Watts Up With Global Warming And Atomic Bombs

sks-widgetAnyone familiar with Watts Up With That will have noticed that anything published on it that mentions Skeptical Science often displays a rather obvious dislike for Skeptical Science. Both for the Skeptical Science website and the people who are involved with it.

It shows with the language used and all the attacks on the materials created or used by Skeptical Science. Often it doesn’t really matter if it’s valid criticism as long as it in some way critiques or undermines what was released. Especially when it’s something that is easy to understand and helps with communicating the science behind global warming. Which showed with the attacks towards the Cook et al. paper that measured the scientific consensus on global warming in the scientific literature.

This time Watts isn’t happy because of a widget Skeptical Science released that puts into context how much heat our planet is absorbing:

Our climate is absorbing a lot of heat. When scientists add up all of the heat warming the oceans, land, and atmosphere and melting the ice, they find our climate is accumulating 4 Hiroshima atomic bombs worth of heat every second.

This warming is due to more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels means we are emitting billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. This is the main contributor to global warming.

Let me take you through the main points Watts makes in his blog post ‘The 4hiroshimas app – propaganda of the worst kind‘ (archived here):

First, one wonders what the people of Hiroshima think about the tragedy of war that befell their city being used as a unit of measure for propaganda today? Would they see that as demeaning and insulting to those who lost their lives? You can thank scientist turned activist Dr. James Hansen for making the ugly comparison.

It’s true that nuclear weapons are a touchy subject in Japan, considering they experienced the horrors of these weapons. If you watch anime you might have noticed that using and mentioning nuclear weapons is avoided. When nuclear weapons are mentioned or used they are depicted as bad or evil. But this doesn’t mean that a comparison that’s about energy is disrespectful towards victims of the Hiroshima bomb.

It’s quite common to use the Hiroshima bomb comparison. Most people have no idea how much energy certain events release, and a comparison with a nuclear weapon can put into context how much energy this is. It’s used to describe the power of the Mount St. Helens eruption, and a more recent example is the meteor that exploded above Russia.

Here’s also where it becomes obvious that Watts only has a problem when this comparison is used in the context of global warming. He had no problem publishing content that stated that the explosion the Russian meteor caused was “more than 30 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb” (archived here). Or publishing content that said that the Tunguska event had a “destructive energy 700 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima” (archived here).

Watts didn’t have an issue with these comparisons in those blog post. The last example I gave comes from his blog post ‘A problem that is bigger than global warming’ where he uses this analogy to belittle the potential damage global warming could cause if we don’t act.

Second, for people that don’t understand how much energy the Earth receives each day, “4 atomic bombs per second” sounds frightening, even terrifying. That’s exactly what they are counting on, and that’s why this is pure propaganda. But here’s the reality of the numbers and they aren’t frightening at all.


Normally, we look at forcings in watts per square metre (W/m2). Total forcing (solar plus longwave) averaged around the globe 24/7 is about 500 watts per square metre.

To convert Hansen’s figures to a per-square-metre value, the global surface area is 5.11e+14 square metres … which means that Hansens dreaded 400,000 Hiroshima bombs per day works out to 0.6 watts per square metre … in other words, Hansen wants us to be very afraid because of a claimed imbalance of six tenths of a watt per square metre in a system where the downwelling radiation is half a kilowatt per square metre … we cannot even measure the radiation to that kind of accuracy. (calculation by Willis Eschenbach here)

So “4 atomic bombs per second” translates to about 1/100 th of the energy emitted by a 60 watt refrigerator lightbulb per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Scary, huh?


So the energy difference is 4/1000th of what the total energy received on earth is each second. Not so scary now is it?

This is the very same tactic that’s often used to say that current atmospheric CO2 levels cannot affect our climate in a significant way, after all it’s just 0.04% of our atmosphere. But this ignores one simple fact: it’s the effect it can have that matters, not the amount. Small amounts can have really big consequences.

A good illustration of this point is what CFCs did to the ozone layer of our planet. CFCs are such a small part of our atmosphere that they are measured in the parts per trillion, not parts per million like CO2 is. Which means that for example CFC-12 only makes up 0.00000006% of our atmosphere (I used the biggest number I could find and I rounded it up). Yet these gasses are responsible for the ozone hole, if we hadn’t acted to cut our emissions these gasses could have very easily destroyed our ozone layer.

Same goes for the 0.6 watts per square metre. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s energy that is absorbed by our planet. It’s this energy that’s warming the oceans, it’s this energy that’s melting our ice sheets, and it’s this energy that’s raising temperatures. It doesn’t sound as much when broken down to watts per square metre, but it adds up to 4 Hiroshima bombs per second, or to quote Hansen: “400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day.” Small amounts add up and we know from paleoclimatology what this will mean.

Third, the imagery connection (note the app has a mushroom cloud) is absolutely wrong. Dr. Richard Tol writes in comments at the Guardian

Godwin’s Law now extends to apps.

Metaphors create an image. Few people would associate “Hiroshima” with energy. A more common association is death and devastation. The atom bomb instantly killed 70,000-80,000 people. The image created by this app is that climate change kills 300,000 people per second. That is patently wrong.

This abuse of one of the most atrocious events in human history insults those who perished there and then and their loved ones who survived.

No it doesn’t, as Godwin’s Law states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” As this isn’t done by the app or the accompanying website I have no idea why Tol said this.

But the point Tol raises about this meaning global warming “kills 300,000 people per second” is something he’s been repeating for a while. First time I saw him make this claim was on twitter, and even then I told him that this isn’t the intended meaning. The Hiroshima comparison has always been about energy, never was it implied that this means that global warming kills 300,000 people per second. If this was true the Hiroshima analogy for the Russian meteor implied that it killed at least 2.1 million people.

That last comment “Doing it in a way that holds deep and terrible cultural resonances with millions of people is not great.” capsulizes the lack of empathy that Mr. Cook and the SkS seem to have when they are pushing the propaganda envelope to advance their cause of climate alarmism.
Such lack of common sense in “anything for the cause” has been demonstrated before, and it failed miserably. Remember the 10:10 video exploding children?


Yes, I do remember that video. Especially the video made by Lee Doren (HowTheWorldWorks) that Watts just linked to, as I made a video response to it.

The script for the commercial was written by Richard Curtis (writer of for example Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill), a very well known comedic writer. What this indicates is that 10:10 was trying to make a funny video about what they stand for and want to achieve (which becomes rather obvious if read the accompanying article). But in my opinion the method for making their joke was not in good taste.

But Skeptical Science wasn’t involved with this video, so it’s completely irrelevant to their moral character. It only reflects badly on those that created the campaign, just like Heartland’s billboard campaign only reflected badly on them. That’s why you can’t use what one organisation does to condemn an entire group.

Considering Watts has content on his blog using the Hiroshima analogy means that you could turn Watts’ argument against him. This indicates that all the points he raised aren’t about being respectful towards victims. It then comes across as trying to make your opponents look bad.

That this is just that becomes very clear when Watts says this:

Fifth, why would anyone trust the messaging about World War II and atomic bombs when the proprietor and participants of “Skeptical Science” play Nazi dress up behind closed doors? Yes, this really happened as I document here.

The image below is of John Cook, the proprietor of “Skeptical Science”. It comes from their “inside members only” forum. Somebody went to great trouble to photoshop the image from the original photo of Himmler to put Cook’s face and the SkS emblems in the uniform.


Like with using the deaths at Hiroshima to score propaganda points, did Cook ever think that an app with a red 10:10 style mushroom cloud button might be at odds with his closet Nazi cosplay?

That is just petty behaviour.

The images that were stolen from a private forum through a security leak has nothing to do with the atomic bomb comparison being scientific accurate or appropriate to make. That’s just dragging in something that you use to paint your opponents in a bad light. Which Watts doesn’t like when it’s done to those that he agrees with.

Should the users of the SkS forum have made those images? No.

It’s something you shouldn’t do, even if it is for something as innocent as making a joke. With how heated the public exchanges about global warming often are this just gives ammunition to those that don’t like you. Especially when you only have the images that were stolen, then you don’t know the context in which they were created or used. Though this didn’t stop WUWT from making all kinds of accusations about it and going as far as publishing content saying that “they made these [images] with the idea of a false flag operation in mind” (archived here).

At the time it was petty, and it’s still petty. But all this is simply done for one reason: discredit your opponents in any way possible.

Which is exactly what Watts is trying to do with the atomic bomb comparison because it’s such an effective communication tool. Watts didn’t even take the effort of holding himself to the standards he’s expecting from Skeptical Science on this.

This petty and vitriolic way of dealing with your opponents is why I don’t respect Watts. Being polite and civil about it would still make the ‘scientific’ arguments Watts made wrong. But at least I would be able to respect him for being civil about it.

Playing the ball and not the man is a far more effective way for voicing your criticisms and starting a dialogue on the points you raise.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.