When Scientists Talk Like Lawyers . . .We Should Be Skeptical

by Marlo Lewis on July 6, 2012

in Features

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“I’m not saying it is global warming, but it’s what global warming would look like. It’s consistent with the kind of weather climate scientists predict will become more frequent and severe as greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere increase.”

“It,” in the preceding, refers to the persistent heat wave affecting the Mid-Atlantic region and the derecho that uprooted trees, downed power lines, and deprived nearly a million households in the D.C. metro area of electricity and air conditioning. Warmists, or most of them, know they cannot actually link a particular weather event to global warming, but they’d like you to make the connection anyway.

This is standard rhetorical fare whenever extreme weather strikes somebody, somewhere on the planet. A commenter on Georgia Institute of Technology Prof. Judith Curry’s blog notes the resemblance to an old court-room trick:

Kind of like a lawyer asking a improper question and then withdrawing it, because all s/he really wanted was to put the idea in the jury’s mind.  

In her blog, Prof. Curry discusses an article by AP reporter Seth Borenstein titled, “This U.S. summer is ‘what global warming looks like’.” Mr. Borenstein interviewed 15 climate scientists in connection with the story, including Curry, yet did not include her responses to his questions in the article. How convenient! A few excerpts from their exchange:

SB: Can you characterize what’s going in the US in terms of a future/present under climate change? Is it fair to say this is what other scientists been talking about?

JC:  As global average temperature increases, you can expect periodically there to be somewhere on the globe where weather patterns conspire to produce heat waves that are unusual relative to previous heat waves. However, there have been very few events say in the past 20 years or so that have been unprecedented say since 1900.

* * *

SB:  This seems to be only US? Is it fair to make a big deal, since this is small scale and variability and is only US? However in past years, especially in late 1990s and early 2000s, the US seemed to be less affected? So what should we make of it?

JC:  Right now, this is only the U.S. Recall, 2010 saw the big heat wave in Russia (whereas in the U.S. we had a relatively moderate summer, except for Texas). Note, the southern hemisphere (notably Australia and New Zealand) is having an unusually cold winter.

* * *

SB:  What about natural variability? Are other scientists just making too much of what is normal weather variability?

JC: We saw these kinds of heat waves in the 1930s, and those were definitely not caused by greenhouse gases. Weather variability changes on multidecadal time scales, associated with the large ocean oscillations. I don’t think that what we are seeing this summer is outside the range of natural variability for the past century. In terms of heat waves, particularly in cities, urbanization can also contribute to the warming (the so-called urban heat island effect).

Data on hurricanes also confirm Dr. Curry’s point. Al Gore and others opined that 2004-2005 marked a shift to a new climate regime of increasingly powerful and destructive hurricanes. Dr. Ryan Maue of Florida State University finds that global tropical cyclone frequency has declined slightly from 1970 to the present, while global tropical accumulated cyclone energy (a measure of hurricane strength) has declined significantly since 2006.

Global Tropical Cyclone Frequency

Global Tropical Cycle ACE

Meteorologist Anthony Watts notes that the drought afflicting the U.S. Southwest and Midwest today is much less severe than the drought of the 1930s, before greenhouse gas emissions could have had much effect on global climate:

The 1930s drought was itself less severe than some that occurred in pre-industrial times. Observes the National Climate Data Center:

Longer records show strong evidence for a drought [in the 16th century] that appears to have been more severe in some areas of central North America than anything we have experienced in the 20th century, including the 1930s drought. Tree-ring records from around North America document episodes of severe drought during the last half of the 16th century. Drought is reconstructed as far east as Jamestown, Virginia, where tree rings reflect several extended periods of drought that coincided with the disappearance of the Roanoke Colonists, and difficult times for the Jamestown colony. These droughts were extremely severe and lasted for three to six years, a long time for such severe drought conditions to persist in this region of North America. Coincident droughts, or the same droughts, are apparent in tree-ring records from Mexico to British Columbia, and from California to the East Coast …

The good news is that, whatever effect global warming may have on weather patterns, death and death rates related to extreme weather declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since 1900.

Source: Indur Goklany, Global Death Toll from Extreme Weather Events Declining

As Goklany explains, these decreases in weather-related mortality are due in large part to the very fossil fuel-based economic activities — electric power generation, motorized transportation, and mechanized agriculture — that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The policy implication is exactly the opposite of what the scientists who talk like lawyers want us to believe. In Goklany’s words:

Reducing these emissions through efforts to make fossil fuel energy scarcer and more expensive could, therefore, be counterproductive in humanity’s efforts to limit death and disease from not only such [extreme weather] events but also other, far more significant sources of adversity.


Russell July 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Then why do outfits like Heartland and CEI employ so many lawyers and so few scientists?

I have not forgotten Fred Smiths use of disbelief in global warming as a litmus test for employing the latter.

Russell July 14, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Then why do you employ so few scientists and so many lawyers ?

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