Miliband: denialism profoundly dangerous

At risk of further accusation of being over-impressed by politicians’ words I welcome what Ed Miliband is reported as saying in today’s leading articlein the Observer. He declared a “battle” against the “siren voices” who denied global warming was real or caused by humans, or that there was a need to cut carbon emissions to tackle it.

His interview with the Observer is described as his first response to University of East Anglia scientists being accused of witholding information and to the IPCC Himalayan glacier error.  He said it would be wrong to use a mistake to somehow undermine the overwhelming picture that’s there.  He described in broad terms the basic physics and the observed effects that point to the existence of human-made climate change, pointing out that “that’s what the vast majority of scientists tell us”.  He cited the thousands of pages of evidence in the IPCC report and was adamant that the IPCC was on the right track.


The danger of climate scepticism was that it would undermine public support for unpopular decisions needed to curb carbon emissions, including the likelihood of higher energy bills for households, and issues such as the visual impact of wind turbines. Miliband is energy secretary as well as climate secretary.

“There are a whole variety of people who are sceptical, but who they are is less important than what they are saying, and what they are saying is profoundly dangerous… to take what the sceptics say seriously would be a profound risk.”

That strikes me as plain speaking from a politician.  It would surprise the New Zealand populace if s senior minister here spoke in such terms.

Miliband also went on to acknowledge the “disappointment” of Copenhagen, though noting that there were also achievements including the agreement by countries responsible for 80% of emissions to set domestic carbon targets by today. I liked what he added: “There’s a message for people who take these things seriously: don’t mourn, organise.” He has previously called for a Make Poverty History-style mass public campaign to pressure politicians into cutting emissions.

Meanwhile back here in New Zealand yesterday’s Herald provided an example of how readily wild accusations levelled at IPCC scientists can make it into the journalistic canon. I wrote a few days ago about the UK Sunday Times’ untruthful article on the IPCC and predicted it would be reported uncritically by other newspapers.  Right on cue a Herald writer, reporting on the NIWA decision to put its temperature data on the web, at the end of her report listed the Sunday Times article as one of three items under the heading “IPCC’s Intemperate Year in the Headlines”.

New dimensions in earth science uncovered by NZ blogger

Exciting new concepts in earth systems science are emerging from the fertile intellect of one of Hot Topic’s most diligent readers, Ian Wishart. Either that, or he’s demonstrated (again) that he doesn’t understand what he’s writing about. In this astonishing post, published yesterday, he considers something he calls the “feedback warming effect”, and attempts to use a new paper on carbon cycle feedbacks to support Monckton’s nonsense on climate sensitivity.

Just as Chicken Little pontificates about the minutiae of a Monckton allegation about warming amplification being overestimated by six of seven times, along comes a new study in Nature that compared real data with the computer models and found CO2’s feedback warming effect has been exaggerated in the models by five or six times.

Monckton’s TV lies are not mentioned — minutiae to Wishart, obviously — but he then points to this paper: Ensemble reconstruction constraints on the global carbon cycle sensitivity to climate, Frank et al, Nature, 2010; 463 (7280) as if it offers support for Monckton. It doesn’t, as I shall explain, but is Wishart wrong about Monckton, wrong about Frank et al, or both?


Monckton’s “paper”, Climate Sensitivity Reconsidered, is about what it says it is — the global temperature response to (by definition) a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. Monckton tries, and fails, to show that this response is small — he claims under 1ºC at doubling. Wishart refers to climate sensitivity as “warming amplification”, which — to be charitable — is a terminological inexactitude.

Frank et al, on the other hand, is the latest effort to pin down how much extra CO2 will be released from the various parts of the carbon cycle as global temperature increases, and suggests that it could be smaller than had been expected [Science Daily]. This “extra” CO2 clearly is an amplification of warming caused by human emissions, and it’s good news that this may be smaller than expected. Wishart describes the study thus:

…[it] compared real data with the computer models and found CO2’s feedback warming effect has been exaggerated in the models by five or six times.

What did Frank et al actually do? Physics World describes their method:

… David Frank and colleagues at the Swiss Federal Research Institute in Birmensdorf, the University of Bern and the Gutenberg University in Mainz have performed the most comprehensive analysis of carbon dioxide and temperature data yet. The team studied the period 1050–1800 AD, when manmade emissions were small enough to be ignored. Carbon dioxide levels were determined from three Antarctic ice cores. Average temperatures in the northern hemisphere were derived from nine different “proxy reconstructions” of temperature – average temperatures derived mostly from tree rings and the isotopic content of ice cores.

No comparisons with models, but a lot of use of paleoclimate data — you know, the tree ring stuff you find in those “debunked” hockeystick blades — and ice cores (and in Wishart-world they can’t be trusted, because Wishart relies on the “work” of EG Beck). Frank and his co-workers use this data to try to work out how much extra CO2 is released when the planet warms — and find that instead of the 40 ppmv/ºC found in previous empirical studies, it was more likely to be in the range 2–21 ppmv/°C, with 8 ppmv/°C being the most likely. The BBC asked Frank what this means for model projections of temperature change this century:

He said that if the results his paper were widely accepted, the overall effect on climate projections would be neutral.
“It might lead to a downward mean revision of those (climate) models which already include the carbon cycle, but an upward revision in those which do not include the carbon cycle.
“That’ll probably even itself out to signify no real change in the temperature projections overall,” he said.

Wishart doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on carbon cycle feedbacks and what they mean for model projections, but he’s canny enough to spot that someone might quibble with his penetrating analysis, so he includes this caveat:

A note for the pedants: the Monckton claim and the Nature paper are approaching a similar problem (magnitude of feedback warming) from slightly different directions (Monckton’s comment relates to rise in temp caused by doubling of CO2, whilst the Nature paper examines the increase in CO2 caused by a rise in temperature), but the general thrust of the arguments is similar: extra carbon dioxide is not going to cause as much feedback as previously claimed.

Clear as mud, Ian. This pedant would point out that the problems being considered are not the same and the “general thrust of the arguments” is not at all similar. Monckton isn’t talking about “feedback warming”, he’s talking about warming caused by a fixed increase (by definition a doubling over pre-industrial conditions) in CO2. He wants us to believe that the temperature response to increasing CO2 is tiny. On the other hand, Frank et al’s conclusions are based on linking small changes in global temperature over the period from 1050 to 1800 to small increases and decreases in CO2 levels.

In other words, if Monckton is right, then Frank et al’s methodology can’t work. Far from supporting Monckton, Frank et al add yet more reasons why he has to be wrong. Meanwhile, Wishart is wrong on all counts. I wonder how such an expert climate commentator could have failed to notice? Perhaps he should get his stuff peer reviewed. Where’s Monckton when you need him…?

Hansen: it can be cold in a warming world.

“If it’s that warm, how come it’s so darned cold?” is the heading James Hansen has given to a recently finalised essay circulated to his email list. In more sober terms he subtitles it Regional Cold Anomalies within Near-Record Global Temperature

The essay explains how the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) goes about analyzing global temperature change, using electronic receipt of data from three sources: (1) weather data for several thousand meteorological stations, (2) satellite observations of sea surface temperature, and (3) Antarctic research station measurements. And for those who might suggest that there’s secret manipulation going on Hansen makes it clear that the data is available for others who want to use it:


“Although the three input data streams that we use are publicly available from the organizations that produce them, we began preserving the complete input data sets each month in April 2008. These data sets, which cover the full period of our analysis, 1880-present, are available to parties interested in performing their own analysis or checking our analysis. The computer program used in our analysis can be downloaded from the GISS web site.”

The results are that 2009 tied (with 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007 – differences too close to matter) as the second warmest year in the 130 years of global instrumental temperature record.  The warmest was 2005.  Hansen discusses the variance of the GISS figures with the Hadley Centre (HadCRUT) which has 1998 as the warmest year, and which has been used so frequently to support claims that the globe since 1998 is now cooling. After careful comparison he concludes that the differences that have developed between the GISS and HadCRUT global temperatures are due primarily to the extension of the GISS analysis into regions that are excluded from the HadCRUT analysis. He expresses a reasonable degree of confidence in the GISS preference for 2005. Over the decade the conclusion is easier: the world has become warmer, not cooler.

What about that cold 2009 December?  There was an unusual exchange of polar and mid-latitude air in the northern hemisphere, related to the most extreme Arctic Oscillation since the 1970s. His conclusion is that December 2009 was a highly anomalous month. High pressure in the polar region can be described as the “cause” of the extreme weather. There is no apparent basis for expecting frequent repeat occurrences of December 2009 conditions, though high winter variability including cold snaps will surely continue.

Further discussion of seasonal temperature anomalies leads to the observation that the change in the probability that the seasonal mean temperature at any given location will fall in the category that was defined as unusually warm during 1951-1980 has increased from 30 percent during that period to about 60 percent today. This will be illustrated in an upcoming publication.

The bottom line?

“The Earth has been in a period of rapid global warming for the past three decades. The assertion that the planet has entered a period of cooling in the past decade is without foundation. On the contrary, we find no significant deviation from the warming trend of the past three decades.”

I haven’t attempted to offer any of the detail with which Hansen builds his conclusions, but can report it as readily accessible to the lay person prepared to give it reasonably patient attention. The essay is another example of his skill in communicating serious science to non-scientists and of his laudable willingness to do so.

His preliminary remarks are worth separate attention. He notes that scientists reporting global warming have come under attack for a supposed conspiracy to manufacture evidence of global warming. Vicious personal messages are sent to the principal scientists almost daily.

“The spiral into an almost surrealistic situation with ad hominem attacks on scientists may have originated in part with vested interests who do not want society to address climate change. But there is more than that – including honest, wishful thinking that climate change is not really happening. But wishing does not alter facts.”

He stoutly supports the work of scientists:

“The scientific method practically defines integrity… All scientists make honest mistakes, but the scientific method is designed to correct them. The skeptical nature of the scientific method causes conclusions to be reexamined as new data appears. Cases of deliberate fudging of data, of scientific fraud, are so rare that these infrequent episodes live in infamy for decades and even centuries.”

He knows of no cases of fraud in analyses of global temperature measurements. In the face of unfounded accusations “our best approach is simply to continue to report our scientific results as clearly as possible.”

He thinks that most of the public continue to respect scientists for what they do and how they do it. I hope he’s right. Sometimes I think the forces of denial have taken on the aspect of a rampaging demonic power, against which the forces of quiet reason are for the time being ineffectual.

Monckton, “high priest of climate sceptics”, tells lies on TV NZ

Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley (a nice little village in Kent with good pubs, at least when I was growing up nearby) has arrived safely in Australia and embarked on the hectic round of talks and media opportunities that is his birthright and expectation wherever he goes. On Monday morning, my spies tell me he popped up on TV One’s Breakfast show, and managed to get away with an egregious falsehood.

Continue reading “Monckton, “high priest of climate sceptics”, tells lies on TV NZ”

UK Sunday Times’ sloppy journalism attacks IPCC

A couple of days ago one of Hot Topic’s denialist commenters triumphantly waved a UK Sunday Times article claiming that the IPCC had erred not only in relation to the likely rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers but also in linking global warming to an increase in the number and severity of natural disasters.

I had a quick look at the IPCC report referred to and responded  by pointing out that the section pointed to by the Sunday Times wasn’t about the frequency of extreme events but about their costs.

I think the matter is worth longer treatment than I gave it there, because it is an example of shocking carelessness, if not deliberate misrepresentation, passing itself off as responsible journalism on climate change.  The Sunday Times article was written by Jonathan Leake, their science and environment editor.

We’ve caught the IPCC at it again, he virtually proclaims.  The IPCC has based its claims that natural disasters are increasing as a result of global warming on an unpublished report that had not been subjected to routine scientific scrutiny. On this slender basis developing nations have demanded compensation from rich nations and Ed Miliband, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have been led into exaggerated statements.

It was news to me that the whole question of the frequency of severe events rested on a single report, and it rapidly becomes apparent in Leake’s report that he is confused (I hope not disingenuous). Here is what he writes:

“The new controversy also goes back to the IPCC’s 2007 report in which a separate section warned that the world had ‘suffered rapidly rising costs due to extreme weather-related events since the 1970s’.

“It suggested a part of this increase was due to global warming and cited the unpublished report, saying: ‘One study has found that while the dominant signal remains that of the significant increases in the values of exposure at risk, once losses are normalised for exposure, there still remains an underlying rising trend.’”

Costs? Losses? This must surely be from Working Group II of the IPCC which deals with the impacts of climate change, not from Working Group I which deals with the physical science.  And so it proved.  The study he talks about  is by Robert Muir-Wood, of the London consultancy Risk Management Solutions.  It is referred to in a short section on economic and insurance losses, part of a longer section on disasters and hazards. The inference that this paper is the basis of the IPCC’s findings on the frequency and severity of natural disasters is simply ridiculous.  Here is what the IPCC says of Muir-Woods paper:

“A global catalogue of catastrophe losses was constructed (MuirWood et al., 2006), normalised to account for changes that have resulted from variations in wealth and the number and value of properties located in the path of the catastrophes, using the method of Landsea et al. (1999). The global survey was considered largely comprehensive from 1970 to 2005 for countries and regions (Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea, the USA, Caribbean, Central America, China, India and the Philippines) that had centralised catastrophe loss information and included a broad range of peril types: tropical cyclone, extratropical cyclone, thunderstorm, hailstorm, wildfire and flood, and that spanned high- and low-latitude areas.

“Once the data were normalised, a small statistically significant trend was found for an increase in annual catastrophe loss since 1970 of 2% per year (see Supplementary Material Figure SM1.1). However, for a number of regions, such as Australia and India, normalised losses show a statistically significant reduction since 1970. The significance of the upward trend is influenced by the losses in the USA and the Caribbean in 2004 and 2005 and is arguably biased by the relative wealth of the USA, particularly relative to India.”

A restrained statement, I’d have thought, and certainly staying firmly within the topic of costs, not using the Muir-Wood paper as a basis for evidence on the wider question of increased frequency of severe events.  There are statements in many places in the IPCC report about changes in extremes and disasters, and it is absurd to treat this one section and this one paper as the basis of what it has to say.  How on earth does a journalist carrying the responsibility for science and environment on a major newspaper not know that?  I was pleased to see the IPCC issue a statement on Monday firmly refuting the Sunday Times article as misleading and baseless.  The first point their statement makes is:

“[The Sunday Times article] incorrectly assumes that a brief section on trends in economic losses from climate-related disasters is everything the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007) has to say about changes in extremes and disasters. In fact, the Fourth Assessment Report reaches many important conclusions, at many locations in the report, about the role of climate change in extreme events. The assessment addresses both observations of past changes and projections of future changes in sectors ranging from heat waves and precipitation to wildfires. Each of these is a careful assessment of the available evidence, with a thorough consideration of the confidence with which each conclusion can be drawn.”

(A convenient summary of what Working Group I has to say may be seen in their Frequently Asked Questions section . The question ‘Has there been a change in extreme events?’ is responded to on p.107, and the question ‘Can Individual Extreme Events be Explained by Greenhouse Warming?’ on p.119.  Both answers are restrained and cautious.)

But even on the matter of trends in economic losses and disasters the Sunday Times has grossly misrepresented the IPCC, as Monday’s IPCC refutation adds:

“The second problem with the article in the Sunday Times is its baseless attack on the section of the report on trends in economic losses from disasters. This section of the IPCC report is a balanced treatment of a complicated and important issue. It clearly makes the point that one study detected an increase in economic losses, corrected for values at risk, but that other studies have not detected such a trend. The tone is balanced, and the section contains many important qualifiers. In writing, reviewing, and editing this section, IPCC procedures were carefully followed to produce the policy-relevant assessment that is the IPCC mandate.”

The full section is here on p.110 if you want to check the veracity of that judgement.

The Sunday Times article is simply untrue. It is lazy, sloppy journalism at best, deliberate misinformation at worst.   It has been taken up trumphantly by the denialist world and reported widely and uncritically by other newspapers. I hope the paper is ashamed of what it has achieved, but I fear it will be rejoicing at the attention it has gained.