A New Kind of Denialism – Watts Up With That?

A New Kind of Denialism – Watts Up With That?


Opinion by Kip Hansen – 1 June 2021

If you thought we were over the “You’re a Climate Denier” thing, you would be wrong.  Now, one of America’s leading ‘small town rags with delusions of grandeur’, the Albany-based Times Union [TU], has labelled all Republicans in the New York State legislature as being a new kind of denialist.

Why would the Times Union Editorial Board be making such an accusation

It is because the Republican legislators are “now looking to slow down New York’s fledgling effort to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions” by having the audacity to demand that the State should require a “full cost-benefit analysis of the technical and economic aspects of any future actions”.

The Editorial Board goes on to say:

“Don’t get us wrong, the public has a right to know what the cost of a government program or mandate will be, and what it will accomplish. But that’s not what Republicans are seeking.”

And, as all newspaper Editorial Boards are well-known to be mind-readers and posses the dark art of divining the “true motives” of their political opponents:

“The goal is transparent: Stop the process in its tracks by demanding a “full cost-benefit analysis of the technical and economic aspects of any future actions”.

But this essay is not about the never-ending battle between the two political parties in the United States. 

[Note: This essay is 3K words with some “pictures” – estimated reading time 10-15 minutes – if you are in a hurry (or reading while you should be working) – bookmark it and come back later when you have a bit more free time. )

The Times Union’s Editorial Board, in this particular editorial, bases its panicked devotion to the idea of a Climate Emergency on a recently published paper that appeared in nature communications written by  “an independent science and journalism organization”.  The title is:  “Economic damages from Hurricane Sandy attributable to sea level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change“  [Open Access ]

Laughably, the paper was really written by Climate Central which claims to “report the facts of climate change however they fall” and to be “scrupulously non-advocacy and non-partisan.”  In reality they are part of a large, well-organized group of inter-connected news organizations and climate emergency advocacy groups engaged in an open and widely successful propaganda campaign to promote a sense of alarm and fear by insisting that there is an existential Climate Crisis or Climate Emergency.  Climate Central is an acknowledged  member of the climate alarm propaganda group Covering Climate Now, and also uses its own resources “to generate thousands of local storylines and compelling visuals that make climate change personal and show what can be done about it. We address climate science, sea level rise, extreme weather, energy, and related topics. We collaborate widely with TV meteorologists, journalists, and other respected voices to reach audiences across diverse geographies and beliefs. “ [ source ]

The TU editorial makes this statement about the conclusions of that paper:

“Researchers. . . . concluded that because the seas had risen almost 4 inches in recent decades because of glacial melting and water expansion from higher temperatures, the storm surge went further inland and caused $8.1 billion more damage than it otherwise would have. The higher seas allowed the surge to flood 36,000 more homes in and around New York City, they calculated.”

Well, if what they claim were true, even I would be alarmed.  Now read that carefully,  Climate Central does not  claim that anthropogenic climate  change made Hurricane Sandy stronger but only that the relative sea level in New York was 4 inches higher  in 2012 when Sandy hit than it would have been without human-caused warming.

So, now we have to take a look at the paper itself and see if it says any such thing. 

Here’s what Climate Central claims their paper found:

“They found that human-caused warming had raised New York-area sea levels roughly four inches over the century preceding the storm—enough to extend coastal flooding further inland and deepen flood waters everywhere, increasing damage to submerged structures. The heightened water levels allowed Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge to reach 36,000 more homes and affect 71,000 more people, according to the study.” [ source ]

Oddly enough (maybe not to readers here) what the paper itself really says is:

“…8.9 cm (5.2–13.1 cm) [ 3.5 inches ] of New York-area rise are attributable to human causes mediated by climate change.”

Note:  As is very common, agreed-upon definitions are hard to come by, but in this paper they use “ASLR” to mean “…climate-related anthropogenic sea level rise (ASLR)..”  as in the above paraphrased  “rise …attributable to human causes mediated by climate change.”  You may have seen other papers or references that use ASLR for Absolute Sea Level Rise as in “…absolute sea level change refers to [change in] the height of the ocean surface above the center of the earth, without regard to whether nearby land is rising or falling.”

Some game of “Chinese whispers” or “the telephone game” seems to be going on here.  Neither the TU or Climate Central itself seems to realize that the study is not about sea level rise “in recent decades” (TU) or even “over the century preceding the storm” (Climate Central).  The study as published examines the time period of 1900 through 2012 – 112 years.  Both the TU and Climate Central get the attributed-to-anthropogenic-climate-change magnitude wrong – it found 3.5 inches, not 4 inches (with a rather wide confidence interval of 60% either way—from a negligible 2 inches up to 5.1 inches).

Now I know we can all chatter on about “How much difference would an additional 4 inches make to a storm surge that is greater than 13 feet?” But, let’s move on from that to this:

As is norm for the course, storm surge during Hurricane Sandy was actually 9 feet above Mean Higher High Water – a tidal datum that the average sailor would consider high tide.  Not the 13 to 14 feet we normally see in the press.  There is no trickery here though, storm surges are measured and reported by NOAA as “water above MLLW” [Mean Lower Low Water – the mean of the lowest of the two daily low tides].  Still, nine feet is a lot of extra water if your home is built on a tidal flat just a foot or three above the high tide mark.  A lot of homes and business were flooded.  New building codes for flood-prone zones in many localities now require that the living quarters of a home be a designated number of feet above mean sea level.  These are known as “Base Flood Elevation (BFE) requirements. The Base Flood Elevation indicates how high a structure must be elevated above Mean Sea Level (MSL).” 

Let’s get back to the claim made in the Climate Central paper:

“…8.9 cm (5.2–13.1 cm) [ 3.5 inches ] of New York-area rise are attributable to human causes mediated by climate change.”

That amount has been calculated in the paper from “sea level rise budgets” – models of ice melt, expansion of sea water due to temperature increase and all those factors.  Oddly, this paper states:

“By a recent estimate, the global mean sea level (GMSL) increased 17.9 ± 4.5 cm (1σ) [ 7.04 inches ] over 1900–2012 and this rise is continuing to accelerate “

The more usual estimate in the literature is 7 to 12 inches per century, although NOAA currently uses “1.7 +/- 0.3 millimeters/year during the 20th century” which comes to 7 inches. 

Now, the folks at Climate Central did a great deal of modelling and calculation to try to separate out the naturally driven rise of the sea surface at New York City from the amount of sea surface rise caused by human activity.    Let’s see how this plays out in the real world for New York City according to Climate Central:

[click here for a larger image in a new tab/window ]

Over the study period of 112 years, we see that the tide gauge at The Battery, NYC has recorded  33.8cm or 13.3 inches of rise in the sea surface height as measured at the gauge (mean sea level).  Over on the right-hand side, we see that Climate Central correctly notes that 14.7 cm or 5.78 inches of that observed rise is actually down to subsidence – Manhattan Island has sunk almost six inches over these 12 years.  Thus, we can’t actually count those 5.78 inches as rising water.  It is Relative Sea Level Rise but not Absolute Sea Level Rise.

Our striving researchers, through a massive amount of figuring and calculating and all, have decided that 8.9 cm or 3.5 inches of the 112 years of change have been caused by “human causes mediated by climate change” or, in their other description,  “…climate-related anthropogenic sea level rise (ASLR)..”.

Well, that’s their finding – all and good.  Except that, pragmatically, such a finding is nonsensical.

Their finding, as can be seen in the illustration above, leaves only 10.2 cm or 4 inches of the 112 years’ worth of Relative Sea Level Rise accountable to natural causes – causes not attributable to humans

We can see that from 1860 to 1960, 100 years believed by the IPCC to not yet show any effects of anthropogenic global warming, there was about 31 cm or 12.2 inches of relative sea level rise at The Battery.  The IPCC does not make any claim for anthropogenic causes during this period. Human activity certainly did not cause that 12 inches (31 cm ) of Sea Level Rise at The Battery.  In that same 100 years, it is probable that The Battery (and all the land around NY City) subsided at least 13.1 cm or 5.15 inches.  I say “at least” because much of the waterfront property on Manhattan Island and Long Island is really filled marsh or bay – which is known to have additional subsidence.  Taking subsidence into account, that leaves just over 17.9 cm  or  7 inches of actual sea surface height rise over the 100 years prior to when signs of anthropogenic influence on sea level or temperature appeared  (which equates roughly to “the mid-20th century” – IPCC on AGW in AR5).  

Referencing the IPCC:

“It is very likely that the global mean rate [of sea level rise] was 1.7 [1.5 to 1.9] mm yr–1 between 1901 and 2010 for a total sea level rise of 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m. Between 1993 and 2010, the rate was very likely higher at 3.2 [2.8 to 3.6] mm yr–1; similarly high rates likely occurred between 1920 and 1950.  [ source – WG1AR5 Chapter 13 .pdf ]

Note:  The difference in rate of rise, which may or may not be real in the physical world, results mainly from shifting from the tide gauge record to the satellite record.  The jury is still out on which is more physically correct.  For this analysis, it doesn’t matter.  – kh

Now, I know I have been throwing around a lot of numbers and it can be confusing, but I’ll supply some graphics to clear it up a bit later.   For those who find reading text that has a lot of similar numbers embedded in it difficult or confusing, and I sympathize, I really do, you can skip on down to the illustrations later on without losing too much meaning — you’ll miss only the finer details.

The IPCC says the sea surface height rose 7.5 inches globally from 1901 to 2010 (110 years).  That agrees very well with the calculation above of 7 inches of sea surface height rise from 1860 to 1960 at The Battery.    We could just call it “evens”.  

We can ignore the contested increase in rate after 1993, as it is included in the IPCC’s total calculation of the “between 1901 and 2010 for a total sea level rise of 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m.” (that’s 1.74 mm/yr very close to “1.7 [1.5 to 1.9] mm yr–1”)

We see that it doesn’t much matter which 100 years at The Battery we consider, the actual sea surface height there has risen about 17.9 cm or 7 inches over any recent 100 year period.  We can write that figure on our white board and circle it – at The Battery, the seas surface has risen about 7 inches every 100 years  — any recent 100 year period before or after any human influence could have affected it.  The same 7 inches.  Before or after any human influence.

Just let me repeat this:

At The Battery, the sea’s surface has risen about 7 inches in 100 years  — any recent 100 year period before or after any human influence could have affected it.  The same 7 inches.  Before or after any human influence.

The following graphic, which I reuse from a previous essay (corrected for use here, btw), covers only the fifty ears prior to Hurricane Sandy, but the issues, if not the numbers, are the same:

[ click here for larger image in a new window/tab ]

From our expectations derived from past SLR at The Battery, the left-most panel, we thought we would see “apparent rise” caused by the known subsidence, plus the rise from the long-term rate, plus the “extra” SLR from AGW.  But when we got to 2013 (the year after Hurricane Sandy), the actual sea surface height at The Battery was about what would have been expected by the long-term rate of rise alone. There was no extra SLR from AGW in evidence at all.  The chart on the right gives all the references for the numbers.

So, on both a 100-year basis and on a 50-year basis, the rise in the actual sea surface height (the water actually rising) at The Battery can be accounted for by a simple continuation of the long-term trend – all the way back to the beginning of the tide gauge record in 1860.  There is no “extra” sea level rise that can be added to the accounting under the heading “sea level rise due to human-caused warming”.

Now that we have established that, how can we even begin to accept Climate Central’s claim that:  “….human-caused warming had raised New York-area sea levels roughly four inches over the century preceding the storm”.  [ Climate Central at  source ]

If we had seen the scenario below, long-term sea level rise, with an additional 4 inches showing up by 2012 (shown in orange) then, with enough carefully calculated evidence, we might be able to accept that this increase was not just an increase in the rate due to the long-term natural processes that caused the previous SLR, but rather was “human-caused”.    

However, we did not see such any additional, extra SLR, only the long-term trend. 

Pragmatically, to accept Climate Central’s claim, one would have to ignore the long-term sea level rise statements from the IPCC – and somehow mentally disappear over half of the long-term natural sea level rise and substitute in its place the same amount of  ”human-caused” sea level rise. 

Well, one could do that, but then where did the expected 4 inches of natural sea level rise go when we discarded it?  What happened to the natural rise?  What type dynamic global system, like the interaction between the Oceans, the Atmosphere, and the Sun,  that has been chugging along for at least 200 years (I say 300 years) could suddenly ignore 200 years of inertia and change dramatically? …. not change in rate or effect, those remained the same, but magically change its underlying CAUSE?

The very idea is both logically and scientifically absurd. 

Bottom Line:

The Climate Central study, on which the Times Union editorial is partially based, despite what must have been hundreds of hours of careful calculations and computer modelling time, arrives at a conclusion which is not only physically impossible and illogical, but is absurd on its face.  

Thus the claim that, due to human-caused warming, Hurricane Sandy had   “caused $8.1 billion more damage than it otherwise would have. The higher seas allowed the surge to flood 36,000 more homes” must be thrown out with the SLR finding.

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Author’s Comment:

First, to be fair, the Albany, NY Times Union newspaper is the leading daily newspaper of Albany, which is the capitol city of New York state.  It has a great deal of influence on the politics of New York state, its legislature, and the way-to-many New York state employees.  It is, however, almost entirely unknown outside of Albany county and massively overshadowed by the New York Times, and even the New York Post, both of which are based in New York City. 

I am at somewhat of a loss to try to explain how the well-trained scientists associated with Climate Central could have accepted their own result, or how peer reviewers could have approved this paper for publication. 

My only explanation is a very common fault in the Science of Today.

My explanation is The Fallacy of Reification. 

“Reification (also known as concretism, hypostatization, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, as a concrete thing. A common case of reification is the confusion of a model with reality: “the map is not the territory”.” [ source ]

Whenever I have mentioned this in a public forum such as this web site, there has been backlash heaped on backlash.  When I say reification, I mean specifically that some scientist, some even writing here, do computerized computation based on  ideas, concepts, creating massive data bases full of numbers about something – and then say their results are reality. But the results of those calculations are not the physical world – the results are only valid  within their computerized models. 

Next, those conceptual measurements are claimed, in many cases actually believed, to exist in the physical world and to trump actual in-situ measurements of the physical world itself. 

That is what appears to have happened in this case.  The modeled and calculated “anthropogenic contributions to sea level” have been reified – “treated as concrete” as if they were real world water added to the oceans causing the sea surface to rise – despite the absence of any evidence of that rise in the tide gauge record at The Battery.   

This is the true new face of A New Kind of Denialism – a denial of reality:

Reified model data and calculated concepts have been used to trump physical reality.

It is my opinion that science must treat Reality with more regard.  Get out and touch and measure the thing you are studying – unplug your computer until you have gotten your hands way-too-dirty at the seashore and sitting in a dinghy tied to a seawall if you want to know about sea level rise. 

Address your comment to “Kip . . .“ if speaking to me.

Thanks for reading.

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