Climate Change & the Whitebark Pine Apocalypse

July 28, 2011

Today’s editorial in the NYTimes, Climate Change and the Plight of the Whitebark Pine is a fine example of how a scientific fad (call it a meme if you like) gains and keeps traction.  In this case, the fad is global warming.  The editorial describes how the whitebark pine, a crucial element of high altitude mountain ecosystems, is in danger of extinction, and what will be the serious consequences for wildlife and vegetation if that comes to pass.  The editorial clearly links the situation to global warming by way of the mountain pine beetle:

Historically, the pine’s defense against the beetle is living where conditions are too cold for it — at high altitude or at high latitudes. But as the climate warms, that defense has failed catastrophically… The tragedy is the ongoing demise of an ecosystem, one for which humans are culpable.

Looking into the scientific investigations of this issue, the link to climate change, not to mention climate change caused by human activity, is not at all clear.  A study by the Canadian government quoted in the editorial concluded:

[the threats] include an invasive, foreign fungus and the suppression of forest fires, which are important in establishing pure stands of whitebark pine. But the most important threat is the spread of the native mountain pine beetle, which tunnels into the tree and lays its eggs under the bark.

The fungus is ‘blister rust,’ introduced from Europe.  Note that climate change is not directly linked to the problem, and that the threats cited are well-known, long-standing, serious, and similar to threats faced by many ecosystems today:  exotic species; human intervention in the eco-dynamics; local pests.

A Google search for whitebark pine and climate returns a lot of hits, but most of them are from the popular, environmental press.  The logic of their statements is consistent and revealing.  Warmer winter temperatures during the last decade have supported a vigorous growth in the beetle population, and that has decimated the trees.  But what caused the warming?  And how much warmer has it been?  There is no discussion of this.  Only statements such as:

So as long as temperatures keep rising and the beetles continue to be driven to higher-elevation habitats, their assault on the trees will continue. To save the species, a massive and immediate reduction in greenhouse gases is necessary.  Source 

Certainly there were outbreaks of mountain pine beetle in Whitebark in the ’30s and ’70s, but nothing like what’s happened in the last decade. Moreover, Dr. Logan’s climate models predicted this outbreak long ago. Very simply, warmer winter temperatures and longer summers have created overwhelmingly favorable conditions for a widespread pine beetle infestation in a high alpine tree species that used to be able to rely on cold temperatures to keep beetles at bay. Source

So, what do we actually know?  We know that the whitebark pine is important for western ecosystems.  We know that the trees are dying at a great rate.  We know that they are dying because of a variety of factors, several of which have nothing to do with anthropogenic climate warming (AGW), and we know that one factor, the beetles, is extremely important and that it has been encouraged by warmer winters over the last several years.  The link to AGW is assumed, as usual.

Climates, local and global, vary.  There is no evidence that this forest catastrophe is more than a conjunction of several negative factors, several of them associated with human activity (importation of fungus, suppression of forest fires) and recent weather.  Simply because the events are consistent with the hypothesis of AGW, it is automatically assumed that the proof is given, and the press goes to work.  They are totally separate issues.

Consider the abstract to this article that is linked to this topic in many online searches (my emphasis):

Forest insects and pathogens are the most pervasive and important agents of disturbance in North American forests, affecting an area almost 50 times larger than fire and with an economic impact nearly five times as great. The same attributes that result in an insect herbivore being termed a “pest” predispose it to disruption by climate change, particularly global warming. Although many pest species have co-evolved relationships with forest hosts that may or may not be harmful over the long-term, the effects on these relationships may have disastrous consequences. We consider both the data and models necessary to evaluate the impacts of climate change, as well as the assessments that have been made to date. The results indicate that all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify as the climate warms. This reinforces the need for more detailed monitoring and evaluations as climatic events unfold. Luckily, we are well placed to make rapid progress, using software tools, databases, and the models that are already available.

The key statement has been underlined.  It is key to this abstract, and countless others like it, as well as the runaway assumptions made by popular journalism about the topic.  The statement should read this way:

The results of our examination of data and models, as well as our exploratory computer runs, indicate that if climate does warm, all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify.

The conclusion of the study is actually unremarkable and rather trivial.  If climate warms, bad things may happen.  If it’s hotter, more people will be uncomfortable, there will be more heat stroke, ecosystems will be disturbed and will change, etc. etc.  If, if, if…

Now, back to those statistics and models to figure out if the climate is actually changing as they assume it is, and to figure out why…

More climate of fear…

July 20, 2011

Another few bars in the endlessly played dirge, The End is Nigh, from the NYTimes:

ENJOYING the heat wave?

The answer is probably no if you live in Abilene, Tex., where temperatures have been at or above 100 degrees for 40 days this summer. It’s been a little cooler in Savannah, Ga., where the mercury hit 90 or more for 56 days in a row.  How does this compare to business as usual, I wonder?  Those are hot places.

Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma are coping with their driest nine-month stretch since 1895I always wonder when I hear claims like this, was it hotter in 1895?  Is this the first year since 1895 that the ’95 record is surpassed?  Why was it so hot then, global warming?  How much hotter was it?

 Yes, it has been a very hot summer after one of the most extreme-weather springs on recordJust what does that last phrase mean?  Cold springs, hot summers, it’s all global warming!  Is she referring to the flooding?  

It’s time to face the fact that the weather isn’t what it used to beAlways a safe statement.

Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recalculates what it calls climate “normals,” … climate of the last 10 years was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the climate of the 1970s, and the warmest since the first decade of the last century. Temperatures were, on average, 0.5 degrees warmer from 1981 to 2010 than they were from 1971 to 2000, and the average annual temperatures for all of the lower 48 states have gone up.   A barrage of stats in no particular order.  “All gone up,” how much?  0.5 degrees?  Not very much!  1.5 degrees warmer than the ’70s, but what about that “first decade of the last century.”  More clarity would be nice.  Seems like throwing a lot of stuff to see what sticks.

The numbers don’t take sides or point fingers. They acknowledge both powerful natural climate fluctuations as well as the steady drumbeat of warming caused by roughly seven billion people trying to live and prosper on a small planet, emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the process.  Not much talk about natural fluctuation, but quite a drumbeat about AGW!  Where’s the link?

Even this seemingly modest shift in climate can mean a big change in weather.   This is having it both ways.  It’s modest, or it’s not.  Fact is, it is modest, but that doesn’t fit with the message.

Shifting weather patterns influence energy demand, affect crop productivity and lead to weather-related disasters. In the United States, in any given year, routine weather events like a hot day or a heavy downpour can cost the economy as much as $485 billion in crop losses, construction delays and travel disruptions, a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found.  Take out the word “shifting,” and you have a statement that is both true and unremarkable.  And weather is always shifting, i.e. changing. 

In other words, that extra 1.5 degrees might be more than we can afford. And while the new normals don’t point to a cause, climate science does. Drawing from methods used in epidemiology, a field of climate research called “detection and attribution” tests how human actions like burning fossil fuels affect climate and increase the odds of extreme weather events.   “Might be more than we can afford..,” and maybe they might not be.  Just throwing it out there…Maybe we should spend and plan more for how to deal with extreme weather events regardless of whether there will be more of them.  We do a pretty bad job of that now.  Please note the lack of discussion on just how these epidemiological methods work in the field of climate studies.

Heat-trapping pollution at least doubled the likelihood of the infamous European heat wave that killed more than 30,000 people during the summer of 2003, according to a study in the journal Nature in 2004.   Let’s assume that this claim is true, and that nobody else has published different results since 2004.  Certainly, this author will not tell us if they have or not.  Just what were the chances for the hottest summer in Europe since the 16th century?  Pretty small, I imagine, and double a small number is still a small number.  That’s the nature of a rare event.  As for the horrible death toll, that was largely due to the complete lack of preparedness for such events – alerting systems, cooling centers for senior citizens, public education on how to survive a heat wave – because such an event was unprecedented.  Government health agencies should have considered the possibility, but that’s not the fault of climate change.

And if we don’t ease our grip on the climate, summers like that one will likely happen every other year by 2040, the study warned.   People make warnings all the time.  The world was supposed to end in May 2011…

Using climate models, we can project what future Julys might look like.  Time to dust off my collection of crystal balls for sale…

Global Warming Sinks Island Republic

July 19, 2011

The NYTimes had an OpEd piece today telling the sad tale of a tiny island republic, Nauru, that is doomed to obliteration, because of global warming, it would seem.  Reading the entire article closely, however, the cause is not so clear-cut.  The article is typical of many that appear in the news and advocacy press, so I am going through it point by point, my comments in bold.  The plain text of the original piece can be read here.

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country…

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years….an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits...  Yes, cultures that take root in locations with such limits are fragile.  Consider the vanished Easter Island societies. 

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on…  This is certainly the most serious ecological disturbance that was visited on the island.  If not for that, the people could live elsewhere on the island, and the state of the coastal zone would not be so critical for them.  Nothing to do with climate.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate…  Not clear why the rest of the world is taking the same path by burning fossil fuels.  Clearly, the industrial world has many things it can do better, but the problems of Nauru are not the problems of most of the world.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding  The sea level rise that is claimed so far, if it is accurate, is quite small.  Why would it be responsible for such damage to Nauru already?   More likely, the destruction of the natural land cover has led to a drainage situation in which the land is steadily and rapidly eroded.  The island is being washed away.  As for the three-foot sea level rise, that is a worst-case scenario that should be taken with many grains of salt.

…and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.   They may vanish, and they may not…  Hasn’t happened yet.  People are running from flooding, not ‘record tides.’  One reason they flee is that most urban development has been taking place in flood-prone areas, despite the advice of engineers and geographers.   In many of these places, the land is sinking, which makes things worse.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.   The usual litany, recited without any support.  Droughts, floods, and heat waves are always with us.  More people, more urbanization in the wrong place, better reporting – more disaster.  “Expected to become more frequent…” is simply a crystal ball prediction, not a proven fact.  Just pile on the horror stories…

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes….    There is always competition for scarce resources: which ones are at issue here?  Water?  That’s been a concern for decades, rightly so, and has nothing to do with climate change.  Food costs?  The subsidies for ethanol have more to do with global food riots than does climate change since they resulted in a reduction in food grain exports.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us...   Unfortunately for Nauru, if the global warming predictions are correct, it’s already too late to help the island escape the effects of climate change.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking.   Good show!  For such a small and vulnerable environment, that’s what is needed, especially forest restoration.

I wish the people of Nauru all the best with their efforts.

Global Warming Dud

April 30, 2010

I went to hear Dr. Alan Robock, a climatologist from Rutgers University, speak at a local organization in my town last night.  He gave the usual slide show:  light on the science; heavier on the ‘predictions’ and scare stories; heavier on what we should do about it, i.e., alternative energy and all.  I was pretty disappointed, as he seemed like a reasonable guy, polite and energetic, and I was hoping for something new.

Instead, he presented an example of why the controversy is so hard to discuss rationally.  His remarks were overtly partisan.  True, he was speaking to an avowedly left-wing group, and I happen to agree with his swipes at Kissinger getting the Nobel, and other rhetorical jabs at the right, but I would have liked to have heard that stuff separately from the scientific talk.  No, it was all mixed up.

I asked him a question about how the average global temperature was computed and what was his opinion on the issue of bias in the surface temperature record due to station locations.  His answer was remarkably lame.  There are lots of stations on the land, and the 70% of the Earth that is ocean is covered by bucket samples taken by roving ships.  Not exactly a homogeneous record in my book, not to mention historical problems.  Then he said the problems with the urban heat island are “well understood” and that each station is paired with a rural station, and if a bias in an urban station is clear, they “throw out that record.”  That’s news to me.

One woman gave him a really hard time in a rather disjointed way, bringing in a raft of accusations and questions.   She mentioned several scientists who disagree with AGW.  His response was to claim that each of them was not an expert in climatology:  this one’s an expert in atmospheric dynamics, that one in tropical storm formation, etc.  She mentioned Lindzen, a prominent critic from his alma mater, MIT, and he said, “Lindzen lies to you.  He should know better.  I could talk a long time about Dick Lindzen.”  How do we know Robock doesn’t lie to us?  And of course, he repeated the claim that the “deniers” are funded by oil and coal corporations.

His remarks on the published emails from CRU were enlightening as well.  It was a crime to publish them.  This from a man who certainly supports Daniel Elsberg’s filching and publication of the Pentagon Papers.  What crime, I wonder?  The standard line – no evidence of criminal fraud was found, that’s a lie, so there’s no problem.  Conspiracy theory contra conspiracy theory. 

Inadvertently, he let the real cat out of the bag during his discussion of the emails.  Remarking on the “hide the decline” fracas over tree-ring proxies and 20th century data, he said (from memory, I quote):  “The proxy data for the latter 20th century showed a decline, and this data was contaminated for some reason, by pollution perhaps, so they threw out the bad data.”  Ahem…bad data?  Because it didn’t follow the projected uptick in surface temperature?

Is this the best they can do?  When Bush invaded Iraq, I remarked to a friend, “They better find those damn WMD or there’ll be hell to pay!”  They didn’t find them, and there wasn’t much hell to pay, so I was wrong.  I predict again:  If these computer models are shown to be off target in fifteen or twenty years, there’ll be hell to pay – the standing of science with the public will be seriously damaged.

For the record, I am not paid by fossil fuel corporations, and I voted for Al Gore and Barack Obama.

Quantitative deep freeze

January 12, 2010

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

William Thomson, created Lord Kelvin for his engineering work on transatlantic communications cables, had firm views on what was and was not scientific knowledge.  He was also interested in global temperature, but not they way we are today.  He put a monumental scare into Charles Darwin, whose ideas he did not accept, by calculating that the earth must be much younger than Darwin had believed it to be.  His conclusions were based on the rate at which the earth would cool from its initial molten state.  Since evolution takes a very long time, and Darwin knew that well, this was a serious blow to Darwin’s theory.  Eventually, Kelvin’s figures were shown to be wrong, and we now believe the earth is billions of years old, plenty for Darwin!

Kelvin also was interested in very low temperatures.  He created the temperature scale, now known as Kelvin, that has as its begining, Absolute Zero (no connection to the vodka) which is the point at which all molecular motion ceases – thermodynamic zero.

All this stuff about metrics and temperature got me thinking about the latest blast on global warming, this time related to a major IPCC scientist who has been quoted as implying that all the climate science of projected warming is wrong.  He writes that the warming in the recent decades, such as it is, is not the result of CO2, but of natural cycles.  The warming due to CO2 is now kicking in, and will continue unabated as long as we burn fossil fuel.  He laments that some journalists have “distorted” his views, describing him as a sort of crypto-denier, and asserts that “if my name was [sic] not Mojib Latif it would be global warming.”  Wow, there’s a believer!  (I guess he doesn’t believe in the subjunctive, but who does?)

I’m sure there have been reports in magazines and news shows that do distort Mr. Latif’s views – that’s to be expected in popular science journalism.  What is odd is that he doesn’t see that his views do contradict some of the AGW orthodoxy.  That is, a lot of people would deny that natural cycles have much, if anything, to do with the purported temperature rise over the last few decades.  They point to a clear “signal” of AGW.  His statements also raise the question of how he is so sure that the real AGW warming will begin soon – isn’t that just his … belief?  I mean, if it hasn’t been happening already, how can he be so sure?  Those computer models?

Finally, he weighs in with a strange observation about the ability of people to reason coherently:

 Nobody would discuss the problem of [Einstein's theory of] relativity in the media. But because we all experience the weather, we all believe that we can assess the global warming problem.”

Actually, I have seen discussions of relativity in the media, and some of them were admirably clear.  They may be difficult to understand because the theory entails a profound challenge to our “common sense” notions, but that’s another story.  Latif seems to be claiming that only experts such as himself can assess AGW, presumably with the help of their digital crystal balls, but we can all assess the logic of their claims, and his seems rather tortured.

As Kelvin might have asked, let’s just look at the numbers…

The heart of the matter: those CRU files!

November 24, 2009

This letter to Andy Revkin of the New Times, DotEarth, is an excellent statement of the genuine issues raised by the CRU “hacked” emails.  The issues are serious.  Highlighting is by me.  I found this text at Jeff Id’s blog, The Air Vent, but it is linked in many places.

Oh, and if you want to jump to a really juicy email instead of reading this long letter, check out this one.  Seems they weren’t so confident in their long-term projections after all, nor in their repeated denials (are they the denialists?) that the models had failed to predict a current sustained stalling of temperature rise.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ * ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Mr. Revkin,

I am writing to you to express my concerns with the content of the emails and documents that were recently obtained and released from the University of East Anglia. In my opinion, many of the comments in the blog articles about this incident have taken extreme positions that cloud the importance of the information that is contained in the documents and emails. With that in mind, I would like to take a moment to describe what I feel are the critical lessons that can be learned from this incident.

So that you understand my perspective, I have been labeled as a climate change skeptic, a contrarian, anti-science, and denialist. I have been referred to in a derogatory fashion (and have even been the subject of an entire, somewhat condescending post on RealClimate concerning analyses I had done on the Steig Antarctica paper) because I have questioned the results of several influential articles on climate change. I feel these characterizations are unfair, as I believe that humanity is contributing in a meaningful fashion to the observed rise in global surface air temperatures. I have witnessed several of my contemporaries being labeled in similar fashion in spite of the fact that they, too, believe the same.

 This illustrates the polarization of the climate change debate that is a dangerous impediment to the science. It appears that unless one believes that catastrophic consequences will necessarily result unless a certain set of draconian measures are taken, that one is dismissed as a crackpot, a liar, and is insinuated or directly accused of having been paid off by corporate interests. This produces a destructive environment for discussing the science of climate change.

As a skeptic, I can say in no uncertain terms that the emails and documents from the University of East Anglia do not show that AGW is a falsehood or hoax. Claims that “global warming is dead” (as I have seen) are not supported by those documents. On the other hand, claims that “the science is settled” are shown to be an exaggeration.

While vocal skeptics such as Steve McIntyre have been vilified by several influential scientists, the content of the emails demonstrate quite clearly that many of the concerns were legitimate and that this was known by the scientists who repeatedly and publicly denied the veracity of those claims. These include, but are not limited to:

· The concern that the significance statistics for MBH 98 were benchmarked to an inappropriate type of noise. Despite public claims to the contrary, Dr. Mann states clearly in email 1059664704.txt that the calibration residuals were “significantly red” for at least two cases. This validates the McIntyre & McKitrick criticism that the confidence intervals and benchmark significance statistics were incorrectly calculated and that MBH claimed greater statistical significance for their reconstruction than was supported by the data.

· The concern that the WMO 1999 main graphic, MBH 98, and several other reconstructions included in the IPCC spaghetti graphs had inappropriately spliced instrumental temperatures onto the end of the reconstructions. Despite Dr. Mann publicly stating that “No researchers in this field have ever, to our knowledge, ‘grafted the thermometer record onto’ any reconstrution. It is somewhat disappointing to find this specious claim (which we usually find originating from industry-funded climate disinformation websites) appearing in this forum,” on RealClimate, it is quite clear that this is exactly what was done in emails 0966015630.txt and 0942777075.txt.

· The concern that without either stripbark foxtails, bristlecones and/or the Yamal chronology that the hockey stick shape in the 20th century was greatly reduced. Despite pre-publication discussion and disclosure of review comments of the Wahl & Ammann and Ammann & Wahl defenses of MBH in which the McIntyre and McKitrick claims were dismissed as “total crap”, none of these individuals checked WA and AW closely enough to see that they performed not a single reconstructions that did not include at least one of the offending chronologies. They also express concerns that there are methodological problems with MBH, but were more concerned with defending MBH than disclosing factors that they know may partially undermine the result or increase the uncertainty of the result. This may be seen in emails 1102956446.txt, 1108248246.txt, 1122669035.txt, and others.

· The concern that the Yamal selection used in Kaufman 2009 and other papers was only a subset and, if the full chronology is used, that the answer changes in a non-trivial fashion. In a string of emails, it can be seen how several of the most influential scientists begin discrediting this concern before they had even researched the claim to see if it is legitimate. As it turns out, it is a legitimate concern, though claims of fraud by some bloggers do not seem substantiated. Rather, confirmation bias seems far more likely. These are in emails 1256760240.txt, 1256735067.txt, 1254756944.txt, and others.

As you may be aware, this is only a partial list.

These serve to illustrate not that the scientists involved are engaged in fraudulent behavior for personal gain, but rather that they feel that it is their right or duty to be the gatekeepers of what information is allowed to be seen. I think it is clear that the scientists believe that they are correct. I think it is clear that they use this belief to justify actively engage in censoring their own results (and pressure others to censor theirs) to prevent full disclosure of the uncertainties involved in the methods they employ. I think it is clear that they use this belief to justify attempts to discredit legitimate criticisms, in some cases with the knowledge that those criticisms are accurate. I think it is clear that they use this belief to advocate suppressing free expression on the internet. I think it is clear that they use this belief to attempt to manipulate the peer review process to present their results in a way that lends more credibility to their conclusions than otherwise would be the case. This is advocacy, not science. It in no way invalidates AGW theory, but it does call into question the certainty with which these scientists claim to understand the magnitude of the AGW effect – and, by extension, the magnitude and timing of the anticipated consequences.

This naturally leads into another important lesson: the insular nature of this relatively small, yet incredibly influential, group of scientists leads them to believe that it is their right to decide who should be privy to data and code. As a party to several of the FOIA requests of the University of East Anglia and CRU, I find myself appalled at the cavalier manner in which several key individuals handled FOIA requests. Some of the most telling emails are 1106338806.txt, 1212009215.txt, 1212063122.txt, 1214229243.txt, 1219239172.txt, and 1228412429.txt (among others) which indicate coordinated activities to prevent release of the data due to who was requesting it rather than the legitimacy of the request, to delete or destroy relevant data, and collusion with the FOIA officers to deny requests without properly examining whether the request was legitimate. While I do not believe that this activity should result in any kind of criminal prosecution whatsoever, I do believe that it should result in some form of corrective and/or disciplinary action by the appropriate institutions.

It is my hope that the above issues, not the unsubstantiated claims that AGW is “dead” or AGW is a “hoax”, are the issues that have traction. Otherwise, it is possible that these irresponsible claims – which are easily dismissed – will drown out the very real need for reforms to make climate science more open and accessible. Conversely, it is possible that these irresponsible claims could derail grants for additional research and damage support for many important mitigation activities that to this point were seen as not controversial (such as increased recycling efforts, development and increased commercialization of alternative energy, and similar efforts).

This letter is not intended for you to publish (though you may, as long as you do not quote it out of context). It is intended to provide you with a perspective from a “skeptic” who feels that the important lessons of this incident have not been well-carried by either the blogs or the media coverage. I write to you specifically because, although we may differ in our opinion of whether AGW is a presently a “crisis” and what the ideal mitigation/prevention activities might be, I have read enough of your column to believe that you are honest and forthright, and that you welcome hearing multiple sides of the climate debate. I enjoy your work (even when I disagree with your conclusions) and wish you continued success.

“Ryan O”

Those climate models…

November 22, 2009

Finding out what's in the black box!

I often wonder why the global warming doom-gloom-soothsayers have so much traction in the world.  Like right wing conservatives, they like to claim that they are victimized by a hostile establishment press, but the NYTimes, a pillar of the establishment, is certainly with them.  Check out the 230 comments on Andy Revkins DotEarth blog regarding the recent email disclosures from the CRU.  The Editors’ Selections, with the purpose of

…highlighting the most interesting and thoughtful comments representing a range of views.

includes 4 posts, all firmly in the camp of “How dare they publish this!  This is just normal science. Face it, global warming is a fact!!” So much for a range of views…but no matter.

But why do intelligent and scientifically literate people, including some who are quite reasonable, e.g., Andy Revkin, feel so confident that the AGW hypothesis has been established beyond doubt?  Frequently – check out those Selections – references are made to mountains, avalanches, piles…etc. of data that prove the point.  I think something is missing here:  I think it is the global circulation models (GCM) run on super computers that clinch it.  But there is very little peeking into those models – they are essentially a black box for most people:  numbers go in, Apocalypse comes out!

Without the models, there would be no terrifying scenarios, disturbing graphs showing steeply rising temperatures over decades to come, no tipping point doomsday model runs.  There would be some hard data (CO2 rising), a mountain of ice core, satellite, and surface data from which some would infer a clear trend, correlation, and causal mechanism;  there would be an interesting hypothesis about positive feedback amplifying the otherwise manageable temperature rise that might be caused by CO2 increases and that might or might not happen; there would be the same endless scientific haggling and argument over the way the numbers are handled by statistical routines and whether this or that presentation of the data is appropriate and meaningful; there would be no consensus.  The advocates of AGW would be a determined and inventive bunch, but they would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the rest of the world should abandon the null-hypothesis, i.e., climate and CO2 have always fluctuated- what’s so different now? –  and adopt their hypothesis.  Computer models change all that.

The GCMs give the AGW crowd the cover to say that they can predict (not with certainty, of course…) the future trend of the climate.  It gives them the supposed justification for stating that they have uncovered the “forcing function” that precisely quantifies the impact of CO2 concentrations on the climate.  It provides them with a rationale for assserting that their understanding of feedback mechanisms is corrrect and that their predictions are reliable.  This role of computer models is not often examined, rarely questioned, certainly not in the popular press.

It’s worth taking a look at the writing of Daniel Botkin, a scientist who was present at the creation of computer modeling in ecology, and who has a lot to say on the role of models in scientific investigations.  His basic point is that models are valuable tools for understanding a natural system, for trying out ideas of how changes in one thing may affect another, but they are not very good for making predictions.  His essay, Science and Soothsaying, is a good starting point.

Another critical view of computer modeling is the Pilkeys’ book Useless Arithmetic.  Orin Pilkey (not to be confused with the climate scientists father and son, Pielke Sr. and Pielke Jr., also with a jaundiced view of modelers’ work) is most known for his controversy with the US Army Corps over its penchant for pouring millions of dollars into pouring sand on eroding beaches.  These wasteful projects are often supported by very impressive computer modeling.

In thinking about this topic, I keep returning to a book published almost twenty years ago, Ice Time.  In its chapter, The Machine’s Eye, the author makes the point that the study of climate had become, in large part, the study of climate models.   He traces the rise of supercomputing in the investigation of climate, and notes that it has become “big business.”   The author is relatively uncritical of the use of the models, but he focuses more on their use to understand the mechanics of the climate system rather than to predict the future.  The chapter is the only extended discussion in layman terms that I have ever seen of just what computer models of the climate do, and how they are put together.  For that, it remains a very useful discussion.

Late Note on Revkin’s Blog:
Here’s some interesting comments following the controversy-click the number for link to full text

From a physicist who values scientific culture:   265. Frederick  UK

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm

… I cannot say whether AGW is a valid theory…What I can say is that Mann & co. have so undermined the scientific process that their results lack credibility. This has been a dark period for science. It seems that politics and science do not mix.

We need to put this behind us and get serious scientists who are not afraid to have their methods and results questioned. At the end of the day, there is nothing more convincing than facts and proper results. We need transparency but what we have here is a travesty!

From a true believer distressed at Andy Revkin’s lack of faith:  269. Wayne Hamilton Springdale, UT

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm
Your Dot Earth blog has changed since I started reading and contributing several years ago … I thought it functioned very effectively in describing the threat of anthropogenic climate change.But in recent months… you’ve become increasingly even-handed in balancing the opinions of AGW skeptics and proponents… You now seem to give equal time and credence to the knowledgeable and to the ignorant.
I’m sorry to report that your latest article on the CRU hacking gave me the impression that you no longer believe in the consensus of international science and the importance of that fact. It makes me sad to say this, but I’m no longer interested in following your Dot Earth blog. Good bye.

Also this one, with a potent warning for Revkin that goes to the heart of “he said, she said” journalism (emphasis added)261 John M.   San Francisco

November 22nd, 2009
2:48 pm

Hi Andy,

Comparing your NYT article on the controversy to the raw data, I find you are slanting the story, minimizing it, acting more like a press agent than an independent, hard-driving reporter. For example, you write:

“Some skeptics asserted Friday that the correspondence revealed an effort to withhold scientific information.”

The emails themselves clearly reveal an effort to withhold information, but you are describing this only as an assertion by skeptics.

Your article makes no mention at all of the obvious, and possibly illegal, effort to evade requests made under UK Freedom of Information laws.

A far better analysis can be found here:…

Andy, you are risking your credibility here.

John M.


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