Monday, May 22, 2023

American Geophysical Union, Heal Thyself


The American Geophysical Union (AGU), founded in 1919, is possibly the world's premier association of earth scientists, and numbers among its members many leading climate experts.  I had the privilege of attending its annual Fall Meeting last December, held in Chicago, and I have never seen such a large concentration of scientific expertise in one place before. 


The AGU publishes a science-newsmagazine called EOS, which summarizes technical and political developments of interest to the 65,000 or so members of the organization.  I mention "political" because of the many scholarly publications I receive, EOS seems to be one of the most "woke." 


A good case in point is the article in the May 2023 issue of EOS with the title "The Mental Toll of Climate Change."  A notice at the head of the article reads, "Content Warning:  This article discusses suicide and potential risk factors of suicide."  The author Katherine Kornei, a science writer, interviewed mental-health providers and an "environmental psychologist" to explore the stresses brought on by both acute weather events (such as floods, tornadoes, and wildfires) and chronic issues (such as droughts and heat waves).  And all these things are directly linked by the author to climate change.  The few hard-science citations in the article referred to reports and papers that reinforce the notion that basically, anything that happens weather-wise that we don't like is due to climate change.


Lest you think that an exaggeration, consider the first such citation.  "In July 2018, an unprecedented heat wave in Japan killed more than a thousand people; researchers later showed that the event could not have happened without climate change."  This is a bold assertion, so I looked up the paper in question.  It was authored by several meteorological researchers in Japan, who used statistical distributions based on a climate model which they admit (in another paper, which I had to track down) ignores atmosphere-ocean interactions and is useful only for modeling periods of up to a few years. 


But to a science writer, their paper title ("The July 2018 High Temperature Event in Japan Could Not Have Happened without Human-Induced Global Warming") was too tempting to resist.  Here are a bunch of credentialed scientists saying that this deadly heat wave was the direct result of human activity.  Only when one digs down into the details, as I did, does one find that the model they use leaves out essential features.  Pretending the atmosphere doesn't interact with the ocean may simplify a model, but it ignores well-known phenomena that can completely transform a model's behavior.  And as Steven Koonin pointed out in a book I mentioned recently (Unsettled:  What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters), to say anything meaningful about climate means that you need to take at least 30-year averages of data.  A program that can only look at five years' worth of data is useless for predicting climate events,  although I'm sure it has enough free parameters to allow the researchers to obtain the results they wanted, namely, that the heat wave couldn't have happened without climate change.


The rest of Kornei's mental-health piece describes how "angry, baffled, and horrified" many people are when they hear that (a) climate change is soon going to bring civilization to a horrible end as we bake, freeze, drown, and/or blow away, and (b) there's nothing we can do about it, or if we do we'll have to go back to subsistence farming with mules and give up electricity and driving. 


Well, if I really believed both of those statements, I'd be angry, baffled, and horrified too.  Unfortunately, as Koonin points out in his book, climate scientists have joined forces with government leaders, commercial interests, and science journalists to paint this dismal picture, which Koonin, as an insider, says is highly distorted, to say the least.


Tackling the worst problem first, there is no logical way that any statistical model, even a good one (which the Japanese model is not) can "prove" a given weather event would not have happened without global warming.  The only way you can do that is to have two identical Earths going exactly the same way till about 1800 A. D. and then let one exploit fossil fuels and keep the other one from doing so, and see what differences arise in the weather patterns.  This experiment is impossible to do, and while essentially perfect climate and weather models could simulate such a thing, we are probably decades away from having such models, if indeed they can ever be made. 


This leads to the second and more serious problem, which is that experts have irresponsibly given in to the temptation to go with the politically-favorable climate-catastrophe narrative in flagrant violation of the principle of not venturing beyond your data.  The Japanese report is a case in point, but there are hundreds of similar publications from all over the world that join the doom-crying chorus.


The members of the AGU who have encouraged this sort of thing bear the most responsibility for average citizens who are depressed because of climate change.  Causing the problem, and then hiring a science writer to write about the problem, is the height of something—hypocrisy, irony, stupidity, take your choice. 


The AGU should first clean up its own act by not exaggerating and fabricating claims of certain disaster that awaits us unless we voluntarily throw ourselves back to the Stone Age by giving up industrialized energy use.  If as much effort was expended on adapting and mitigating whatever climate-change effects come our way, as there is now on showing how bad it's going to be and developing punitive policies that thwart human flourishing, we'd be a lot better off. 


And the AGU wouldn't have to run articles on how depressed people are about the climate-change crisis that the AGU has played a large role in creating.


Sources:  The article by Katherine Kornei "The Mental Toll of Climate Change" appears on pp. 28-33 of the May 2023 issue of EOS.  The two papers I referred to as asserting the connection between climate change and the Japanese heat wave are Imada et al., SOLA, 15A, 8-12 (2019), and Shiogama et al., SOLA, 12, 225-231 (2016).

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