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Climate Deniers Are Giving Us Skeptics a Bad Name - Fred Singer

Posted on 17 March 2012 by John Mason

Somebody recently drew our attention to a provocatively-titled piece by Fred Singer on the website of the Independent Institute, another of those many political think-tanks over in the USA. We had a look at the piece and it turns out that it is another strange example of someone well-known over many years for their contrarian views on climate change (among other things) attempting to claim some kind of 'middle ground'. In short, as you will see below, he is saying, "most deniers [his term, which he uses a lot] are wrong, most climate scientists are wrong but I'm right".

It's not the first time we've seen someone trying to re-jig the debate, with a number of leading political anti-science activists now saying that they accept that the greenhouse effect exists and that temperatures are increased by Mankind's industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases (but only by a teeny-weeny little bit). In doing so, they are putting ground between themselves and the rank-and-file who daily appear on comment threads to insist that the greenhouse effect doesn't exist, is a hoax and blah blah blah. It's as if they have realised that there is no longer any mileage in promoting that particular bunch of myths to policymakers and public alike, so that instead they are going for climate sensitivity as an alternative target. "Calling all think-tanks. Calling all think-tanks. Go to Plan B, repeat, go to Plan B."

Independent Institute

OK then, let's take a closer look. All of Singer's text is in italics.

Singer begins by drawing up his view of where the 'balance' exists in the climate debate:

"On the one side are the “warmistas,” with fixed views about apocalyptic man-made global warming; at the other extreme are the “deniers.” Somewhere in the middle are climate skeptics."

He goes on:

"In principle, every true scientist must be a skeptic. That’s how we’re trained; we question experiments, and we question theories. We try to repeat or independently derive what we read in publications—just to make sure that no mistakes have been made."

That second quote is quite true and is the background behind every branch of science, from climatology to cardiology. But Singer then elaborates. On the 'warmistas' he says:

"I am going to resist the temptation to name names. But everyone working in the field knows who is a warmista, skeptic, or denier. The warmistas, generally speaking, populate the U.N.’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and subscribe to its conclusion that most of the temperature increase of the last century is due to carbon-dioxide emissions produced by the use of fossil fuels. At any rate, this is the conclusion of the most recent IPCC report, the fourth in a series, published in 2007."

He then goes on to churn out a tangled series of well-known and long-debunked climate-myths, to which, once they are unravelled, there are plenty of rebuttals here at Skeptical Science, for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

And then, his wrath falls upon the opposition: I've added the links below to his text, as they go to Skeptical Science pages that also deal with these myths in more detail. He writes:

"Now let me turn to the deniers. One of their favorite arguments is that the greenhouse effect does not exist at all because it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics—i.e., one cannot transfer energy from a cold atmosphere to a warmer surface. It is surprising that this simplistic argument is used by physicists, and even by professors who teach thermodynamics. One can show them data of downwelling infrared radiation from CO2, water vapor, and clouds, which clearly impinge on the surface. But their minds are closed to any such evidence.

Then there is another group of deniers who accept the existence of the greenhouse effect but argue about the cause and effect of the observed increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One subgroup holds that CO2 levels were much higher in the 19th century, so there really hasn’t been a long-term increase from human activities. They even believe in a conspiracy to suppress these facts. Another subgroup accepts that CO2 levels are increasing in the 20th century but claims that the source is release of dissolved CO2 from the warming ocean. In other words, they argue that oceans warm first, which then causes the CO2 increase. In fact, such a phenomenon is observed in the ice-core record, where sudden temperature increases precede increases in CO2. While this fact is a good argument against the story put forth by Al Gore, it does not apply to the 20th century: isotopic and other evidence destroys their case.

Another subgroup simply says that the concentration of atmospheric CO2 is so small that they can’t see how it could possibly change global temperature. But laboratory data show that CO2 absorbs IR radiation very strongly. Another subgroup says that natural annual additions to atmospheric CO2 are many times greater than any human source; they ignore the natural sinks that have kept CO2 reasonably constant before humans started burning fossil fuels. Finally, there are the claims that major volcanic eruptions produce the equivalent of many years of human emission from fossil-fuel burning. To which I reply: OK, but show me a step increase in measured atmospheric CO2 related to a volcanic eruption."

To those who have been in this debate for a long time, some of the above are familiar, although the 19th Century one is novel. Most conspiracy-theories seem to be along the lines of global warming having some connection with a plot to install a socialist world government: given the great diversity of faiths and political beliefs from country to country around the world this would seem an implausibly ambitious project to pull off, even for the worst James Bond baddie, but I digress.

He could also have complained about another alternative viewpoint. TV weatherman Joe Bastardi recently opined:

“CO2 cannot cause global warming. I’ll tell you why. It doesn’t mix well with the atmosphere, for one. For two, its specific gravity is 1 1/2 times that of the rest of the atmosphere. It heats and cools much quicker. Its radiative processes are much different. So it cannot — it literally cannot cause global warming.”

The idea that CO2 doesn't mix well with the atmosphere is so far out that we don't actually have a rebuttal for it: it is only necessary to say it's just as well the gas does mix well in our dynamic atmosphere as a CO2-rich layer hugging the ground is not what we would want at all.

Anyway, Singer seems to have lost patience with both “sides”:

"I have concluded that we can accomplish very little with convinced warmistas and probably even less with true deniers. So we just make our measurements, perfect our theories, publish our work, and hope that in time the truth will out."

In view of the last sentence, and whilst the abandonment of a number of contrarian myths is an encouraging sign, it is odd that the piece finishes with five supposed quotes. Let's take one of them and examine it in detail:

"“Unless we announce disasters no one will listen.” —Sir John Houghton, First Chairman of the IPCC"

A Google of that reveals it has been copied and pasted far and wide across the Internet echo-chamber. So: where did it originate? Peter Hadfield wanted to know that whilst studying some of Christopher Monckton's output, and this is what he found. Its first appearance in that form was in an Australian Sunday Telegraph article in November, 2006:

sunday telegraph november 2006

But is that really what Houghton said? Er, no. The original goes back to an interview with him in the UK Daily Telegraph on September 10, 1995:

daily telegraph, september 1995

That's a bit fuzzy, so I'll retype it:

"If we want a good environmental policy in the future, we'll have to have a disaster. It's like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there's been an accident."

Consider that for a moment. Is it not true? Here in the UK, exactly the same human traits led to the compulsory Ministry of  Transport test that keeps lethally-dysfunctional vehicles off the road. It led to the outlawing of taking to the wheel when blind drunk. It has led to the banning of smoking in many public places (coincidentally Singer did a lot in the past for the pro-smoking lobby - is there a pattern here?). We do tend to legislate when bad things happen in order to try and reduce the risk of them happening again: in other words, we as a species are very good at bolting the proverbial stable door after the horse has gone.

But how did the error with the quote occur? The journalist who used it in the Australian Sunday Telegraph stated:

OK. That sort of thing happens in the blogosphere. So that's it, then, is it? Not quite: six years later, we still have Singer and others repeating the misquote without question. Just to requote him from the beginning of his article:

"We try to repeat or independently derive what we read in publications—just to make sure that no mistakes have been made."

Indeed, Mr Singer, and just one of those five quotes is evidence enough to demonstrate that you haven't. A true "skeptical scientist" would have checked that 'quote' before repeating it. It is to be hoped that, next time, you are a little more careful....

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Comments 51 to 65 out of 65:

  1. Eric (skeptic)
    This is supposed to be a scientific discussion. Please cite a peer reviewed source for your wild claim that it will be thousands of years for the heat to return. In reality, it is estimated that it is only about 40 years for 90% of the surface warming to occur. (Since you do not provide references I will not bother either). If you are younger than 40 that heat will come back to get you. When you make wild, unsubstantiated claims people stop taking you seriously. You have made a number of unsupported opinion statements lately. Please try to reference your wild claims. You will find that many of your questions have already been answered.
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  2. michael sweet @51.

    I can't give you a citation but I can give you some basic numbers.

    To heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 Deg C takes a bit over 4 times as much heat as heating a kilogram of air by 1 Deg C.

    The total mass of the ocean is about 280 times the mass of the atmosphere.

    So roughly speaking the oceans need 1100-1200 times as much heat to warm by 1 Deg C compared to the Atmosphere. And currently the oceans are absorbing around 30 times as much heat as the atmosphere.

    So, on the back of a convenient envelope, that is 37-40 years for the oceans to warm as much as the atmosphere does in 1 year. So a significant time but not Eric's 1000's of years either.

    Since ocean overturning time is of the order 800-1000 years, heat can flow into the ocean faster than it can reach the depths. So we are likely to see an initial thermal equilibrium based on only part of the ocean in decades then a slower long term equilibrium that could take centuries.

    Hence the dividing of Climate Sensitivity (CS) into Transient CS, on the scale of a few years, Short Term CS on scales of multiple decades and Long Term CS on scales of centuries.
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  3. @Michale Sweet 51

    It' not peer-reviewed, just:

    "While variations close to the ocean surface may induce relatively short-term climate changes, long-term changes in the deep ocean may not be detected for many generations."

    "Neither is this heat going to come back out from the deep ocean any time soon (the notion that this heat is the warming that is ‘in the pipeline’ is erroneous)."
    Gavin Schmidt, Real Climate:

    "Heat buried in the deep ocean remains there for hundreds to thousands of years. It is not involved in the heat exchange occurring in shallower layers."

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  4. Glenn and Owl:
    In the most recent still warming thread the ocean heat content graph does not even show heat below 2000 meters. You are arguing that the heat that penetrates below where that article measures will not resurface for centuries. What about the 90% of the heat that does not go into the abyss? The dissolved CO2 that goes into the abyss will also take a long time to come to the surface, but this reference says old CO2 is already causing problems with commercial fishing in the North Pacific. The problem there is caused by CO2 that dissolved about 40 years ago. You said it would be centuries before that CO2 (along with the associated heat) returned to the surface. It is clear that some areas will take less time and others will take longer. Your argument that we do not need to worry until equilibrium is reached is incorrect.

    Since the great majority of the heat goes into the upper layers of the ocean, arguing that we don't need to worry since the abyss will not reach equilibrium for centuries completely misses the point. Most of the heat returns in much less time.
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  5. @Michael Sweet - the reference you challenged was to the whole ocean sink. That was the response. The heat below the thermocline, based on present knowledge, is going into long-term sequester. As responded, upper-layer heat exchange may effectively be up-to-date.

    Your substitution of CO2 as the topic (unless you believe they're joined at the hip) may belong in an ocean acidification thread.

    NOAA estimated 16% of the total was below the 3,000 metre-mark, and the 2003-2010 stutter-stagnation of the active upper-700 metre layer raises that estimate.

    The reason the graph only measures the upper 2000 metres is because that's the range of the Argo floats.

    This highlights an issue that's been known since the early 90s - the "how long will it take" - is dependent on vertical heat transfer between ocean layers.
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  6. OWL:
    The reference (from Eric) that I challenged claimed that the heat going into the ocean would be gone for "thousands of years". It does not mention the thermocline or claim only heat going into the deep ocean will disappear. You are changing the goal posts. Please read the original comment and stay on topic. Eric is making wild unsupported claims.

    My statement is still correct: the majority of the heat going into the ocean will come back in 40-50 years, or less. This weekend I went diving and the ocean was 3C above normal. That raises the temperature where I live today.
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  7. michael sweet, my claim was not wild or unsupported, but it was extreme, and it turns out, inapplicable. This paper mentions a 2000 year time constant for warming (1000 years for cooling) in a simulation. But it also points out that methane clathrate releases make that time constant moot due to positive feedback.
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  8. Eric:
    You are shifting the goal posts from your previous wild claim. The paper you have cited is the equilibrium time for the abyss. Most of the energy does not go into the abyss.
    You claimed:

    "considering the entirety of the oceans, the equilibrium time you are talking about is 1000's of years, simply not worth caring about. The oceans are sinking heat that won't come back (i.e. water is being warmed from 35 to 35.1 or something along those lines). If that water comes back to the surface it will cool the atmosphere"

    This is simply untrue. The great majority of the heat in the ocean is currently interacting with the atmosphere and melting ice. About 80-90% of the ocean warming occurs in 40 years. It will be 800-1000 years (not "thousands") until equilibrium, but the surface ocean is currently warmer. The warmer ocean affects current weather: have you noticed the unseasonal tornadoes this year in the USA? We need to care now about the heat in the ocean now.

    Your claims recently have been wild and unsupported. For example here when you suggested poor countries could shift to manufacturing when their agriculture was destroyed by drought. What will they eat? Please start citing scientific studies when you make a claim. You will then reduce the number of wild claims.
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  9. Wild claims aside, an interesting question has been raised, specifically, is heat in the deep oceans a long-term issue, and not short term? Is this a notable deferral of global warming, or a minor side-note. We might benefit from a SkS post on this, or at least a cogent Tom Curtis reply (as if there such a thing as a non-cogent Tom Curtis reply...).

    While I suspect this is a non-issue from the big picture that the world is warming (now), and man is to blame, if it comes up here, we will certainly see it out in the wild soon.
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  10. AT@ 59 - heat going into the deep ocean will not affect the surface for a very long time - most likely around a thousand years according to multiple studies. However, that overlooks the very obvious fact that the surface layers of the ocean are warming too, as one would logically expect. That heat in the surface layers will affect global surface temperatures - perhaps as soon as the next 3-5 years. See SkS posts: NASA scientists expect more rapid global warming in the very near future.
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  11. Rob, Thanks, I get the high level, but what I am asking is, is this a change in the general notion of +2-9C by century's end with BAU? Is this a revision of our understanding of the climate, or is it merely highlighting something that the models and climate scientists are well aware of, and it is therefore already baked into our general understanding of our climate?
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  12. Actually Thoughtful,
    The heat transferred into the abyss is already considered in the models. Recently, Hansen has argued that the aerosol dimming is greater than modeled and the amount of heat transferred into the deep ocean less. If the aerosol dimming is greater that means more heating when the Chinese finally clean up their act. There is not consensus on this issue and a lot of data needs to be collected to determine exactly what is happening. The abyssal ocean is not a free pass to transfer the heat out 1000 years in the future.

    In any case, most of the heat is shallow enough to interact with the surface in the near term.
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  13. Thanks Michael Sweet - I am not advocating a deep ocean strategy, but I do think if we had another 100 years we would have an even easier technical solution that we have now. The fact is, we could solve global warming within 20 years - if we ever decide we want to. The technology exists now.
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  14. It looks like Richard Lindzen may be one of Singer's "deniers".

    Singer states "there is another group of deniers who accept the existence of the greenhouse effect but argue about the cause and effect of the observed increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide."

    Recently Lindzen questioned the human contribution to atmospheric CO2 on an Australian talk show: "the argument often is presented that the natural part is in balance and our contribution is imbalancing, unbalancing the system and so that’s leading to a rise. Uh, that’s an arguably possible situation but in point of fact there’s limited evidence of that and the merest uh misunderstanding of the 97% could easily overbalance man’s contribution" -

    It would be interesting to compile a list of main stream contrarians that fail Singer's skeptic test. Would many survive?
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  15. layzej (#64),

    Good suggestion, but remember that I showed how Singer himself failed his own test, by simply repeating the Houghton misquote without checking its authenticity first. Given scrutiny, I reckon every single one of them would fail spectacularly!
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  16. Captain Pitheart@19: it's way late in this thread, and who knwos when anyone will see this but your link, is just a 404 error.
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  17. Vrooomie at #66.

    You're probably looking for the post:

    Similar to it, and following on, was:

    They were truly days of denialist insanity. Most of the Beckophiles have now tempered their enthusiasm for his "camel-train of Bactrians marching up hill and down dale", but the occasional more extreme nutter still surfaces - they're probably the same ones who think that the moon landings were hoaxed...
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  18. For posterity's sake I should probably have said "...who think that the moon landings were hoaxed...".
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  19. Bernard@67: Whew!!! I thought this was about *Glenn* Beck, and my head was about to explode...;) Thanks for helping me clear ~that~ particular nasty bit of imagery out of my head!
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