that stands out for me, is the sudden acceleration of sea level rise in recent times.

    Both he and Randall Monroe (XKCD) have succeeded in putting the current changes into a proper historical context, which forces you to realise just how rapid the changes we are seeing are.

  10. ” 12.9.2016 – S. Korean icebreaker finds gas hydrates in Arctic sea”

    A South Korean icebreaker exploring the Arctic discovered new gas hydrate reserves in the East Siberian Sea, the ship’s operator said Monday.

    The Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI) said the Aaron successfully extracted gas hydrates from about 500 meters under the East Siberian Sea…”

    Aaah, that’s good news, isn’t it? There’s lots and lots of methane in the ESAS. Methane, you know, the energy of the future, phew, lots and lots of energy, a blast of energy, a Hell of energy 3:-)

  11. As Brian points out, the very next paragraph of Mitrovica’s article shows that the consequence is amplification of sea level rise elsewhere, Rotunda is indeed another fruit which has landed in the basket of despicables.

  12. One thing this exchange illuminates is a common denier technique, that of misrepresenting a relatively obscure factoid that was quote mined from a legitimate study, and implying it to be something important that disproves all of climate science. These pop-up deceptions are specifically chosen to be something with which the audience (and most particularly, anyone present who can defend the idea of science) is unlikely to be familiar, and so can’t immediately dispute.

    Rep. Foster wasn’t familiar enough with the particular study to adequately respond. Note that he concentrated on the legitimate issue of the Greenland subsurface rebounding after the weight of the ice melts off. But that’s not what the study was about, and that’s not the effect Rotunda referred to. Of course, Rotunda had no idea what he was talking about, and didn’t understand more than about three of the words he spoke. But that’s not the point. Listeners would be left with the impression that no one knows what’s really going on, and that scientists in particular are running around as confused as beheaded chickens.

    One denier and conspiracy theorist I know (he also blogs at WUWT) does this constantly, proclaiming things like, “You obviously haven’t read this peer-reviewed study where a team of experts insists Antarctica isn’t being affected at all by CO2,” or “… this study, accepted by the scientific consensus, which shows that Arctic ice is disappearing because winds are blowing it into the Atlantic–nothing to do with AGW.” Of course, few people have read these particular papers, and when you do read them, you find the claims are, at best, misleading. By that time though, the conversation has long passed.

    It’s a specific form of dishing Gish, choosing an obscure claim that can’t be fact-checked in real time.

    • I think this sea level issue – i.e. that the melting of the Greenland Ice sheet may cause a lowering of “localised” sea level goes to the heart of some peoples “distrust/sceptism” of climate science

      it plays well into the “they are making things up as they go along” meme which morphs into all sorts of Popper falsification nonsense.

      if you don’t understand how gravity affects sea level (which I confess I did not until I watched that wonderful minute physics video) then it is easy to assume that too

      “sea level goes up – due to melting ice sheets” “sea level goes down – due to melting ice sheets”

      “gee – it is heads they win tails you loose with these guys, they are making it up as they go along blah blah blah”

      when the reality is they simply won’t admit they don’t understand the science well enough to form a judgement and fail to understand that some science is actually counter intuitive

      I have shown that sea level video to a “sceptical” acquaintance – and you could see him visibly start to wince and say “mmm I did not know that”

      • I also wasn’t aware of how the Greenland ice sheet would affect local sea level until I read about it here. But once said, it’s obvious. It’s the same reason we have tides, with all that ice having the same effect the Moon does. Gravity. It’s a thing.

        But yeah, your point about heads and tails is well-noted. Global warning will eventually make snow impossible in many places–but until it does, it will mean MORE snow. Global warming brings droughts to California but floods to Louisiana and Florida and New Jersey. We’re losing Arctic sea ice and gaining Antarctic sea ice–because of global warming. And so on.

        It really is easy to see why deniers throw up their hands and say, “Now they’re blaming =everything= on global warming!” Yeah, well, the climate is a complex interlocking system, and when you break it, the fractures extend to unexpected places. Like an anthrax outbreak in Russia.

  13. Rule 3.3(a) of the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct provides:

    “Rule 3.3 Candor Toward The Tribunal: (a) A lawyer shall not knowingly: (1) make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to the tribunal by the lawyer …”

    It seems to me that anyone who is outraged by this type of conduct could write a letter of complaint to their Congressman, to Rotunda’s employer, Chapman University, or to the California Bar (the CA Bar apparently does not use the ABA model, but it does have similar language – “In presenting a matter to a tribunal, a member: … (A) Shall employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to the member such means only as are consistent with truth; (B) Shall not seek to mislead the judge, judicial officer, or jury by an artifice or false statement of fact or law; (C) Shall not intentionally misquote to a tribunal the language of a book, statute, or decision …”)

    Some argue that Rotunda’s claims are not false. At the very least, the statements seem deliberately misleading – i.e., tantamount to a lie, especially in the context of a Congressional hearing where party control plays a major role in setting the fact-finding agenda.

    • Looking at his CV, it seems that Rotunda is not a member of the CA bar. Instead, he seems to be a member of the following: Illinois (RULE 4.1. Truthfulness in Statements to Others: In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not: (a) make a statement of material fact or law to a third person which statement the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is false,) NY and DC (both seem to follow the ABA model).

  14. It’s a little unclear to me, but I’m guessing the 2000 km line is the point at which the 7m of sea level rise from melt gets added to instead of subtracted from as a result of the gravity effect. This (if true) is an important distinction, because the gravitational depression on sea level within 2000km will be less than 7m at a much closer distance than 2000km. Maybe (I’m guessing) only a few hundred km away from Greenland, the net effect of both forces is an increase in sea level, and maybe at distances over 1000km away, the net effect is 4+ meters of sea level rise.

    If that’s all wrong and 2000 km is a net of the two forces with no sea level rise, then there should be a wider band 2000 + X thousand km that has a rise between 0 and 7m, and then finally the rest of the world has >7m rise.

  15. I have several questions.
    1) How much is the Greenland sheet depressing the land below and how long would the rebound take?
    2)What would be the impact of that, if any?
    3) Would the addition of that much freshwater disrupt the ocean heat transport in the North Atlantic? That would have serious implications for the climate of the UK & Northern Europe.