The Herald sends good sense on holiday

The silly season is obviously taking a toll on editorial judgement at the Herald. Yesterday they ran an astonishing column by Malcolm McPhee – Climate of fear starting to make my temperature rise – which is breathtakingly nonsensical, and also provided space for Jim Hopkins to take a (ritual for him, tired and boring for the rest of us) swipe at climate science in his column. Today, Fran O’Sullivan includes amongst her top ten stories for 2008 – at number three, no less – climate change science consensus breaks – basing her judgement on a list of 400 “scientists” issued by a Republican Senator and his team of tame climate deniers. McPhee and O’Sullivan deserve debunking (see below), but Hopkins’ taste in eyewear is so atrocious ( 😉 ) that I’ll take pity on him and leave him alone (for now).

McPhee’s piece is risible by any standards. Providing a platform for a spectrum of views is one thing, but allowing people to get away with rank stupidity is quite another. McPhee seems to specialise in answering his own questions – and getting them wrong.

Have the UN climate models yet been real-world tested? No.

The correct answer is: yes. And they are not “UN” models – they are models built by academic institutions around the world, from NASA to the UK’s Hadley Centre, via Japan’s Earth simulator.

Weather stations are not equally distributed around the world and vast regions like the oceans are not covered. Many stations are enclosed by urbanisations that make the areas heat tanks.

Heat tanks? Cities get hot, yes, but the effect is fully accounted for in the temperature data. And we have some very good information on sea surface temperatures (perhaps McPhee has never heard of satellite data?).

Temperatures vary throughout a day so which temperature do you take? How can there be a proclaimed global average temperature when nobody measures a proper local average?

McPhee clearly wishes to rewrite the work done by legions of meteorologists and climate scientists. They’ve being doing it all wrong. But he doesn’t explain how. He just makes an assertion, and hopes that no-one will call him on it. To me, it looks as though he’s been reading some of Vincent Gray’s wilder speculations, and taken them as gospel. He sounds like Ken Ring, too (never a good thing for credibility). A clear case of the daft leading the deluded.

Fran O’Sullivan has often commented on climate policy in her regular Herald columns, and has just as often seemed to echo the views of the big emitters and Business Roundtable. Today she really jumps the shark in her predictions for 2008:

3. Climate change science consensus breaks
More prominent scientists will dispute the extent of the man-made global warming scenario. Four hundred scientists, many of them current and former participants in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have already criticised claims by the panel and former US Vice-President Al Gore. A minority report issued by the Senate environment and public works committee lists the scientists by name, country and academic/institutional affiliation and features their words, biographies and weblinks to their peer-reviewed studies and original source materials gathered in 2007. In New Zealand, rational scientists will still be demonised by Government and some business organisations.

This would be the list of “400 prominent scientists” issued by US Senator James Inhofe and his team. That’s 400 prominent scientists, including BBC TV gardening presenter Alan Titchmarsh (diploma in horticulture), a bunch of TV weathermen, economists, and the usual suspects from the NZ CSC. Owen McShane’s on the list. Owen may be many things, but even he doesn’t pretend to be an eminent scientist. Vincent Gray’s there too. Good to know he’s getting some recognition at last. And Canterbury University philosophy don Dennis Dutton is magically transmuted into a scientist. Inhofe’s list is getting a good going over at Rabett Run, and many other places. If that’s the best the sceptics can do, the game’s over. [UPDATE 4/1/07: Russell Brown at Hard News provides a good analysis.]
Memo to Fran: By all means make political points in your columns, but you would be well advised to check your sources before rushing to print. This sort of thing only makes you look silly. Enjoy your holiday.

13 thoughts on “The Herald sends good sense on holiday”

  1. Thats all very well discrediting SOME of the ‘scientists’, but for once, the phrase ‘peer review’ is used, such as for the paper published in Geophysical Research Letters (Ref: American Geophysical Union (2007, August 2). Synchronized Chaos: Mechanisms For Major Climate Shifts).

    Excerpt: “The authors show that this mechanism explains all global temperature tendency changes and El Nino variability in the 20th century.” From

  2. I found that paper on google scholar. I can’t claim to understand it very well, but it seems like an intriguing idea, analysing the climate system as the interactions of chaotic oscillators representing already identified features such as ENSO.

    I don’t see the direct relevance here, though, as the Tsonis paper is not part of Inhofe’s list ( ) of 400 scientists who have criticised the IPCC. As such it’s not a counter-example to what Gareth says about the list.

    Instead Inhofe lists the paper under the headline “Sampling of inconvenient scientific developments in 2007 for proponents of catastrophic man-made global warming”.

    This characterisation seems to be based on the ScienceDaily write-up, which in my lay opinion seems to be overstating things when it says “The authors show that this mechanism explains all global temperature tendency changes and El Nino variability in the 20th century.”

    I’ll quote the entire conclusion of the paper for comparison:

    The above observational and modeling results suggest the following intrinsic mechanism of the climate system leading to major climate shifts. First, the major climate modes tend to synchronize at some coupling strength. When this synchronous state is followed by an increase in the coupling strength, the network’s synchronous state is destroyed and after that climate emerges in a new state. The whole event marks a significant shift in climate. It is interesting to speculate on the climate shift after the 1970s event. The standard explanation for the post 1970s warming is that the radiative effect of greenhouse gases overcame shortwave reflection effects due to aerosols [Mann and Emanuel, 2006]. However, comparison of the 2035 event in the 21st 224 century simulation and the 1910s event in the observations with this event, suggests an alternative hypothesis, namely that the climate shifted after the 1970s event to a different state of a warmer climate, which may be superimposed on an anthropogenic warming trend.

    Of course, like any new science, we’ll have to see how it all comes out in the wash…

  3. Thanks for doing the digging, fragment. Appreciated…

    Stephen, as f points out, the paper is not providing an alternate explanation for global warming, or undermining any consensus, it’s suggesting a mechanism for climate shifts.

    As to the “scientists” on the list, please follow the link to Rabett Run and look at the names. The number of actual working climate scientists is very small. Economists and philsophers – even Owen McShane – are entitled to their views on GW, but they are not the people I would ask to assess the current state of the science. This list is all about politics and PR, and nothing to do with science.

    The chances that the actual consensus on climate science will “break” in the coming year are essentially zero. The interesting work will be on the rate of change, which is far exceeding expectations. The “IPCC view” will increasingly be seen as very conservative.

  4. Gareth it certainly looks increasingly likely that the IPCC report is lagging behind developments already manifesting themselves, particularly in relation to ice melt. It scares me. I can hardly credit the confidence of many denialists and find it very strange that journalists of Fran O’Sullivan’s status give such ready credence to their bluster. I assume she actually reads very little of the science, and perhaps finds it difficult to tolerate the thought that market failure is part of the global warming picture, as Stern has acknowledged.

  5. Bryan, you might find this Pew Centre page on Arctic ice interesting. Here’s the last paragraph (hat-tip Russell Brown):

    The unexpectedly rapid change in Arctic sea ice and other climate processes suggests that the climate reacts more strongly to a given amount of global warming than scientists have calculated. As a result, risks from future climate change are likely greater than scientists have generally believed, and existing climate change projections might best be viewed as the minimum changes that humanity should expect.

    If that turns out to be the case, climate modellers are going to have to do some rejigging over the next few years, and I doubt revised projections will make pleasant reading. It’s particularly relevant to the policy discussions about post-Kyoto targets – making steeper cuts necessary.

  6. It appears that the ScienceDaily writer took a bit of creative license with that “explains all global temperature tendency changes” comment then! I thought it might be one of ‘those’ sites then but I see they recently posted an article which says: “Including 2007, seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997”, and ‘contradicting’ that is a part of Inhofe’s general argument.

    I DID see the list a while ago and took note that while there were many without credibility, there were also some WITH, but as ever this is meaningless without a RELEVANT peer reviewed paper, it is not good enough just to have written peer-reviewed work in the past.

    I’m fairly sure that I followed the link from the page for the Inhofe Report (
    (sorry for the long link), but I didn’t understand the actual paper either.


  7. Stephen, the presence or absence of “tendency” changes the meaning of that phrase vastly. Of course Inhofe/Morano were happy to read the paper as if “tendency” added no meaning, but that should come as no surprise as their blog is in large part based on that sort of intentional distortion.

    But here’s the paper in a nutshell: The climate has all sorts of natural modes and cycles, some of which are short (like ENSO), others of which are long (like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or PDO). Overall there are on the order of a dozen or so of these. It’s not a completely definite list since it’s a little hard to tell e.g. where some stop and others begin, or if one might actually just be the result of two others acting together.

    Tsonis (who is a pretty high-powered researcher, but a bit of a loner) claims to have found a means of predicting these natural cycles, although I’ve seen some very doubtful comments from other scientists. If he’s proved right, it would be tremendously helpful since the AGW signal could be much more accurately separated from natural climate variability. For example, it might allow prediction of whether a given summer will have an increased risk of severe heat waves.

    The key point to bear in mind is that this paper in no way supports an argument that the natural cycles damp the AGW signal or vice versa (thus that word “superimposed”). IOW, as warming progresses there will be periods when the natural cycles net out to cooling and will cancel out the AGW signal, but other times when the natural cycles will combine with AGW to make things get a lot hotter a lot quicker.

    We will see in the next year or two whether this is really a breakthrough.

  8. Here’s another bite at this apple, although AFAIK Tsonis is the only one to have proposed a grand global scheme. The question will be whether this and other slices are consistent with Tsonis’ picture (or at least not fatal to it) and with each other.

  9. As Stephen has demonstrated beyond a doubt that he’s a glutton for punishment, here‘s another one of these things:

    Generation of hyper climate modes

    D. Dommenget and M. Latif; Leibniz Institute for Marine Sciences, Kiel, Germany

    Abstract: It is shown that some important aspects of the space-time structure of multidecadal sea surface temperature (SST) variability can be explained by local air-sea interactions. A concept for “Global Hyper Climate Modes” is formulated: surface heat flux variability associated with regional atmospheric variability patterns is integrated by the large heat capacity of the extra-tropical oceans, leading to a continuous increase of SST variance towards longer timescales. Atmospheric teleconnections spread the extra-tropical signal to the tropical regions. Once SST anomalies have developed in the Tropics, global atmospheric teleconnections spread the signal around the world creating a global hyper climate mode. A simple model suggests that hyper climate modes can vary on timescales longer than 1,000 years. Ocean dynamics may amplify theses modes and influence the regional expression of the variability, but are not at the heart of the mechanism which produces the hyper modes.

  10. Finally, just to note that I would seriously question whether past behavior of these shifts remains a very good guide to what they will do in the future. There’s a bit of pushing and squeezing going on, it turns out (review article by big cheeses in the field):

    Widening of the tropical belt in a
    changing climate

    Abstract: Some of the earliest unequivocal signs of climate change have been the warming of the air and ocean, thawing of land and melting of ice in the Arctic. But recent studies are showing that the tropics are also changing. Several lines of evidence show that over the past few decades the tropical belt has expanded. This expansion has potentially important implications for subtropical societies and may lead to profound changes in the global climate system. Most importantly, poleward movement of largescale atmospheric circulation systems, such as jet streams and storm tracks, could result in shifts in precipitation patterns affecting natural ecosystems, agriculture, and water resources. The implications of the expansion for stratospheric circulation and the distribution of ozone in the atmosphere are as yet poorly understood. The observed recent rate of expansion is greater than climate model projections of expansion over the twenty-first century, which suggests that there is still much to be learned about this aspect of global climate change.

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