Where's the Thermometer?

Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Accord has been met with the predictable gasps of horror and warnings of impending catastrophe from the statists. Global warming, after all, (or as it is now termed, “climate change”) is something which you simply DO NOT question. Like JFK’s assassination by a “lone shooter,” or the twin towers destruction by airliners, the facts are presumed to be so obvious as to be undeniable by anyone but an ignoramus. (Incidentally, should facts be “presumed”?) Well, I’ve no reputation to put on the line, so I’ll chance it.

As I slipped awkwardly into my ninth decade, I discovered that authorities can deal handily with questions about details. Indeed, the details can be myriad and highly technical. Do any reading on global warming, and you’ll see what I mean. However, these same authorities cringe when presented with a very simple, basic, question. For example, after a speech by Paul Volker, then head of the Federal Reserve, an audience member asked him, “What is a dollar, a term which you used multiple times in your talk?” Mr. Volker seemed transfigured, mute, unresponsive. The master of ceremonies declared the Q&A session over, and escorted the monetary authority from the stage.

My question is also very basic, reflecting my lack of knowledge regarding the measurement of the earth’s temperature. It is simply this: Where is the thermometer? I know of no way of measuring temperature without one, so somewhere somebody or some group must have the thermometer with which they are taking the planet’s temperature. Where is it?

A few individuals, perhaps as inexpert as myself, have attempted answers. For example, we might learn of yesteryear’s temperatures by counting tree rings. Since the rings are closer together, or farther apart, depending on temperature, we can get some information about the globe’s temperature from looking at the stumps of trees. Really? And this can demonstrate a warming trend of a few degrees per century? I’m not buying it.

A more sophisticated response is that the globe’s temperature is measured by satellite. But, according to Wikipedia, satellites do not measure temperature, but “radiances” of various wavelengths, leading to “indirect inferences of temperature.” Thus, microwave sounding units have measured upwelling microwave radiation from oxygen in our atmosphere, which, as we all know, relates to the temperature of “broad vertical layers of the atmosphere.” Weather satellites make it possible to “infer” sea surface temperatures, thereby permitting “spatial and temporal variations to be viewed more fully.” Earth’s surface temperature, thus determined, has risen about .9 degrees Celsius between 1906 and 2005.

Dare I point out a problem? Wikipedia tells us that the earth’s temperature has increased by about .85 degrees Celsius between 1880 and 2012. I can say with certainty that there were no satellites orbiting this planet in 1880, or even 1906. Does this mean that we’re using temperatures based upon two different methods of measurement? How can we be sure they are compatible? Remember, we’re talking about a change of less than one degree Celsius in 132 years, or a tiny fraction of a degree per year, on average. Was there a measuring system in the 19th Century accurate enough for that? For that matter, is such a system available today? Does the earth’s temperature, interpolated via satellite data, vary from day to day? If so, what day is picked as the “official” one? How was the earth’s temperature taken prior to the latter part of the 19th Century? On a sunny day? In winter? And where? Remember, we’re measuring in terms of a fraction of a degree per year.

The signatories to the Paris Accord--all 195 of them--pledged to limit the temperature increases in their respective jurisdictions (you realize, of course, that temperature changes do not cross boundaries!) by about 1.5 degrees above their pre-industrial level, assuming, again, that they know that temperature to within a fraction of a degree. They were told that if the temperature increase was to exceed 2 degrees, the result could be “catastrophic.” Gosh! Where in a big country such as India, for example, would you take the temperature? Does a satellite system capable of measuring the temperature of the entire planet have the capability of making that measurement of a single country, or portion of one? What if it were an exceptionally cool or warm year, even though the carbon emissions stayed the same? Would the consequences remain the same?

As an acknowledged non-expert in these matters, I can expect my questions to be ignored—perhaps ridiculed--by the experts. That’s the nice thing about being an expert: You can smile with condescension at the questions of those you regard as ignorant. And why not? You are, after all, the expert!

Even so, I can’t get the question out of my mind: Where’s the thermometer?

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Paul Hein's picture
Columns on STR: 150


Glen Allport's picture

Great column, Paul -- and incidentally, congrats on entering your ninth decacde. Your BS detector certainly hasn't gotten rusty in your old age! "Thermometer" is a terrific "Emperor's New Clothes" piece on global warming, seasoned with passing references to other "do not question!" BS.