Planet Gore

NASA Study Shatters Climate Alarmists’ Assumptions

From the moment I first became aware of global-warming alarmism many years ago, I asked myself, “Wait a minute — how are they disaggregating the human impact from what the planet would otherwise be doing?” Having studied a lot of biology, evolutionary theory, zoology, etc. at the University of Wisconsin, I knew that we’d been coming out of an ice age for most of the last 100,000 years, that the seas had risen hundreds of feet in that time, and that the lake outside my window was the melted remnant of massive glaciers. It was the 1990s, and the climate was always tossed around as the classic example of “chaos theory.” (Remember that little trend in pop science? It apparently disappeared after coming in contact with Al Gore).

Well it turned out that scientists had little clue what the planet would be doing in the absence of human activity. Their measures of the human impact on the climate were always highly conjectural — based mostly on a measurable warming trend over the last 150 years, compared with models going back several thousand years, and models predicting future trends. “Climategate” revealed that some of those models were intentionally manipulated to flatten previous short-term variations and exaggerate predictions of future warming. In recent years, more and more scientists have come out to question the alarmists’ claims: One great example was this fascinating essay by Dr. William Happer, a noted physics professor of Princeton University.    

Still, I assumed that at least the climate scientists had some firm idea of how much heat a certain amount of carbon dioxide would trap directly and indirectly through increased humidity and cloud cover. Well now it turns out that even on this most essential assumption of all their claims, they didn’t know what they were talking about.

An explosive study based on NASA satellite data collected over the past decade shows that the planet’s atmosphere traps far less heat than any of the most frequently cited models presumed. The study, by Dr. Roy Spencer and Dr. William Braswell of the University of Alabama, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing. This is from the press release:

“The satellite observations suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show,” Spencer said. “There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts that is especially big over the oceans.”

Not only does the atmosphere release more energy than previously thought, it starts releasing it earlier in a warming cycle. The models forecast that the climate should continue to absorb solar energy until a warming event peaks.

Instead, the satellite data shows the climate system starting to shed energy more than three months before the typical warming event reaches its peak.

“At the peak, satellites show energy being lost while climate models show energy still being gained,” Spencer said.

This is the first time scientists have looked at radiative balances during the months before and after these transient temperature peaks.

Applied to long-term climate change, the research might indicate that the climate is less sensitive to warming due to increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere than climate modelers have theorized. A major underpinning of global warming theory is that the slight warming caused by enhanced greenhouse gases should change cloud cover in ways that cause additional warming, which would be a positive feedback cycle.

Instead, the natural ebb and flow of clouds, solar radiation, heat rising from the oceans and a myriad of other factors added to the different time lags in which they impact the atmosphere might make it impossible to isolate or accurately identify which piece of Earth’s changing climate is feedback from manmade greenhouse gases.

“There are simply too many variables to reliably gauge the right number for that,” Spencer said.

Skeptics have long been able to point to inconvenient facts that cast doubt on the climate alarmists’ consensus — for example, the fact that temperatures have apparently risen much less slowly in the last 20 years than in the 20 before that, although everyone agrees there is more CO2 in the atmosphere now then there was then. But this is virtually the first time that central assumptions and predictions of the models used by the International Panel on Climate Change — the basis of climate policy and treaty negotiations around the world — has been flatly refuted by hard evidence. To repair to Karl Popper, the precise theory of the climate alarmists has been falsified by factual data — and must now be modified or abandoned, which is what happens to most theories. The “chaos theory” trend of 20 years ago was right after all — we don’t know everything, in particular where the climate is concerned. The planet may be warming — but there are far too many potential causes for us to really understand what is happening, or to predict what will happen in coming decades. Much more will doubtless be written about this — and heard, in congressional testimony — as folks start to realize just how deeply these new data undermine the claims of the climate alarmists. But this is hopefully the beginning of the end of the Democrats’ demented fascination with imposing devastating burdens on the American economy in the service of a “scientific” consensus that is now facing death by a thousand inconvenient truths.

Mario Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of Florida International University, and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.


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