Climate science and acts of creation

James Hansen Prof Hansen argues climate change is "loading the dice" of extreme weather

The role of formal scientific processes in climate science appear to be under threat as never before.

Last year, physicist Prof Richard Muller and colleagues published - in the sense of posting material on their website - results from a new project analysing the Earth's temperature record.

The Berkeley Earth (BEST) project basically backed up established temperature records from Nasa and others; the world is indeed warming, and by about as much as we previously thought, it concluded.

Prof Muller was attacked in some quarters for not waiting for the formal process of peer review in a scientific journal before launching the data publicly.

He responded that his method - to put the draft out there openly and let everyone respond who wants to - is increasingly the norm in physics and indeed has always been the norm in string theory, that most arcane of disciplines.

In his view, it's the right way to do things.

A couple of weeks ago, in a New York Times article accompanying the release of five more BEST papers that are being submitted to scientific journals, Prof Muller went further, saying that the majority of 20th Century warming could be laid at the door of greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, analysis by established bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) holds that only after mid-Century did greenhouse gases drive the warming - prior to that, it was predominantly down to natural causes such as solar cycles and a decline in the frequency of large volcanoes.

Graph The Berkeley group confirmed existing records of global temperature

The original BEST study particularly got up the nose of meteorologist turned sceptic blogger Anthony Watts.

It dismissed the claim he'd made that US weather stations gave an unreliable temperature record because many were badly sited - in places where the extent of heat-reflecting tarmac, for example, had expanded over time.

Also a couple of weeks back, Mr Watts launched a new analysis purporting to show that BEST had it all wrong.

Weather station in Oregon Mr Watts contends that badly-sited US weather stations distort the temperature record

BEST had used an out-of-date methodology for assessing station quality, he argued; use the right one, and you find that US temperatures have risen by only half as much over the last 30 years as Prof Muller and others say it has.

This paper too has been released web-first, on the wattsupwiththat blog, with the aim of formal publication later.

The next development in a busy few days was a Washington Post article penned by Prof James Hansen, the Nasa scientist who has done perhaps more than any other academic down the years to raise the spectre of catastrophic climate change.

It referred to a scientific paper out this week in which he calculates how the incidence of extreme weather events has changed since the middle of the last century.

Using simple statistics rather than computer models, he shows that the frequency of "extreme anomalies" - for the statistically-minded, defined as more than three standard deviations from the mean - has increased 10-fold.

Without climate change, it concludes, last year's drought in Texas and Oklahoma, the 2010 Moscow heatwave, and the 2003 heatwave centred on France wouldn't have happened.

(The article's appearance induced the journal publishing the paper, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to lift the embargo for reporters, but it doesn't appear to be on their website as yet - sometime this week, presumably.)

Prof Hansen's paper has had a mixed reaction from other researchers.

Prof Andrew Weaver from Canada's University of Victoria said it was an "excellent" piece of work that asked a better-framed question than the one other researchers have posed.

"Rather than say, 'is this because of climate change?' That's the wrong question.

A sign reads '38 degrees centigrade' 2010 brought temperatures 8C above normal to Moscow and other parts of Russia

"What you can say is, 'how likely is this to have occurred with the absence of global warming?' It's so extraordinarily unlikely that it has to be due to global warming."

Prof Myles Allen, the Oxford University climate modeller who has spent 10 years developing the science of climate attribution, said it was "broadly in line" with previous analyses, but that the interpretation "goes further than many scientists are comfortable with".

What's perhaps more remarkable about Prof Hansen's paper is the style.

Rarely if ever have I seen a published scientific paper that states the rationale for its existence so baldly in terms of public perception - specifically, "the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming".

"Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public recognises that human-made climate change is underway and perceives that it will have unacceptable consequences if effective actions are not taken to slow the climate change," the authors write.

Climate change glossary
Select a term to learn more:
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

You'd have to be from another planet not to realise that climate science has been the subject of extraordinarily intense political forces over the last few years.

And many scientists involved feel passionately about it.

At its core, though, climate science has been able to retain its identity partly because researchers generally don't give in to passion, instead sticking to formal processes - publication in peer-reviewed journals and the presentation of data and conclusions in strictly academic terms.

It's rapidly becoming more blurred. And the question arises: is this a good thing?

Prof John Christy, the University of Alabama scientist who has taken a position sceptical of "climate catastrophism" down the years while working in the mainstream discipline of compiling temperature records, believes it could be.

Two years ago, he suggested replacing the monolithic procedures of the IPCC with a "wiki" approach.

And he tells me now that he got involved with the Anthony Watts exercise partly because it "would be an interesting experiment for me in which the paper was 'cloud reviewed' and then rewritten to accommodate important new information before being submitted [to an academic journal]... I'm wondering if this is the way 'review' in the digital age will unfold as time goes on."

Man pours water on head Heatwaves in Greece and elsewhere are down to climate change, the new paper claims

Prof Christy makes the distinction - crucial to scientists - between draft papers for discussion and final, complete ones that go into academic journals and become part of the formal literature of science.

But how clear is that distinction to the public that Mr Watts, Prof Hansen and Prof Muller are trying to influence?

And if it's not clear, how does the new model benefit public understanding?

Peer review is far from perfect - especially in a politicised arena such as climate science where some journals exist with a specific, directed slant on the issue.

Energy and Environment, for example, proclaims itself "a forum for more sceptical analyses of 'climate change'".

Creationists have attempted to clothe themselves in scientific garb down the years by establishing publications designed to look and feel like scientific journals.

The Journal of Creation, for example, says it is a peer-reviewed journal but clearly comes with a specific aim - to combat the problem that "creationists cannot publish their creationist ideas in secular journals because the evolutionary worldview has a stranglehold on scientific publishing".

Well, clearly the "evolutionary worldview" ought to dominate scientific journals - because a vast amount of evidence testifies to the fact it's real.

But you can create a parallel world where it isn't, if you really try.

With all its flaws, publication in mainstream peer-reviewed journals is the best mechanism science has yet devised for ensuring that the findings and conclusions reaching the public ear remain above a certain quality threshold.

String theorists can perhaps afford to take a different tack, because - with all due respect - it doesn't make any practical difference to anyone in the wider world who's right and who's wrong in that particular discipline.

But with climate science, it does. It matters a lot.

Is it really time to throw the traditions away? And if it is, whose interests would that serve?

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    6. Gerald Wilhite "Am I missing something?" What you are missing is that Richard Muller's team's research -- re-analysis -- was largely funded by the Koch brothers who have also been funding the Heartland Institute, the Mercatus Institute and similar libertarian organizations dedicated to spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about AGW.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    All those Arab Spring countries have had at least a 100% increase in population since 1980

    There's not a social system on the planet which can cope with that kind of change without some form of revolutionary fallout
    How do you find jobs for a 100% increase in your population???

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    How patient do you want to be about climate change though?

    100 years of data is insignificant
    Give us a call in 1000 years and we can have a look at things again

    Global overpopulation on the other hand will give us massive immediate issues to deal with long before the climate boogyman even gets close

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Indeed.. Graphs can be tricksy

    Here -

    and here -

    Interesting to see the hating on Muller,, he took the Kochs cash..ignored peer review..but DIDN"T drink the Contrarian WUWT's Xmas card list, ya think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Richard Muller doesn't disguise aims to profit as a result of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

    Novim, another of his vehicles, has the term "Just Science" at the top of the web-page.

    Two other scientists at the Berkeley project are also members of his "team".

    Would anyone at the BBC ever think this represents a conflict of interests?

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.


    Nice try, no cigar..every hit raises WUWT's profile (as if 'most viewed' was a scientific validation) not because anyone will learn anything of scientific value
    As to the Hansen study, it was released today, so I will wait for the scientific peer review


    Incorrect, for an explanation see here -

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    76. Lamna nasus
    Scientific review is carried out by scientists with relevant expertise, the idea that this should exclude anyone known to the author in the same field is therefore utterly risible.

    Data analysis isn't only carried out by climate scientists you know. Even I can plot a graph. I could even plot the one above that makes a 1% temperature change look so dramatic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Ah the Warmists couldn't wait to bring out Arctic ice extent, but what's that? Antarctic ice way above average odd sort of global warming that only seems to be happening in some cherry picked spots, makes for shrill news though. But, shhh! Let's not mention how cold it's been in South America, Australia and New Zealand or the very low number of storms. Odd how only the 'team' get a say on it all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Is global warming man-made or natural? I'm going for natural, volcanic activity spews out more carbon than we humans ever do. We've cut down so many trees yet we're not awash with CO2. The climate has always been volatile, yet temperatures remained the same during the 50's and 60's while man-made CO2 increased a lot. That's some poor correlation and even poorer causation the scientists propose...

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Adapt to survive means break with tradition!
    Many many adapt to survive!
    Can you adapt to survive or are you stuck with old World tradition?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.


    I've explained why to you in fairly simple words - you can obviously choose to remain ignorant - and whilst I support your right to make that choice I certainly don't recommend it. If you're as bright and right as you seem to think you are then please explain why the study above does not bother itself with the 1930's?

    Please feel free to consult SkS or any other resource you fancy

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.


    Why would I read WUWT if I want to know about science?.. Watts has no relevant qualifications and WUWT is funded by the Heartland Institute, a neocon political organisation, who have no interest in science either.

    Scientific review is carried out by scientists with relevant expertise, the idea that this should exclude anyone known to the author in the same field is therefore utterly risible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Regardless of the merits of any particular study global warming provides governments with a wonderful excuse to impose new taxes and for developing nations. The politics of GW have become as important as the science and "cloud review" feeds that by making unvetted "data" available to be used as arguments for pushing the agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    The problem in the anti/pro climate change "debate" is that climate scientists have do years of work to achieve a degree, years of work to collect data, be completely honest in their findings and finally submit a paper to be reviewed by their peers.
    Climate change deniers don't have to do any of these things, yet to some their opinion is more valid than the actual scientists. Madness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    And if you think I am wrong, just watch the unfolding disaster of sea ice lose taking place in the Arctic right now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    @69- really? My money is on the change slowing down actually. It's only in the last 20 years that some of the more accurate measurements have been made - and looking too hard for a trend can easily mislead. Greenland ice is not melting as fast as they said last month, and some glaciers in the Himalayas are actually advancing (despite an upward temp trend). Glacier retreat is not new, btw-since LIA

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    @69 Lamna Nasus

    You really dont know when to stop do you, shall I perhaps lend you a shovel.

    Have you

    1) Read anything more than the title of the link provided?
    2) Read the Watts work/paper that you are criticizing?

    As to peer review, this is always important especially outside the sphere of climate studies, where it is normally not carried out by ones mates........

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    To be successful, cloud review would have to be limited to people who don't have a political agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Sadly we have left it to late and climate change is now taking place much faster than the traditional peer review process followed by the even more ponderous IPCC process can keep up with. It is now tantamount to a crime to sit on data. Get it out there for all to see asap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Contrarians hadn't contemplated that the BEST study would do anything other than confirm their prejudices

    ā€œIā€™m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.ā€ -Anthony Watts, March 2011

    ..or not..all of a sudden peer review was very important eh?


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