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Going hot and cold

06 Jan 2021 | News Roundup

If you’re wondering whether the actual data says the Earth has warmed or cooled recently, the answer is yes. As Willis Eschenbach notes, it’s a complex picture. Some parts warmed, others cooled. Some warmed a bit, others more. And again the simplistic science of climate change, and here we refer more to the rhetoric of activists and politicians than to what even most concerned scientists actually say, is inadequate even to describe let alone explain the phenomenon. We have poked fun at the trope that whatever region is currently being described is warming “faster than the average” or “twice as fast” or even “faster than any other.” But it does at least underline that it is simplistic to try to reduce this complex phenomenon to one “temperature” as though the Earth were running a fever or, indeed, catching beeping fire, a surprisingly common alarmist trope.

If it were true that every single part of Earth was, say, half a degree warmer than it was 20 years ago, using a smoothed average, it would confirm the alarmist vision. But what if it’s not? What does it even mean to insist that “the Earth” is warming under such circumstances? And we’re not just splitting hairs. A theory that can’t predict patterns of warming is not allowed to sweep the details aside and say “Never mind, the whole Earth is warming even if its component bits aren’t.”

The whole cannot here be greater than the sum of its parts. Because if the parts are subject to complex, varied and sometimes contradictory processes, so is the result. For instance, if much of South America is cooling faster than almost anywhere else what is left of Amazon forest fires due to “global” warming?

The pattern is complex. Other cold spots include the ocean around Antarctica, the North Atlantic and to a lesser degree the middle of the Indian Ocean. Hot spots include the eastern Pacific, the “centre of the southern Indian Ocean” and in fact Australia. And it has a certain fractal quality, because as you drill down you get results confounding to those who think the Earth is essentially a blue-green-white marble in a pot on a stove. According to Eschenbach, “Part of Eastern Brazil is warming fast … and western Brazil is cooling fast. Northern Africa is warming … and southern Africa is cooling. And all of Siberia is warming … say what?”

So what does it all mean? Eschenbach says “I draw no overarching conclusions about this, except that I was surprised to find out that a quarter of the world is cooling …”. But we do draw an overarching conclusion, which is that both the phenomenon and the contributing causes of temperature change in various parts of the world are far more complicated than Bill Nye putting a blowtorch to a homogenous globe two feet across.

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