Can We Trust Climate Scientists?

One of the claims deniers are now making is that we can’t trust the climate scientist that are involved with global warming research. Their line of reasoning is that their grants and positions depend on finding evidence of global warming and they risk losing either, or both, if they ever find anything else. This, of course, is so ridiculous as to be funny, except there are people that believe this. So, let’s examine this and see if there is any truth to the claim.

The basis, and motivation, for the claim comes from the fact that deniers are paid by the fossil fuel industry to discredit climate research. The funding is dependent on finding the results the fossil fuel industry wants. In other words, it is directed funding. This funding source greatly damages the credibility of the deniers, much to their chagrin. They can’t get funding from any other source and are stuck with it. So, they respond by trying to paint authentic climate researchers with the same brush. If they are getting funding to find evidence of global warming, then we can’t trust them, either. The irony of this argument is that they are themselves saying they can’t be trusted. By making the claim that directed funding discredits you, they are admitting their own directed funding must discredit them. But, this posting is about the credibility of climate scientists, not the lack of credibility of the deniers.

The claim of the deniers depends on one thing – are the climate scientists being directed in their research? Do they receive funding to find evidence of global warming? Or, are they simply receiving funding to do research and let the chips fall where they may?  If this claim they are being directed is not true then we should be able to find research results that do not support climate change. This is actually pretty easy to do. Climate and weather are very complicated and not everything is going to lead to global warming.

A recent announcement from the National Science Foundation (NSF)  illustrates this. A researcher at the University of Michigan studied the effects of pollen on the climate and found something interesting. It had been thought pollen had little effect because it was such a large particle it would settle out. But, Dr. Allison Steiner and her team found that pollen particles actually break apart and become many small particles. These small particles lift water vapor up into the atmosphere where they assist in cloud formation. It this way, pollen actually works against global warming by providing a cooling effect.

By the way, Dr. Steiner gets her funding from the NSF. So much for being paid to find only proof of global warming.

Another example is some work done by scientists at Princeton University, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and the Australian University. They studied the way droughts are measured and they state there is an issue with the way droughts are measured. One of the beliefs about global warming is that the amount and severity of droughts worldwide will increase as the climate warms. The most common measure of drought, the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), has shown that this is actually happening. However, this team of scientists studied the PDSI and their conclusion (released in November 2012) is that this measure is in error because it was dependent on climatic conditions off the past. When they adjusted the measure to account for climatic changes due to global warming they found little change in the amount of drought over the last 60 years.

Again, credible scientists at reputable institutions finding results that do not support global warming.

This is the way science works. Researchers do the work and discover what the science says. If the science does not support what they believe, then they will change what they believe. The science is irrefutable.

The deniers fail in this manner. When the science does not support what they want to sell the public, they simply discard it and find a new false argument to try and persuade people to believe in what they want them to believe.

The claim that climate scientists are getting paid to prove global warming doesn’t pass the credibility test. Climate scientists are paid to do climate research. There will be a climate with, or without, global warming. Their jobs do not depend on global warming and anyone thinking about this for even a few seconds will see that is true. If nothing else, we need a much more robust understanding of climate science for weather forecasting. That, by itself, is enough to justify all of the climate research being done and that would be true even if there were no such thing as global warming. The issue of global warming simply makes it that much more important.

Scientists are not motivated to find a specified result. They are motivated to find the correct result and to find it first. Honors go to the first, not the second. They do not give the Nobel Prize to runners-up. But, at the same time, by the scientific method, any scientific finding must be repeatable by anyone else. Scientists are not magicians and do not have special powers. They have special training and experience, but anyone with similar training and experience must be able to replicate their results. If only one person can do it, it isn’t valid. If some scientist was to announce some kind of result and it couldn’t be validated by other scientists the damage to that person’s career can be devastating. Consider what happened to Pons and Fleishmann after their cold fusion announcement.

Finally, consider this. Much of the research on climate change was done during the administration of George W. Bush between 2001 and 2009. The Bush administration was openly hostile to climate change research and worked to suppress it. The irony is that, contrary to claims by the deniers, climate scientist were actually risking their careers by finding evidence of global warming, not the other way around.

What can we conclude? Can we trust climate scientists? The answer is that we can trust climate scientists to do valid scientific research in climate change and the science they produce is not directed by the funding source.

If only the deniers could make the same claim.

The effect of water vapor on global warming

One of the false arguments global warming deniers make is that CO2 measurements are unimportant because water vapor is much more effective greenhouse gas. This is one of those statements that has just enough truth behind it to obscure the lie.Yes, water vapor is a very potent greenhouse gas, much more so than CO2, but what the deniers don’t want to admit is that the reason there is water vapor in the atmosphere is because something else warmed it up in the first place.

This process makes water vapor a positive feedback agent with the potential to approximately double the amount of warming due to other sources. As the atmosphere gets warmer the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere also increases. The increased level of water vapor will then trap more heat, resulting in warmer temperatures and even more water vapor. But, the water vapor cannot do it alone. There must be some agent to start the process and that agent in our current situation is CO2. By dumping billions of tons of CO2 in our atmosphere every year, we trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise radiate into space and this leads to warmer atmosphere. This warmer atmosphere then leads to more water vapor.

Since water vapor is so important in the process we need to know just how much effect it has on the climate. A team of scientists used measurements from instruments onboard the Aqua spacecraft to make direct measurements of this effect. According to their work, water vapor amplifies global warming by 2.2 watts per square meter per degree Celsius (plus or minus .4 watts per square meter per degree Celsius). In comparison, the solar index (the amount of energy reaching Earth from the Sun) is about 1360 watts per square meter. For every one degree Celsius change in temperature, water vapor increases the amount of energy stored in the atmosphere by about .16%. It may not sound like much, but you keep doing that every day for a long period of time and it will add up to a very large amount of energy stored in the atmosphere that we would not otherwise have.

The scientists point out that this is only a short-term measurement because the amount of data is small. This figure is subject to short-term changes in the weather and climate fluctuations. They used these figures in models to try and determine a long-term value and the models suggested it is between 1.9 and 2.8 watts per square meter per degree Celsius. As more data is collected this figure will be refined to a more accurate value.