Colson’s latest snow job

Boy, Chuck Colson has really been on a roll lately, hasn’t he? This time he’s denying global warming.

The people most inconvenienced by the blizzards weren’t the residents of this region, or the senators-it was the proponents of man-made global warming. Scientists and activists insisted that people on this side of the Atlantic ignore the evidence in their driveways and, instead, trust their computer models.

According to Colson, you can disprove global warming just by pointing out that it’s still snowing.

10 years ago, they told us that, on account of the same global warming, “snow is starting to disappear from our lives.” We were told that, because of all that nasty CO2, British children “just aren’t going to know what snow is.”

Ten years later, they most certainly do. Not only British children, but children in every state except Hawaii. All of Britain, much of the rest of Europe, and the United States have experienced snowfalls this winter. The data suggests, in fact, that “snow is coming earlier and heavier than it used to.”

Ah yes, “they” told us. Nice to have an unimpeachable source, isn’t it?

Well, first things first: what is global warming? Are we talking about the average temperature going so high that in a mere 10 years snow would stop falling in England entirely? No. Climatologists are concerned about changes in average global temperatures of only a few degrees over many years, not the tens of degrees it would take to prevent frozen precipitation from occurring during England’s winters.

Granted, the original quote seems to have been made by a Dr. David Viner of the University of East Anglia. Colson chose not to cite the article he’s quoting from (perhaps to avoid having people find out that Dr. Viner also predicted occasional heavy snows that “will probably cause chaos” in the next decade or so?), but he is probably right to suggest that such dire predictions are unlikely in the short term. Maybe Dr. Viner was exaggerating or misquoted, but it seems a bit much to claim that global warming will make the snow stop falling any time soon.

But consider what happens if the average global temperature rises only a few degrees, say 3°F. Around where I live that might mean a winter where the temperature hovered around 24°F instead of 21°F (i.e. -4°C instead of -6°C for you metric folks). Too warm to snow? Of course not. But increased warmth can have other consequences…

What Colson is forgetting is that we don’t all have the same seasons at the same time. It’s winter in the northern hemisphere right now, but it’s summer for the other half of the planet. And in the warmer parts of the planet, weather is being driven by a number of factors, including one we call “evaporation.”

Evaporation is what puts water into the atmosphere so that it can return to the surface again as rain or snow. Warmer global temperatures mean increased evaporation, which means more moisture in the atmosphere, which means greater precipitation. If Colson had been watching his weather maps, he might have noticed that these unusually heavy snowfalls did not blow down on the east coast from the frigid reaches of northern Canada. They blew up from warmer regions around the Gulf of Mexico.

Thus, it’s not climatologists who are ignoring the evidence in their driveways, it’s Colson. He even admits it, albeit indirectly and with exaggerated incredulity.

Not only did they tell us that this winter’s weather didn’t disprove their global warming data, they told us that the record snows were caused by global warming. Really!

Um, yes, Chuck, really. As amazing as it may sound to you, people whose experience and expertise lie in areas of science that you don’t understand might just know more about what they’re saying than you on the topic of climatology. One snowstorm doesn’t prove global warming of course, but it’s hardly the refutation of science that Colson makes it out to be!

But Colson’s not stopping there, not by a long shot.

If all of the white stuff hasn’t left you doubting those computer models, maybe Phil Jones can help you. That would be ironic since, until recently, Jones was the director of the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s East Anglia University. He was the keeper of the data upon which the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based its predictions-data that has been, to put it mildly, called into question.

In an interview with the BBC, Jones acknowledged that there has been no significant warming since 1995. Let me repeat that. One of the world’s leading global warming advocates says there has been no significant warming since 1995. Fifteen years.

That sounds like a pretty damning admission if true. But notice that Colson once again omitted the citation that would let us track down the source of his quote. Could it be that he doesn’t want his readers to find out what Jones really said?

B – Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

Notice, the reason Dr. Jones is careful to say that there’s no “statistically significant” warming in the past 15 years is not because he failed to find a warming trend, but because in climatology a 15 year time span is too short. The temperature has been rising at a rate of about a tenth of a degree per decade, but in the interests of accuracy, he’s insisting that we ought to base our conclusions on trends measured over a longer period of time—trends which do show global warming.

That’s rather a different perspective than the spin Colson is trying to put on it, isn’t it? But he’s still not done yet. Here’s Colson’s next observation, based on Jones’ interview:

He also indicated that there is nothing exceptional about the warming the occurred between 1979 and 1995.

Compare this with what Jones actually said:

As for the two periods 1910-40 and 1975-1998 the warming rates are not statistically significantly different (see numbers below).I have also included the trend over the period 1975 to 2009, which has a very similar trend to the period 1975-1998.

So, in answer to the question, the warming rates for all 4 periods are similar and not statistically significantly different from each other.

Here are the trends and significances for each period:

Period Length Trend
(Degrees C per decade)
1860-1880 21 0.163 Yes
1910-1940 31 0.15 Yes
1975-1998 24 0.166 Yes
1975-2009 35 0.161 Yes

So what Jones originally said was that there are four sizable time periods during which significant warming can be documented and that these trends are not significantly different from each other. Colson tries to make it sound like Jones is saying that there wasn’t any unusual warming between 1979 and 1998, but that’s not what Jones is saying at all.

One caveat: I’m assuming that Colson was making his claim in connection with the above quote from the original interview, though the dates don’t quite match. But perhaps he was referring to this question instead:

D – Do you agree that natural influences could have contributed significantly to the global warming observed from 1975-1998, and, if so, please could you specify each natural influence and express its radiative forcing over the period in Watts per square metre.

This area is slightly outside my area of expertise. When considering changes over this period we need to consider all possible factors (so human and natural influences as well as natural internal variability of the climate system). Natural influences (from volcanoes and the Sun) over this period could have contributed to the change over this period. Volcanic influences from the two large eruptions (El Chichon in 1982 and Pinatubo in 1991) would exert a negative influence. Solar influence was about flat over this period. Combining only these two natural influences, therefore, we might have expected some cooling over this period.

This, however, isn’t even remotely like the what Colson claims Jones is saying. Jones is saying that, if manmade causes were not contributing to global warming, we ought to have expected a cooling trend between 1975 and 1998, due to the shading effect of volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere from two major volcanic eruptions. That cooling did not happen. Instead we observed a net increase in average global temperature between 1975 and 2009, per the chart above. So what the hell is Colson talking about?

Colson does do something I’ve never heard a denialist do before. Or at least, he tries to. The one thing I’ve never understood about all this global warming denialism is why all these professional climatologists and researchers would allegedly lie about it. Outside of cartoon villains, people don’t just spontaneously do evil things that involve large amounts of time and effort for no tangible reward. So what’s supposed to be motivating the scientists? Here’s Colson’s slanderous guess:

Why? It’s a matter of worldview.

Activists and scientists have too much invested in human-caused global warming. For activists, it’s the threat by which they can create their version of a better world, and scientists have staked their careers and reputations on the accuracy of those computer models.

Um, right. Only the thing is, Chuck, that there are lots of eager young grad students (let alone all the know-it-all denialists) who would just love to kick-start their scientific careers by coming up with an even more accurate model. If the old scientists were, you know, lying about global warming, that would make it easier for someone to come up with a model that worked better. Almost any car will go faster than one that won’t even start.

Real scientists are always checking each other’s work, and engaging in vigorous, (mostly) friendly competition. Anybody who resorts to fudging his or her results in front of the experts is just setting themselves up for failure. If you’re staking your career and reputation on the accuracy of your computer model, the last thing you want to do is get yourself entrenched in defending an obsolete and inadequate model!

Colson isn’t going to understand this, of course. Defending obsolete and inadequate models is what Christian apologetics is all about, so naturally he assumes that scientists must be doing the same thing. He needs a “worldview” to insulate him from facts that might otherwise lead him to reassess his conclusions, so in his mind that’s what scientists must be doing too.

The result is that conservative Christians like Colson are among the foremost of those who boldly and ignorantly declare that the experts must be wrong and that we must not interfere in the profits of the wealthy merely to prevent environmental disaster. Like Bush ignoring repeated warnings about Saddam’s lack of WMD’s, they proudly and smugly turn their backs on the advice of those who know more about it than they do. Anything else would be a failure to walk by faith. Or something.


Now if you’ll excuse me, I still need to go do some more shoveling.

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Posted in Current Events, Politics, Science, Society. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Colson’s latest snow job”

  1. Tacroy Says:

    The worst part of it is that the reporter basically cornered Jones into giving that perfectly quote-mineable statement that “there’s been no statistically significant increase in the mean temperature anomaly since 1995”, and he fell for it because he answered the question completely and honestly.

    It’s true, the warming trend we’ve experienced since 1995 is not statistically significant.

    On the other hand, the warming trend we’ve experienced since 1994 is statistically significant.

    If Jones had just pointed that out, it would have been much harder for the denialists to pounce on.

  2. Colin Says:

    Nice work. I interpret this as evidence that Colson fails Statistics 101 forever.

  3. Chigliakus Says:

    Ever heard the saying “It’s too cold to snow”? Statistically warmer winters have more snowfall than colder winters.

  4. Josh Says:

    Nice dissection of Colson’s awful piece. Great that this comes from a Christian web site. It is just crazy that evangelicalism would wed itself to right wing politics to the extent that having a skeptical view of global warming would almost seem part and parcel of the religion.