Poor Roger!

I wrote a post about Roger Pielke Jr’s recent Wall Street Journal article about his [u]nhappy life as a climate heretic, but it was rather long and rambling, so I can’t actually bring myself to post it. Instead, I’ll just try to make a few, brief points. Academic freedom is, in my view, extremely important and we should defend anyone whose freedom is threatened. I’m struggling, however, to see how Roger’s situation has anything to do with academic freedom. He wrote things publicly, and was publicly criticised. I realise that there are some emails in which someone takes some credit for Roger losing his position at 538, but even that doesn’t indicate anything under-handed; as far as I’m aware all that they did was publicly criticise what Roger wrote. If I’ve missed something, feel free to point it out, but academic freedom does not refer to the freedom to not be criticised.

If you do read Roger’s Wall Street Journal article, you should probably also read this response to his original 538 article, and you should probably read this article about 538 apologising when two climate scientists said Roger “sent emails threatening possible legal action in response to their criticism of his findings…”.

My own view is that much of what Roger says is worthy of criticism. In my experience, he often says things that are technically true, but that are easily mis-interpreted. For example, highlighting that there are no trends in Tropical Cyclone (TCs) damages in the US whenever TCs are discussed in general. Damage trends in one country probably tell us little about TCs in general, especially globally. He also has a habit of over-interpreting what is presented. A lack of a statistically significant trend, becomes no trend. A low confidence in whether or not something is happening, becomes it’s not happening. John Abraham’s article discusses this in more detail.

Maybe the most irritating thing about Roger’s Wall Street Journal article, is that he has been a willing participant in the online climate debate for a long time, and seemed quite happy to play the game when it suited. He was implicated in Michael Tobis becoming famous, which is discussed more here and here. He promoted a rather questionable interpretation of the Marcott temperature reconstruction, which Stoat discusses, rather impolitely, here. James Annan also has a post discussing how Roger Pielke has been saying some truly bizarre and nonsensical things recently (Edit: as WMC points out, this “recently” was written in 2008). James and Roger also exchanged posts that involved explaining probability to an undergraduate, but I can’t seem to find it.

Anyway, there are many more examples, if you’re willing to look; Eli has many posts, as does RealClimate, and Our Changing Climate. The point I’m trying to make is that Roger isn’t some innocent academic who ventured out into the big bad world, only to be attacked by the nasty climate alarmists. He’s been a more than willing participant for a long time, but seems to want to now complain about his treatment when he feels hard done by. I’m also not even suggesting that he deserves all that has been aimed at him (I’ve, at times, been less polite than I should have been). However, as much as we should defend those whose academic freedom is being threatened, we should also be careful of avoiding criticising those who manage to get a platform to complain about their critics. His article also gives no indication that he feels any responsibility at all for how he has been treated. This lack of self-reflection is probably best illustrated by his complaints about being blocked on Twitter, while having a reputation himself for being a rather liberal blocker (I think people should be free to block whoever they want, but complaining about being blocked, when regularly doing the same yourself, seems rather inconsistent).

Okay, that has ended up being slightly longer than intended. I realise that the online climate debate can be remarkably unpleasant, so I do have some sympathy for Roger. However, it’s hard to see how an article in the Wall Street Journal, painting all his critics as underhanded and mean, really helps; at best, it’s part of the same ol’ same ol’ and, at worst, it’s an explicit attempt to delegitimize his critics. I’ll stop there. Since I don’t want the comments to simply degenerate into Roger bashing, please try to be thoughtful and, if necessary, circumspect. Also, if anyone thinks there’s more to this than it, at first, appears, feel free to point it out.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Research, Roger Pielke Jr, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 91 Comments

Open data

Since I’m sitting at the station waiting for a train that is delayed 40 minutes, I thought I would post on something that I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of days. There is quite a lot of discussion about open science. The idea is that we should make everything available; data, codes, papers, etc. Fundamentally this is a good thing, and so what I’m about to say isn’t an argument against it. However, there are almost always unintended consequences, and open science is no exception, which is nicely illustrated by the recent furore over the role of El Niño in surface warming.

It all started with David Whitehouse presenting an analysis on the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) site showing that temperatures have dropped substantially in the last month or so. The argument being made is that this indicates that most of the recent record warming was due to the El Niño, despite what has been claimed by climate scientists. This was then picked up by David Rose in the Mail Online, who claimed that stunning new data indicates that El Niño drove record highs in global temperature, suggesting rise may not be down to man-made emissions. This was then followed by Ross Clark in the Spectator, who asked gobal temperatures have fallen – so why isn’t it being reported?. There was also the standard Delingpole response, but I won’t bother linking to that.

So, what is the issue? Let’s start at the beginning. The analysis by climate scientists suggests that although the El Niño clearly contributed to recent global surface temperature records, the contribution was such that they would still have been records without the El Niño contribution. The claim being made now is that the recent large falls in temperature show that this is not the case.

Given that they have data showing a sudden drop in temperatures, why isn’t this analysis valid? Well, the first thing is very simply that they’re looking at satellite data; the temperature is for the lower troposphere (which goes from just above the surface to about 10km). You can’t refute a claim about global surface temperatures using data that doesn’t measure the surface.

The next problem is also pretty obvious; the data they’re using is land-only; it is intended to be lower tropospheric temperature over land. You can’t refute a claim about global temperatures using data that isn’t global. The next issue is somewhat subtler. The data the used was the RSS land only TLT version 3.3. They’ve upgraded some of their data to version 4.0, but say

The lower tropospheric (TLT) temperatures have not yet been updated at this time and remain V3.3. The V3.3 TLT data suffer from the same problems with the adjustment for drifting measurement times that led us to update the TMT dataset. V3.3 TLT data should be used with caution.

So, the TLT data has not yet been updated, suffers from a problem related to adjusting for drift measurements, and should be used with caution. The TTT data, which has been updated to version 4, also does not show the same kind of sudden drop in temperature as shown in the TLT data.

I guess I’ve probably made the point I was going to make. If you’re going to present an analysis of some data, you need to know what that data actually represents and you need to know if there are reasons why that data should be used with caution, or if there are reasons why that data might not be appropriate. You can’t simply get data, plot graph, draw conclusion; it typically takes more work than that. There is a reasonably simple rule of thumb that is worth considering. If your options are a global conspiracy to hide something that this data indicates is clearly present, or you’ve misunderstood what the data is really indicating, it’s often best to go with the latter, rather than the former. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , | 168 Comments

Prospects for narrowing ECS bounds

I was just going to briefly mention a new paper by Stevens, Sherwood, Bony and Webb in which they present [p]rospects for narrowing bounds on Earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity. The basic argument is similar to what has – at times – been discussed here; consider what would be required for the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) to be, for example, small. If those conditions are not satisified, then one can eliminate that region of parameter space. Similarly for large ECS values.

For example, an ECS < 1.5K would require:

  • cooling of climate associated with anthropogenic aerosols would have to have been modest, and/or a historical “pattern effect” would have to be less important than indicated by models
  • tropical sea-surface temperatures during the last glacial maximum (LGM, 21 kya) would need to have been at the warm end of the expected range, and/or a “pattern effect” for the LGM would have to be more important than current models predict
  • climate feedbacks would have to have been much larger in past hot climates than they are at present, or else climate forcing at those times has been significantly underestimated; and
  • cloud feedbacks from warming would have to be negative.

Given that all of these are quite unlikely suggests that an ECS smaller than 1.5K is unlikely. A similar argument can be made for an ECS greater than 4.5K. This is illustrated in the figure below.

Credit: Stevens et al. (2016)

Credit: Stevens et al. (2016)

Credit: Stevens et al. (2016)

Credit: Stevens et al. (2016)

The idea then is that you can combine the different lines of evidence, and use Bayesian inference, to determine a range for the ECS. I couldn’t quite tell if their analysis was intended to simply be illustrative, or not, but as the figure on the right shows, it suggests a 95% range of 1.6K – 4.1K and a median of 2.6K. This may not sound all that different from the IPCC’s 1.5K – 4.5K, but that is presented as a 66% range; the IPCC only regards less than 1K, and greater than 6K, as extremely/very unlikely. What’s presented in Stevens et al. (2016) also seems to rule out quite a bit of Nic Lewis’s range, based on energy balance estimates.

That’s all I was going to say. I think the basic idea is very sensible; when combining different estimates you should at least consider whether, or not, you’ve end up with a range that includes regions that are probably precluded due to physical arguments. You might argue that if some estimates include that portion of the range, then it should be physically plausible. That’s not really correct, since all estimates could be influenced by factors for which they can’t easily compensate (for example, energy balance methods don’t consider the full doubling of CO2 and can’t correct for possible influences from the pattern effect). Therefore using physical storylines to narrow the ECS bounds seems quite sensible.

Update: As Thorsten Mauritsen points out in the first comment, the second figure is probably just illustrative and shouldn’t be seen as a definitive analysis that has narrowed the range by using the physical storylines.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Global warming, IPCC, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 64 Comments

It woz El Nino wot dunnit!

Credit : Gavin Schmidt

Credit : Gavin Schmidt

It looks likely that 2016 will end up as the warmest year in the surface temperature record. One question is whether or not the recent El Nino contributed significantly to this. As the figure on the right shows, if you correct for ENSO events, 2016 would still be the warmest year in the instrumental surface temperature record. The El Nino event certainly contributed, but it’s not regarded as the cause of 2016 likely being the warmest year in the instrumental temperature record.

David Rose, however, has an article in the Mail Online suggesting that Stunning new data indicates that El Nino drove record highs in global temperature suggesting rise may not be down to man-made emissions. The idea being that there has been a sudden, substantial drop in temperatures, indicating that the rise was mainly due to the El Nino event. Wow, amazing, where did he get this from? Well he got it from David Whitehouse, via the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In other words, his article is based on an unpublished piece of work, posted on a cimate denial site, by someone who has virtually no expertise in climate science.

Furthermore, the claim is actually based on RSS land only data. This is a subset of a dataset that even Carl Mears, Senior Research Scientist at RSS, regards as less reliable than surface temperature datasets. Even if this does turn out to be correct, it doesn’t suddenly mean that ENSO events contributed significantly to the rise in surface temperatures; the satellite data measures the lower troposphere, not the surface. It is also well known that the satellite temperatures are more sensitive to ENSO events than the surface temperatures.

rss_landI also downloaded the data from the RSS ftp site. The figure on the left shows the monthly anomalies in the lower troposphere, land only data, with the red line showing the OLS trend. The data set that they’ve used to argue El Nino events dominate the rise in temperatures shows a long-term trend of 0.18K/decade; this really can’t be due to El Nino events. I couldn’t get the stats package to work on python, so I couldn’t estimate the uncertainties, but using the Skeptical Science Trend Calculator, I would guess it’s around 0.06K/decade (although, the SkS calculator uses TTT global, rather than TLT land).

This all seems rather desperate to me. Use a dataset that doesn’t even measure global temperatures, nor the surface, to argue that the recent rise in global surface temperatures is primarily due to the El Nino event, rather than being due man-made emissions. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Comedy, ENSO, Gavin Schmidt, Global warming, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 44 Comments

Science wars, science crises, and wars on science?

There have been a number of recent articles (that I’ve noticed, at least) about science wars, the war on science, and a crisis in science. Judith Curry covered one, there was a comment about an unprecedented crisis in science in a Guardian article, and there have been a number of articles in The Conversation.

I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently and have been a little unsure as to what to say, mostly because I’m largely unimpressed by the articles I’ve read. I discovered, however, that an earlier post mostly says what I wanted to say. I’ll say some of it again, because it is worth repeating. There are certainly some issues that we should be addressing within academia and within the general research community. There are problems related to diversity that we’re not dealing with very well, or at all. There’s harassment and bullying that we’re either not addressing, or doing so very badly. Universities have become much more corporate, which means that what they value may not be what will lead to high quality, carefully done research. There’s a definite publish or perish mentality, which means we probably publish too many poor papers, rather than publishing fewer, higher-quality papers. There’s also a tendency to over-hype research in order to make it seem more interesting than it maybe is, and a reluctance to undertake replication studies, or to publish negative results.

Even though these are all things that we could, and should, address, it doesn’t really mean that there is some kind of major crisis. In many respects, our understanding of the world around us is quite remarkable. In a sense, this might be one of the problems; we’re often trying to understand details of a complex system, the basics of which we understand quite well. This is challenging and it’s maybe not surprising that some of what is done won’t stand the test of time; research doesn’t require every step be correct, or that we don’t head down dead ends every now and again. We learn both from our mistakes and from our successes; it can be messy but it appears to, by and large, have been remarkably successful. Most of those who suggest some kind of major crisis appear to completely ignore this aspect of the process.

My sense is that although there clearly are aspect of the scientific endeavour that could be improved, the real problem is more how science is perceived by those who observe it, rather than there being serious problems with science itself. In fact, one of the key problems – in my view – is with those who claim to be experts at the science-policy/science-society interface. Their conclusions about science, and the problems with science, appear to either be anecdotal, or are based on selected examples that they then use to draw incredibly strong conclusions about all of science (which they never really clearly define). I’ve seen no real indication that what they present is based on any actual research and the certainty with which they present it would maybe suggest that it is not, or that they don’t really understand how to do it. The irony, which they rarely seem to recognise, is that the very criticisms that they direct at others, applies equally to themselves; they’re not independent, and this is one reason why I see little value in the whole idea of there being a group of researchers who study other researchers (at least in the sense of observing them from afar).

Okay, this has got rather long, so I’ll try to wrap up. I see little indication for there being some kind of science crisis (while acknowledging some serious issues that we currently aren’t addressing very effectively) and if there is a war on science it appears to be more a war on the public understanding of science, than on science itself. The latter is not, in my view, helped by those who present themselves as experts on science and society, and yet seem incapable of recognising the limitation of their own research, while over-hyping the limitations of research/science in general.

Posted in Pseudoscience, Research, Science, The philosophy of science, The scientific method, Universities | Tagged , , , , | 108 Comments

Watt about a 10th Anniversary?

When I started blogging about climate science, I mainly focussed on addressing what was said on Anthony Watt’s blog, Watts Up With That (WUWT) (and often started my post titles with the word “Watt”, as I’ve done again – for old time’s sake – here). I did it for a bit less than a year and then changed the name of the blog and have largely ignored WUWT for the last couple of years. I, therefore, almost missed – a couple of days ago – the 10th Anniversary of Anthony starting his blog.

In his post, Anthony thanks various people, including some who have not been very nice to him. I’m included in the latter list which, given that I’ve largely ignored his blog for the last couple of years, is maybe a little odd (although, that might be why). I have to say, though, that I’m mostly pleased with the company with which I’m associated. Also, if some people have been rather unkind to Anthony, the manner in which he has chosen to thank them might illustrate why. If his online persona is a fair reflection of his character, then he would appear to not be a very nice person.

What I found remarkable was Roger Pielke Sr posting a comment in which he says:

Congratulations! You have significantly and positively contributed to climate science. All the best for the next ten years!!!

I was sufficiently amazed that I emailed Roger to ask him how he could possibly regard the above as true. Apparently we simply disagree and Anthony has apparently done some very good work. I have yet to discover what this really is and, even if he has done some really good work, I still find it hard to believe that his contribution to climate science has been significant and positive. I would guess that his contribution to climate science itself is negligible; most climate scientists are probably unaware of what he says and does. On the other hand, his contribution to public understanding of climate science may well be significant, but it’s almost certainly not positive. That anyone who publicly argues for improved dialogue, and criticises the conduct of others, can regard Anthony’s contribution as significant and positive is utterly bizarre.

However, rather than ending there, I thought I would mention a recent article of Roger’s that he highlighted in our brief email exchange. It’s about Land’s complex role in climate change. It argues that land use changes can play a significant role in climate change and that, by focussing on global emissions, we’re not paying enough attention to this issue. I don’t know enough about the specifics to really say much about whether what is suggested is reasonable, or not. However, it mostly seems okay; I can well believe that there are anthropogenic factors – other than our emissions – that are influencing climate change.

What’s confusing, though, is that I thought a lot of this was being considered. The IPCC radiative forcing estimates certainly include albedo changes due to land use. Many of the negative emission ideas relate to changes in land use. I’m aware of people who consider the role of forests and de-forestation. There are also many studies that consider the urban heat island effect and how it might exacerbate heatwaves in cities. So, I’m not quite sure what aspect of this is being ignored, or what aspect should be focussed on more than it is now.

I suspect that one issue is that we don’t need to develop global agreements in order to deal with regional issues. Countries/regions are able to do so without developing global treaties and can do so without calling meetings that involve most of the countries in the world. So, I suspect that we simply don’t hear as much about things that happen on a local level as we do about things that are global. Dealing with emission reductions is almost certainly going to require some kind global approach, while dealing with regional factors does not.

Also, it seems that some of the regional factors that Roger mentions in the article are also related to global warming (sea level rise, precipitation,….). It seems to me that we really need both a regional and a global approach and, as far as I’m aware, this is indeed what is being considered (adaptation is more regional than global, while emission reductions is more global than regional). It is, of course, possible that there are regional issues about which we’re not giving due consideration. Alternatively, maybe it’s simply that people aren’t taking things that Roger regards as important, seriously enough. If so, it might be worth considering that it’s difficult to take seriously someone who thinks Anthony Watt’s contribution to climate science is significant and positive.


Sou has a post about Anthony Watt’s 10th Anniversary. In fact, I’m surprised that Anthony didn’t thank Sou as Sou has done far more for him than I have.

Russell also has a post describing how Anthony has embraced unrelenting pig-headedness, a box of rocks, and an invisible rabbit.

Posted in Anthony Watts, Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, Research, Science, Watts Up With That | Tagged , , , , , | 86 Comments

Negative emissions

I went to some Departmental talks recently and discovered that some of my colleagues are researchering possible carbon sequestration technologies. This could be very important, but appealing to negative emission technologies is often quite strongly criticised. The basic argument (which has some merit) is that presenting this as a possibility can provide policy makers with an argument for delaying action that might reduce emissions sooner.

Although I have some sympathy with these criticisms, I do have some issues with them. One is that it often involves criticising climate models that include negative emission pathways. The problem I have with this is that they seem to use “climate model” as a catch all for any kind of model associated with climate change. However, there are a large number of different models. Some are trying to understand how our climate responds to changes, and – typically – use concentration pathways. Others try to associate concentration pathways with emission pathways. Then there are others that try to understand the impact of various emissions pathways, how we could follow different pathways and, in some cases, if it is possible to actually do so. Given how easily what is said can be mis-interpreted, I generally think it would good to be clear about what type of models are actually being criticised.

The other issue I have relates to the idea that maybe we should avoid providing these pathways to policy makers. My view is that we should be very careful of selecting what information is presented. If there is a desire to understand what pathways might keep warming below 2oC, for example, and it turns out that many would require negative emission technology, then I think that this should be made clear. However, it should also be made clear that such technology does not yet exist (at scale, at least) and that there is a chance that it will never exist, on the required timescale at least. I don’t have much faith in policy makers myself, but if they can’t even get that it would be silly to base policy on technology that does not, and may never, exist, then we should probably just give up now.

What partly motivated this post, though, was a recent article that argues that we should not assume that land-based measures will save the climate. It’s pretty readable, so I would encourage you to do so and won’t say much more. It argues that negative emissions may either not be technological feasible, that they have unacceptable social and economic impacts, and that they may ultimately not be as effective as hoped. Therefore we should assume that it is unlikely to be a technology on which we can rely. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds, but I just wanted to quote the concluding remarks, as I think they do illustrate a crucial point.

If the expected negative emissions cannot ultimately be achieved, the decades in which society had allowed itself a slower, softer transition would turn out to be a dangerous delay of much-needed rapid emission reductions. Saddled with a fossil fuel-dependent energy infrastructure, society would face a much more abrupt and disruptive transition than the one it had sought to avoid. Having exceeded its available carbon budget, and unable to compensate with negative emissions, it could also face more severe climate change impacts than it had prepared for.

Update: Andy Skuce’s article ‘We’d have to finish one new facility every working day for the next 70 years’—Why carbon capture is no panacea is also worth reading. Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters also have an article called The trouble with negative emissions.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, Research, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 34 Comments