What Kevin Trenberth Has to Say

A comment from Steve Bloom several months ago got me thinking about a new kind of post that would be a lot of fun: interviewing top climate scientists, both on their research and their views of climate science journalism and communication. When I emailed Dr. Kevin Trenberth to see if he would be interested in such an interview, he responded with an entire essay that he had written about recent events in climate change communication. Although this essay is unpublished as of yet, he graciously suggested that I quote it for a post here.

It’s no surprise that Dr. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, is angry about the way stolen emails between researchers were trumpeted around the world in an attempt to make them seem like something they were not. He was “involved in just over 100” of the emails, and from the looks of things, hasn’t heard the end of it since they were stolen.

One oft-quoted statement of his went viral: The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. Climate change deniers portrayed this quote as an admission that the world wasn’t warming after all, or even that scientists were trying to cover up a cooling trend. Taken in the full context of the email in which it was written, however, it’s clear that Trenberth was referring to a recent paper of his, which discussed our incomplete understanding of the factors affecting short-term variability in the Earth’s temperature. There were a couple years between 2004 and 2008 that weren’t quite as warm as scientists expected after looking at all the forcings, such as solar irradiance and ENSO. The paper and the subsequent email in no way mean that global warming has stopped. In fact, we’re well on our way to the warmest year on record. “It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often,” says Trenberth.

Another quote, this time from a stolen email he was not even a recipient of, was written by Phil Jones, the director of CRU. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report, wrote Jones, referring to several studies that were not regarded very highly by the climate science community, one of which was later retracted. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is!

Dr. Trenberth offers an insight for this comment that was previously unknown to me. The IPCC’s 2007 report “was the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment,” he says. “The comment was naive and sent before he understood the process and before any lead author meetings were held…As a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments, I was well aware that we do not keep any papers out, and none were kept out.” Indeed, both studies were discussed in the 2007 report, offering proof that the private emails of scientists do not always correspond to their ultimate actions.

To date, four independent investigations (five if you count the two Penn State reports as separate) “have confirmed what climate scientists have never seriously doubted: established scientists depend on their credibility and have no motivation in purposely misleading the public and their colleagues.” Referring to the only major criticism that the investigations had for CRU, Trenberth notes that scientists “are also understandably, but inadvisably, reluctant to share complex data sets with non-experts that they perceive as charlatans.”

Despite the complete absence of evidence for scientific fraud, the fact that no papers were changed or retracted due to these emails, and the obvious innocence of scientists like Dr. Trenberth, public confusion over climate change has grown in recent months. Almost everyone who keeps up with the news will remember hearing something about climate researchers accused of malpractice. “There should be condemnation of the abuse, misuse and downright lies about the emails,” says Trenberth. “That should be the real ClimateGate!”

After all this experience as the subject of libelous attacks and campaigns of misinformation, Kevin Trenberth can offer suggestions for other scientists in the same position. He does not recommend debating the conclusions of climate change research in the public sphere, as “scientific facts are not open to debate and opinion because they are evidence and/or physically based.” He has learned, like so many of us here at ClimateSight, that “in a debate it is impossible to counter lies [and] loudly proclaimed confident statements that often have little or no basis.”

“Moreover,” he adds, “a debate actually gives alternative views credibility,” something that climate change deniers haven’t earned. He and his colleagues “find it disturbing that blogs by uninformed members of the public are given equal weight with carefully researched information backed up with extensive observational facts and physical understanding.”

Much of the online climate change community has lost faith with climate journalism in recent months, and Dr. Trenberth is no exception. He asserts that the mass media has been “complicit in this disinformation campaign of the deniers”, and has some explanations as to why. “Climate varies slowly,” he says, “and so the message remains similar, year after year — something not exciting for journalists as it is not “news”.” He also notes the stubborn phenomenon of artificial balance, as “controversy is the fodder of the media, not truth, and so the media amplify the view that there are two sides and give unwarranted attention to views of a small minority or those with vested interests or ideologies.”

“The media are a part of the problem,” says Trenberth. “But they have to be part of the solution.”

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “What Kevin Trenberth Has to Say

  1. I found an echo of my own small contribution in this post, especially the comment about “He and his colleagues “find it disturbing that blogs by uninformed members of the public are given equal weight with carefully researched information backed up with extensive observational facts and physical understanding.”

    I was actively engaging in rebutting some of the misconceptions and inaccuracies being posted on any climate change story online on the CBC and The Globe & Mail, but have largely given up as it seems pointless (it isn’t; I have re-engaged). The same anti-AGW posters would appear time and again, trumpeting the same tired mis-quotes, misconceptions, out-of-context statements (as noted above), and down right lies regardless of the rebuttals by myself and other posters. Take a deep breath, and sally forth!

    I’m reminded of a saying that was on a colleague’s door. “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time and it annoys the hell out of the pig.”

    He had another: “If you can’t change your mind, are you really sure you have one?” Oink!

  2. How long before the deniers start messing with “scientific facts are not open to debate and opinion” and “debate actually gives alternative views credibility”? Any bets?

  3. Trenberth’s very claim that AR4 was the first time that Jones had been on a writing team is untrue statement that can be “readily” demonstrated to be untrue.

    Both Jones and Trenberth are listed as contributing authors of AR3. See the list of AR3 chapter 2 authors below, where both Trenberth and Jones are listed as Contributing Authors.
    Likewise with AR2 – both Trenberth and Jones had precisely the same standing as AR2 Contributing Authors.

    http://books.google.ca/books?id=lb3wOr1K_vYC&pg=PA64&dq=ipcc+1995&hl=en&ei=FYsvTaiPE47pgQebl8Va&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

  4. Gerald posts on this thread after four months to attack Trenberth. I wonder if anything could have influenced that timing… nah, couldn’t be.

    Gerald, care to explain the difference between “contributing author” (what Jones and Trenberth were on the SAR and TAR (the proper names for those reports; they switched to the AR4 system because it would have overlapped with the First Annual Report)), and “lead author” (what Jones was for AR4)? (hint: it’s on Wikipedia, shouldn’t be hard).

    Thanks, Brian. I thought it was probably something like that. -Kate

    • Oh, it gets better. I wasn’t able to load Google Books before now.

      Gerald, look at this quote from Trenberth, above:

      The IPCC’s 2007 report “was the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment,” he says. “The comment was naive and sent before he understood the process and before any lead author meetings were held…As a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments, I was well aware that we do not keep any papers out, and none were kept out.”

      The passage suggests that Trenberth was a veteran of the IPCC’s collaborative writing process, while Phil Jones was not (prior to the AR4).

      Your own link, page 57, shows Kevin Trenberth was a convening lead author in the SAR, specifically of chapter 1 (An Overview) of the Physical Science Basis section. Looking through the other lead authors listed, Phil Jones does not appear. Jones *does* appear as a contributing author to Chapter 3 (Observed Variability and Change), and Trenberth himself is also a contributing author (both to the technical summary and to Chapter 3).

      Looking through the First Assessment Report (1990), you can see that Trenberth was a contributing author (on chapter 7 and 8), although he was not a lead author on this report. (That said, Trenberth’s statement was not that he had been a lead author on all the reports, just that he’d been involved in all of them and was familiar with the writing team elements of them, which is still consistent with this.) Jones was also listed as a contributing author, yet again.

      Advancing ahead to the Third Assessment Report, once again, we see Kevin Trenberth as a lead author, and Jones as a contributing author.

      Meanwhile, the Fourth Assessment Report doesn’t provide a ready direct link to demonstrate this point (I can’t tell if the annex only lists lead authors or not), but you are correct – Kevin Trenberth and Phil Jones were both lead authors on this report – Jones was actually a *coordinating* lead author, which is a radically different position from his contributing author status in earlier reports.

      (while I’m at it, the tentative list of authors for the AR5 lists Kevin Trenberth as a “review editor” (a new position for this report, as far as I can tell), but does not list Phil Jones. This list is tentative and incomplete, but it bears mentioning.)

      In summary, Jones: Contributor to FAR, SAR, TAR, lead author AR4. Trenberth: Contributor to FAR, lead author SAR, TAR, AR4. Thus, as of the AR4, Trenberth was involved in three previous reports and was familiar with the role of being on the writing team, while the AR4 was Jones’ first time as such.

      It certainly seems that Trenberth was “a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments” while the AR4 was “the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment”. And yet you say:

      Trenberth’s very claim that AR4 was the first time that Jones had been on a writing team is untrue statement that can be “readily” demonstrated to be untrue.

      If you have any sense of honor or intellectual integrity, you will admit your mistake and withdraw your claim. Before you go about tossing around claims about truth, you should investigate it yourself – and make sure your own pants aren’t on fire.

      I can only assume, given the timing of your reply, that you were spurred into doing this by Morano’s slander a few days ago. You should be aware that prior to Climate Depot, Morano was best known for 1) working for Senator James Inhofe, one of the most vocal climate denialists in a position of authority (with no scientific training, but possessing ideological reasons to oppose science), and 2) constructing the Swift Boat smear campaign against John Kerry in the 2004 elections, a campaign that is now recognized to have been an outright fabrication for political purposes. In short, Morano should not be taken as a credible source without investigating his claims, even if you agree with them in the first place.

      (In case you aren’t getting the distinction… Lead Authors work in groups as part of the actual writing of the reports, coordinated by the coordinating (or convening, the term varies based on the report) lead authors. Contributing authors are not part of these teams, and instead supply the summary material that the lead authors synthesize into the report, while the coordinating authors act like editors-in-chief. Thus, Jones, as a contributing editor, was not on a writing team for the first three reports, while Trenberth was – including stints as coordinating author. For you to mix these up, you would either have to be ignorant of this process – in which case, why would you make any factual assertions? – or would have to be unable to distinguish the analagous roles of freelance journalists, staff writers, and editors.)

      • Well, what do you know…

        I didn’t realize it was Steve McIntyre, not Marc Morano, who first brought up Gerald’s lie that Trenberth was wrong.

        Deep Climate corroborates my account, and includes CV links (which I didn’t do).

        This also isn’t the first time McIntyre has been caught quote-mining. I wonder if it’ll be the first time he’ll admit his error.

        I also wonder if Gerald will be honest enough to admit he is wrong here. Similarly, I wonder why Gerald didn’t even bother to paraphrase McIntyre – instead, he steals his entire comment from McIntyre’s post and doesn’t attribute it. (I should have guessed – it’s phrased in a way characteristic of McIntyre. Gerald just hasn’t been around here for a while so I didn’t notice it wasn’t his style).

        As evidence, here’s the relevant passage on ClimateAudit, with the sections Gerald copied in italics.

        Trenberth’s very claim that AR4 was the first time that Jones had been on a writing team is itself another example of an untrue statement that can be “readily” demonstrated to be untrue (although his “colleagues” have thus far not called him on it.)
        Both Jones and Trenberth are listed as contributing authors of AR3. (Indeed, Jones’ correspondence about the Briffa reconstruction in the wake of the 1999 Lead Authors meeting in Arusha, Tanzania was important in the setting of the notorious “hide the decline” memo.) See the list of AR3 chapter 2 authors below, where both Trenberth and Jones are listed as Contributing Authors.

        Likewise with AR2 – both Trenberth and Jones had precisely the same standing as AR2 Contributing Authors. See here.

        Trenberth’s assertion that Phil Jones had not previous been on an IPCC writing team is, to borrow a phrase, a “travesty”. It turns out that Phil Jones had been involved in all three previous IPCC reports.

        So not only does Gerald not offer any original commentary, he also doesn’t source his quote, pretends its his own writing by not identifying it as a quote (hint, Gerald: that’s called plagiarism), and doesn’t fact-check it despite its falseness being readily disproven in his own source.

        Once once again, Gerald, I ask: are you intellectually honest enough to own up to your mistake and admit your error?

        Ironically, one of Gerald’s comments that didn’t get past moderation was accusing Trenberth of plagiarizing – Deep Climate touches on that as well. -Kate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.