Global energy accumulation

There’s a recent post on uknowispeaksense that presents a video by Hank Green, arguing that global warming is a crappy name. It reminded me that I’d written before about why the term global warming can be misleading (here too).

There are a number of problems with the term global warming. One is that it is generally interpreted only as referring to an increase in surface temperatures and, hence, partly creates confusion when some associate extreme cold with global warming. It also ignores that global warming is more fundamentally an accumulation of energy in the climate system that then leads to an increase in surface temperatures – it’s not just about an increase in surface temperatures. Hank Green correctly recognises this subtlety and suggests that we should really use average global atmospheric energy increase. I agree that we should recognise that it’s about energy and not just temperature.

My main issue with his suggested terminology is that it is a little unwieldy, and also ignores that most of the energy goes into the oceans. Otherwise, he is full of energy and enthusiasm and his video is well worth watching (plus getting the terminology right is fraught with difficulty, so I can’t really fault his attempt).

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47 Responses to Global energy accumulation

  1. I don’t have my headphones at work, so apologies if this is covered in the vid, but what’s wrong with “climate change” or “man-made climate change”?

  2. It does mention that and suggests that the scientific community are comfortable with “climate change”. His argument was along the lines that we don’t understand the global scale when we use climate change and that, fundamentally, it’s the accumulation of energy globally that is acting to drive climate change. I tend to agree with him, but am not convinced that explicitly mentioning energy will necessarily help. Having said that, making people more aware that we are continuing to add energy to our climate system may help to make people realise that extreme events will become more likely, even if we don’t quite understand precisely in what way this energy accumulation will influence extreme events.

  3. Rachel says:

    I saw that video and post on UKISS and thought it was good. Hank is definitely exuberant which adds to the video I thought.

    I probably agree that average global atmospheric energy increase is a bit long and confusing but climate change does miss some of the dynamics of the concept. Dare I mention atomic bombs? Whoops, I just did.

  4. OPatrick says:

    I don’t believe it really makes any significant difference what words are used – if someone wants to understand it they will and if they want to be misled they will allow someone to mislead them. The issue is a complex one so any label will be a massive simplification and open to attack by someone acting in bad faith.

    Having said that, I do think any term that doesn’t include the concept of change or, perhaps more importantly, imbalance is not going to capture the key problem. Arguably ‘warming’ and ‘increase’ both do this, but maybe not as emphatically as they should.

  5. BBD says:

    Ye knotty problemme is that most people don’t really understand the difference between energy and heat. And there the whole thing bogs down into the sand.

    [Mod: Snipped part of this comment since it referred to another which has been deleted]

  6. Skeptikal says:

    [Mod: I’m not going to accept complaints about moderation. If you have something constructive to contribute then please do so, otherwise do not comment]

  7. OPatrick says:

    To add to my previous comment I thnk ‘imbalance’ is important as it communicates something of the uncertainty that’s the biggest problem. The warmer world, or changed climate, is not in itself necessarily the issue, it’s the unpredictability of the route getting there that may prove catastrophic.

  8. BBD says:

    I’ve started using “forced climate change” occasionally. We all know who and what is doing the forcing and “sceptics” are oddly sensitive to the term, so it works for me. Anything that avoids “anthropogenic” works for me.

  9. OPatrick,

    I don’t believe it really makes any significant difference what words are used

    I largely agree. The terminology is just a way of referring to something much more complex. If you choose not (or are unable) to understand the complexities of what’s being described, changing the terminology is not going to help much. If you are interested, you can always ask someone to explain it in more detail, in which case the original terminology becomes less important.

    To add to my previous comment I thnk ‘imbalance’ is important

    I agree, but I once tried to discuss the energy imbalance with another climate blogger and they appeared to not only not understand what was meant by that term, they also didn’t think the term energy excess made any sense either.

    BBD.

    Anything that avoids “anthropogenic” works for me.

    Why?

  10. Marlowe Johnson says:

    ‘Climate disruption’ has always been my preferred term as it carries an appropriate normative component and avoids the implication that all places will get warmer all the time.

  11. BBD says:

    ATTP

    Because it’s a clumsy, ugly word and we all know that it’s us. The usage is therefore both aesthetically weak and functionally redundant.

  12. BBD says:

    Hello Marlowe

    Yes, good one that. I remember when it appeared a few years back. Deserves wider popularity.

  13. BBD,

    Because it’s a clumsy, ugly word and we all know that it’s us. The usage is therefore both aesthetically weak and functionally redundant.

    True, but I guess there are still those who dispute this. However, a change in terminology is unlikely to influence them, so you probably make a valid point.

    Marlowe,
    Yes, that does seem apt. Again, I’m slightly struggling with trying to understand the purpose of the terminology though. We could probably all agree on something like that as being appropriate. If, however, the goal is to not only better describe what’s happening but also illustrate something to those who are still uncertain, then I’m not sure how well that would work.

    As OPatrick says, though, maybe there’s little we can do from a terminological perspective to convince those who are unconvinced.

  14. OPatrick says:

    ‘Out of balance’ might be clearer (or have the more appropriate impact) than ‘imbalance’. I also like ‘climate disruption’, except that it doesn’t imply a direction.

    I disagree that anthropogenic is an ugly word – I think it has a nice rhythm to it and I like the etymology, nice and clear, a sort of beginner-friendly etymology.

  15. BBD says:

    koyaanisquatsi

  16. OPatrick says:

    I didn’t know it meant that!

    Sadly, I suspect, only effetive for the already converted. But so effective.

  17. Arthur Smith says:

    “Global heating” seems a slightly more accurate term than “global warming”, and expresses most of the “energy accumulation” idea. Or is the problem that lay people think of “heat” (or warmth) and “energy” differently?

  18. Marlowe Johnson says:

    ATTP

    as you say, what’s the point? a simple question that doesn’t have a simple answer i think, but the delima offered by schneider of being accurate and meaningful is a useful starting point. people only have so much time in their day and while terms like ‘climate change’ are accurate, they don’t provide a useful frame for the average person to put the issue in context.

    words matter. one need only look at the names of the various right wing think tanks in the u.s. for an illustration.

    would be interested to hear what other science communicators and poli sci types think. oh and willard of course 😉

  19. @ andthentheresphysics January 15, 2014 at 11:58 am. Cheers!

  20. Marlowe Johnson says:

    BBD,

    another term that was making the rounds in the german media serveral years ago was ‘climate catastrophe’. i often wonder if things would have turned out differently if that term had been used from the get go in the late 80s when public discourse on this issue wasn’t so poisoned and distorted.

    speaking of catastrophe it’s useful to keep things in perspective:

    5 million years – There will be no more men
    1.3 billion years – end of most cellular life
    100 trillion years – all stars have died

    🙂
    http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140105-timeline-of-the-far-future

  21. BBD says:

    Marlowe

    Dunno, but I suspect that the usual suspects would simply have attacked the term sooner, given us the “CAGW” finger sooner, but generally done exactly what they did anyway and poisoned and distorted the discourse much the same.

  22. Barry,
    Thanks, I saw that. Do you have any thoughts about it?

  23. OPatrick says:

    Barry, in what sense are those articles relevant to the topic? I couldn’t see any discussion in them about what language best captures the reality we are experiencing. Perhaps what is relevant is the question of what language to use to describe the short term fluctuations in atmospheric temperatures – was that your point? It’s clear that headlines like ‘global warming at a standstill’ are a poor choice, but is that the fault of the use of the phrase ‘global warming’?

  24. OPatrick,
    I’ll express my thoughts on their relevance and Barry can comment as to whether he agrees or not. The papers are suggesting that the large El Niño in 1997/1998 released a lot of energy from the Pacific and, as the paper says, the entire eastern Pacific flipped into a cool state that has continued more or less to this day. The basic idea then – I think – is that the ocean has since been absorbing an anomalously large fraction of the energy excess, partly to replace the energy lost in the 1997/1998 event (or, maybe, more correctly, the large event pushed the system further out of balance so that, subsequently, the oceans have been absorbing a larger fraction, than normal, of the energy excess). Consequently, surface warming has been slower than expected and has lead to suggestions of a “pause” or “hiatus”. Of course, this is not a pause/hiatus in overall warming, but only in surface warming and hence illustrates why associating global warming with surface warming only can result to a misleading view of overall warming and whether or not “global heating” – as Arthur suggests – or an “energy imbalance” – as you suggested – still continues.

  25. Barry Woods says:

    both articles refer to scientists (and papers) explaining or seeking to explain where energy is going…The 1st article is in NATURE, hardly home to ‘sceptics’

    it would seem that natural variability is an perhaps an explanation being explored (at least in part of) for short term warming and ‘stalling’) observed in 80-90’s and this so far this century..

    Met Office’s Chief scientist Julia Slingo raised a similar question at the #RSclimate meeting,
    and she also thought PDO a key component. see the 42:46 mark royalsociety.org/marotzke.mp3:

    “…it’s a great presentation about 15 years being irrelevant, but I think, some of us might say if you look at the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and it’s timescale that it appears to work, it could be 30 years, and therefore I think, you know, we are still not out of the woods yet on this one. … If you do think it’s internal variability, and you say we do think the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is a key component of this, and it’s now in it’s particular phase, but was previously in the opposite phase, could you not therefore explain the accelerated warming of the 80s and 90s as being driven by the other phase of natural variability?” – Julia Slingo

  26. OPatrick says:

    Ah, I was about to say I’d realised Barry had probably posted in the wrong thread, meaning to comment here.

  27. Barry,

    both articles refer to scientists (and papers) explaining or seeking to explain where energy is going…The 1st article is in NATURE, hardly home to ‘sceptics’

    it would seem that natural variability is an perhaps an explanation being explored (at least in part of) for short term warming and ‘stalling’) observed in 80-90′s and this so far this century..

    I agree, but that’s kind of the point and has been quite a major theme of this blog. If these papers have some merit, then the supposed hiatus is – in a long term sense – not very important. Overall warming continues as expected (i.e., the GW theory is largely correct) and the current “slowdown” will, very likely, be followed by accelerated surface warming in the coming decades.

  28. BBD says:

    This is just more insinuation of the “it’s natural cycles not AGW” meme. And transparently so.

  29. Barry Woods says:

    what perhaps is important, is the scientists are suggesting part of the rapid short term rate of warming seen in the 80-90’s is now being attributed to natural variability, vs previously thought AGW.. which will perhaps further constrain models. early days so far.

    look at the wording on the nature graphic.. ie PDO as a contributor to warming in 80-90’s AND earlier last century, and also an explanation (in part, or more) for ‘stalling’ now, and stalling mid last century.. (Trenberth of course is no sceptic)

  30. Barry Woods says:

    so as I’m a lukewarmer ie low end of IPCC range for senistivity) … not a AGA sceptic anyway ..
    lots to agree on. and the next decades observed temperatures, air AND ocean, should go a long way to resolving things.

  31. OPatrick says:

    could you not therefore explain the accelerated warming of the 80s and 90s as being driven by the other phase of natural variability?

    Has anyone ever argued otherwise? My understanding is that even at the time most people weren’t thinking that the short term trend was expected to continue as high for very long and that now it is more or less universally accepted that the rapid rate in the ’80s and ’90s was due to natural variation imposed on an ongoing warming trend.

  32. Barry,

    look at the wording on the nature graphic.. ie PDO as a contributor to warming in 80-90′s AND earlier last century, and also an explanation (in part, or more) for ‘stalling’ now, and stalling mid last century.. (Trenberth of course is no sceptic)

    I think you’re somewhat mis-interpreting what’s being suggested. The long-term trend (say 1950 to today) is around 0.15oC per decade. The suggestion is essentially that the periods where the warming is faster or slower than this long-term trend is a consequence natural variability driven, possibly, by ocean cycles. The idea is not that when it’s faster than the long-term trend that it’s all natural variability, simply that the variabiility around this long-term trend is a consequence of natural/internal variability.

    As OPatrick mentions above, this is not even particularly controversial or new. I think this has always been accepted as likely (i.e., that the surface warming will show variability).

    It’s also hard to see how you can use this to argue for the low-end of the range. If the long-term trend is 0.15oC per decade and if we double CO2 by 2060, that would imply a TCR of around 1.5 to 1.6oC. I think a simple conversion from TCR to ECS is to multiply by about 1.7, so an ECS of around 2.6oC. So, how do you use this information to argue that the low-end is more likely than a value closer to the middle of the range?

  33. Joshua says:

    Barry –

    Do those articles affect in any way the terminology that you might use to describe the impact of ACO2 on the climate?

  34. Joshua says:

    Oh – and if so, how?

  35. Barry Woods says:

    This, suggests not (at the time) ?
    ‘scientists are open to charge that they ignored…”
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23060-has-global-warming-ground-to-a-halt.html#.UtexAPRdV6Q

    NS: Q – Are these cycles just something scientists have invented to explain away the lack of recent warming?

    NS: A – No. The Met Office admits that we still know far too little about how these natural cycles work, and how big they are. And climate scientists are open to the charge that they ignored the potential impact of natural variability when it was accelerating global warming. According to Brian Hoskins of Imperial College London, it now looks like natural cycles played a big role in the unexpectedly fast warming of the 1990s.

  36. OPatrick says:

    To be fair though that is written by Fred Pearce.

  37. Barry,

    According to Brian Hoskins of Imperial College London, it now looks like natural cycles played a big role in the unexpectedly fast warming of the 1990s.

    You seem to be avoiding some questions. I agree that what Brian Hoskins says may well be correct. But the trend during that period was close to 0.25oC per decade. Similarly it is likely that it’s playing a role in the slower warming this decade, producing a trend of around 0.1oC per decade. Hence, my question to you was how is this consistent with the TCR/ECS being at the low-end of the range?

  38. Barry Woods says:

    hi joshua.. I’ve had the chat with some scientists, basically longer the pause, the more constrained things (comp projections) become.. ie the ‘how much’ issue..

  39. Barry,
    Really? In what way? That may make some sense, but you really still haven’t explained why you think the low-end of the range is more likely than the middle or the higher end. Wishful thinking, or do you actually have some thoughts on this?

  40. BBD says:

    And then there’s paleoclimate.

  41. Joshua says:

    Barry –

    Was that an answer to my question?

    As I see it, the problem with the terminology as it is currently used, for the most part, is that it results in confusion whereby some folks conflate a “pause in global warming” or a “stop in global warming” or a “hiatus in global warming” with a short-term decrease in the rate of increase of land surface temps only.

    That said, there is a corresponding problem in that others have conflated “global warming” with an increasing rate of increase in land surface temps only.

    Now people who really studies these issues are not so confused.

    And there are people who seek to exploit ambiguity in the terminology to score points in the climate wars.

    But it matters not which terminology is used w/r/t either of those groups, as they would be unaffected by any change in terminology.

    A question remains, however, what the impact might be of different terminology for people who fall outside of those two groups.

    Anyway, back to my question. Could you answer it now?

  42. Joshua,

    A question remains, however, what the impact might be of different terminology for people who fall outside of those two groups.

    I agree, that is the interesting question.

    In an earlier comment, Marlowe said

    words matter. one need only look at the names of the various right wing think tanks in the u.s. for an illustration.

    which I would agree with, but again, for those who understand the details and for those who are actually interested in understanding the details, it’s not that important. For those who have no desire to understand the details, it probably also doesn’t matter since nothing will change their minds. So, the interesting question is what terminology to use for those who don’t have a view but could be swayed, one way or the other, by a careful use of words. The problem with thinking in this way is that it then feels as though we’re behaving like right wing think tanks (in the sense that we’re exploiting terminology) and that feels rather seedy.

  43. Joshua says:

    Anders (my preferred name of the Physicist Formerly Known as Watts is too unwieldy so I’m going with the crowd) –

    From that angle, I think that climate change or man-made climate change are probably the best terms to use. They’re relatively simple, fairly clear, and are pretty inclusive in ways that diminish the impact of campaigns like the “Global warming has paused” campaign.

    Of course, “climate change” was attacked by “skeptics” who claimed that using more precise and clear terminology was actually an effort on the part of “realists” to adjust language to fit an agenda when “warming” became less overtly apparent.

    Certainly, expect that any change in terminology will be attacked in a similar fashion by right-wingers, or “skeptics” who are pursuing a partisan agenda.

  44. AnOilMan says:

    Barry Woods: The other elephant in the room with the ‘pause’ is that we are at a different energy level than before and natural cycles will be fundamentally altered as different energy flows dominate.

    At some point global warming will dominate much of this ‘noise’.

  45. > words matter. one need only look at the names of the various right wing think tanks in the u.s. for an illustration. would be interested to hear what other science communicators and poli sci types think. oh and willard of course

    As you may already know, I think style matters, Marlowe.
    The Internet is our best estimator of eternity.
    Near the end — but it never ends!
    How we say things to one another might matter more than what.

    I guess I should add something about Frank Luntz, to whom we owe the expression:

    Climateball is a word placement discipline.

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