Climate Trolls


A couple of days ago a blogger I follow posted an interesting piece about the deep divide between the academy and regular people. This is a topic I'm very interested in, so I read and responded to the post. The post led back to WUWT, which claims to be the world's most-viewed site dealing with the issue of climate change.

WUWT is a "climate skeptic" website. According to the information I was able to glean from its pages, the people who comment on posts have a range of opinions. Their points of view range from mild (some of the science supporting climate change has been misused or inaccurately portrayed in the media) to a more alarmist position ("climategate" demonstrates a widespread corruption of science), to outright paranoia (global warming is all a lie promulgated to make billions of dollars available to government agencies and their grant-seeking lapdogs). But in any case, the post of the day carried a headline "
97 articles refuting the '97% consensus' on Global Warming." I think there actually is a consensus among scientists that people have caused some climate change and that it's a potentially very serious problem. And when I looked at the articles listed, they did not seem to be refuting the science. Only three were journal articles, the majority were blog posts (many from WUWT itself) and news articles. So I commented on the thread.

Within minutes I was denounced as a troll. Other commenters (the site's regulars, it turns out) told me I must be new to the issue, and that I was deflecting the conversation from its real thrust (that the 2013 "97%" article by Cook was flawed) to a wider, irrelevant issue of whether there is or isn't a consensus -- in spite of the fact that the headline, many of the cited articles, and the other comments all strongly implied that the flaws with that particular article were being taken as proof there was no consensus. I defended my points, and the tone of the conversation went downhill quickly. I was called a religious fanatic, my comments were called pollution, I was naïve or a liar, and a couple of people who couldn't come up with any type of rational argument resorted to making fun of my name. Really! Not since middle school has anyone gone there.

A couple of people came to my defense, and a couple of people on the other side of the issue said they regretted the way the thread had devolved into name-calling. The site is apparently very loosely moderated -- only one comment was blocked, and it was directed at me, so given what was allowed to pass I'm glad I didn't get to see what was deemed too extreme! One person basically said (by way of excuse) if you think it's bad here, go look at a pro-climate change site.

I thought that was a lame excuse, but possibly a valid point. So I went and looked at the comment thread of a post I had clipped to OneNote from a pro-climate change site called RealClimate. The post was a
debunking of a graphic used by the WUWT website, so I thought it might be a good one to check. What I found was a pretty civil scientific discussion. So, score one for the scientists.

The difference between the threads may have been related to the qualifications of the commenters. People with legitimate points to make are often less likely to resort to verbal violence. On the other hand, the RealClimate discussion seemed much more actively moderated. That may be a major factor. Also, everybody on the RealClimate thread seemed to be using their real names, which I think goes a long way toward discouraging bad behavior.

I'm not sure I've concluded once and for all that climate change skeptics (they don't like being called deniers, although they have no problem calling their opponents alarmists and "warmunists") can't be reasoned with. They weren't
all jerks. I think it's completely fair to say that WUWT's discussion threads are dominated by nut jobs, and that the site's design and moderation policies encourage this -- possibly as a means of achieving that high rate of site traffic. It's probably a good idea to try to draw "undecideds" into a new forum, however, than to bother talking to "skeptics" on their own turf.

What's the Point of Climate Change Denial?

The AGW (anthropogenic global warming) opponents at WUWT posted a review of an article on RealClimate this morning. The gist of the post is that the author (who by the tone of comments is well-known and well-hated) was admitting that "modeled absolute global surface temperatures" are bogus. A closer reading of the article, I think, suggests that the modelers are aware of the shortcomings of models but still believe them to be relevant and useful in some situations. And that they're trying to refine the models and trying not to use them inappropriately.

I commented on a quoted passage where the RealClimate author says “no particular absolute global temperature provides a risk to society, it is the change in temperature compared to what we’ve been used to that matters.” This seems like common sense, if a global surface temperature number is an average. It is easy to imagine that plus 5C, for example, might not be as devastating to human society in the Sahara as it would be on the Himalayan glaciers.


Responding to my comment, a "Jeff Alberts" said "Anyone who expects 'the temperature we’ve been used to' to never change, has no common sense. The question is, are changes we’re seeing due primarily, or even measurably, to human industrial activity. We simply don’t know. CO2 went up, but temps went up and down, and even remained static in many places. Therefore we have no evidence of any even minor impact due to CO2. We have no evidence as to whether today’s temps are unprecedented in any way, none."
But I wonder if that
really is the question? If mountain glacier systems at the headwaters of many of the world's most important watersheds are melting at an alarming rate, does it matter whether the cause is AGW or some natural process? Won't the billions of people depending on that water be equally effected either way? And if the natural processes of climate are as variable as AGW skeptics claim (to be the cause of all the observed changes), is there any reason to believe they'll bounce back right away and remain in a range that's comfortable for us?

If you were a nation depending on glacier-fed rivers, wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible not to consider the possible continuing reduction of glaciers and the concurrent possible challenge to your national water supply? Would you care whether the cause was AGW or nature? Yes, you would, because if it's AGW, there may be ways to mitigate or reverse the effects - not to mention the potential liability involved. But would you wait until the jury was "in" and nobody was arguing on the cause before starting to think about what to do? I hope not!

Does all this suggest that that one of the goals of AGW skeptics is muddying the water in order to prevent action? I don't know. My free-market friend Bob recently said the skeptics are frustrated because so much money as been poured into this -- in his opinion, down a drain. He mentioned "
$165 billion so far (CBO report)." The number I was able to find for 2014 was $21.4 billion, which is definitely a lot of money. But in perspective, the total federal budget is about $3.9 trillion, so we're talking about a half a percent. And that spending is spread across dozens of government agencies including Defense (the DOD believes climate change is a strategic concern). The DOD budget is about $457 million, out of a total package of over $600 billion. So I don't think studying the climate is bankrupting America.

Challenging American History

Although it's not my main goal for this semester's Environmental History class, one of the important side goals (and I admit, an ongoing interest of mine) is correcting bad history that has been taught for so long that it's hardly ever questioned. So once I completed my story of pre-Columbian America for my first lecture, I compared it to the way some highly-regarded recent US History textbooks have covered the topic.

In many older American History textbooks, of course, the pre-Columbian story wasn’t told at all. American history begins in 1492. While some of the archaeological information available today was unknown to these earlier historians, they were often just not particularly interested in Indians or prehistory. It was remote, unknowable, and irrelevant. Lately this has changed a bit, and in the interests of inclusivity—or at least political correctness—contemporary textbooks usually say something about the people who were here before the Europeans. Here's what a sample of recent textbooks had to say about early America:

Proudly announcing added coverage of pre-Columbian America in the 1987 edition of his textbook,
American History, Richard N. Current devoted four pages to his description of America before Columbus. Current said Native Americans shared a common Asian ancestry that enabled Europeans to think of them all as a single race, although he acknowledged the fact that “natives had no reason to consider themselves part of one race or culture.” He explained how colonial whites believed Indian men were lazy because the women always seemed to be doing all the work. Current described the introduction of old world crops like sugar and bananas that “Indian tribes in time learned to cultivate,” but he failed to mention that they had independently developed the staple crops they already grew when Europeans arrived, such as maize, potatoes and cassava. Current commented that Indian farming “would often seem crude to Europeans” without explaining that most of the time the Europeans’ disdain for native practices arose from their profound ignorance of the environment and climate of the new world.

In his extremely popular and well-received 2011 textbook
Experience History, James West Davidson gives just three paragraphs to the arrival of humans in the Americas. He calls the people who came “nomads,” highlighting the term in a rare use of bold-face type. “Nomads” is a loaded concept that has been used regularly in American history to suggest that Indians never had the same type of relationship with their territories that whites do, and thus no claim of “ownership” of their land.

Describing pre-Columbian culture,
Experience History mentions that “pioneers in Mesoamerica began domesticating squash 10,000 years ago.” But in spite of this, the text stresses the idea that most Indians were simple hunter-gatherers who “continued to subsist largely on animals, fish, and nuts, all of which were abundant enough to meet their needs and even to expand their numbers.” Davidson characterizes the Adena and Hopewell cultures as “peoples who did not farm,” and explains that Indians didn’t farm in the Pacific Northwest because “Agriculture was unnecessary in such a bountiful place.”

Clearly Hopewell or Mississippian cities containing tens or hundreds of thousands of people needed more reliable sources of food than what hunters carried back from the woods. So what’s the point of Davidson’s portrayal of Indians as primitive hunter-gatherers? Davidson does mention the fact that the modern world’s most important food crop, maize, was developed by Indians – but this is how he explains it:

Modern-day species of corn, for example, probably derive from a Mesoamerican grass known as teosinte. It seems that ancient peoples gathered teosinte to collect its small grains. By selecting the grains that best suited them and bringing them back to their settlements, and by returning the grains to the soil through spillage or waste disposal, they unintentionally began the process of domestic cultivation.

What’s wrong with this description? First, there’s
no doubt that corn comes from teosinte, since they share the same genome. Second, Davidson’s suggestion that the multi-generational process that changed a self-seeding grass into a hybrid (maize) that needs humans to plant it was an accident is not only ridiculous, but it obscures the fact that these ancient people knew what they were doing and had the long-term cultural orientation to do it. Davidson’s portrayal does not reflect the fact that archaeologists and historians agree this process probably took hundreds of human generations from start to finish (thousands of generations for the plants), and incidentally, was probably done by women.

Centeotl, Aztec Maize God

In spite of admitting that “plants domesticated by indigenous Americans account for three-fifths of the world’s crops” today, Davidson manages to make it seem like that’s no big deal, and almost an accident. Davidson’s discussion of ancient American farming ends with a chart of the “Place and Timing of Pioneering Plant and Animal Domestications.” Southwest Asia tops the list, with the development of Wheat, Peas, Olives, Sheep and Goats dated to 8500 BCE. Next comes China, with Rice, Millet, Pigs and Silkworms “By 7500 BCE.” New Guinea and the African Sahel are next, followed finally by Mesoamerica and the Andes & Amazonia, which produced Corn, Beans, Squash, Potatoes, Manioc, Turkey, Llamas, and Guinea Pigs “By 3500 BCE.” This is just flatly wrong. Maize, potatoes, and cassava,
three of the top five staple crops in the world today, were all developed in the Americas beginning over 9,000 years ago. Eastern North America brings up the chart’s rear, producing only Sunflowers and Goosefoot by 2500 BCE. Never heard of goosefoot? Maybe you’ve heard it called grain Amaranth, its scientific name and the way it’s known by farmers worldwide who raise it for its high levels of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. So why call it goosefoot, unless your goal is to make it seem trivial and silly?

Davidson concludes his coverage of pre-Columbian Indians by observing that “a few centuries before European contact…the continent’s most impressive civilizations collapsed.” Davidson says the “sudden” and “mysterious” disappearance of cultures like the Mayan, Olmec, Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Cahokian was due to “a complex and still poorly understood combination of ecological and social factors.” In other words, through some combination of ecological mismanagement and social failure, Indians “went into eclipse by the twelfth century…[and] had faded by the fourteenth,” making room for whites from Europe. It almost seems like Cotton Mather’s famous explanation of how Providence had cleared the woods “of those pernicious creatures, making room for better growth.”