Monthly Archives: June 2015


Gemini is what got me into space, science, all of it. Amy Shira Teitel can bring you up to speed.

Gemini worked out almost everything that had to be worked out to go to the moon. Not the part with the big fire cracker under the tin can to take off from the moon, but most of the rest of it.

Science Communication Gone Rong!

And, just for fun, right after I tweeted this post, I got this:

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 2.59.41 PM

The New Andrew Revkin Fan UPDATED

See below for update.

Andrew Revkin has a new kind of fan. These are fans that agree with much of what Revkin says, or at least feel comfortable in his community of commenters. These fans feel their views are substantiated by what they read in Revkin’s New York Times column, Dot Earth. They seem to be Libertarian, anti-environment, anti-science, pro-fossil fuel, and frankly, anti-green. Not just one or two of Andrew Revkin’s fans, but a bunch — with numbers possibly growing — are of this mind, and this is very disturbing. If we had the technology to transport these fans back in time and put them in a small room with Andy Revkin back in the days of the Bush administration, the room would melt down. They would not be his fans, and he would be shocked to be told that some day they will be.

Revkin still has his old fans, people who are actively and intentionally green, concerned about the environment, not willing to accept a world run by fossil fuel or other major environment-harming industrial interests. These are often activists, people who take seriously their individual responsibly to be good to the only planet we have, the Earth. And I’m sure there are many ways in which these more traditional Revkin-readers still fit with and relate to the folk singer and former New York Times journalist.

I’ve been noticing this for months. I speak with a green activist about climate change. The activist is very concerned about climate change due to human produced greenhouse gas pollution, can see the effects of it, worries about future generations that will be unspeakably harmed by it. Annoyed, the activist is, with deniers of climate change, deniers of the science, those who incorrectly say that even if it is real we can’t do anything about it, or should not, falsely claiming that curtailing fossil fuel use will be worse than using the Sun’s energy to fuel our lifestyle, or perniciously saying this simply can’t be done.

And right there in the middle of the conversation about how global warming is real, human caused, important, and fixable, and about how deniers of these things are truely some kind of bad guy, I’ll hear something about how Any Revkin is great. Writes great stuff. Says great stuff. And I’m sure that to a certain extent, taking a life long career into account, considering it all, this is true.

But then I look at Dot Earth, and I see two things. First is Andy Revkin’s tendency to occupy that space between serious concern about climate change and acceptance of consensus science on one hand, and questioning of the reality and importance of climate change, on the other. In other words, Andy likes to write, often, in the space between what deniers call “warmists” and what warmists call “deniers.”

There was a time, perhaps, one could argue, and many did, that there was a valid intersection between these space, an overlap, a place where an honest broker could be effective in shepherding those who might be antagonistic towards better solutions to our existential problems in a better direction. But that ship has sailed. There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem. Within climate science, scientists argue over the relative importance of Arctic Warming vs. Pacific surface warm anomalies in relation to quasi-resonant Rossby waves, about the complex dynamics of transient climate sensitivity vis-a-vis positive feedbacks, or about the order in which to load variables into climate models running on supercomputers. But nobody, really, in climate science is arguing about any of the things that are being discussed in that space between consensus science and denial.

Except Andy and a few other people, and many who call themselves green, because they are honestly and honorably green or at least want to be green, see Andy in that space and think, well, if he’s there, maybe I should be there.

As the gaping maw between good climate science on one hand and pro-fossil fuel activism on the other has grown, almost everybody has moved to one side or another, most moving towards the science unless they have some motive to be on the side that we now understand is clearly wrong. Most green people have moved to the side that prefers to save the Earth and has little interest in saving the Koch Brothers. And as this tectonic event, this rifting, in perspective has happened, Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog has stayed in the widening valley, initially I assume because it seemed like the right place to be, and eventually remained there for reasons I would feel uncomfortable guessing at.

And today, I took a look into that rift to see what was in there and what I saw was disturbing.

Tony Dokoupil of MSNBC produced some commentary about how Dot Earth has degraded to little more than Andy Revkin’s hobby blog. He makes a number of points you can agree with or not, and Andy, much to his credit — he could have ignored this but chose not to — addresses those points. I have opinions and observations I could express about Dokoupil’s commentary and about Revkin’s response, but that is neither here nor there. What I would prefer to focus on is the nature and character of the supportive commentary, a subset of the folks who jumped in to say Andy’s doing it right. The new fans.

Following is a sampling of comments on this most recent post which give a flavor for what I’m talking about. Much of what is repeated below is discredited by current science or misrepresents science. For the most part it isn’t even very skilled denialism. The denialism part is not what bothers me. Well, science denialism bothers me, but that is not what I’m talking about here. What concerns me is the apparent comfort level found among those who really want us to do nothing to address climate change with the middle ground, the honest broker. What might have once been a true middle ground is now a place where the anti-science troops hunker down and from which they snipe, like the various demilitarized zones of past meatspace wars throughout the 20th century. It is a place that should not be groomed for use in the national paper of record, and especially on a green blog.

Laird Wilcox Kansas City is comfortable at Dot Earth and appreciates Andy’s approach:

What may bother some global warmists is that Dot Earth actually opens issues up to comment in an honest way. For ideologues, and especially dogmatic AGW warmists, this is anathema — it’s giving the hated demonic “other” a voice and allowing him a voice to undermine the group consensus that drives dogmatic causes and crusades to greater and greater levels of intolerance of opposition.

To allow skeptics and others who see issues with global warmist dogma that require reconsideration of basic premises, additional testing of claims and declarations, reanalysis of date and perhaps honest and unsparing consideration of what it is that they really fear from open and vigorous debate in the public domain. Why is it necessary that “denialists” are driven from web pages, comments sections of journals and newspapers as well as warmist meetings and conventions? I don’t this this happens because everybody is assured they are full of c**p but rather that they have cogent arguments worth considering.

This tendency to reject the hated “other” with broad campaigns of marginalization, vilification, stigmatization, stereotyping and name-calling is allowing public awareness of what the AGW warmist movement harbors in its ranks – deeply insecure believers drawn to the apocalyptic catastrophizing their movement demands and a deeply dark paranoia toward all who question the dogma, writ and scripture that supports it.

It’s own intolerance and extremism should give it away in normal times.

Trusted Commenter Kip Hansen implies a link between the Dot Earth approach and a well known scientist turned (sadly) denialist:

Dr. Judith Curry, in her opening remarks at the ” Circling the square: universities, the media, citizens and politics.” conference in Nottingham, England, concluded with this:

“In conclusion, my concern is that the scientific community is extremely confused about the policy process and too many climate scientists are irresponsibly shooting from the hip as issue advocates. Apart from the damage that this is doing at the interface between science and policy, the neglect and perversion of uncertainty is doing irreparable damage to the science and to the public trust of scientists.”

I would support the same statement, with the subject being Environmental Journalists, transmogrified to: (this is a paraphrased quote, with substitutions):

“….my (Kip Hansen’s) concern is that the environmental journalist community is extremely confused about the policy process and too many environmental journalists are irresponsibly shooting from the hip as issue advocates. Apart from the damage that this is doing at the interface between journalism and policy, the neglect and perversion of uncertainty is doing irreparable damage to journalism and to the public trust of environmental journalists.”

When journalists no longer question the pronouncements of advocates — political or scientific — then they fail at their sacred trust.

Has Andrew Revkin become *that* kind of journalist here at Dot Earth? Is he “just another advocate”?

Kurt notes:

If I understand correctly, part of the criticism from “Climate Hawks” is that YOU don’t take a strong stand. (For the record, NOT my criticism; im Gegenteil: a good journalist, like a good scientist, should not let his ideology cloud facts or data!). Nevertheless, they probably wonder why you’re not fighting in the trenches like Joe Romm or Susan Goldenberg.

Keep your balance, your open mind and vor allem: keep playing music!

and, in support of Andy Revkin,

it was Revkin himself who posted the criticism on his own blog. Revkin doesn’t make the silly statement that Dokoupil lacks a scientific background; indeed, none of Dokoupils’ arguments are remotely scientific – they are about Revkin’s attention being split between competing interests, his blog style, his interaction with commenters and hosted writers, and regaining his former gravitas: “… quite simply one of the very best reporters to ever push a green noun against a green verb in newsprint.”

Robert disagreed, but wmar has a response to that:

You forgot the most important part of the list:

The Data –

for that is what is primarily on Kip and Kurt’s ‘side’. When Andy notes this it is indeed refreshing and valuable.

Adrian O has a nice example of denial in response to Portia‘s quip “Man walks into a bar in the Kirabati Islands.
Oh. Wait

precisely mapped how Tarawa, the main atoll and the capital of Kiribati, has GROWN CONSIDERABLY in surface since 1940.
The study and a dozen others are quoted by the IPCC which mentions that out of ALL Pacific small islands measured, a large majority, 86%, are GROWING IN SURFACE or are stable.

IPCC concludes, in section 29.3.1. OBSERVED impacts on Island Coasts (2014)
Sea-level rise did not appear to be the primary control on
shoreline processes on these islands

So now that you see in detail that when measured the islands are NOT sinking, you have two alternatives

1) You are relieved. You were worried that islands are sinking, but now you know that careful maps and the IPCC show that that is not the case.

2) (sadly much more likely) You feel ambushed by right wing deniers, and you know better than to look at measurements, even official: you always choose propaganda, and think that measured reality is Satan. You want Andy’s blog closed.

This can happen in two cases.
a) You are totally uninterested in those islands, but you NEED to feel desperate in order to feel good about yourself, or

b) You are totally uninterested in those islands, but you have considerable gain if you seed despair, e.g. you have green investments, you are a green CEO, etc.
Denver and Kirbati are submerged.
Why Denver?
Why Kiribati?

I’m going to include a comment by Robert to address some of the issues above lest I be repeating a bad message:

i see we’re still not reading the material, AO. well, I’m here to help, though I do think that the masters of science generally do try and do their homework before spouting off.

1. Both the IPCC appendix and the unpublished study you cited agree on two things: a) sea levels generally continue to rise in the Pacific (and have risen approx. 200 mm. over the last 130 years).

2. The rises, together with other natural and “anthropogenic,” events, continue to change islands, reefs and atolls in ways that are not clearly understood.

3. Very generally speaking, Kiribati’s bigger islands have gained in area, while the smaller have lost area.

4. Some of this is wholly natural, in the sense that this sort of geography tends to move, shift, and change a fair amount.

5. However–and your authors are explicit about this–a large part of the reason that the larger islands have tended to grow is that more people live on them, and they’ve been building sea walls, retainers, dredges, etc. like crazy.

In brief, no, these islands don’t just sink. (Actually they don’t really sink at all; they get eroded away, the sea level rises, etc.) The processes involved are complex, just as they are with global warming.

However, the overall pattern is clear.

So read your own material, willya? And grow a sense of humor.

That there are denialist comments on Andy Revkin’s blog is not an issue at all. What he or his editors allow is entirely up to them. My position on blogging comments will be well known to my own readers. There can’t be hard and fast rules. It is entirely appropriate to exclude any and all trolls and at the same time it is entirely appropriate to allow their discussions. There is no free speech issue here (anyone who feels excluded from a given outlet can go get their own outlet). The problem, to reiterate but it probably needs to be said a couple of times, is that Andy Revkin’s approach to many of the climate related issues is to give service to positions that are simply untenable and, very likely, damaging.

Andrew Revkin is not a climate science denialist. But he is occupying a space where, given the evolution of this issue in recent years, few who understand the severity of the problem occupy any more, for good reason. So, as long as people are lining up to advise Andrew Revkin as to what he should do, I’ll add this. Take one of your feet off the dock or the boat, before you fall in!

Update Added June 25

In a response to my post, regarding my assertion that there is zero room for debate about the reality of climate change, Andy Revkin wrote, at Dot Earth:

“Zero room.” That’s scientific.

Yes, it is. There is zero room for debate when an issue has been pretty much settled. In science debate can come up anywhere, you never know, but for all practical purposes we do not debate if the Earth is hollow or solid or flat or round, or that germs cause many diseases, or that frogs reproduce as most other tetrapods do rather then spontaneously emerging from mud.

The Earth is warming. No room for debate there. Many factors affect global surface temperatures. Some are natural, some are human-caused. The sum of the natural effects does not produce the warming we see. The human effects have caused, over the last several decades, a certain amount of cooling (from aerosol pollutants) and a certain amount of warming (from greenhouse gas emissions and related positive feedbacks, and damage to Carbon sinks). So the warming trend is human caused. No room for debate there. Climate change is causing loss of life, damage to property, and threats to food production through drought and excessive rain. Sea levels can not possibly fail to rise over coming decades, wiping out coastal properties including human settlements, harbors, agricultural lands, etc. No room for debate on these effects. Killer heat waves have become more common and this will get much worse. No debate about that. Ocean acidification is happening and will get worse. This is not debated. There is some debate about how much we can adapt to some of these effects, but adaptation will be costly and there are limits. So, yes, there is some debate there. There is no debate that we need to keep the Carbon in the ground. There is some debate (but it is highly questionable) about the idea that we can get energy by releasing Carbon but at the same time use energy to un-release the Carbon. There are serious physical limitations to such an approach. There is a vibrant and real debate about which non-fossil-Carbon technologies we should use to produce energy, given the possible mix of technologies such as wind, PV solar, thermal solar, passive geothermal, tidal, hydro, and nuclear. That’s a real debate. There is real debate about pricing carbon or regulating energy production, about subsidies and incentives, etc.

So to repeat my original post, I said “… there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity.” Andy Revkin claimed that this is not true, that there is a debate. Until he said that I had not realized that Revkin was on the fence about the reality of climate change. I wrote “Andrew Revkin is not a climate science denialist,” but I have now been corrected. Apparently that is not true. This comes as an utter surprise to me.

And, in fact, I don’t believe it. I think his “that’s not scientific” argument was not well thought out, something of a knee-jerk reaction, in which you tell the person who seems to be disagreeing with you that they don’t know how to think rationally. (In fact, in his comments, he did that twice. Wrong both times.)

In the comments section (below) Andy wrote:

If you’d asked me about my comment policy and your concerns about my “fans” in that space I might have reminded you that comment contributors — as at most blogs — are a tiny subset of the overall readership. I find it puzzling that someone with scientific training would claim to detect significant trends in such a small and skewed sample (commenters tend to have lots of free time and strong opinions) and then use those “findings” to demean the work of someone whose second National Academy of Sciences Communication Award was for Dot Earth. It’s always imperfect. I don’t have enough time to vet all comments for factual content. Folks can feel free to dive into the conversations there or ignore them. They don’t even appear unless you click.

But I had written in my post “that there are denialist comments on Andy Revkin’s blog is not an issue at all. What he or his editors allow is entirely up to them. My position on blogging comments will be well known to my own readers. There can’t be hard and fast rules. It is entirely appropriate to exclude any and all trolls and at the same time it is entirely appropriate to allow their discussions.

I’m not talking about comments. As Andy and others have pointed out, denialist comments on Dot Earth get addressed by those who disagree. I often do the same thing on my blog.

The point I made in this (original) blog post is that Andy Revkin operates a forum that caters to a middle ground that has disappeared, and that feeding activity in this middle ground is counter-productive, demanding a cost we can’t afford to pay. That is my criticism. I further noted that this is important because of Andy’s cachet with the green community.

Susan Anderson (below) says:

Andy’s promotion of voices from the so-called middle has become a reliable indicator prompting people like me to, for example, look up the credentials and work of Martin Hoerling, Roger Pielke Jr., and a variety of others. I don’t remember if he promotes Lomborg.

Meanwhile, it is very sad, Andy is a fine writer, an excellent researcher, has a reputation deep and wide from his history (he turned around 2008), and is an attractive speaker who gets invited everywhere.

His less popular articles on local ecology and initiatives are more than fine, and it is sad that they are not given top billing by his audience, while the fight goes on … and on … and on … getting nowhere and encouraging apathy.

Well put, Susan.

Metzomagic (below) notes that Revkin brought some standard “middle of the road” questions to bear in his interview with Jeremy Shakun. Yes, he did, but if I was interviewing him I would have asked similar questions to give him an opportunity to address them, which he did. Indeed, Andy points out that the current change in surface temperatures is not so much as hockey stick but rather something much more serious and severe. (In thinking about an alternative to hockey stick to represent the shape of the time serious I keep coming back to various dentistry tools.) This makes me believe that Andy is is on board with the reality of and seriousness of climate change.

And that, really, is the problem as I see it. Andy has one foot on the dock, one foot on the boat, but he really wants to be on the dock. Questioning of the reality and importance of climate change, that boat won’t float. I think it is time for Any to just get himself fully and squarely on the dock.

Another update: This discussion continues with Andy Revkin’s new post: In Weighing Responses to Climate Change, Severity and Uncertainty Matter More than ‘Reality’

What Woman Should Be On The Ten Dollar US Bill?

The US Treasury Department has announced that the $10 bill will have a depiction of a woman, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote.

And now, apparently, everyone can vote on who that woman will be. Or, at least, make a suggestion.

The bill will be come on line in 2020.

You can learn more go HERE.

So, who do you think it should be?

May 2015 Global Surface Temperatures Break Record

NOAA has released the data for average global surface temperature for the month of May. The number is 0.87 degrees C (1.57 degrees F) above the 20th century average for their data set. This is the highest value seen for the month of May since 1880, which is the earliest year in the database. The previous record value for may was last year. This year’s May value is 0.08 degrees C (0.14 degrees F) higher than that.

According to NOAA:

<li>The May globally-averaged land surface temperature was 2.30°F (1.28°C) above the 20th century average. This tied with 2012 as the highest for May in the 1880–2015 record.</li>

<li>The May globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.30°F (0.72°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest for May in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set last year in 2014 by 0.13°F (0.07°C).</li>

This is the NOAA graph for May temperature anomaly values from 1880 to the present:


Here is a graph showing the surface temperature averaged over the 12 month periods ending in May (inclusively) for the entire data set:

Just for fun, I requested the same graph but with a trend line plotted for the time period sometimes referred to by climate science denialists as the “pause” period, which Wikipedia defines as 1998 – 2012. Notice that the trend for the “pause” (aka “FauxPause”) is still rising, and that it sits among data that are rising much faster.

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 10.15.08 AM

And, for the record, the following plot shows a trend line running from the publication of the famous Hockey Stick research by Mann, Bradley & Hughes to the present. This is the amount of surface warming that has happened since, more or less, the full-on birth of the climate science denialism industry.
Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 10.18.20 AM

The amount of warming in the US (where a majority of you’all live) is less than globally, because certain other regions have warmed much more (like the Arctic). But the warming still has an effect. Considering just heat, which for many is compensated for by potentially costly building cooling system, there is more heat and thus more demand for cooling. Heating and cooling engineers express this in terms of “cooling degree days.” This is essentially the number of degrees you have to cool a structure accumulated over days, making certain assumptions you can read about here.

So, how have cooling degree days changed in the US? Here’s the graph.

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 10.26.58 AM

If you live in certain parts of the country, this can be more extreme. The graphic at the top of the post is the change over time in cooling degree days in the American Southwest.

Skeptics Dare Heartland Institute to Take Up $25,000 Climate Challenge

This is a press release from the Center for Inquiry:

Skeptics Dare Heartland Institute to Take Up $25,000 Climate Challenge

A leading science advocacy group is throwing down the gauntlet to the Heartland Institute, a group that claims that global warming stopped in 1998, with a stark, simple challenge: If the 30-year average global land surface temperature goes up in 2015, setting a new record, the Heartland Institute must donate $25,000 to a science education nonprofit.

The challenge is presented by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a program of the Center for Inquiry, which held its “Reason for Change” conference last week in Buffalo, at the same time as Heartland’s own climate conference in Washington, DC. Heartland’s gathering opened with a keynote address by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who believes that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

Among the key findings of a 2013 report published by Heartland was that “The level of warming in the most recent 15 year period [since 1998] is not significantly different from zero” and “natural variability is responsible for late twentieth century warming and the cessation of warming since 1998.” While the report’s authors dismissed global warming forecasts published by mainstream scientists, they have avoided making any testable predictions of their own.

“If anyone really thinks that human-caused global warming is a hoax, and that the climate has stopped heating up, they must also believe that temperatures will now stabilize or drop,” said Mark Boslough, a physicist and CSI Fellow who devised the challenge. “Well, that’s a testable claim, so let’s test it.”

“It’s time for the Heartland Institute to put its money where its exhaust pipe is,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, home of CSI. “If Earth’s climate gets hotter, and keeps getting hotter, the naysayers at Heartland should publicly own up and pay up.”

If CSI’s prediction proves incorrect, and the 30-year average global temperature does not go up, CSI agrees to donate $25,000 to an educational nonprofit designated by the Heartland Institute.

CSI offered the following challenge:

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) hereby presents to the Heartland Institute a challenge as to whether the Earth’s climate will set a new record high temperature this year. The challenge will be settled using the NASA GISS mean global land surface temperatures for the conventional climate averaging period (defined by the World Meteorological Organization as 30 years) ending on December 31, 2015. If the global average temperature does not exceed the mean temperature for an equal period ending on the same date in any previous year for which complete data exist, CSI will donate $25,000 to a nonprofit to be designated by Heartland. Otherwise, Heartland will be asked to donate $25,000 to a science education nonprofit designated by CSI. It is CSI’s intent to repeat this challenge every year for the next 30 years.

“The theme of Heartland’s climate conference was ‘Fresh Start,'” observed Lindsay. “By predicting that a new record average temperature will be set every year for the next 30 years, we are in effect giving them 30 ‘fresh starts.’ I fear that what we’ll all find, however, is that as temperatures rise and the crisis deepens, each ‘fresh start’ will grow more and more stale.”

Last December, Fellows of CSI – which includes noted scientists, journalists, and other luminaries such as Bill Nye, Ann Druyan, Richard Dawkins, David Morrison, Sir Harold Kroto, Joe Nickell, Eugenie Scott, and Lawrence Krauss – circulated a widely noted open letter, drafted by Boslough, calling for the news media to refrain from referring to those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change as “skeptics.” Learn more at

How Warm Was May?

Human released greenhouse gas pollution continues to warm the surface of the planet. May was thought to be likely a very very warm month but it turns out to be merely very warm (only one “very”) according to data released this morning.

Shockingly, May turned out to be, in the NASA GISS data set, less warm than expected. (I mainly get my cues for what to expect from my friend and colleague John Abraham, who has written up the May NASA GISS results HERE.) At the same time the May data came out (earlier today) the data for April was adjusted by NASA (these adjustments happen all the time, they are always small). So, May 2015 and April 2015 had the same anomaly value in the NASA GISS database, 71. That’s in hundredths of a degree C, which itself doesn’t mean much. The base period is 1951-1980, which is a time period after which considerable surface warming had already occurred. The lowest value in the top 20 warmest months since 1880 is 74, the highest 93, so May 2015 is not quite on that list but still warm compared to the baseline, which averages zero (because it is the baseline).

Using a 12 month moving average based on these data, we’ve had record or near record 12 month periods since some time in 2014. The present 12 month moving average is the fourth highest in the adjusted, updated data, but with all five of the highest periods occurring since the beginning of this year. Here’s a graph of the 12 month moving average:


It is also interesting to look at the year to date. How warm is 2015 compared to previous years through May? Here’s a graph of that too:


Either way you look at it, surface temperatures are rising. What does that mean? This.

Higher resolution graphics are available here.

What is the Magna Carta?

It begins with a garden or two. Once you have gardens, you have a resource that has the two most important characteristics anything can have with respect to human society. First, you can eat it. Second, your enemies can destroy it.

If you have just a few gardens and get your food somewhere else, no big deal. But back in the old days, and by “old days” I mean any time during the last several thousand years everywhere and anywhere that is not urbanized and has gardens, most people relied on their gardens. These gardens were maintained by families or small villages or occasionally larger cooperatives.

Since a garden can be destroyed by enemies, you have to have a way of defending the garden and everything else. So weapons, militarism, bellicosity, and all that become normal. Note that you could have a herd of beasts instead of a garden and something like this would still happen. Note that if among your beasts there are those you can mount, usually horses, then your weapons, militarism, bellicosity, and all that are now much taller and can run faster, so if you are the only ones with that setup you win.

This all leads eventually to an arms race that usually no one wins for too long. This is the Hobbesian world of Warre, where people are nasty brutish and short, or at least, their lives are. Eventually almost everyone in the world is doing this. Societies that resemble Medieval Europe’s Feudalism emerge wherever there is enough of this going on, which is why a French Knight and a Japanese Shogun and a Shona Chief are all kinda alike.

Then, something like climate change happens. Not the globally devastating climate change we are seeing today, but something likely more regional and not as severe, but that affects everyone’s gardens in roughly the same way. Over here you have famine more often, but over there you have higher productivity many years in a row. Maybe there is a three year long drought that causes mass migration, or maybe there is a summer with out a winter.

Or, if not climate change, population density increases too much and the gardens are not enough. So less than ideal land is planted, or more rapid turnover of cropping in a swidden system becomes normal, or something like that happens. People need to cooperate more to irrigate more, or to store or move around food more. The garden’s of the village become something slightly different.

In any event, the pot is stirred, but when you stir the Stone Soup of society over a large area, you don’t increase homogeneity like when you put all the different stuff in a blender to make a smoothy. Some stuff gets all mixed together evenly but other stuff clumps up and gets all goopy. The goopy parts, the clumps, those are Lords, or Bishops, or Shogan, or Overlords, or something that is bigger than in the old days. Instead of the guy in charge (and it will almost always be a guy because men can’t have babies and thus feel the need to take over everybody else’s junk all the time) being older and stronger and better connected than the other guys in a village, the guy in charge is the one with an extra 100 horses or a better blade or a clever strategy like stabbing the other guys up close instead of throwing something at them.

This is how you get a king.

Once you have one king, you’ll get other kings, or emperors, or whatever, until finally the only way somebody can be a lord or a chief is to suck up the king and that means fighting for the king. And taxes, you get them too. The gardens are now owned by the king, or if not, might as well be. The most convenient way to make this work, by the way, is to make sure that most people are not valid individuals, that they don’t have a place at the table. Those would be the slaves, or peasants, or whatever you want to call them.

Now there are kings or the equivalent everywhere, and some of them are relatively good and some are relatively bad. Badness may be enhanced by technology. Perhaps you’ve invented beer or wine but store it in lead casks so the privilaged few with the drink are more likely to be brain damaged. Or perhaps there is a mind-damaging venereal disease kings tend to get. Or perhaps just bad upbringing. Sometimes you get boy kings because the system of inheritance of power requires it, even though that is totally dumb. Boy kings can go either way. They tend to totally burn out or, alternatively, take over the world, eventually.

And you have kings with more power or with less power.

Eventually, in a region, something the size of a European Country or so, you get both a bad bad man as a king and a king that is very powerful all wrapped up in the same person. Everything that is bad about this sort of self organized system is now worse than it has ever been in anyone’s memory. It isn’t just the peasants taking it in the neck, but also, people in the middle who have power, lords and chiefs and such. Straws fall among the elite breaking one camel’s back after another.

This is when the people in the middle, who have now lost their power, insist on an agreement with the King that happens to benefit the peasants and slaves of the very distant future. That would be the Magna Carta, in the case of England. Other parts of the world have had other outcomes.

The BBC on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, has produced a fun and interesting video exploring this history (though it starts later in time than the history I just outlined above.)

Atlantic Hurricanes 2015: Will Bill? UPDATED

There is an 80% chance that a disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico will become a tropical cyclone, a named storm, over the next couple of days. If that happens it will be called Bill.

Possible Bill is not well defined and is poorly organized. The disturbance is currently near the Yucatan, and will move northwestward over the next couple of days where it may pick up enough energy and be left sufficiently alone to crank up. The most likely coastal area to be affected are along Texas and parts of Louisiana. Even if the disturbance does not turn into a named storm, that region will likely experience significant rain. Here is an animated GIF of the satellite imagery of the area:


UPDATE 15 June 1:20 Central:

From the NWS:

An Air Force Reserve Unit Hurricane Hunter aircraft investigated
the broad area of low pressure in the Gulf of Mexico this morning,
and found that the circulation was too poorly defined to qualify the
system as a tropical cyclone. However, thunderstorm activity
continues to become better organized this afternoon, and the low
will very likely become a tropical storm this afternoon or this
evening as it continues moving to the northwest.

My understanding is that this storm is highly unlikely to develop hurricane level organization and strength, but it does seem very likely to be a tropical storm. But no matter what it does, it is going to dump a lot of rain on Texas. And then, it will sweep in land and end up in Pennsylvania or someplace, dropping piles of rain along the way.

Are Pigs Really Like People?

We hear this all the time. Pig physiology is like people physiology. Pigs and humans have the same immune system, same digestive system, get the same diseases. Pigs are smart like people are smart. Pigs are smarter than dogs. And so on. Ask a faunal expert in archaeology or a human paleoanatomist: Pig teeth are notoriously like human teeth, when fragmented. Chances are most of these alleged similarities are overstated, or are simply because we are all mammals. Some are because we happen to have similar diets (see below). None of these similarities occur because of a shared common ancestor or because we are related to pigs evolutionarily, though there are people who claim that humans are actually chimpanzee-pig hybrids. We aren’t.

But what if it is true that pigs and humans ended up being very similar in a lot of ways? What if many of the traits we attribute to our own species, but that are rare among non-human animals, are found in pigs? Well, before addressing that question, it is appropriate to find out if the underlying assumption has any merit at all. A new study by Lori Marino and Christina Colvin, “Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus,” published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, provides a starting point.

There are two things you need to know about this study. First, it is a review, looking at a large number of prior studies of pigs. It is not new research and it is not a critical meta-study of the type we usually see in health sciences. The various studies reviewed are not uniformly evaluated and there is no attempt at assessing the likelihood that any particular result is valid. That is not the intent of the study, which is why it is called a review and not a meta-study, I assume. But such reviews have value because they put a wide range of literature in one place which forms a starting point for other research. The second thing you need to know is that the authors are heavily invested in what we loosely call “animal rights,” as members of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and the Someone Project (Farm Sanctuary). From this we can guess that a paper that seems to show pigs-human similarities would ultimately be used for advocating for better treatment for domestic pigs, which are raised almost entirely for meat. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should be noted.

In a moment I’ll run down the interesting findings on pig behavior, but first I want to outline the larger context of what such results may mean. The paper itself does not make an interpretive error about pig behavior and cognition, but there is a quote in the press release that I’m afraid will lead to such an error, and I want to address this. The quote from the press release is:

Dr. Marino explains that “We have shown that pigs share a number of cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and even humans. There is good scientific evidence to suggest we need to rethink our overall relationship to them.”

What does that mean? In particular, what does the word “relationship” mean? In a behavioral comparative study, “relationship” almost always refers to the evolutionary structure of the traits being observed. For example, consider the question of self awareness, as often tested with the Gallup Test, which measures Mirror Self Recognition (MSR). If a sufficient sample of test animals, when looking in a mirror almost always perceive a conspecific, then that species is considered to not have MSR. If most, or even many, individuals see themselves, then that species is said to have MSR, a kind of self awareness that is linked to a number of important other cognitive capacities.

Humans have MSR. So, do our nearest relatives, the chimps have it? Do the other apes have it? Other primates? Is this a general mammalian capacity or is it a special-snowflake trait of our own species? It turns out that all the great apes have MSR, but primates generally do not. It may or may not appear among other primates (mostly not). So MSR reflects something that evolved, likely, in the common ancestor of humans and all the other apes. So, the relationship among the primates with respect to MSR, phylogenetically, is that MSR is a shared derived trait of the living apes, having evolved in or prior to that clade’s last common ancestor.

But we also see MSR in other species including, for example, elephants. The presents of MSR in elephants does not mean MSR is a widespread trait that humans and elephants both have because a common ancestor hat it. Rather, in some cases (the great apes), MSR is clustered in a set of closely related species because it evolved in their ancestor, and at the same time, it appears here and there among other species for either similar reasons, or perhaps even for different reasons.

This is why the word “relationship” is so important in this kind of research.

It is clear that Dr. Marino does not use the word “relationship” in that press release to mean that pigs and humans share interesting cognitive and behavioral traits because of common ancestry, but rather, I assume, the implication is that we may want to think harder about how we treat pigs because they are a bit like us.

One could argue, of course, that a species that is a lot like us for reasons other than shared evolutionary history is a bit spooky. Uncanny valley spooky. Or, one could argue that such a species is amazing and wonderful, because we humans know we are amazing and wonderful so they should be too. Indeed one could argue, as I have elsewhere, that similarity due to shared ancestry and similarity due to evolutionary convergence are separate and distinct factors in how we ultimately define our relationship to other species, how we treat them, what we do or not do with them. The important thing here, that I want to emphasize, is that human-pig similarity is not the same thing as human-chimp similarity. Both are important but they are different and should not be conflated. I honestly don’t think the paper’s authors are conflating them, but I guarantee that if this paper gets picked up by the press, conflation will happen. I’ll come back to a related topic at the end of this essay.

I’ve been interested in pigs for a long time. I’ve had a lot of interactions with wild pigs while working in Africa, both on the savanna and the rain forest. One of the more cosmopolitain species, an outlier because it is a large animal, is the bush pig. Bush pigs live in very arid environments as well as the deepest and darkest rain forests. There are more specialized pigs as well. The forest pig lives pretty much only in the forest, and the warthog does not, preferring savanna and somewhat dry habitats. Among the African species, the bush pig is most like the presumed wild form of the domestic pig, which for its part lived across a very large geographical area (Eurasia) and in a wide range of habitats. I would not be surprised if their populations overlapped at some times in the past. This is interesting because it is very likely that some of the traits reviewed by Marino and Colvin allow wild pigs to live in such a wide range of habitats. There are not many large animals that have such a cosmopolitain distribution. Pigs, elephants, humans, a few others. Things that know something about mirrors. Coincidence? Probably not.

Pigs (Sus domesticus and its wild form) have an interesting cultural history in the west. During more ancient times, i.e., the Greek and Roman classical ages, pigs were probably very commonly raised and incorporated in high culture. One of Hercules seven challenges was to mess with a giant boar. Pigs are represented in ancient art and iconography as noble, or important, and generally, with the same level of importance as cattle.

Then something went off for the pigs. Today, two of the major Abrahamic religions view pigs as “unclean.” Ironically, this cultural insult is good for the pigs, because it also takes them right off the menu. In modern Western culture, most pigs are viewed as muddy, dirty, squealing, less than desirable forms. Bad guys are often depicted as pigs. One in three pigs don’t understand their main predator, the wolf. There are important rare exceptions but they are striking because they are exceptions. This denigration of pigs in the West is not found globally, and in Asia pigs have always been cool, sometimes revered, always consumed.

I should note that I learned a lot of this stuff about pigs working with my good fiend and former student Melanie Fillios, who did her thesis (published here) on complexity in Bronze Age Greece, and that involved looking at the role of pigs in the urban and rural economies. At that time Melanie and I looked at the comparative behavioral and physical biology of cattle vs. pigs. This turns out to be very interesting. If you started out with a two thousand pounds of pig and two thousand pounds of cattle, and raised them as fast as you could to increase herd size, in a decade you would have a large herd of cattle, but if you had been raising pigs, you’d have enough pigs to cover the earth in a layer of them nine miles thick. OK, honesty, I just made those numbers up, but you get the idea; Pigs can reproduce more than once a year, have large litters, come to maturity very quickly, and grow really fast. Cattle don’t reproduce as fast, grow slower, take longer to reach maturity, and have only one calf at a time.

On the other hand, if you have cattle, you also have, potentially, milk (and all that provides), hoof and horn (important in ancient economies) and maybe better quality leather. I’ll add this for completeness: Goats are basically small cows with respect to these parameters.

Now, having said all that, I’ll summarize the material in the paper so you can learn how amazing pigs are. From the press release:

  • have excellent long-term memories;
  • are whizzes with mazes and other tests requiring location of desired objects;
  • can comprehend a simple symbolic language and can learn complex combinations of symbols for actions and objects;
  • love to play and engage in mock fighting with each other, similar to play in dogs and other mammals;
  • live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and learn from one another;
  • cooperate with one another and show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as perspective-taking and tactical deception;
  • can manipulate a joystick to move an on-screen cursor, a capacity they share with chimpanzees;
  • can use a mirror to find hidden food;
  • exhibit a form of empathy when witnessing the same emotion in another individual.
  • Pigs are very snout oriented. They have lots of nerve endings in their snouts and can use the information they get from this tactile organ for social interactions and finding food. They can tell things apart very easily, learn new classifications, and remember objects and things about them. This makes sense for an animal that forages at the ground surface, including underground, for a very wide range of food types.

    One of the cool human traits we often look for in other animals is the ability to time travel. We don’t actually travel in time, but in our minds, we can put ourselves in other places and other times, and run scenarios. Some of the basic capacities required to do this include a sense of lengths of times for future events or situations, and an understanding of these differences. Pigs can learn that of two enclosures they can choose from, one will let them out sooner than the other one, for example.

    Pigs have excellent spatial memory and can learn where things are and how to find them. They can do mazes as well as other animals that have been tested in this area.

    Pigs have individual personalities, to a large degree, and can discriminate among other individuals and recognize certain aspects of their mental state. This applies to other individual pigs as well as individuals of other species (like humans).

    Pigs have a certain degree of Machiavellian intelligence. This is rare in the non-human animal world. If a pig has the foraging pattern for a given area down well, and a potential competitor pig is introduced, the knowledgable pig will play dumb about finding food. They don’t have MSR but they can use mirrors to find food.

    Now, back to the evolutionary context. I’ve already hinted about this a few times. Pigs and humans share their cosmopolitain distribution, with large geographic ranges and a diversity of habitats. We also share a diverse diet. But, it goes beyond that, and you probably know that I’ve argued this before. Pigs are root eaters, as are humans, and this feature of our diet is probably key in our evolutionary history. From my paper, with Richard Wrangham, on this topic:

    We propose that a key change in the evolution of hominids from the last common ancestor shared with chimpanzees was the substitution of plant underground storage organs (USOs) for herbaceous vegetation as fallback foods. Four kinds of evidence support this hypothesis: (1) dental and masticatory adaptations of hominids in comparison with the African apes; (2) changes in australopith dentition in the fossil record; (3) paleoecological evidence for the expansion of USO-rich habitats in the late Miocene; and (4) the co-occurrence of hominid fossils with root-eating rodents. We suggest that some of the patterning in the early hominid fossil record, such as the existence of gracile and robust australopiths, may be understood in reference to this adaptive shift in the use of fallback foods. Our hypothesis implicates fallback foods as a critical limiting factor with far-reaching evolutionary e?ects. This complements the more common focus on adaptations to preferred foods, such as fruit and meat, in hominid evolution.

    Pigs and humans actually share dental and chewing adaptations adapted, in part, for root eating. The pig’s snout and the human’s digging stick have been suggested (see the paper) as parallelisms. And so on.

    Yes, humans and pigs share an interesting evolutionary relationship, with many of our traits being held in common. But this is not because of shared ancestry, but rather, because of similar adaptive change, independent, in our evolutionary history. This whole root eating thing arose because of a global shift from forests to mixed woodland and otherwise open habitats, which in turn encouraged the evolution of underground storage organs among many species of plants, which in turn caused the rise of a number of above ground root eaters, animals that live above the surface but dig. Not many, but some. Pigs, us, and a few others.

    That does not make us kin, but it does make us kindred.

    Bakken Oil Train Hits Semi At Unsafe Crossing

    There is a poorly secured railroad crossing in Saint Paul Park (south of Saint Paul, Minnesota) where a small industrial road crosses a BNSF track. The crossing has warning lights but no barriers. Yesterday (June 7, 2015) a semi crossing the tracks was hit by a Bakken oil train coming down the BNSF line.

    The Bakken oil trains on this BNSF line has been an increasing matter of concern. As Bakken oil trains derail and in some cases catch fire en route from the Dakotas to the east coast, folks who see these trains run by their homes, through their small towns, and across their travel routes have been asking questions about safety. Minnesota Governor Dayton recently noted that this particular crossing is a dangerous one, and he has been trying to get it closed. Too late for this incident, though.

    The incident was fairly benign. No one was injured. The truck was destroyed and the flour it contained is all over the place. The BNSF track, and other tracks, have a lot of curves in this area, where the trains snake among various bodies of water (including the Mississippi) and urban zones, and at the site of this accident, refinery complexes. For this reason the trains are usually going rather slow, I assume.

    Fox 9 quotes Saint Paul Park Mayor Keith Frank as saying “We’ve definitely had concerns about this crossing for some time.” He also noted “I think part of the problem is who’s going to pay for it. The city doesn’t have the money to take on that expense, how much the state should pay versus how much people think the railroads should pay.”

    Safety improvements at this and other intersections are not being planned, as a dysfunctional (due to contamination by Republicans, mainly) legislature has been unable to manage the state’s budget this year.

    What does “Global Warming” mean?

    The Problem with terminology

    There is some confusion about the way we talk about global warming. Most of this confusion arises during the communication of science to the public or to policy makers. Part of this confusion rests within the science itself; There is no meaningful confusion about the nature of global warming or how it is observed, but there are some terminological glitches of the kind that arise in science all the time, and that rarely matter to the science itself.

    The most commonly used indicator of global warming is a graph that is meant to show the effects of global warming over time. This may be by decade, yearly, or monthly, or using a moving average using a period such as 12-months or some other time period. This is an example:

    The vertical axis is temperature anomaly, the standard way scientists measure changes in heat over time. Each data point is calculated from thousands of roughly head-height thermometers across the Earth’s land surface, combined with a measure of global sea surface temperatures. As we go back in time there are fewer data sources, and the sea surface temperature is measured differently. During any given year, there are parts of the globe that are underrepresented. The way these deficiencies in the data are addressed varies across the major data sets (from the US, Great Britain, or elsewhere) though all the different data sets use most of the same original raw data. This graph is based on the data provided by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). All of the different data sets show the same thing, a general increase in global surface temperatures, and the variation over time, the up and down squiggles, is similar for all the data sets. They differ only in details.

    It is an important fact that as the line indicating global surface temperature going up across the indicated time span, the amount it goes up varies. There are short periods of time when the temperature value goes up rather quickly then drops a bit, and there are periods of time during which the value goes up and down without much increase over several years running.

    When we see a brief period (a few years, or a decade, etc.) where the trend varies from the long term trend, we need to ask why this is happening. Most of the dramatic upward spikes turn out to be El Niño years, when the ocean is adding a lot of stored heat into the atmosphere. Most of the periods where the rise in temperature value is somewhat lackadaisical are periods both lacking an El Niño event and having a number of La Niña events, during which the Pacific Ocean is soaking up more heat than average (that heat comes back out during El Niño periods).

    There are also periods when the rise in global temperature is attenuated by additional aerosols in the atmosphere. This may be caused by a high rate of volcanic activity or the explosion of a particularly large volcano. Also, at one point, we see general increase in the upward trend that is probably a combination of a) cleaning up some of the human caused aerosols with the Clean Air Act and similar regulatory changes, and b) an increase in the human output of greenhouse gas pollution.

    A significant cause in the variation of this signal over time, related to El Niño and La Niña events, is probably the result of one or more long term oscillations in the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere. I’ve written about recent research addressing this phenomenon here. These multi-decadal oscillations probably explain most of the waviness in the line.

    We have recently moved past a period of a relative slowdown in the increase in global surface temperature and are now experiencing a rapid rise in average global temperature. The way this slowdown is discussed is part of the confusion about global warming. To the average person, the term “slowdown” might sound like “decrease,” but it is not a decrease in surface temperatures, but a reduction in the rate at which surface temperatures are going up for a few years.

    Nonetheless, the recent slowdown has been exploited by those who argue that global warming is not real, or is not, somehow, caused the way scientists say it is. It has been termed a “hiatus” or a “pause.” This terminology is problematic. A hiatus is a gap. When we “pause” something (like using a pause button) we stop it. The stop button on your music device stops the music. The pause button also stops it. The difference between stop and pause is what happens after you restart it, or a difference in the internal working mechanism. In the old days, for example, if you stop an audio or video tape, the magnetic head that reads the data is lifted off the tape, but if you hit “pause” the magnetic head stays on the tape so restarting is smoother. (If you pause for too long the magnetic head can damage the data on the tape!) Thus, “pause” and “stop” are functionally the same thing when it comes to whether or not the music or video is playing. A “pause” in global warming would be a stop in global warming. That, however, did not happen.

    A hiatus or a pause in global warming is at present physically impossible. Our climate system operates in such a way that increasing the amount of human generated greenhouse gas pollution, all else being equal (or more or less equal), will increase the global heat imbalance and force the surface temperatures upwards. The implication of a “pause” or “hiatus” (stopping, or a gap in, warming) is that global warming is not happening for a period of time, as though the physical process stopped working, and the implication of that is that physics does not work the way climate scientists know it works. This is why “pause” is so beloved a meme in the denier community. If there is a pause, the science must be wrong. But even if there were sufficient aerosols from a huge volcanic eruption to actually lower global surface temperatures significantly for a short time, the greenhouse gasses previously and continuously added by humans would remain and continue to exert an upward effect on temperature. Once the aerosols settle, which does not take long, the added greenhouse gasses will remain for many decades (even centuries) and warming will continue until an equilibrium is reached. That would not be a pause or hiatus, just a bit more wiggling in the line marching ever upward.

    Book suggestions: For a good overview of climate change, see “Dire Predictions.” For a good overview of climate change denialism, see “Climatology vs. Pseudoscience.”

    Process vs. pattern

    Global warming is a process. More greenhouse gasses along with the resulting positive (heat increasing) feedback effects that accompany that increase cause a heat imbalance and the parts of the Earth that can absorb heat from the sun directly or indirectly become warmer. Global warming is also a pattern. It is a pattern we observe in the average global temperature measures such as the surface temperature measurement described above.

    If you can show that the pattern as observed is not as expected, that would bring into question the process of greenhouse gas-caused changes in the Earth’s heat, right? Well, no. The answer is no because the way the process works and the way we generally observe the pattern are not the same thing.

    Look at these two graphs.

    Global Ocean Heat Content. Global Warming. Greg Laden's Blog
    Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 1.41.28 PM
    The upper graph shows the temperature of the part of the ocean, the upper 700 or 2000 meters, that can be warmed indirectly by increasing greenhouse gas pollution over a period of time. The lower graph shows the same thing for the sea surface and the atmosphere. These graphs are dramatically different in the x-axis. The ocean heat content graph only goes back to the late 1950s, while the surface graph goes back to 1880. This is because of difference in the data that are available.

    Now, have a look at this graph:

    Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 12.14.22 PM
    This graph shows the relative percentage of the overall warming that occurs in the ocean vs. the atmosphere and a few other systems. The ocean heat graph above, which shows no recent period of time during which heat does not go up, represents over 90% of the heat increase due to global warming. The surface represents only a small percentage. In the following graph, I simply cropped each of these two graphs to show only 1960 to the present, then scaled them so the surface graph and the ocean graph are in proper relationship to each other on the vertical axis. This is a bit hokey but it makes the point:

    Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 10.42.31 AM
    Wow. When we refer to the process of global warming, we are referring to changes in the Earth’s heat balance, which is a combination of what climate scientists call “forcings” (not my favorite term but it is the one in use) that move heat imbalance either up or down. Human caused greenhouse gas pollution is a positive forcing, which in turn causes a number of other feedbacks, also positive. So the total result of greenhouse gas pollution is an increase in temerature over time until some future point where the forcing stops (because we stop using fossil fuels) and the heat imbalance eventually settles out (far into the future). Aerosols from other human pollution or volcanoes, etc., force in the opposite direction. The net outcome has been, for decades, an increase in temperature. The cobbed together graph above shows that all of the forcing combined has resulted in a steady upward increase in temperature. The graph also demonstrates that even large up or down deviations in the pattern of surface temperature are not especially relevant to the total process of warming.

    When we refer to the pattern of global warming, however, we generally do not refer to overall changes in heat balance, but in practice, we refer to changes only in global means surface temperature. Why? Because that is the measure for which we have data over a long period of time. It is like this. Say you want to know if your child has a fever. You may put a thermometer in the child’s mouth, or some other orifice, or put a heat sensitive strip on the child’s forehead, or an ear thermometer in the ear. In so doing, you have measured the child’s temperature, right? Well, no. What you measured is the temperature of the child’s mouth, or distal large intestine, or forehead, or ear drum. You don’t call the nurse hot line and say, “Help, my child’s mouth is 104 F, what do I do?” You use the measurement you took of one tissue or body part to estimate the child’s overall body temperature. Well, actually, you use the measurement you took to see if your child’s temperature-related homeostasis is off. In any event, you used a measurement of a small part of your child’s body to estimate internal temperature.

    When climate scientists show you a graph of mean surface temperature and talk about global warming, they are not ignoring the ocean. They are simply measuring the surface as an indicator of an ongoing change in the Earth’s heat imbalance, using data that are available, understood, and cover a long time period. So they are talking about the process of global warming (which involves the oceans, the air, the sea surface, the ground under your feet, ice, etc) but using a readily available and useful tool to track it.

    As a result, the term “global warming” to many climate scientists means “overall positive heat imbalance most of which is in the ocean.” To some scientists, “global warming” refers to global mean surface temperature change, and the ocean is viewed as a reservoir where heat is stored, waiting in the pipeline to come out later. That is really the same thing, and both acknowledge the difference between surface temperature measurement and ocean heat content measurement. When you actually look in the published literature, you see no confusion or changes in terminology. You really don’t see the term “global warming” being used very often when referencing measurements. If the measurement being discussed is the heat in the ocean, you see the term “ocean heat content” (OHC). When the measurement being discussed is the surface temperature record, you see a term like “Global mean surface temperature” (GMST). And, you don’t even see these terms used on their own; At some point in the scientific paper, the actual data set used to derive these values is specified.

    This does not imply that the difference between ocean heat content and global surface temperature is not important. It is very important. For one thing, we live at the surface. Heat waves are a phenomenon of the atmospheric temperature at the same location it is measured by all those thermometers. Tropical storms form more frequently or grow larger with a higher sea surface temperature. A warmer atmosphere holds more water. Relative changes at different latitudes in surface temperature appear to have changed how weather systems behave, giving us the phenomenon known as “weather whiplash” causing frequent droughts (short or long term) and regional inundation with exceptional rain or snow. The deeper (down to 2000 meters) heat in the ocean does not directly cause those things.

    But, the heat in the ocean does contribute when it comes out, like during an El Niño, adding to the surface heat. And, there are other effects of heat in the ocean, causing important ecological changes including ocean acidification. It isn’t really that complex. Both the ocean (down to 2000 meters or so) and the surface (SST and the bottom of the atmosphere over land) are warming. The total amount of heat that the ocean can absorb is huge (because water holds more heat than air). The heat moves back and forth between the sea and the air. Numerous effects occur. The whole shebang together is global warming, but we often represent the phenomenon as changes in surface temperatures because that is an excellent measurement.

    Perhaps we should not use the term “global warming” for the pattern of surface temperature changes, because global warming is bigger than that, it includes more stuff. But the surface is where we are at, and just like we say “my child has a fever” because our child’s forehead feels hot and the ear drum is verified as warmer than it should be with an optical thermocouple, we can refer to the GMST and speak of global warming. Because it is.

    On several occasions, I have had lengthy discussions with colleagues who are full time well respected climate scientists about this terminology. As far as I can tell, two things are true: 1) left on their own, these scientist would probably sort out into two groups who prefer two different ways of using terms like “global warming” and “surface temperature” and such; and 2) this matters about as much as what color pocket protector they are using to hold their mini-slide rules. It does not matter at all. As discussed above, when doing the science, the systems to which one refers and the data one makes use of are specified unambiguously and differences in the way these terms may bleed out into public (and policy making) space are not important. Outside the science, in that public and policy making space, the terms do become important, but not because they have problems. They become important only because they are being used, exploited, by deniers of science to misdirect and mislead.

    And, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, this is normal. Terminological messiness occurs in all areas of science. I once copied out all of the glossary definitions of major phenomena in population genetics, from a well written textbook produced by a well respected population geneticists, into a handout. Every definition from that glossary contradicted or complexified at least one other definition. It was a mess. But it was also real. Each term had been introduced at a different time by different scientists for different reasons with different problems trying to describe something somewhat different. Had a committee of population geneticists sat down for two years, long after the science had been worked out in some detail, and generated a glossary of terms (like “bottleneck,” “genetic drift” and “founder effect”) there would be no contradictions or ambiguities (though there might be a few black eyes along the way). Even the term “gene” has multiple and often contradictory meaning in use, and that gets worse when dealing with the literature over a couple of decades. This emerged over time as we learned more about what a “gene” actually is. Yet, population geneticists and DNA experts do not have any problem doing the science. These are just quirks that emerge at the interface of the rational pursuit of truth in science and this crazy thing we have called language.