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…

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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”