Big Lies about Climate Change

One of the never-ending tactics of climate deniers is to tell the big lie. Another is to say something that is technically true in the most limited sense, but is so misleading, so irrelevant, that it’s tantamount to a lie. And a big one.

One of the biggest and most common, a favorite of politicians who want to avoid the issue, is: Climate is always changing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because it’s such a good analogy: Climate is the rules of the game. Weather is the roll of the dice.

Dice rolls constantly change in unpredictable fashion; that’s why we roll the dice. But the mean value, what on an average we expect, doesn’t change. If we roll two dice, it’s 7 (if the dice are fair, that is). Just because you rolled 12 three times in a row, that’s not because the mean value changed — it’s still 7 (if the dice are fair). Those three 12s in a row were a random accident, a fluctuation — an unlikely fluctuation (about 1 chance out of 47,000), but a random fluctuation nonetheless. It doesn’t mean the dice have changed.

Weather is changing all the time; that’s its nature. But the mean can be constant for long periods of time, and so too can the variation, the essential nature of the fluctuations. Since they define what climate is, when they are constant we have a stable climate. Climate change is not about changing weather, we expect that to happen. It’s all about a change in what we expect — either what we expect on an average (change in the mean) or what we expect the fluctuations to be like (change in the variation).

Unfortunately, a lot of people confuse the two: weather change and climate change. This is especially true of politicians, who far too often resort to the “big lie” that “climate is always changing.” If you operated a casino in Las Vegas, and you suspected someone at the craps table had removed the fair dice and substituted loaded dice, would you accept the answer “dice are always changing”?

Or would you politely inform him, “No, dice rolls are always changing but the dice themselves aren’t” and have him arrested?

The ironic truth is that dice are always changing. Every time you roll them, a few molecules of the dice break off, a speck of dust might stick to them, even the body heat from your fingertips can make them expand and change size ever so slightly. But the casino owner knows that the physical changes of dice from these natural causes are so small that they don’t amount to a hill of beans. For all practical purposes, the dice don’t change and the game is still fair.

Likewise, climate is always changing but the changes from natural causes are so slow, that in a single human lifetime they’re generally not even noticeable, let alone worrisome. It’s true that the changes can be large — the warming of 5°C since the last great glacial time was enough to melt that three-mile thick ice sheet covering Chicago. But it took about 8,000 years for Earth to transition of those cold glacial temperatures to the moderate climate in which civilization was born.

Natural climate change can happen a lot faster within a limited area. Parts of Greenland have, in the distant past, experienced actual climate change in a matter of a few decades. But such sudden shifts generally happen, not because the total heat at Earth’s surface changes, but because it moves from one place to another; when one place on Earth gets hotter another gets colder. Change of global average climate from natural causes take a long time — in human terms.

If you’re in Las Vegas and you have a losing streak because the rolls of your dice were unlucky, that’s random accident. Don’t complain, if you couldn’t afford to lose you shouldn’t have been gambling. But if the casino dice were loaded, you’d have a valid complaint. One of the rules of the game is that the dice have to be fair, so at least you have a chance to win. When the rules of the game change, you’re going to lose — unless you’re the cheater who changed them.

For the last 10,000 years or so, a period called the holocene, Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to develop our civilization, build cities, domesticate horses and cows and pigs (while cats domesticated us), invent the wheel and the steam engine and mathematics and electronics, all the technology that makes our world so different than it used to be. Yet even regional climate changes have been trouble for human societies; when a society goes through extended drought, the impact on agriculture can topple a civilization. For human beings, climate stability is a very good thing. Climate instability can be lethal.

It’s time to stop letting the cheaters change the rules of the game. And it’s time to get rid of all the politicians who keep telling us that the rules are always changing.

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32 responses to “Big Lies about Climate Change

  1. miriamrburden

    I am always getting into arguments on facebook about climate change, and “the climate is always changing is a big one.” I always reply, yes it is. There have been 5 major extinction, each one set off by a catastrophic event, such as the Siberian volcanic explosion thought to spur the Permian Triassic extinction. There were little pulses of extinction after these events, some caused by tiny sulfide producing bacteria. While there hasn’t been a catastrophic event to throw our lives completely out of orbit, humans have been acting like those little pulses. We are in the midst of the 6th extinction, losing approximately 150 species daily. There has to be an appeal to reason.

  2. In order to be taken seriously, the deniers and troll types should show they are serious about their misunderstandings by investing in Florida shoreline properties. Absent evidence that the deniers and trolls actually believe what they are saying the trolls should be ignored. Complete waste of time to engage with them. They want to waste your time and frustrate you, why partner up and help them do that?

  3. Actually, the dice are not a very good analogy for weather.
    The numbers on two dice have a finite range of possibilities, weather does not. You cannot possibly get 13 on two dice.
    OTOH just because you get weather which is outside what you think is a “normal” range, for a prolonged period, does not mean that the climate has “changed”.
    We cannot say that “For the last 10,000 years or so, a period called the holocene, Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable.”, because we don’t have a complete, detailed record for that time.

    [Response: Your quibble about not being able to roll a 13 is silly. I suspect you want to discredit the analogy because it’s so good at exposing how ludicrous are the deniers who conflate weather and climate.

    Your complaint that we don’t have a “complete, detailed record” for the last 10,000 years is another one of the big lies: that we don’t know everything so we don’t know anything.]

    • QV, A quibble, and not even, necessarily, a correct one. Climate is not unconstrained. Weather is not unconstrained. Energy must be conserved, along with momentum and angular momentum. What is more, there is a limit to the speed with which natural forcings tend to change the climate.

      It may be that there is a corresponding state to a “12” in a roll of a couple of dice. And, we can certainly scale things so that the maxima correspond, or we can add more dice. But, hey, you’re still standing there saying, “But this goes up to eleven…”

    • QV, we have ice core and oceanic record for may hundred thousand years, and can see large swings in sea level and ocean temperature during the past glacial and interglacial periods. These swings would be easily detectable in the much better Holocene records, but they are absent for the last 8000 years. The climate changes as from the medieval warm period to the little ice age are much smaller then during the Emmian period. Therefore we can conclude that the Holocene has been remarkably stable compared to the other interglacial (and especially glacial) periods.

    • Chris O'Neill

      We cannot say that “For the last 10,000 years or so, a period called the holocene, Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable.”, because we don’t have a complete, detailed record for that time.

      Next he’ll probably claim that “we cannot say that the last ice age happened because we don’t have a complete, detailed record for that time”.

  4. Chris O'Neill

    it’s time to get rid of all the politicians who keep telling us that the rules are always changing

    The way things are going, we’ll have to go through a scorched earth phase before voters decide to make that happen.

  5. Although the climate-weather distinction is important, when denialists indulge the stupidity of “climate is always changing” is there value in keeping the debunking entirely within the issue of climate?

    Climate changes naturally because of known (or knowable) and measurable natural forcings. Some of those forcings are remarkably small. The important issue and question is whether human activity can generate forcings known to be sufficient to change climate.

    So quantify direct plus feedback human forcings and compare with the known, natural climate-changing forcings of orbital cycles, solar, volcanic, natural changes in CO2, changes in overturning ocean circulation, etc., whatever. Mention weather only incidentally if at all.

    Denialists, to some effect among the undiscerning , have for years wrongly and foolishly minimized, dismissed and scoffed at the climate-weather distinction, so deny them the chance.

    “Yes, climate is always changing and these are the reasons and these are the forcings…”

  6. >There has to be an appeal to reason.

    That’s what I thought 10 years ago and nothing so far. Just as an aside, have you tried to get someone who understands the need for mitigation to lower their emisisons ? I have, never had any success :) excuses are wide and varied. If those folk won’t change their actions, you have zero chance of getting a denier to change their actions. By this I mean if we’d transition to a low emisions world, it’s the sort of stuff they’d have to do anyway but refuse to do now eg cycle not drive, no flying, no meat eating pets (a large dog has as many embedded emissions as an SUV for example), renewable electricity only etc. So we’re stuck with the two groups whose words differ but their actions are the same, profligate emissions, except one group seems to claim their emisisons are ‘righteous’ :)

    The second issue is managed abandonment, in not to many decades places like Miami will be unlivable, (and Phoenix is another, it relies on the massive Navajo coal power station) it would take many decades to manage the slow abandonment of such cities, that we aren’t even planning for it shows collapse is inevitable. Like Tamino’s wonderful ants in the backyard example from last year, we’ll keep responding to climate disasters, until the nation is overwhelmed and then collapses.

    >And it’s time to get rid of all the politicians who keep telling us that the rules are always changing.

    It’s going the other way, how many folk voted for Jill Stein ? (yes Ms Clinton was another toxic choice). Here in Australia, the only party taking climate change at least a little seriously went backwards at the last election and have one candidate in our parliament and a new outright denial party gained several seats in the Senate and these guys expect to keep growing :)

    At a personal level, all you can do is reduce emissions significantly (an achievable goal is about 3-4t per annum, mine are at about 2.5t per annum), making sure low emisions behaviour is normalised and vote for politicans that support those outcomes, while following Dennis Meadow’s (Limits to Growth) advice to build resilience into your life (live in Miami ? sell and rent for example)

    • I hear what you are saying, but personal choices count for nothing. It needs government action. If we can’t get that, then we can give up. As another Aussie, I find it amazing that Malcolm Roberts is a senator, and that David Archibald is likely to get a spot in the WA upper house. How can climate deniers be so well organised?

      • How can climate deniers be so well organised?

        The folks who profit from the causes of climate change fund climate deniers and the AGW denial movement. The funding and populist appeal of thumbing the nose at “experts” has been quite effective.

        Climate change communicators normally speak in the language of science which is less bombastic, more accurate and less effective at driving public support for meaningful public policy on AGW.

        Finally, our presentation has been largely framed around the future impact of current activities: how much will future temp rise if we continue to create ghg at the current level, That sort of thing. Studies indicate that the future framing is not persuasive to conservatives:

        The steady flow of dollars is like energy through a system, it creates order and organization.

        just my opinion.


  7. QV wrote: “You cannot possibly get 13 on two dice.”

    Of course you can, just delete the 1 on one die and replace it with a 7. That’s exactly what a warming climate will do: change the dice and thereby change the possible extreme values, shifting them higher. You will no longer be able to throw 1+1, but you will now be able to throw 6+7, which is what the climate system just threw with the recent el Nino.

    Climate change deniers are such uncreative thinkers.

    • You have completely missed the point!

      [Response: On the contrary. YOU completely missed the point.

      It’s not that rolling dice perfectly emulates the probability distribution of temperature or any other climate variable. It’s the difference between climate and weather — that climate is the probability density function, weather is the set of samples.

      But instead of getting it or accepting it or learning from it, you decided to quibble about the pdf for dice being bounded while that for climate isn’t (although in truth it is). If that’s the first criticism that popped into your head, your understanding must be weak indeed.]

      • Oh really, and which of your points, or rather unsubstantiated assertions completely absent supporting evidence, did I completely miss? The one that claims that for a stable climate regime like the Holocene weather does not have a finite range of possibilities? Or the one that claims since we don’t have a complete, detailed record of daily weather for the last 10,000 years we can’t say that Holocene climate has been remarkably stable?

        For the first assertion, by definition the dice analogy encompasses not just the known range of weather under the pre-AGW climate regime, but the physically possible range for the existing climate state. That’s how analogies work. Unknown outliers are just that, unknown, but even rare outlier weather events will be averaged out over time and become part of the climate record.

        For the second, we have multiple independent paleoclimate proxies of annual resolution for the last 10,000 years of the Holocene. Although it is true that they do not capture daily weather events, it is precisely those proxy records of _climate_ that allow us to say that Holocene climate has been remarkably stable.

  8. Oh yes the statement “The climate is always changing it has for thousands of years”, with the meaning nothing to see here move along.
    So truth in the above yes climate does change that is true.
    Presently however there is one aspect that is not normal or expected from past events the every increasing upward trend in average world wide temperatures.
    Some will also roll out this specious argument ” Thermometers do not measure in 100 ths of a degree” , or some such rot.
    This newspeak of course is lapped up by the uneducated majority of society or perhaps even the educated idiots of society it seems they are now more so than those who have half a brain still working.
    I honestly think that the way society is moving in Europe in the north of America is not healthy for a good outcome in the next 50 years.

    • I’m always appalled by the “thermometers can’t measure to 100s of a degree” argument. It shows such a complete lack of any statistical understanding.

      GISS lists about 7000 stations. So, let’s set up 7000 stations, define a “true” station temperature between 0 and 100 degrees and an “error” temperature of true temperature plus or minus a full degree (i.e., a 2 degree range). Then let’s run 100 random samples of this scenario to get some idea of the errors involved. R code follows:

      # start code execution here (anonymous function used to save space)
      set.seed(123456) # to replicate this specific example
      Sample <- replicate(100,(function (){
      TrueTemps <- sample(0:100,7000,replace=TRUE)
      ThermometerError <- runif(7000,-1,1)
      ErrorTemps <- TrueTemps+ThermometerError
      # end execution

      Now let's see how these "errors" add up to affect the global mean.

      # start code execution here
      Error mean(Error)
      [1] 0.000818985
      > sd(Error)
      [1] 0.006756054

      So, the mean error even if observers aren’t competent to get the temp to within plus or minus a full degree is in range of 1/1000s of a degree and only the most extreme cases get beyond 1/100s of a degree. Executing hist(Error) shows the distribution.

      Kicking the error out to plus or minus 2 degrees–a full 4 degree range–results in a mean of 0.0016 and sd of 0.014 which is still not worrisome in terms in terms of thermometers not measuring to 1/100 of a degree.

      Obviously there is the next question of how well the combinations of the station averages (those dreaded “manipulations”) relates to the temperature of the whole globe. Hence the use of anomalies. But the fact that thermometers did not historically measure to the nearest 1/100 is NOT the underlying problem.

      • Whups…left out lines to publish results…

        #start code execution
        Error <- Sample[1,]-Sample[2,]
        #end execution

  9. As annoying as the “Climate’s always changing” meme is, it does demonstrate we are making progress–or at least that the fact of climate change is so obvious that only the time-cube caliber nutjobs deny it. Maybe we can get them to accept conservation of energy as well. Change doesn’t “just happen”.

  10. I love the “the climate is always changing” meme. Not only are these folks seemingly under the impression that past climate changes is somehow esoteric knowledge that climate scientists don’t have access to, it (more amusingly) assumes that sometimes goes down for a while, without any physical cause, and when the earth has had enough of that the temperature goes up, again without physical cause. Magical thinking, in other words.

    • I meant to write “sometimes *the earth’s temperature* goes down for a while”
      An edit function would be useful.

    • I also like the meme to some extent. It allows for some dialog to commence because there is now a common starting point.

      “Yes, the climate has changed before. How do we know? The climate (earth) scientists have studied it and published their findings. They aren’t lying.”

      I like to use the analogy of the pilot on your plane announcing that “all passengers should assume the brace position. We’re going to crash.” The guy next to you says “Planes have crashed before and they will again.” I would not find comfort in his words in the same way you should not find comfort in the knowledge that climate change has happened before.

      “The climate has changed before and it will again” dismisses the implication held within the statement. Climate change is civilisation’s “plane crash”.

    • You wonder that if ice ages were only recently discovered, would there be people who would deny them? One suspects that the most common reason everyone, denialists included, are happy with ice ages is that they learned about them in primary school.

  11. Andy Lee Robinson

    My usual response to this crock is:
    And people are always dying, always have, always will.
    Doesn’t make murder legal though.

  12. “Yes, it has changed. And it has changed for a reason. Today we’re adding energy to the atmosphere so the Earth is warming.”

    • What’s with the quotes? I can’t find that anywhere else. This isn’t just a nitpick, it is confusing.

      I’m not really sure what you are saying, but there is a common misconception that the waste heat we generate has a noticeable effect on climate. It doesn’t. Human caused climate change is driven by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, albedo changes and aerosols.

  13. I think of weather as being like a car driving at speed. The car must always go right (warmer) and left (cooler) to stay on the road as road snakes along. (To allow for natural changes of orbit or changes in biology and etc.) A stable climate is the car staying in its lane and in control where ever the road goes. However, at any one place, if the car goes too far left or too far right, the car goes off the road and out of control. The question is not; “is it going right or left?”; but , “is it in control?”

    Nature sets the car at a reasonable speed. Human driven climate change has speeded everything up. Not only is is easier to go out of control at high speed, but the consequences of going off the road or smashing into another car are much higher. Having a wreck at 400 mph is more dangerous than having a wreck at 200 mph. And, staying on a good road at 200 mph is a reasonable task, while traveling at 400 mph on a road surface is difficult. The slightest bump throws everything out of control. We are now the test pilots of a car going way faster than it was designed to go. You might say we are pushing our little rocket-cars at 406 mph. The folks driving back and forth on the salt flats might be OK as long as they stay on the salt flats, but we are headed south on I5 for the LA Grape Vine. Our situation requires “focus” to survive.

  14. methane madness

    At this stage of play the unfortunate sub plot is that alot of Americans are narcisistic aholes who have just decided to f the planet..statistically speaking.

  15. From a poster at InvestorVillage named amstocks82:

    What Tamino wrote is false. Someone who was born at the end of the Medieval Warm Period or the end of the Roman warm period who lived 50 years would have noticed a profound change in climate as the winters got longer and colder and the summers were cooler and shorter.

    The little ice age ended in 1830. People born in 1830 and lived 50 years on the East Coast would have noticed that during their lifetime, the snow falls were less, and the winters were becoming more mild and the summers warmer and longer. Right now, we are living towards the end of the warm up from the Little Ice Age. The fastest changes in climate occurred in the 1800s but the changes we are seeing now are similar.

    Even a person who was born in the middle of the Holocene Optimum which had the least change might feel that the climate changed during his or her lifetime. There are periodic changes related to the AMO/NAO/AO or PDO. Those are cycles that last decades and in some cases several decades. Thus, a human lifetime might see only one time when the AMO/NAO/AO are all negative or all positive. During those periods, the weather would change quite a bit from what it was just a few years earlier.

    If someone goes to the Grand Canyon or other large canyon that cuts through layers of rock – there are literally millions of layers of rock exposed. In much of it, there are tiny layers less than a mm thick which are years. Every few dozen and sometime few hundred or so of those layers, there is a darker or larger layer showing some kind of larger change which is often persistent. The layers now look different than they did previously.

    Those layers of rock show that climate has constantly changed through the hundreds of millions of years that the canyon cuts through. Other similar things can be seen world wide.

    The climate is constantly changing and always has.

    [Response: I invite him to publish his astounding results in the peer-reviewed literature. Or — is it not science, is it just someone making up stuff to support the big lie?]

  16. I always liken the “it’s always changed” meme to the twoofer 911 claim “the building(s) fell straight down”

    great, but both statements are just a simple observations and contain no science, – but to the people who make them they have an almost mystical status

    they are simply verbal equivalents of the “then a miracle occurred” cartoon

  17. I actually view the meme “But the climate has changed before” not to be a comparison to weather, but rather to imply that (1) mankind is not causing the warming, and/or (2) a changing climate will not be harmful. I wrote a response to this meme a few years ago:

    “But the climate has changed before!”

    When confronted with the fact of climate change, some people say “But the climate has changed before!”, implying that people are not responsible for the current changes and/ or that the changes will not be harmful. While the climate has changed before, both implications are false.

    • “Climate has changed before so people are not responsible for the current changes” — this is like saying “Wild fires occurred before people were on the planet so people cannot cause wild fires.” We know quite accurately how much fossil fuels we burn every year and we know precisely how much CO2 that generates. The fact that CO2 helps keep the Earth warm has been known since the 1800’s and is now established science. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million (PPM) in pre-industrial times to about 395 ppm today — an increase of 41%. There is no other accepted explanation for for the increase in CO2 in such a short time frame except for human activities. Every major scientific academy in the world — without exception — has stated that global warming is occurring, is mostly caused by humans, and urgent action is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    • “Climate has changed before so the current changes will not be harmful”. The climate has indeed changed before. In the past million years, the Earth has gone through a number of ice ages and interglacial periods. These periods were caused by slight changes in the Earth’s orbit over periods of tens of thousands of years which in turn lead to changes in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    The Earth was never much warmer than today during the past million years. However, there was a time, about 250 million years ago — the “end-Permian event” — when the Earth was about +6°C (+11°F) warmer than now. +6°C is about what we should expect to see later this century if we stay of our “business-as-usual” approach to burning fossil fuels. When the world heated up +6°C 250 million years ago, about 70~90% of all life on Earth died. That warming was probably triggered by massive volcanoes in Siberia causing methane releases from under the oceans. The current warming is mostly caused by mankind’s burning of fossil fuels, though it may eventually lead to warming greater than +6°C because of CO2 and methane releases from permafrost and, eventually, from methane releases from the ocean bottom like what occurred during the end-Permian event.

    Source: James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, Bloomsbury, 2009

  18. In case you have not seen it before…

    To put “the climate has always changed” into perspective, look at this timeline: at XKCD.

    It shows the silliness of comparing current very fast changes with natural slow changes before.