Thursday, 24 November 2011

Anthropogenic Global Warming and democracy

More hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit have been released, timed apparently for the COP17 conference starting in Durban on monday. There's nothing recent - apparently this is all material appropriated at the time of the original "Climategate" hack in 2009.  Nevertheless, high-profile disbelievers in AGW are besides themselves with excitement: here for example is James Delingpole in the Telegraph.  Just in case there's something in it I've looked at the first email Delingpole reproduces as an example of the revealed perfidy of UEA climate scientists, from Thorne/MetO (apparently Peter Thorne at the Met Office addressing Phil Jones at the CRU):
Observations do not show rising temperatures throughout the tropical troposphere unless you accept one single study and approach and discount a wealth of others. This is just downright dangerous. We need to communicate the uncertainty and be honest. Phil, hopefully we can find time to discuss these further if necessary [...]
Thorne seems to be saying that a claim Jones has made in a draft paper or report about "rising temperatures throughout the tropical troposphere" is not supported by the evidence and should be deleted.  You might or might not detect a slight note of reproach.  But there's nothing scandalous about this.  If Thorne decided actually to publish the claim while still believing it to be unjustified then that would be scandalous.  But neither Delingpole nor anyone else seems to have any evidence of that.  Whereas Jocelyn Fong at Media Matters has  looked into it, and concludes that this email was part of a discussion in February 2005 of an IPCC report eventually released in 2007.  The section about the upper troposphere, which is the only section discussing the troposphere directly, makes no strong claims at all: "the uncertainties about long-term change are substantial".

So the news story seems to be "old emails reveal no scientific dishonesty by Climate Scientists, in agreement with the conclusions of several enquiries".

What I find remarkable is the underlying assumption in much of what's published in newspapers and online, by believers in AGW as well as by disbelievers, that these questions can be settled by debate among people who  are not experts in the scientific issues (I'd guess there are at most a few hundred experts qualified to give first-hand opinions).  There are five questions to be answered:
1) Is the climate getting warmer?
2) If it is, is the warming caused by human activity?
3) If it is, do we expect warming to continue if we carry on as before?
4) If we do, what can we change to reduce or halt the warming?
5) Is it worth changing the things we can change?

Only (5) is a matter suitable for political debate, ultimately to be decided by democratic vote.  If the climate is getting warmer, no lobby of Telegraph readers asserting that it isn't is going to stop it.  Yet it seems to be question (1) that climategate enthusiasts are most anxious to argue about.  This is a strange choice of argument in view of the story of Richard Muller.  In 2004, Muller, a professor of physics, came out in support of a paper (there's a version of it here) claiming that the famous "hockey stick" analysis, showing global temperatures rising sharply during the 20th century, was based on fatally flawed statistical methods.  This argument met with vigorous rebuttal, but eventually Muller set up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project to analyse temperature data using statistical methods he was satisfied with.  A month ago, BEST released its first results, which it summarized here.  Its conclusion is that it agrees closely with the previous concensus among climate scientists.  To his credit, Muller acknowledged in a piece in the Wall Street Journal the accuracy of the work done by prior groups "We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that".

How can one explain the extraordinary confidence of so many people who have no technical grasp of the issues that the scientific consensus on question (1) is wrong?  Perhaps it comes from a misapplication of libertarian thought: it's right that I should be allowed to do what I want, I want to burn fossil fuels, climate scientists are trying to stop me, so climate scientists must be wrong.  That is, they are confusing their self-entitling theory of justice with scientific fact.

Update: commentator Belette rightly points out that I have been unclear about what BEST's results so far actually say.   BEST has analysed temperature measurements dating back to 1800, but it has not yet reported on the proxy temperature data used to create the "hockey stick" graphs going back 600 and later 1000 years.  (This is an ice hockey stick: the graph is roughly horizontal (the shaft of the stick) until it starts rising during the 20th century (the blade).)  It's still entirely possible that BEST will produce a reconstruction of longer-term temperatures outside the currently accepted ranges: that would be a result to be evaluated on its own merits.

My point is that now that an avowed sceptic has independently confirmed the global warming trend, it is madness to allege that it's a fabrication or a mistake arising from a self-reinforcing scientific consensus.


  1. Found you via Timmy...

    My version of your points 1-5 is at

    And I agree: the big question is "what should we do about it, if indeed we want to do anything". And I agree that far too much of the public debate is stuck around 1/2/3. Why are we stuck? There is no simple answer, but people really are very reluctant to believe things they don't want to. In this case, of course, they can in theory check for themselves: but actually very few people are capable of reading or understanding that much literature, so in practice most people will have to trust authorities. This is true for most things; but in GW many people have been fooled into thinking they can think it through for themselves, and then being presented with a very partisan account to believe.

    Incidentally, you have a nuance of the Muller story wrong: Muller was indeed very anti-HS, and quite likely still is, quietly. BEST doesn't address the long-term reconstructions, yet: it only does the instrumental record.

  2. On the evidence you provide - BEST - can you seriously even answer question 1? If you put the error bars in, then you can conclude that over the last 200 years the land surface of the Earth (remember that BEST does not cover the seas) has either got a little hotter, a little cooler or stayed about the same.

    The thermometer record, though, is not great beyond the last 50 years or so and the records of ocean temperature are seriously defective. Over the last 30 years, the satellites suggest that there has been slight warming - at a lower rate than shown by any of the thermometer records. So let's assume that there has been some slight warming. How much is due to humans? The data does not exist to even suggest an answer. The IPCC approved climate scientists vociferously postulate various things without much hard evidence to support them and the emails show that they are busy in stifling or even suppressing any rival viewpoints. That does not bother you?

    For another viewpoint on this email thing that is so unimportant in your view, how about this:

  3. I'm looking at this chart: . What are you looking at?


    draw a line from the top of the error bar at one end to the other end of the confident are you that the land mass has warmed? A strange question given that most of the planet is covered by ocean. But the thermometers are where they are.