Yet Another Study on Climate Change, or Is This One a Game Changer?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 29, 2014 28

In 1850, Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers. Today, only 25 remain large enough (at least 25 acres in area) to be considered functional. ©Eric Rock

You probably looked at the headline above and thought: Another article on climate change, ho-hum. Right? I can tell you that even I had to think hard about writing yet another one, given that climate change is one of my greatest environmental concerns. Over the past several years, the topic has taken up a great deal of my writing time (see Will Climate Change Increase Antarctica’s Biodiversity—Or Diminish It and Wildfire Risk: Will Future Forests Be Treeless, for a small sample).

However, when I saw this new study, I couldn’t help myself. On April 6, 2014, in the online journal Climate Dynamics, physics Professor Shaun Lovejoy of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, reported that he statistically analyzed—without the assistance of computer climate models—temperature data over the pre-industrial period and the industrial period and found that the hypothesis that global warming is due to natural variability can now be rejected with a confidence level greater than 99 percent.

That’s big. So is this just another study on climate change, or will it be the one that makes us all believe that our rapidly warming planet is human caused?

Rapid climate change is likely to exceed the ability of many species to migrate or adjust. ©Eric Rock

Back to nature: ice cores, lake sediments and tree rings

Over the past several decades, there have been numerous studies indicating that the current warming of our planet is largely due to human activities. The large majority of them, though, were based on analyses obtained by using computer-driven global climate models (GCMs). Much of the resistance to believing in climate change has been attributed to these models. Skeptics ask if we can really infer connections between anthropogenic (caused by human activities) factors and global warming; after all, computer analyses could be wrong for a number of reasons and overrelying on them when making assertions lessens their credibility.

In his new study, Professor Lovejoy, however, made no use of the computer models commonly used by scientists to estimate the magnitude of future climate change. In an op-ed piece he wrote for the online magazine LiveScience, he stated: “Last year, the Quebec Skeptics Society threw down the gauntlet: ‘If anthropogenic global warming is as strong as scientists claim, then why do they need supercomputers to demonstrate it?’ My immediate response was, ‘They don’t.’ ”

So Lovejoy set out to prove it. Instead of GCMs, he used a variety of gauges found in nature—such as ice cores, lake sediments and tree rings from the pre-industrial period (1500–1900) and carbon-dioxide production from the burning of fossil fuels as a surrogate for all human influences on the climate during the industrial period (1880 to 2000, a simplification Lovejoy justifies by the close relationship between global economic activity and the emission of greenhouse gases and particulate pollution). He then applied fluctuation-analysis techniques, which make it possible to understand temperature variations over wide ranges of time.

The results were clear: Lovejoy states that we can now reject natural variability as the cause for our current climate change with a 99 percent assurance.

Just one more to ignore

Lovejoy believes his new study provides incontrovertible evidence to climate change deniers. Their two staunch arguments—that global warming is natural in origin and that computer models can’t be trusted—are either directly contradicted by his results or simply don’t apply to it.

Even a small temperature rise (0.76° C) will mean more extensive droughts in places such as India. ©Toby Sinclair

Critics have already pointed out, however, that temperature data was not recorded 500 years ago, so the methods Lovejoy used for the pre-industrial era are indirect and cannot be taken as 100 percent accurate. And while his study may seem to show that we can now finally reject natural temperature fluctuations as the cause of our current global warming crisis, proving that the cause is anthropogenic is another matter.

In a press release published by McGill University on April 11, 2014, Lovejoy stated: “We’ve had a fluctuation in average temperature that’s just huge since 1880—on the order of about 0.9 degrees Celsius. This study shows that the odds of that being caused by natural fluctuations are less than one in a hundred and are likely to be less than one in a thousand.”

But as Tim Radford wrote yesterday in Climate News Network, people tend to think in unpredictable ways when contemplating an uncertain future predicted decades ahead. In 2010, University of California, Berkeley, psychologists conducted an experiment on undergraduates and discovered that people tend to discount the most apocalyptic warning if it challenges their view of an orderly world. Fear-based appeals often backfire and undermine the intended effects of the messages. And even when people are prepared to accept that climate change is a substantial threat, there is resistance to the costs of mitigation.            

Do you think that the Lovejoy study will be the one that climate change deniers can no longer ignore? Will this mark a turning point? Or is this just one more study on climate change?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Mark Trexler June 5, 2014 at 4:34 am - Reply

    Going back to Candace’s question, I unfortunately don’t see why this latest IPCC report would do the trick when the others haven’t. Communicating climate risk effectively is much more than presenting the science. It’s about presenting risk, and making that risk resonate with the many different audiences out there. These reports don’t (can’t) do that.

    On the subject of sea level rise, the problem is that the past is probably a poor predictor of the future in this case. Since we’re forcing the climate system by more than an order of magnitude beyond any past natural forcing, we really don’t know how the system might react. We do know there have been periods in earth’s history where sea levels have changed by several meters per century. While the best guess today is about about 3 feet of sea level rise by 2100, in reality we just don’t know what’s happening in Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. 3 or more feet by 2050 is certainly plausible (I’m not arguing it’s the highest probability). That would create a lot of refugees indeed, and not just on Pacific Islands.

  2. John WHITEHEAD May 30, 2014 at 6:15 am - Reply

    Great article. We are tiny zero carbon 6 bed guesthouse in Wales and get ignored by media. We are powered by renewables up a Welsh mountain but the climate change press just show the disasters not the successes

  3. Peter Brown May 23, 2014 at 6:59 am - Reply

    With global sea rise since 1980 at 1.8 mm/yr ± 0.5 mm – see the recently published paper below, if the reports of the inundation problem are correct, the major problem is, as Nalau correctly says, that the islands are sinking, rather than that the sea level is rising. So while the displaced people may be the world’s first geological change refugees – and they do need assistance – it would be incorrect and would belittle their argument for assistance, to call them the climate change refugees.

    The paper is: “Trends and acceleration in global and regional sea levels since 1807, Jevrejeva, S., Moore, J.C., Grinsted, A., Matthews, A.P. and Spada, G. 2014” It can be found in “Global and Planetary Change 113: 11-22”.

  4. Hal Michael May 23, 2014 at 6:57 am - Reply

    Probably a semantic problem, Geologically, they sink. Couple this with sea-level rise and it certainly looks to an islander as if they are sinking. The CO2, if it is warming the atmospehere, is leading to land disappearing.

  5. Peter Brown May 23, 2014 at 6:56 am - Reply

    At the risk of being hanged or kidnapped – clearly a good objective science-based reaction to people who follow the scientific process and question research hypotheses and theories – I am curious to find out how increased CO2 in the atmosphere, whatever the source, can cause islands to sink.

    I know that there is good, satellite data showing that coral atolls do, in general, sink but that is a geological factor, not a climate one.

  6. Sinnadurai Sripadmanaban May 11, 2014 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    Responsible parents/teachers/elders should mould the kids.

  7. Holly Waggoner May 5, 2014 at 5:19 am - Reply

    Okay, I got this one. Some people will do what the boss ask of them ethical or not. because that individual cannot afford to lose his or her pay check. as in GMO’s

  8. Christine Anderson May 5, 2014 at 5:18 am - Reply

    Believing that human lifestyle in the last century or so has had an impact/influence on climate change is rather inconvenient. To acknowledge that human lifestyle is not in the best interest of the planet, of the interconnected ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole is an uncomfortable truth for most to digest. Accepting that truth leads to the rest of the question – what to do about it. Like failing to employ the best intervention for pneumonia, or an infected cut, failing to take action to stop the infection of the earth may lead to the end of the earth’s life cycle as we understand it. Applying a convenient, economical, and comfortable though inadequate intervention may yield a similar result. Sticking to the required therapeutic regimen to heal the ills of the planet means drastic lifestyle changes for all, even those of us who recognize these truths. It’s easy to point fingers and lay blame, but ultimately we are all in this together.

  9. Mary Martin Weyand May 4, 2014 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    I just read “Hot Enough For You?” in May issue of Smithsonian. Seems this issue rages on. For sure our earth has experienced many changes and it seems will continue to do so, with or without our help.

  10. Rose Johnson May 3, 2014 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    The issue is also one of profit and greed in all spheres.

  11. James Crants May 3, 2014 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    These natural causes for global temperature rise are accounted for in the models used to determine whether human production of greenhouse gases is a factor in global warming. Models have been detecting and predicting human-caused global warming since the 70’s, and scientists have been refining them that whole time, so it’s getting very difficult to find a realistic natural cause for global warming that climate scientists haven’t thought to account for.

  12. Holly Waggoner May 3, 2014 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    People are paid to say that climate change is not real for personal gain, for oil etc.

  13. Geri Foster Thomas May 3, 2014 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    Excellent article Candice…… lets hope the answer is yes!

  14. Dr Terry Moore May 2, 2014 at 12:59 am - Reply

    Nobody should have any doubt about the existance of climate change…the dispute is why and how it is happening. Historically, this planet has seen general increases and decreases in temperature, but these changes have happened over many tens of thousands of years. Some changes have almost certainly happened suddenly as a result of asteroid strike and pole shift (see the accelerating movement of the position of the North Pole at and have been accelerated by the affects of excessive plate movements causing extensive earthquake and volcanic eruption activity. Currently, there are over 3,500,000 fissures in deep ocean releasing much more greenhouse gas than man produces and pole shift will increase this volume and as Australia and Antarctica move towards the Equator there will be climate change which man cannot control!

  15. Hal Michael May 1, 2014 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Actually, the islands have been sinking for ages. In Hawaii, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Kahoolawae (sp?) were once a single island. This is not to disagree that we have a huge problem that is being well-assisted, if not driven, by man. Seems to me that we are more interested in arguing the why rather than working on solutions. It will likely take the actual flooding of the lowlands in developed countries probably coupled with crashing agriculture to get attention.

    Even then, the urban dwellers who are generally well insulated from nature will still be resistant to change.

    It may take a sudden, in human and not geological terms, disaster. Sea level raises a foot in a century is too long a time for humans to take not. Now, if it raises a foot next year we might open some eyes.

  16. John Starmer May 1, 2014 at 10:29 am - Reply

    If anyone is already of the political opinion that global warming is not real, yet another study will not change their mind. There is ample science to support anthropogenic climate change, the scientific community has made this clear in the reports of the IPPC. The issue of is it/ isn’t it was and remains one of politics, not science.

  17. Theresa Karasek May 1, 2014 at 10:28 am - Reply

    Climate change deniers have cheerfully ignored all the science so far – unfortunately, I don’t see that trend changing anytime soon. Graphs and numbers, even backed by solid evidence, aren’t going to convince people who have already made up their minds.

  18. Dennis Williamson May 1, 2014 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Nalau, I like your sentiment that people who ignore the scientific evidence, but continue to add to the problem, should be taken to places where people such as those in the Pacific Islands in are being adversely affected to see first-hand what is happening. I am sure you were speaking figuratively, but I am not endorsing the hanging and kidnapping parts! However, people such as yourself can play a strong role in educating the world as to the dangers of climate change. Perhaps there already is, but if not, there should be an international program for which people like you are paid to tour the world and present your experiences to government leaders and corporate leaders.

  19. Nalau Bingeding May 1, 2014 at 10:24 am - Reply

    While scienists are arguing with each other whether climate change is human induced or not, our islands in the Pacific are already sinking and we already know that this is not normal. Our ancestors have lived on our islands for ages, and there are no records of our islands sinking in the past. So what is causing them to sink? Those who deny that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are responsible for sinking islands should be hanged. I think some researchers are funded by companies to do research that counteract what the international scientific community is saying on climate change so that the companies go on carrying out development as usual and cause more pollution. What the good professor has done should make these ill minded people to change their thinking, but if not, kidnap them and take them to our islands in the Pacific and let them live with us for some years so that they can share in our pains and hardships with sea level rise.

  20. Robert Monro May 1, 2014 at 2:54 am - Reply

    I am not sceptical about anthropogenic climate change but I am sceptical about the political will to do anything about it. This is a global issue that needs a global solution, but as successive COPs have shown, that is difficult to achieve. It is the old “Tragedy of the Commons”, as described by Garrett Hardin in 1968 (see

  21. Wayne Bernhardson April 30, 2014 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    The evidence is overwhelming and yet, especially in the US, we have powerful people who care nothing about except their narrowest economic interests, and also ignorant hordes for whom the future is simply an issue of “faith.”

  22. Samuel David Osorio García April 30, 2014 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    Excellent paper, thank you very much. I´ll give it to some skeptics!

  23. James "Jim" O'Donnell April 30, 2014 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    The simple answer is no. This will change nothing. We’ve more or less known this result for a very long time and yet we’ve done nothing. Despite the use of this different analytical techniques the general public will not be moved. Most Americans know the reality we are facing but enough people have been brainwashed by deniers and enough politicians bought by those funding the deniers that we cant seem to move forward. I predict that nothing will happen for years…until we reach a true crisis point…some MAJOR catastrophe. Then there will have to be sudden and painful changes economically and politically. We’ve far passed the chance to time to deal with this intelligently. From here on out it will all be reactive.

  24. Axel Estable April 30, 2014 at 11:45 am - Reply

    Believers have thought that none of the studies could be ignored. But one can never underestimate the capacity of deniers to ignore clear evidence. It *should* not be ignored, but I’m sure it will be.


  25. Dennis Williamson April 30, 2014 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Thanks Candice – that’s a very good story, indeed. Regarding the last few comments of your story, although it does appear that our global society has managed to ignore the warnings on climate change over the past 20 years, they may not have that luxury much longer. It is happening around us and is beginning to have serious detrimental effects on our “orderly life”. Cheers, Dennis

  26. Michelle Miller April 30, 2014 at 10:14 am - Reply

    Candice, it looks like the study is not posted here. Could you do so?

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews April 30, 2014 at 10:19 am - Reply


      It is. Check the third link in the text.

      Thanks for your comment!


  27. White pine April 29, 2014 at 9:38 am - Reply

    I am very pessimistic as to the world’s willingness to make the changes/sacrifices needed to mitigate our warming of the earth. It is a problem too large for most of us to grasp and it is so much easier to put it out of our minds and go on with our oil consumptive lives. Our descendants will have to live in a very different world, I fear. But, keep on writing to keep our attention riveted on this “problem for the ages.”

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