How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Ssshhhhh….it’s classified

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrialization until today. We’ve gone from a baseline of 280 ppm to 404 ppm today, a level of atmospheric CO2 not seen in over 600,000 years. It’s irrefutable evidence of the impact man has had on the atmosphere and our climate. And now…evidently under the Trump administration, the level of atmospheric CO2 is classified information.

Science is in the news again!  Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life.  No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published  No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.

It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration.  Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights.  Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything?  It’s all good!  In place of the climate change and LGBT information?  Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.

Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well.  This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”.  It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity.  “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating.  Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.

Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”.  The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”.  EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”.  In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.

Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration.  I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message.  Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change.  Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:

National Park Service - Badlands Tweets

Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies.  The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:

A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.

Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.

The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent.  Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.

The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.

Hurricane Matthew and U.S. Science Bashing…

Hurricane Matthew - Model Predictions

Ensemble model predictions for Hurricane Matthew over the next 7-10 days. The models all predict the path up the east coast of Florida, with some very minor variation in exact track. After about 5 days, the modeled tracks start to vary, with uncertainty in the hurricane’s path increasing as you move further and further into the future.

It’s early October. Winter is coming.  From a scientific perspective, we know why.  Given the tilt of the earth in relationship to the sun, the Northern Hemisphere is about to receive far less incoming solar radiation than in the summer months.  The obvious result…cooler temps than in summer.  The depths of winter may be a few months out, but we KNOW what’s going to happen based on some very basic, easily measured scientific information.

If we KNOW it’s going to get colder several  months in advance…why can’t a weatherman tell me if it’s going to rain or snow on Halloween?  That’s much closer, after all.  If a meteorologist can’t tell me what the weather will be like in 3 weeks, how can they possibly know that winter is going to be colder?  Clearly meteorologists and climatologists have no idea what they’re talking about.

THAT is the basic argument that was making the rounds on social media over the last day or two. Climate change skeptics are trying to link uncertainty in hurricane tracks to uncertainty in climate change, stating that if we can’t perfectly predict a hurricane’s track several days in advance, how can we possibly know what the climate will do over the next several decades?  Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, and is about to strike Florida.  As always, National Weather Service continues to monitor the storm, and issue forecasts on the likely future track.  There are uncertainties, of course.  Scientists use “ensemble modeling” to try to account for uncertainties in models.  Any ONE model may or may not have biases and error, but running many different models helps a scientist to visualize overall patterns and describe the most LIKELY outcome.

Fake Hurricane Model Graphic

A graphic circulating widely on social media, giving a false impression of hurricane forecasting.

For hurricane modeling, a common graphic is a hurricane forecast map that shows individual predictions of many different models.  These graphics also typically include an “average” track, created by basically averaging all the different model runs.  Typically an ensemble model graph looks like the image at the top, showing where Hurricane Matthew is likely to go over the next 7-10 days.  Uncertainty is much lower closer to the present time, so model tracks tend to be close to each other at first, and then become more uncertainty as the prediction period lengthens.  In the real Hurricane Matthew example above, the models are all quite consistent in predicting Matthew will hug the Florida coast  They all predict Matthew will take a right turn off the coast of South Carolina, Model paths then diverge some, although in updated predictions from the graphic above, models are mostly predicting a strong clockwise turn that may bring the hurricane back to Florida for a 2nd round.

On social media over the last few days, the 2nd graphic has been circulating.  It gives a very false impression of hurricane predictions, with many more modeled tracks than there are actual hurricane models, winding all over the map like a bowl of spaghetti.  The “punch line” with this graphic on social media?  That meteorologists have no idea where a hurricane is going in a few days, and thus they can’t possibly know that climate change is going to occur in the coming decades.

Other than the misrepresentation in the 2nd graphic of real hurricane model uncertainty, this attack on climate science makes a fundamental error in the difference between short-term weather, and longer-term climate.  It’s similar to the pathetic attack on climate science by James Inhofe on the U.S. Senate floor, where he brought a snowball onto the floor and thereby declared that since it was snowing, climate change clearly wasn’t occurring.  The analogy to the coming winter is quite fitting though. For seasonal change, we KNOW the physical characteristics of the earth/sun system that drive the changes between seasons.  For long-term climate change, we KNOW the physical impact of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Just as seasonal change occurs because of solar radiation differences between seasons, we KNOW the climate is going to warm given greenhouse gas influences on the balance between how much solar radiation is maintained in the earth/atmosphere system, versus how much radiates back out to space.

In effect, we’re putting a blanket on the atmosphere, trapping more heat.  It’s a known, physically measurable and quantifiable characteristic of the earth/sun/climate system, just as is the changing of the seasons.Just as it’s much harder to predict short-term variability in weather (including hurricane tracks over the next 7-10 days) versus long-term seasonal trends (hotter in summer, colder in winter), it’s much easier to predict long-term trends in climate, based on how we’re altering the atmosphere.

As a scientist the most frustrating thing about the 2nd graphic and the social media’s false attack on climate science is that it fits a general pattern of “science bashing” in the United States.  Be it evolution, climate change, or a host of other KNOWN scientific processes, there’s an odd anti-science pushback that’s grounded more in religion and politics than actual science.  It’s not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it certainly is much more amplified and prevalent in the U.S. than in most countries.  The politicization of science, the blatant disregard for scientific theory and even real, measurable empirical evidence, turns even something as obvious as evolution or climate change into a faux controversy.

All for the sake of advancing a political or religious agenda.

Don’t fall for the social media bullshit.  Scientists and modelers have done a wonderful job tracking and predicting Matthew’s path, giving millions in its potential path time to prepare or evacuate.  Weather is weather, and modeling an exact path over a week out is still an inexact (but rapidly improving) science.  That uncertainty in NO way relates to our certainty about long-term warming trends in relationship to climate change.

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