Comments On The Scientifically Flawed EOS Article “What Do U.S. Students Know About Climate Change” By Kevin M. Theissen

EOS published an article titled “What Do U.S. Students Know About Climate Change” by Kevin M. Theissen on the front page in their December 20, 2011 issue (click here for EOS if you are an AGU member).  It was not presented as a “Forum” article which is the venue that is supposed to be used for opinion pieces.

The article starts with the text [highlight added]

Ask introductory-level undergraduate students about climate change science, and you are likely to get some eyebrow-raising responses. For example, you may hear, “The greenhouse effect is caused by the hole in the ozone layer, which allows in more sunlight,” “The melting of floating sea ice will result in catastrophic flooding of our coastal areas,” or “Humans are not the main cause of climate change.” While students are clearly concerned about climate change (83% of students polled by Theissen [2008] were), recent work suggests that many have significant misconceptions about the fundamental science behind it. Considering the urgent nature of the issue and the important role that students will play as informed citizens and decision makers, geoscientists and educators may want to consider using strategies that better ensure students’ climate literacy.

My Comment:  There remains considerable debate of the role of humans, not only in “global warming”, but the much broader issue of how humans are altering the climate system. The article uses the term “climate change science” without even defining what is meant by that term.

The EOS article  includes the excerpts

 Students face a second challenge in the form of climate myths and misinformation that are perpetuated by a small but vocal group of politicians and climate change skeptics. Relative to climate experts, the skeptics have an unreasonably large platform in the media and on Web sites. In her study at the University of Vermont, Dupigny- Giroux [2010] found that most undergraduates cited some form of media, such as the Internet, newspapers, television news, or even movies, as their primary source of information about climate.

My Comment: The pejorative statement that  “climate myths and misinformation… are perpetuated by a small but vocal group of politicians and climate change skeptics”  is an example of what Judy Curry has reported on in her post

On the dangerous(?) naivete of uncritical acceptance of scientific consensus

This article by Kevin Theissen perpetuates this naive, uncritical acceptance of a supposed scientific acceptance that does not even exist!  For example, see our paper

Pielke Sr., R., K.  Beven, G. Brasseur, J. Calvert, M. Chahine, R. Dickerson, D.  Entekhabi, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, H. Gupta, V. Gupta, W. Krajewski, E.  Philip Krider, W. K.M. Lau, J. McDonnell,  W. Rossow,  J. Schaake, J.  Smith, S. Sorooshian,  and E. Wood, 2009: Climate change: The need to consider human forcings besides greenhouse gases.   Eos, Vol. 90, No. 45, 10 November 2009, 413. Copyright (2009) American   Geophysical Union

where we concluded that

Unfortunately, the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment did not sufficiently acknowledge the importance of these other human climate
forcings in altering regional and global climate and their effects on predictability at the regional scale. It also placed too much emphasis on average global forcing from a limited set of human climate forcings. Further, it devised a mitigation strategy based on global model predictions.

Natural climate forcings also have been concluded to play a large role in climate variability and longer term change, as documented with examples in our paper

Rial, J., R.A. Pielke Sr., M. Beniston, M. Claussen, J. Canadell, P. Cox,  H. Held, N. de Noblet-Ducoudre, R. Prinn, J. Reynolds, and J.D. Salas,  2004: Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the Earth’s  climate system. Climatic Change, 65, 11-38.

where we wrote

Nonlinear phenomena characterize all aspects of global change dynamics, from the Earth’s climate system to human decision-making (Gallagher and Appenzeller, 1999). Past records of climate change are perhaps the most frequently cited examples of nonlinear dynamics, especially where certain aspects of climate, e.g., the thermohaline circulation of the North Atlantic ocean, suggest the existence of thresholds multiple equilibria, and other features that may result in episodes of rapid change (Stocker and Schmittner, 1997).

The EOS article by Theissen also states the

After learning about the comparatively slow rates that characterize most episodes of climate change in Earth history, students have a better appreciation for the anomalous nature of the change that has occurred during the epoch of human control of the environment, which many scholars now call the Anthropocene.

My Comment:   As we concluded in the Rial et al 2004 paper, cited above,

The Earth’s climate system is highly nonlinear: inputs and outputs are not proportional, change is often episodic and abrupt, rather than slow and gradual, and multiple equilibria are the norm.

Kevin Theissen is incorrect in his statement that “most episodes of climate change in Earth history” are at a comparatively slow rate.

The article contains the following claims in a Table within the article [the header for this section is "Problem or Misconception"  - I have italized the supposed misconception]

Climate change is primarily or entirely natural or part of a natural cycle. Data for the past 50 years indicate that human influence has been the primary driver of climate change over that time.

My Comment: This is easy to dismiss unless Kevin Theissen can show that the human role in altering  ENSO, the PDO, the NAO etc has dominated climate variations over the last 50 years. Indeed, even in terms of the global annual average warming, the recent muting of the warming shows that the climate system is much more complex than claimed in the EOS article.

Kevin’s conclusions continue

Climate change is primarily or entirely natural or part of a natural cycle. This is an example where the student is factually incorrect. Human emissions of carbon are an order of magnitude greater than volcanic sources.

My Comment:   This is a strange comment.  The statement that ‘Human emissions of carbon are an order of magnitude greater than volcanic source” does not tell us much about the subject of climate change. If Kevin Theissen is claiming that carbon emissions by humans is the dominate forcing of climate change over decadal time periods,  examples of other forcing refute this claim; e.g. see

Pielke Sr., R.A., A. Pitman, D. Niyogi, R. Mahmood, C. McAlpine, F. Hossain, K. Goldewijk, U. Nair, R. Betts, S. Fall, M. Reichstein, P. Kabat, and N. de Noblet-Ducoudré, 2011: Land  use/land cover changes and climate: Modeling analysis  and  observational evidence. WIREs Clim Change 2011. doi: 10.1002/wcc.144

and

National Research Council, 2005: Radiative forcing of climate change: Expanding the concept and addressing uncertainties. Committee on Radiative Forcing Effects on Climate Change, Climate. Research Committee, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division  on Earth and Life Studies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 208 pp.

which clearly refute his conclusion.

Kevin also lists in the table

Scientific disagreement about the causes of climate change. There is overwhelming consensus on the causes. Existing disagreements are about specific future impacts and consequences.

My Comment:   This opinion is not shared with quite a few colleagues, as exemplified by our article

Pielke Sr., R., K.  Beven, G. Brasseur, J. Calvert, M. Chahine, R. Dickerson, D.  Entekhabi, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, H. Gupta, V. Gupta, W. Krajewski, E.  Philip Krider, W. K.M. Lau, J. McDonnell,  W. Rossow,  J. Schaake, J.  Smith, S. Sorooshian,  and E. Wood, 2009: Climate change: The need to consider human forcings besides greenhouse gases.   Eos, Vol. 90, No. 45, 10 November 2009, 413. Copyright (2009) American   Geophysical Union

of which ALL of the authors are Fellows of the American Geophysical Union.  There are numerous scientific issues remaining as is discussed, for instance, in the Climate Etc weblog post

The real holes in climate science.

My Final Comment:   Kevin certainly should be permitted to express his views in an EOS article.  However, the appropriate format is the EOS Forum section. To permit him to present his opinions as a regular article in EOS implies that EOS has a strong advocacy perspective of climate science, which, as I have documented in this weblog post, is not actually supported by the science.   As EOS is among the most preeminent science newsletters in the world,  I urge EOS to return to a more balanced presentation of the climate science issue.

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