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A Skeptical Chat With…Dan Moutal of ‘Irregular Climate’

This is a blog series where I interview writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. about topics relevant to science, skepticism, and critical thinking.

Today I speak with Dan Moutal about his website and podcast www.IrregularClimate.com, and he answers my questions regarding his approach to providing information on global warming.

Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about the Irregular Climate podcast and blog.  Can you start off by introducing yourself to the readers of the Michigan Skeptics Association website, please, about who you are, what got you interested in the issue of climate change, and what led you to create the Irregular Climate podcast?

What can I say? Well I guess I can start by saying that I am not a climate expert. My formal education ends at a Bachelor of Science from the University of British Columbia in the Faculty of Forestry. Because I am not an expert I try to convey, not my opinion, but that of the mainstream scientific community; it is this opinion that has authority. This is the bedrock of reasoning as to why I accept global warming. I accept mainstream science, even when I don’t fully understand it.

But the great thing about climate is that much of the science can be understood ( at least qualitatively) by laypeople. Unfortunately in order to understand climate as a layperson one needs to be very good at weeding out bad sources. There exists a co-ordinated and well funded misinformation campaign and many well intentioned people have been mislead by it. No one wants to receive bad news after all.

I started blogging (http://mind.ofdan.ca/) many years ago as a way to catalogue interesting stuff I found on the internet. Slowly my blog grew, as did my readership (not that I have ever had many readers). I dabbled in political blogging (I have strong opinions on many political issues), but got tired of the predictable partisan nature of the political blog landscape. So overtime I drifted away from politics and moved slowly towards science. Having always been fascinated by science I preferred this subject even if my readership declined. One specific topic that has always both intrigued and worried me is the issue of sustainability. This inevitably lead to dealing with the climate. And I was astonished to see the gulf of opinion between the public and the scientific community. I was even more astonished by those why claimed to be experts but were peddling obviously flawed talking points. So I focused my efforts on climate. The issue is too important for the public to have such a poor understanding of it.

The Irregular Climate podcast began because I couldn’t find a climate podcast that covered all the topics I wanted covered. So I bought I microphone and started recording without really knowing what I was doing. I’ve learnt a lot since the first episode, but also realized how much more there is for me to learn.

On your podcast, you discuss the misinformation and politics surrounding the climate change issue.  Is that the focus of the Irregular Climate podcast?

Partially at least. The other focus is a discussion of the science, but as it turns out the amount of new science is dwarfed by the amount of new anti-science so I spend most of my time dealing with denialism.

What is the distinction between the term ‘Global Warming’ and ‘Climate Change’ – and what exactly are the concerns behind those terms?

In most writings both online and off, there is no difference. The terms are used interchangeably. However some people do use them differently and it is up to the reader to determine exactly how the terms are being used.

The definition of global warming is the warming of the earth’s surface, but obviously the climate involves more than just the surface. Climate change captures that additional complexity. It also captures the effects of a changing climate that go beyond surface warming.

For myself, I decided to primarily stick to the term global warming because it is more common than climate change. This has interesting implications because more people search for global warming than climate change, so sticking with the more common term can result in an increase of traffic from search engines.

As for the concerns of global warming/climate change, there are many. Things like sea level rise (which involves much more than being chased up the beach), droughts, floods, ecological disasters (the mountain pine beetle infestation here in British Columbia is a prime example, as is the impeding issues with ocean acidification). These are just a few examples, but the truth is that climate affects almost anything.

The bottom line, is that the predicted costs are huge, much greater than the predicted costs of doing something to solve the problem.

What concerns you more about informing the public about climate change – the misinformation campaign or the complexity of the issue itself?

Definitely the misinformation campaign. The complexity only becomes an issue because it is abused by those who spread misinformation.

The aspects of global warming that the public and politicians need to understand are relatively simple.  But such a simplistic view is not fully coherent, and thus is susceptible to those who wish to spread misinformation. Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has a quote about evolution, which I have frequently used in regards to climate change:

the evidence for evolution that is available to the casual person of interest, including most students, is simplified to the point of being misleading, false, or useless. In other words, the popular argument for evolution is bullshit, independent of the underlying reality of evolution or the evidence available to experts in the field.

The same goes for climate change. Unfortunately in debates arguing for truth means you are at a disadvantaged position. You are limited to saying what is known and what is true, while your opponent has no such limitations. And to make matters worse, many of the quick and intuitively appealing arguments used by your opponents require a long and detailed explanation in order to demonstrate why they are wrong. Julian Sanchez calls this a “one way hash argument” because these arguments are easy to make, but difficult to unmake.

This is why; I like to fall back on two basic points. One is that of scientific consensus, and why it is foolish for someone who does not fully understand the topic to go against it (and why in other situations we understand the value of expertise), and whenever possible I try to point out when a denier presents arguments that are contradictory.

Both of those points are easy enough for everyone to understand, and for many who are not ideologically opposed to global warming – find them convincing enough.

I would like you to set something straight with regard to consensus.  Amongst climate scientists, what would be the percentage of agreement for the following (feel free to add some comments/clarifications as needed):

* – Global Warming is happening:

As far as I can tell, scientists who study the climate are in 100% (or at least VERY close to it) in agreement that the earth is warming. The IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said the warming was unequivocal.

There have been some people (who are not scientists, but play one on the internet) who still claim that the warming trend in the data is an artifact of the urban heat island effect (UHI).

This has many problems right off the bat. The first is that it is absurd to think that climatologists have not thought about, and corrected for the UHI. The second is that the places that have been shown to be warming the fastest are not known for urbanization. The high arctic for example is warming faster than any place on the planet, and it is not urbanized. The third is that, both weather station’s and satellites show similar trends. Satellites do not suffer from the UHI problem though they do have other issues. And finally, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) decided to look into this issue, and found that stations that have been classified as good or best (by the very people claiming that UHI effect is tainting the surface temp record) show a warming trend that is slightly higher than the trend derived from all weather stations.

* – Global Warming is due to only natural causes:

This is probably zero. Scientists (even one who are not convinced), understand the complexities of the climate system, and I don’t think any of them would say that humans have no effect.

Of course there are people, who claim that this is true, but none of those are people who study climate. And they can and should be ignored. They clearly have no clue what they are talking about.

* – Global Warming is due to only man-made causes:

Again this is probably zero. The consensus position does not discount the effects of natural forcings. Nature plays a role in the climate system, but the vast majority of scientists have concluded that human forcings (mainly GHG emissions) are now the dominant forcing affecting the climate.

* – Global Warming is due to both natural and man-made causes:

This is where every single climate scientists should be, and as far as I can tell are. The disagreement is how much of what we see is due to natural causes, and how much is due to human activities.  Thanks to some surveys we know that roughly 97% of working climate scientists agree that Humans are playing a key role in warming the planet. Putting a number on exactly how much is more difficult, but by some estimates without our influence we would actually be experiencing a cooling trend right now.

It is worth noting that no scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate change.

What are some good books, websites, and other resources regarding climate change would you recommend?

The first place to look would be John Cook’s Skeptical Science (http://www.skepticalscience.com/). It is an invaluable and accessible tool. I would also recommend Real Climate (especially the inline responses) (http://www.realclimate.org) but it is certainly not as accessible.

As for books, a great place to start is the Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart. It starts at the beginning and charts how we came to our current understanding. Also Merchants of Doubt by  Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, gives a good account of how the misinformation has spread.

What are 2-3 of the most popular arguments that climate change skeptics and deniers make, and how do you answer them?

I don’t actually keep a tally of skeptic arguments so I don’t know, but thankfully John Cook at Skeptical Science does. He lists “it’s the Sun”, “The Climate has changed before”, and “There is no consensus” as his top three.

Now let’s take a look at them. First up, the sun. It turns out that there are many people at NASA (and other institutions) who are obsessed with the sun. So we know a fair bit about the sun, and what is doing. And nothing we have seen indicates that the sun is responsible for the warming trend. In fact if anything the recent behavior of the sun is causing cooling not warming. And finally (and most importantly) solar driven warming would cause the stratosphere to warm, but it is cooling, and that cooling is consistent with GHG driven warming.

Next up is that climate has changed before.  Before my brief discussion on this talking point, I would suggest that anyone who has an hour and wants to learn about this watch this presentation by Dr Alley. For those that don’t have an hour, just think about the basic logic employed by someone who says that since climate changed before we cannot be responsible for the current change in climate. I like to apply this same logic to a courtroom setting. Imagine a defense attorney saying that his client cannot be the murderer because murders happened before he was even born. I wouldn’t let an attorney like that defend me, would you?  The fact is (as I have stated above) that climate can change for many reasons. Past climate changes were not caused by SUVs and coal fired power plants. They had other causes. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also influence the climate. We can and we are.

In fact past changes in climate provide a foundation for our understanding of the climate system, and the fact that the climate shifts from ice ages to warm interglacial periods (like the one we are enjoying right now) are evidence that the climate is sensitive to forcings. As Wallace Broecker wrote in Nature in 1995: “The paleoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.“

And finally we arrive at “There is no consensus”.  People often like to trot out lists of various scientists in order to demonstrate that there is no consensus, but these lists inevitably fall apart upon closer inspection. The members on this list are often not climate scientists, or don’t actually deny that our emissions are causing warming.

So what does a survey say? That 97% of working climatologists agree that our GHG emissions are warming the planet. But we can take it a step further. We can look at the expertise and prominence of scientists who accept anthropogenic global warming, and those that remain unconvinced. And guess what? The expertise and prominence of scientists who accept global warming is greater than those who do not.

And we can take it even further. It turns out that  the IPCC the National Academies of Science from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA, the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of London, the Geological Society of America, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, and many more scientific bodies, accept the consensus positions.

In fact no scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of the human influence on the recent climate.

If that isn’t a consensus I don’t know what is.

Of course there are also claims of conspiracy that crop up, but those are as credible as the moon-landing and 9-11 conspiracies.

What’s the strongest evidence that climate change & global warming is occurring, and it’s largely due to human activity

The latest IPCC has a whole chapter (9) on attribution. It is almost 100 pages long. If you want all the gory details read that. There are also two papers recently published that go into some more detail about this.

But a quick and dirty explanation is that we know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This is basic physics, has been known for over 100 years, and has implications that go well beyond climate (IE CO2 lasers). We also know that we are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and that CO2 concentrations are rising. That is enough to know that we should see some warming. But not all warming is equal. One of the unique features of CO2 warming is that it should cause warming at the surface, but cooling in the stratosphere. This is exactly what has been observed. And finally we also have data that shows reduced Atmospheric backradiation from the atmosphere at exactly the wavelengths that CO2 absorbs.

I think most people understand how CO2 keeps UV radiation from reflecting back in space that causes warming at the surface.  But what causes the stratosphere to be cooling?

Actually CO2 absorbs the long wave radiation emitted by the earth’s surface, not UV radiation.

This is actually a very fairly complex, but your question gives away part of the answer.

The first part by itself would show some cooling; greenhouse gases like CO2 absorb radiation from the surface of the Earth and trap the heat in the troposphere, causing warming. The stronger the greenhouse effect the more radiation is trapped near the surface in the troposphere. This means that less radiation is coming from the surface to the stratosphere.

The second part, is what happens in the stratosphere. CO2 finds itself into the stratosphere The stratosphere is warmer than it should be because ozone warms when it absorbs UV radiation. However the some of the same properties that make CO2 a greenhouse gas work to cool the stratosphere. CO2 is very good at emitting heat energy. In the thin air of the stratosphere this emitted heat is mostly lost to space.

So by combing part 1 (less energy from the surface reaching the stratosphere), and part 2 (more heat being lost to space) we get stratospheric cooling. This simply would not happen if, for example, the warming we are experiencing at the surface was driven by the sun

What’s the biggest concern to climate scientists of a warming world, ocean acidification, severe weather pattern changes, or other?

That is a very though question to answer, and I am not sure anyone has done the enormous amount of work to quantify the costs of all those issues. The problem is that each of those effects have a large amount of uncertainty attached to them. However the uncertainty range goes from bad to catastrophic, so it brings us no comfort.

Personally I am most concerned about the loss of biodiversity, and the corresponding loss of ecosystem services (like air/water filtration, food, etc), but this is really just a bias from my ecology heavy education I am sure. Each one of the effects listed has the potential to do great harm.

The first couple of episodes, you were flying solo, and then you had a co-host for several episodes, and are back to flying solo?  Can you talk about that a little?  Do you have any plans on having a co-host in the future?

Sure, when I started out I really had no clue what I was doing. Graham Wayne offered his help and really helped the podcast to get off the ground. Unfortunately the part of his life that pays the bills got in the way of doing the podcast. But his help was instrumental.

One thing I learned when I had a co-host is that the editing process becomes far more laborious (I have a tendency to ramble and take every possible tangent). Right now I don’t really have the time to edit a show with a co-host so it is mostly just me. But what I am doing is allowing people to help out by sending clips they have recorded. John Cook’s skeptic debunk of the week is a great example, and recently I have begun using clips from the University of Western Australia.

Do you have any help with the production of the podcast or website?

Nope, it’s just me. Thankfully the website is easy to maintain, but finding enough time to do all the podcast related stuff (especially the show notes) is very difficult.

I am however lucky to have some contacts who are actual climate scientists so if I ever get stumped I have people I can ask.

What are some of your favorite blogs, podcasts, websites (not specific to climate change issue)?

You just opened up a can of worms 🙂

On the podcast side of things I love the shows on the TWIT.tv network (tech related), the Current and As it Happens (both news related from the CBC), Quirks and Quarks (the CBC science show), and the Nature Podcast. The Vinyl Cafe (also CBC) is great for discovery interesting music, and the host Stuart McLean is the best story teller I have ever heard.

I also just started listening to the Critical Thinker, and the EarthSky podcasts. So far so good.

As for blogs and websites; oh boy, let’s see we have: APOD, Ars Technica, Climate Denial Crock of the week, Deltoid, Grist, Hot Topic, Lifehacker, Marc Roberts Cartoons, More Grumbine Science NatGeo Photo of the Day, Nature News, Not Spaghetti, Only in it for the Gold, Photofocus, Rabbet Run, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Stoat, the Big Picture, Tree Lobsters, XKCD, The Oatmeal.

And that is just a small sample of what is in my RSS reader. If anyone wants everything drop me a line and I’ll send them an OPML file which can be imported into most RSS readers (I prefer google reader)

After I post this interview, you may get new readers and listeners to Irregular Climate.  How should they engage you, if they have questions or concerns about your arguments and/or evidence?

For questions or concerns about a specific episode of Irregular Climate you can always leave a comment on the website. But you can also contact me via twitter @scruffydan, or email

Lastly, are you personally or is your website/podcast financed by any companies or institutions relevant to the climate change issue?

Haha, I wish! So far the only financial assistance I have received is a few donations via the website from some generous listeners.  As much as I wish that Irregular Climate was a paying gig, so far it isn’t.

Thank you so much for the interview.

My pleasure.

You can follow Dan Moutal and Irregular Climate on Twitter @scruffydan & @irregclimate, and also become a fan of Irregular Climate on Facebook.

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