Saturday, November 26, 2011

Is This Climate Science’s Thermidorian Reaction?

In historical analysis, a Thermidorian Reaction is the point in a revolt or revolution where the mob says: Hey, wait a minute, what exactly are we doing here? We have to live here after we smash this place up, so maybe we’d better take a deep breath and think this over again.

To me, at least, this past week feels like a Thermidorian Reaction in the climate change scene.

Obviously the first was the release of a new batch of emails. It doesn't show anything nefarious, but I think it does raise questions about how much purported unanimity has been artificially created by IPCC reports, and whether the full state of uncertainty is being communicated. And why are people talking about deleting emails? Why is Ms Kathryn Humphrey from UK's Defra saying the government wants a strong message? She wrote (email 2445):
"I cannot overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the government can give on climate change to help them tell their story.

"They want their story to be a very strong one and don’t want to be made to look foolish."
I don't think they're trying to enslave their citizens under a New World Order, but why is a bureaucrat telling scientists what kind of message "they" want? And how are government-funded scientists not supposed to feel pressured by that?

The other thing that gives pause was the Schmittner et al Science paper that finds a lower value for climate sensitivity (2.3 K instead of 3.0 K), and, more importantly, a smaller range of possible warming, especially at the top end.

I'm also tired of the whipsaws. One month one side is buoyed because a journal editor resigns, then the next week the UAH anomaly is lower than last year and if you fit it with a 3rd-order polynomial is shows warming flattening out but don't take it seriously its for your entertainment only. Then climate sensitivity gets lowered and people who routinely disclaim the legitimacy of climate models suddenly find maybe now they're OK. And on and on.

I understand about the scientific difficulty of the problem and its scientific uncertainties. So let them exist and let the researchers keep chipping away at them. It's the world's problem about how to deal with that uncertainty, not theirs.

And I'm really fed-up with dishonest reporting everywhere, especially among bloggers. Some people are very wrapped up in this and, indeed, now have careers and a modicum of fame that depend on their extreme views. I'm not going to even mention some prominent deniers because they're clearly fools who say they will accept the results of a study but then find any reason, however slight, to change their mind. But, for example, Climate Progress didn't even mention this week's Science study, even though commenters there are asking for a reaction. That's just bullshit, particularly from someone who says we could get 10 F warming (5.6 C) by the end of the century and writes completely alarmist crap like this and this.

And from an organization who refuses to reveal who signs their paychecks.

Yesterday a cross-post on Romm's blog by NRDC president Frances Beinecke, about a study on medical costs due to global warming, simply asserts that the six climate events being studied were "climate-change related." There's no proof given. And the study was able to pin down the number of patients affected by these climate-change related events to the nearest integer!
"This group of events resulted in an estimated 1,689 premature deaths, 8,992 hospitalizations, 21,113 emergency room visits, and 734,398 outpatient visits...."
Not 21,114 ER visits, or 21,112 ER visits -- an estimate of exactly 21,113.

If it's an estimate why are you giving numbers to five significant digits? And can we please see the error bars on this?

The other thing I'm fed up with are the routine announcements like the IEA's recent 'unless we solve this problem in 5 years we can't avoid dangerous warming.' Who decided 5 C is "dangerous" but 1.9 isn't? Or that if we cut them in 7 years instead of 5 we're screwed? Come on.

Come back to me when you find the 30 thousand billion billion Joules that go missing every year. (And, no, I'm not blaming any scientist for this, because it's a very difficult problem and people are working hard on it and the energy accounting they've already done is amazing. The would-be policy makers need to stop getting ahead of the science.)

Look, we are not going to be cutting much CO2 anything soon. We should, but we won't. We all want to be warm and drive to the coast on the weekends and fly across the country to give talks. And if any of us finds a big pot of oil in our backyard we're going to cash in on it, even if the angel on your shoulder tells you you shouldn't because you will pay later. That's human nature. When I was a kid in western PA there was an abandoned strip mine, and then someone discovered new seams of coal on a nearby neighbor's property, and they sold the mining rights for a lot of money. Millions, it was said. Beautiful woods were stripped off their land and the coal dug up. They smoothed the land back over when they were done, but still it is huge fields where the woods won't return for a hundred years. And back then the first thing my grandfather did was invite the coal company onto his 80-acre farm to look for coal there. He would have sold it too, even though it would have leveled the fantastic woods on his property, too. Who wouldn't?

Anyway, this 2008 email by Jagadish Shukla nailed it pretty well:
It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability. Of course, even a hypothetical, perfect model does not guarantee accurate prediction of the future regional climate, but at the very least, our suggestion for action will be based on the best possible

It is urgently required that the climate modeling community arrive at a consensus on the required accuracy of the climate models to meet the "greater demand for a higher level of policy relevance".
But it shouldn't be just the modeling community that decides on the necessary accuracy, but the policymakers as well. And maybe everyone.

Andrew Revkin wrote a wise thing the other day:
Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes.

Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.
At the moment I don't know who I trust.


Anonymous said...

David, you may want to read James Annan's views on the Science paper:

Steve Bloom said...

And Nathan Urban's walk-back at p3.0

But anyway, this is just another case of first-paper syndrome, compounded by a bad press release and the widely-quoted lead author's lack of understanding that what scientists mean by "climate sensitivity" isn't how that term is understood by the public from news articles (not that the science journalists involved weren't complicit in this confusion). My discussion of these points is down in the comments at p3.0.

Notice that I even had a sort-of original thought that a scientist agreed with! :)

Further on, even though I almost always feel like I'm talking to a wall when I address David here (unless the subject is cat care), when it comes to this subject I try to bear in mind Jim Hansen's dictum about the hierarchy of evidence for the problem: First paleoclimate (referring mainly to the deep-time stuff), then the modern record of observations, and only then the models.

Even as we acquire a pretty good idea of CO2 level vs. equilibrium climate state through deep time to the present, it seems to be unavoidable that the timing of the coming changes will always be uncertain since our situation is unprecedented (we're injecting carbon into the atmosphere even faster that at the start of the PETM) and because the paleo record contains no useful analog other than the Plio-Pleistocene deglaciations, which aren't all that useful since they had a non-GHG self-limiting trigger (orbital oscillations). If and when the models start giving us really definite answers, the only way to know for sure if they're right will be to wait to see what happens. That seems unappealing from the POV of our collective descendants.

I have to close for now, but in parting how's this for an analogy:

We're playing Russian roulette and arguing about how likely it is that the next chamber contains a bullet. Well, as it turns out there's an irreducible uncertainty, so pull the trigger, right? That logic leads inevitably to the chamber that isn't empty.

(BTW, re Romm, he hardly ever takes time off, has a small child, this happened at the start of a major holiday and articles of this sort he has to write himself rather than farm them out to a guest author, so give him a break, OK?)

(Also too, re the DEFRA email, like it or not the relationship between the IPCC and UNFCCC processes was baked into the cake for all to see ~20 years back. In that context, a government asking it's scientists for a clear message doesn't seem out of line, especially when that government, as in this instance, had decided to try to take on a leadership role. Not that that worked out well.)

Anonymous said...

David, trust your eyes. There is a huge amount of uncertainty in climate science, the uncertainty has been glossed over and covered up by knobbling peer-review and the IPCC reporting activity, there have been recorded climate events for the past 2000 years or more - a historical record, so claims of 'unprecedented' warming/cooling/storms/floods/fires are invariably not unprecedented at all, and the main scientists pushing the CO2-is-the-main-cause-of-warming argument have all been revealed to be unprofessional circle-the-wagons folks hand in hand with WWF and Greenpeace et al.

If you've got a choice between conspiracy and human failing, bet on human failing every time.

Climate science is not much better than accupuncture and raiki - it's certainly not as professional and rigorous as medicine and engineering. It's an infant science (about 40 years, right?) and it's main practitioners are crappy (Hansen Mann, Jones, Karoly, the late Schneider).

Trust your eyes.


Kooiti Masuda said...

For the context of Shukla's message, please see my comment on the previous article. It is important for climate scientists to help adaptation, which has unfortunately not given due weight in the IPCC+UNFCCC processes.

Steve Bloom said...

And David, you're still missing the point of Shukla's comment. Also, what does it have to do with the greedy landowners discussion that preceded it? Nothing that I can see.

The modelers and the IPCC have been crystal-clear about the shortcomings of regional projections. Hopefully the situation will improve, but for now we're faced with the problem that many regional impacts are going to be a surprise. (They're going to happen. The observed circulation changes guarantee it.) You seem to want to conflate that with them somehow not being a consequence of AGW. Wrong.

A great example of this is the current East African drought. Joe Romm has the details here. Yes, it's a modeling failure, no doubt about it, but that the droughts are driven by AGW and have recently become a persistent feature of East African climate is clear. Until the models can start doing regional projections well, expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing.

Of course it's a very, very strong argument for mitigation now, but oddly nobody besides Africans seems to care very much. You and nearly the entire journalism profession? Not that I can see.

Or maybe it's that you're waiting until after somebody gets back to you about those missing Joules. That'll make the East Africans feel all better.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's a modeling failure, no doubt about it, but that the droughts are driven by AGW and have recently become a persistent feature of East African climate is clear.

Lol. The above kinda sums it all up.

"Our ghost detectors don't work for crap but don't you worry coz I know dem ghosts is surely out there."

Gotta have faith.

Steve Bloom said...

Read this, David. Solving this particular mystery is a big, big deal for the science. The prior popular mechanism involved magma melting carbon deposits, but as noted it had an isotope match problem and couldn't explain the repeat hyperthermals (getting weaker each time). But now, hmm, big area of permafrost melting fast... does that sound familiar? It should. And we have a much bigger supply of vulnerable clathrates than could have existed during the Paleocene. As I noted above, the PETM is an imperfect analog to our present situation, but note not in a good way.

Oh yeah, and notice how over deep time climate sensitivity is on a sliding scale that goes quite high. *Another* model failure.

Steve Bloom said...

Try this:

"Our ghost detectors detected a ghost where we didn't expect one."

There ya go.

Steve Bloom said...

Just for the record, Joe Romm posted on the new sensitivity paper late Sunday afternoon (of a holiday weekend). Will that dissuade David from dumping on him similarly next time? Probably not. Journalists have a hard time abandoning cherished narratives.