What I Have Learned From Global Warming: Contest Winner Essays

Global warming will cause an increase in clement afternoons.
Global warming will cause an increase in clement afternoons.

Two of the essays from the winners of the Rename Global Warming Contest are in! A big hand from all, please. More are to come—when the winners send them in!

Alan Cooper: “The Anthropaclysm”

The most important thing I have learned from Global Warming (so far) is that I have probably been right in giving significant credence to predictions based on general scientific principles. More specifically, I have learned to take seriously the predictions of basic physics when made in the context of the simplest model that fits the known facts without introducing additional variables whose values and effects are less well understood. But since I am not dead yet (and hope not to stop learning before I am), I could find no way of addressing the topic without including that extra word in the title.

When the simplest scientific models predict something, it really should be considered as quite likely to happen—even if deniers and naysayers are able to point out various more complicated models in which the predicted effect may be reduced or counteracted by various other secondary effects. In the case of CO2 induced global warming, it was of course conceivable (before measurements proved otherwise) that the predicted absorption of outgoing radiation might be limited by saturation of CO2 energy levels (after all, if equipartition could not be at least temporarily defeated then lasers would be impossible); and if bicarbonate can buffer the addition of acids or bases to a solution then perhaps something could similarly damp the effects of atmospheric CO2; or maybe the global surface temperature is automatically stabilized by an increase in reflective cloud cover whenever the temperature goes up a bit, etc. etc.

All of these scenarios could of course have prevented global warming, but each is dependent on very special circumstances that we had no reason to expect were actually the case—and for each anti-warming scenario it was equally easy to come up with some hypothetical mechanism for amplifying rather than damping. So now that the trend is becoming clear, perhaps more and more people will see that banking on complicated second order effects as an excuse to postpone mitigating action against something predicted by a simple and clear first order argument was foolish. In this case it might well turn out to have been the most foolhardy and irresponsible and ultimately harmful act in the history of humanity.

Let’s hope that others learn quickly enough so that as a species we can keep my extra word in the title—at least until the phenomenon really is history, because if it becomes “What We Learned” within the century or more that it will take to reliably stabilize our impact on the climate, then that will only be in our epitaph.

Tom Scharf, “Ecopocalatastrophe”

Thank for you this glorious honor.

I have learned that only through new euphemisms can we hope to raise public awareness that anything undesirable in people’s lives has been caused by global warming, and is destined to get much worse. Additionally people must understand that life’s joys will come only rarely, if at all, if we continue our present destructive course. My hope is that through an improved and well-informed communication strategy we will be able to reach the masses in an emotional manner.

This will encourage many more people to join the courageous alliance of those who wish to further mankind’s future through a new and innovative social order that will foster the proper reverence for our one and only fragile ecosystem. We are at a fork in the road, we can choose a path that our grandchildren will recognize the sacrifices we make for their benefit, or we can continue down a path of darkness that jeopardizes their very existence. The choice is ours, and I appeal to the better nature in us all that we choose wisely.


  1. In his essay, Alan Cooper makes an argument that is of the form of an equivocation on the polysemic terms “prediction,” “scientific” and “model.” By rule, Mr. Cooper may not draw a conclusion from this argument. The conclusion that he does draw is logically illicit.

  2. Reading this, the Cooper and Scharf exaggerated nonsense, just after a high protein, high fat and low carb breakfast I find my stomach churning. Briggs what have you done ? Rewarded script writers for Al Gore!

    Dan Kurt

  3. The problem I see with these neologisms is that they’re darned hard to pronounce. Although cute contrivances, they don’t roll of the tongue with enough force to generate sufficient panic. And it’s panic that you’re after, especially with so much to be worried about these days. With the present Administration’s bumbling and/or nefarious plotting (take your pick) sucking most of the oxygen out of the room (leaving only the CO2 and N2), it’s ever more difficult to get the herd stampeding. Nice tries, but they only earn a B+ grade.

  4. Thank you Alan and Tom for blazing the trail

    I wasn’t clear on what I had actually learned over the years myself and was hard pressed to come up with an appropriate essay.

    See you in the funny pages

  5. Okay, I’m going with you’re serious and going on my soap box:
    Interesting argument. Except that the whole “CO2 causes warming” includes forcings and other questionable ideas that increase the complexity to the point that climate scientists tell us no mere mortal can understand the process. There really is not a lot of evidence to support the idea that humans cause climate change in a simple, straight-forward fashion. A thorough reading of the literature will show that. When one admits that clouds and water vapor are the most important components of planetary warming and then uses “parameterizations” in the models because we cannot actually model clouds (among other things), there is a serious gap between realty and what the science proclaims to know.

  6. Sheri, few would argue that an increase in CO2 does not cause a change in the energy balance of the geophysical system. If you would so argue, I have nothing for you. But, assuming that you don’t argue that, the increased energy of the system must reside somewhere (or, more accurately, in some set of “somewheres”). Some of these repositories may, for a time, be kinetic (wind, waves, etc.), some may be latent heat (clouds, melted ice), and some may be strictly sensible heat in the form of increases in the internal energy of system components in various degrees of freedom (otherwise known as increase in temperature).

    For an increase in CO2 and consequent change in energy balance NOT to result in some climatic manifestation, one would have to argue that some consequence of that energy would result in an additional avenue (or an increase in the throughput of an existing avenue) of escape for the energy or a reduction in the incoming energy. Since effectively all of the energy escaping the geophysical system is in the form of radiation, that avenue would need to allow either for a decrease in the incoming energy (e.g., clouds increasing the Earth’s albedo) or an increase in the ability of the Earth to radiate energy. That latter, as far as I am aware, could only be in the form of an increase in temperature.

    There may be, for a time, ability to “store” this increase in energy in some way that does not increase temperature, but the only example that comes to mind is in water vapor. I suppose that an increase in vegetation could also accomplish this. That will require more thought on my part, but I have not read that total biomass is increasing.

    In any case, the energy of the system must increase, and there must be measurable results of that. No models are needed for this conclusion (other than in the sense that everything that applies numbers to physical systems, right down to f=m*a, is a model).

  7. Sheri:

    Although I have not personally experienced any noticeable direct evidence of global warming, the title that Briggs required us to use does imply that it exists – and that is consistent with my best efforts to understand the reported data.

    My point was not to dismiss the challenges of truly understanding a very complex situation, nor to assert that in such a situation what seems obvious at a “first order” level might be prevented by “higher order” effects, but when the first order analysis predicts that an action (such as doubling the atmospheric concentration of CO2) will have adverse consequences, then it makes sense to avoid that action – at least until one has good reason to believe that it will not.

    So far I have seen neither any data nor any theoretical model which give any confidence that the 19th century predictions of Fourier and Arrhenius are significantly out of line. And if the warming continues then its effects could indeed be cataclysmic for a large part of humanity (and many other species as well).

    Although we (and parts of the biosphere) seem to have adapted reasonably well to the elimination of megafauna and to the deforestation of Europe, the effects of warming could be quicker and more extreme (and that’s without taking into account the possibly equally dramatic effects of ocean acidification). So I am happy to see considerable effort and expense devoted to reducing our CO2 output and consider attempts to hinder or mock that effort to be irresponsible.

  8. Sheri,

    The secret to satire is making it just barely believable, not that I am an expert. I tried to merge the thinking of all my favorite climate thought leaders into a poetic soliloquy.

  9. Not that we want to beat these horses again, the earth has warmed, but what really matters is how much future warming and whether it will be “dangerous”.

    Warmists tend to argue the former, and skeptics tend to argue the latter. Then it comes down to decision making under uncertainty with your personal value system driving the amount of perceived risk one is willing to tolerate, in other words, politics.

    Personally I have a lot more faith that we can adapt to any changes as we convert to a cleaner energy system in an economically sensible way that the other side does. I find the “before it’s too late” argument unconvincing. Most of the green solutions are incoherent at best and ineffective on global emissions.

    This is just one of many possible future dangers, take the national debt, nuclear proliferation, and vast stores of weaponized small pox in Russia for example. AGW it not a clear and present danger yet, but it should be closely monitored.

  10. Alan,

    Here’s where you really go off the rails:

    “And if the warming continues then its effects could indeed be cataclysmic for a large part of humanity (and many other species as well).”

    It’s statements like this that get you thrown into the low credibility bin, not that I’m asserting nobody has ever said it before you have. And the term “could” implies a significant likelihood when the evidence for this is almost entirely nonexistent.

    Here is what the latest AR5 report had to say:

    “There is very little confidence that models currently predict extinction risk accurately”

    “…forecasts for very high extinction rates due entirely to climate change may be overestimated.”

    UN Backtracks: Will Global Warming Really Trigger Mass Extinctions?
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/wor … 60569.html

    “On the one hand, a classified draft of the report notes that a further “increased extinction risk for a substantial number of species during and beyond the 21st century” is to be expected. On the other hand, the IPCC admits that there is no evidence climate change has led to even a single species becoming extinct thus far.”

    “In the last assessment report, Climate Change 2007, the IPCC predicted that 20 to 30 percent of all animal and plant species faced a high risk for extinction should average global temperatures rise by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit). The current draft report says that scientific uncertainties have “become more apparent” since 2007.

    It notes that key environmental processes and life form characteristics were given scant consideration in the models — the ability of plants and animals to adapt to new climatic conditions, for example. Consequently, the new assessment report will not include any concrete figures regarding the percentage of species that could become extinct as a result of global warming.”

  11. Again, I see a connection between eating sugar and rising blood sugar. Am I wrong to declare that sugar is the problem? Should I ignore the dead pancreas and just go with the sugar? If we fix the pancreas or substitute the missing hormone, the sugar does not have the catastrophic effect it does when we ignore the pancreas.

    I see just fine—I just look beyond the straight line and check for those interesting outlying factors that some are blind to.

  12. Tom:

    If the term “could” implied a significant likelihood, then I would not have used it, as I have in other contexts, to say “global warming from the CO2 effect could be prevented by” this or that mechanism mentioned in my essay. Whether or not something that “could” happen is worth serious attention depends on the combination of its likelihood with the extent of those consequences. Global warming due to CO2 emission by human combustion of carbon is in my opinion very likely to be under way, and *could* (with somewhat less but still not insignificant likelihood) have very serious consequences. I am as likely as any other railcar to have a wheel briefly lose traction with the rail, but right now they all feel solidly attached.

  13. P.S. It is, in my opinion, not at all clear that the actual extinctions due to global warming will exceed those due to other anthropogenic causes such as hunting, deforestation (or other forms of displacement), and ocean acidification (which however is also a consequence of CO2 emission). But any substantial rapid movement of climate zones could well lead to a period of disruption that deserves to be called a cataclysm – which is why I chose “anthropocalysm” rather than “anthropocalypse”.

  14. Sheri:

    Now here I do worry that we may be going “off the rails”, but if the limits of analogical reasoning are kept in mind then I’ll play along.

    The risk factors for diabetes indicate that even a healthy pancreas can be overwhelmed by an excessive sugar intake, but if you have identified a planetary “organ” that plays the same role wrt CO2 then I’d be happy to (somewhat) reduce my fear of that emission.

    What is your proposal for the analogue of Earth’s pancreas?

  15. Alan,

    I think when you are speaking of something that is a very remote possibility and generally unsupported by the science, it can and should be expressed clearly. It is this type of obfuscation that occurs frequently with AGW activists, and in many cases it is intentional.

    If a person actually believes it is quite possible, and they think this is what the science says, then they are simply stating what they believe , no problem. If they believe the audience must already know the facts here, no problem.

    If a person knows it to be unlikely and unsupported, and they don’t feel it is necessary to make this point clear, then I think this falls into the category of intentional misinformation and scaremongering.

    All it takes is an “although this is very unlikely”, or at a minimum the standard euphemism of “Some scientists believe…” which at least keys the careful listener that this is not a mainstream belief.

    Hopefully then agreement can be reached on what the science actually says, and the parties can feel free to disagree with said science.

    A planet killing asteroid could hit tomorrow, we need to act now!

    Is this statement false? No. Is it accurate? Well…. Could it be easily rephrased to be more accurately convey the actual risk? Yes. Will this affect the urgency somebody would have to solve the problem? Yes.

    I’m only going on about this because this human extinction meme is repeated quite frequently by many people. It’s a bit over the top. There may or may not be significant negative effects from AGW, but extinction isn’t in the cards. This is truly fringe territory.

  16. Alan: The ocean is becoming less BASIC, not ACIDIC. The use of the term acidification is nothing but a propaganda tool. There is no reason not to use the scientifically correct term “becoming more basic” other than the alternative phrasing sounds evil and scary. No one is predicting the ocean will go below 7 in pH except maybe Hansen when he said the oceans would boil.

    Okay, let’s just stop for a moment and look at scientific method. It is not required that I produce the “planetary pancreas” in order to postulate that it may exist. I would be required to continue researching and looking for the item. Also, the absence of an alternate theory does not mean we should use one that is not working–and the massive failure of models indicates a seriously flawed theory. At this point, I don’t believe we know nearly enough about climate nor do we have enough data to draw any conclusions. (Sugar does not cause Type 1 diabetes in any way. It is an auto-immune disorder. Type 2 may or may not be affected—conflicting research and a lot of “after fact” blaming.)

    As for extinctions, even the IPCC backed off that claim.

  17. I will never understand the aversion to using cleaner, more efficient, more renewable energy. I just can’t imagine why anyone would suffer that aversion unless somehow there was some kind of personal reward or quid pro quo for doing so. And I can’t imagine what such a personal reward would be.


  18. Rob Roy: No explanation for the school. Insufficent information at the moment–maybe permanently. Never said Israel was pure as the driven snow. However, as long as Hamas lobs rockets in, it’s an act of war and innocent people lie in wars. One of the reasons to avoid war.

    JMJ: No problem using cleaner more efficient energy. Sadly, the only things that approximate renewable are hydro and geothermal and those two items are location specific. Wind and solar are energy from weather–hunter gatherer energy that you can use when nature says so. Good for nothing except environmental damage and tax breaks.

  19. @JMJ

    You forgot economically competitive. As a Dutch native, I am quite aware that wind power was very competitive, the saw mills in the Zaan ship building area and the wind mills that pumped the water out of the polders are two great examples of that.

    And as soon as steam engines were invented, we started using them instead of wind mills to keep the polders dry. Much more efficient, and they worked always, not only when the wind had the right strength.

  20. @JMJ

    There is no irony in Sheri’s statement. Wind turbines should more properly be called wind pumps, because their only utility is in pumping money out of the pockets of most people (and, especially, the poor) into the pockets of rent-seeking promoters and landlords. And the necessary measures to mitigate against their unpredictability mean that they offer no reduction in CO2 output either.

    As to environmental damage, how else would you describe the siting of huge industrial plant (and all the access and ancillary plant that goes with it) in farmland and wilderness, and with planning criteria consistently rigged in favour of acceptance ?

  21. I assume that Alan Cooper’s ‘basic physics’ is the Arrhenius equation (1.2K warming per doubling of atmospheric CO2, in the 1906 version). But how does he get from that to the terrifying majesty of CAGW ” without introducing additional variables whose values and effects are less well understood?”

    Further on, he writes, “now that the trend is becoming clear…” I’m confused: is this a reference to the pause? If it is, the rest of the paragraph doesn’t make sense. If it isn’t, what trend does he mean?

  22. JMJ:

    I will never understand the aversion to driving a Mercedes S600. I just can’t imagine why anyone would suffer that aversion.

  23. feraltek: The extra word is “have”. Briggs’ original proposed title was “What I Learned from Global Warming” and my quibble was that I haven’t yet stopped learning.

    Tom&Hamish: I made no hint of the ridiculous suggestion that complete human extinction would ever be attributable to the kind of global warming we are talking about, though I should apologize if you were misled by my attempt at a humorous reference to Briggs’ original title in my concluding paragraph. Other extinctions will certainly happen at a greater rate than they would without climate change, as some (but probably very small fraction of all) species will be unable to adapt or move quickly enough. I certainly don’t claim that everyone will (or even necessarily should) see that as a big problem, but it could well be very disruptive and I do expect that just a few degrees of change will have effects that are “cataclysmic” for large numbers of people (not me or my immediate descendants though as I live in a well protected region where even the worst predicted effects are relatively benign – and have the resources to move if that prediction turns out to be wrong). You are right that the arguments for extreme seriousness of the consequences are less convincing than those for the effect itself, but I take note of the fact that most of those now arguing for insignificance of the consequences were earlier arguing against the likelihood of the effect.

    Sheri: Any decrease in pH is correctly termed “acidification” and I take no responsibility for those too ill informed to understand that. That said, even a change from 12 to 10 would be disastrous for an alkaline-adapted species which might only survive between say 11 and 13 (made up numbers which I do not claim to be realistic), and many ocean species are apparently very sensitive to quite small changes (just as fresh water species were seen to be when “acid rain” was sterilizing many lakes in the Canadian Shield).

    Hamish: By “the trend is becoming clear” I was referring to the overall accumulation of evidence from various sources about the long term pattern. The recent “pause” may be surprising to those who thought they had very accurate detailed models but is well within the range of fluctuations that I would expect to see in such a complex situation and so it does little to give me pause in my suspicion that further warming is likely.

  24. Cambridge dictionaries online: acidify “to become an acid or make something become acid”

    The term is NOT used when speaking about bases and was not used in that fashion until climate change science started to use it that way. I have checked many sources and not one says any change in pH is acidification is acidification EXCEPT climate change propaganda. The term is pure propaganda and you can insult me all you like–you can’t change the fact that acidification means to “become acid”. So insult away. (You can argue that it’s used in regards to titration, but we are not titrating the ocean, so that would obviously be an incorrect usage.)

    Your “made up” numbers indicate you really have no idea of the change in pH in the ocean. It has changed less than .3 units on the pH scale. It was 8.3 or 8.2., and is now down to 8.1 or thereabouts. It varies from place to place and season to season. Can you explain why the pH change is harmful to the ocean life? What are the chemical reactions that occur with dissolved CO2 (most of which stays dissolved CO2 by the way) that are harmful to ocean life? Give us an explanation of the process, including buffering and how that affects pH. I’ll be looking forward to reading it in your own words.

    You might throw in the difference between acid rain and the effects thereof and the CO2 in the ocean and why the pH of the ocean will never go below 7, probably not below 8 or 7.5. Or why the acid that can cause shells to dissolve is essential to the animal’s ability to create the shell in the first place. I’m good with any of those. Hey, even the pH of the acid created in the ocean and the concentration thereof would at least show us you have read the material and understand it.

  25. Alan,

    OK, good, I think I interpreted cataclysmic as extinction.

    “and I do expect that just a few degrees of change will have effects that are “cataclysmic” for large numbers of people”

    You do realize that if you drive south about 100 miles in the USA, you will be in an environment that is on average 2C warmer than the one you left from. Miami is on average 10C warmer than NYC.

    It can certainly be argued that the further south you go, the more plants and animals are thriving. I can say with certainty that insects thrive mightily in Florida.

    Every day the temperature changes on the order of 10C, throughout the year the temperature range is on the order of 40C. Year to year average temperature changes are +-1C in the US.

    And a creeping up of 0.02C/year over a century is going to cause cataclysmic events?

    It’s hard to believe. This implies there are tipping points and boundary conditions that are not well defined. And beyond blanket statements of bad things, there aren’t many specifics of things that will dramatically change.

    We had about 1C change over the past 100 years and I’m having a hard time seeing where the large impacts for this were.

    I think life is more robust then you give it credit for.

  26. Tom:

    Thank you for now paying more attention to what I actually wrote than to what your prior expectations may have led you to imagine I was thinking. We may be even closer than you think – especially if you still think I have any doubts about the robustness of life in general or that the plausible number of extinctions due exclusively to the predicted amount of warming is more than a “very small fraction” of all species. Indeed life in general does thrive in the tropics (especially insects and germs), but people perhaps less so (except as occasional visitors from healthier and wealthier climes). And please note that the phrase “effects that are ‘cataclysmic’ for large numbers of people” was specifically identified as not applying to all people. In particular I noted that I live in what is generally considered a relatively safe place, but even here the expanded range of certain insects such as the pine beetle has had cataclysmic effects on the economic lives of some of our communities. One such minor cataclysm may be negligible but others will be larger. And without attributing any specific extreme event to the CO2 effect, if the frequency and intensity of events such as Katrina and Sandy are only slightly increased and/or if the sea level rises more than a very small amount, then there will indeed be many more people exposed to cataclysm (esp. in its original sense) than would otherwise be the case. When one considers the number of people at risk (from both direct and indirect consequences), in places such as Bangladesh for example, I think the issue does deserve serious attention.

    I am quite happy to see that attention devoted to mitigation as well as prevention – or even instead of prevention if that can be shown to be more likely to be effective, but what I consider unacceptably irresponsible is denial that continued combustion of carbon carries any plausible risk of significant harm. And I am not inclined to pay much attention to claims that the harmful effects will be negligible when they come from people who started by denying that any temperature increase was likely (I’m not accusing you of that, but, for example, Bjorn Lomborg does seem to have been guilty of it).

  27. Wow, Alan, the pine beetle? Seriously? The pine beetle infestation had nothing to do with humans except we were too stupid to remove the infected trees and spray for it (yes, I live where the pine beetles are too). You failed to mention that there are those that say the entire pine beetle infestation was natural and it actually improves the forest. If you actually read the literature, climate science cannot say if droughts will increase. At the present, the worst droughts were in the 30’s and 50’s. The IPCC does not list drought as occurring because of climate change–only that it “could”. (Don’t you just love those “scientific” terms? There could be unicorns, too.) There are couple of “legitimate” studies on what weather phenomena could be caused by climate change, but the “science” itself is so new that it’s hard to say if they are correct anyway. How can one “know” that climate change did anything when we can’t even accurately predict when it will occur, by how much, and draw a decent picture of where it’s going. There are over 40 models and none match. Even quantum physics with probability has matching outcomes. If 40 models can’t agree and/or predict and every 7 years the IPCC has to revise it’s report, we really don’t know squat about this.

    Katrina and Sandy were again human-caused disasters–either by politics or lack of preparation. You are right–humans cause a lot of things, just not climate change.

    I am far more afraid of the risk to humans from the current climate of lying, cheating and deceiving in their leaders and media than anything CO2 could possibly do. (Yes, I can provide positive proof, but that’s off-topic here.) Humans are their own worst enemy. So far, everything you have listed is due to human politics, not climate. (As for Bangladesh, again, politics. Maybe we should work on improving humans and their ethics instead of destroying industry and insisting climate change is our biggest problem.)

    As for people who deny that the temperature increase will be important, perhaps they have a better understanding of cause and effect, statistics, modeling and regression lines than most. Considering physics professors are on the skeptic side and if anyone would understand physics, you’d think it would be a physics professor (or are you saying these professors are incompetent and should be fired for not agreeing with climate change probability proclamations?). The science is far from exact and far from being at that 90% or 95% level the IPCC voted to call it.

  28. Re pine beetles: see http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/insects-diseases/13381, where it is reported that “Today the MPB occurs well beyond its historic range” with reasons including “Milder winters and warmer summers contribute to both higher recruitment and survival rates of the MPB.”

    Re “physics professors are on the skeptic side”: Is that just accidentally ambiguous or deliberately intended to be deniably misleading? Yes, *some* physicists are on the “skeptic side”, but they are a minority (see http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/07_1.cfm for the currently accepted majority position). And even of those who feel that the APA statement does overstate the case in a couple of respects, most are not “on the skeptic side” with regard to the question of whether AGW is actually happening.

  29. Alan: “Milder winters and warmer summers”, yes. Caused by humans, no evidence that consistently shows this.

    Not intentionally misleading. You’re arguing majority rules in science and that I believe is not actually how we do science. I did not say that said physicists did not believe that the globe was warming and many believe we have something to do with it. I said they are on the skeptic side. Few doubt that CO2 raises temperature, but many think it’s not nearly as serious as the activist scientists claim it is. (The policy of the APS does mean physicists agree or disagree. It means the member of the group agree or disagree. They tend to kick out those who do not agree, so I think you can see show this works.)

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