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06 August 2008 Blog Home : August 2008 : Permalink

Missing Tools for AGW Fools

So I've been rendered ever more curious by the way that enviroMENTAList types get their "end of the world is nigh" story out. Thanks to Alex Lockwood a whole vein of greenshirt propaganda has entred my life and it is quite amusing. Following a link from the charming post of one Alex "AGW=Holocaust" Skiffen, I come to the Grist site where they present arguments to counter skeptics. Some of these arguments are reasonable, it is true that Climate Change Skeptics are a varied bunch and some of them are nuttier than a fruitcake with extra nuts. So countering those arguments is not so bad. But beyond the "Silly" section we move into more serious territory such as that infamous hockeystick. Here the argument comes across a little weaker:

The Canadians, McIntyre and McKitrick, then published a paper purporting to uncover serious methodological flaws and problems with data sets used.

Everything from this point on is hotly disputed and highly technical.

All the claims made by M&M have been rebutted in detail by many other climatologists; M&M insist they are completely in error. All of it fits nicely with the expectations of both sides of the global warming issue, both the conspiracy theorists and the champions of peer review.

The rebuttals have been objected to and the objections denied and the denials rejected. The specific issues are highly technical and require considerable time and energy to fully understand. [...]

If you want to evaluate the issue for yourself, and do it fairly, you must read the copious material at the sites mentioned above. You must also be prepared to dig into dendrochronology and statistical analysis.

Where does that leave the rest of us -- you know, the ones with lives?

I confess immediately that the technical issues are over my head. I don't know PCA from R^2 from a hole in the ground. But the most critical point to remember, if you are concerned about this for its impact on the validity of AGW theory, is that the fight is over a single study, published eight years ago, focused on paleoclimate. It verges on historical minutia. If you feel the study may be tainted, simply discard it.

In other words "Don't let troublesome mathematics trouble your tiny little brain, I never let it bother mine. It's really complicated and you should just trust us instead of actually wasting hours of your precious time actually educating yourself on statistics." In fairness they do at least link to climate audit so you can have a look but they don't make any attempt to explain what the problems were in simple langauge.

The article on Urban Heat Islands is equally ribtickling:

What's more, NASA GISS takes explicit steps in their analysis to remove any such spurious signal by normalizing urban station data trends to the surrounding rural stations. It is a real phenomenon, but it is one climate scientists are well aware of and have taken any required steps to remove its influence from the raw data.

Except that when you look at Surface Stations, Climate Audit etc. you realize that these stepts to remove UHI are, to be kind, less than completely error free. Furthermore UHI is only one of the problems with the global surface temperature records but they don't bother to mention (as far as I can see) all the other problems with the raw data that have become apparent such as canvas buckets, non-existant stations, poor siting, sloppy measuring etc.

The article concludes with two pictures, one shwoing night lights, the other a GISS(?) temperature anomaly graph showing that the heating is taking place outside the most urbanized places. This is good propaganda at first sight but not so good when you look at the details. What neither picture shows is where the measuring stations are and what the grid sizes are. Even in mostly empty bits of terrain there are towns and villages and it seems that many surface measuring stations are placed near such bits of human habitation rather than out in the middle of nowhere. Combine this with the simple observation that towns and villages frequently expand to surround weather stations that were previously outside the built up area and we have a situation where the UHI effect could occur even in "rural" areas. Furthermore it isn't quite as simple as counting the number of street lights. Growth also tends to combine with an increase in traffic and of things like sewage plants. Since both airfields and sewage works seem to popular places to put weather stations the increase in their throughput and hence subsequent tarmaccing, expansion etc. may well adversely impact the weather station. In other words the UHI article is just as shoddy when it comes to looking into the details and relies on the broad brush.

The article on "Warming stopped in 1998" could stand a little updating. Written in November 2006 it therefore fails to mention the dramatic cooling of the last year or so and fails to mention all the recent scientific findings that show that current global temperatures are somewhere around 1980. This is amusing because the article goes on about cherry picking start dates and suggests that 1978 is a good date (because it's the start of UAH/RSS satellite measurements). If then trend was up to 1998 then down it is quite possible that we'll shortly see that global temperatures that are about the same as or lower than they were 30 years ago and that means that the satellite trend will soon show a negative trend over the whole timespan.

I could go on but I think I've pointed out the problems in that site so I'll move on to the Climate Change Education site which offers teachers things they can do to get their victimsstudents involved. I'll ignore all the fluffy areas and go straight for the area where the best chance of finding tools to do your own analysis should be found: the university level math section. Unfortunately there is only one statistics related topic and that has to do with risk calculation. It's not a bad investigation (and the initial statement on "Post Normal Science" has a section that I think we can all agree on:

Post-normal science, on the other hand, acknowledges that while we’re doing our normal science, some groups want or need to know the answers well before normal science has resolved the deep inherent uncertainties surrounding the problem at hand. Such groups have a stake in the outcome and want some way of dealing with the vast array of uncertainties, which, by the way, are not all equal in the degree of confidence they carry. Compared to applied science and professional consultancy, post-normal science carries both higher decision stakes and higher systems uncertainty[...]

The climate change debate — particularly its policy components — falls clearly into the post-normal science characterization and will likely remain there for decades, which is the minimum amount of time it will take to resolve some of the larger remaining uncertainties surrounding it[.]

However while cost-benefit risk analysis is interesting it doesn't help us grow new minds that can investigate the data and analyses we have seen so far. Statistics is a complex field (as a studious amateur I get lost in some of the more complex reasoning about PCA although unlike the Grist writer I do know the difference between it and a hole in the ground) and it is very easy to make serious errors. Surely it would be sensible for climate change activists to create a bunch of statistically educated folk who do know the difference between PCA and a hole and who could therefore take the arguments of McIntyre, McKitterick & co. on. Indeed the total lack of statistical topics at that site (a google search shows that this is the ONLY statistics topic anywhere on the site) simply adds to the impression that enviroMENTALists are far from interested in validating the dire predictions that they rely on to get their agenda accepted by the rest of us.

Indeed almost all the mathematical topics on the site are about calculating carbon emissions, footprints etc. In other words they work on the principle that we've already accepted that a) global warming is happening, b) it is caused by CO2 and c) the CO2 comes from humans. Since b) and c) are definitely debatable and a) is questionable concerning its extend and whether or not it is cyclical this is a great example of "post normal" science teaching ahead of its facts.

Statistics and statistical analysts are in fact the area where almost all enviroMENTAList sites fail to go. Consider the Society for Enrionmental Journalists' list of scientific contacts. There is just one statistician listed and in the section where skeptics are mentioned there is absolutely no sign of Climate Audit and other statistics/data quality parts. Insetad in a damning with faint preaise section, before listing the 'tainted' skeptical groups (those who accept oil money or are religious nuts) there is this:

Some of the most vocal skeptics have done relatively little recent peer-reviewed scientific research on the topic, and some have had their voices amplified via financial support from industries opposed to any government regulation or taxation of greenhouse gas emissions. Others do have training and experience, at least in some aspects of the wide-ranging issue, and are not bankrolled by industry. But overall, their number represents a distinctly minority position in the ongoing and normal colloquy among scientists about the evidence of climate change and its likely impacts.

Climate-change modeling is less certain in forecasting impacts on a regional scale, and in assessing warming's role in extreme weather like hurricanes. But the regional resolution of the models is improving, and the 2007 IPCC report offered more detail than previous ones. Researchers also are busily assessing regional vulnerabilities to possible climate-change scenarios. So while there remain more robust debates in these areas, new research is constantly adding new layers of understanding. One needs to try to stay current on the latest published studies, on who's doing them and who's funding them.

There are a number of climate-change skeptics, less-often quoted perhaps than some more vocal ones discussed later, who have more substantial climate science research publications and who have accepted little or no fossil industry and advocacy group money. These typically include:...

Followed by a mere three names (Christy, Lindzen, Grey).

Indeed to bring this back to Mr Lockwood and something he wrote, the problem here is that anyone who comes to these pages having read stuff by the more scientific/statistical skeptics immediately notices the gaping holes in the coverage. As the MSM has found out to its cost in many areas ignoring your competition/opponents is a poor strategy in the Internet world. And being proud (as the Grist guy is) of your ignorance is just as bad. If you really want to have the tools to justify the greenshirt plan of impoverishing all of humanity then you need to understand the foundations of the AGW debate and to understand (even if you prefer the arguments of the 'consensus') the arguments of the critics.