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Climate change and its causes play important role in Biden/Palin Vice Presidential Debate - Did either candidate provide a scientifically sound viewpoint?

100308_sarah_palin Tonight, the topic of our changing climate came to the forefront for an100308_joe_biden_2 important and significant exchange in the Vice Presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden (D) and Governor Sarah Palin (R).  Some very important differences in opinion were highlighted here.  Click "Continue Reading" to read the transcript from the heart of this exchange on the causes of climate change, followed by my analysis of just how sound the science was behind each of their answers.

IFILL: Governor, I'm happy to talk to you in this next section about energy issues. Let's talk about climate change. What is true and what is false about what we have heard, read, discussed, debated about the causes of climate change?

PALIN: Yes. Well, as the nation's only Arctic state and being the governor of that state, Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it's real.

I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.

But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?

We have got to clean up this planet. We have got to encourage other nations also to come along with us with the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that.

As governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change sub-cabinet to start dealing with the impacts. We've got to reduce emissions. John McCain is right there with an "all of the above" approach to deal with climate change impacts.

We've got to become energy independent for that reason. Also as we rely more and more on other countries that don't care as much about the climate as we do, we're allowing them to produce and to emit and even pollute more than America would ever stand for.

So even in dealing with climate change, it's all the more reason that we have an "all of the above" approach, tapping into alternative sources of energy and conserving fuel, conserving our petroleum products and our hydrocarbons so that we can clean up this planet and deal with climate change.

IFILL: Senator, what is true and what is false about the causes?

BIDEN: Well, I think it is manmade. I think it's clearly manmade. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden -- Gov. Palin and Joe Biden.

If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That's the cause. That's why the polar icecap is melting.

Now, let's look at the facts. We have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of the oil in the world. John McCain has voted 20 times in the last decade-and-a-half against funding alternative energy sources, clean energy sources, wind, solar, biofuels.

The way in which we can stop the greenhouse gases from emitting. We believe -- Barack Obama believes by investing in clean coal and safe nuclear, we can not only create jobs in wind and solar here in the United States, we can export it.

China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week. It's polluting not only the atmosphere but the West Coast of the United States. We should export the technology by investing in clean coal technology.

We should be creating jobs. John McCain has voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources and thinks, I guess, the only answer is drill, drill, drill. Drill we must, but it will take 10 years for one drop of oil to come out of any of the wells that are going to begun to be drilled.

In the meantime, we're all going to be in real trouble.

My take:  My hope is to give a perspective that is not a politically biased reaction to the issue discussed in the debate tonight, but rather an honest assessment from and independently minded individual who is a lifetime student of the atmosphere and atmosphere/planet/ocean interaction, but not of climate specifically - that is, there is a difference between a meteorologist and a climatologist, and I should make sure to point that out.  A meteorologist studies the day to day weather, while a climatologist studies weather over a long period of time.  We both have understandings for planetary interactions, but take different focuses on where to put that information to use.  Often, however, as you may imagine, the two go hand in hand.

I'll begin by expressing my belief that this debate question was flawed from the outset, at least if it was geared toward getting a direct answer.  To ask many unbiased climate scientists to lay out what is true and what is false about the causes of climate change couldn't even get a straight answer (or, alternatively, would yield vastly differing answers), because many who've spent their lives studying weather and climate realize that there are so many issues playing out on our planet that can contribute to climate change.  Any attempt at listing what is true and what is false about what has been reported in the mainstream media can easily be refuted by factual and scientific data from the opposing side (need examples?  See icecap.us, then see realclimate.org, two sources of climate information run by scientists who've devoted their lives to climate science but hold very different viewpoints). This is why, over the past couple of years on my site, you've seen posts from me that express my viewpoint that a truly unbiased and educated, scientifically minded individual can find equally compelling evidence on either side of the debate over man's role in a changing climate (see previous pertinent posts at the bottom of this discussion).  One point that I've always tried to lay out in no uncertain terms is that we're on a planet that's four billion years old, and we're working with an extremely limited data set, ranging from a hundred years to as little as a few decades, depending upon the data set you're looking at (ice core samples go back much farther, and measure atmospheric gas content, specifically the heavy isotope of oxygen - click here to learn more).  So, the honest answer from an unbiased, scientific perspective would be to acknowledge both sides of scientific reasoning, and be honest about the inability based upon a limited data set to state with certainty what claims are true or false.  From there, an effective political strategy and, in my opinion, a strong ethical position, would be to acknowledge the need for cleaning our air and our environment, and the dedication to make every effort to do so, both in America and globally, citing some of the likely assumptions of anthropogenic forcing (man-made influence) on global climate change, but acknowledging that these are not the only forces at work in the atmosphere.

Sarah Palin was the first to answer the question.  There wasn't much meat to this answer, but from a scientific perspective, it was the more accurate of the two answers offered.  There should be very little doubt that natural cycles play a significant role in the weather and climate on our planet.  To argue against the influence of natural cycles holds virtually no reasonable basis - to make the claim that a four billion year old planet with delicate interactions between ocean, atmosphere and land has no natural cycles affecting the climate on the timescale of decades shouldn't make sense logically, let alone scientifically. It would show complete lack of respect for a constantly evolving and truly living planet to imply that the earth does not go through cyclical changes as a result of solar cycles and influences, ocean current changes and cycles, and the jet stream and planetary wave patterns and cycles with their resulting oscillations in storm paths, to name a few.  As has been discussed in many posts here on my site in the past, this notion of cycles isn't a hunch or a conjecture, but these cycles appear very clearly in the limited data set that we have. We've seen such cycles both globally and nationally.

Of course, it would make sense that a significant input of human produced emissions would also affect this delicate interaction on our planet.  Additionally, from the perspective of a scientific analysis, if you're going to use a limited data set to point to cycles, can't you use a limited data set to point to man's influence on climate change? Frankly, you can use data and manipulate it in any way you want, so while you can find very intelligent climate scientists who will make a rock solid case for why man-made influences have been virtually non-existent in climate change, you also can find equally intelligent scientists who present a compelling case for the substantial impact of man on a changing climate and global warming.  Obviously, it's the latter camp that Joe Biden has bought into, judging by his answer. Perhaps one quote that I would expect will gain some attention is Biden's response of "If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution.  We know what the cause is.  The cause is manmade.  That's the cause.  That's why the polar ice cap is melting."

Politically, this line is hard-hitting, and I think the bulk of media outlets and the general public will commend Biden for taking this stance - I could be wrong, but it seems like a winning line for a politician in the current political atmosphere.  Scientifically, however, this line is completely irresponsible.  From a personal perspective, I have spent extensive time studying work on both sides of this issue, though my dedication to the issue absolutely pales in comparison to those who've devoted their lifetimes to it, and can still have harshly opposing viewpoints to one another.  I've read the report from the International Panel on Climate Change, and it is compelling. At the same time, I saw the political influence that played into this report, and realize it is a flawed piece of work (one example here, and another here, of several sites that outline the errors, as well as the IPCC's editing after it's report that changed some results by several magnitudes!).  I've seen the disintegration of the polar ice caps.  At the same time, I've seen a media that reported last year's all-time record low arctic ice, while not acknowledging the all-time record high coverage of ANTarctic ice that I reported to you here on my website.  I've seen the panic set in over this all-time North Pole low ice coverage, but virtually no media attention to the fact that the "all-time" records we're looking at for our 4 billion year old planet is a 30 YEAR set of satellite estimates.  In the world of science, to draw a conclusion based on such limited data is impossible.  To make inferences is fine.  To conjecture or hypothesize is fine.  That is the nature of science and is the foundation upon which great ideas and thoughts have played out in our American and global history.  Some of the greatest innovations, discoveries and realizations of our time have come from those who had the courage and conviction to lay it on the line with only limited data to work with, and time has borne out their hypotheses.  Then again, some of the greatest errors have similarly come from haste and insufficient data.  So, from a scientific perspective, I find it arrogant and short-sighted for us to state unequivocally that we know what the cause is and the cause of global climate change is manmade. As a meteorologist, my passion for weather yields a deep understanding for the potential ramifications of climate change - increased high-end flood events for some, widespread drought for others, more frequent and more intense hurricanes, and melting polar ice caps, to name a few. Having said that, being a meteorologist also makes one a student of history, by default, and all of these things we've seen in the past. As I've pointed out in previous posts on this site (available in the archives), we've seen such dramatic and extreme weather events, and they occurred in the first few decades of the 20th century, especially from the 1930s through 1950s, a time that featured similar ocean current oscillations in the thermohaline cycle (fluctuations in ocean surface temperature and salinity).

Of course, it would be equally scientifically irresponsible to claim that the emission of greenhouse gases plays no role in climate change. Greenhouse gases serve to trap heat on our planet and it makes logical sense that adding these gases to the environment would increase the atmosphere's ability to contain this heat.  Of course, carbon dioxide is not the most effective greenhouse gas - water vapor is.  That's something important to keep in mind as time goes on, because many of the green initiatives are quite proud to state that, rather than emitting carbon, they are emitting harmless water vapor.  Of course, while that sounds harmless to the majority of the public, those familiar with the science understand this is even worse than carbon dioxide - far worse!  Other greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases account for an extremely small portion of the atmosphere, and a minute effect on global climate compared to water vapor.  Click here to see a graphical example of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the environment.

Politically, there is a whole world of complexities that comes into play.  There's no question that, in the present climate of our population, a statement unequivocally blaming man for climate change is the strongest political stance, regardless of its scientific validity. This view has become so accepted and widespread, that it is a true risk to speak out in favor of unbiased scientific perspective, which is why this blog - my personal blog and not affiliated with any organization - or seeing me in person, is the only place you'll find me discussing these issues.  What we need in our leaders is a dedication to educating themselves first, in order to better educate the American public and global population at large.  When all is said and done from the debate tonight, I have to think that on the issue of climate change, Biden will be the winner from a political and public sentiment perspective. From a scientific perspective, the nod goes weakly to Palin, simply for not making such a conclusive statement about such an inconclusive science.  We as a scientific community still have a great deal to learn about the atmosphere/ocean/land interactions, and the extent of man's influence on them.  We as the general public have even more to learn, but until folks actually start being open-minded in their willingness to look at real data from both sides of this issue, we'll continue to see visceral, political and emotional reactions to a science - something that typically must be approached without such interferences to gain true insight.  I've long said - and still truly believe - that an honest, open-minded and well-educated individual on the matter of human impact on climate change should be completely torn between viewpoints and uncertain of what to believe.  That's OK - that's the sign of an intelligent and level-headed person who is not easily swayed and puts logic before emotion.  It's OK to acknowledge the brilliance of scientists who insist man is destroying the climate, and then acknowledge the brilliance of those who believe in natural cycles having a much more significant impact.  And when we put it all together, and look objectively at the situation, I think we can come to a fair conclusion - statements of facts and conclusiveness on the science cannot be made, and in our lifetime, perhaps never will be, but there is nothing at all wrong with working toward clean water, clean air and a clean environment.  Though it would be foolish, given limited scientific data, to act at significant economic peril as reaction to calls for drastic reductions to avoid an impending doom, it's my opinion that it is our duty as stewards of the planet to do all that we can to take care of the earth.  So, I encourage one and all to continue conserving, take steps to be green and friendly to the environment, and examine the candidates' policies and positions on pollution, emissions, and the planet at large, but remember that a good scientific perspective requires an open mind to the data, and a realization when there is an inhibiting lack of such information.

I invite your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Previous pertinent posts on MattNoyes.net:

Click here for an excellent, external, informational link from NOAA.


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I apologize for the redundancy, and to those pedantic, fussy people out there, I know I misspelled Arctic. I'm in a bad mood today because I was buzzed by two mosquitos last night. One after the other. Proud to have killed the first. In the last decade or so I have noticed the mosquitos have developed an endurance. The cold doesn't kill them off as easily. I have often seen mosquitos in November after frosts. Also freakish, old sugar maples are brilliant with color while the norway maples don't have any. Human co2 is contributing to both. It's wrong and it should stop!


Sagacious one; words of encouragement are not enough at least from what I see locally. The human-perversity factor through the roof! Many residents in small boxed homes with multiple air conditioning window units running in relatively cool, dry weather. In the old days, people would simply open the windows for comfort. I saw one such home have a cord of firewood dumped in their driveway while their window ACs were running. I see a lot of lighting left on when it could be off and much of it incandescent heating the atmosphere. Landscape maintenance companies fouling our ears, and lungs. ( I have stopped trimming my nose hairs to ward off some of the pollution ) It's only getting worse as home owners are capitulating to their faster growing lawns in this co2 enriched atmosphere. These roving landscape companies were virtually non-existent before the 1980s. This is not a change for the better! An artificial lawn has become a compulsive disorder! and it's feeding a positive feedback loop! This winter, many of these same people will burn firewood to supplement their hydrocarbons and I expect the air to be fouled more than ever; that's if you believe the Old Farmer's Almanac and economic gloom. The smoke particles will deposit on snow and ice near, and far to the Artic like never before threatening a runaway albedo warming. Now that's a safe statement!
So while I agree that science is unable to ascribe an amount of warming to humans or natural cycles, your encouragement means little. Natural cycles such as the supposed cooling we have entered may just be putting off the day of reckoning. The co2 molecule has a 100 year residence time and the human footprint will grow anew once we emerge from this global economic crisis. I see little hope in this diverse, distrustful world. I believe, like humans, the earth has limitations; that is its capacity to store carbon. This so-called natural cooling could just be putting off the day of reckoning.
In the meantime, I'm afraid it will take a dictator as words of encouragement have little effect on people who want the freedom to pollute when it's convenient or saves money.

Mike Gagnon

Matt, this a great example of the professionalism and knowledge that makes you, in my view, one of the best meteorologists in broadcasting. Your assessment is dead-on and well-articulated. Thank you for your commitment to excellence, and for taking the time to share with interested readers in blogs. I appreciate your forecasts and the reasoning you present in the limited on-air time you have; while the chance to dig deeper into the science behind it all in these blogs is to me, a real bonus. Keep up the passion for weather and for good science!
Mike Gagnon
Auburn NH

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