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BEST had used an out-of-date methodology for assessing station quality, he argued; use the right one, and you find that US temperatures have risen by only half as much over the last 30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 167.

    The facts are: EXPERIMENT shows radiation between certain wavelengths is trapped by greenhouse gases (that's why they're so called). MEASURED EVIDENCE demonstrates (1) GHGs caused by human activity (2) sustained temperature rises in the surface and lower atmosphere. That this ACTUAL warming trend is due to the GHGs we emit is inference. It's a very strong association, beyond reasonable doubt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Interesting article, a pretty transparent attempt to appear non-partisan while taking cheap swipes at anything critical of the climate mainstream

    Science has nothing to fear from "cloud review", a theory that cannot stand up to critique is worthless and not worth having.

    This is no longer a debate between a small clique of scientists and a largely ignorant public

    The gravy train is done

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    (164) What McIntyre actually said:

    "I support the idea of getting the best quality metadata on stations and working outward from stations with known properties, as opposed to throwing undigested data into a hopper and hoping to get the answer.

    ...To that extent, Anthony’s project is a real contribution, whatever the eventual results."

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I think Contrarians might be extremely wise to take note of the apparent waning enthusiasm for Watts' 'study' from one of his own team, McIntrye.. possibly due to Watts apparently now suggesting that where data disagrees with his 'result', the researchers were lying about the data.. since this would tip Watts out of science and into Monckton territory

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    @156 where do think the water in the glaciers CAME from ? its a cycle... Glaciers do not "melt" away , they shrink due to precipitation rates and speed of movement into the "melt" zones.... you need to swot up on BASIC geography, geology and meteorology. Glacial waxing and waning is almost NOTHING to do with air temperature on average across the glacial body.

  • Comment number 162.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Dortman asked: why does anything percived at vague "anti-GW" get marked down, even if when you actually read what is actually being said it's NOT "anti-GW" at all?

    When I mark comments up or down, I do so on the value of the post for the discussion. I never do so according to who posted it or whether I specifically agree with it. Dunno what others do. What approach do you use?

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Cloud review is both good and bad..useful to get input from qualified colleagues before submitting to peer review..but it can also be subverted as a cloak of respectability by Contrarians, acceptable when it re-enforces their prejudices, unacceptable when it doesn' which point the hypocritical u-turn in favor of their pet hate, peer review is most amusing to watch,yes Watts I'm looking at you

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    @121 & 124

    Oh the irony.. when WUWT's fanboys turned up on this blog, they marked everything AGW down, even posts correcting spelling, if it was by a Greenie..crowing that being marked up was 'proof' they were correct (neocons continue to reference WUWT's 'popularity' as if it were scientific evidence) yet when the tables are turned, its QQ time about 'trolls'', typical Contrarian hypocrisy

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    To all those who gave a negative rating to my contribution at 15 will you please provide references to your evidence of any link between global arming and human activity. THERE IS NONE!"
    CO2 increase from burning fossil fuels is proved by isotopic evidence, ice cores etc.
    Anyone who thinks humans have no impact on the planet are dreaming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Let's be clear. There's no PROOF of evolution, creationism, CO2 global warming or pretty much anything else. They are ALL theories and require BELIEF...."
    Utterly wrong; Evolution and Climate Change are THEORIES backed with huge amounts of data and evidence.
    Creationism is a BELIEF backed with NO evidence or data.
    Big big difference

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    152 - thanks for the revelation about atolls you're right that is school stuff. Where do you propose the water from melting glaciers goes? Before you say that melting ice makes no difference conder the 50 or so metres that sea levels have risen since the middle of the last ice age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.


    "By 65 million years ago, the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Cenozoic, the continents were aleady beginning to take on a more recognizable form."

    The tropical Antarctic refers to the early Eocene which was around 48 to 55 million years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    @Masters (39). Yes Antartica used to be tropical...because it was in the tropics. Continents move. Many millions of years ago Antartica was near the equator not at the South pole as it is now. Look up plate tectonics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    alarmist ignorance about islands and sea levels stems from not understanding that these "living" islands grow and shrink with deposits and actually respond +ve and -ve to sea levels and storms. Modest sea level rise will have absolutely no effect on Atolls. Ground water issues are totally seperate to sea level issues and are linked to human activitity on the island. This is school stuff. easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    @149 you are proof of how shallow the science had become and how little people research before coming out with statements like yours. Islands are not being drowned by rising sea levels, do your research as to what these "islands" actually are, where their fresh water comes from and then look at the sea levels. The trouble with a pseudo science is its too easy to bluster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    #149 timmicus - for sure. I misread your earlier post. I agree with what you said in that post.

    I believe the science has become a debating point simply because of the political implications and the threat to a global power structure. It was never about the science. Always about profit.

    But with the science comes the moral higher ground. But when big oil can extract profit from the sun...

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    #146 United Dreamer - there just isn't credible evidence. I saw a reference to John Daly on this forum who denied that sea levels were rising, yet there are island nations disappearing. That is the sort of 'evidence' skeptics base their arguments on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I see Richard is trying to blame the spread of Schmallenberg virus on climate change, is that the same way that the Black Death spread across Europe during the Medieval Warm Period, when CO2 levels were much lower. So much for AGW!


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