The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

Geoengineering the Climate

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Climate change would be a whole lot easier to fix if we could immediately see the results of our actions. First of all, we would have recognized the reality of the problem long ago, before very much harm was done. And even if we initially stalled on fixing the problem, we could throw all our weight into reducing greenhouse gases as soon as the floods and droughts and rising sea levels became too much, and stop the warming overnight.

This kind of fantasy scenario is like riding a bike. As soon as you jerk the handlebars to avoid running off the road, the bike responds. The only lag between your recognition of a problem and the subsequent resolution of that problem is your reaction time.

However, the climate system works more like a ship. Remember in the movie Titanic, when the crew first saw the iceberg, and cranked the wheel all the way to the right so they could go around it? The ship didn’t turn immediately. She kept going straight for a while before she responded. Unfortunately, she didn’t respond early enough to miss the iceberg, and you know what happened next.

The climate is very similar. There is a lag time between when we emit carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and when we see the effects of the subsequent warming. A lot of this has to do with the oceans, which store massive amounts of heat and slowly release it to the atmosphere. The warming we are seeing today is from fossil fuel emissions in decades past, and the actions we take today will not show up until decades in the future. Even if we bring global greenhouse gas emissions down to zero tomorrow, the world will continue to warm.

Because CO2 emissions continue to rise year by year, and because governments have had little to no success addressing this problem, some scientists are beginning to think that we won’t be able to stop climate change in time. Another unfortunate aspect of the climate system is its non-linearity – there are hidden thresholds and “tipping points” which, if crossed, could trigger feedbacks that cause global warming to spin out of our control. The scientific community thinks that, once the world has warmed about 2 C from pre-industrial times, these tipping points and feedbacks will start to kick in. We have already warmed 0.8 C, and at least another 0.5 C is in the pipeline, even if we were to cut off all emissions tomorrow. You do the math. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, especially given the increasingly low chances of climate legislation being passed by the world’s governments.

So what happens if we’ve gone too far? Do we have no choice but to sit back and watch all hell break loose? In fact, there are other choices, but they could easily come with unexpected side effects that make our situation worse. Techniques known as “geoengineering”, in which radical technologies offset our influences on the earth’s climate, fall into two categories:

1) Counteracting the warming. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat and cause the Earth to warm up, so we could introduce technologies that have a cooling effect on the Earth. By increasing the planet’s albedo (reflectivity), more of the Sun’s rays will bounce right off the Earth’s surface without being absorbed.

One way this could be achieved would be to inject massive amounts of sulfate particles into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight just like a volcanic eruption. However, this could have detrimental effects on the ozone layer, especially around the polar regions. We could end up trading the damaging effects of a warming climate for the damaging effects of too much UV radiation, a problem that we’ve already spent considerable time and energy addressing.

A similar proposal is to put objects in the Earth’s orbit that would reflect sunlight – giant mirrors, lenses, or sunshades in space.

2. Counteracting the CO2. If we can’t stop or even slow down our emissions of greenhouse gases, perhaps we could alter the biogeochemical systems of the Earth so they would absorb the gases and keep them safely out of the atmosphere. CO2 “sinks” already exist – forests, oceans, permafrost – but they’re not big enough to contain all of our emissions. How could we expand them, or add more?

The concept of artificial trees, that will perform photosynthesis anywhere, is intriguing – but the scale of implementation needed is not very feasible. Think of the amount of land that would have to be covered with these machines in order to offset our emissions.

A more widely discussed possibility for expanded carbon sinks involves fertilizing the ocean with iron filings, promoting blooms of phytoplankton that would photosynthesize, absorbing our emissions of CO2. However, as anyone living near the Great Lakes knows, overloading a water body with nutrients can have serious consequences for the ecosystem. Algal blooms can deplete the water of oxygen and block sunlight, killing the other plants and animals that share the habitat. For an ecosystem that covers most of our Earth’s surface, that might not be such a good idea.

All of these propositions have another dimension of questions attached: Who will control them? If we’re going to actively counteract our climatic influences, many careful decisions will need to be made. Who will calculate how much geoengineering, and of what type, to implement? Who will decide when enough is enough?

I have heard geoengineering described as a tourniquet: the worst possible option, except for bleeding to death. Scientists understand that it should be considered a “last resort” – only to be used when we have eliminated fossil fuel use and it still isn’t enough. However, there are doubtlessly politicians and industry leaders out there who see geoengineering as an attractive alternative to cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes.

Recently, at their Convention on Biodiversity, the UN decided to ban geoengineering – it’s just too dangerous, and we don’t know enough. However, this ban will also restrict large-scale research projects on geoengineering, that could give us a clearer picture of what is and is not feasible. Isn’t it more prudent to take small risks now so that we understand our future options, rather than jump blindly into full deployment when the time comes?

Bart Gordon, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Congress Science & Technology Committee, just issued a congressional geoengineering report. He was interviewed by a Chemical & Engineering News article on the subject, and had these words to say:

A research moratorium that stifles science, especially at this stage in our understanding of climate engineering’s risks and benefits, is a step in the wrong direction and undercuts the importance of scientific transparency. If climate change is indeed one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat to biodiversity and human welfare.

How many risks should we take in order to secure a safer alternative for possible future use? Will pursuing research into geoengineering distract us from the important task of reducing greenhouse gases, or is the situation already so far gone that preparing for the worst is worthwhile? One thing is clear: If earlier generations had thrown their efforts into fixing climate change as soon as scientists recognized it was underway, we wouldn’t be worrying so much today about the feasibility of giant mirrors in space or oceans full of iron.

What If…?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Let’s start with the obvious – the U.S. midterm elections are upon us, and it’s quite likely that the Republicans will win a majority. (My American friends tell me that this is possible even with Barack Obama remaining president. Please bear with my limited knowledge of the American political system. It works very differently in Canada.)

I’m not going to comment on partisan issues – health care, immigration, economic stimulus. What I am here to talk about is an issue that should not be partisan, but has become partisan regardless: science, specifically climate science.

Climate change is not a theory – it is the logical result of several theories, based in physics and chemistry, that scientists have understood since the 1800s. What’s political about that? Exactly what part of the equation dF = 5.35 ln(C/Co) is an opinion that differs based on ideological factors?

The political part comes when we ask the question, “What do we do to stop climate change?” A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Regulation? Some of these solutions are more liberal or conservative than others. The only decision that doesn’t adhere to U.S. politics is to do nothing. Absence of action is a decision in itself, and the overwhelming scientific evidence (based not just on computer models, but also observations of past climate changes) shows us that doing nothing will allow this problem to spiral out of control, causing damages that no amount of money will be able to repair. What U.S. party advocates leaving that kind of world to their grandchildren? As Bill McKibben says, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Republicans:

If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

But they’re not. Instead, many are choosing a psychological easy way out: if every solution seems imperfect, deny that the problem exists. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

It is questionable whether all of these statements are sincere. Politicians, after all, will say whatever they need to say to get elected. If these Republicans feel that their voting base denies climate change, they will adjust their public statements accordingly. Look at John McCain – during the 2008 presidential election, his promises for clean energy were nearly as strong as Obama’s. Now, he rejects cap-and-trade, and views the anthropogenic cause of climate change in the Arctic as an “opinion”.

Admittedly, a new, but growing, segment of the Republican voting base overwhelmingly denies climate change. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party supporters have all kinds of convoluted arguments against a field of science they know virtually nothing about. It contradicts “the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture”, and it could be caused by “the normal cycles of nature” (whatever those are), so thousands of scientists spending their lives studying this problem must be missing something. Or they could be part of a massive conspiracy.

Republican candidates are catering to the extreme segments of their party, and, arguably, to their party as a whole. However, their plans to base action (or lack thereof) on the fervent hope that the scientific community is out to lunch may alienate voters who understand what a risk that would be.

Or so we hope. If Republicans get their way, climate science will not just be disregarded: the men and women who study it will be criminally investigated, for no reason other than that their research supports the existence of anthropogenic climate change. And since James Inhofe can’t find any gaping holes in the math, that means the scientists must be fraudulent, right?

The Republican Party also hopes to conduct yet another investigation into the private correspondence of scientists, stolen and distributed a year ago. Although these emails show that climate scientists are not always very nice, it does not undermine one iota of our understanding of the climate system, as five independent investigations have concluded. But that’s not the answer Republican officials want, so they will waste taxpayers’ money and researchers’ time with their own investigation. Kind of hypocritical for a party that promises fiscal responsibility.

I’m a Canadian. I don’t get a vote in this election. I am also eighteen years old. I, unlike most Republican Senators, will be around to witness the effects of climate change. We have wasted twenty years in the fight against climate change, and if we continue to let petty politics and finger-pointing delay us more, the whole world will suffer.

It’s no secret that American politics disproportionately influence the world. The same is true for American emissions of greenhouse gases, and American agreements to reduce these emissions, and American patterns of energy use and energy sources. So please, when you go to vote this week, think about not just yourself and your country but other young people and other countries too.

And please vote. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Seth Godin:

If you don’t vote because you’re trying to teach politicians a lesson, you’re tragically misguided in your strategy. The very politicians you’re trying to send a message to don’t want you to vote.

Voting is free. It’s fairly fast. It doesn’t make you responsible for the outcome, but it sure has an impact on what we have to live with going forward. The only thing that would make it better is free snacks.

Even if you’re disgusted, vote. Vote for your least unfavorite choice. But go vote.

What’s Your Idea?

If you ran the world…how would you fix climate change? What would be your plan to implement clean energy? What renewables would you focus on, and how would you put a price on carbon?

Personally, I am more in favour of a carbon tax than cap-and-trade. It just seems simpler, more difficult for businesses to find loopholes around, and easier to gradually increase over the years. However, I would be happy with either of these two competing propositions…just as long as we can put a price on carbon, so that its true costs are finally reflected in goods and services.

From there, I would leave it to businesses to reduce their emissions through whatever method they wanted…no strict rules. When carbon has a cost, the invisible hand will be able to sort out the best methods. Businesses have spent centuries saving money and maximizing profit. Carbon would just be another form of currency, and we would take a fiscally conservative approach to spending it.

I believe that a multi-faceted approach to renewable energy is essential. At this point, no one technology will be able to replace fossil fuels. In combination, though, it would be possible. Lots more nuclear energy, supplemented with wind and solar (geographically suited to the area – in the future, though, a smart grid for better transport and storage of the energy would be ideal). We could use biomass from sustainable sources – algae looks quite promising, as it grows quickly, has a high content of oil, and its harvesting would have the benefit of reducing eutrophication in affected watersheds. Geothermal power is well worth developing, and in the meantime, it could be used for heating and cooling.

Continuing to burn natural gas, in the place of coal and oil, would be a very acceptable intermediate step. Collecting methane from landfills and farms would provide us with a carbon-neutral substance that’s chemically identical to natural gas.

Improved efficiency standards and cogeneration of heat and electricity could make a big dent in our energy usage, even before changing the source.

That’s what I advocate for – how about you? Leave your responses in the comments.

Global Surface Temperature Change

I really enjoyed reading “Global Surface Temperature Change“, by James Hansen and his team at GISS. Keep in mind that it’s still in the draft stages – they haven’t submitted to a journal yet, but they certainly plan to, and it’s a very credible team of scientists that will almost definitely get it published.

The paper is mostly about the methods of global temperature analysis. It’s more of a review paper than an account of a single experiment. However, their main discussion point was that even by using the same data, problems can be addressed in different ways. The two main problems with temperature analysis are:

  • “incomplete spatial and temporal coverage” (sparse data)
  • “non-climatic influences on measurement station environment” (urban heat island effect).

The authors explain the methods they use and why, and explore the impacts that different methods have on their results.

GISS measures anomalies in the temperatures, largely because they are much smoother and more consistent, geographically, than absolute temperatures. In 1987, they determined that anomalies could be safely extrapolated for a radius of 1200 km from a station and still be accurate. GISS smooths the whole map out by extrapolating everything and averaging the overlapping bits.

Extrapolating is also very useful in areas with very few stations, such as the polar regions and parts of Africa. In this map, grey indicates missing data:



The Arctic is particularly problematic, not only because its data is so sparse, but also because it has the largest anomaly of any region in the world. If you have incomplete coverage of an area that is warming so dramatically, it won’t pull its full weight in the global trend, and your result will almost certainly be too low.

This difficulty with the Arctic is the reason that GISS says 2005 is the warmest year on record, while HadCRUT, the team in England, says that 1998 is. GISS extrapolates from the stations they have, and end up getting pretty good coverage of the Arctic:

They’re assuming that areas with missing data have the same anomaly as whatever temperature stations are within 1200 km, which, as they determined in 1987, is a pretty fair assumption.

However, HadCRUT doesn’t do this extrapolating thing. When they don’t have data for an area, they just leave it out:

This might sound safer, in a way, but this method also makes an assumption. It assumes that the area has the same anomaly as the global average. And as we all know, the Arctic is warming a lot more and a lot faster than the global average. So it’s quite possible that GISS is right on this one.

Another adjustment that NASA makes is for local, anthropogenic, non-climatic effects on temperature data. The most obvious of these is the urban heat island effect. As an area becomes more urban, it gets more pavement, less vegetation, and its albedo goes down – it absorbs more heat. This often makes cities substantially warmer than the surrounding rural areas, which can obviously contaminate the temperature record. However, there are ways of eliminating urban influences from the data so we can see what the real trend is.

The first step is determining what stations are considered urban. The obvious way to do this is through population, but that’s actually not very accurate. Think of somewhere like Africa, where, even if there are thousands of people living in a small area, the urban influences such as concrete, absence of vegetation, or exhaust aren’t usually present. A much better indication is energy use, and a good proxy for energy use, that’s easy to measure, is lights at night-time.

So GISS put a bit of code into their analysis that singles out stations where nightlight brightness is greater than 32 µW/m2/sr/µm, and adjusts their trends to agree with rural stations within 1200 km. If there aren’t enough rural stations within that radius, they’ll just exclude the station from the analysis.

They did an even more rigorous test for this paper, to test just how much urban influences were contaminating the long-term trend, and it was pretty interesting.

There were enough stations considered “pitch-dark” at night, where they couldn’t detect any light, to run a global analysis all by themselves. The trend that came out was <0.01 °C/century smaller than GISS’s normal calculation, an amount of error that they described as “immeasurably small”.

The result of all this temperature analysis is a graph, with one new point every year, that is “eagerly awaited by some members of the public and the media”:

However, this graph isn’t actually as useful as this one – the 12-month running mean:

“From a climate standpoint there is nothing special about the time  of year at which the calendar begins”, so instead of only measuring January-December, you can also do February-January, March-February, and so on. This way, you get a data point every month instead of every year, and more data means more accuracy. It also solves problems with short-term influences, such as El Nino, La Nina, and volcanic eruptions, that the annual graph was having. These fleeting, but fairly substantial, influences can fall completely into one calendar year or be split between two – so their influence on global temperature could be overestimated or underestimated, depending on the starting month of the calendar. The 12-month running mean is much less misleading in this fashion.

As it is, we just set a new record for the 12-month running mean, and unless La Nina really takes off, 2010 will likely set a new record for the annual graph as well. But the authors argue that we need to start moving away from the annual graph, because it isn’t as useful.

The authors also discuss public perception of climate change, and media coverage of the issue. They say, “Our comments here about communication of this climate science to the public are our opinion…[We offer it] because it seems inappropriate to ignore the vast range of claims appearing in the media and in hopes that open discussion of these matters may help people distinguish the reality of global change sooner than would otherwise be the case.”

They make the very good point that “Lay people’s perception tends to be strongly influenced by the latest local fluctuation”, and use this winter as a case study, where a strongly negative Arctic Oscillation index caused significantly cooler-than-normal conditions across the United States and Europe. Consequently, a lot of people, especially in the US, began to doubt the reality of global warming – even though, in the world as a whole, it was the second warmest winter on record:

The authors also talk about data sharing. GISS likes to make everything freely available to the public – temperature station data, computer code, everything. However, putting it out there immediately, so that anyone can help check for flaws, has “a practical disadvantage: it allows any data flaws to be interpreted and misrepresented as machinations.” Multiple times in the past few years, when there have been minor errors that didn’t actually change anything, GISS was widely accused of making these mistakes deliberately, to “intentionally exaggerate the magnitude of global warming”. They realized this wasn’t working, so they changed their system: Before releasing the data to everyone, they first put it up on a private site so that only select scientists can examine it for flaws. And, of course, this “has resulted in the criticism that GISS now “hides” their data”.

Personally, I find the range and prevalence of these accusations against scientists absolutely terrifying. Look at what has become mainstream:

Scientific fraud is a very serious allegation, and it’s one thing for citizens to make it without evidence, but it’s another thing altogether for the media to repeat such claims without first investigating their validity:

I have been disgusted by the media coverage of climate science, especially over the past year, especially in the United States, and I worry what this will mean for our ability to solve the problem.

However, there is still fantastic science going on that is absolutely fascinating and essential to our understanding of global climate change. This paper was a very interesting read, and it helped me to better understand a lot of aspects of global temperature analysis.

All Is Not Lost

I really enjoyed reading two recent polls conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication. In particular, the results made me wonder why the US government still hasn’t passed a climate bill.

For example, US presidents have been saying for over a decade that it is unfair to force their industries to reduce emissions if developing countries do not have similar targets. However, only 8% of American adults share this view, and 65% believe that “the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.” 77% agree that CO2 should be regulated, and 65% would like to see an international treaty signed.

The only solution which had less than 50% support was a tax on gasoline, even if it was revenue-neutral: offset by a decrease in income tax rates. This opposition can’t really be a case of people worrying about money. In this hypothetical situation, taxes aren’t being increased – they’re just being moved around, in a way that actually gives people more control over how much they are charged. Perhaps the public would prefer a more laissez-faire approach, or perhaps they had a knee-jerk reaction to the word “tax”. It’s not like the revenue-neutral aspect of this solution is well-known to most.

When the poll was broken down by political party, there were some surprising results that ran contrary to what one hears in the halls of Congress. 64% of Republicans support regulating CO2. Only 30% think that protecting the environment reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Overall, the poll showed very strong support among Americans for action that still hasn’t happened, largely because a very vocal minority has had a disproportionate influence on the policy debate. If there was a referendum today, Kyoto targets and the cap-and-trade bill would pass with flying colours.

This support was even more interesting when compared to the questions regarding science. Only 61% of Americans think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is due to human activities. 45% think “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”, and only 34% were aware of the existing consensus.

The discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and support for mitigation shows that Americans, in general, practice risk management when it comes to climate change. Even if they’re not sure whether or not there is a problem, they understand what is at risk, and are willing to take action to prevent major consequences. Greg Craven, you got your wish.

I think that the misconception of a voracious scientific debate, apart from being perpetrated by the media, stems partly from the fact that most of the public lacks the experience to distinguish between scientific and quasi-scientific debates. Competing hypotheses, published in leading journals, seen as the frontier of the field….that’s a scientific debate. Editorials, written by anyone other than a scientist publishing in the field, claiming to refute an overwhelming consensus? Can’t even come close. However, I suspect that many would categorize the second as “scientific debate”, simply because it’s their only encounter with science.

All is not lost, though. 81% of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about global warming. That’s more than they trust any other source that was mentioned in the question. And 20%, 27%, and 29% say that they need a lot more, some more, or a little more information, respectively. Maybe all that needs to happen is for us to speak louder – because people are ready and willing to listen.

The Discovery of Global Warming

A common remark I make about climate change books I like is that “it wasn’t like a textbook”. I like non-fiction books that I can carry around and read cover-to-cover just like I would a novel. I like them to draw me in and catch my interest as if they were a suspenseful PD James or just a comfortable Maeve Binchy.

The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart, had all of these qualities and more: It contained as much information as a textbook, even if it didn’t read like one. That, I think, is the benefit of science history. It can be written in a way that is compelling as fiction, but it’s all true.

I think I will place this book near the top of my list of resources for concerned citizens who are looking for more information on climate change. It is so helpful because, instead of saying “scientists are confident that humans are causing the Earth to warm”, it traces back through history and follows this discovery all the way through, from Fourier to the AR4. We see the top of the credibility spectrum in action, and examine exactly where the conclusions of the scientific community came from.

There are lots of great details in this book to sink your teeth into. How did the Cold War pave the way for much of our knowledge about the atmosphere? Why does chaos theory apply to weather models much more than climate models? And, of course, my very favourite – the 1970s aerosol debate. How did scientists realize that the warming force of greenhouse gases would overpower the cooling force of aerosols, long before the warming was actually observed?

All of this is written in an incredibly elegant and engaging tone. Weart’s style of writing somehow reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World – succinct characterization, unintended (or just well-hidden) satire, a calm detachment from the story that somehow makes it all the more fascinating.

I read the “Revised and Expanded Edition”, so I’m not sure if all editions of The Discovery of Global Warming contain all the extras in the back: a timeline, an index, and a chapter entitled “Reflections” that is full of Weart’s musings about risk management and science communication. “Unlike, say, the orbits of planets,” he writes, “the climate in the future actually does depend in part on what we think about it. For what we think will determine what we do.”

A tangible alternative to the more comprehensive online version (really, who wants to read a book by navigating a web of links and scrolling through chapters on a computer screen?), The Discovery of Global Warming is worth every cent, and every minute of your time it takes to read it. I look forward to future volumes as this story continues to unfold.

A Must-Read Letter to Science

I must say that I feel proud of the mainstream media when CBC News picks this up before any of the blogs I read.

A letter to be published in tomorrow’s edition of Science, defending the integrity of climate science and calling for an end to “McCarthy-like threats” to scientists, has been signed by 225 members of the National Academy of Sciences. I guess they weren’t joking around in their correspondence.

Here are some excerpts:

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.

Read the whole letter here, it’s well worth it.

I don’t find this letter particularly surprising, because I’m quite aware of the scientific community’s attitudes toward recent events (RC collectively refers to them as Whatevergate), and I’m sure that many regular readers and commenters won’t be surprised either. However, we need to look at this not as news, but as an example of the communication that scientists are starting to come out with. This is exactly the kind of letter that needs to get out to the public.

What I’m wondering is, why will it be published in Science and not somewhere like the New York Times, a publication that is actually read outside of the scientific community? Anyone who keeps up with Science will know just how solid the theory of anthropogenic climate change is. So why is it being used for public communication?

Whatever the reason, and whatever its effectiveness, I’m pleased. It’s a good first step that we need much more of.

A Better Credibility Spectrum

It’s been over a year since I wrote The Credibility Spectrum, my first post ever. Since then I’ve learned a lot, and have altered the credibility spectrum in my own mind – so I thought I’d alter it here, too.

This credibility spectrum is sort of split into two: the scientific community, and the non-scientific community. The scientific community starts with scientists, and I want to stress that this category only includes scientists with experience in the issue at hand. Just because someone has a PhD in one area of science doesn’t mean that they are an expert in all areas. For example, it’s very easy for a computer scientist to go through ten years of university without studying any biology at all.  Treating them as an expert in evolution, therefore, would be illogical.

These scientists write peer-reviewed papers, published in journals like Nature and Science, which are another step up the credibility spectrum. Instead of just having the name of an expert attached to them, their methods and conclusions have been evaluated for robustness and accuracy. This is the minimum level of credibility from which I recommend citing scientific claims.

However, as thousands of papers are published every month, and they’re generally studying the frontier of their field, it’s inevitable that some of them will be proven wrong later. As Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann wisely said, peer review is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

That’s why there are scientific organizations and assessment reports, like NASA or the IPCC, which compile peer-reviewed knowledge which has stood the test of time into consensus statements. Even the top level of the credibility spectrum isn’t infallible, but it sure has a low error rate compared to other sources.

Everyone who isn’t a scientist, which is most of us, falls into the lower half of the credibility spectrum. The category I refer to as “communicators” includes the mainstream media, projects like Manpollo or 350.org, high school teachers, politicians…….They’re not part of the scientific community, so you should always always always check their citations, but they’re held more accountable for what they say than just any random person on the street. If they make glaring errors, people will be more upset than if the same errors were made by individuals – comments on YouTube, discussions with your neighbours – which make up the lowest rung of our credibility spectrum.

Something that I found really interesting  when I put this together was the general flow of information between different sources. In the scientific community, research starts with scientists, and the best research is published in journals, and the best journal articles are picked up by major organizations. As the scientific knowledge progresses through the different sources, the weaker assertions are weeded out along the way. The flow of information is going up the pyramid, towards the narrower part of the pyramid, so that only the best is retained.

However, in the non-scientific community, the flow of information goes the other way. Communicators present information to individuals, which is a much larger group. Information travelling down the pyramid, instead of up, allow rumours and misconceptions to flourish much more easily.

This isn’t to say that, when they come head-to-head, organizations are always right and individuals are always wrong. But given the history of such disagreements, and the levels of credibility involved, you’ll know where to place your bets.

We Have Slides!

After a marathon PowerPoint-session yesterday I finally got my 63 slides out of the way. Here is the presentation for anyone who is interested. The script is written in the notes beneath the slides.

I like to have things fading in and out of my slides, so sometimes the text boxes and images are stacked on top of each other and it won’t make sense until you view the animation.

Researching the median lethal dose of arsenic during my spare at school was really awkward. I had to do a lot of hasty explaining to my friends about how it was a metaphor for small concentrations having large effects, and no, I wasn’t planning to poison anyone.

Anyway, enjoy.

Mind the Gap (12 MB)