I'm Crazy, You're Crazy, We're All Crazy!

I may think the world is insane, but one thing that really bugs me is how a lot of people seem almost eager to call anyone they disagree with crazy. I don't get it. It's distasteful, rude and really quite pathetic. I don't have a problem with calling people crazy if they earn it, but it should never be the label of first resort.

For instance, a recent post of mine involved the issue of tribalism in science. One user, Victor Venema, commented to say he had never experienced it. Another user, MikeR, responded:

“I am not afraid that holding the “wrong views” would hurt my career.” Uh, yeah. Because Victor Venema’s views aren’t the type for which people’s careers get hurt. Those people are the ones who doubt AGW alarm. So it’s nice that you aren’t afraid, but it would be nicer if you would take seriously the concerns of people who aren’t just like you.

A white man in the United States in the 1950s says that he isn’t afraid of being a victim of racism, so he doubts that black people are either. Could be he’s oblivious. Could be he just doesn’t like them. Neither choice reflects credit on him.

That's a pretty harsh criticism. I would expect being even potentially compared to a racist to evoke some negative emotions. However, that's apparently not what upset Victor Venema. After I pointed out the rhetoric of his response to MikeR was... not good, he said:

Maybe that was an overreaction, but MikeR basically said that I did not do my job. If I were to defend AGW rather than follow the evidence, I would be a lobbyist, not a scientist. Thus this was also not a nice thing to say. Being a scientist is not just a job; like for most scientists it is part of my identity. Thus this was a personal attack in my eyes.

Which was simply wrong. While MikeR's criticism was harsh, his comment hadn't said anything about why Victor Venema held the views he held. I pointed this out to no avail. Victor Venema continued to stand by his incorrect interpretation, though he offered no justification for it. I think that's pretty bad. You don't see me calling him delusional though.

You might wonder why I bring this up. A little disagreement like that in the comments here wouldn't merit a post, but I happened to see this tweet in my Twitter feed today:

I'm always curious when I see a person called delusional. I find it interesting to see how much or how little it takes, as that tends to tell you more about the person making the accusation than whatever they might be saying about the accused. So imagine my amusement when I followed the link and saw:

Victor Venema Says:

December 1, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Lamar Smith had a busy day, he also wrote another NOAA letter.

Victor Venema, a person who I had just seen make derogatory remarks about a user here based upon what quick-to-the-gun people might call his personal delusions, turns up right after on helping accuse a person of being delusional. That's kind of funny. I don't think he's actually delusional, but I don't think the person he's helping accuse of being delusional is actually delusional either. So it balances out.

And it gives me a somewhat interesting lead-in for today's post. You see, United States Congressman Lamar Smith has upset a significant number of people with his actions taken in regard to the global warming debate. The details don't matter for this post, but I understand it's a hot topic so I'll take a moment to make my position on it clear: I don't support his actions, and I don't see what good could come from them, but I think he is using his authority in a legal manner. As long as that is true, I don't understand how anyone can argue for resisting his requests for materials. Unless or until some legal argument is offered to justify not following what appears to be clear and binding law, I think people should follow the law as has been expressed.

But that subject bores me. What interests me is while people upset with Smith don't seem to be offering any legal basis for scientists refusing to comply with the law, they are trying to smear him with labels like "delusional." That interests me because, well, I want to know. Is the guy crazy? Today's post will look at that issue.

The first paragraph of the piece linked to in the tweet which asks, "How Delusional is Lamar Smith?" reads:

Citing unnamed, (ie nonexistent) “experts”, Inquisitor Lamar Smith of the House Science Committee engages in hallucinatory arm waving in attempting to convince Miami residents that the water around their ankles is completely normal.

Which tells me this is probably not the piece I should be examining to look at criticisms of Lamar Smith. It would be wrong of me to only look at the most extreme of his critics, as the extremes of any group can look... bad. For instance, after quoting from Congressman Smith's press statement saying Miami'a flooding isn't linked to climate change, the author of the piece decided to show this image:

12-1-sea_levels

Why did they pick this image? I don't know. They don't say. When we go to the page they got the image from, we see:

Since 1993, measurements from the TOPEX and Jason series of satellite radar altimeters have allowed estimates of global mean sea level. These measurements are continuously monitored against a network of tide gauges. When seasonal variations are subtracted, they allow estimation of the global mean sea level rate.

This means the image tells us global sea levels have risen. Does that prove sea level rise is responsible for Mimai's flooding? Of course not. In fact, it doesn't even prove sea levels around Miami have risen. Sea levels haven't risen for every part of every coast. They have risen around Miami, but you would need to look at data for Miami, not the entire planet, to know that.

So I looked around for a better piece. I'll tell you, it was difficult. As much as people mocked Representative Smith, they just seemed to fail to make anything resembling a good argument. One of the better ones was from the blogger Tamino. He wrote a post titled, "Lamar Smith Keeps Getting Dumber." It begins:

Greater flooding in Miami is because of climate change. That’s a fact. So of course, congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) denies it.

Man-made climate change has caused sea level rise, which has now reached such heights that Miami can flood (as can Boston, and Charleston, and many many other coastal regions) just from high tide — even without storms or wind or rain. It’s another scientific fact that Lamar Smith doesn’t like. There are a lot of those.

That's not a promising start, but he does go on to say:

Of course the lunar cycle (and solar as well) drives the tides. It always has. But all by itself that didn’t cause flooding, until now. It does now, because the sea itself has risen.

I’ve looked at this issue in detail, for the city of Boston. It’s happening there too.

Which is better. And he does go on to give some more detail before resuming the rhetoric, so there is some substance to his post. I don't agree with some aspects of the analysis involved, but it's real work. And it reaches a rather obvious general conclusion - as sea levels rise, it is easier for areas to flood.

But there's a rather significant issue Tamino fails to mention. And it's one President Obama failed to mention in his speech which Representative Smith criticized. And no, I'm not talking about land subsidence or the loss of natural borders, both of which have contributed to the rise in flooding. I'm talking about the fact humans aren't causing sea levels to rise.

Yeah, I said it. The reality is sea levels would be rising without human influence. What humans are doing is causing sea levels to rise faster than they would be rising otherwise. I don't point this out to try to minimize the role of humans, but rather, to clarify people like Tamino are being misleading when they say things like "Man-made climate change has caused sea level rise, which has now reached such heights that Miami can flood." The IPCC AR4 report said:

Anthropogenic forcing, resulting in thermal expansion from ocean warming and glacier mass loss, has very likely contributed to sea level rise during the latter half of the 20th century. It is difficult to quantify the contribution of anthropogenic forcing to ocean heat content increase and glacier melting with presently available detection and attribution studies.

That report is a bit outdated, but I quote it because it's the one I'm most familiar with. The updated report which was published not too long ago doesn't appear to have changed those findings in a way which affects my point. Sea levels had begun rising before humans had any role in it, largely due to the Little Ice Age ending. After some time, humans started contributing to the rise in sea levels. Eventually, humans' contribution became the dominant one. So with this clarity in mind, let's revisit Tamino's post where he says:

Man-made climate change has caused sea level rise, which has now reached such heights that Miami can flood (as can Boston, and Charleston, and many many other coastal regions) just from high tide — even without storms or wind or rain.

Now ask yourself, exactly how much of that sea level rise has been caused by man? Tamino can't answer that question. Neither can anyone else. They could say, "Well, without man's contribution, sea levels wouldn't have risen enough that we'd be in this situation." That's true. But the converse is true as well: "Without nature's contribution, sea level's wouldn't have risen enough that we'd be in this situation."

Despite that, Tamino says man-made climate change is entirely to blame. He then goes on to say:

No storm required, no wind required, no rain required. High tide alone is enough to cause flooding, because high tide now is higher than it used to be. Because of climate change.

I guess Lamar Smith doesn’t get that.

Having successfully conflated all "climate change" with "Man-made climate change" so he can blame all of this flooding on man, Tamino claims "Lamar Smith doesn't get that" humans are solely responsible for all of this flooding. But of course, humans aren't solely responsible. As anyone who has any understanding of the subject knows, humans are responsible for a not insignificant portion of the rise in sea levels, but it's well less than 100%.

Apparently Tamino doesn't get that. But then, as he goes on to say:

A lot of people don’t, but most of them don’t run off at the mouth about it, because they’re smart enough not to pontificate about subjects on which they are astoundingly ignorant. Lamar Smith isn’t smart enough; he’s dumb enough to spout his ignorance for all to hear. Even on his own congressional website.

Way to go, Lamar!

Way to go, Tamino!

But anyway, this post isn't about Tamino. It's about Representative Smith. Tamino only matters because his criticisms of Smith were some of the more coherent ones I could find. That says something. Namely, Smith's critics suck. They don't even seem to understand, or at least realize, what Smith said.

That's not me defending him. He was definitely wrong when he said:

Chairman Smith: “The president’s statement that Miami flooding is linked to climate change is entirely false and in fact disputed by meteorologists at the National Weather Service. The experts have reported that the lunar cycle and wind patterns are to blame for unusually high floods in Miami, not climate change.

President Obama did link the recent rise in flooding in Miami to man made climate change. He was right to. He didn't point out a number of other contributing factors as caveats to his statement, such as the natural rise in sea levels, the lunar and solar effect on tides or the effect of wind. He was wrong not to.

Representative Smith went too far in saying the statement was "entirely false." That was wrong of him. He was on the money when he pointed out other major factors which Obama had failed to mention. That was right of him.

Both men took a relatively complicated situation and over-simplified it to present a tidy story to their constituents. In the process, they both made correct and incorrect points. Neither of them was "delusional." Both were just practicing politics in a normal fashion. Overstating one's case in a somewhat justifiable manner is exactly what politicians do on a regular basis.

What makes this especially interesting is none of Representative Smith's critics that I found seemed to have noticed he screwed up in a big way. They all went with the obvious talking point of, "He disagreed with President Obama, and he's wrong." Okay, sure. Attacking a politician for acting like a politician is not an effective approach, but go ahead, pander to your audiences. Whatever. Don't pay attention to the fact Smith's press release said:

The fact is there is little evidence that climate change causes extreme weather events. The president is ignoring the facts and misleading the American people in order to advance his extreme climate change agenda.”

Witnesses testified before the Committee that there is little scientific evidence linking human-made climate change and extreme weather. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is “high agreement” among leading experts that long-term trends in weather disasters are not due to human-caused climate change.

This is idiotic. As in, it's so stupid people should be falling out of their chairs laughing at him. Instead, nobody is saying a word about it.

You see, the flooding that happened in Miami was what is known as "nuisance flooding." It's the type of flooding where enough water comes in roads get closed, storm drains overflow and other nuisances like that happen. As the word "nuisance" indicates, it's annoying, but there's nothing extreme about it. It's certainly not a "weather disaster." It's not even close. A weather disaster might happen to cause some nuisance flooding, but that's about as close as the two things get to one another.

That Representative Smith associated nuisance flooding and extreme weather is ludicrous. It suggests he must have had no idea what President Obama was talking about. He referred to testimony by people about things like hurricanes as though it proved sea level rise couldn't cause water to rise up to your knees. It's completely and utterly idiotic.

So yeah, Obama overstated human's role in causing the flooding in Miami by not properly stating the natural factors that played a role (both in the short term and the long term). Smith overstated his case when he criticized Obama for it. Neither made accurate statements. People who call one "delusional" or "dumb" and let the other off the hook are just being partisan hacks.

But only Smith made a statement which suggests he had no idea what he was talking about. Conflating nuisance flooding with extreme weather disasters is about as bad as it gets. I'm sure it was just a mistake, but it was a really bad one.

14 comments

  1. Brandon

    I have written several articles on sea level. There was a sea level high stand around 1200Ad another around 1600 both related to the melting of glaciers, with the sea level falling again when the ice was locked up. As you say there are places with sea levels currently falling due to isostatic rebound.

    However as regards Miami I note it has an average height of some 5 feet making it exceptionally vulnerable. It was I understand built on Marsh. Could therefore the extraordinary number of tall heavy buildings have anything to do with its apparent vulnerability/sinking coupled with any sea level rise as the glaciers melt back from their eighteenth century height?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_buildings_in_Miami

    tonyb

  2. I had never thought about whether or not the weight of buildings would contribute to the apparent sea level rise in an area. I know the weight of individual buildings in some areas has caused them to sink, but I don't know if it could happen on a larger scale. I'd be interested to find out the answer. There's a ton of ways building a city affects the land around it. Some can be quite surprising.

    One thing to remember though is land use issues don't stop where the land we see stops. What happens undergound and to the ground beneath water can be as important as anything involving soil and crops. There are areas where a major cause of apparent sea level rise isn't that sea levels are rising, but that the area is sinking due to how the land was (mis)used.

  3. Brandon

    Venice is well documented as sinking partly because of the weight of buildings impacting on the wood bundles used as foundations on the marsh. Several Cathedrals in England have the same problem. However Shanghai seems to have a sinking problem along with 50 other cities in China sinking through a variety of reasons including sheer compression 0f the sub soil

    http://science.time.com/2012/05/21/soaring-to-sinking-how-building-up-is-bringing-shanghai-down/

    Looking at that first link of Miami I do wonder if their weight is causing a problem. I understand the sub soil is a mix of coral and marsh so the problem will likely vary according to the precise location.

    tonyb

  4. They picked the wrong data to look at:

    They should be looking at tidal gauges near Miami if they want to argue whether or not Miami has experienced a net sea-level rise. The ocean isn't a static body of water. Increases/decreases in ocean currents influence the mean height of the ocean in a particular location. Since these do change over time (possibly in some cases in response to global warming), on top of a secular trend in MSL, you also have regional variations that can have either sign and be much larger than the signal from anthropogenically forced MSL change.

    Then you have to look at the historical variation in the tidal height over time in order to assess the economic effect of this MSL change on e.g. the Miami region. People like Lamar Smith are politicians—they deal with policy not with economically meaningless nuances. If on a technical level, you can show a 0.00001% increase in flooding, that's of no practical interest for people setting government policy.

    I think though that tonyb is correct here---the bigger issue from a policy perspective for places like Miami is subsidence near shore lines. One of the big causes of this in Florida of course is the loss of ground water (from the humans pumping it out for their use).

  5. I wonder if there's a relatively simple way to distinguish between true rises in sea level and apparent rises in sea level caused by things like land subsidence for a specific location. I know there is apparent sea level rise in Miami. You can find data for it online (Tamino even links to a site for it in his post anayzling data for Boston). I just don't know how one would properly interpret that data.

    It could well be there are multiple components contributing to the apparent rise in sea levels, with the percent contribution varying over time. I don't know how you would untangle that mess. I just know claiming it's all due to global warming is silly.

    Though I guess if one wants to be technical, the phrase man-made climate change could maybe cover things like land subsidence? It's kind of a way man changes the climate 😛

  6. Unrelated to this topic, I've noticed an improvement in my business letters since following your blog.

    I find your writing style simple and clear, which is what I strive for when communication my thoughts to clients or those pricks at head office.

  7. As regards 'multiple components, scientists claim they can untangle all those with regards to temperature changes, so must be possible with sea level rise. We could call it a 'Brandorithm'

    tonyb

  8. tonyb, at least with temperatures people usually limit their discussions to global trends. I'd think it is much easier to quantify relevant contributions when you first apply such extreme amounts of smoothing to your data most signals within the data will be destroyed. You may have ten thousand different local effects you could consider, but when you reduce your data down to a single global temperature series, they mostly disappear.

    The problem, of course, is you then have no real information about those individual areas. That's why we have gridded results and whatnot, but then you're stuck with the balancing act of trying to smooth the data enough to get rid of those local effects while not smoothing it so much you destroy the signals you're interested in. BEST completely fails at it. The other groups have varying levels of success.

  9. MichaelS, that's cool to hear. I think making things simple and clear is the best way to get people to understand them, including yourself. It's neat to hear I've done a good enough job of it that it may even influence other people.

    Plus, I love the word "prick." It's one of those words that conveys a strong sentiment yet isn't too rude for polite company. I'm surprised more people don't use it.

  10. Brandon:

    I know there is apparent sea level rise in Miami.

    Over really long time scales, there is a definite increase in the sea level in Miami. You can find much of the data archived here.

    The trouble I have with looking at global mean sea level is you don't see the effect of other local influences, nor do you get an idea how significant the sea level change is compared to regional scale variations associated e.g., with tides. If the tidal amplitude is 5-m and you have a 20-cm change from anthropogenic forcing, that change isn't very interesting. Anyway, there is enough short period variation at the local level in tidal gauges to obscure the relatively modest changes in sea level heigh

    Though I guess if one wants to be technical, the phrase man-made climate change could maybe cover things like land subsidence? It’s kind of a way man changes the climate

    I think it's important to distinguish natural from human forced variations in our environment—I think we can assume that we have little control over natural variations over the scale of an ocean basin.

    However, if the main source of the sea level rise is subsidence, then policies that deal with CO2 regulation aren't going to address the real problem—This has always been my biggest gripe with the "warmingistas"... They like to proclaim there is only one problem and if we fixed it, everything would be swell....

    If too much aquifer water usage in Florida is the issue, policies that address that will ameliorate the problem. If the main problem with river flooding in Pakistan is deforestation, then you need to address water conservation. If the main source of food shortage in Egypt is soil fertility (due to over-farming), then you need to address how to improve soil fertility and adopt sustainable farming practices. If the problem with malaria is standing water near towns in SE Asia, you address that and not claim that the crisis is due to rises temperatures.

    For each of these problems I've listed, there is a group within the climate change activist community that will happily claim all of the environmental problems in the world are due to AGW, and if we just spent e.g. 1 trillion dollars per year addressing anthropogenic CO2 emissions (mostly in the form of wealth redistribution it seems), everything would be much better somehow.

    It has always been my contention that we need to realistically address the root cause of problems if we are ever going to resolve them. Ignoring the real reason that bad things happen makes for very poor policy decisions.

  11. Carrick, I agree wholeheartedly. I was just trying to think of the best "defense" one could offer for what Tamino wrote, and I guess technically, one could argue the phrase man-made climate change doesn't have to refer to global warming and things like that, even though that's clearly the intended meaning.

    The reality is what Tamino wrote is just stupid and wrong. He and pretty much everyone I saw criticize Lamar Smith on this issue were as bad as, if not worse than, Smith when it came to the science.

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