Earth: The Operators’ Manual

Earth: The Operators' ManualRichard Alley’s splendid abilities as a communicator are well displayed in his new book Earth: The Operators’ Manual. Written as a companion book for a forthcoming PBS documentary he hosts, it provides a lively review of the science of climate change and of the renewable energy sources now able to be employed. The general reader who wants to understand why human activities are causing climate change and why it matters, and is prepared to put a little effort into the quest, will find the book an engaging explanation.

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Paul Nurse: science under attack

Paul Nurse is the new President of the Royal Society. His predecessor Martin Rees was firm in his insistence on the seriousness of climate science and climate change, and Nurse is equally so. In a striking BBC Horizon documentary Science Under Attack he examines why public trust in scientific theory appears to have diminished, especially in relation to  climate change. The documentary is not available from the BBC for viewers outside the UK, but it has been uploaded to YouTube, broken into six segments. It is well worth an hour of viewing, but I’ll offer some comment on it here for those who don’t have the time.

Nurse is a geneticist and cell biologist, distinguished for his work in the discovery of the control which regulates cell division, for which he shared a Nobel Prize in 2001, and which is relevant to a better understanding of diseases like cancer.  In this documentary he steps outside his lab to investigate how it is that climate science has come under attack and whether scientists are partly to blame.


The documentary opens and closes in the archives of the Royal Society which include among their books the manuscript version of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, presented to the Society by the author. Nurse and the librarian pause over these two outstanding examples from the Society’s past of science fundamental to our understanding of the world, a useful backdrop to the programme’s investigation of why a well-established science, as climate science now is, should be leaving many people unconvinced or thinking it is exaggerated.

He visits NASA and talks with Robert Bindschadler, who shows him in visualisation how satellites (16-18 from NASA and a similar number from other agencies) circling the globe are gathering enormous amounts of data related to climate. Three quarters of a degree of warming over the last fifty years will be matched by at least another three quarters of a degree over the next fifty even if we do nothing more to modify the climate. Asked whether this could be a natural fluctuation Bindschadler acknowledges that there have been times in the past when the Earth has been warmer than it is today, with less ice and higher sea level, and times colder than it is today, with much more ice and lower sea level. However in the past climate changed very gradually whereas it’s now changing really fast, and it’s the pace of change that is so important in the climate change that we’re living through right now.

Nurse considers not only the NASA data but also the work of seven decades of research from scientists across the globe and concludes that the extent of the data gives us reason for confidence in the idea that the globe is warming and we are causing the change. Yet this evidence is clearly not convincing a substantial part of the wider public. And those who are sceptical turn to other scientists.  Enter Fred Singer, who meets with Nurse over a cup of tea in a café and explains his theory that solar activity, not CO2, is the cause of warming which he regards as variable.

Nurse talks to viewers about the importance of the wider picture, which Singer ignores in his cherry picking. Things need to make sense together.  Solar activity needs to be looked at in the context of all research.  You cannot ignore the majority of available evidence in favour of something you would prefer to be true. Bindschadler comments that small variations in solar activity today don’t match up with the climate data. There’s no doubt, he says, that the sun is not the primary factor driving the climate change that we’re living through. It has to be the huge amounts of carbon dioxide our fossil fuel burning is putting into the atmosphere. You need to stand back and look at the big picture and there’s really no controversy if you do that.

“Who do you believe?” asks Nurse. If you’re not a scientist then ultimately it’s a question of trust. At this point he goes to the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University and talks with Phil Jones, the scientist who was accused in headlines, on the basis of stolen emails, of being at the centre of one of the worst scientific outrages of all time. Nurse points out there was no scientific scandal, as enquiries have established. At worst there was an understandable but perhaps less than wise resistance to meeting obviously engineered requests for information.

Nurse then visits James Delingpole, one of the journalists prominent in proclaiming the climategate email scandal. He is perfectly polite with Delingpole, but his gentle questioning elicits from the interviewee the brash certainties of a man who has no knowledge of the solidity of the scientific consensus on the causes of global warming but is an articulate and bellicose proponent of the theories of the deniers, accepting the few scientists among them as authoritative interpreters of the peer reviewed science which he himself doesn’t read. Nurse is surely right to see an unholy mix of the media and politics as distorting the proper reporting of science.

He acknowledges the problem of uncertainties, particularly in projecting the future and particularly in projecting cloud formation. But a fascinating picturing at NASA displays how the uncertainties are reducing. Bindschadler shows him a screen, along the upper half of which real global cloud data is pictured and in the lower half what the models predict would be happening at the same time. It’s a test of the models, and the level of their accuracy is astonishing to Nurse. Binsdschadler is clear there will always be some uncertainties because there are processes which are not fully understood, but by the measure of reducing uncertainties the science is making extraordinary progress.

There’s much more in the documentary than I have covered here, but hopefully this gives a sense of the thoroughness and reasonableness which marks Nurse’s investigation. He’s a person of intellectual substance who, in his own words has “an idealistic view of science as a liberalising and progressive force for humanity.”

I’ll conclude with a section of quotes I’ve transcribed from the latter part of the documentary, where he sums up what he has been seeking to communicate. First, on the centrality of peer review (irretrievably corrupted according to Delingpole) and the importance of scientific scepticism:

“As a working scientist I’ve learnt that peer review is very important to make science credible   The authority science can claim comes from evidence and experiment and an attitude of mind that seeks to test its theories to destruction…Scepticism is very important…be the worst enemy of your own idea, always challenge it, always test it   I think things are a little different when you have a denialist or an extreme sceptic. They are convinced that they know what’s going on and they only look for data which supports that position and they’re not really engaging in the scientific process. There is a fine line between healthy scepticism which is a fundamental part of the scientific process and denial which can stop the science moving on.  But the difference is crucial.”

On complexity:

“There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that says we are warming our planet but complexity allows for confusion and for alternative theories to develop.  The only solution is to look at all the evidence as a whole.  I think some extreme sceptics decide what to think first and then cherry pick the data to support their case.  We scientists have to acknowledge we now operate in a world where point of view not peer review holds sway.”

That means taking trouble to communicate:

“Scientists have forgotten that we don’t operate in an isolated bubble. We cannot take the public for granted. We have to talk to them. We have to communicate the issues. We have to earn their trust if science really is going to benefit society.”

It matters for the world:

“Over the next few years every country on the globe faces tough decisions over what to do about climate change. I’ve been thinking how scientists can win back the confidence we’re going to need if we’re going to make those choices wisely.”

He turns to the record of the Royal Society:

“350 years of an endeavour which is built on respect for observation, respect for data, respect for experiment. Trust no-one. Trust only what the experiments and the data tell you. We have to continue to use that approach if we are to solve problems such as climate change.”

That brings responsibility with it:

“It’s become clear to me that if we hold to these ideals of trusting evidence then we have a responsibility to publicly argue our case because in this conflicted and volatile debate scientists are not the only voices that are listened to.”

Politics enters the picture but scientists have to keep their focus:

“When a scientific issue has important outcomes for society then the politics becomes increasingly more important. So if we look at this issue of climate change that is particularly significant, because that has effects on how we manage our economy and manage our politics, so this has become a crucially political matter and we can see that by the way the forces are being lined up on both sides. What really is required here is a focus on the science, keeping the politics and keeping the ideology out of the way.”

But that doesn’t mean disengaging:

“Earning trust requires more than just focusing on the science. We have to communicate it effectively too.  Scientists have got to get out there. They have to be open about everything that they do. They do have to talk to the media even if it does sometimes put their reputation at doubt because if we do not do that it will be filled by others who don’t understand the science and who may be driven by politics or ideology. This is far too important to be left to the polemicists and commentators in the media. Scientists have to be there too.”

Paul Nurse has certainly put himself there in undertaking this documentary. Needless to say it cut no ice with the affronted James Delingpole, but surely many viewers will have been impressed with the evidence urgently yet reasonably presented by this distinguished scientist, and equally impressed that he goes to such trouble to make it all accessible to the general public.

Everyone agrees: 2010 ties for top temperature


All of the major global temperature series — surface and satellite — report that 2010 is tied for first place as the warmest year in the long term record. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center both have 2010 tied with their previous record holder 2005, while the UK’s Climatic Research Unit and the satellite series from the University of Alabama Huntley (UAH) report that 2010 is tied with 1998. Commenting on the surface record, NZ climate scientist Jim Salinger said:

The three sources of global mean temperature analysis shows that the globe continues to warm with nine of the top ten years occurring between 2001 and 2010. Global average temperatures for the decade 2001 to 2010 were 0.44 deg C above the 1961 to 1990 average for HadCRUT3, making it the warmest decade on record going back to 1850.

Despite differences in detail between the various surface records, the GISS graph above clearly demonstrates that they show nearly identical long term trends. As the NZ Herald pointed out, 2010 should spells the end for that favourite denialist trope — it’s been cooling since (pick a year), but I’m a bit more sanguine. I confidently predict that with the current intense La Niña likely to ensure that 2011 is not a record-setter, the usual suspects will insist there’s been a plateau in temperatures, with cooling sure to follow. Until the next strong El Niño comes along, of course, because with the solar cycle moving towards maximum insolation, the global average will almost certainly set a clear new record. 2012, perhaps?

[Small milestone: This is the 1,000th post at Hot Topic since the site launched in April 2007.]

The 2010 Climate B.S. of the Year Award

This a guest post by the Climate BS Awards committee.

Welcome to the 2010 Climate B.S.* of the Year Award. 2010 saw widespread and growing evidence of rapidly warming global climate and strengthening scientific understanding of how humans are contributing to climate change. Yet on the policy front, little happened to stem the growing emissions of greenhouse gases or to help societies prepare for increasingly severe negative climate impacts, including now unavoidable changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, sea-level rise, snowpack, glacial extent, Arctic sea ice, and more. These physical impacts will lead to sharply increased disease, military and economic instabilities, food and water shortages, and extreme weather events, among other things. Without appropriate risk management action, the United States will be hit hard. There is no safe haven. Yet confusion and uncertainty about climate change remain high in the minds of too many members of the public and Congress.

Why? In large part because of a concerted, coordinated, aggressive campaign by a small group of well-funded climate change deniers and contrarians focused on intentionally misleading the public and policymakers with bad science about climate change. Much of this effort is based on intentional falsehoods, misrepresentations, inflated uncertainties, and pure and utter B.S. about climate science. These efforts have been successful in sowing confusion and delaying action – just as the same tactics were successful in delaying efforts to tackle tobacco’s health risks.

To counter this campaign of disinformation, we are issuing the first in what may become a series of awards for the most egregious Climate B.S.* of the Year. In preparing the list of nominees, suggestions were received from around the world and a panel of reviewers – all scientists or climate communicators – waded through them. We present here the top five nominees and the winner of the 2010 Climate B.S.* of the Year Award.


Fifth Place. Climate B.S. and misrepresentations presented by Fox “News.”

There are many examples of bad science, misrepresentations, omissions of facts, and distortions of climate reality coming from Fox “News” (far too many to list here, but we note that Joe Romm just gave Fox his 2010 Citizen Kane Award for “non-excellence in journalism” for their misrepresentations of climate science). It seems that Fox has now made it their policy to deny the reality of climate change and has told its reporters to misreport or cast doubt on the science. This policy of disinformation was implemented by Fox News executive Bill Sammon, who ordered staff to cast doubt on climate data in a memo revealed this month. Fox’s political commentators have long used this tactic in their one-sided and biased discussions on climate change but Sammon’s memo seems to direct News staff to slant reporting in direct contradiction to what the scientific facts and scientists actually say.

Fourth Place. Misleading or false testimony to Congress and policymakers about climate change.

While Congress held more hearings in 2010 on climate change than in other recent years, these hearings elicited some astounding testimonies submitted by climate deniers and skeptics filled with false and misleading statements about climate science and total B.S. Examples?

Long-time climate change skeptic Patrick Michaels testified before the House Science and Technology Committee and misrepresented the scientific understanding of the human role in climate change and the well-understood effects of fundamental climatic factors, such as the effects of visible air pollution. Including these effects (as climate scientists have done for many years) would have completely changed his results. Michaels has misrepresented mainstream climate science for decades, as has been noted here, here, and elsewhere, yet he remains a darling of the skeptics in Congress who like his message.

A newer darling of Congressional climate change deniers is Christopher Monckton, who claims to be a member of the British House of Lords (a claim rejected by the House of Lords). Monckton testified before a Senate committee in May and presented such outlandish B.S. about climate that experts (such as John Mashey, Tim Lambert, John Abraham, and Barry Bickmore, to name a few) spent uncounted hours and pages and pages refuting just a subset of his errors.

Third Place. The false claim that a single weather event, such as a huge snowstorm in Washington, D.C., proves there is no global warming.

In February 2010 a big winter storm dumped record piles of snow on the mid-Atlantic U.S., including Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, prompting climate change deniers to use bad weather to try to discredit the reality of global warming. Limbaugh said, “It’s one more nail in the coffin for the global warming thing.” Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe got attention with an igloo on the national mall and labeled it “Al Gore’s new home” (combining bad science with a personal attack). Senator Jim DeMint said, “It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle.’”

Record snowfall is not an indicator of a lack of global warming, as has been pointed out in the scientific literature and many, many rounds of Congressional testimony. It merely means that there was a storm and temperatures were close to or below freezing. Indeed global warming can contribute to greater snowfalls by providing extra moisture. Many scientists testifying before the Senate and House of Representatives have explained the difference between a steadily warming planet and occasional extreme cold events in particular spots. But we can expect to see more examples of this kind of B.S. when it gets cold and snowy somewhere, sometime, this winter.

Second Place. The claim that the “Climategate” emails meant that global warming was a hoax, or was criminal, as Senator Inhofe tried to argue. In fact, it was none of these things (though the British police are still investigating the illegal hacking of a British university’s computer system and the theft of the emails).

Global warming deniers used out-of-context texts from the stolen emails to claim that global warming was a hoax or that scientists had manipulated data or were hiding evidence that climate change wasn’t happening. These claims are all B.S. A series of independent scientific and academic investigations in the U.S. and the U.K. unanimously concluded that nothing in the stolen emails made any difference to the remarkable strength of climate science (see, for example, the Penn State vindication, the independent Muir Russell and Lord Oxburgh reviews, a British Parliamentary Panel review, and other assessments). Unfortunately, the media gave far more attention to the accusations than to the resounding vindications, and climate deniers continue to spread B.S. about this case.

The bottom line of “Climategate?” As a letter in Science magazine signed by 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences said in May 2010: “there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change.”


First Place goes to the following set of B.S.: “There has been no warming since 1998” [or 2000, or…], “the earth is cooling,” “global warming is natural,” and “humans are too insignificant to affect the climate.” Such statements are all nonsense and important for the general public to understand properly.

The reality is that the Earth’s climate is changing significantly, changing fast, and changing due to human factors. The reality of climatic change can no longer be disputed on scientific grounds – the US National Academy of Sciences calls the human-induced warming of the Earth a “settled fact.” The evidence for a “warming” planet includes not just rising temperatures, but also rising sea levels, melting Arctic sea ice, disappearing glaciers, increasing intense rainfalls, and many other changes that matter to society and the environment. The recent and ongoing warming of the Earth is unprecedented in magnitude, speed, and cause.

This winning set of B.S. appears almost daily in the conservative blogosphere, like here and here and here, consistently in the statements of climate change deniers, and far too often in real media outlets. Actual science and observations from around globe have long shown the opposite (for example, here and here are nice rebuttals with real science). The planet continues to warm rapidly largely due to human activities, and average global temperatures continue to rise. The most recent decade has been the warmest decade on record and 2010 will likely go down as either the warmest or second warmest year in recorded history.

Associated B.S. argues that the famous “hockey stick” graph has been disproved. This graph shows the extraordinarily rapid warming of the twentieth century compared to the previous 1000 years. The graph and analysis have been upheld by subsequent researchers and numerous scientific assessments, including one from the US National Academy of Sciences.

To the winners: congratulations, it is long past time your B.S. is recognised for what it is – bad science.

And to the public and the media: be forewarned: all of these and similar bad arguments will certainly be repeated in 2011. It is long past time that this bad science is identified, challenged, and shown to be the B.S. that it is.

The 2010 Climate Bad Science (B.S.) Detection and Correction Team

Peter Gleick, Kevin Trenberth, Tenney Naumer, Michael Ashley, Lou Grinzo, Gareth Renowden, Paul Douglas, Jan W. Dash, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Brian Angliss, Joe Romm, Peter Sinclair, Michael Tobis, Gavin Schmidt, John Cook, plus several anonymous nominators, reviewers, and voters.

[* “B.S.” means “Bad Science” — doesn’t it?]

How to be a denier: lesson #1 (shrivel and die)

One of Hot Topic’s favourite sceptics is NZ C”S”C member Roger Dewhurst, best known for turning up from time to time to unload links to the denier meme du jour (and for his carefully cultivated grumpy old man persona). Yesterday morning he sent me a link to this “interesting” document prepared by Dr David Evans, one of Australia’s more active cranks (he’s Joanne Codling aka Nova‘s partner, for a start). Evans’ latest assault on reason is a series of papers asking Is the Western Climate Establishment Corrupt? His answer’s easy to guess…

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