Faulty Assumptions and Illogical Reasoning

Editorial writers often present arguments based upon false assumptions. When this is followed by illogical reasoning, the result may be amusing, frustrating, or both. This, of course, depends entirely upon the perspectives and psychopathologies of the readers and whether they had their morning coffee.

For several days, I’ve been churning and agitating about three specific editorials that appeared in our local newspaper. Frustration overwhelmed amusement partly because I was traveling and could not immediately respond. (Writing sometimes resolves my frustrations.) Finally, I have time to react, but first a disclaimer. The publisher/editor of our local newspaper is a good guy and I consider him a friend. He also has a wonderful sense of humor along with an exceptional talent for writing. I expect he could quite easily point out my blind spots and hyper-neurotic emotional ticks as exposed in my prose. He would do so with great hilarity and no apparent frustration, whatsoever. I admire him for that.

Last week Highlands Today ran a series of editorials on the subject of climate change and global warming. There were actually three different editorials published over four days. The Saturday editorial titled “On a warmer planet, which cities will be the safest?” originated in the Gainesville Sun. The Sunday and Monday editions repeated an editorial from the Concord, NH Monitor, under two distinct headlines, “Tide may be turning on climate change debate” on Sunday, and “Nations need action on climate change” published on Monday. The editorial that appeared on Tuesday, “Global warming is a global problem” came from the editorial staff of Highlands Today.



First some background. Every sentient being knows that humans can alter the climate and we’ve been doing that for thousands of years. The first efforts at agriculture in China and the Middle East are known to have had local effects on humidity, wind, temperature, and even the composition of the air. Deforestation around Mt. Kilimanjaro altered conditions on the summit which changed the characteristics of its alpine glaciers. The urban heat island is a well-known phenomenon caused by replacing forests and grasslands with concrete, asphalt, and steel structures. New Orleans continues to subside below sea-level making it prone to flooding. Does anyone think the climate in and around New York City is the same today as it was in 1600? Yes, we burn hydrocarbons in large quantities releasing water and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and these gases, among others, trap infra-red electromagnetic radiation which we call heat.

Apparently, quite a few people think that humans are the sole cause of climate change and global warming. It’s as if a stable climate existed in some perfect state until we came along and messed it up. Whenever you hear someone such as a politician or even a news reporter utter the words “combat climate change” you are witnessing someone who suffers this absurd delusion. One thing all sentient beings should know, humans are not capable of stopping climate change.

IMG_0309Global climate is always changing, always has and always will. The Earth is a dynamic planet in a solar system, and in a galaxy within a local group in a universe that is always changing.   The Sun is a variable star with an ever-changing output orbiting around the center of mass of the Milky Way Galaxy, moving into and out of regions of space with varying amounts of dust. Our orbit around the Sun is always changing its ellipticity and consequently the Earth’s distance from this primary heat source. The tilt of our axis is not constant varying by several degrees, therefore altering the timing and intensity of our seasons. The Earth wobbles as it rotates on its axis causing the northern and southern hemispheres to experience different seasonal intensities depending upon which pole is tilted toward the Sun in the winter or summer and when the Earth is closest or farthest from the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Most people don’t know that the Earth is currently closest to the Sun in early January and farthest from the Sun in early July. Twelve thousand years ago when the most recent glacial period was ending it was the opposite.

Greenland Ice Core Temperature and CO2 11000 BPThe Earth’s surface is always changing as well. When continental ice caps melt, the water runs downhill into the creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans affecting sea level, but the land levels are also changing as the weight of the ice lessens. This is called isostasy. In North America, the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay have been rebounding for at least 12 thousand years and they will continue to rebound until the Earth enters the next glacial period in several thousand years. As strange as it may seem, the East Coast of the United States is subsiding because of its position relative to a pivot point near the Appalachian and Adirondack Mountains. As the Midwest moves up, the coast from Florida to Nova Scotia moves down. The Sahara Desert wasn’t’ always a desert and the Amazon River Basin hasn’t always been a rainforest. Ironically, if the Sahara were to be irrigated and greened, the Amazon rainforest would surely decline because much of the fertile soil of the Amazon basin comes from the Sahara transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

Yes, we live on a dynamic planet and the climate is always changing. Humans cannot stop it from changing, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much money we spend, no matter whether we burn gasoline in our fuel tanks or domesticate highly trained gerbils whose food is planted, irrigated, and harvested using solar and wind energy exclusively.

My first assumption: humans can and do change the climate.

My second assumption: climate changes whether humans cause it or not.

My third assumption: there is no perfect, stable, or natural global climate.

My fourth assumption: no one knows how much humans are affecting global climate, and no one knows how the global climate is changing or would change naturally.

My fifth assumption: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men and women, cannot return New York City, or Miami, or San Francisco, or any other urban or developed area to their pre-historic environmental states.

And therefore, I conclude that our best strategy is to adapt. Our ancestors did, so we can too.

We must be smart about it!  We should not build cities in floodplains of great rivers, just as it is not a good idea to camp inside the crater of an active volcano. If New York City is to remain a habitable place, someone is going to have to figure out how to keep the Atlantic Ocean out. If the past is a reliable teacher, sea level is going to rise and the land under that and other coastal cities is going to subside for several hundred or even several thousand years as the continental ice sheets return, and they most assuredly will. And of course it would be great if we had abundant energy that didn’t use up valuable resources while adding Gigatons of water vapor and carbon dioxide as well as many other gases and particulates into our atmosphere every year. Let’s get working on this right away.

Now that I’ve articulated my assumptions and exposed my reasoning abilities for all to judge, please allow me to vent my frustrations over a few of the fallacies and irrationalities that were published in the three editorials referenced above. Following the order in which they were published, I’ll begin with the editorial from the Gainesville Sun.

Other Views – Saturday, September 27, 2014 – Gainesville Sun on planning for climate change: On a warmer planet, which cities will be the safest?

Of the three editorials, the Gainesville Sun never once mentioned or attributed climate change or global warming to humans. Reading between the lines, however, we discover the deception, when the editorial refers to climate change, it is only considering human caused climate change. The editorial called for managed development or adaptation and for political leadership.

This week’s United Nations cli­mate summit featured some progress in addressing climate change, but also showed that state and local officials can’t wait for world leaders to act. As the [New York] Times story suggested, Florida faces some of the nation’s most significant challenges in the decades ahead.

In the above quotation from the editorial, we discover that the writer assumes that climate change is bad and is caused by humans. It’s as if we would not need to concern ourselves with natural climate change. The writer further assumes that humans can do something about it, beginning with unknown actions taken by local, state, national, and world leaders–a false assumption that leads to a questionable conclusion. While it is true that humans have the potential to adapt to climate change, and our leaders should encourage planning and action to protect lives and property, the United Nations Summit was all about international energy policy and limiting carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. For political and scientific reasons, neither will lead to any significant outcome related to climate change.

A warming planet and rising sea levels pose a particular threat to an already scorching state where 80 percent of residents live or work in coastal counties. Yet Florida’s most prominent political leaders refuse to even acknowledge climate change is real, much less start planning for it.

Orlando International Airport Temperature Record

We’ve been accurately monitoring global temperature for about 35 years, and globally there has been no significant warming during the last half of that period. Florida has actually been cooling slightly over the last 60 years according to land based temperature records. This quotation contains pure hyperbole. It is used to criticize various political leaders, but more importantly, to make the editorial board of the newspaper seem wiser than those political leaders it chooses to criticize.

Floridians can’t afford to wait to plan for climate change. If officials are going to sit on their hands, it is up to average citizens to join with researchers in planning for rising temperatures and sea levels in our particularly vulnerable state.

holgate-9-station-with-std-dev-digitized1So who’s waiting? And who is sitting on their hands?  This is unsubstantiated criticism of unknown people.  People who buy property consider their risks.  Developers plan for environmental changes.  Communities set zoning restrictions and mitigate problems based on many factors including risk to the environment.  Insurance companies protect themselves by charging more for people and businesses who chose to gamble on the known and unknown risks.  Sea level has been rising along the Atlantic for a long time, way before development was an issue.  There is no scientific evidence that it is rising at an unusual or unprecedented rate now. 

Other Views – Sunday, September 28, 2014 – The Concord (N.H.) Monitor: Tide may be turning on climate change debate, and Other Views – Monday, September 29, 2014 – Nations need action on climate change 

This editorial presents several fallacies including argumentum ad verecundiam which is the appeal to the testimony of an authority, and argumentum ad populum which assumes that if many people believe something it must be true. The writer assumes that human caused climate change requires action to mitigate, and then the editorialist proceeds to list several organizations and important people who agree with that proposition.  As you might suspect, experts and authorities holding different opinions were not included.

The tide may be turning on climate change and the public’s willingness to take action. On Sept. 21, in the largest demonstration of its kind ever held, more than 300,000 people took to the streets of New York to demand action to curb global warming. 

As it turns out, 330,000,000 people did not take to the streets of New York, but judging by the signs carried by some of those who did, they were clueless about climate and many other issues as well.

Much of the world is already experiencing unwelcome changes, and the effects of all the carbon dioxide already loosed on the atmosphere have yet to be felt. Each week, it seems, brings either news of another disaster that may be at least in part driven by climate change – the strongest storm ever recorded devastated the Philippines last fall, wildfires have plagued America’s West all summer – or yet another doom and gloom report.

This is a strawman argument. The fact that much of the world experiences changes, welcome or otherwise, does not necessarily connect to the human emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Natural sources of carbon dioxide overwhelm anthropogenic sources, and water vapor overwhelms carbon dioxide as a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.  The frequency of news reports about natural disasters around the world is related to development and journalistic practices.  Climate change, natural and anthropogenic, has not been shown to increase the number or intensity of tropical storms, tornados, floods, wildfires, polar vortices, or sunburns.

Convincing such nations to clean up their acts requires American leadership and example. [That leadership will suffer if New Hampshire voters send to Congress politicians who use the economy as an excuse for inaction on climate change.]

The bracketed sentence exposes the overarching objective of the editorial, to throw support toward one political candidate over another. This editorial appeared two times in the local paper, but the bracketed sentence was deleted on one occasion.  Politicians who oppose the President’s energy policies are not using the economy as an excuse for inaction on climate change.  They are arguing that enacting those energy policies would be detrimental to the nation’s economy, and would have no discernable climate consequence.  In other words, a gigantic waste of money.  The editor is using a strawman argument for political purposes.

Our View – Tuesday, September 30, 2014 – Highlands Today: Global warming is a global problem 

This editorial was written by the staff of the local paper, and it appeared after the other two editorials had been published over the previous three days.

While the percentage of those who believe human activity causes global warming is up and is now the highest it has been since CBS News began asking this question in 2011, Americans also named the economy as the country’s most important problem when they were not offered a list of choices. The economy and jobs was the top answer, the poll showed, far ahead of the environment.

The CBS News Poll is ludicrous in the way it asks the question, and consequently, the results are not helpful except in presenting fallacious arguments. Obviously, most people and most scientists believe that human activities cause climate change/global warming.  The debate is about how much, where, and what can be done about it.  Some climate scientists believe that most of the recent warming is caused by burning hydrocarbon fuels.  Other climate scientists agree that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, but they do not find scientific evidence that it contributes significantly to global warming or other climate effects reported in the news.  They point out that the climate changes naturally, and we do not know the extent the recent changes are a consequence of anthropogenic factors.  Both of these groups of scientists, and everyone with opinions in between, would answer the CBS poll in the affirmative.  It illustrates that CBS and the author of this editorial fail to understand the problem.

Global and national efforts to limit heat-trapping greenhouse emissions repeatedly have faced this dichotomy, even though more people now believe the fight against carbon emissions is the good fight for the future of the world. The immediate economic cost of cutting down the use of fossil fuels in favor of often emerging renewable energy projects involving solar and wind, and the jobs lost, dwarfs the benefits it is expected to generate in the future. 

The fact that people respond to a badly worded poll acknowledging that humans cause global warming, does not mean they agree that the “fight against carbon emissions is the good fight for the future of the world.” Quite to the contrary, many people oppose cap and trade and other energy related policies for a host of reasons unrelated to whether carbon dioxide is an important heat-trapping gas.  It is not!  Over most of the surface of the Earth, water is far more consequential to the transfer of heat in the atmosphere and between the oceans and the atmosphere.  Furthermore, it is incorrect to refer to carbon dioxide as carbon emissions or carbon pollution.  No carbon is emitted and carbon dioxide is a vital component of the atmosphere, necessary for life.  Despite the opinions of the Supreme Court and the EPA, it is not a pollutant.

It’s not a problem just in the United States, the world’s second largest carbon polluter, after China.

Global emissions rose 2.3 percent last year, driven largely by a 4.2 percent increase in China, the biggest emitter, and a 5.1 percent jump in India, the third-largest one, according to the tracking initiative known as the Global Carbon Project.

Ironically, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to curb global warming, federal data shows U.S. emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide have risen 6 percent in the last two years. 

Carbon dioxide is a natural and vital component of the atmosphere and of the oceans.  Natural sources of carbon dioxide far exceed anthropogenic sources (780 GT/year vs. 5 GT/year).  Furthermore, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are inconsequential in ambient air.

For example, consider a random sample of air that contains 10,000 molecules. Most of these molecules are nitrogen (7,800) and oxygen (2,100).  About 96 of the 10,000 would be water molecules, if the relative humidity was 50 percent and the temperature was 298 K (77 oF which is a very nice day in the fall in Sebring, Florida.)  Of the 10,000 in the sample, only 4 would be carbon dioxide molecules.  If the concentration of carbon dioxide increased by 2.3 percent, there would still only be 4 molecules.  If the concentration of carbon dioxide increased by 25 percent, there would still only be 4 molecules in the sample.  Furthermore, water absorbs IR at many wavelengths while carbon dioxide, being a linear symmetrical molecule, does not absorb IR very well and only at a few wavelengths not absorbed by water.  Water absorbs most of the IR, and adding more carbon dioxide will make very little difference.  Carbon dioxide is only important as a heat trapping gas in cold and dry environments, such as deserts and over ice caps where not much heat is radiated anyway.

Synthetic_atmosphere_absorption_spectrumU.S. emissions over the past decade reflect the economy more than any political or regulatory efforts of the government. During difficult economic times, people use less energy.

While the United States can seize the day and pledge to reduce greenhouse emissions, global warming is a global problem that requires everyone to be on board – together.

Unfortunately, it is easier said than done, especially in developing countries that cannot shoulder the economic cost of converting to clean power, when millions of their citizens live below in poverty.

That’s why we support The Green Climate Fund, an initiative where developed countries pledge funds to help poorer countries convert to clean power. 

Global warming is not necessarily a problem of global or local concern.  By one report based upon data from NASA satellites, there has been no significant global warming in 25 years.  Furthermore, the author assumes that global warming would be bad, a risky assumptions based upon human experience with the alternative, global cooling.

Clean power is a terrific concept, but it is economically not feasible at this time. Scientists have determined that even if all the countries stopped burning hydrocarbon fuels immediately, it would have a negligible and perhaps immeasurable impact on global temperature for the foreseeable future.  The economic impact on the world would be catastrophic.

We do not know with any certainty how global climate might change naturally. It’s even possible that our emissions of carbon dioxide are protecting us from a serious global cooling episode, although I doubt that.  The rate of warming during the 1970’s through the 1990’s was no different than the warming that occurred between 1910 and 1940, or in the late 1800’s.  The planet has been coming out of the coldest period of the current interglacial known as the Little Ice Age from around 1350 to 1850.  This followed the Medieval Warm Period which records indicated was significantly warmer than the present.  Data from Greenland ice cores show that the last 300 years have been the coldest since the last glacial ended about 12 thousand years ago.Temperature Study with PDO - 1870 to 2010

Transferring wealth to poor countries is certainly necessary and something we’ve done for a long time.  Doing it to compensate for economic losses from “combating climate change” would be pure folly.

We also need a global initiative to come up with ways to generate sustainable energy that actually work. Remember Solyndra, the U.S. solar energy start-up that went bust? Our experience with solar energy initiatives appears to have been spotty – at least in the public’s mind.

Perhaps we can look toward China, which is cutting its dependence on coal, oil and natural gas and replacing it with solar at a ‘breakneck pace,’ some media reports say, largely because it has no choice – its smog-filled cities are on the verge of being environmental catastrophes.

This all goes to show that countries can be prodded to act if they have to. Global warming, however, is a global problem and the most cost-effective way to attack this is if we all work together, spreading out the risks and the costs.

The mood after the recent United Nations Climate Summit, a lead-up to global negotiations that will take place in Peru, in December, and will culminate a year later in Paris, was upbeat. But only time will tell how much of the optimism generates real action and true political will.

A national energy policy is important, but not for reasons related to climate change or global warming. We need abundant and reliable energy to drive our economy–immune to international geopolitical pressures.  We need energy resources that do not pollute or harm the environment and are sustainable.

International efforts are fine as long as they are not contrary to the interest of our nation. The United Nations has not been very helpful in forging meaningful agreements on energy.  The efforts of the UNIPCC (United Nations International Panel on Climate Change) set back climate science at least 25 years.

There, I feel much better now!

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Media, Musings, Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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