Category Archives: My story

Really smart people and “An Inconvenient Truth”

Screenshot An Inconvenient Truth

How much influence did the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” have? That was the question that was asked in the Grist article The legacy of “An Inconvenient Truth,” explained by 16 really smart people. Sixteen people with some name in environmental activism were asked about how this movie influenced them and terms like “inspiration”, “lightbulb moment”, “watershed moment”, “getting past the legislature”, “wake-up call”, “building of a movement” and many more came up.

Being a believer of anthropogenic global warming at that time myself, what was the influence of that movie on me? The surprising answer is: surprisingly little back then. It was until later that it influenced me, but not in the way it influenced those 16.

Although I was a believer at the time the movie came out, I never went to see it back then. I took from the trailer and from the scared reactions of my friends (who did see the movie), that it was highly exaggerated. At that time I was convinced that “anthropogenic global warming was real” and I was not exactly in the mood for an extra portion of exaggeration, so I passed the opportunity to see it back then.

Nevertheless, while I thought it would be exaggerated, back then I believed that the arguments would be basically true. More, I considered Al Gore some kind of a hero. He was the one that brought the global warming issue in the spotlight. Him being a politician, no less. I found that a noble and selfless act at that time, the same sentiment that was also expressed by those 16. Looking back at this period, I was rather naive back then.

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Seeing what you believe versus believing what you see

Some statements can keep on resonating in your head after you hear them. This happened when I saw a transcript of the opening Remarks by Joseph Bast at the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC9). The theme of the conference was “Don’t just wonder about global warming, understand it!” and this were the words that kept on resonating since I read them:

Alarmists see what they believe, while skeptics believe what they see.

If there is a sentence that would capture my changing process starting around 5 years ago, this would be a good contender.

Seeing what you believe

Life was incredibly simple when I was a believer. There were two pillars on which my belief was shrugged. The first one was the “consensus between scientists” that the science is settled and the debate is over. We were surely the cause of global warming. In a way that was comforting. It has already been evaluated by the “experts” and they said they were sure.

It is based on a really simple story: we produce CO2 as a byproduct of our activities (which is true), this increases the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (which is also true), CO2 as a greenhouse gas (it is) will have an effect on temperatures (not many doubt that). But this was not the complete picture. While all of the statements are basically true, it is only a small part of the big picture, but amplified as if it was the only thing that really matters.

A second pillar was the extreme polarization of the playing field. On the one side there where those who agreed with the consensus (whether scientist, journalist, politician,…) and they were portrayed as the noble white knights who just wanted to “save the earth”. While on the other side there were those who didn’t agree with the consensus who were portrayed as the dark knights, surrendering to the money of Big Oil and sabotaging the white knights in their strive to do the right thing. Heroes versus bad guys. That is the same stuff Hollywood movies are made of.

Being on the white knights’ side is favorable. No wonder why so many people who don’t do fact checks choose that side.

Believing what you see

My first steps towards skeptic attitude were almost incidental and even based on a misinterpretation. Yet it was the start I needed. At first I only took alarmist voices seriously, that was the style of thinking that I was used to, but gradually I took notice of the dissenting voices…and came to the realization that they were the ones that actually looked at the data and try to understand. While the alarmist side were not interested in this kind of stuff, were just playing with emotions and with mathematical models. Throwing out ever scarier doom scenarios in the media. Stifling debate by calling the consensus and ad hominems.

The more I was looking into it, the more inconsistencies I found. Inconsistencies that I couldn’t see before. How would I? I didn’t even did basic fact checks back then. That’s the price of just believing in a situation where communication is not based on reality.

But, you could say, I did change once from one side to the other. Isn’t it possible that I could change back? Well, true, I changed from warmer to skeptic and yes, there is always the possibility that I could switch back. This would be a very interesting situation though. I did the switch when looking at the facts. When I would switch back, that would also be because of the facts and then it would be interesting to see which facts I would have found that support the alarmist side. If the facts change, my position will also change. But at this point there is nothing that points in that direction.

The lost Paradise

applebite

One of the things that changed when becoming more skeptical about global warming was my attitude towards climate. In my believers years I had a sense of (false) stability. I believed that the climate system was at its pinnacle and that we humans were adapted to it after so many centuries. But then, by emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, we added so much greenhouse gases that we are in the process of changing our climate.

Scientists in the media told us this time and time again. They are still telling it now. So why wouldn’t it be true?

Raised as a catholic this was something that sounded really familiar. We were accustomed to our specific climate and now, bang, by burning fossil fuels we were losing this safe and stable climate and we (or at least our children) will have to endure a changed, hostile climate. It has the Adam and Eve-story painted all over it. We bit the apple of emissions and now we were chased away from harmony of nature. We had it all, yet we blew it and now we have to pay for our sins.

Also from the environmental movements in the 1970s-1980s I got the image of “Mother Earth”. A poor figure collapsing under the unbearable pressure we load onto her. We humans were changing the earth. We were to blame, no doubt about that.

Another thing was my belief that the Nature was something incredibly feeble. Even a small change could knock it out of balance…

This is of course not what reality shows. I was living in an illusion. The climate is not static, it is not at its pinnacle either and it has the ability to balance. It is constantly evolving. We live in a world of extremes. The temperature difference between day and night can be dramatic. As between summer and winter. The same for other variables like precipitation. Even the climate (as an average of weather over decades) keeps on changing. It is more like a cycle than the straight line I envisioned it to be.

That poor Mother Earth image is not according to reality either. Mother Earth is also a raging mom. That feeble Mother Nature is much stronger than we are. Always have been in the past. As far as history learn us, countless (extreme) weather events killed countless humans over time. It didn’t just began to do this after we started burning fossil fuels. History is the witness we seem to neglect.

Nature and life are incredibly resilient. It should be in a ever changing world in which extreme events can and will happen. Humans have an incredible range in which they can live: from the freezing poles to the hot tropics. Gosh, there are animals and plants living there too. When looking closer, more species are living in the tropics than in the mid latitudes. The mid latitudes at its turn have more species than the poles. So I don’t really know were the fear of having less species in a warmer climate comes from. As my interest was always in Nature, I should have known such things. I guess emotions took over and abandoned reason.

In biology and ecology lessons I learned that all species live in their own niche. So even if species get extinct (happened in the past, happens now and surely will happen again in the future), those niches will be filled in by other, better adapted species.

Looking back to my not so distant past, it is no surprise that we think that by turning back the CO2 to pre-1950-levels we get back our paradise. Maybe that’s true, but that might be an illusion as well.

How not to compare thunderstorm days

onweer_blauw

This is part of my story – you might see the category: My Story first if you haven’t already (begin at the bottom of the page and work yourself up).

Since my beliefs in Global Warming had crumbled I got the desire to be able to check out some things myself and not to rely on the opinion of others. But what could I do as an interested layman to achieve this goal? The first thing I intended to do was to take a closer look at the messages that appeared in the media, but not to take them on face value as I did before. My impression until then was that the mainstream media tells a very one sided story climate-wise and it could be interesting to discover the neglected data…

This is about the first story I checked. It made an impression back then. We write August 23, 2011. A big thunderstorm crossed Belgium. I experienced it when I was at work. It was surreal: at about 10 AM it gradually got darker and darker, until it was pitch black. It seemed like it was night time. Then came the wind, rain and thunder. Afterwards we learned that it was so dark because the thundercloud was about 16 kilometer high and not much sunlight could come through. A couple days before (August 18) we also had a heavy local thunderstorm which killed 5 music lovers at Pukkelpop festival when a tent collapsed and 140 others needed medical attention.

As expected, the next day I found articles in newspapers that made the connection of these storms with Global Warming. One such story was in the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws of August 24, 2011. The title over two full pages was: “87,000 lightings and more rain than previous storm” and subtitle (over almost one page) “Warming of the earth increases storms” (translated from Dutch):

Coincidence? Yes and no
Two very severe thunderstorms in less than a week time: could this still be a coincidence? “Yes and no” according to Luc Debontridder. It is a coincidence that these thunderstorms are so severe. But it is certain that there are more thunderstorms than in the past. We reexamined the numbers and noticed that the number of detected thunderstorms in the previous decades did increase: from on average 88 days per year in the 1980s to 94 days now. Be careful: literary every thunder-activity on Belgian area is in this number. A thunderstorm that makes havoc in for example Vlaams-Brabant, but didn’t effect Limburg, will be counted as 1 thunderstorm day. But the increase of 88 to 94 thunderstorm days is irrefutable and according to Debontridder blamed on global warming.
The prominent Belgian climate expert Jean-Pascal van Ypersele confirms this. “When the climate warms by greenhouse gases and the temperature rises, there will be more evaporation from the oceans and seas, that is the way it is. Therefor clouds will be filled with more water vapor and those clouds will turn quicker into thurderstorm clouds. I see those weather extremes increase in the next 30 to 40 years anyway, says van Ypersele.

At first glance this seemed rather balanced: according to both of them, the severity of both thunderstorms was a coincidence, but not the frequency. There doesn’t seem to be strange looking statements. But yet some things caught my attention.

[…] We reexamined the numbers […]
What do they mean by this exactly? Did they simply looked at the numbers again when the last two thunderstorms came over? Or did they reexamined/adjusted/normalized/reconstructed the historical/current data? Whatever, after this “reexamining” they noticed an increase of 6 thunderstorm days per year in comparison with the 1980s.
[…] literary every thunder-activity on Belgian area is in this number […]
It seems the author left a back-door open. It tells us that these numbers alone will not say much. A local storm will have exactly the same weight as a heavy storm over the entire country. There are 6 storm days more per year on average. This could well be small local storms. With such a way of counting this doesn’t necessarily mean a significant change.
[…] from on average 88 days per year in the 1980s to 94 days now […]
The way this is stated reminded me of a statement I read some time ago. Can’t find the reference a the moment, but here is the gist: the mean temperature of the previous decade was compared with the mean temperature of the current decade and the conclusion was that the current average was higher. But when one looked at the current trend it went down. The fact the mean was higher was because the beginning of the period was much warmer and this pulled the mean upwards. So with this in mind this statement caught my attention. It also made me wonder if there was a specific reason why they skipped the 1990s altogether and took the 1980s to compare with?

I went searching what was known about thunderstorms in Belgium. I didn’t find much (what didn’t come as a surprise at all), but found that the climate experts of the KNMI(Royal Meteorologic Institute of the Netherlands) were not so sure about this connection (translated from Dutch):

[…] To what extend climate change effects thunderstorms and lightning is difficult to determine. The data series with observations of the number of thunderstorm days are of variable quality and don’t say anything about the frequency of lightning. […]

That is an interesting statement. “Variable quality”. Probably it means no consistent measurements over time? This made me wonder if this was the same for our country? After some searching, it seems KMI (Royal Metereologic Institute of Belgium) used manual systems (which only partly detected lighting activity) and those were replaced in August 1992 by SAFIR (Système d’Alerte Foudre par Interférométrie Radioélectrique) which can detect lightnings with a high resolution. SAFIR was later extended to BELLS (BElgian Lightning Location System) with an even higher resolution.

For those who don’t yet get it: 1992 is just after their base period of the 1980s. Let me rephrase that: KMI replaced in 1992 a low resolution system with a high resolution system. So in the 1980s they used a system that didn’t detect all thunderstorms. In the 2000s they used a automatic system that detects much more thunderstorms, if not all. How did they manage to compare those two correctly? Maybe they had to adjust the previous measurement data to be able to compare those two? Is that what they meant by “reexamining” the numbers?

It is true that if you count the observed number of thunderstorm days you will find more in this decade compared to the 1980s, there is no doubt about that. But they “forgot” to mention that there are better detection methods now than back then in the 1980s.

Me, former member of a lost generation

genXandY

It was at the end of the 1970s. I was around 17, almost finishing high school and preparing for college. Our teacher talked about life, about the economy, about the world outside school. He was quite negative. The economy did really bad at that moment. There had been a crisis at the beginning of the 1970s and at that time there was one again. Youth unemployment was much higher than now. He (and also others) called us the “lost” generation. That statement shook me.

So here we were, young, still studying and in some years going to be released to a world were there was no work for us. We were also told we inherited a world that was polluted by the previous generation, were at the verge of an ice age and worse even, our oil supplies would dry out in less than 50 years. In short, there was not much of a future for us.

Fast forward more than a decade. We had a reunion of our class. Listening to the stories of the others, we realized in the end that we weren’t that bad off. After finishing our studies everyone found a job and none of us was unemployed for long. The pollution also turned out better than expected. Fish were returning to the rivers, air was cleaner than before and there was more green in our environment. The feared ice age seemed to be a non problem after all and the oil supplies were … still about 50 years.

Fast forward to now. We, generation X, gave birth to generation Y and it seems we didn’t learn anything from our own past. I hear more and more the statement that generation Y is a lost generation. Yup, they experience high youth unemployment, we left them with our CO2 in the atmosphere and they will suffer from global warming in the future. Peak oil is just around the corner (but reserves are, you guessed it, still 50 years). In short, there is not much of a future for them. Hey, where did I hear all that before?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We seem to suffer from collective amnesia. Probably it is just a matter of waiting until the members of generation Y realize that this label was based on nothing much. Then add a decade or so before they declare generation Z a lost generation…

The making of The Hockey Stick

MBH98

The Hockey Stick (MBH98)

My story from believer to skeptic – part 3
You might see Part 1 or
Part 2 first if you haven’t already.

In Part 2 I explained I started to realize that the global warming alarmism was just a gross exaggeration, not always backed by the observations. But the alarmist side still had a convincing argument. The last hurdle to take was the temperature chart of the last 1000 year. I came to know the name of this chart: The Hockey Stick. It was made by Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes in 1998 (MBH98) and was extended in 1999 (MBH99). It represented temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1000 years. It showed a slowly rising of the temperature (the shaft) until the last -let’s say 100 years- when it went completely through the roof (the blade).

This chart was been found everywhere I looked for proof of human fingerprint of the warming due to CO2. I still was really naive at that time and I believed this graph was correct because it popped up about everywhere. How could this be incorrect after so many people eyeballing it? I compared it to the system of Open Software in which bugs gets removed by maximum exposure to many people that get access to it. The more people look at it, the quicker the bugs can be found and eliminated. So my thoughts were, the more that Hockey Stick figure gets reviewed, if there were errors in it, the quicker they would be found.

It was confusing. If this graph really was true, then my new understanding about climate didn’t even matter, then there was a very good reason for sounding the alarm. It was clear for all to see. In the time frame in which man was developing rapidly, temperatures went through the roof. It couldn’t be more clear.

In the meanwhile it became January 2009, about three months after I started my quest. At that time I became a regular visitor of a site called ClimateAudit. It is run by a Canadian mathematician Stephen McIntyre. I didn’t realize it, but he was an important factor in the investigation of the hockey stick graph. Together with Ross McKitrick (a Canadian environmental economist of the University of Guelph) he investigated the graph and they found things didn’t add up.

The Wegman report

One day, when I visited the blog, I checked the links bar on the left in stead of directly start reading the articles. There I stumbled on a link to the Wegman Report (left link bar, under “Links”). From previous searches I remembered vaguely that it had something to do with the Hockey Stick. I downloaded the report and started to read. I was baffled. The more I read it, the more I realized the Hockey Stick probably was based on faulty assumptions, bad statistics and probably a too close related group of scientists. This was the final drop in a bucket almost full.

To come back to the report. Edward Wegman is a statistician (Center For Computational Statistics, George Mason University) and he made this report for U.S. Congress in 2006. Some issues of the many parts that shook me (my bold):

The controversy of Mann’s methods lies in that the proxies are centered on the mean of the period 1902-1995, rather than on the whole time period. This mean is, thus, actually decentered low, which will cause it to exhibit a larger variance giving it preference for being selected, as the first principal component. The net effect of this decentering using the proxy data in MBH98 and MBH99 is to produce a “hockey stick” shape. Centering the mean is a critical factor in using the principal component methodology properly. It is not clear that Mann and associates realized the error in their methodology at the time of publication. Because of the lack of full documentation of their data and computer code, we have not been able to reproduce their research. We did, however, successfully recapture similar results to those of MM [McIntyre & McKitrick]. This recreation supports the critique of the MBH98 methods, as the offset of the mean value creates an artificially large deviation from the desired mean value of zero.

After MBH99, Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick [MM03] published their critique of the 1998 paper, citing calculation errors, unjustified truncation or extrapolation of source data, obsolete data, geographical location errors and incorrect calculation of principal components. They also claimed that using the MBH98 methodology and the Northern Hemisphere average temperature index for the period 1400-1980 shows that temperatures in the 15th century exceeded those of the late 20th century. In particular, they claim that MBH98’s incorrect usage of PCA alone resulted in the well-known “hockey stick” shape.

Wow, this was heavy! The hockey stick didn’t seem to be withstand scrutiny well. As far as I could understand it, the uptick at the end was not derived from the data itself, but was formed from an incorrect usage of methodology, combined with the use of a proxy that doesn’t seem to be a good proxy for temperature in the first place. Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick went even further and tested the methodology itself. They took red noise (a kind of random data) and combined it with the Bristlecone data. They found that this created hockey sticks in 99% of the cases. Oops.

More info

This story of the investigation of the hockey stick is broader than the Wegman report. But this report was the trigger for looking into the issue in more detail. The best summery of this story is written by Marcel Crok in NatuurWetenschappen & Techniek: a very clear and well researched NWT article in pdf format. Best to look at this pdf before continue, in order to be able to situate the impact it had on me.

Even more background information (on this page is a link to a pdf file with the background information).
Finally, the Hockey Stick Project page with the complete time line and responses to criticism on their investigation.

The impact

Why this report (and the papers of McIntyre and McKitrick on the Hockey Stick) had such an impact on me?

  • It showed that my assumption that the graph was properly eyeballed didn’t hold. It took a lot of time and effort of at least one person (and probably three persons or more) to get hold of the methods and data to be able to review it. It took me by surprise that the information that proved anthropogenic global warming was not organized or documented. This didn’t make much sense to me. How could that very important data not being available for all to investigate? Is this how scientists behave when they have crucial data that is important for explaining “the most important problem of human kind”!?!? The eyeballing I presumed was only the peer review that was apparently done within a small group of closely related people. We should expect more scrutiny of data that affect policy decisions.
  • The graph depended heavily on statistics, but when statisticians reviewed this paper, they found many errors in it, not detected by the (much celebrated) peer-review process. This got me thinking about what this peer review was all about. In this case it definitely wasn’t the gold standard it was told to be.
  • It was the first time that I noticed the political side behind climate science (the graph was prominent in the 2001 IPCC report).

The final result is that I am not much impressed anymore with someone showing a hockey stick result as proof of global warming and there have been many since.

Ending

And hey, we know the temperatures in the 20th century went up. What’s the big deal? Sure, temperatures went up in last century, but that was not the claim. The claim was that the temperatures of the 1990s were the highest of the last 1000 years, but this doesn’t follow from the data.

I couldn’t see this in the past, because I didn’t look at the data and just believed what others told me (others who obvious didn’t look at the data either). This is a viscous circle. People read that CAGW is true, don’t check the data and pass the message on. In this way it looks as if this is an universal truth, because the same message is mentioned everywhere.

Stephen McIntyre and his blog certainly had a huge influence on me. What influenced me most was the expression to check things oneself and in the end this is what I began to do. That was one of the reasons why I started this blog and adopted this blog name.

The first turning point

My story from believer to skeptic – part 2
You might see Part 1 first if you haven’t already.

Temps

Basically, both sides seemed to have proof of their case. It was definitely a confusing time, but I carried on. At that time I mostly accepted answers from the alarmist side, giving hardly any weight to the skeptic side because I questioned their motives.

Without knowing it, I learned some important lessons. Firstly, it is very difficult to change a belief, especially when it was build up and maintained for so long. Secondly, if one is focused on a negative quality of someone (real or imagined), it is not possible to consider their arguments. But this was going to change soon.

To find out more about the different standpoints in global warming, I followed many discussions online. When following such a discussion, I was directed to a site called surfacestations of Anthony Watts. On this site USHCN weather stations were documented. Volunteers surveyed the weather stations to be able to check if the station quality was in accordance with the specifications and some photo’s were taken. This information was posted on their site.

The more I navigated this site, the more I got baffled. I saw weather stations located next to air conditioner units, close to buildings and parking lots, even one on the roof of a building. These things undoubtedly will have an influence on the temperature reading. If this is the way temperatures (that prove the world is warming at an unprecedented rate) are being measured, then how reliable are these records?!?!?!

The process was at that time not completely finished, but the end result was devastating: from memory, about 80-85% of the sites were not even compliant with the regulations, only about 15-20% would have a correct temperature registration.

My thought at that time was: if this is true, I have a hard time believing this claim of unprecedented warming anymore. If this is how the raw data is collected, that unprecedented warming could well be an artifact of the way temperatures were measured. When the collected raw data is unreliable, then the result of the calculation with that raw data will be unreliable as well.

This made me looking with different eyes at skeptical sites. More and more I began to explore their arguments. At least in this one they seemed to have a valid point. The more I looked at the data behind global warming, the more my belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming started to crumble. At one point I really doubted the catastrophic/anthropogenic part, but the alarmist side still had a convincing argument in their sleeve.

Go to Part III