Posted by: Bill Dinklage | June 11, 2010

CFC’s and Waterloo

I’m back again, after several days, to begin to tackle the rest of the December editorial in the Daily Herald titled, “Warming theories cooling off” (click here to read the article) The next few paragraphs of the editorial report that one man has proven thousands of scientists who have implicated carbon dioxide as the main greenhouse gas causing global warming wrong:

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Climategate scandal — which alone ought to signal climate hysteria’s death knell — new information is bubbling to the surface. The latest research undercuts the whole greenhouse gas theory, a linchpin of the warming hypothesis, even for those who believe in it.

Professor Qing-Bin Lu of the University of Waterloo in Canada has revealed data indicating that changes in global climate may be caused by Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere, not by CO2. These are substances that were once widely used as refrigerants but have been largely phased out since 1978 because of their damage to the ozone layer.

Lu found that CFCs began to decline in the atmosphere around 2000 — just when global temperature also began dropping. According to his findings, this cooling trend could go on for decades.

As of yet, I haven’t read the paper by Quing-Bin Lu.  It appears in the journal Physics Reports (vol. 487, issue 5, pp.141-167), which the Utah Valley University Library doesn’t carry, and it will take a day or two for me to get it by interlibrary loan.  I’ve read the abstract, though, and the journal does appear to be peer-reviewed, which means that Lu’s article has been read and, presumably, scrutinized by at least a couple other scientists.  And the journal is published by Elsevier, which is a reputable academic journal publisher.  So far so good for the death of CO2.

The problem is that this is one article by one scientist in a sea of scientific discourse containing thousands of articles demonstrating the link between the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and global warming.  Like most of you readers out there, I am not a physicist trained in climate science, and I probably won’t understand much of the article even when I do get my hands on it.  Like Barry, though, I am a trained scientist, competent at rational thought and privy to the culture of science that is the context for this paper.

So this is how I would approach this new information.  I can choose to either (1) follow the conclusions of this paper written by one scientist I have never heard of even though they fly in the face of everything that most scientists thought they understood about the importance of carbon dioxide in forcing earth’s climate or (2) dismiss decades of research done by thousands of scientists (I’m not exaggerating) and jump on the cart (I won’t even call it a bandwagon yet—there’s just one guy pulling it) of CFCs as the new proven greenhouse gas.  I think most rational people would adopt a wait-and-see attitude when something so controversial comes up.

One of the most important underpinnings of science is that scientific information is falsifiable.  Does that mean that it is wrong?  No.  It means that scientific information, if it IS wrong, can eventually be shown to be so.  No one needs to take any facts on faith.  Such a provocative finding, that CFCs may be more important than CO2 as a climate-warming greenhouse gas, will surely come under scrutiny of other scientists.  It will surely capture the curiosity of some.  This idea, if it is important, will be explored.  If it is correct, it will catch on.  Personally, I am skeptical—VERY skeptical.  Though I am not a physicist trained in climate science, I know a fair amount about carbon dioxide, its effect as a greenhouse gas, and its emission from the burning of fossil fuels.  CO2 is a proven greenhouse gas, its presence in our atmosphere has been demonstrated by climate models to keep Earth livable (instead of an ice ball, which it would be without any CO2), and the correlation between climate warming and CO2 emissions is not only remarkable to the layperson but demonstrated by complex computer climate models.

So in this case, I am a fan of “wait-and-see,” (which I would be a lot of money is going to turn into “ignore -and-forget-about”).  Yet it is ironic that the same climate skeptics who are so quick to latch onto a SINGLE paper by a SINGLE scientist (many papers are published by pairs or groups of scientists), are very happy to espouse “wait-and-see” when it comes to the rest of the thousands of scientists and their decades of research who have claim to be “very certain” (meaning, in technical terms, sure with greater than 90% confidence) that human beings are causing global warming through their actions, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.  This just doesn’t make sense.  It’s not rational; it’s not honest.

I’m not claiming that the editors of the Daily Herald are dishonest; I bet if I were to meet with them face-to-face and have a conversation with them I would find them to be well-intentioned people who pride themselves in their honesty and who, by most standard measures of honesty, are actually very honest.  What I think happens is that people get swept up in their beliefs.  They become so sure that they are right that any “fact” or argument that goes against their beliefs must be wrong.  And if it is wrong, they can discredit it.

This illustrates the difference between scientific thinking and ideological thinking.  Scientists base their conclusions on foremost on observation and reason.  Ideologists base their thinking on beliefs.  I’m not knocking ideology; it has its place.  I am a thankful and patriotic citizen of the U.S. who benefits from several tenets of our constitution, such as freedom of speech, which are fundamentally based on a belief about the way things should be or are.  But when it comes to inventing the television, curing cancer, constructing a bridge that won’t collapse, and understanding climate change, scientific thinking is the proven route.

So let’s wait and see if this idea of Wu’s catches on, if his conclusions stand the test of further scientific scrutiny.  In the mean time, I’m going to keep driving over bridges built on decades of sound science because experience has shown me that they won’t collapse.


Responses

  1. “So let’s wait and see if this idea of Lu’s catches on”

    It won’t catch on, there is far too much invested in CO2 as the bad guy. The European Climate Exchange has already broken the $125 billion in carbon trades last year and it is growing fast. There is no way that suddenly the carbon commodity trading system will disapear because CFC’s are the real culprit. Billions in CO2 science has already been spent over the years, and climate science has 1000’s of peer reviewed papers saying that CO2 is bad. There is no way that the science establishment will suddenly toss thier beleif in CO2 for this new bad guy. Even if Professor Lu’s paper is correct and CFCs have been the culprit all along, his paper will be ignored and he might even be vilified as a climate denier in the back pocket of big oil. There is lots of ‘Belief’ in science, don’t kid yourself.

    • Shorter klem:

      I dismiss all your science with a conspiracy theory.

      * * *

      Regarding CFCs, aren’t they being regulated with a cap-and-trade system already? ‘Skeptics’ kept saying that cap-and-trade will spell the doom of America and wealth and freedom. So klem, out of all the current financial crises currently happening — in the US, in Greece, in Spain — which ones are caused by cap-and-trade schemes?

      frank

      • Um, I’d say the carbon cap&trade scheme Frank. That’s by far the biggest one, the CFC scheme is miniscule.

        Just remember this simple concept Frank, ‘he who controls carbon controls everything’. On the other hand he who controls CFCs controls not much more than your refrigerator.

        Cheers.

  2. It won’t catch on for the simple reason that it is completely wrong – both on the issue of how CFCs decay in the stratosphere (nothing to do with cosmic rays) and in the laughably inept attempt at attribution of global warming to CFCs based on nothing more than a ‘by-eye’ correlation of the two time series. This was discussed many moons ago:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/12/ozone-holes-and-cosmic-rays/
    http://rabett.blogspot.com/2010/01/commander-coincidence.html

  3. Klem–don’t take my understated tone too seriously. I completely agree with you that there is almost zero probability that carbon dioxide will be found out to be not the culprit after all. You said it, I said it–there are, literally, thousands of peer-reviewed articles behind the scientific understanding that CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas causing global warming.

    What I think I need to clarify–because I read my own words again and see how they could be misinterpreted–is that when I wrote “wait and see,” I’m talking about waiting to change my course of action, not waiting to do something about reducing carbon emissions. My course of action is to promost a reduction in carbon emissions–we need to do that now!– and to keep educating the public about the science of climate change. So while I “wait” I’m going to keep doing these things I’ve been doing because that Quing-Bin Lu article does nothing to convince me otherwise. More on that article on my next post…

  4. Eli didn’t realize that Gavin had taken this apart two years earlier, but Lu is one of those energizer bunny types who keeps on going long after his pet idea has been demolished. The fact that we both pretty much hit the same parts of the pinata is a good clue, even to the clueless, that QBL has the wrong end of the stick

    It was quite disappointing that Sigrid Peyerimhoff let this through in Physics Reports without making Lu take the ozone nonsense out. She had done some theoretical work earlier on the electron attachment mechanism and evidently QGL picked the right editor to send his paper to.

    But the real issue here, as it was in the Samanta-Seleska death match is that the university press offices are putting out nonsense

  5. […] from blogging (vacations, field work).  If any of you had been following my June blogs (June 2, June 11) on the Daily Herald editorial from last December titled, “Warming theories cooling off,”  […]


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