The New York Times's masthead motto is "All the news that's fit to print." The Australian's might as well be "All the news that fits our prejudice."
Don Aitkin is of course entitled to his opinion (though as the late Senator Moynihan reminded us, he is not entitled to his own facts). The paper could have run his piece as an op ed on the inner pages (though for what purpose, I don't know). But by running it with the prominence they have, you have to wonder at their motivation. Don Aitkin is a political scientist, no doubt eminent in his field. But no one can pretend he is an authority on climate science. What's more, his article contains nothing of any novelty. So what purpose can there be in not only publishing the article, but in giving it the prominence of a page 1 placement? All I can think of is that The Australian wishes to continue to stoke controversy -- whether to generate circulation (which doesn't work with me, I stopped buying the paper) or to pursue its own agenda on climate science.
However, since they have done this, and in addition, posted a lengthier paper (an address he gave to the Planning Institute of Australia), his views demand rebuttal. Here it is, based on the lengthier paper.
- Arguing about "consensus" is silly. There was a consensus before Einstein's time that Newton had the Laws of Physics stitched up. Einstein found a more general theory. "Consensus" in science is not a deep concept -- just a way of expressing the fact that most scientists do not see the point in arguing over something that has been shown to be valid, and no one has successfully invalidated. There was a similar "consensus" about the link between tobacco and cancer, which the relevant industry attacked vigorously, using similar language to the anti-AGW movement. That consensus remains to be overturned, despite the fact that we still have a lot to learn about the mechanisms of cancer.
- He claims that he is "presently agnostic about the central Anthropogenic Global Warming...proposition" but this is not borne out by his article, which dwells on arguments against AGW. To quote Monty Python, that's not debate, it's contradiction.
- The "panicky media mood" he talks about is no reason to trash the science, rather to be skeptical about the quality of science journalism in popular media. There was a similarly panicky media mood about global cooling in the 1970s (he quotes Newsweek further on) but if you actually search the scientific literature, there was very little basis in science for this. I don't think you will find a "panicky mood" if you read Science or Nature. A paper has been published showing that 7 papers in the 1970s predicted cooling, compared with 42 predicting warming. The cooling papers attracted only 12% of the citations counted. In other words, even in the 1970s, the evidence available at the time -- Newsweek and other popular media notwithstanding -- was that warming was more supportable than cooling.
- Einstein and Feynman on refutation and uncertainty in science: the anti-AGW movement can be accused of a higher degree of certainty with considerably less evidence on their side. Read Bob Carter's polemics. Is there a hint in any of his writing the he could be wrong? On the contrary, there is a bellicose certainty in his writing which I have not found in the scientific literature -- which I find odd from a scientist of his experience (here's a classic example).
- "...human beings barely understand 'climate'". Well of course this is a vast field but enormous strides have been made over the last 20 years. I have been following this issue over that period, and the scope and accuracy of the models have improved vastly. To speak of the field in terms that were true 20 years ago is misinformed, I'm afraid. Models developed over that time have for example accurately predicted the effect on climate of a major volcanic eruption.
- Urban heat island effect -- I suggest he reads the literature on how this effect has been isolated out. For example, warming in the Arctic cannot be explained by this effect. Studies have been done eliminating urban sites to see if they skew the trend, and statistical techniques like jackknifing have been applied to determine whether a fraction of the stations is skewing the trend. There is an excellent discussion of this issue at the RealClimate site.
- Reduction in measuring stations -- the reason for this is the introduction of satellite-based measurement. Satellites can measure bigger areas more accurately (though they do need careful calibration, the source of some of errors which have since been put right).
- Uncertainty brushed aside -- this is simply untrue. Measurements and model outcomes are given with a range of values to allow for the uncertainties in measurement and modeling. Uncertainties in IPCC reports are expressed numerically (90% probability etc.).
- "IPCC, for example, discredits satellite-based measurements, perhaps because they are lower). But let all that pass too." If he didn't mean the reader to take this into account, why mention it? This is a rhetorical trick befitting a shaky legal case not a serious academic argument. As I pointed out earlier, satellite measurements are subject to a period of calibration, as is true for any new instrument.
- Wine-making in England: this is skimpy evidence at best for unusual warmth. Wine is grown in England on an even bigger scale now, and has been for years. It's also grown in much cooler climates (Germany, Canada: have you heard of Eiswein?). The literature on the medieval warm period is subject to much greater uncertainties than the modern climate record, and that the world as a whole was warmer (as opposed to a few regions) has not been established. It is a bit rich to complain of the IPCC brushing aside uncertainties, then accepting the "medieval warm period" as fact, without any doubts as to the accuracy of measurement.
- "... we don't know what the 'normal' production of CO2 is". The natural carbon cycle is very well understood. Try looking for papers by Berner for example.
- He correctly points out that the greenhouse effect of CO2 is logarithmic, then goes on to look for a "dramatically linear relationship". Why would you expect to find a linear relationship if the effect is logarithmic?
- The claim that the warming of the troposphere doesn't match models arises from improper handling of uncertainties (where have we heard that before?).
- IPCC and sea levels: the IPCC's 2007 numbers are lower than their earlier numbers because they took out the area of greatest uncertainty, ice loss. This is not reassuring. The behaviour of the Antarctic is deviating from models significantly, including much more rapid ice discharge than predicted. If you want to criticise the IPCC for inadequate handling of uncertainty, this is the place.
- "... slight cooling in the sea" -- again, a problem with calibrating new instrumentation. See the note at the head of the press release that started it all. Prof Aitkin may be a novice at climate science so one could forgive him the lapse of failing to check for follow-up studies. This error has been known for almost a year. But Bob Carter was advising him. Surely he can't be that incompetent. Or is he dishonest?
- Antarctica: the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is cause for concern. It is grounded below sea level (up to 2km in parts) and if it destabilized, it could come apart quickly, adding around 5m to sea levels. The problem is that we don't have good models to predict its behaviour. There is evidence of very rapid ice loss in the distant past, but no evidence of the mechanism.
- Climate models versus weather prediction. I've seen this argument often and it doesn't improve with age, unlike a good wine (British or not). Climate is a long-term effect, averaged over many years. Weather is an instantaneous measure (what you see now). I can predict with reasonably accuracy, based on decades of medical data, that flu cases will increase over winter. I cannot, however, predict whether any individual will get ill at all, let alone when. Should we stop advising the infirm to take flu shots, because we don't know which of them will succumb? One of the great advances in the twentieth century is the science of large numbers. We can do epidemiological studies, accurate censuses, and the like -- even though there are many errors in the data.
- Validity of models -- there are many climate models, not just one. They broadly show the same trend with small differences. If modeling the climate many different ways arrives at a similar outcome, it increases your confidence in the models. If a discrepancy is found, either the discrepant model is invalid, or the others are, and work goes into fixing the problem. This has been happening over a couple of decades. If you think this is not a very good approach, what would you advocate we do instead? Carry on as normal, and see if nothing happens? Is that a responsible position if the best science we can do, whether imperfect or not, says we are heading for trouble?
- He claims that the IPCC has extraordinary influence and that its work is political. I argue the opposite. If they had significant influence, we would have a much stronger worldwide agreement than Kyoto by now. On the contrary, the anti-AGW position is largely political (show me the scientific papers: I've found a few, but they are not convincing); I refer you again to the style of Bob Carter. If you think the language of the IPCC Summaries (for policymakers, note, not for scientists -- responsible policymakers will in any case run the detail past their own scientists) is not very scientific, look again at the Carter article I referred you to earlier (not an isolated example).
- "... tendency of scholars to 'protect' their theory" -- I suggest he takes a step back and looks at the anti-AGW position in the same light. Lindzen for example persists with his "iris" theory even though he has no hard evidence to back it (and there's a very fundamental reason that it is unlikely to be right -- ask nicely and I'll explain).
- "... quasi-religious view" -- again, look at the anti-AGW position. Many of its proponents aren't scientists, or are retired scientists. Their orthodoxy is being challenged, and they are putting up a bitter fight. Similar opinions were expressed about tobacco and cancer, and the ozone hole. What is a scientist who finds that an industrial practice is harmful to do? Shut up and live with the consequences, or speak out and be accused of "religion" or "politics"? Take a step back from the anti-AGW position, and ask yourself what you would do faced with that situation.
- Influence of "Greens and environmentalists" -- now he is moving into the political. Is he saying that NASA's labs, the UK Antarctic Survey, et al. are mainly populated by Greens and environmentalists? This is where the science is coming from. I've been in science for over 20 years, and my experience is that scientists are significantly more conservative on average than his end of academia. That there is a Green vote no doubt influences governments to take some kind of action, but you can be sure that as long as that vote is under 10%, that action will be tokenism at best.
- "... if there is no true causal link between CO2 and rising temperatures" -- there is. The physics is well established. The only cause for uncertainty is the feedbacks (e.g., extra heating caused by reduced albedo).
- "I ask for a public inquiry" -- what purpose would this serve? The detail of the science is beyond the non-scientist, and any scientist can look up the relevant literature. The IPCC is an enquiry of a sort, but he rejects it; would the anti-AGW camp accept any finding they didn't like? His supposition is that the IPCC was set up with the AGW hypothesis set as truth. However, thousands of scientists working on the problem had every opportunity to refute it. Some have pointed out problems, most of which have been addressed, as he would have found had he followed up his limited literature review with a search for citations. There is in fact considerable reward in demonstrating flaws in the science because so few people are doing it -- hence the entry into the field of previous unknowns like Lomborg (would any conventional funding agency have funded him? Only one journal publication, and not in a relevant area ... or now that Aitkin's no longer involved in funding decisions, does he no longer accept track record as a criterion for funding research?) Why are so few people doing it? Is it because the "consensus" is substantially right? Because of a conspiracy?
- "... ensure that the funding directed to climate science research be allocated in a disinterested way" -- does he have any evidence that it's not? Again, I point to Lomborg. No track record, no relevant scientific background, yet he was able to attract significant funding. If you want to look for political interference in funding, look no further than his case.
- "... started to think through how to find alternatives to oil" -- James Hansen at NASA, often accused of being alarmist, has also pointed this out.
- "likely to be attacked and demonised" -- I have seen this claim often but I have yet to see a real instance. Lomborg for instance was attacked largely on the poor quality of his science, which he took personally. The Australian has plenty of articles "attacking and demonising" the IPCC position (how would you classify his?) He may find, however, that some people are annoyed by the fact that he is raking over old arguments that are easy to refute. I was annoyed enough to write this lengthy rebuttal when I have better things to do with my time.
The only part of Aitkin's paper which makes any sense is where he points out that there are other good reasons to aim for a cleaner, greener planet. Well good. Why, then, muddy the waters by pontificating at length on matters on which he is not qualified and which he clearly does not underestand?
As a courtesy to other readers, please provide references (not just a web site or an organisation please: something that can be found) if you have information to add. I do not feel obligated to respond to unsubstantiated claims to the same extent.
Predictive Power of Models
One of the comments on this article claims, "To put it simply, models have got better at being tweaked to match historical climate but no-one has the faintest idea of how good they are at predicting future climate." In other words, the models have no predictive power. I took this as a challenge, and compared one of the earliest papers with reality.
Also since the Antarctic has been the subject of some discussion, I though this picture may be of interest: The picture (sourced from NASA) shows the warming trend around the Antarctic, 1982-2004. As you can see warming around the edges is very significant, but much of the interior is cooling. The overall picture is consistent with the view that the region is warming, but the special properties of the continent with its extremely massive, high ice cap are causing it to deviate from the trend.
I was accused of talking nonsense when I spoke of "consensus". Another area where this term is used in in evolution. As with climate change, effects are long-term and can't be observed directly. If most evidence points to a particular view and there is scant evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable in science to talk about "consensus" emerging. It is simply not true that a scientific theory can only exist if you can directly demonstrate its validity experimentally. Evolution and geology operate on multi-million-year timescales; cosmology on even longer timescales. We can no more recreate the steps leading from simple organic molecules to multicellular beings (at least in some cases) possessing intelligence than we can recreate the steps from the instant of creation of the universe to countless millions of stars as we know them. Nor can we experience climate change directly and change its course by a simple experiment. None of this means that we cannot have valid scientific theories in these areas -- only that testing them is hard, and those who refuse to be persuaded have an easy time developing arguments that seem compelling to the non-scientist.
One of the comments said:
Satellite-based measurements are more accurate - I agree - and the calibration issues have been resolved. Both the University of Alabama (Huntsville) and RSS are now producing very similar temperature data and .. I suppose to your dismay ... it's showing little sign of warming.
It took me a while to get to this and ... why should I be dismayed? If the problem is going away we can all breathe easy. As it turns out, recent corrections show that errors in Christy and Spencer's work significantly underestimated the warming trend.
Sea Level Rise
Here's something I found recently on sea level rise and the potential for a rapid meltdown of ice caps, based on paleoclimate studies:
Jonathan T. Overpeck, Bette L. Otto-Bliesner, Gifford H. Miller, Daniel R. Muhs, Richard B. Alley, and Jeffrey T. Kiehl. Paleoclimatic Evidence for Future Ice-Sheet Instability and Rapid Sea-Level Rise, Science, vol. 311 no. 5768 24 March 2006, p, 1747-1750.