With COP26 in Glasgow concluding as I write, the global movement of CO2 climate warming alarm is at its zenith of political and popular influence. This ironclad edifice of dystopia however has feet of clay – it is based on a colossal scientific failure (1) – that goes beyond climate, encompassing the whole enterprise of science. We will trace its roots in philosophy and epistemology, focusing on the issue of reductionism. Climate science has failed to adequately recognize chaotic-emergent phenomena, leading to inability to understand what climate really is. In climate, reductionism meets its Stalingrad.
Choose your paradigm – wisely!
Reductionism is the explanation of a natural system as the integrated sum of the behavior of all its components. It’s “bottom up” science, from a gas molecule in air up to an Atlantic hurricane. Reductionism has enjoyed spectacular success especially in the 20th century. The discovery of the atom’s family of particles and laws by a pantheon of physicists led to the outstanding predictive power of the Standard Model. Not to be left behind, biologists Watson and Crick reduced heredity to the polysaccharide-protein double helix of DNA.
But another pantheon – or would we prefer “pandemonium”? (2) – of equal importance has been overlooked – that of Mandelbrot, Feigenbaum, Ruelle, Lorenz, Belousov, Prigogine and others. They uncovered a body of theory and experiment which we will call chaos-emergence for short. This is centered on the insight that complex systems export entropy (3, 4) leading to spontaneous emergence of pattern. Emergent pattern runs counter to reductionism, and such is the zeal of many reductionists that they deny emergence (5).
However emergence in nature was recognized as early as ~50 AD by Heron of Alexandria (6). An essential property of physical systems is “action”, more fundamental even than energy or entropy (7). The discovery of principles of “least action” – the tendency for action to be minimized – began with Heron’s insight that reflected light travels in shortest straight lines. Centuries later this was developed by Fermat, Lagrange and Noether into foundational principles of least action in which, for instance, an object’s freefall trajectory that would be seriously complex to describe by Newtonian mechanics, becomes simple when solved as a minimization of kinetic-potential energy difference (the “Lagrangian”).
These principles of chaotic emergence and least action impact on the claims of CO2 climate warming. An increase in atmospheric CO2 will exert a thermodynamic effect by infrared absorption-emission via the principle of least action (kinetic thermal movement of atoms is “action”). The system will respond to this change by multiple pathways including feedbacks. In a chaos paradigm it is far from clear that this would result in overall warming. A temperature rise of the entire ocean and atmosphere is a gigantic action – the precise opposite of what least action would require. So the CO2 warming hypothesis of Tyndall and Arrhenius contradicts least action. It’s more like “most action”.
Does climate regulate its own temperature?
Complex systems like climate can minimize thermal “action” by emergent thermal homeostasis (8). Bullock and Bartlett (9) demonstrated “the emergence of spontaneous temperature regulation by the combined action of two sets of dissipative structures” in simulated artificial life. (Applying their conclusions to climate – likened to life – is my interpretation, not the authors’.) Dissipative structure is a concept originated by Prigogine (10). The climate is a set of dissipative structures involving air, water, water vapor and ice, a heat engine redistributing heat from equator to pole. It is likely that some form of emergent thermal homeostasis operates in the climate system. In this regard, reductionist and chaotic-emergent paradigms come to divergent conclusions about effects of added CO2; the former foresees runaway positive thermal feedback, the latter emergent thermoregulation.
The CO2 “heat trapping” hypothesis is firmly located in reductionist “Linearland” based on a simple cartoon of radiative cause and effect, paying no attention to any emergent or least action principle. Such reductionism and denial of chaos-emergence can be seen in the case of former NASA scientist Ferenc Miskolczi. Working at NASA’s Langley research center, Miskolczi viewed radiosonde balloon data alongside mathematical simulations and saw an emergent paradigm, a path out of Linearland. He saw evidence that the supposed CO2-induced change in infrared emission height did not happen, that instead other system parameters such as water vapor adapted to keep the emission height unchanged (11). Emergent thermal homeostasis.
Miskolczi’s emergent blasphemy against reductionist dogma provoked a violent reaction in NASA. After he submitted his paper to a journal, his boss hacked his account using his password and without his consent withdrew the paper. Miskolczi was fired.
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam
The climate alarm narrative commits the logical fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam. To paraphrase, “recent warming must be anthropogenic because – we just can’t think of anything else that it could be”. Technically this is the problem of “attribution”. As we shall see – from the paradigm of chaos-emergence, there is no problem at all explaining the natural variation that has always characterized climate on all, fractal scales (figure 1).
Argumentum ad ignorantiam impedes scientific progress, as with Weggener’s continental drift hypothesis that was rejected for half a century based on “we can’t see how it could happen”. But happen it does. Observation must take precedence over theory. The philosopher of science Karl Popper stated that science must be deductive, not inductive (12). You make a conjecture then try to refute it experimentally. Induction by contrast builds assumption on assumption into a theoretical house of cards. Climate science is massively inductive with its complex mechanistic models. Popper’s verdict was stark: “there are no inductive inferences”.
Is there a cure for chaos?
The onset of chaos, from linearity via transitional bifurcations to eventually full turbulence, is well understood (14). Turn on a tap slowly – first it drips, then flows in a smooth stream, before disordered turbulence breaks out. Climate is about fluid flow and mixing in atmosphere and ocean, so obviously chaotic turbulence will be the rule. Thus the onset of chaos is not really so important. No – what’s interesting is the opposite, where the degree of turbulent chaos reduces – downward toward the border between chaotic and linear, where the interesting and important phenomena of emergent pattern arise. Mathematically, turbulence is chaos with a huge number of dimensions to its phase space. Moving from turbulence back toward borderline chaos means reducing dimensions. In the atmosphere and ocean this brings about the emergent spatiotemporal pattern that defies explanation by traditional linear models. In Linearland “we can’t explain why climate is changing”, but in the real chaos-emergent world, we can.
Two things “de-dimensionalize” chaos: external periodic forcing (15, 16) and internal feedback (17, 18). In climate these both provide the dimensional haircut that moves the system from turbulence to low-dimensional chaos and emergent pattern. Thus feedbacks lead not to runaway change but to oscillations, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). The AMO is linked to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) that is driven by the salinity-downwelling feedback operating in the far north east Atlantic. Likewise the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is based on the excitability of the Bjerknes feedback (19) coupling the equatorial trade winds with Peruvian coast deep upwelling. The oceans are also subject to periodic astrophysical forcing from the annual cycle (20), and lunar and solar oscillations. Feedback driven excitability of the ocean combined with external periodic forcing, converts chaos into continuous change and oscillation in climate on many timescales up to millennial.
What if it’s all good?
CO2 might warm the climate. The null hypothesis that chaos-emergence is capable of causing recent climate changes, doesn’t mean it is responsible. However, CO2 warming orthodoxy has an evidence problem. It is an inductive hypothesis based on optical phenomena, conceived in disregard of climate history, a source of deductive confirmation or refutation. There are serious problems for CO2 alarmism in the climate record, such as the lag of many centuries between temperature changes and CO2 changes during the glacial Pleistocene (last 3 million years; 21). It’s hard for the cause to follow the effect. Further back in deep time there are also severe mismatches of CO2 and temperature, at an ice age 444 million years ago occurring with high atmospheric CO2 (22) and at later Paleozoic glaciations (23).
There are enormous benefits to global plant growth of enriched atmospheric CO2 (24) which directly enhances leaf photosynthesis (25). Satellites are seeing global greening and shrinking deserts.
It may be hard to imagine a hypothesis as powerfully entrenched as climate carbon doom, being wrong. But to stay true to science we must never close our hearts to wonder and surprise. It’s still possible that, on the planet of the humans (26), “all manner of things will be well.” (27)
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