Wednesday, April 07, 2010

What to do when you have science

I found the first part of my series "What to do when you don't have science" a bit depressing. So to counteract that I would like to link to an excellent example of what you do when the science is backing you.

On April 17, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency found that greenhouse gases were a threat to the public health and welfare of current and future generations. However, before the agency could act, they called for public questions and comments. And did they ever receive comments - 380,000 of them.

The agency then sat down and looked at and responded to all the ones that raised scientific concerns. The final report on the comments has been made public and can be found here. I am impressed by the detail of the responses and the care that the EPA took to address the concerns. Their responses total over 700 pages and I have included a sample of how they respond to a question at the end of this post (note that it is quite long).

In contrast to this level of detail, when pressed about his papers inability to show anything about the rise in global temperatures, Mr. McLean responded with the comment "If the SOI accounts for short-term variation then logically it also accounts for long-term variation."

Comment (4-3):
Many commenters argue that models do not capture a number of important processes. For example, commenters list processes such as clouds, dust, chemistry, and biological systems (0195,0546,3722), “Asian brown cloud” (3330.1), black carbon (3316.1,3596.1), historical albedo changes (0639.1), soil moisture (3596.1), various non-GHG anthropogenic forcings such as land use change and heat islands (3222.1), solar activity (2895), cosmic radiation (0650), and increased evaporation (1606.1) (which the commenter notes has not been seen because of global dimming). One commenter cites Wild (2005b) and Stanhill and Cohen (2009) when stating that “[c]urrent models do not consider the observed solar ‘dimming’ and post-1985 ‘brightening.’” Commenter (3722) states that EPA failed to consider soils and vegetation in the carbon cycle, citing Dyson (1999) as stating that it makes no sense to consider the atmosphere and ocean alone.

One commenter (3316.1) quotes the Scientific Alliance as stating that “it is sobering to note that the last IPCC Assessment Report, published just two years ago, makes no mention of the significant effect of soot.”

Response (4-3):
We have reviewed the assessment literature in light of these comments and the referenced materials, and we conclude that commenters are incorrect. In fact, the models do include the most essential climaterelated processes. Many or most models include the effects of black carbon, global dimming, and other aerosol issues (including the atmospheric brown cloud), atmospheric chemistry, biological ecosystem uptake, natural variability on various timescales, land use change and historical albedo changes, and soil moisture and evaporation. These are all addressed in detail by the IPCC (Randall et al., 2007) and CCSP (2008c), which detail many of the newer advances in modeling terrestrial systems, aerosol indirect effects, and other properties. Figure 1.2 of Le Treut et al. (2007) and Figure 1.1 of CCSP (2008c) show graphical depictions of the evolution of climate models, showing that modern models now include chemistry, sulfates, precipitation, volcanic activity, land surface albedo, non-sulfate aerosols, rivers, interactive vegetation, sea ice, the carbon cycle, and overturning ocean circulation. Randall et al. note that carbon cycle dynamics now include soil carbon cycle, and devote a section to soil moisture feedbacks.

Global dimming refers to the reduction of sunlight reaching the surface, in large part due to increased aerosol emissions during the mid to late 20th century. This dimming has consequences for vertical temperature distributions, evaporation, ecosystem growth, and other climatic variables. Dimming in particular was addressed in terms of observational studies by the IPCC in Trenberth et al. (2007). Both submitted references (Wild, 2005b; Stanhill and Cohen, 2009) are also observational studies and are consistent with the IPCC treatment of these observations in that both studies show that dimming has reduced after 1990 (the Wild study was included in Trenberth et al.), though there is disagreement between the two studies in the urban bias of the dimming, with Stanhill and Cohen showing that in Israel the evidence is consistent with a more broad-based dimming. Any model that includes aerosols (which is nearly all of them) also includes the basic physics that lead to “dimming” and “brightening.” There are, however, continued uncertainties about historical and projected aerosol emissions, and those uncertainties are summarized in Section 6 of the TSD.

Clouds are difficult to model computationally because the physics involved in cloud formation occurs at scales smaller than the resolution of most climate models. Therefore, clouds are represented by parameterizations in global climate models rather than being calculated explicitly. Because cloud responses to climatic change are important for both the trapping and reflection of energy, we recognize that clouds contribute to uncertainties in model-based results. For this reason, the TSD summarizes the uncertainties involved in estimating the indirect albedo effect (see Section 4[a]), some regional changes in precipitation (see Section 6[b]), and issues involving cloud representation (see Section 6[b]). With regards to the IPCC Assessment Report not mentioning soot, we note that soot and black carbon are both addressed at length in Forster et al. (2007). See also the response on black carbon in Volume 3 on commenters attributing recent temperature change to black carbon instead of GHGs.

Historical patterns of solar activity are also included in the models. For EPA’s responses to issues involving the influence of cosmic radiation on climate, please refer to Volume 3 of this Response to Comments document.

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