Sunday, August 3, 2014

Creationists vs. Climate Change Deniers

A recent article published at EarthMagazine.Org makes a claim that there is a link between creationists and climate change deniers. The gist of the article is that (i) both creationists and climate deniers reject mainstream science, and that (ii) both creationists and climate change deniers distort facts in a way that misrepresents science. The link to the full article is provided here:

While the article attempts to point out similarities between the two camps, I'd like to point out several differences, especially in terms of the science. [BTW, I'm not a fan of the phrase 'climate change deniers', but since the article uses the term I'll follow along with that phraseology].

First, there is a big difference between how the two groups feel their respective subjects should be taught in school. For example, consider the case of two of the bigger climate change deniers (meteorologists Joe Bastardi and Roy Spencer). I don't think either one would be against the teaching of climate physics in the classroom or would be against increasing our understanding of climate through the scientific method. In contrast, two of the most strident creationists (Ken Ham and Kent Hovind) are clearly against teaching evolution in school and would love to take it out of the text books if given the opportunity and instead have them filled with heaps of creationist propaganda!

Second, while the definition of a creationist is pretty clear cut, the article doesn't really define "climate change denier". Climate change can cover a whole array of hot button topics, much of which is clearly not "settled science". For example, how many times has it been said or written that global warming will result in stronger storms? In fact, every time there's severe weather it seems to get blamed on global warming. So if someone rejects the thesis that global warming will result in stronger storms should that person be labelled a "climate change denier" [even though there is zero observational evidence that warming has resulted in more frequent or stronger storms]? How about people who challenge whether 1700 US cities will be under water by the year 2100? What about those who don't believe that 1 million species on earth will be extinct by 2050? What about those who disagree with irresponsible statements such as "we have only four years left to act on climate change"? What about those who questioned Al Gore's prediction of 20-foot sea level rises by 2100? What about those who laughed at James Hansen's 1989 prediction that NYC would be partly under water by 2020? Should those who challenge such outrageous claims be labelled a "climate change denier"? I don't think so.

So unlike the science that refutes Biblical creation (which shows that the universe is very old, that the earth didn't form before the stars, that all animals were not 'created' at the same time, and that there was no global flood 4000 years ago), there are several aspects of global warming that are by no means conclusive (especially when addressing the potential consequences of global warming). So to lump those who question the more controversial areas of global warming in the same boat as creationists who 'deny science' is inappropriate to say the least and done merely to grab headlines, raise new research money or to pass an agenda.

Third, if I was to ask "what is the chance that the earth is really greater than 10,000 years old", nearly all credible geologists & astronomers would say 100% probability that it is older than 10,000 years. If I was to ask what is the probability that the first stars formed long before earth, nearly all credible cosmologists would say 100% probability that the earth formed long after the first stars. If I was to ask "what is the likelihood that all animal species were NOT created at the same time", nearly all credible scientists in the field would say 100% likelihood. However, if I was to ask "what is the probability that the earth will be warmer in the year 2050 compared to the last decade", I suspect you would find that most atmospheric scientists would shy significantly away from a 100% probability (and vote somewhere between 60-80% probability), especially if they had to wager a large percentage of their personal assets. Therein lies the difference between climate science and that used to prove an old universe or disprove biblical creation. In 50 years I'm sure the universe will still measure a lot more than 10,000 years old. However in weather there is a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the future 50+ years out. Long-range climate prediction is unlike other scientific disciplines and is nowhere near an exact science, unlike the physics which can predict the exact time of a solar eclipse 50 years in advance. Our climate can change with or without human activity in either direction whether we like it or not for natural reasons, just like it has done many times in the past. There may also be technological innovations down the road that curb any problem of CO2 emissions. Furthermore, climate physics are not completely known. There are feedback mechanisms and interactions that clearly are not handled properly in climate models as evidenced by the fact that these models have largely overpredicted the amount of actual warming in real-time forecasts on independent data. So unlike the science that is used to determine the age of the earth/universe or to show that different life forms evolved over millions of years, there are significant uncertainties in the field of climate prediction. Numerical weather prediction (NWP) models also suffer problems of "climate drift" and local biases, which have been known by operational meteorologists for 40+ years. That is why NOAA applies statistical post-processing to short-term predictions (1-7 days) to get these physical models back to reality. Ironically, no such post-processing occurs with climate change models. To label someone as a "denier of science" for pointing out such deficiencies in the models or by casting similar doubt as to our climate future is not appropriate because those uncertainties are genuine. Moreover, the science of climate prediction is still quite young, especially when compared to evolutionary theory or radiometric dating that is used to disprove creationism. There is still a lot to learn about our atmosphere and oceans, and the climate prediction models are far less complex than the real atmosphere. So the next time there is a new report in the news like "new study by climate scientists suggest that global warming will result in crippling snowstorms for the northeast US and prolonged droughts in the plains", well that can be treated similar to new medical studies that make headlines (i.e., eating oatmeal each morning will reduce the risk of heart attacks by 75%). In other words don't toss it out like garbage cause it may be right, but don't treat it as "settled science" either and label those who are skeptical of such claims as deniers of science either.

Fourth, interestingly enough most climate change "deniers" actually agree that the earth has gotten warmer the last 100 years and that humans are probably at least partly to blame. These are the two issues that formulate the "97% consensus" of climate scientists". However, these are not the issues that divide skeptics and "deniers". Rather the contentious issues are in regard to the effects of a warmer planet and whether they will be catastrophic (more storms, droughts, mass extinctions, etc..), and these are far from settled science. Unfortunately some politicians take that "97% consensus", misapply it to topics where there is no consensus, and then label those who disagree on those topics as "deniers". I can guarantee that 97% of climate scientists don't agree that Al Gore's 20 foot rise in sea level by 2100 will happen.

Finally, on the charge that climate change deniers distort science like creationists, well I've also seen it go the other way as well where climate change activists (and some scientists) distort the science in their favor for their agenda. A really good example is the bogus Whitehouse National Climate Assessment report from 2014, which is fraught with errors. Other good examples are most anything said by James Hansen and Al Gore. So this is not a compelling argument used by the authors of the magazine article.

So in summary, while I think the article attempted to make a comparison between climate change deniers and creationists, I think it misses the boat because the author equivocates the science used to refute creationism and the science used to support climate change. Unfortunately, not all science is created equal, and therein lies the problem with attempting to compare the two groups. I have personally witnessed in the meteorological field long-standing "certainties" in textbooks that got shoved down our throats as students which were later shown to be nonsense. So in terms of any discussion on climate change, we just need to do the research, argue over it, validate it, have it pass the smell test, take appropriate action and not waste time trying to label people or make connections between them.

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