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Climate change, ‘science’, and skeptics

The latest report (5AR) published by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created an uproar for all the wrong reasons. In the months leading to the report’s release, many climate observers began to speak of how the global mean temperatures have not been rising as drastically as predicted by climate change models that previous IPCC reports have written about.

This information was seized upon by skeptics of climate change, who then went on to proclaim that according to data, global temperatures have actually cooled and polar ice caps have increased in size. They once again accuse political agendas behind climate change, insisting that programs combating a ‘mythical’ global warming is spending millions for nothing and instead hurting jobs and the economy.

2013 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. An increase in Arctic ice has led to proclamations of 'Arctic ice is growing' when it is, in fact, still on a long-term decline; this is the 6th lowest extent of Arctic ice on record. (NASA)

It does not help that both sides like to make snide remarks or personal jabs that distracts everyone concerned from the real debates. Nor that the IPCC allow ambiguities to slip into their reports or leaks about internal disagreements between members on their findings. These are the things that colour media reports to make attractive readings, distorting critical thinking on the issue at hand.

What should be made clear is that climate change is a difficult science – it is not a laboratory of tests and trials, it is about observations in the real world of unpredictable changes affecting hypotheses, and making proper scientific interpretations of the observations. Not only is it important that we take note of how skeptics of climate change like to interpret data based on their own theories, it would be prudent to move away from a basic error of conceiving science as some kind of ‘predictor’.

Science is not about making predictions. Observations contrary to predictions does not constitute evidence that the science is wrong - precisely because it is not fortune telling.

Good science seeks explanations of phenomena as close to the truth as possible, setting up controlled experiments to test for explanations, thinking about results and explanations within and beyond the current epistemic framework. A theory is not discarded just because observed data deviates from expected observations; rigorous thinking has to be done about its setup, unaccounted factors, even mistaken assumptions.

The science behind climate change has limited access to these conditions. It has to somehow extrapolate laboratory findings into the world and reap in non-laboratory data, making its theories difficult to test. This does not invalidate its theories, only that more work and time is needed for a more complete understanding to come into being.

Perhaps organizations like the IPCC is rightly criticized for not being rigorous enough with their work and findings. But skeptics of climate change would be foolish to point to data (especially data chopped to their liking) and claim that climate change is a hoax. Climate change is not meant to be a predictor; it is both understanding and warning of how our activities impact the environment.

Acquiring and burning fossil fuels, mining for minerals, deforestation, altering waterways, dumping waste – these activities, ferociously increased in activity in recent years, leave behind visible negative impacts; at the same time, the weather has been changing in such ways that lives, livelihoods and food production are seriously at stake. Current understanding, limited as it might be, could be utilized to make good sense of these significant events. One could also spectate this duel in the media arena between skeptics and scientists about who is politically motivated or who has gotten it right or wrong. But one should not see any reason in gambling against the likelihood that the climate could stabilize if we reduce our demands on the environment by limiting our activities.

  • Barbara Hollingsworth of CNS News makes a typical report denying climate change, a prime example of cutting data and jumping on ambiguities in the IPCC report.
  • Pierre Gosselin, an advocate against climate change as hyperbole for distracting the public from poor public policy, translates a report from the conservative Swiss news magazine Weltwoche that makes full use of the rumours of internal disagreements within IPCC members, lack of rigour in the work done by IPCC, and its failed predictions to discredit climate change.
  • Judith Curry, climatologist and advocate for open dialogue on the climate change debate, analyzes the main problems with the IPCC’s latest report.
  • In the Fall 2013 volume of the Energy and Environment Editorial is a paper co-authored by Arthur Rörsch and Peter Ziegler, critically assessing the quality of work done by IPCC and climate scientists thus far.
  • Chris Mooney, writing for the liberal American news weekly MotherJones, makes the clearest explanation about how climate change skeptics take and interpret data according to their own theories.
  • Subhankar Banerjee, writing for the Huffington Post, blogs about the latest controversy on the size of the Arctic ice.

Climate Scientist: 73 UN Climate Models Wrong, No Global Warming in 17 Years

Global temperatures collected in five official databases confirm that there has been no statistically significant global warming for the past 17 years, according to Dr. John Christy, professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH).

Christy’s findings are contrary to predictions made by 73 computer models cited in the United Nation’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (5AR).

Christy told CNSNews that he analyzed all 73 models used in the 5AR and not one accurately predicted that the Earth’s temperature would remain flat since Oct. 1, 1996. (See Temperatures v Predictions 1976-2013.pdf)

“I compared the models with observations in the key area – the tropics – where the climate models showed a real impact of greenhouse gases,” Christy explained. “I wanted to compare the real world temperatures with the models in a place where the impact would be very clear.” (See Tropical Mid-Troposphere Graph.pdf)

Using datasets of actual temperatures recorded by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA GISS), the United Kingdom’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research at the University of East Anglia (Hadley-CRU), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), satellites measuring atmospheric and deep oceanic temperatures, and a remote sensor system in California, Christy found that “all show a lack of warming over the past 17 years.”

“All 73 models’ predictions were on average three to four times what occurred in the real world,” Christy pointed out. “The closest was a Russian model that predicted a one-degree increase.”

“October 1st marks the 17th year of no global warming significantly different than zero,” agreed Dr. Patrick Michaels, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for the Study of Science. “And those 17 years correspond to the largest period of CO2 emissions by far over any other 17-year period in history.”

The 5AR’s “Summary for Policymakers,” released last week, acknowledged that “the rate of warming over the past 15 years…is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951,” before concluding that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” (See IPCC 5th Assessment Report.pdf)

“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century,” the IPCC report noted, adding that “continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system.”

However, the same report also acknowledged that there are “differences between simulated and observed trends over periods as short as 10 to 15 years.”

“It’s a very embarrassing result for the climate models used in the IPCC report,” Christy told CNSNews. “Our own UAH measurement of a 0.1 degree Celsius increase per decade in the upper atmosphere was actually the warmest of all the datasets.”

Reaching the 17-year mark with no significant warming is a milestone because a climate change research team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory defined it as the minimum length of time necessary to “separate human-caused global warming from the ‘noise’ of purely natural climate fluctuations,” according to a 2011 press release.

Michaels pointed out that 18 separate experiments published since Jan. 1, 2011 show that the IPCC’s climate models are off by 46 percent when it comes to temperature CO2 sensitivity. “The pressure to warm the atmosphere by CO2 has somehow been cancelled out completely by natural forces,” he said. “Surface temperature is simply not as sensitive to changes in CO2 as was assumed by the climate modeling community.”

“Nature bats last,” Michaels added. “And Nature came up in the 9th inning 17 years ago.”

Seventeen years without a temperature increase is also at odds with a report by the United Kingdom’s Met Office that said “global mean surface temperatures rose rapidly from the 1970s, but have been relatively flat over the most recent 15 years to 2013.” (See Met Office July 2013.PDF)

“The Met Office simply didn’t go back 17 years,” Christy said to explain the two-year discrepancy.

When CNSNews asked Christy how the IPCC could claim “95 percent certainty” that human activity is causing global warming when it failed to predict that global temperatures would remain flat over the past 17 years, he replied: “I am baffled that the confidence increases when the performance of your models is conclusively failing. I cannot understand that methodology.”

When asked how useful the just-released IPCC report will be in predicting future global temperatures, he said: “Not very. When 73 out of 73 [climate models] miss the point and predict temperatures that are significantly above the real world, they cannot be used as scientific tools, and definitely not for public policy decision-making.”

In 2012, Christy testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, telling senators that “the recent anomalous weather can’t be blamed on carbon dioxide.”

“We’ve had 17 years of no global warming, yet we have an energy policy right now that continues to harm American communities and will lead to much higher electricity prices all based on the ‘fact’ that the world is warming,” Daniel Kish, vice-president of the Institute for Energy Research, told

“Yet they cannot explain why all their projections are wrong. They’re putting coal miners out of work all based on a 17-year history that doesn’t exist.”

30 Sep 2013

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Swiss News Weekly Delivers Massive Blow to IPCC: “Fortune Tellers, Not Scientists”…”Skeptics On The Rise”

Swiss news magazine Weltwoche (World Week) print edition just published a stinging article about the now disgraced IPCC’s fifth assessment report Summary for Policymakers where it describes the refusal by scientists to acknowledge observations and their obstinate clinging to faulty models and doomsday scenarios.

The introductory heading of the Weltwoche reports reads:

For a quarter of a century leading climate scientists have been warning of a dangerous global warming due to CO2 emissions. Now under Swiss leadership [Thomas Stocker] they publish a new report. It shows: The scientists were wrong. By Markus Schär.

Weltwoche writes how IPCC lead scientist Thomas Stocker may have experienced an historic moment when he introduced the IPCC’s AR5 Summary for policymakers, but one he may not wish.

Crumbling consensus

Weltwoche writes that in the days leading up to the report’s release, a dispute prevailed among the delegates who were busy hammering out the final text. The Germans wanted no mention of the 15 years of no warming, the Belgians wanted to keep the year 1998 out of the statistics, the Hungarians advised to hold back facts in order “not to provide climate skeptics with ammunition“.

Weltwoche writes that Dutch delegates, however, insisted on including the natural impacts on climate change which refuted the claims of galloping global warming. One thing is sure, writes Weltwoche, the IPCC must come to terms with: “The consensus among the climate scientists that had been cemented over the last decades, is cracking – or is even crumbling completely.”

“Pitiful” model performance

To explain what is driving this crumbling consensus, Weltwoche looks at the history of global warming, reminding readers of the doomsday prognoses made in the past by experts like NASA’s James Hansen and by the IPCC years ago. For example in 1988 James Hansen “predicted that with an annual increase in CO2 emissions of 1.5%, the temperature would rise by 1.5°C by 2011. But in fact CO2 emissions rose 2.5% annually and the temperature ended only 0.3°C higher – even below the value that scientists had calculated if no CO2 had stopped being added beginning in the year 2000.

Worse for the IPCC, British meteorologists recently forecasted a cooling ahead for the next few years, Weltwoche writes.

Weltwoche comments as follows on this miserable performance:

Anyone that far off is not a scientist, rather he’s a fortune teller – and one with a pitiful performance.

IPCC devestated by observed data

Today, the IPCC’s latest report ends up contradicting all the earlier forecasts and warnings it made earlier. Weltwoche writes (my emphasis):

In its new report, the IPCC refutes itself. … They [scientists] tried time and again to defend their theory using tweaked models and honed studies. It gladly made itself vulnerable to attack by making forecasts that it could not live to see. After 25 years many of the forecasts can indeed now be evaluated – the result for the IPCC is devatasting.

IPCC abandons Mann’s flawed hockey stick

Weltwoche then explains the sorrowful story of Michael Mann’s hockey stick in depth and how it was shown to be flawed by a Canadian statistics expert and how the IPCC eventually abandoned it altogether in that they conceded that the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age were real after all. Weltwoche writes:

The draft of the new IPCC report also admits that the same warm temperatures we have today also prevailed at the peak of the Medieval Warm Period and that people suffered later on during the ‘Little Ice Age’ – the climate Bible of 2001 with its hockey stick chart was obviously wrong.”

Lomborg: 20 trillion euros for 0.05°C

Weltwoche writes that the IPCC has (quietly) reduced CO2 climate sensitivity values, yet continues to insist that the world embark on a crash-course energy supply transformation. Too expensive, says Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg. Weltwoche quotes Lomborg:

But we also need to recognize that our current climate policy is too expensive. Every year the EU wants to spend 250 billion euros until the year 2100. With this 20 trillion euros, the temperature will drop by 0.05°C by 2100.”

But none of this impresses Stocker and the IPCC, who continue sounding the alarms louder than ever. Weltwoche concludes:

The important thing is alarm, as Stocker continues to maintain what he told Weltwoche in April: The problem is there, and it is one of the biggest ever for mankind, and we have the choice of how big it is going to be.”

In the models, or in reality?

1 Oct 2013
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Ok, it is now official:

“The long-term climate model simulations show a trend in global-mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2012 that agrees with the observed trend (very high confidence). There are, however, differences between simulated and observed trends over periods as short as 10 to 15 years”

It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.

The IPCC has officially (and anti-climactically) issued the AR5 WG1 Summary for Policy Makers.  I haven’t had time to go through the report in detail, I mainly looked for these two statements.  Note the changes in these two statements from the final draft discussed last week:

“Models do not generally reproduce the observed reduction in surface warming trend over the last 10 –15 years.”

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951−2010.”

These changes as a result of the ‘conclave’ this week totally dissonates my cognitives.  Well, IPCC has thrown down the gauntlet – if the pause continues beyond 15 years (well it already has), they are toast.  Even though they still use the word ‘most’ in the attribution statement, they go all out and pretty much say it is all AGW:  ”The best estimate of the human induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.”

In case you haven’t been paying attention, ‘extremely likely‘  in the attribution statement implies 95% confidence.  Exactly what does 95% confidence mean in this context?

A few days ago, Seth Borenstein of AP attempted to explain What 95% certainty of warming means to scientists. Excerpts:

With the U.N. panel about to weigh in on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of oil, coal and gas, The Associated Press asked scientists who specialize in climate, physics, epidemiology, public health, statistics and risk just what in science is more certain than human-caused climate change, what is about the same, and what is less.

They said gravity is a good example of something more certain than climate change. Climate change “is not as sure as if you drop a stone it will hit the Earth,” Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. “It’s not certain, but it’s close.”

Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss said the 95 percent quoted for climate change is equivalent to the current certainty among physicists that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

The president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, and more than a dozen other scientists contacted by the AP said the 95 percent certainty regarding climate change is most similar to the confidence scientists have in the decades’ worth of evidence that cigarettes are deadly.

“What is understood does not violate any mechanism that we understand about cancer,” while “statistics confirm what we know about cancer,” said Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist. Add to that a “very high consensus” among scientists about the harm of tobacco, and it sounds similar to the case for climate change, he said.

George Washington’s Gray said the 95 percent number the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will probably adopt may not be realistic. In general, regardless of the field of research, experts tend to overestimate their confidence in their certainty, he said. Other experts said the 95 percent figure is too low.

Jeff Severinghaus, a geoscientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that through the use of radioactive isotopes, scientists are more than 99 percent sure that much of the carbon in the air has human fingerprints on it. And because of basic physics, scientists are 99 percent certain that carbon traps heat in what is called the greenhouse effect.

But the role of nature and all sorts of other factors bring the number down to 95 percent when you want to say that the majority of the warming is human-caused, he said.

JC comment: Oh, my aching head.

When writing the uncertainty monster paper, I tried to figure out how the IPCC AR4 came up with the ‘very likely’ (90%) confidence level for the attribution statement.  Here is what I found (section 9.4):

“The approaches used in detection and attribution research described above cannot fully account for all uncertainties, and thus ultimately expert judgment is required to give a calibrated assessment of whether a specific cause is responsible for a given climate change. The assessment approach used in this chapter is to consider results from multiple studies using a variety of observational data sets, models, forcings and analysis techniques. The assessment based on these results typically takes into account the number of studies, the extent to which there is consensus among studies on the significance of detection results, the extent to which there is consensus on the consistency between the observed change and the change expected from forcing, the degree of consistency with other types of evidence, the extent to which known uncertainties are accounted for in and between studies, and whether there might be other physically plausible explanations for the given climate change. Having determined a particular likelihood assessment, this was then further downweighted to take into account any remaining uncertainties, such as, for example, structural uncertainties or a limited exploration of possible forcing histories of uncertain forcings. The overall assessment also considers whether several independent lines of evidence strengthen a result.”

Looks like the AR5 forgot to do the ‘down weighting.’  But seriously, this doesn’t tell us where the 90% came from for AR4.

The IAC Review of the IPCC recommended the following:

Chapter Lead Authors should provide a traceable account of how they arrived at their ratings for level of scientific understanding and likelihood that an outcome will occur.

The IPCC uncertainty guidance urges authors to provide a traceable account of how authors determined what ratings to use to describe the level of scientific understanding (Table 3.1) and the likelihood that a particular outcome will occur (Table 3.3). However, it is unclear whose judgments are reflected in the ratings that appear in the Fourth Assessment Report or how the judgments were determined. How exactly a consensus was reached regarding subjective probability distributions needs to be documented.

Yesterday, a reporter asked me how the IPCC came up with the 95% number.  Here is the exchange that I had with him:

Reporter: I’m hoping you can answer a question about the upcoming IPCC report. When the report states that scientists are “95 percent certain” that human activities are largely to cause for global warming, what does that mean? How is 95 percent calculated? What is the basis for it? And if the certainty rate has risen from 90 n 2007 to 95 percent now, does that mean that the likelihood of something is greater? Or that scientists are just more certain? And is there a difference?
JC: The 95% is basically expert judgment, it is a negotiated figure among the authors.  The increase from 90-95% means that they are more certain.  How they can justify this is beyond me.
Reporter: You mean they sit around and say, “How certain are you?” ”Oh, I feel about 95 percent certain. Michael over there at Penn State feels a little more certain. And Judy at Georgia Tech feels a little less. So, yeah, overall I’d say we’re about 95 percent certain.”  Please tell me it’s more rigorous than that.

JC: Well I wasn’t in the room, but last report they said 90%, and perhaps they felt it was appropriate or politic that they show progress and up it to 95%.


Reporter: So it really is as subjective as that?


JC: As far as I know, this is what goes on.  All this has never been documented.


JC conclusion: Well, I have no idea what goes on in the sausage factory.  95% – take it with a grain of salt (or a stiff whiskey).  That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.  Uncertain T. Monster is not happy.

From Josh:
27 Sep 2013

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Who Created The Global Warming ‘Pause’?

In a major report released late last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science, told us it was more certain than ever that humans are causing global warming. It also upgraded its projections for sea level rise by the end of the century, and even broached the subject of climate change’s irreversibility: We may already have done so much harm to the Earth that some of it can’t be undone in our lifetimes, or even in the lifetimes of future generations as far out as most of us can imagine.

This, you might think, would be quite a media story. Yet instead, something funny happened on the way from the scientists’ heads to the public’s ears, and many journalists instead embraced a very different narrative—in many ways, almost the opposite narrative. Global warming, they suggested, had “paused” or was slowing down. And scientists didn’t really understand why.

How could this disconnect, this huge divergence of narratives, have happened? What follows is the story of a communications failure that is ultimately harmful to all of us. And it was brought on by combination of causes that, unfortunately, we’ve seen work together before to mar the communication of climate science: Misinformation from climate skeptics, false balance and just plain bad science reporting from much of the media, and to top it all off, poor communication by scientists themselves.

The Rise of the Pause
To begin, let’s turn to the tape. On September 26—just before the IPCC report’s September 27 release—CBS News provided a textbook case of misleading journalism focused on the alleged global warming “pause.” Sadly, in coverage of the new IPCC report, it was far from an exceptional one.

At the outset of the segment, CBS’s Mark Phillips intoned: “Another inconvenient truth has emerged on the way to the apocalypse. The new UN report on climate change is expected to blame man-made greenhouse gases more than ever for global warming. But there’s a problem. The global atmosphere hasn’t been warming lately.”

Then followed an animation, seeming to show that since the year 1998, rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere haven’t been matched by rising temperatures. Soon, CBS cut to a scientist trying to explain this apparent global warming “pause” by saying that the missing heat has gone into the oceans. Then, presumably for balance, came an interview with a climate skeptic who, when asked whether the “pause” blunts the urgency of doing something about global warming, replied that “It has already.” Watch the full segment here:

We all expect Fox News to sow doubt about global warming. But in coverage of the IPCC report, a storyline like CBS’s seemed to show up regularly, and not just at conservative outlets. “What I find really dismaying is how much even the very scientifically informed media has bought into the false story line about a ‘pause’ in overall warming,” says Peter Frumhoff, a climate scientist and the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. There were good stories as well, but there were quite a lot of “pause” stories. Indeed, in the press conference following the report’s release in Stockholm, this “pause” was the topic most asked about by journalists.

This has occurred despite the fact that claiming that global warming has “paused” is deeply misleading. The IPCC explained as much in its just-released report, where it noted that although the rate of warming is somewhat smaller over the last 15 years, selectively seizing on this period, from 1998-2012, basically represents a case of bad statistics.

After all, the year 1998 was a record temperature year, due to a strong El Niño. So by making it the first year of an analysis you’re stacking the deck. “If you shift just 2 years earlier, so use 1996-2010 instead of 1998-2012, the trend is 0.14 C per decade, so slightly greater than the long-term trend,” explains Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at NASA who was heavily involved in producing the IPCC report. This is why climate scientists generally don’t seize on 15 year periods and make a big thing about them. (For a more thorough rebuttal of the “pause” narrative, see here.)

The “pause” is thus as much about media innumeracy as it is about the atmosphere. But nonetheless, to a large extent the narrative seems to have taken hold. While no comprehensive media content analyses appear to have been completed yet, we can point to at least one indicator suggesting the profusion of this narrative. A Google Trends search reveals that the phrase “global warming pause” saw a dramatic uptick in search attention in the past few months and especially in September:

Google trends search for the phrase "global warming pause," conducted on September 30, 2013. (Google Trends/Maggie Severns)

Failure to Communicate
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Not this time around.

In late 2009 and early 2010, climate science suffered a series of public relations black eyes that seemed to constitute a major wake-up call about just how much skeptics, with the help of the media, could undermine climate science. First there was “Climategate,” in which a trove of leaked emails were spun to suggest that climate scientists had been engaged in wrongdoing and the torquing of data. It wasn’t actually true, but boy did much of the press make it look that way. (Subsequent research by communications scholars at Yale and George Mason universities found that Climategate had damaged public belief in global warming and public trust in scientists, albeit principally among political conservatives and libertarians).

Shortly afterwards came the Himalayan Glaciers scandal, where the IPCC truly was at fault. In essence: One of the IPCC’s vast reports contained a major error about future changes to the glaciers of the Himalayas, incorrectly predicting that they would vanish by the year 2035, a mistake that may have sprung from a simple typo (the original source predicted the year 2350). Mistakes happen, but in this case the cover-up was worse than the crime. When the report was initially questioned, the IPCC was defensive, rather than acknowledging the problem. It only admitted the error months after it had initially been pointed out, thus making the whole thing a much bigger deal than it would otherwise have been.

In the wake of this, there was much hand-wringing, and many calls for the IPCC to improve its communications and have a more realistic outlook on the difficulty of its task in the public arena. “As the IPCC prepares its Fifth Assessment Report, it does so with what, to my eye, appears to be an utterly inadequate budget for communicating its findings and responding in an agile way to nonstop public scrutiny facilitated by the Internet,” observed New York Times science and environment blogger Andrew Revkin in a 2011 essay.

“The immense collective effort to produce periodic climate assessments is typically not well matched with public communication and outreach efforts for these reports, leaving a vacuum to be filled by less authoritative sources,” added a study of the public reception of the IPCC’s reports by Peter Frumhoff and his colleagues.

The IPCC responded by ramping up its communications efforts. It “upgraded” a prior communication staff job to a senior-level position, and added an additional junior staffer. In addition, the IPCC’s budget documents outline an array of communications expenditures related to the Fifth Assessment Report’s release. However, it is noteworthy that most of the budget total is for next year, not this year, even though it’s likely that the peak moment for media attention has already passed. Furthermore, more than half of the 2014 budget is dedicated to scientists’ travel (720,000 Swiss francs, or about $800,000). The total communications budget for 2013 was 240,000 Swiss Francs (about $265,000), and for 2014 is 1,145,000 Swiss Francs ($1,265,000).

Such investments notwithstanding, one plainly avoidable communications blunder occurred in the rollout: The IPCC released the report on a Friday, which is infamous for being the day of the week when you try to bury bad news so it won’t be noticed. More important, it’s not clear that the panel’s communications ramp up prepared it to deal with a new, combined media-skeptic line of attack: the “pause.”

Numbers Game
For years, climate skeptics have been using a kind of statistical sleight of hand—the fact that 1998 was a record temperature year, due to a strong El Niño—to suggest that there had been no global warming ever since. For instance, here’s an example of this argument being made, in the op-ed pages of the Daily Telegraph, as far back as the year 2006. And here’s a contemporaneous rebuttal.

But it wasn’t until March 2013, according to the Google Trends data above, that the “pause” narrative really started to get traction. The apparent reason? A major feature story in The Economist declaring that “over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar.” Skeptics were delighted, and other media outlets, from Reuters (“Climate scientists struggle to explain warming slowdown“) to the Drudge Report, piled on.

At the time, many critics pointed out that these assertions were scientifically misleading. A glance at the animation below should explain why. However, this wasn’t enough to derail the building “global warming has slowed down, and scientists don’t know why” narrative.

"Down the Up Escalator": an animation explaining why global warming has *not* paused, skeptic claims to the contrary. (Skeptical Science)

It certainly isn’t the IPCC’s fault that the “pause” notion took hold, then; rather, the blame falls upon a press that even now remains willing to channel climate skeptic claims. “I don’t in this particular instance blame the IPCC as much as I blame the media,” says Climate Progress‘ Joe Romm, a leading climate blogger who is generally quite critical of the IPCC’s communications efforts.

Yet the IPCC must shoulder some of the blame for what happened next—for it lent momentum to the “pause” story.

It appears that because of all the media attention, the panel felt pushed to address the alleged “pause.” Dennis Hartmann of the University of Washington, a coordinating lead author of the IPCC report, revealed as much to Climate Desk reporter Tim McDonnell in a recent interview, when he remarked, “Going into the IPCC this time, I would have said that, well, the trend over a 15-year record is not really very meaningful, because of the natural interannual variability of the climate system. But as the IPCC evolved, it became more and more of a public issue, so we felt we had to say something about it, even though from an observational perspective, it’s not a very reliable measure of long-term warming.”

Does this mean that the IPCC was baited, by skeptics and the media, into addressing a nonissue? Asked for clarification, Hartmann followed up by explaining that “I think to be thorough we needed to say something about the past 15 years in [the report], since the apparent reduction in the observed warming rate is so interesting and has received so much comment. It’s interesting on purely scientific grounds, but it does not have a huge impact on the scientific assessment and does not alter the basic facts.”

But why was there “so much comment” in the press? In significant part because of the interest of climate skeptics, who have long sought to portray climate research as uncertain and to gin up a debate. Indeed, this is not the first time that the IPCC has been accused of bending over backward to respond to skeptics. Climate researcher Michael Mann, for instance, has charged that the IPCC tends to err “on the side of understating the degree of likely changes,” in part because skeptics influence it from the outside.

The real problem, though, came in how the IPCC addressed the “pause” issue. In a leaked draft of the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” that emerged into the press in August of this year, the so-called “pause” was described in statements that seemed almost ideally crafted for quote mining. If the “pause” was just the result of statistical selectivity rather than a robust trend, why wasn’t the IPCC saying so? Instead, the scientists’ own words seemed to suggest that there really was a global warming slowdown, and that the scientific community didn’t really understand it. To wit:

Global mean surface temperature trends exhibit substantial decadal variability, despite the robust multi-decadal warming since 1901. The rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998-2012; 0.05 [-0.05 to + 0.15] ºC per decade) is smaller than the trend since 1951 (1951-2012; 0.12 [0.08 to 0.14] °C per decade.


Models do not generally reproduce the observed reduction in surface warming trend over the last 10-15 years.

This language was available to journalists for over a month before the final document came out, and seems to have greatly shaped their thinking and coverage. Indeed, in what was apparently the first report on the leak, by Reuters, reporter Alister Doyle wrote, “The panel will try to explain why global temperatures, while still increasing, have risen more slowly since about 1998 even though greenhouse gas concentrations have hit repeated record highs in that time.” That’s mild compared with the Fox News coverage, headlined: “Leaked draft of climate report struggles with drop in warming.”

The “pause” narrative was continuing to build, now with the IPCC itself helping to drive the story.

Meanwhile, the IPCC was self-hobbled in dealing with the “pause,” particularly when it came to explaining the causes behind the slight slowdown in the rate of warming. The panel has an odd rule that restricts which scientific papers it can talk about: There is a cutoff date (this time around, March 15, 2013) after which new research can no longer be cited. In this case, that includes papers explaining the somewhat slower rate of warming of late, including a study by Kevin Trenberth and colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, showing that the explanation for the “pause” was that more heat was going into the deep oceans. In other words, global warming continues apace; it’s just more pronounced at the moment in some parts of the climate system than others. “The IPCC report did not include any literature after March 15: including our paper on deep ocean heat,” Trenberth comments. “It deals only with published literature.  So the hiatus is not on their horizon.  It is a major failing.”

Finally, the actual IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” hit on September 27 (a Friday). And to a significant extent, the final report dialed back the troublesome language from the leaked draft. Hartmann again: “We added some explicit examples of what the uncertainty bars mean, and stated the statistical uncertainty in taking a short record from the global mean surface temperature record. This was suggested by the delegates and approved by them as a way of making it more explicitly clear how uncertain the trend estimates are for a 15 year time series with large year-to-year variability.” In the actual report, what that meant (among other things) is the first quotation above was replaced with the following:

In addition to robust multi-decadal warming, global mean surface temperature exhibits substantial decadal and interannual variability. Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. As one example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to +0.15] °C per decade), which begins with a strong El Niño, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951 (1951–2012; 0.12 [0.08 to 0.14] °C per decade).

Thomas Stocker, a lead author of the IPCC report, got grilled by reporters in Stockholm over the issue of the so-called warming 'hiatus', which he dismissed as an 'inappropriate' focal point. (Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk)

This is much harder to misread, misinterpret, or blow out of proportion. But by then, it was too late. At the press conference in Stockholm when the report was released, journalists relentlessly questioned the report’s drafters about the pause. Among the ensuing headlines? “Global Warming Slowdown Seen as Emissions Rise to Record.” “Climate change report’s ‘temperature hiatus’ fuels skeptics.” “Global Warming Has Slowed in Last 15 Years Despite Record Greenhouse Gas Levels, Scientists Say.” Heck, even Nature magazine, about as science-friendly a publication as you can find, let the “pause” narrative shape its headline: “IPCC: Despite hiatus, climate change here to stay.”

It remains to be seen just how much damage has been done. But at minimum, we can say that during a major moment for climate scientists to communicate the direness of our plight, they were instead being questioned about why global warming has “paused.” Skeptics must be in heaven.

Whose fault is all this? The skeptics, the journalists—but yes, the scientists too.

“I think the deniers deserve most of the blame. They’re still trying to confuse people,” says Susan Joy Hassol, who directs Climate Communication, a nonprofit science and outreach group. “And I think the media’s to blame too, because they’ve allowed themselves to be distracted and misled. But the scientists have to take some responsibility when they write or say things that can be misunderstood, because it’s part of their job to communicate what they know in a way that the public can understand.”

There is a growing discussion of reforms to the IPCC, as mega-assessments of the sort that it produces are are hugely time-consuming to scientists. But this ought to be accompanied by another critique: The IPCC’s communication record is also pretty poor. It isn’t the IPCC’s fault that skeptics, abetted by some journalists, seized on the misleading “pause” story. But surely, this time around, it should have been ready for them.

7 Oct 2013

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Destabilization of Arctic Sea Ice Would Be Game Over For Climate

The Arctic sea ice is the most famous visual indicator of climate change. This year the climate deniers took the lead to explain what’s going on with the Arctic sea ice. “And now it’s global COOLING! Record return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60 percent in a year,” by David Rose in the Mail on Sunday, and “Global warming? No, actually we’re cooling, claim scientists” by Hayley Dixon in the Telegraph — both published on September 8 — led the parade. Quoting all these irresponsible disinformation, on September 10, Greg Gutfeld of Fox News put an end to global warming with these words: “Global warming? Yes, it’s finally dead.”

Soon I’ll get to the science of Arctic sea ice. But first a few words about “climate zombies.”

Last year I participated as a panelist in The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans symposium at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I was on the panel “Energizing the Anthropocene: Science for Smart Decisions” with eminent climate scientist Dr. Richard Alley. Richard first gave a long view of global warming, and then provided a road map of how with a $1 trillion investment, the U.S. can move away from fossil fuels entirely. He is a great communicator of climate science, especially when it comes to debunking the deniers’ bogus claims. I’ll pull some quotes from a talk he gave earlier this year in June at an American Geophysical Union-Chapman conference “Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future” at the Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, Colorado. His remarkable solo act is a journey through his own life and explains in less than three minutes — how climate zombies can survive on this earth, and keep reappearing.


Richard Alley (June 2013): This particular climate zombie is back in force again. While warming continued, the “global warming stopped” had a new birth of noise.

Then he shows a map of global temperature data from 1957 to now, from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

RA: “Is it getting warmer? Yes. If you take a long enough interval, it’s up.”

He then explains how the climate zombies can keep saying — global warming stopped, it’s cooling.

RA: “I was born in 1957. There is the data from 1957 up to a little later. The regression line through the data, and you can see I was born — at the start of a cooling trend.”

RA: “I married my dear wife Cindy in 1980. We got married — at the start of a cooling trend.”

RA: “We moved to Penn State in 1988 — at the start of a cooling trend.”

RA: “We came here to show our daughters the mountains here [in Colorado] in 1997 — at the start of a cooling trend.”

RA: “They named a glacier after me in 2002 — at the start of a short but steep cooling trend.”

RA: “Our daughter became a Penn Stater in 2005 — at the start of a cooling trend.”

RA: “So my whole life…[big laugh]”

When you look at the map you see that the temperature steadily went up from 1957 till now, but had many local minima that Richard Alley refers to as “start of a cooling trend.” He then gives an astute career advice to aspiring climate zombies.

RA: “If there is a year of rapid warming, shut up! And then you can go right back to claiming global warming stopped, until the next rapid warming, then shut up, then go right back to claiming global warming stopped… ad infinitum!”

This time the Arctic sea ice reporting by the climate zombies was quickly debunked: “No, the World Isn’t Cooling” by Phil Plait on Slate, “No, Arctic Sea Ice Has not Recovered, Scientists Say” by Andrew Freedman on Climate Central, and “With Climate Journalism Like This, Who Needs Fiction?” by Tom Yulsman on Discover Magazine are just a few examples.

“[Arctic sea ice extent] certainly is continuing the long-term decline,” Julienne Stroeve, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder was quoted in a Guardian article. “We are looking at long-term changes and there are going to be bumps and wiggles along the long-term declining trend, but all the climate models are showing that we are eventually going to lose all of that summer sea ice.”

According to the NSIDC the 1979 to 2000 average of the minimum Arctic sea ice extent was 2.59 million square miles, 2007 (1.61), 2008 (1.77), 2009 (1.98), 2010 (1.79), 2011 (1.67), 2012 (1.32), 2013 (1.97). You can see that in two successive years, 2008 and 2009 the number went up a bit from 2007, but then three years in a row, starting in 2010 it went down reaching the lowest ever recorded in 2012, and now it’s back up a bit but still 24 percent less than the 1979-2000 average. This is what Julienne Stroeve refers to as “bumps and wiggles along the long-term declining trend.” But the most worrisome part of Stroeve’s statement is that “we are eventually going to lose all of that summer sea ice.” When that happens, life on earth will be in very serious trouble. So we need to understand all aspects of the significance of the Arctic sea ice and why we shouldn’t contribute further to its disintegration.

The enormous white surface of the Arctic sea ice reflects back solar radiation. But when the sea ice is replaced by dark water it does the reverse, absorbs solar radiation, which in turn contributes to the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet (which would raise the sea level), thawing of permafrost on tundra (which would release methane trapped in soil), and destabilization of the subsea permafrost (which would release methane trapped in methane hydrates or clathrates). Methane as a greenhouse gas is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. A complete loss of summer sea ice could potentially release huge amount of Arctic methane that might lead to a catastrophic climate change event, even possibly akin to the end-Permian extinction 252 million years ago that wiped out more than 90 percent of life on earth.

So our goal should be — to not add salt to the injury.

Dr. James Hansen has repeatedly warned that if Canada’s tar sands were fully exploited it would be “game over” for the climate. A complete destabilization of the Arctic sea ice would also be — game over for the climate.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region that was released in May is a disaster in the making. The document states: “The region holds sizable proved and potential oil and natural gas resources that will likely continue to provide valuable supplies to meet U.S. energy needs.” It’s referring to the oil and gas that sits underneath the Arctic seabed in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas of Alaska. In 2012, the Obama administration ignored science and all concerns of the indigenous Iñupiat communities, and gave Shell the approval to begin exploratory drilling (only top-hole drilling and not to penetrate the oil bearing zones) in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In February, Shell announced that after both its rigs, Noble Discoverer and Kulluk, suffered heavy damage last year and were cited for EPA violations, it would not drill in Alaska’s Arctic waters in 2013. Shell’s Arctic drilling operation is in limbo right now. “Six months after federal officials chastised Shell Oil for its faulty offshore drilling operations in the Arctic, the company has yet to explain what safeguards it has put in place or when it plans to resume exploring for oil in the vulnerable region,” the Los Angeles Times reported on September 25. Shell has not yet applied to drill in Alaska’s Arctic seas in 2014.

This is a good time to reflect on drilling in the Arctic Ocean as it relates to sea ice. Drilling in Arctic seas will result in gas flaring, which emits black carbon that absorbs solar radiation and will speed up melting of the Arctic sea ice. We need to connect a few dots about gas flaring.

Professor Rob Nixon wrote in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor: Children, moreover, who had no access to electricity to read or learn by also had no experience of night, as they lived 24/7 beneath the blazing false sun of interminable flares, as if in some seasonless equatorial rendition of an Arctic summer. In the mid-’90s, when flaring [from Shell and Chevron pipes] from Nigeria’s oil fields was pumping 12 million tons of methane and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, it was argued by some that this was the single greatest contributor worldwide to climate change.

Iñupiaq cultural activist Rosemary Ahtuangaruak wrote in her testimony in Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (that I edited) that in her community, Nuiqsut in Arctic Alaska, between 1986 and 1997 there was “a 600 percent increase in respiratory patients in a village of 400 people.” As a community health aide, she was able to analyze the cause:

What was contributing to this increase in respiratory illnesses? The most overwhelming issue was that oil development around Nuiqsut had increased, and had gotten closer. The worst nights on call were nights when many natural gas flares occurred. Those flares release particles that traveled to us. Increased concentrations of particulate matter from flares occur during inversions, a bowl-like trap, with cold air trapped by warm air.

And skies are now ablaze over the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. Citing a report published by Ceres, Lauren McCauley wrote on Common Dreams in July: “Bright torches of natural gas are to become an ever-more common sight along the horizon of North Dakota as the environmentally devastating practice of flaring, or burning off natural gas as a byproduct of oil production, continues to skyrocket.”

Moreover, the Ceres report states, “a variety of other hazardous pollutants are generated by the process, including black carbon, another potent driver of climate change with adverse health effects.” The report also explains why the natural gas is flared off: “At current market rates, oil is approximately 30 times more valuable than natural gas. As a result, producers have chosen to flare much of the gas they produce, rather than invest in the infrastructure necessary to collect, process and market it.”

With all that, you can see, when Shell finally resumes drilling operation in the Arctic Ocean (let’s make sure that never happens), there will be flaring, lot of flaring. If it doesn’t make sense to invest “in the infrastructure necessary to collect, process and market” the natural gas in the benign environment of the Bakken oil fields, it will never make sense to invest in such infrastructure in the harsh environment in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Shell will get their oil and flare off the gas — and contribute to rapid disintegration of the Arctic sea ice — perhaps taking us toward the end-Permian extinction, a bit sooner than we have to.

In a piece about the recent floods in Colorado I pointed out that not only do we need to connect dots across geographies, as I’ve done here with gas flaring, but we also need to carefully look at — repeated assaults — in a particular geography. As I wrote, in the last decade and a half Colorado (and its neighbor New Mexico) has gone through three major assaults — massive tree deaths, massive wildfires, and now massive floods — each in turn has been called “the worst natural disaster” the region has seen. Each in turn has also made the next one worse — millions of dead trees made the wildfires worse, and we are now learning that the wildfires are making the floods worse. The human and nonhuman communities in the Arctic are suffering from repeated assaults — climate change and pollution — perhaps more than on any other region on earth. To understand this we need to take a long view of what sociologist Ramachandra Guha had called “struggles against environmental degradation” and “struggles for environmental renewal.”

As I was writing this piece, news arrived — drones are now flying above the Chukchi Sea in Arctic Alaska. In a future piece I’ll write about the militarization of the Arctic.

Thursday morning I received an email from the Alaska Wilderness League: “So far, 500,000 of you have signed a petition asking President Obama to keep Big Oil from drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Today, 15 (costumed) polar bears and volunteers will deliver your 500,000 comments directly to the White House.” Many more people — from all across the political spectrum need to join this fight. The disintegration of the Arctic will lead to a devastated earth.

27 Sep 2013

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