Climate change

November 18, 2008

Response to a wine industry climate change skeptic

Filed under: Climate Change — Barry Brook @ 1:17 pm

In a recent issue of the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, a well known West Australian wine maker, Mr Erl Happ, published an opinion piece on climate change – expressing doubt that it is caused by industrial greenhouse gas emissions. To cite Erl’s conclusion:

Greenhouse theory does not stack up. ‘Tropo’ in ‘troposphere’ is Greek for ‘turning’. If the surface of the Earth heats up the troposphere turns faster and eliminates heat more efficiently. At an average depth of 10km, the troposphere is very thin. Moving air will not hold heat. Even in the warmest places, the nights can be cool. It is the ocean that is the real store of warmth and it is the coastal places that stay warmer overnight and in winter. Carbon dioxide is less than one-twenty-fifth of 1% of the air that we inhale. It is a much larger fraction of the air that we exhale. Are we to breathe less deeply and exercise less vigorously to reduce our carbon footprint? Carbon dioxide is what the plants need to make them grow and that is why it is scarce. While we have plants it will always be scarce. More carbon dioxide enables plants to grow faster and use less water. This will help to green the deserts. Let us not confuse environmental religion with observational science. Reliable science explains what we observe. One can not understand the climate system without an appreciation of the influence of geography, spatial relations, ocean currents and the physics that drive cloud cover over the tropics. We have managed to banish religion from politics. Now we need to do the same for science.

You can read the full opinion piece as a PDF here.

I was asked by the editor to write a short response, which was published in the latest issue. I hope if gives you a useful idea of how to respond, formally, to such pieces (the version that appeared in the journal was trimmed and edited a little compared to the submitted version I reproduce below).

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A general critique of Erl Happ’s ‘El Niño warming’ opinion piece

In the July/August issue of the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal, Erl Happ published an opinion piece on climate change and its relationship to ocean dynamics and the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It is not reasonable to attempt a direct, blow-by-blow critique of Mr Happ’s personal theories on climate change, because they constitute little more than a haphazard mishmash of fact, distortion, poorly contextualised data and ‘gut instinct’. I will instead use a few points to illustrate a more general interpretation of scepticism of mainstream climate science.

Mr Happ complains that climate warming is not global because it is confined to the Northern Hemisphere. This is patently not true. For instance, comparing the decade a century ago (1898-1907) to the most recent decade (1998-2007), we find that global temperatures are an average of 0.87°C hotter (based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data cited by Mr Happ). In the Northern Hemisphere, which is more readily warmed due to a large continental land mass, the difference is 1.13°C. In the Southern Hemisphere, predominated by ocean which takes longer to change temperature (because water has a higher thermal inertia, it takes longer for energy gain to be manifested as a temperature rise), the warming over 100 years is 0.61°C. Yet , starkly, there has been no trend in ENSO intensity or its frequency of return, nor in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, nor in sunspot activity, to account for this systematic change in the global climate system.

Mr Happ also naively conflates warming in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) with cooling in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere). Both are expected under climate forcing due to additional greenhouse gases. A cooling stratosphere and a rise in the boundary layer (tropopause) is indeed a ‘fingerprint’ of an enhanced greenhouse, because (hold your breath) increasing CO2 enhances the stratosphere’s ability to radiate long-wave radiation (infra red), but doesn’t substantially increase its ability to gain heat. In fact, less heat is reaching the stratosphere from the surface, whereas most of its heat gain comes from short-wave radiation (visible light and x-rays) coming in from space.

The examples in above two paragraphs illustrate well enough the inherent problem with Mr Happ’s theorising. It is not science, and it neglects or ignores the huge intellectual gains in understanding that have been made, collectively and over many decades and involving millions of man hours, in the disciplines of atmospheric, chemical and physical sciences, Earth systems analysis, biological sciences, mathematics, statistics and computational modelling. All of these fields of intellectual endeavour contribute to science’s general and specific understanding of the structure, functioning and response to perturbation of the global climate system. And I’ve not listed many sub-disciplines, nor considered the humanities and social sciences, economics, or engineering – all of which contribute greatly to our understanding of the broader issues – especially with respect to the impacts of climate change and our ability (or not) to manage and mitigate it.

But this is sufficient to underscore an important point. Our current scientific understanding of global warming and climate change impacts is not the domain of one, quirky field. Indeed the leading peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change is explicitly multidisciplinary in its mandate – after all, that is the nature of the problem. Yet Mr Happ, and others who promote themselves as ‘sceptical’ of mainstream science, due to a whole host of underlying motivations, choose to dismiss as irrelevant all of these contributions and advances aside in favour of his/their narrow, personal speculation.

As a rule of thumb, those working for an organisation which conducts primary research on climate science (e.g. CSIRO or Universities), and publishes this work in peer-reviewed scientific journals (the industry gold standard), should have their theories taken seriously. This is because they are following the scientific process – the same process that underpins the massive literature reviews of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports, and indeed the same process that has taken man to the moon, decoded the genome, and given you digital watches, laptop computers and automobiles. In any research field there will, of course, be diverse opinions about causes and effects – the positing, testing and overturning of theory and hypotheses are at the very core of science. Provided such arguments are bound by empirical or experimental evidence, and have survived rigorous pre-publication scrutiny and review, then they should be considered a valid viewpoint.

Mr Happ’s have not, and it would be foolhardy indeed to dismiss mitigation of greenhouse gases and adaptation to climate change as irrelevant to the wine industry on this basis.

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I should note that Erl later emailed me, saying he was glad to have elicited a response, was happy to continue the ‘debate’, but was (unsurprsingly) unconvinced by my rebuttal. I have not yet had time to reply to him, but I should say that he was most genial (unlike many who write to me!), and I don’t wish to disparage him by the above critique. I’m simply pointing out that in this matter he is wrong. Quite wrong. I hope you’ll read his article in full and appreciate for yourself why.

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