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January 02, 2008

A Question Which Should Be Asked

Writing in the New York Times on New Years Day, John Tierney repeats a question asked almost a year ago by Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado on the Prometheus blog:

“What behavior of the climate system could hypothetically be observed over the next 1, 5, 10 years that would be inconsistent with the current consensus on climate change? My focus is on extreme events like floods and hurricanes, so please consider those, but consider any other climate metric or phenomena you think important as well for answering this question. Ideally, a response would focus on more than just sea level rise and global average temperature, but if these are the only metrics that are relevant here that too would be very interesting to know.”

We often hear that warmer temperatures (in some places), rising sea levels, melting ice (in some places), greater weather extremes, and even cold spells are evidence that the “consensus” theory of anthropogenic global warming is correct. It’s a reasonable question – in fact, a very important question from both a scientific and a policy point of view – to ask what would tend to indicate that the theory is incorrect. Note that Pielke is not asking what would “prove” the theory incorrect; in the short term that is as impossible as proving that it is correct; he is asking for indicators which might raise doubts in the same way that many indicators are taken to indicate certainty.

This should be a question which engage climatologists and other scientists. Theories should be challenged; that’s the way we learn more; that’s the way “correct” theories get strengthened and improved; that’s the way errors are uncovered.

Predictably, many of the comments on  Tierney’s column are attacks on both him and Pielke for raising the question. That’s dumb: doesn’t matter what their motives are in asking the question; doesn’t matter whether your own working hypothesis is that the cause of observable recent global warming is anthropogenic or not; the question deserves to be asked.

In a recent comment on a post in which I quoted the skepticism (which is different from disbelief) of John R. Christy, Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and a participant in the IPCC, reader Mark A. York writes:

“It's a pity the top climate scientists on Earth disagree. Why do you think that is? Yeah everyone is crazy but you guys. LOL! Do some homework. www.realclimate.org

Don’t know why Mark reads Christy out of the ranks of top climate scientists and don’t know who “you guys” is either. I’ve never been given my membership in the secret society of doubters.

Action and skepticism aren’t mutually exclusive. Now that I have that off my chest, I’m gonna go out in the seven degree weather (five below windchill) and brush the snow off my solar collectors (really). It’s sunny and I can’t stand to see them ineffectual.


By the time I got there, the sun and wind had done half my job for me (they’re at the winter angle of 80 degrees both to shed snow and to face the low winter sun). When I finished cleaning them off, I had the great pleasure of seeing my electric meter run swiftly backwards.

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