Watts Interview – Denial and Reality Mix like Oil and Water

A website called Oil Price recently conducted an interview with climate contrarian Anthony Watts.  In the interview, Watts tries to portray himself as the reasonable skeptic in the middle of the climate 'debate'.  Watts claims that he's a "lukewarmer" (a term which frankly just refers to people who ignore inconvenient evidence), trying to position himself between the denialists and the climate scientists.

However, as Richard Alley has explained, in reality climate scientists are the reasonable skeptics in the middle, with denialists at one extreme and doomsayers at the other.  The sheer number of myths Watts manages to jam in his Oil Price interview confirms Alley's view.  In fact, the interview offers us a case study in the tactics climate denialists use to misinform the public.

Denial Strategy #1: Self-Contradictory Arguments are Welcome

The first two interview answers reveal one of the most common flaws in climate contrarian arguments: self-contradictions.  First Watts (wrongly) suggests that global warming 'proponents' expect the warming to happen in a steady, linear fashion, but then a few moments later admits that the climate is much more complex than that (which, believe it or not, climate scientists realize).

watts vs. watts

Image created by John Cook

In reality, climate scientists are well aware that a number of different factors influence short-term global surface temperatures.  The climate system is noisy, and this is reflected in climate model temperature projections, as illustrated in this simple animation made by Ed Hawkins.

hawkins gif

Denial Strategy #2: Rewriting History

In the same quote, Watts has asserted that 'proponents' switched from using the term "global warming" to "climate change" because it "can be liberally applied to just about anything observable in the atmosphere."

In reality, the term "climate change" has been used for decades, including in Gilbert Plass' seminal 1956 study 'The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change'.  A Google Scholar search reveals that the term 'climate change' was in use before the term 'global warming', and has always been the more commonly-used term in scientific literature.  There is also an organization you may have heard of called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, formed in 1988.

In fact, perhaps the only individual to actually advocate changing the term from 'global warming' to 'climate change' was Republican political strategist Frank Luntz in a controversial memo advising conservative politicians on communicating about the environment:

It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.

Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.

As usual, Watts has got the facts completely backwards and is trying to rewrite history.

Denial Strategy #3: Damage Control by Misrepresenting Data

A new study published in Science by Marcott et al. (2013) has effectively extended the so-called 'hockey stick' graph and found that current temperatures are higher than they've been for 75% of the past 11,500 years, and the current rate of warming is faster than at any point during that timeframe.


This is a very inconvenient result for climate contrarians, who have made attacking the 'hockey stick' one of their prime objectives.  This is evident from the six separate posts on Watts' blog (to date) desperately trying (and failing) to find a fundamental flaw in the results of Marcott et al.  Watts rehashes one of those attempts in his interview:

"the climate of the past has been warmer than today as well as colder as indicated by ice core isotope records."

The link goes to a plot of temperatures not for the whole planet or northern hemisphere, but in one isolated location – central Greenland – which conveniently ends over 150 years ago.  Watts' x-axis is incorrectly labeled 'Years Before Present (2000 AD)'; in reality, "Present" in this Greenland ice core data is 1950, and the last data point is 95 years before that, in 1855.  Thus Watts' graph leaves out about 1.5°C of Greenland warming over the past 158 years. 

Watts' Graph:


Same data including the past 150 years (Click the image for a larger version):


Watts was also aware of this error, because I notified him of it in a comment on his blog post.  However, either he or his moderators deleted the comment.

Denial Strategy #4: Exaggerate Uncertainty

Inflating uncertainty is a common tactic amongst climate contrarians, and Watts tries this strategy in his interview.

"Predicting an outcome of a chaotic system over the long term is a very, very big task, one that we’ve really only scratched the surface of."

In reality, making long-term climate projections is easier than short-term projections, which are complicated by the noise in the system.  Climate model projections have also been pretty darn accurate so far.

It's also important to note that uncertainty is not our friend.  More uncertainty means that the consequences of climate change may not be as bad as we expect, and it also means they may be worse.  The only way to argue for climate inaction is if we have certainty that the consequences of climate change will be small.  As Watts has admitted, we do not have that certainty, and in fact the body of scientific evidence strongly indicates the consequences of climate change will be bad.

Denial Strategy #5: Peddling Blog "Science"

Watts also peddles the myth that the surface temperature record is unreliable, thus arguing that human-caused global warming is smaller than climate scientists believe.

"my recent study (preliminary) shows that not only is the deployment of weather stations faulty in siting them, but that the adjustments designed to solve those issues actually make the problem worse ... the trend from the compliant weather stations that don’t have heat sink effects--can be attributed to CO2. That value appears to be half of what NOAA claims."

The "preliminary" paper in question has not even been submitted to a journal, let alone been subjected to the peer-review process, and contains several fundamental flaws which completely undermine the conclusions that Watts asserts in this quote.

In a previous interview, Watts criticized Richard Muller of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team for discussing his project results before they had passed peer-review:

"Unfortunately he has not succeeded in terms of how science views, you know, a successful inquiry. His papers have not passed peer review."

Perhaps that Anthony Watts should have a talk with this Anthony Watts.

Denial Strategy #6: Downplay Climate Impacts

Watts somehow manages to downplay the intensity of Hurricane Sandy, which was the second-most energetic hurricane on record, with the second-largest property damage cost among Atlantic hurricanes at about $75 billion.

"The idea that Hurricane Sandy, a minor class 1 storm, was somehow connected to CO2 driven “climate change” is ludicrous"

If he ever visits New Jersey or New York, we would advise Watts not to refer to Hurricane Sandy as "a minor storm."

Human-caused global warming also indisputably amplified the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.  Higher sea levels mean larger storm surges, warmer oceans mean stronger hurricanes, and more moisture in the atmosphere means more rainfall and thus more flooding.

To deny that CO2 amplified the impacts of Hurricane Sandy is ludicrous.  And as Kevin Trenberth has discussed, all weather now occurs in a climate that humans have altered.

"it is important to recognize that we have a “new normal,” whereby the environment in which all storms form is simply different than it was just a few decades ago.  Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and sub-surface ocean temperatures, a warmer and moister atmosphere above the ocean, higher water levels around the globe, and perhaps more precipitation in storms."

Denial Strategy #7: Misrepresent Successful Climate Predictions

Climate contrarians love to claim that climate predictions have failed.

"catastrophic predictions of the future just haven’t held up when you look at the observed data compared to the early predictions."

This particular quote is rather bizarre, because climate scientists and models have not predicted catastrophic effects would occur by 2013.  They have predicted that the planet would warm, ice would melt, sea levels would rise, the atmosphere would hold more moisture, and a whole slew of other changes which have indeed occurred.  In fact, climate scientists have under-predicted many key climate changes.

If you want to see some bad predictions, just look at some made by Watts and other climate contrarians.  They have been far less accurate than those made by climate scientists.

Predictions Comparison

Denial Strategy #8: Misrepresent Basic Economics

Ultimately Watts admits his contrarian motivation.

"many of the “solutions” that have been proposed are to increase taxes on energy"

In reality, the proposed solutions in question put a price on carbon, not energy.  There are plenty of low-carbon energy sources which would not be impacted by a carbon price. 

The fact that the cost of the damage caused by carbon emissions via climate change is not reflected in their price is a failure of the free market.  There is a high cost associated with this damage, but if that cost is not reflected in the prices of the products causing those greenhouse gas emissions, consumers can't factor the cost into their purchasing decisions.  This is economics 101.  Failing to put a price on carbon emissions is effectively a massive subsidy; anybody who supports a free market should support pricing those emissions.

Denial Strategy #9: Misrepresent Climate Solutions

Of course Watts includes the obligatory disparaging of renewable energy.

"Wind and solar require fossil fuel backups to manage their inconsistent energy production, which changes with the whims of weather, so they really aren’t making much of a dent."

When solar energy is meeting up to 50% of Germany's electricity demand, does that count as 'not making much of a dent'?

In reality there are several ways renewable energy can supply consistent energy production without necessarily needing fossil fuel backup.  And whenever the wind is blowing and/or the sun is shining, renewables are significantly reducing our fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Denial Strategy #10: Cherrypick the Noise

Finally, Watts completes the interview by once again cherrypicking the noise in the data.

"Given that CO2 has a logarithmic, not linear effect in returning a portion of outbound LWIR energy to Earth’s surface, slowing the transfer to the top of the atmosphere, this suggests that a crisis of temperature from a doubling of CO2 is not likely. This low sensitivity near saturation is supported by the lack of observed warming at the surface for more than a decade."

This argument is just very, very wrong.  There was a rapid warming of surface air temperatures in the 1990s, and a slower surface warming in the 2000s.  Does Watts really think that the greenhouse effect suddenly became saturated overnight?

In reality there was a preponderance of El Niño events in the 1990s and a preponderance of La Niña events since 2000.  The former cause short-term surface warming, the latter cooling.  If we just look at the surface warming trend for El Niño years, for La Niña years, and for neutral years, in each case the trend is very consistent.

ENSO temps

More importantly, only about 2% of global warming goes into heating the atmosphere.  About 90% of global warming goes into heating the oceans, and when we account for all of the data, it's clear that global warming continues unabated.  Only considering the convenient bit of data is just another cherrypick.

Fig 1

True Skeptics Consider all the Data

The lone constructive result of this Oil Price interview is that it has provided us with an excellent case study in the difference between skeptic climate scientists and extreme climate denialists.  Real skeptics consider all the data, while denialists cherrypick and misrepresent data, rewrite history, and give more weight to blog 'science' than peer-reviewed science, all because they oppose the solutions to human-caused global warming.

Posted by dana1981 on Thursday, 14 March, 2013

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