Red team must leave no stone unturned in climate debate



By Tom Harris

 “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mark Twain

Al Gore expects us to believe that climate change science is settled. According to the former Vice President, scientists know, with a high degree of certainty, that our emissions of greenhouse gases, 82% of which is carbon dioxide (CO2) in U.S., is causing dangerous climate change. The solution, Gore tells us, is a dramatic reduction in our use of fossil fuels, the source of 86% of the world’s energy supply.

For Gore’s position to be rational, there is a string of postulates that would have to be known to be true, or, at least very likely. The Trump administration’s proposed ‘red team-blue team’ climate science exercise must carefully examine each of these suppositions. For essentially nothing in science, especially a discipline as immature and rapidly evolving as the study of climate, is a known fact. They are merely the opinions of experts based on their interpretations of the observations and their understandings of today’s theory. And different experts have different opinions, even about issues that many scientists assume are settled.

The government’s climate science re-evaluation will undoubtedly address issues such as:

  • How much climate change is natural versus anthropogenic?
  • How useful are computer models for forecasting future climate?
  • Is sea level rise accelerating and, if it is, are our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to blame?
  • Is extreme weather increasing and, if so, is it due to our GHG emissions?
  • Is the ocean at risk of dangerous acidification due to rising atmospheric CO2 levels?
  • What are the biological benefits of rising CO2?

The Obama administration never properly addressed these topics, choosing instead to follow the unfounded claims of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and activists such as Gore. So, thoroughly exploring these issues is indeed important.

But scientists taking part in the red team-blue team debate must go deeper and reassess concepts erroneously considered to be known facts. For example, experts should be asked to assign probabilities to the following:

  • The Earth has warmed in the past century
  • ‘Global temperature’ is important
  • CO2 levels have risen since the 1800s
  • Human activities are the main cause of the assumed CO2 rise
  • CO2 is a warming agent

Contrary to the assertions of the IPCC, none of these statements are actually known to be true. Each has a probability associated with it, and scientists’ assessments of these probabilities varies greatly.

Former University of Winnipeg climatology professor Dr. Tim Ball is an example of a well-qualified expert who would not assign a high probability to the accuracy of any of the above statements.

For instance, Ball explains that, while it is claimed that there has been a 0.7-degree Celsius temperature rise in the past century, it is not really possible to know this.

“The best weather stations in the world, in terms of the density of the network, the quality of the instruments, and the monitoring of the sites, is in the United States,” said Ball. “But, even there, meteorologist Anthony Watts’ Surface Stations study showed that only 7.9% of existing stations achieved accuracies better than +/-1°C. So how can you claim that a 0.7 degree increase over 100 years has any meaning whatsoever?”

In October 2011, the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed Watts’s research and concluded that the U.S. Historical Climate Network (USHCN) surface temperature record is unreliable. This then calls into question global temperature trends, since USHCN data is a major contributor to worldwide temperature determinations.

Also, consider the sparsity of the available temperature data. Ball explains that there is very little data for the 70% of Earth’s surface that is ocean. There is also little data for mountainous and desert regions and the Antarctic. Much of the coverage is so sparse that NASA is forced to make the nonsensical claim that regions are adequately covered if there is a temperature-sensing station within nearly 750 miles. This is the distance between Ottawa, Canada, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, cities with very different climates. Yet according to NASA, only one temperature sensing station is necessary for the two cities and the vast area between them to be adequately represented.

Ball also notes that the official surface temperature measurements are made by sensors located several feet above the surface. But it is the temperature right at the surface that is important to agriculture. And that surface temperature is typically very different from the official measurements collected higher up. So we really don’t know how the most important surface temperatures are changing.

In other words, Ball asserts that the claim made by IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group I co-chair Dr. Thomas Stocker that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal,” is nonsense.

In the final analysis, it is no more meaningful to calculate an average temperature for a whole planet than it is to calculate the average telephone number in a phone book. Temperature, like viscosity and density, is not something that can be meaningfully averaged. “Global temperature” is merely a statistical construct that is, generally speaking, of little use.

Consider for example, a scenario in which half the planet warmed by ten degrees and half cooled by the same amount. There would be no change in the ‘average temperature’ yet weather patterns would become cataclysmic. What matters is what happens in the regions where humans, plants, and animals live, not some imaginary global average.

While many people assume that CO2 concentrations have risen in recent centuries, some scientists dispute this. Ball said, “The CO2 level from pre-industrial times was completely manipulated to show a steady rise from 270 ppm to the current 400 ppm. Scientifically valid chemical measurements of 19th century CO2 levels in excess of those of today were simply ignored.”

Ball further explains that, if there has been a rise in CO2 levels, it may not be as a result of human activities. It could simply be a result of outgassing from the oceans as they warmed due to solar changes. Ball points out that the total estimated human contribution to atmospheric CO2 concentrations is less that the uncertainty in the estimate of CO2 emitted from the oceans, so detecting the human contribution is not currently possible.

Finally, Ball points out, “They claim that CO2 is a warming agent but they consistently reduce the amount of warming it supposedly causes. I conclude that CO2 is a cooling agent, especially in the upper atmosphere, which they say is most significant level from a climate change perspective.”

Of course, there are scientists who do not agree with Ball on these fundamental issues, but even they cannot claim to be 100% sure of their position. The red team-blue team participants must leave no stone unturned and assign probabilities to even these, the most basic assumptions of the climate change debate. For, as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (

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