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03 December 2009 Blog Home : December 2009 : Permalink

Fisking Nature and other AGW Alarmists

Nature magazine has come out swinging in defence of "climate science" and in the process displays attitudes that are more suited to greenpeace than a scientific journal. I'm going to fisk it to show just how much I find to disagree wth it:

Stolen e-mails have revealed no scientific conspiracy, but do highlight ways in which climate researchers could be better supported in the face of public scrutiny.

This lede is actually pretty unobjectionable in what it says but it might perhaps be worthwhile noting what it fails to say. The evidence of the e-mails themselves may not show a major scientific conspiracy but it does show evidence of malfeasance such as conspiring to delete data/e-mails when they are requested under FoI legislation and nobbling journal editors.

The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists' scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial 'smoking gun': proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.

As various people have pointed out the apprently deliberate conflation of climate change skepticism with the neo-nazi holocaust denial by environmental activists is insulting to the memory of the six million plus dead, as well as being distinctly innaccurate. Not everyone who has read or commented on theseis a "denialist". In fact I think the majority of informed comment has come from people who are not deniers that the globe has warmed but rather are skeptical about the anthropogenic CO2 global warming hypothesis. Lumping together skeptical engineering and scientific folk with the lunatic fringe is not helpful, neither is pretending that skepticism does not exist in this issue.

What we "skeptics" consider to be far more of a smoking gun is the distinctly shoddy nature of the source code which Nature doesn't deign to admit as havng been leaked (stolen) too.

This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country's much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.

This is correct, nothing in the e-mails undermines (or proves) the case the global warming is real - or that human activities are the cause. What does undermine the case is the afforementioned messy software. It may well be that the code produces the correct answer but looking at it, and looking at HARRY_READ_ME and indeed e-mails on the topic, does not convince. Neither do comparisons with GISS which seems to be equally low quality and comparison with which seems to be one of the "QA" tests in the code, along with checking that it gets similar answers to previous versions.

First, Earth's cryosphere is changing as one would expect in a warming climate. These changes include glacier retreat, thinning and areal reduction of Arctic sea ice, reductions in permafrost and accelerated loss of mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Second, the global sea level is rising. The rise is caused in part by water pouring in from melting glaciers and ice sheets, but also by thermal expansion as the oceans warm. Third, decades of biological data on blooming dates and the like suggest that spring is arriving earlier each year.

We skeptics or "lukewarmers" don't deny that the earth has warmed up over the last century or so. Nor do we deny that humans may have had some influence in the process. However we do question the degree of warming, whether it is "unprecedented" and whether humans really have caused the majority of it. Nothing that we have seen in these files convinces us that it does and lots suggests that actually the scientists seem to be partly working back from the answer. It would also help if blythe comments about antarctic ice melting etc. were actually backed up by the facts. As it happens it would seem that antactic ice as a whole has grown rather than shrunk in recent times even though some parts by the Antacrtic peninsular have indeed seen ice loss.

Likewise "decades of biological data" show warming but they do not show anything unprecedented as far as I can tell. No one is growing grain on Greenland, the Yamal peninsular - to take a place of recent dendroclimatological interest - is not seeing the treeline move further north than it has been in past warmer eras and so on. Yes the earth warmed over the 20th century. The earth also warmed over the 10th century and then cooled down again a few hundred years later.

Denialists often maintain that these changes are just a symptom of natural climate variability. But when climate modellers test this assertion by running their simulations with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide held fixed, the results bear little resemblance to the observed warming. The strong implication is that increased greenhouse-gas emissions have played an important part in recent warming, meaning that curbing the world's voracious appetite for carbon is essential (see pages 568 and 570).

It isn't just "denialists" who maintain that these changes are a part of natural climate variability. Even the hardest core "alarmist" will agree that in the past the climate has changed with no help from humans.

And the climate modelling assertion is laughable. If climate modellers had been able to predict the last 10 years of roughly flat temperatures then I'd have more sympathy with their inability to get warming without CO2 changes. The fact is that over the last 8 -10 years models have vastly overpredicted the warming, to the extent that they are mostly rejectable at a 95% confidence level.

A fair reading of the e-mails reveals nothing to support the denialists' conspiracy theories. In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14, 751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.

So the fact that a conspiracy failed makes discussing it all right? Moreover it seems to me that at the very least some of the IPCC/journal related emails show attempts to block if not totally silence publication of alternative vewpoints. More to the point the whole Wahl/Amman thread shows that they had no qualms about bending the rules one way but not the other.

If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden.

Now here's where we come to a total disagreement of fact, not interpretation. The timeline that Willis Eschenbach posts shows that this group where proactively seeking to thwart FoI requests and other attempts to get them to show their code and data. This group of scientists have spent years deliberately obscuring their data sources and methods and have relied on a lack of curiousity of peer reviewers and jurnal editors to get away with it. The fact that when they were finally called on this they still dragged their feet resulted in their inquirers seeking multiple different ways to get them to repsond. Of course from these emails and documents it is also clear that one reason why they were so unwilling to let any one see what they had done was that the internal details were a big mess! Governments and institutions probably ought to insist that researchers actually adhere to basic software quality standards then there wouldn't be a problem about complying with FoI requests.

The e-mail theft also highlights how difficult it can be for climate researchers to follow the canons of scientific openness, which require them to make public the data on which they base their conclusions. This is best done via open online archives, such as the ones maintained by the IPCC (http://www.ipcc-data.org) and the US National Climatic Data Center (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/ncdc.html).

Umm I'm not at all sure that the reserchers found it difficult. They just didn't do it and they made no attempt to adopt methods that are standard in industry to help them to do it. However that's water under the bridge now and I agree that open archines are a good idea. Moreover it is key that the code also be archived so that it is possible to see how the raw data is processed to produce the results. Right now this is a mysterious black box process with no guarantee that the algorithm descibed in a publication is the one employed in the computer code that produces the results.

But for much crucial information the reality is very different. Researchers are barred from publicly releasing meteorological data from many countries owing to contractual restrictions. Moreover, in countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the national meteorological services will provide data sets only when researchers specifically request them, and only after a significant delay. The lack of standard formats can also make it hard to compare and integrate data from different sources. Every aspect of this situation needs to change: if the current episode does not spur meteorological services to improve researchers' ease of access, governments should force them to do so.

To put it bluntly I don't believe the statement about the contractual restictions. Last summer while many of us Climate Audit readers filed relevant FoI requests with the UEA/CRU, we tried to figure out what nations would have restricted the access to the raw historical meterological data and for the most part concluded that there were esentially none. More to the point, as numerous folks pointed out then, if climate change is a global priority then surely national governments ought to be interested in getting people to show how bad it is and thus would waive any confidentiality agreements from 20 years back. We skeptics were willing then (and I have no doubt still are) to contact each government in turn and get a document waiving confidentiality. For some reason the CRU not only refused to take us up on the offer they also refused to tell us which countries they thought they had confidentiality agreements from.

The lack of standard formats is not an issue. The raw data just needs to be stored in some open location and a dozen or more programmers, myself likely one of them, will write homogenizing routines. Governments should not have to do anything except require their met offices to post historical data on a publicly available server.

The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers' own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a 'trick' — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature's policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.

That's nice of Nature. I can think of a couple of papers where I might be a tad more curious. For example there is:

Jones, P.D., Groisman, P.Ya., Coughlan, M., Plummer, N., Wang, W-C. and Karl, T.R., 1990“Assessment of urbanization effects in time series of surface air temperature over land.” Nature 347, 169-172 (R)

which is, I believe, mentioned in this email. And some of the tree-ring papers where the "trick" was used to "hide the decline" might merit a little checking to see if the trick is mentioned. And whether the code to do it can be seen.

The UEA responded too slowly to the eruption of coverage in the media, but deserves credit for now being publicly supportive of the integrity of its scientists while also holding an independent investigation of its researchers' compliance with Britain's freedom of information requirements (see http://go.nature.com/zRBXRP).

The UEA seems to have let themselves get guided by Jones & co. throughout the summer so that, instead of deciding then that they should invest a little in openness and transparencey they decided to help the CRU fort up. If they had done this then I suspect that there would have been far fewer FoI requests and almost certainly no leak.

In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.

It seems to me that the scientists have largely been hoist by their own petard here. The vast majority of skeptics have written politely at first and only resorted to nasty words or FoI requests when the scientists have failed to respond helpfully. Moreover by respo nding helpfully and honestly to the polite requests it would have been far simpler to justify ignoring the loons. However that wasn't what happened and instead the scientists have lumped all their critics together which is why many of us skeptics no longer trust them. If they can't see the difference between someone asking how they reach an outcome and someone saying they are liars then they are the ones with the problem.

And there is a fairly simple fix for the trust in science thing. It is called transparency and allowing external audit, precisely as people like Steve McIntyre have been suggesting. While I'm sure Nature, Science and all the various scientists involved are going to deny it and not take him or anyone else up on our offers to help, I'm fairly sure that what will emerge from this is precisely the sort of open transparent system he's been campaigning for all the time.