The Price of Wobbling

Thanksgiving is around the corner (at the time of writing – by the time this is posted it will be a few days after) and the semester is just about over. This time of the year the students are focusing on the finals. For the climate change course that I teach, my routine for the final exam is to have the students refute the arguments made by climate change deniers. I take the arguments from extensive deniers’ literature such as the list compiled by the Heartland Institute or that compiled by Skeptical Science. The students know that it’s challenging to make an effective argument. In a previous blog (March 25, 2014), which I posted toward the end of last semester, I wrote that my main goal is to improve their ability to argue. This is a continuing challenge.

A few weeks ago, an Op-Ed in the New York Times, titled “Wobbling on Climate Change” and written by Piers Sellers, brought me back to the issue in an important way. I didn’t respond in a timely way because I was busy until recently with the series of blogs on EROI (all four November blogs). Now is the time to return to this issue. I will start by quoting directly from the Op-Ed:

GREENBELT, Md. — I’M a climate scientist and a former astronaut. Not surprisingly, I have a deep respect for well-tested theories and facts. In the climate debate, these things have a way of getting blurred in political discussions.

In September, John P. Holdren, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was testifying to a congressional committee about climate change. Representative Steve Stockman, a Republican from Texas, recounted a visit he had made to NASA, where he asked what had ended the ice age:

‘And the lead scientist at NASA said this — he said that what ended the ice age was global wobbling. That’s what I was told. This is a lead scientist down in Maryland; you’re welcome to go down there and ask him the same thing.

‘So, and my second question, which I thought it was an intuitive question that should be followed up — is the wobbling of the earth included in any of your modelings? And the answer was no…

‘How can you take an element which you give the credit for the collapse of global freezing and into global warming but leave it out of your models?’

That ‘lead scientist at NASA’ was me. In July, Mr. Stockman spent a couple of hours at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center listening to presentations about earth science and climate change. The subject of ice ages came up. Mr. Stockman asked, ‘How can your models predict the climate when no one can tell me what causes the ice ages?’

I responded that, actually, the science community understood very well what takes the earth into and out of ice ages. A Serbian mathematician, Milutin Milankovitch, worked out the theory during the early years of the 20th century. He calculated by hand that variations in the earth’s tilt and the shape of its orbit around the sun start and end ice ages. I said that you could think of ice ages as resulting from wobbles in the earth’s tilt and orbit.

The time scales involved are on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. I explained that this science has been well tested against the fossil record and is broadly accepted. I added that we don’t normally include these factors in 100-year climate projections because the effects are too tiny to be important on such a short time-scale.

And that, I thought, was that.

So I was bit surprised to read the exchange between Dr. Holdren and Representative Stockman, which suggested that at best we couldn’t explain the science and at worst we scientists are clueless about ice ages.

We aren’t. Nor are we clueless about what is happening to the climate, thanks in part to a small fleet of satellites that fly above our heads, measuring the pulse of the earth. Without them we would have no useful weather forecasts beyond a couple of days.

The question that Representative Stockman asked John Holdren, is a legitimate question related to climate change. The issue of how Earth got into and out of the ice ages and the nature of the Milankovitch cycles that explain it are standard topics in my course and in any other course that focuses on climate change. Representative Stockman’s question appears frequently on tests in these courses. If a student had given me the answer that John Holdren gave to Representative Stockman, I would have strongly suspected that he Googled it and only had enough time to read the first line or so. If student had asked me that question during class and I had given him this answer, the student would have rightly thought that I was being completely dismissive of him and probably would have used the first opportunity to drop my class.

Representative Stockman is more powerful than my students. He can actually be instrumental in the legislative efforts to either facilitate the mitigation of climate change or to erect obstacles to doing so. He doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes of deniers (September 3, 2012) that I have previously discussed. He also feels strongly that he needs to educate himself in order to contribute to the legislative effort to face this issue. We need more policy makers like him.

If my students feel that I am denigrating them, their reactions are limited to trying to drop the course or trying to learn the answers to their questions on their own if they are strongly motivated. If a policy maker feels that he is being disparaged by a science adviser to the president (especially one that also happens to be among the top climate scientist in the country) his reaction can be much more destructive. Instead, in this instance, according to the Op-Ed, Representative Stockman was more productive. He used the response from Dr. Holdren to ask NASA scientists if they are using the wobbling in their present modeling to predict the long term impact of climate change. It took a bit of effort on his part to go through the hoops, and he ended up discussing the issue with Dr. Sellers to learn why the wobbling is not very relevant in the modeling of the climate through the end of the century.

Most policy makers are not that persistent. They are constantly subjected to various, often conflicting, pressures and are being asked to weigh the information given to them and to try to convert it into productive policy decisions.

On a different level, all voting-age citizens are being subjected to similar such multiple, often conflicting, pressures – we are charged with voting in a government whose priorities we agree with and voting out governments with which we disagree. This puts all of us into a position to be both teachers and students at the same time. To educate informed citizens is a major effort; to educate informed, important policy makers is an urgent task – one for which we pay a very dear price if we fail.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to The Price of Wobbling

  1. Bill Meier says:

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