Friday, February 19, 2010

Global Warming, Science, Scientists, Sceptics and Silliness

Global Warming deniers and sceptics have managed to get their opinions aired in major media, mainly in the UK, including such papers as the UK's Times. Some of the reports have been downright sensationalistic, as this article, Climategate U-turn Astonishment as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995, , from the Daily Mail.

The claims made by sceptics - dubbed "Climategate" concern, the fourth report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as the contents of emails hacked from East Anglia University, and a group of scientists and skeptics involved.

And these claims end up being cited erroneously by press and politicians, as casting doubt on the entire body of work done by scientists on global warming, which is nonsense.

You Down With IPCC?

Exhibit 1 is the controversy over IPCC report concerning the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, which is 2 PARAGRAPHS FROM 1 PAGE OUT OF THOUSANDS OF PAGES, on the chapter on Glaciers which you can read here. That conclusion that the Himalayan Glaciers would melt by 2035 was bogus and had no business being in the report, period end of story. But, world-leading experts in the area had listed an up to date and scientifically reached conclusion on that same topic in another chapter of the report..

AS broken down further in this article, the wrong prediction was included in Volume 2, based on work done by a group of researchers and scientists who were biologists and/or social scientists. It was not from the working group, Working Group 1, of hardcore climatologists who assembled the hard data, and did the climate modelling.

Himalayan glaciers: In a regional chapter on Asia in Volume 2, written by authors from the region, it was erroneously stated that 80% of Himalayan glacier area would very likely be gone by 2035. This is of course not the proper IPCC projection of future glacier decline, which is found in Volume 1 of the report. There we find a 45-page, perfectly valid chapter on glaciers, snow and ice (Chapter 4), with the authors including leading glacier experts (such as our colleague Georg Kaser from Austria, who first discovered the Himalaya error in the WG2 report). There are also several pages on future glacier decline in Chapter 10 ("Global Climate Projections"), where the proper projections are used e.g. to estimate future sea level rise. So the problem here is not that the IPCC's glacier experts made an incorrect prediction. The problem is that a WG2 chapter, instead of relying on the proper IPCC projections from their WG1 colleagues, cited an unreliable outside source in one place. Fixing this error involves deleting two sentences on page 493 of the WG2 report.

That does nothing to discredit the science of global warming, it is simply one small error in mountains of data no pun intended.

Emails and Mental Snails

The so-called Email scandal concerns issues that are being raised from about 20 years of work by the group of scientists around the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU). The controversy seems to center on emails containing discussions going back and forth related to one paper that relied on chinese weather stations, and warming trends going back, to the medieval period.

And again, the specific data questioned, do not amount to a smoking gun, that if removed would invalidate conclusions reached from data and scientific work.

Fred Pearce
from The Guardian puts it succintly here:

The emails stolen from the University of East Anglia in November have cast an uncomfortable light on the behind-the-scenes actions of some of the most senior and respected climate scientists in the world. The affair raises serious questions about access to data and the way scientific peer review can be used to stifle dissent. But is the science of climate change fatally flawed by the climategate revelations? Absolutely not. Nothing uncovered in the emails destroys the argument that humans are warming the planet.

None of the 1,073 emails plus 3,587 files containing documents, raw data and computer code upsets the 200-year-old science behind the "greenhouse effect" of gases like carbon dioxide, which traps solar heat and warm the atmosphere. Nothing changes the fact that carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere thanks to human emissions from burning carbon-based fuels like coal and oil. Nor the calculations of physicists that for every square metre of the earth's surface, 1.6 watts more energy now enters the atmosphere than leaves it.

And we know the world is warming as a result. Thousands of thermometers in areas remote from any conceivable local urban influences tell us that. The oceans are warming too. And we have the evidence of our own eyes. The great majority of the world's glaciers are retreating, Arctic sea ice is disappearing, sea levels are rising ever faster, trees are climbing up hillsides and permafrost is melting. These are not statistical artefacts or the result of scientists cherry-picking their data.

Equally, many of the most widely publicised claims from sceptics about what is in the emails are demonstrably unfounded. There is no conspiracy to "hide the decline" in temperatures. Nor that a lack of warming in the data is a "travesty" – still less of attempts to fix the data.

The Guardians counterpart on the right The Economist, takes essentially the same line on the Emails. And that seems to be that some prominent scientists behaved like jerks, dismissed valid points raised by opponents, and got sloppy, but overall the science stands.

More heat than light

Some e-mails suggest the criticisms made by sceptics outside academic climate science may have had more support within it than might be expected. Comments on the tree-ring section of the IPCC’s latest report by John Mitchell, director of climate science at Britain’s Met Office, raise issues very like those highlighted by perhaps the most prominent critic of the hockey stick, Steve McIntyre, who runs a blog called Climate Audit. An e-mail apparently from Dr Mann refers to an aspect of some statistical testing he did not want discussed widely as “dirty laundry”. Those worried that undue weight is being put on data from the tree rings of a dozen larches on the Yamal peninsula in Siberia, a topic that exercises Mr McIntyre, will be interested to see that some climate scientists shared some of their worries.

None of this is evidence of fraud. Looked at broadly, the e-mails seem to show a pretty workaday picture of scientists, with frustrations and sloppinesses, disagreements, opponents badmouthed, and cultural differences bridged (for example, explaining to an American colleague not just why a particular person is a prat, but what a prat is in the first place). Some of the e-mails may, looked at in a context not currently available (those posted were a selection), add weight to previous criticisms by Mr McIntyre and others. But that, in itself, is not dramatic. Many of these issues were aired in the most recent IPCC report, though not particularly thoroughly. And the idea of anthropogenic climate change rests on a great deal more than just tree-ring records, useful as they are for providing context to the current warming.

A spate of recent claims of global cooling, for example, rely on comparing 1998, the second-hottest year in the modern record (going to 1880), with 2008, which was relatively cooler. Yet, according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a part of NASA, America’s space agency, 2008 was the ninth-hottest year on record. 2009 is shaping up to be the sixth-hottest. All of the ten hottest years recorded have come since 1997. And retreating Arctic sea ice provides even more visible data to support conclusions of warming.

This entire row is over skeptics picking at small pieces of the puzzle, and using that to make outlandish conclusions which get picked up by sensationalistic media, fellow travellers with vested interests in industry and politicians. It isn't about science, that is clear.

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