Monday, 6 December 2010

The Australian’s Resolve Cracks

The Australian last weekend published a lengthy defence of its position on climate change, claiming its editorial policy was never anti-science, with the following rather surprising wording emphasised:
THIS newspaper supports global action on climate change based on the science.
They published a letter from me, cutting much of the substance, so I present it in full here:
I read Graham Lloyd’s lengthy defence of this paper’s coverage of climate science (“Climate debate no place for hotheads” 4/12) with interest.

The Australian may have said all these things but in a context where denialists writing junk were not only given equal time with real scientists, but lauded as in the case of Ian Plimer, who was given an incredible free ride for his book which was torn to shreds once it was in the hands of scientists, rather than the hard right ideologues in your editorial offices. I am also reminded of the embarrassingly incorrect article, "Sorry to ruin the fun, but an ice age cometh" (23/04/2008) by Phil Chapman, who claimed that a decline in the number of observed sunspots presaged an ice age. Current indications are that 2010 is likely to set a new record for overall annual temperature. So much for that.

This paper has a long history of promoting cranks and contrarians with no standing in the scientific community. If these people were correct of course it would be great that you were giving them space, but they have proved time and time again to be talking rubbish. So how do you consider it acceptable that you are giving them equal time? The argument that a contrarian position is owed equal time no matter how bereft it is of logic or factual support was invented by the tobacco industry in 1954 and is as valid today as it was then. If your editorial staff does not understand the difference between pro-industry propaganda and genuine scientific debate, you cannot claim to be a quality paper. Allowing cranks to present easily debunked pseudo-science ad nauseam is not a freedom of speech issue, it is a quality of journalism issue. In any case you are extremely selective on where this kind of bogus balance applies: you do not for example insist on allowing Trotskyites equal time on the business pages, no doubt on the basis that their theories haven’t worked in practice. Well, guess what. Neither have contrarian theories of climate.

If it is indeed this paper’s position that we should base our actions on the science, how about reporting the science without insisting on bogus balance of at least equal space for anti-science? How about some articles informing the public on exactly how uncertainty is deal with in science, rather than stoking the completely false claim that uncertainty in climate science renders the whole field invalid? There’s a lot you can do to defend your reputation without threatening litigation, and I suggest you start by understanding why many scientists hold you in contempt. A mirror can be a most useful tool.
I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to understand the nature of the propaganda war on science that started with tobacco, took on the ozone hole and is now attacking climate science to read the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes is an accomplished science historian and her careful scholarship adds to the understanding of this topic I’ve built from my own experience in taking on other bogus anti-science battles in the past, including tobacco and AIDS denial, as well as reading other books like George Monbiot’s Heat.

More interesting to me though is why the paper has suddenly decided to defend its track record, questionable though its defence is: the paper’s environment editor, Graham Lloyd, argues that the paper’s own editorials have consistently argued for a science-based approach, while ignoring the fact that allowing so much space for cranks undermines public understanding of the science. But why are they doing this? Do they care about their reputation after all?

Let’s consider one example, the common attack line of the anti-science warrior since the days of tobacco: undermine public confidence in scientific findings by harping on uncertainty, as if this is a sole property of this one area of applied science, and nothing can be done until all uncertainties are resolved. To anyone who does science of the real world, this is a patently absurd line of attack, but it is one that bought the tobacco industry decades, held up action on the ozone hole and caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary HIV deaths in South Africa. No real-world science is devoid of uncertainty; the biggest irony in this line of attack is that industries like oil that pay for anti-science activism deal with enormous uncertainties in their own line of work. It is beggars the imagination that the industry’s own scientists do not know how to manage uncertainty.

One editorial doesn’t do it for me: the paper will have to build a consistent track record of reporting well-founded scientific positions, and refusing to publish polemics disguised as science. Oh yes, and Graham Lloyd: Bjørn Lomborg isn’t an economist. His background is in political science.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Why the Right is Wrong

The Tea Party is not a new phenomenon. In Australia, we had Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, and it was pretty much the same thing. A general angst was verbalised in populist right wing terms, and swept up a lot of people who didn’t really agree with the sort of extremism that goes with this sort of viewpoint  – and a good number who thought if you prefaced a racist view point with “I’m not a racist but” it was somehow OK.

This sort of rabid populism is usually founded on well-placed fears and concerns, but turns on soft targets: the most disadvantaged sectors of society who can’t fight back. In Australia, it’s asylum seekers. In Europe, it’s immigrants. In the US, it’s loopy theories about who Barack Obama really is.

None of this of course targets the real cause of whatever crisis justifies the underlying fears. In Australia, asylum seekers are a tiny fraction of migrants, and real illegal immigrants like backpackers working without permission are a much bigger factor in “stealing” jobs from low-paid workers. Globalisation, and Australia’s insistence on lifting trade barriers no other developed country lifts, is an even bigger factor. Australia for example has the least protected agriculture outside a country managed by the IMF. In the US, much of the current economic crisis was caused by aggressive deregulation of banking under previous popular presidents, including Regan and Clinton (the latter more a creature of the right than his backers admit).

This kind of emotional populist politics is very easy of course. You find your victims, you point them at someone powerless and let rip with sound bites. It’s tough stuff to combat. When I saw Obama trying to explain that “Yes we can” means “Yes we can but not instantly” it was painful to watch – yet he was right. The damage of decades of economically loopy policies cannot be undone overnight.

Worse still, now the Republicans have a hold on Congress and are running scared of their own extremist right – those that aren’t in that category themselves – they will have the momentum to stop other critical reforms, like cutting dependence on fossil fuels. Visit this site every now and then and check the trend of the oil price in the sidebar if you want comfort in delusion. I just wonder when the right wing think tanks like the Heartland Institute and miscellaneous fossil fuel interests that fund them and some of the uglier right wing politics are going to find that running off a cliff isn’t the best choice, even if it’s your cliff.

But meanwhile politics of the populist right protects the real villains from exposure – and makes innocent victims suffer.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A local by-election in Walter Taylor: should I support the Greens?

On 23 October, residents of the Brisbane city ward of Walter Taylor will be voting for a councillor to replace Jane Prentice, who was elected to the federal parliament.

While thinking through issues for the campaign, I ran into Brisbane city council’s document, Our shared vision Living in Brisbane 2026, which contains this interesting snippet:
Green and active transport
In 2026, Brisbane will have a network of ‘greenways’ – safe laneways, walkways and bikeways for pedestrians, cyclists, wheel chairs, prams and micro-electric vehicles – linking neighbourhoods to key destinations throughout the city. Our public transport will excel in service, amenity, frequency, routing, information, affordability and safety. Our target for 2026 is to complete Brisbane’s estimated 1700-kilometre bikeways network and that 41% of travelling in the morning peak period will be by walking, cycling or using public transport.
Well, I wondered, why should anyone vote for the Greens when the city already has it right?

Then I woke up and realised where I was: a city spending billions on tunnels and bridges to support car-based commuting. Given that we are in a city where nearly 80% of all trips are made using private cars, you can understand the pressures to keep it that way. But if we want to turn that around in a big way in little more than a decade and a half, we need to rethink that mindset.

Nope, still supporting the Greens. Tim Dangerfield has my vote.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Election, the sequel

As the final results of the Australian federal election trickle in, I marvel at how close I came to calling it.

I sent this letter to The Australian the day before the election:

John Howard and Paul Keeting agreed on one thing: change the government, you change the country.

Never has this been more true that this election.

Every scorecard I’ve seen from pro-environment, pro-justice and pro-labour organisations has given top marks to the Greens, placed Labor at a distant second, and rated the Coalition last by a long way. Although this campaign has blurred the differences between the major parties, those differences are very real. The irony is that the Coalition, had it followed Malcolm Turnbull’s lead, could easily have outscored Labor on many issues. The Liberal party room by 1 vote has changed the centre of gravity of Australian politics from a forward-looking discourse to a race to the bottom with no thought for where it takes this country.

Fortunately the preferential voting system allows us to rank the parties on election day, and I hope a lot of people will take the trouble to understand the issues that are not being aired in the sound-bites that pass for campaigning. The best outcome we can hope for is a close result with a big enough swing to the Greens to shake up the major parties.

In the pursuit of brevity, the paper cut it to this:
HAD the Coalition followed Malcolm Turnbull’s lead, it could easily have outscored Labor on many issues.

The Liberals have, by one vote, changed the centre of gravity of politics from a forward-looking discourse to a race to the bottom.

The best we can now hope for is a close result with a big enough swing to the Greens to shake up the majors.
That maintained the essence but stripped the message that voters should be looking beyond the garbage that passed as reporting. The Oz letters page occasionally lets that sort of comment slip through if you hide it well, but not this time.

In truth, the coverage of the election by the mainstream media was abysmal. I was managing the Greens Ryan campaign, and the coverage of Ryan mainly was around the ejection of Michael Johnson from the LNP (an issue, but report it once and move on, not repeatedly) and anything but the Greens campaign. LNP candidate Jane Prentice’s husband’s finances were dragged into the media, with absolutely no relevance to the campaign. The ABC’s election information on the race lifted trivia about the Greens candidate, Dr Sandra Bayley, from the party’s site, while giving the Family First candidate who did not run a campaign of any significance more than twice as much text outlining his background. Another ABC online article had it as a three-way race between Johnson, the ALP’s Steven Miles and the LNP’s Jane Prentice and didn’t even mention the Greens. This is supposed to be our unbiased national broadcaster.

This sort of drivel is absolutely typical of campaign reporting in this country. The media pack follows the party leaders, and ignores all else besides scandal. Voters can be excused for finding it hard to tell the parties apart, or to discern their local candidate as anything but another echo in a bigger echo chamber of spin and negativity.

Let’s look at the provisional results (as at 22 August 2010, the day after the election):

Candidate Party Votes % Swing (%)
MILES, Steven Australian Labor Party 18,220 25.06 -13.50
BAYLEY, Sandra The Greens 13,872 19.08 +9.20
VINCENT, Allan Family First 1,253 1.72 +0.19
PRENTICE, Jane Liberal National Party of Queensland 33,018 45.42 -1.47
JOHNSON, Michael Independent 6,331 8.71 +8.71

Tell me this reflects the general tenor of the reporting on the campaign, that the Greens were insignificant, and Johnson was a real contender. Someone could only have reported that if they were not actually paying attention to events on the ground. It’s not that there was no advance hint of this possibility: WWF did two polls in Ryan in June and July, showing Greens support to be 18% in the first, and 17% in the second. These were reported in the mainstream media, and swiftly forgotten. The Greens vote generally drops off towards election day, so I took these polls as indicating that a 15% result was achievable; we took this as a target, with 20% as an aspirational number. 19% was a very pleasant surprise.

For our vote to increase from these early polls is very unusual; let’s look at a bit more detail of how we did versus the more favoured competition.

The Greens achieved a swing of over 9%, nearly doubling primary vote over last time. Johnson’s result was respectable for an independent without a coherent platform, but nothing spectacular, and the level of media coverage he achieved obviously did not help him much. Nor did Labor gain from being taken more seriously than we were.  In at least one booth, the Greens above the line senate vote hit 30%, and we beat Labor in a few booths on lower house vote. How did we do this with no significant media? We certainly did not match the torrent of paper showered on the electorate by Johnson and the major parties. We sent out two fliers, one delivered as unaddressed mail (a lot cheaper than addressed mail), and the other hand-delivered by volunteers.

Having run for the state seat of Moggill in the last Queensland election, I knew what to expect, and from the start, aimed to make the mainstream media irrelevant. We set up a campaign site long before the official Greens Ryan site was ready, and not only kept it up to date, but made sure the best of it was echoed on the official site after once that was ready, and used personal networks to spread the word. We also participated in every forum that candidates were invited to attend, the only campaign to do so. While some of these may have had small audiences, we counted on those who attended to talk to others.

Beyond the obvious campaign, we also aimed in the inter-election period to offer as much of an incumbent service as we could without holding office. In one example, we had knowledgeable speakers address a protest meeting against a development, with a factual presentation on the community’s rights, and a no-nonsense assessment of their chances of stopping the development. I won’t itemise all such events but each time we did something like that, our presence in the community increased.

Once the election was called, we used various innovations in street signage to get our message out, all only at the cost of cheap materials and a few hours of person time to meet Brisbane regulations for having signs in public places attended. By election day, few voters wouldn’t have seen at least some of our key ideas – and in a context where they were an interesting surprise and therefore memorable.

All in all the main focus of the campaign was to get people talking about us, so they would take a closer look and be impressed when they checked the detail. By contrast, the major parties in Ryan mostly repeated their party’s prepackaged message. The ALP candidate Steven Miles did some of his own messaging on climate change and local issues, but obviously failed to cut through the general swing against Labor. The Johnson factor was a complication in that it’s unclear how much of his vote would have gone straight to the LNP in his absence; we await publication of full distribution of preferences to understand that fully.

To me the main lesson of all this is that a grass-roots campaign can trump professional marketing. In the end, the main thing you are selling to voters is trust. If they get to meet you close up and personal, and you empathise with their problems and offer real solutions, they will stick with you no matter how good the marketing of the other side. The integrity the Greens have established over time paid off in a largely negative campaign by the two major parties: we didn’t have to shout to be heard. Many voters tuned out the major parties and wanted to hear from us. In one example, I had a call from a retied stockman and Vietnam vet who was profoundly impressed with Bob Brown. This from someone who used to live in a community that voted solidly Nationals.

So why did I title this article “Election, the sequel”? Watch this space. We’ve learnt some useful lessons and will do even better next time.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Not The Greens Ad

This Australian federal election has been characterised by an even higher than usual amount of mudslinging. Let’s look at three examples: Liberal attacks on the government’s broadband plan, Labor attacks on Tony Abbott’s attitude to labour relations, and the attack by both sides on asylum seekers who, when I last checked, were not one of the parties running for office.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott appears to think it sufficient to attack the government’s broadband plan on the basis of not trusting Labor to get it right, rather than any attack on the specifics. Much of the Liberal opposition attack on Labor is on the theme of alleged bungles in office, especially around spending their stimulus package. There were serious errors, but there is a big difference between a considered multi-year plan and emergency stimulus spending to stave off a major recession.

On the other side, Labor harps on Tony Abbott’s history of supporting the Howard government’s unpopular “Work Choices” labour relations package. While there is good reason to suspect that Abbott would bring those measures back if he could, it’s not an unreasonable line from him that he would not do so without going to another election.

On the issue of asylum seekers, both sides of politics have gone to the gutter, labelling asylum seekers as a “border protection” problem. Excuse me. These miserable people are not an invading army. In fact many are heading here because we invaded their country. Fully a third of refugees on the UN’s books are from two countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. We invaded Afghanistan for the reasonably justified cause of stopping further atrocities like 9/11. But we didn’t finish the job. We left Afghanistan with an unpopular, incompetent government that could only survive with foreign military support, and launched a war on Iraq, a country that has never been shown to have any kind of link to Al Qaeda or 9/11. We bungled that one too, resulting in a civil war and ongoing violence. These two conflicts alone have resulted in about 5-million refugees.

In any case, whatever the source, asylum seekers – anyone who asks for recognition as a refugee, and who is at risk if they return home – are entitled to seek refuge in Australia. We have signed international conventions that oblige us to take them. Here’s a surprising fact: the vast majority of boat arrivals (up to 97%, depending when you count) have their refugee status approved and end up staying in Australia. But they are a tiny fraction of total asylum seekers. Far more arrive by plane, with legitimate passports and visas. But most of those who arrive “legally” end up having their applications for asylum denied. Let’s summarise this:
  • boat people – tiny fraction of all asylum seekers, almost all legitimate: demonised
  • plane arrivals – most asylum seekers, very few legitimate: not a political issue
Add to that around 50,000 real illegal immigrants – backpackers and the like who overstay visas – and you should realise that the whole attack on boat people is a con.

When Tony Abbott and Julie Gillard talk about stopping the boats, and Tony Abbott talks about sending back people without proper passports, they are talking drivel. Luckily for them, the people most affected are a tiny constituency who can’t swing an election.

So going back to the examples, we have once each of an attack from either side that lacks substance, and an attack by both sides on an innocent third party (not in the sense of a political “party”).

By this stage in an election, with so much heavy-weight advertising by the major parties with so much investment put into focus groups and polling, the Greens poll numbers start to sag. Not this time. Instead, the Greens numbers are holding up remarkably well. The latest (at time of writing) Roy Morgan poll on senate voting intentions shows the Greens vote holding up well enough to double their senate representation from 5 to 10 senators. Yet the Greens have had little or no TV advertising, certainly none I’ve seen.

Could it be that the major parties have reduced TV advertising to an echo chamber of negativity, that has voters so turned off that they don’t pay attention any more?

Meanwhile on the ABC’s Gruen Nation on Wednesday night 11 August 2010, one of the ad agencies asked to pitch for alternative messages came up with this:

That’s certainly a positive message, even if the ABC won’t allow the agency to sell it to the Greens. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This way, anyone who likes it can embed it in their own web page, because it’s not a political ad, it’s just an example of the TV advertiser’s craft.

Further reading
There are many sources of information on asylum seekers and refugees, including the UNHCR. For a quick summary, try GetUp’s fact sheet – but I urge you to research the issue yourself.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Big IPCC Error

Here’s an IPCC error we don’t hear reported too often. This picture from the 2009 Copenhagen Diagnosis illustrates how far out the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report was in predicting reduction in Arctic sea ice extent. The black line is a combined (ensemble) figure of a range of simulations, and the dashed lines represent the highest and lowest values of the simulations. The red line is the measured sea ice extent.

Since 2007, when sea ice extent reached an all-time minimum (in recorded history), many climate deniers have made a big thing of how sea ice extent has “recovered”. Since this graph was made, sea ice extent has fluctuated a bit, without hitting the 2007 low again, but still well below simulations reported by the IPCC.

The other thing climate deniers have done is attack the IPCC wildly whenever a trivial error has been spotted. Guys, this is a big one. I’m waiting for you all to get excited.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Heart and Soul Election

If this Australian federal election is the election where the Liberals lost their mind, it’s also the election where the Labor Party lost its soul.

The ALP last election stood for an evidence-based approach on climate change. Ross Garnaut was tasked with summarising the best science, and producing an economic response. The plan was that the government would go with what he recommended. If anyone spotted the flaw in the plan – the then opposition was committing to a course of action where they had not sold the detail politically – this was lost in the “it’s time” mood that swept John Howard into the dustbin of history.

Now that we know the best science, and have an economic basis on which to proceed, what’s Labor’s position? The logical progression from the Rudd campaign would be to win political support in the form of a renewed mandate to implement the Garnaut recommendations. Instead, Julia Gillard plans to set up something that is an odd mixture of focus group and jury, a Citizen’s Assembly to decide where to go next. This is rank cowardice. It only puts off the hard decisions, and leave us exactly where we were before the Garnaut Report, except this time we are allowing public opinion to shape policy, instead of expert advice.

In a situation where expert advice points in a direction that will require some hard adjustments, you do not need some sort of populist leading from behind strategy that procrastinates decision-making. Political leaders need to do the hard yards of selling the tough steps that we have to take. They also need to cut through the dishonest propaganda of lobbyists who see their agenda as more important than the overall welfare of humanity.

Add to this Labor’s abject surrender on defending refugees against unfair attack (including straight-out lies), and Labor’s craven cave-in to the big mining houses over the mining tax, and you have to wonder what Labor stands for.

And the Liberals? They elected Tony Abbott as their leader. If you don’t get why this is crazy, read this. No wonder all the polls are showing a big swing to the Greens.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Refugees World Cup

Talk about treating a vulnerable group as political football... there’s a World Cup on for the real thing. Is that not enough?

The announcement by the new Australian prime minister Julia Gillard that she is going to be “tough” (in politics, a synonym for stupid) on refugees and it’s unfair to call harsh attitudes to refugees “redneck politics” has to be challenged. Harsh attitudes to refugees are almost always based on racism, and are generally not factually based.

One example is the claim that refugees receive more benefits than pensioners. I haven’t seen a detailed version of this claim recently, but it appears to be based on a Canadian email hoax that has been translated to Australian circumstances. The Canadian version was full of errors, and the Australian version is no better. In fact, refugees in Australia do not receive the same entitlement to benefits as permanent residents, and become net contributors to the economy once they have adapted to their new home.

Another claim is that we get a disproportionate number of Islamic refugees, as if Islamic countries are not doing their share. Let’s let the numbers speak for themselves.

There are 2.9-million refugees from Afghanistan alone, and 96% of these are in Pakistan and Iran. There are over 1.7 million refugees in Pakistan, and the top three countries hosting refugees, Pakistan, Iran and Syria, host 3.8-million refugees between them. These numbers don’t include Palestinians, who are accounted for under a different system, totalling 4.8-million. So the total refugees arising out of Middle East and Afghan conflicts add up to nearly 9-million. We are quibbling in Australia over a few thousand. In the graph on the left of the page, I illustrate the scale of Australia’s annual refugee intake (about 13,000 per year currently) against Afghan refugees alone. If I were to compare our annual intake with all refugees worldwide, it would be too small to show on the scale of a graph like this.

What I find particularly ironic is that the people most keen on wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are at the forefront of demonising the tiny trickle of the consequential refugees that arrive on our shores. Have you ever wondered why people from these parts of the world hate us?

Back to the main point: is it fair to call these factually inaccurate attacks on refugees redneck politics? Julia Gillard’s claim is that this is an insulting attack on those holding these views. The facts I’ve quoted are very easy to find. Discovering the email hoax took me seconds. Finding the UNHCR’s 2009 Global Trends report, from which I quote statistics showing how tiny a fraction of refugees we see in Australia, was just as easy.

The people indulging in redneck politics are not ordinary people in the street who are misinformed about these issues, though a racist outlook helps them accept convenient myths without checking further. The people who do deserve the label of redneck politics are the people who know better and do nothing to correct the myths.

That means you, Julia.

Friday, 25 June 2010

It’s the environment, stupid

No matter how much The Australian may try to spin the palace coup against Kevin Rudd as arising from his mishandling of a proposed tax on mines, the big swing against Labor in the polls has consistently been towards the Greens.

I’m not sure in what universe The Australian lives, but in this one, people do not desert a ruling party for the Greens out of empathy with embattled miners, at risk of losing some of their massive profits to the public purse.

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville hung a sign in his campaign headquarters:

The economy, stupid

Given that Labor campaigned in the 2007 election on taking climate change seriously and has achieved almost nothing, with an emissions trading scheme proposal weaker than the Howard administration’s, that has gone on the back burner, maybe they need a reminder:

The environment, stupid

Monday, 21 June 2010

The clean energy imperative

I’m increasingly convinced that the reason for so much opposition to climate change science is not because of some flaw in the science but because there’s fear of the collapse of industrial society if we stop using fossil fuels. This is not an irrational fear but it leads to irrational behaviour like attacking scientists personally, and pay good money to attend vaudeville shows where deniers reassure audiences with rubbish.

The best response is to study clean energy alternatives.

I recently gave a talk at a Transition Towns meeting in Kenmore, Qld. I’ve published a PDF of the slides at scribd, and will add commentary here as time permits. Meanwhile the Kenmore TT people have posted a TED talk on how to roll out the electric car. Interesting.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Thin Green Line

In April 2009, The Australian published an article claiming an ice age is imminent, based on the observation that sunspots were few and far between. The article also contains a completely bogus claim that temperatures dropped 0.7°C in 2007. While the temperature drop claim was pure fabrication (or to be charitable, misreading of a data source), the drop in sunspot count is not, and sunspot numbers correlate very well with solar output. We have just emerged from the deepest solar minimum in nearly 100 years so while the ice age story is obviously ridiculous, we should have had near-record lows the last few years instead of temperatures staying close to record highs.

If this is an ice age, where’s the ice going?

More to the point, a project called GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), which uses satellites to do accurate measurements of changes in mass on the ground, shows changes in the major land-based ice sheets are pointing in the wrong direction. Mass loss is accelerating [Velicogna 2009], hardly indicative of a slide into an ice age:
The graphs show the monthly change in ice mass. Don’t get too excited by the uptick in the last Greenland months; that reflects moving into northern winter. January 2009 had a significant loss of ice over January 2008. The latest GRACE data has not yet been formally published, but the Skeptical Science site has an update that shows the downward trend continuing into 2010.

What of the Arctic? Some have taken comfort in the fact that Arctic sea ice extent (defined as the fraction of the surface with more than 15% ice) hit an all time low in 2007 and bounced back the next couple of years. The trouble is recent measures of Arctic ice volume [Polar Science 2010] show that even if the area covered with ice hasn’t been shrinking, the volume of the ice has. What’s more, the latest measure of sea ice extent [Artic 2010] has just crossed over the 2007 line (check the latest here):

So if this is an ice age, where’s all the ice going?

The Other Big Issue

Meanwhile the US Gulf oil spill continues almost unabated, more than a month after it started. What this disaster underlines is that more and more often, new oil is going to be found not only in ecologically sensitive situations, but locations where extraction is highly risky. We’ve already seen how hard it is to stop a major leak in the deep ocean. It takes little imagination to see how much harder this would be under Arctic conditions. So drilling for oil in the Arctic has to be considered an extremely high-risk proposition, enthusiasts notwithstanding.

What of alternatives? We’ve known for a long time that oil from coal technology is highly polluting [Chartock et al. 1982], and tar sands are turning out to be even worse [Timoney and Lee 2009].

We are not only facing an end to cheap oil, but we have to face up to the fact that there is no way to replace cheap oil by another fossil fuel without substantial environmental costs. Add to this the fact that these oil substitutes, by virtue of energy-intensive production, contribute much more to CO2 emissions than conventional oil, and we are facing a very stark choice:
  • carry on as if there is no problem and pay an increasingly unacceptable environmental price, or
  • make the search for alternatives a top priority.

Where is this taking us?

Exiting from the solar low will almost certainly take us into rapid temperature rise again. We are already seeing an uptick in the first part of 2010 that has no explanation in natural causes. Had we reacted rationally 20 years ago to the earliest indications that harmful climate change was possible by a gradual phased move away from fossil fuels, we would not have a serious problem today.

Consider this analogy. You are contemplating climbing down a steep rocky cliff. You have many years’ experience of climbing, all the best safety gear and have made a thorough study of the rock face, and concluded you have all the risks under control. You want to do your climb under ideal conditions: low wind, good visibility, mild temperatures. I’d say in this situation, go for it. Have a good time and let me know what the view was like on the way down. Now visualise that same cliff. It’s past midnight on a dark night, and a bush fire is raging at your back, rushing toward you at speed, driven by unpredictable gusty winds. You know nothing about rock climbing, have no safety gear and no light. Your only escape from the fire is down the rock face. I wouldn’t give much for your chances.

The failure to deal timeously with the combined issues of climate change and peak oil is putting both the environment and the world economy into the scenario of no option but to dive over a cliff to escape an unavoidable threat. The time to avoid such a scenario is rapidly running out.

Earlier in 2010, the Greens won the balance of power in Tasmania, with an unprecedented vote of over 20%. In the UK election, the Greens won their first seat ever. In Colombia, the Greens candidate for president was at one stage the frontrunner, and has done well enough to go through to a run-off vote.

Collectively, these things amount to a movement. But is it enough? There is a thin green line separating humanity from economic and environmental catastrophe, a catastrophe that is inevitable if we carry on as we are. That’s why the 2010 federal election in Australia is so important: Labor has dropped the ball on climate change, and the Liberals have fallen into abject denial. A big swing to the Greens is the only thing that can pull Australia back on course to dealing with the hard problems – and can send a message to the world that the other green shifts in politics around the world are not a fluke.

Also published at Online Opinion: comments there welcome.


[Artic 2010] Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis, NSIDC. Last accessed 29 May 2010.
[Polar Science 2010] Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Lab, University of Washington. Last accessed 29 May 2010.
[Chartock et al. 1982] MA Chartock, MD Devine, MR Cines and SE Plotkin,  Environmental Issues of Liquid Transportation Fuels from Coal, Environmental Conservation, vol. 9 no. 2, pp 131-139, 1982
[Timoney and Lee 2009] Kevin P Timoney and Peter Lee. Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute? The Scientific Evidence, The Open Conservation Biology Journal, 2009, 3, 65-81
[Velicogna 2009] I Velicogna. Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE, Geophys Res Letters, vol. 36, L19503, 4 pp.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Real Conspiracy

Imagine what you would do if you were an executive in an industry making $100-million a day in profits, and someone came up with some bogus science that threatened your profits. Worse still, this bogus science, if accepted, represented an existential crisis: it would close you down.

What would you do?

Imagine also you are a highly technical industry requiring world-class science to conduct your business and to ensure your future profitability. You therefore have the resources internally to work up an alternative theory or find flaws in the scientific attack on your industry.

What would you do?

Your shareholders would rightly be outraged and demand your scalp at the next stockholder meeting if you did not contest any bogus threat to your continued profitability. If this science is truly bogus, with all your resources, you should easily be able to justify the cost of countering it by doing a definitive study that falsified the bogus theory. So you do your due diligence, and your scientists report back to you.

Let’s now consider two possibilities:
  1. the science does turn out to be bogus, or
  2. your scientists tell you sorry, the “bogus” science is actually right
In the first case, easy. You publish the results. You publish all the data and computer code, so any scientist can verify independently that you have it right.

Problem solved. The bogus science goes the way of the flogiston theory.

In the second case, what do you do?

Here’s a hint. Is the fossil fuel industry behaving as if the first case applied?

Mad scientist image from
Post-apocalyptic city: 

Monday, 5 April 2010

The warmest year?

Since the whole brouhaha over stolen climate scientists’ emails broke last year, a clear emphasis of the science obfuscation lobby has been trying to con the public into believing the data is all flawed, and there’s nothing to worry about. One of the fall-backs in the attack on the mainstream has been the claim that satellite data hasn’t been showing as strong an increase as the data sets based on surface measurements. While NASA does their measurement independently from the UK Hadley Climactic Research Centre (CRU), the conspiracy-theoretic view is that they are all in it together.

Well, how is the satellite record looking lately? I moseyed over to the AMSU-A temperatures site maintained by Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama at Huntsville (a favourite of the denialosphere for his consistently lower warming trend) and Danny Braswell of NASA and did the following, which you can repeat to update the results:
  1. click Draw graph
  2. click all the checkboxes and click Redraw
This is my result:
 The orange line that stops in April is the daily temperatures for this year. Observe that since 10 January, every day has had the highest temperature for that date in the satellite record going back to 1998. This particular data only starts partway through 1998 so we don’t have the complete picture back to the last record or near-record year (depending whose data you look at; some put 2005 slightly higher than 1998) but if this trend continues, 2010 will easily set a new record for satellite temperatures. Is this because we’re in a super-monster El Niño? Not if you look at the SOI (most recent values at time of writing from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology):
The thing to note here is that a negative SOI value puts us in El Niño (higher than average temperatures) while a positive value indicates La Niña (lower than average temperatures). Also, there is a lag of about a year between SOI peaks and global temperature peaks. The El Niño in 2004-2005 with a peak early in 2005 resulted in 2005 being an unusually warm year. Do we see a similar pattern for the last 12 months? No. Although we have been in an El Niño phase since the second half of 2009, that effect has been nowhere near strong enough to account for a new record in temperatures, certainly not as early as January 2010.

Could the SOI be amplified by a rising solar cycle? Sunspot numbers are trending up but we are still pretty close to the solar minimum:
If you’d prefer to look at total solar irradiance (TSI) as measured by satellites, rather than sunspots, go to PMOD, where you’ll see the energy inputs from the sun are not on a steep upwards trend and should be significantly lower than in 2004-2005:
You have to line this data up with SOI to get a good idea of what is causing short term blips in global temperatures: El Niño does not in general coincide with the peak of the solar cycle. At some point this will happen, resulting a really hot year. But leave this aside, since it won’t happen soon. What we have now, early 2010, is a temperature trend tracking above all recorded temperatures since 1998 (or more properly 1999, since we don’t have 1998 temperatures in the first half of the year in the AMSU-A data set) and we can’t pin that effect on El Niño or on the sun.

What next? Is someone already planning to steal Spencer’s emails?


I’ve plotted the mean daily temperature anomaly versus 2005 (each day minus the same day in 2005) for the year to 25 April. The trend (linear regression) over this period is 6°C per century – making up for lost time from previous slower warming by satellite measurements? Oh, and the correlation coefficient of 0.79 is highly significant even with this small sample size. Enjoy (or not, if you don’t want warming to be real). For missing data (a small fraction of the total), I took the average of the two nearest days that did have data.
And here's the AMSU-A big picture for 25 April 2010:

and an update on the SOI picture:

SOI is not the whole picture for predicting the effect of ENSO on temperature; a more comprehensive model clearly shows 2010 should be a cooling phase, not a warming phase.

Still lots of time in the year …

Yet Another Update

If you go to the site now, it says Channel 4 failed in 2008. That’s what happens in science: a weird result is more likely to be a consequence of instrument failure than anything else. The major data sets do show 2010 as one of the warmer years though not by a significant margin (despite the other data indicating it should have been a cool year, including the solar cycle starting to exit an unusually deep low and a strong La Niña).

What I find particularly odd about all this is this note (dates in US format, so this is in March)
03/06/2008/1200UTC:NOAA-16 AMSU-A channel 4 has gone bad.  As a result, NOAA-16 ATOVS sounding files are no longer being produced by NESDIS, thus they are no longer in the "atovs" dumps in the GDAS and CDAS networks and they (temperature retrievals) are no longer available for assimilation by the CDAS.  The "atovs" dumps now contain only NOAA-15 ATOVS soundings and only these temperature retrievals (cloudy only) are assimilated by the CDAS.  In addition, the failed channel 4 data has resulted in no NOAA-16 AMSU-A data being assimilated by the NAM/NDAS or GFS/GDAS GSI (even though these files are still being produced by NESDIS and NOAA-16 AMSU-A data continue to be dumped in the "1bamua" files in the CDAS, GDAS, GFS, NDAS and NAM networks).
It seems someone knew nearly 2 years before the weird 2010 data went live that there was something wrong with the data. Curiously, we didn’t see wild accusations flung around the blogosphere about this one. I leave it to the reader to explain.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Fool me twice

As the cacophony of voices attacking climate science grows, I have to wonder: where are the journalists? Have they forgotten their job description? In any other field, if such an obvious, misinformed lobby arose, would they rate any attention?

Well, maybe.

During organized tobacco’s war on science, many newspapers reported propaganda created by paid tobacco lobbyists as a legitimate alternative to mainstream science. Other industries took up the same strategy: producers of CFCs who paid ozone hole deniers, and asbestos vendors who refused to acknowledge guilt in killing their own workers in the most horrific way in the cause of making a quick buck. In South Africa, according to a Harvard study, over 300,000 people died unnecessarily because the Mbeki government chose to believe pseudo-science when reality did not suit the president’s politics.

Fit to the Pattern

In all these cases, the tactics were remarkably similar. A small group, mostly with no scientific credentials in the area, supported by an even smaller group with some relevant scientific background, claimed that they represented an alternative viewpoint that had to be aired, and increasingly stridently portrayed the mainstream as dishonest, excluding alternative theories and even a religion. In each case, if you scratched below the surface, the strident accusations had no merit.

Is climate science any different? Not in principle, but in degree. The number of actual paid lobbyists is quite small, and the tactics have been narrow (as ably documented by John Mashey): discredit a small number of key scientists, tarring the rest as in on the plot, and cause general doubt among the public who are unaccustomed to evaluating scientific evidence. From there, rely on the gullibility of journalists and a ready constituency of conspiracy theorists and absolutist free marketeers who abhor any form of government intervention, and then rely on the viral properties of the Internet to spread the message far and wide. All this is a clever refinement on previous business-sponsored anti-science campaigns that didn’t have the Internet as a tool to spread disinformation on the cheap (AIDS denial was the first anti-science campaign I know of that did this, and it went pretty far without the benefit of an industrial sponsor). The biggest difference though is that mishandling climate change has the potential to cause disaster on an unprecedented scale. The ozone hole has made it inconvenient to live in countries like Australia, where sun-lovers court cancer if they don’t apply enough sun screen. Asbestos kills in horrible ways, but the number of victims is limited to those who are directly exposed. Tobacco too kills in horrible ways, if in much larger numbers than asbestos. AIDS is a terrible affliction to treat as a political problem that can be wished away. But climate change is a threat that carries risks for the entire biosphere. Not only that, if we wait too long before switching to an alternative energy economy, the economic effects of a sudden worldwide shift to new forms of energy could be devastating.

The Risks

Clearly, the lowest-risk approach to climate change is gradual emissions reduction, and a slow transition to a new energy economy, a process that has enough benefits to be worth exploring long before we were sure of the science. Had we started this in the late 1980s when the evidence started to become clear, we would be well on the way today towards a clean energy economy. So why the massive resistance? As with CFCs, tobacco, asbestos and HIV, there are political and economic constituencies who are threatened by change.

The big risk to humanity is not just from the dangers in failing to slow climate change and to re-gear economies for low emissions. It is also from discrediting science. Science is not a matter of opinion: a theory stands or falls by how well it fits the evidence, including how well its predictions stand up to measurement. By attempting to turn climate science, and indeed any science that offends a particular special interest, into a matter for debate where the evidence counts for less than personal preference, we risk reverting from a society of reason to a society of superstition. So there are big issues at stake, and the fact that so much of the discourse on this subject has swung away from reason to personal attack, and insisting that the facts bend to opinion rather than that the science be evaluated for what it is, is cause for serious concern.

The Real Failure

Why have they been allowed to get away with it? George Monbiot, in his book Heat, exposed the link between the anti-science of tobacco and climate change (more links in my discussion of his book). It does not take brilliant investigative journalism, following on from that, to realise that the attack on climate science is a massive con designed to buy the fossil fuel industry time, at the expense of the rest of humanity, who stand to pay a huge price if action is taken too late.

This is not the first time this tactic has been used, yet the anti-science movement gets away with it again and again. Tobacco. HIV. Asbestos. CFCs. And now climate science. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five times, I’m a journalist.

Call to Action

So what can you do? Join my campaign or any other that you feel comfortable supporting to oppose demonizing science. Write letters to the media, making it clear you do not support turning science into a matter of opinion. Sign my pro-science petition, and consider joining my LinkedIn pro-science group to share ideas.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

More Questions about Climate Science

I talk a lot here about climate science, but I have a growing realisation that the vast majority of those who get exercised about this issue don’t know enough science to read papers in academic journals, and certainly are not excited about the issues that really attract scientific controversy, like string theory (someone has gone so far as to write a book about that with the stinging title, Not Even Wrong).

The real issue is fear that a fundamental change in the energy economy will cause a massive collapse in living standards. This fear is justified, but if mainstream climate science is right, we will need to make that change sooner or later, and the longer we delay, the harder it will be to get this change right without economic chaos. This fear is leading to a campaign that is not attacking the science as much as the scientists, which is why I set up a pro-science petition.

In response to my petition, Tim Curtin sent me a list of questions, which I repeat here with his permission:

You say: (1) "Stealing emails...", You have no evidence any were stolen, either they were up for grabs on ftp, or an insider blew the whistle.

(2) "magnifying the significance of errors" - actually the errors are beyond magnification, eg tippexing Roman glory days and the MWP

(3) "and invoking conspiracy theory" - the emails are very strong evidence of a well-organised conspiracy to pervert the progress of science

(4) " is no substitute for reasoned evidence-based debate" - a non sequitur. Actually Jones and his CRU abetted by Mann & Co took every possible means to suppress evidence-based debate (e.g. by preventing access to the evidence)...

(5) "Yet in the field of climate one has presented a credible alternative theory, the usual approach to overturning a scientific theory". Actually there is overwhelming evidence from multivariate regressions that radiative forcing from increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere has no statistically significant impact on changes in mean max or min temperatures anywhere on earth once changes in surface solar radiation are taken into account. Watch this space, as not a single climate journal (eg Nature, Science, PNAS, JoC etc etc) will ever publish any paper on this, given that all their boards are controlled by friends of Jones et al (eg Schellenhuber, Rahmstorf, Schneider, Schmidt, Hansen, et al ad infinitum).

Let’s take this from the top.

An archive of emails from an institution appears on the Internet in various places. The authors of the emails have not given their permission for their private emails to be published. By any reasonable definition, that’s theft. It doesn’t matter who did it or how, or whether someone left the front door open. The police are investigating. The police generally only investigate crimes.

The “Roman glory days and the MWP”: The most obvious response is that human society is vastly different today, with huge cities and vast impoverished agricultural societies a few metres above sea level. In Roman or Medieval times, if the local climate became unsuited to human society, people could and did migrate. We don’t have that option today.

I’ve studied a number of temperature reconstructions. The further back you go, the bigger the uncertainties. I had a look at the papers flagged as containing the most reliable data on the medieval warm period on a contrarian web site (CO2 science) that collects material on this stuff. The earliest and latest peak were 600 years apart. While it is quite likely that the odd spot around the world was much warmer than it is today at some point in the past, that does not mean the global average was much higher. An increase in the global average is important because it has consequences like sea level rise, and pushing habitats uphill and away from the equator. If it was warmer during the MWP or Roman period than it is now, there would be evidence that sea level was higher at that time (at least very similar) whereas the only evidence I’ve seen (admittedly with very big error bars – but current sea level is outside those error bars) shows current sea level as the highest in 3,000 years.

Next: “emails are very strong evidence of a well-organised conspiracy”. I don’t agree. All we see is comment about how poor some other people’s work is (common backroom banter in science) and some conversations that are open to sinister interpretation but checking in the real world shows such sinister intent didn’t materialise. For example: talk of keeping certain work out of the IPCC did not lead to that work being excluded (it is in fact cited). Similarly for the “hide the decline” comment: it refers to the fact that tree ring reconstructions fail to match temperatures in the later half of the twentieth century, a problem Mike Mann describes in a paper in Nature – hardly concealment. This inconsistency between tree ring records and thermometer readings would be a problem for credibility of tree ring reconstructions if they were not cross-checked against many other measures. I don’t see the big conspiracy. I see scientists not watching every word in emails between colleagues. If that is a sinister conspiracy, you have a vivid imagination.

Then: “Mann & Co took every possible means to suppress evidence-based debate”. I agree they could have made a bigger effort to make everything public (e.g., CRU’s computer code) but this claim is an exaggeration. The data they did not make public is data that is not theirs to make public. The remedy for anyone wanting it is to go to the original source. In science, while maximum openness is useful and I fully support the concept, the best check on integrity of results is if they are independently reproduced from scratch, ideally with independently derived data. NASA provides full data sets and software for download. If I download everything and run the software exactly as NASA did in one of their papers, all I am doing is replicating their exact steps including their errors. Anyone who thinks the CRU temperature reconstruction flawed is welcome to start from scratch from publicly available data sources and show that they get an inconsistent result. This is how science normally proceeds. An astronomer reports a new star. Other astronomers use their own telescope to verify the find. They don’t demand a computer dump of the data generated from the original telescope.

Finally: “overwhelming evidence from multivariate regressions”: let’s see that evidence. You don’t have to publish in Nature to get your work out. There are many journals out there, and there is no evidence that those with a strong anti-AGW agenda cannot publish. Certainly, the likes of Richard Lindzen are able to publish, and what strikes me about the contrarian papers I’ve seen is that they are usually rather easy to debunk (even to the point of attracting a rebuttal in one case from a contrarian site). Are you suggesting there’s a bias where only the rubbish contrarian papers are published, and the good ones are not? That is implausible: it’s easy to publish a good paper (sound methodology, original results, defensible conclusions) as long as you are not fussy about where it’s published (a good journal, not necessarily top tier).

Thanks for sending me the questions. I am happy to have discussion on this site. I do not snip comments, and only delete spam (but to cut spam, response to older articles are screened). I have absolutely no objection to attacking the science with better evidence, better theories, or both. This is how any scientist works. Attacking the scientists, not the science, is not constructive – hence my petition.

It further worries me that a large part of the lobby against climate science is attempting to reduce science to a matter of opinion. It is not. If a theory fits the evidence, it’s good. If it doesn’t, we need a better theory. If a new theory fits the evidence better, it replaces the old one. This methodology may be strange to those schooled in the arts or social sciences, but it’s a damn good one, and has taken us out of superstition to a worldwide technological society. Let’s not throw it away just because we are faced with a really hard problem if we accept the mainstream theory: the biggest change in the energy economy in over 100 years.


To illustrate that the basics are really quite old, it's interesting to read this 1956 paper in American Scienist by Glilbert Plass (reprinted January-February 2010). Much of the detail has since been clarified and some of his errors fortuitously cancelled out so there has been real progress in the science since 1956 – as you would expect.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Replies to questions about climate science

One Terry today at The Australian asked some questions. Unfortunately the paper is a lousy forum to conduct a conversation because it updates slowly and is patchy in posting comments. Also, Terry, the answers to your questions are readily available. It’s not my fault if Australia’s only national daily doesn’t report science much above the level of superstition and rumour. I would offer my humblest grovelling apologies if it were my fault. For that, you must go to Mr Murdoch.

Tom Clark, Philip Machanick, Sancho, et al

Why not settle the discussion and show us sceptics the proof for the following:
1. That current anthropogenic CO2 emissions are the major cause of global warming. Bear in mind that the physics shows that the amount of warming from CO2 decreases as the concentration increases. Thus there has to be a huge forcing, what is it?
2. That the minimal warming from anthropogenic CO2 causes climate change. Please detail which elements of the climate (storms, drought, heat, floods, tornadoes, etc.) are changing, and the proof that the major cause is anthropogenic CO2.
3. The earth has been warmer in its recent past (Roman and Medieval periods), and these warm periods were very beneficial to mankind. Thus if (and it’s a big if) anthropogenic CO2 has any real influence on the global temperature, why should we be concerned about living in temperatures that existed, to the benefit of mankind, in the past 2000 years?

When you answer, bear in mind that computer predictions are not science.
Also the recent (30 years) global temperature readings are badly compromised, not least from the fact that the original 6000 measuring sites have been reduced to 1500, and it wasn’t the warmest locations that were removed.

Just this once, I’ll do your homework for you. But listen up: you can find all this stuff yourself. The trick is to use Google Scholar, rather than regular Google, which turns up masses of dross. Unfortunately a good fraction of the research literature is paywalled, but NASA makes all theirs public so I will use them disproportionately so you can check my sources. I include a few paywalled papers where the important detail is in the free to view abstract.

1. Scientists have known since the 19th century that the relationship between CO2 concentration and warming is logarithmic. Please don’t parade this fact as evidence of the ignorance of scientists, but rather as evidence of your ignorance of the mainstream. Forcing per doubling of CO2 is 4W/m2 [Hansen et al. 2005]. To put this into context, a 2% increase in solar irradiance adds about 4W/m2 [Hansen et al. 2008]. A 24 W/m2 increase in solar irradiance only over summer, accompanied by a 4-day increase in the duration of summer, caused by a change in axial tilt [Huybers 2006], is enough to tip the earth out of an ice age, so 4W/m2 is a big change – especially as it’s not limited to one season and a limited part of the planet. The maximum variance in solar irradiance since satellite records began is 0.36%, less if you smooth the data to take into account that the biggest variations are very short-term (graph below from TSI Composite Database plot of data 1978-1999). There is no known theory of climate that can use solar variability and other natural influences to reproduce temperature variation since the 1950s. We can only reproduce the trend by models that include natural influences and anthropogenic warming.

2. No serious climate scientist is claiming that the current level of warming is resulting in major increases in storms etc. Yet. There are however measurable effects like loss of Greenland and Antarctic ice mass [Velicogna 2009 – see figures from this paper below] – and many others like glacier retreat, change in species range, and accelerated rates of extinction. You can find plenty of evidence for these if you look. If you want catastrophic effects before you accept firm evidence of climate change, you’re crazy. Predictable effects such as shrinking glaciers are enough for me, especially as many of these metrics are happening faster than predicted.

Antarctic Ice Loss (blue data points: unfiltered)Greenland Ice Loss (blue data points: unfiltered)

3. The evidence of warming in the Medieval Warm Period is patchy and unreliable, and recent evidence suggests the warming was not as fast as that at present [Loso et al. 2007]. A conspiracy-theoretic site styling itself “CO2 science” has an extensive archive of papers purporting to support a globally warmer period in medieval times. I examined the papers they claimed had the highest-quality evidence, and found the temperature peaks varied by as much as 600 years in different locations around the world. That is not a globally warm period. I haven’t seen the evidence that Europe was warmer in Roman times than it is now; there certainly is unlikely to be solid evidence of warming on a worldwide scale for the simple reason that the resolution of our methods of measuring temperature is poor that far back in time. In any case, “warmer” is a relative term. Our current temperatures are on the back of greenhouse warming that hasn’t concluded. Even if we do not add more CO2 to the atmosphere, we have another 0.5°C of warming or so due from slower feedbacks. The Roman world and Medieval Europe may have benefited from local warming from a sub-optimal climate for agriculture to a better climate for agriculture. Warming today is unlikely to have that effect: much of the world’s rice crop for example is grown at close to its temperature limits for high yields, a concern for food production in China [Tao et al. 2006].

On your other comments, if computer predictions aren’t science, we are going to have to stop doing biology and most other branches of modern science. Computer models are no different than mathematical models, except they can process a lot of information fast. Like mathematical models, they can be wrong. This is why scientists check on each other, and build their own models from scratch, rather than rely on a popular model to be correct.

The claim that measurements are compromised by reduction in climate stations is rubbish, especially the claim that the removed sites were from cooler areas. Temperature measurements are not in absolute readings, but anomalies, deviations from a baseline. The baseline for each weather station is based on typical measurements for that type of station. The number used from each station in the overall temperature calculation is not its temperature but its difference from the baseline. This method was introduced for several reasons, one of which is to avoid exactly the sort of problem to which you allude. NASA documents their approach in detail and provides all the computer programs and data. Check it yourself.

 I have a question for you now:

If climate science really is junk, why is it necessary to oppose it with vaudeville acts, personal attacks, stealing email and clear and obvious lies?

And if you agree with me is that science is about supporting theories with evidence, not personal attack and harassing scientists with whom you disagree, sign my petition.


[Hansen et al. 2005] Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, R. Ruedy, L. Nazarenko, A. Lacis, G.A. Schmidt, G. Russell, I. Aleinov, M. Bauer, SS. Bauer, N. Bell, B. Cairns, V. Canuto, M. Chandler, Y. Cheng, A. Del Genio, G. Faluvegi, E. Fleming, A. Friend, T. Hall, C. Jackman, M. Kelley, N. Kiang, D. Koch, J. Lean, J. Lerner, K. Lo, S. Menon, R. Miller, P. Minnis, T. Novakov, V. Oinas, Ja. Perlwitz, Ju. Perlwitz, D. Rind, A. Romanou, D. Shindell, P. Stone, S. Sun, N. Tausnev, D. Thresher, B. Wielicki, T. Wong, M. Yao, and S. Zhang 2005. Efficacy of climate forcings. J. Geophys. Res. 110, D18104, doi:10.1029/2005JD005776
[Hansen et al. 2008] Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008: Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, 217-231, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217
[Huybers 2006] Peter Huybers. Early Pleistocene Glacial Cycles and the Integrated Summer Insolation Forcing, Science 313 (5786), 508, 28 July. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1125249]
 [Loso et al. 2007] MG Loso, RS Anderson, SP Anderson, PJ Reimer, P J. Sediments Exposed by Drainage of a Collapsing Glacier-Dammed Lake Show That Contemporary Summer Temperatures and Glacier Retreat Exceed the Medieval Warm Period in Southern Alaska, Eos Trans. AGU, 88(52), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract PP44A-01
[Tao et al. 2006] Fulu Tao, Masayuki Yokozawa, Yinlong Xu, Yousay Hayashi, Zhao Zhang, Climate changes and trends in phenology and yields of field crops in China, 1981-2000, Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, Volume 138, Issues 1-4, 29 August, Pages 82-92, ISSN 0168-1923, DOI: 10.1016/j.agrformet.2006.03.014
[Velicogna 2009] I Velicogna. Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L19503, doi:10.1029/2009GL040222

Monday, 15 February 2010

Time to Defend Science

I have set up a petition so those who object to the traducing of climate science can make their voices heard. I hope even opponents of the mainstream position will sign, because the issue is not whether the science is correct or not, but whether science should be tested by weighing evidence against theories, or by personal attack on scientists.

Even The Guardian, a paper that usually breaks from the herd and attempts to report matters like this accurately, has jumped on the bandwagon of attacking climate scientists personally. In this article, reprinted in the internationally distributed Guardian Weekly with the title Research red in tooth and claw journalist Fred Pearce makes numerous errors. I was particularly annoyed at this reprinting of the article, since the weekly paper has more time to review content for errors. Here is what I've written to the editor:
Fred Pearce's long article "Research red in tooth and claw" is riddled with errors and misinterpretations. First, he identifies a paper by Lars Kamel as the one referred to in stolen CRU emails because "It is the only one published on that topic in the journal that year" then goes on to explain how the paper was never published. Either it was published, or it wasn't. Second, he goes on at great length about how CRU's temperature analysis has not been recreated by anyone else, and cannot be because of lack of access to the data. While I have problems with the whole concept of lack of access to data, this is denialist spin. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies has independently constructed a temperature record using mostly the same data sources, and all of its data is public, and there are other independent temperature records against which CRU's can be tested. Pearce's understanding of peer review is also confused. There is nothing improper in asking other academics for inputs into reviewing a paper, and this happens very widely. Nowhere does Pearce present evidence that confidences were breached.

As Pearce could easily have discovered had he done the job he's evidently being paid to do, despite Jones's threat to keep junk papers out of the IPCC, they are in fact cited as references. The "MM" paper referred to is unlikely to be the McKitrich and Michaels paper on urban heat islands because this was published in 2007, 3 years after email Pearce quotes. The paper concerned is more likely to be that by McIntyre and McKitrick of 2003 (also rubbish), which is in fact cited in IPCC reports.

In one of Pearce's most serious blunders, he fails to report the fact that half of the editorial board of Climate Research including the newly-appointed editor in chief resigned over the journal's lapse in standards at the hands of De Freitas.

Pearce says the fact that Jones was new to the IPCC process was no excuse for errors of judgement. How new is Pearce to journalism?

PS: has Rupert Murdoch bought The Guardian?

There is a deep problem here when a usually trusted news source starts behaving in this way. Science is traditionally conducted through the research literature for a good reason. Unqualified people can easily make mistakes when assessing a complex field. The hard thing is translating research into policy. Human society does not on the whole do that very well, and I am not proposing alternatives here. What I do however object to in the strongest terms is traducing science as a whole and vicious often ill-informed personal attacks on scientists.

If you agree, sign the petition.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Of Drama Queens and Climate Science

Yet another bunch of anti-science letters in The Australia, this time in response to an article reporting the UK's chief scientist as saying climate scientists are prone to dramatise claims.

It suits the tabloid press (including those who disguise this tendency with a broadsheet layout) to frame issues in absolutes and set up crazy debates. Anything any scientist says that sounds the vaguest bit extreme or contrary to known science gets blown out of proportion, and the 99.9% of scientific work that doesn't fit this model is ignored.

Try reading the scientific literature using Google Scholar instead of regular Google as your search engine. You'll be amazed to find the vast majority of accusations against climate scientists (here for example the claim that they underplay uncertainties) are totally unfounded. Try however to get an article into a newspaper that tells it the way it is rather than setting it up as a screaming match between drama queens and you will get nowhere.

I stopped buying newspapers that do this and only read them where I can find them for free (online, in coffee shops etc.). If more people did this they would get the message.

It's hard to get a real debate going in the online comments so I will repeat some of my points here.

Peter: your claim that the raw data is "destroyed and manipulated" is rubbish. Most of the raw data is freely available. The drama queen argument here is that if a tiny fraction of the data used by one research group isn't available then all of it isn't. NASA for example makes ALL their climate data and their computer code available (see here for theirs among others). Enough data has been available for years for any serious scientist wanting to undo the mainstream theory to do so. Instead, we get vicious personal attacks, theft of email and political arguments.

SW1: your claim that further flaws will come to light is not only plausible but almost certain, but so what? Published science is riddled with errors. A researcher develops a new theoretically superior instrument, and in the rush to get published, makes mistakes in calibration. A research group finds a new angle on a problem and in their enthusiasm at finding something exciting, miss an obvious error. Peer review is a filter but not a perfect one, and this kind of thing can slip through. Sometimes the reviewers are lazy, or have a predisposition to accept the paper's findings. That's why scientists check on each other. Let's take as an example the 2009 paper by Lindzen and Choi that purported to show a much lower climate sensitivity to CO2 increases than the accepted range of 1.5-4.5°C. This paper was trumpeted over the blogosphere as yet another nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming. Now various analyses of their paper are showing that their approach was flawed, including one by Roy Spencer, who generally disagrees with the mainstream figure on climate sensitivity. There is at least one published response that shows the paper to contain serious errors. The drama queen version of events: Lindzen once again strikes a fatal blow against science, and the "corrections" can safely be ignored.

Another example is the claim that the oceans are cooling. NASA has an interesting story on their web site of how the science in that case unfolded. One of their researchers, Josh Willis, published results using a new technology, Argo floats, that showed the oceans were cooling. While he described this as a "speed bump" rather than a slowdown in warming, the blogosphere went gaga and many people still quote this result. What actually happened was some of the floats were under-reporting temperature, while the older technology used for older measurements was over-reporting temperature, and these two effects combined to create an appearance of cooling. Any cooling would contradict a range of other kinds of evidence, so had these results held up, it would have been a major challenge to the science. Instead, the problem turned out to be in the data. Again, nothing too unusual. But the drama queen interpretation is Willis overthrew the entire theory, and the conspirators worked hard in the background to reinstate it.

My focus here has been on attacks on the mainstream but of course there are people out there who make extreme claims about the risks of climate change. These people do not represent the scientific community, who as a whole are pretty loath to make extreme claims without strong evidence. But these stories too get the headlines.

The bottom line? Google Scholar is your friend. Whenever something implausibly extreme or contrary to accepted knowledge appears, go to the scientific literature. Preferably after waiting 6 months for the dust to settle.