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High-quality climate

Richard Black | 15:10 UK time, Monday, 23 February 2009

I'd like to echo and amplify the comment by manysummits on my last post: "What a surprise when I turned on my computer this morning, and found 41 comments on this blog!!!!!!!!! I note the magnitude of the response, and the quality of the responses as well."

Iceberg melts in GreenlandA couple of mornings on and we're up to 73 comments - and with many on a previous post dealing with similar issues, it's time for a new thread.

It's especially nice to read comments from several posters who appear to be working scientists, and great accounts of some of the scientific and social complexities involved, not least from paulvanp and kalense.

Regular readers of this blog will know that personally I find discussion of BBC climate change coverage a lot less interesting than discussion of climate change itself, which is just a little more important in the overall scheme of things.

So I'll have a quick bash at the BBC-relevant points first. BishopHill, you and others raise the question of Chris Field's credentials and why his comments at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science merited media coverage.

As the new co-chair of the IPCC working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, he now has a leadership role in the periodic assessments of global climate change that are the most politically significant documents in the field; so his views on the subject will presumably carry some political weight, and are therefore worth reporting.

As to how well qualified someone who started life as a biologist is to pronounce on climate change; well, if you look at the scope of that IPCC working group, it's extremely broad, and I suggest it would be impossible to find anyone who has formally studied all of the relevant disciplines.

That situation, though, is hardly unknown in science. Even within universities, a dean of science could hardly be expert in every subject in his or her faculty; yet many intelligent and able people seem to make a decent fist of it, and it's highly unlikely, I would suggest, that Chris Field would have got the job if his peers didn't think him qualified.

PAWB46, you ask what evidence there is to back his "contention that things are moving faster than the IPCC projected in its major 2007 report" - well, I listed some of those pieces of evidence in my last post, as well as a few things that point in the other direction - so I'm not sure what's unclear.

(UPDATE 1: I mentioned in the previous thread that more research on this would be published early this week.

It's in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and aims to show that the chances of some major impacts occurring for a given temperature rise are higher than when the IPCC performed its previous major assessment in 2001. It's not available on the PNAS website yet, but in the meantime Andy Revkin of the New York Times has taken a look at it here.)

CuckooToo, you mention that the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) recently acknowledged errors in satellite readings of Arctic ice cover and asked whether I could "confirm all the BBC's headlines about sea-ice loss will be amended accordingly".

The answer is "no, I can't". The last story we ran using NSIDC data dates from December
2008, whereas NSIDC believes the satellite malfunction only affected readings from January 2009 onwards. If the error turns out to have affected earlier readings significantly, then we'll take another look.

A couple of other things to clear up from the last post. iainsteele, you ask whether I'm proposing "a kind of 'number of papers' type argument in deciding if climate change is/is not real". To clarify - absolutely not.

But if you take an issue such as temperature trends in Antarctica, what you see in the scientific literature is a succession of papers that have taken different approaches to the question, using datasets that have become richer over time - so the picture is built up gradually, I would suggest, rather than consisting of a single "Eureka" moment.

(I hope that clarifies what you found bizarre, RolandGross.)

The point you raise, programmer101, is highly germane here. While some studies look for temperature trends across Antarctica, others (including the GRACE satellite mission) are looking for net changes in mass; yet others are studying the dynamics of ice melting at the continent's edge. All are important in building a complete picture.

kalense, your comment on whether scientists take positions on evidence or belief is incisive and much appreciated.

I think it varies depending on the precise question being asked. As you point out, the states of knowledge on questions such as "is the climate changing?" and "what will the impacts be in a century's time?" are very different; they're both important questions, but we're far more capable of answering the first from currently available evidence than the second, and therefore any scientist's view on the second must depend more on belief than on the first.

Stephen_McIntyre, you ask that I clarify my post because "there should be no dispute" about who pointed up errors in the recent "Antarctic warming" paper published in Nature by Eric Steig and colleagues.

(For anyone new to the specialist climate science blogosphere, Steve McIntyre's blog Climate Audit regularly analyses datasets and mathematical techniques used by climate researchers.)

On this occasion, Steve, I'm going to disappoint you. I wrote on my initial post that "accounts vary as to who pointed them out", and they clearly do; the tale at RealClimate (again for the uninitiated, a specialist blog run by a group of climate scientists, including Eric Steig) differs from yours, and starts here at comment 148.

So there is some dispute, and it's a dispute I'm not going to get into any further; as I've written previously, this blog is aimed at the general reader, it covers all environmental topics, and there is a level of detail which is inappropriate here.

(You'll see from another RealClimate thread, pmbbiggsy, that there's also another side to your contention that "Eric Steig has refused to release the code he used".)

BishopHill, you raise a small straw man by asking why I don't "link to Climate Audit when discussing the Antarctica study? Is it more than your job's worth?"

But I did link to Climate Audit...and now we have Steve McIntyre's comment...so presumably the P45 is on its way.

(UPDATE 2: Climate Audit is back online so here's the link as promised.)

On a previous post, calcination, you wrote that you "would like open access to scientific journals. It would let the illiterate cherry pick papers to support their case, but I think that would be outweighed by the ease with which they can be combated with corrections, and anyone interested could browse the databases."

I couldn't agree more. I first had the thought a decade ago when covering the infamous controversy over the MMR vaccine.

One study showed the UK public believed that the scientific community was split roughly equally on whether the vaccine led to autism. In reality, only a tiny minority of academics gave credence to the idea, and the evidence in the scientific literature was overwhelmingly against it.

If access to all those studies in the original journals had been open, perhaps public perceptions would have been different, and perhaps we would not now be seeing cases of measles in the UK.

A few years ago, open access was all the talk in the scientific publishing world - I recall making a radio documentary about the pros and cons - but it seems to have died down now. If any of you have a finger on this particular pulse, perhaps you could let me know why.

And I'd be interested in your further thoughts on what open access would mean for public perceptions of climate science too.

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