Clouding the Measurements

I recently read the Alternate View from Analog Magzine’s Nov 2009 issue “Lessons from the Lab” by Jeffery Kooistra. In it, he points out that a survey of surface-temperature monitoring equipment shows that the data has been skewed both by changes in the equipment and where the placement of the equipment violates the NOAA’s own guidelines.

He’s very correct in pointing out how deplorable this is… but then jumps (as he has before) to denouncing global climate change and the steps society (and government) are taking to reduce carbon emissions, pollution, and so on. In this, I think he errs.

There’s one big (scientific) reason for this, and several other (non-scientific) ones.

The scientific reason is pretty simple: The argument for Global Climate change doesn’t rely on only one set of data. What he (by reporting Anthony Watts’ research) reveals is, make no mistake, a huge blow to the accuracy of our models. But there’s more to the case than that. The very argument he makes – that manmade structures alter local climate – is a smaller version of the well-documented “heat sink” effect of our paved cities. We’ve seen effects on climate from man-made activities for quite some time (most dramatically, the changes in cloud cover during the no-fly time after 9/11) [1]. We can debate exactly what, and how much, impact we’re having on the environment, but make no mistake that we are.

The non-scientific reasons can be summed up by this:
We can talk about how Cleveland used to have a river that burned – but has a clean river now. Or the runoff that made the creek by my great-grandparent’s house a brilliant orange – but is now clean and clear. Or we can talk about upcoming energy crises which are be closer than we seem to think they are. It’s ironic that in the very same issue as Kooistra’s essay, there’s a story featuring protagonists who explicitly talk about humans exponential discounting – treating far-off consequences as essentially unreal.

My life has been roughly as long as the modern environmental movement – and so I can just remember how bad things used to be. Things have come a long way – but that doesn’t mean we’re done yet (take a look at those recent pictures of smog again). Maybe the effects of global climate change won’t be as big as we fear. But the actions we take to minimize them now are also good for the environmental health of the planet. That’s good, of course. But let me make this more clear: Every time we genuinely “go green”, we are making the planet healthier for us. We can debate – and rightly so – which ways are the best, most effective, and least disruptive. But that doesn’t matter if no change is going to happen.

On a very practical level, I don’t care if the climate change predictions are overly bad [2] – because the results are so desperately needed regardless of what motivates that cause. We are addicted to oil. We are addicted to pollution.

If a prior vice-president can help us break that addiction – which will be good for us – then I have a hard time finding fault with it.

[1] It’s surprisingly difficult to find a decent article on such today, simply because there’s so much other crap when you look for relevant terms. This (non-peer reviewed) article has the study I refer to being called into question by a physicist who is comparing apples to oranges… but no direct citation. If you’ve got the citation for the original study, I’d love to see it.
[2] As noted – I don’t think they are. No one set of data – in any realm of science – should be used alone.

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