Unpacking climate alarm

Auckland Harbour – little change

The Prime Minister says combating climate change will be the defining characteristic of her term of office. Ms Ardern sees this question as being more urgent than all other economic, environmental and social issues – even the alleviation of child poverty, to which she is headily committed. How did this topic gain this ascendancy?

The Green Party and many left-wing Labour voters support the PM’s priorities. They fear the effects of human-caused global warming will likely create existential problems by the end of the century. They say, and probably believe, that their forebodings are based on “The Science”.

What is ‘The Science’?

It can only be the latest report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – issued in 2013 as “Assessment Report #5” (AR5)[1]. Not the “Summary for Policymakers”, which is itself written by policymakers, but the report written mainly by public sector scientists and known as Working Group 1 (WG1). This is the “official” resource available to Governments.

WG1 makes predictions regarding average global surface temperature levels in 2100, given certain postulates regarding the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by that time. Four postulates are used, ranging from very low to very high, and the feared existential threats flow only from the high concentrations.

How real is the highest postulate, known as RCP8.5? This is an important question (for another article) but not one that is answered by The Science. The scientists of WG1 do not even look at that question, but leave policymakers to answer it for themselves[2].

The scientists’ key role lies in deciding the axioms, assumptions, hypotheses and data that are fed into the 116 computer models in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project – Phase 5 (CMIP5) in the World Climate Research Program (WCRP) coordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The hardware, OS, software, structure, etc., of this project are largely determined by IT specialists (not scientists). Each coupled land-sea model runs multiple simulations of future climate effects and the outputs are interpreted by scientists.

Two great uncertainties

A lot of the scientific input is, of course, routine physics. But there are two critical areas of great uncertainty which the leading climate scientists must research:

  1. What is the climate sensitivity? Defined as the temperature increase caused by a doubling of the parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere (e.g., from 280 to 560 ppmv). The immediate impact is a rise of about 1.1°C, but what are the net feedbacks caused by that rise? Nobody knows, so scientists use Bayesian techniques to estimate likely levels and publish their probability distribution analyses (PDAs).

AR5 cannot report a “best estimate” because there is huge disagreement regarding the value of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) as between recent published research (<2°C) and CMIP5 simulations (>3°). This stand-off is yet to be resolved.

  1. What is the effect of natural variability? If human-caused GHGs increase temperature levels by a 10th of a degree, while a La Nina simultaneously reduces them by two 10ths of a degree, the result is global cooling, not warming. Back in the 1990s, the IPCC thought variations like the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) would cancel out, leaving just the human impact to drive long-term changes. But the “long term” (undefined) might be centuries and, in the meantime, the climate models are unreliable predictors – in both theory and practice.

The IPCC thought natural variability might be so minor that the models could afford to ignore it, and looked for “fingerprints” which could distinguish human-GHG-caused radiative forcing from other influences. WG1 scientists sought evidence in the data for the period from 1958 (when suspected human causation first became detectable) to 1998 (when a giant El Nino dominated the data). They hoped to prove that anthropogenic forcing caused 90% or more of observed warming “in the second half of the 20th century”.

The project proved impossible, largely because the major driver theoretically attributed to humans is feedback, which has no fingerprints. AR5 fell back to estimating that “more than half” of the observed warming was caused by human GHG emissions combined with “other anthropogenic forcings”. SPM.3, a table of likely causes, is based on “observations combined with climate model simulations”.

But… where’s the evidence?

This attribution is highly unsatisfactory. The claim that humans cause considerable global warming is not based on evidence or research but on opaque simulations by problematic models that have never been validated. The logic is perfectly circular – the models are reliable because there is very little natural variability which we know from the models!

In summary, the basis of the “dangerous anthropogenic global warming” narrative is not “The Science”. The vital questions assigned to scientists are “how much?” and “who?” but neither of these questions has been answered by application of the scientific method.

There have been no real-world experiments nor successful predictions. Neither the calculations nor the outcomes of models can be falsified or replicated (even if one has a coupled model at hand), and there are no peer-reviewed journal papers to evaluate or criticise. The key questions have not even been addressed by humans, except in the sense that the modellers have voted in an IPCC meeting or questionnaire. We have opinions in lieu of evidence.

Whenever an interested scientist asks for evidence, there is a choreographed response: “there is overwhelming evidence” somewhere else; or “97% of scientists already agree”; or “we don’t debate with deniers”. No URL, nor library reference nor even common sense dialogue ever ensues.

So it’s not The Science

So the Prime Minister can’t blame The Science. The carefully chosen warnings in the IPCC’s SPM documents are crafted by politicians and bureaucrats, guided by highly skilled and very expensive spin doctors. The media just love alarm and virtually live on weather stories. Groupthink takes hold and alarm goes viral within various demographics and tribes. “The Science” is reduced to a mantra, rather than the pinnacle of rationality it once rightly claimed to be.

After alarm becomes a political platform, the scientists re-enter the arena. Now they address the question of just how bad things might become in terms of human and environmental health IF (a) RCP8.5 should prove probable; and (b) ECS should prove 3°C plus; and (c) natural variability should prove minimal. This is the domain of the IPCC’s Working Group 2 (WG2) – where scientists are in the minority, but certainly play a role.

In New Zealand, the role of amenable scientist has been taken up by the Royal Society, which has issued a booklet, Human Health Impacts of Climate Change for NZ. This benign document should surely ease the anxiety of the Prime Minister. The worst we need fear is a need to gradually adapt, and there are no existential health disasters in store.

My plea to Ms Ardern: let’s follow the advice of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and have evidence-based policy decisions.


[1] Some limited updating may be needed, e.g., in 2014, CMIP5 solar irradiation was corrected for scattering and diffraction effects. Solar forcing may thus be a significantly larger factor than was represented in AR5. [return to text]

[2] Of course, there are endless opinions from various fortune-tellers and soothsayers, including futurists, demographers, economists, activists, journalists, energy planners, etc. But the issue is not within the expertise of physical scientists. [return to text]

31 Thoughts on “Unpacking climate alarm

  1. Peter Fraser on December 3, 2017 at 4:08 pm said:

    What’s happened to the science advisor for the previous National government, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman? He made many dire predictions of the dangers we face due to climate change although I believe his expertise was in pediatrics.

  2. Richard Treadgold on December 3, 2017 at 5:35 pm said:

    Sir Peter is still ensconced there, hasn’t been replaced.

  3. Christchurch City Council workers are claiming that sea level rise rate has doubled in recent years . This is based on some misleading numbers from the draft MfE report on coastal hazards.

    This is despite the complete lack of any peer reviewed literature claiming that sea levels are accelerating in NZ

    Based on this, they are refusing to offer consents on sections that have remained empty for more than 12 months, and asking that all new builds be relocatable

  4. Richard Treadgold on December 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm said:

    Not to be missed!

    Andy, I should say that the Christchurch developments are intolerable. What is the man in the street to do? Even selling up will be at a new, rock-bottom price. This man in this street is willing to publish your own version of events, if that appeals to you.

  5. I’m holding fire on the ChCh issue as it seems to be very “fluid”. i.e no one seems to know what they are doing. I’m glad to be out of it to be honest.

    I’ll keep you posted though.
    —-
    Yes, please do, Andy.

  6. Maggy Wassilieff on December 5, 2017 at 9:37 pm said:

    Going by the comments on the Stuff article – Jacinda Ardern interviewed by Al Gore – quite a few folks aren’t convinced that AGW is the great problem of the century.
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/99555340/prime-minister-jacinda-ardern-to-be-interviewed-by-al-gore-over-climate-change

  7. Richard Treadgold on December 5, 2017 at 10:10 pm said:

    Thanks, Maggie, I tried to watch Gore’s video that’s lodged in that article but it quickly became hard going. I just couldn’t face another hour of that much misrepresentation.

  8. Maggy,

    Yes I’ve noticed that the comments under climate change articles have been getting very sceptical for a while now. You can see when the pro AGW commenters arrive they usually do it in groups which tends to suggest it’s a weak organised push-back from greenie activists. I’d say the battle for public opinion has been lost by the alarmists and there’s nothing they can do to rectify it.

  9. It’s true that the public have had a gutsful. Unfortunately the government sees things differently and are restricting building in coastal areas on the basis that the RCP 8.5 scenario is “likely”.

    In a normal world, these people would be in a mental asylum. Unfortunately they are running the country

  10. Hot off the press yesterday, the warming estimates under the various RCP scenarios are probably under-predictions. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/609620/global-warmings-worst-case-projections-look-increasingly-likely/ https://www.nature.com/articles/nature24672
    Until we know more, the precautionary principle applies. It is ironic that those who suggest that uncertainty is an argument for doing nothing are invariably older and will not have to contend with the consequences of their inactions.

  11. Mike Jowsey on December 7, 2017 at 6:27 pm said:

    I don’t usually drill down on Simon Says stuff, but this time I elected to. Silly waste of time really.

    Simon

    Only the abstract was available to a penniless cherry grower. That said, a coupla key phrases and ideas emerged from the abstract which require challenge.

    modelled (sic) estimates of warming vary by a factor of approximately two even under the same radiative forcing scenarios

    …. conclusion: the models are stuffed full of nonsense. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Across-model relationships between currently observable attributes of the climate system and the simulated magnitude of future warming have the potential to inform projections.

    …. conclusion: If we take an average of garbage we should get um better garbage.

    we show that robust across-model relationships exist between the global spatial patterns of several fundamental attributes of Earth’s top-of-atmosphere energy budget and the magnitude of projected global warming.

    …. conclusion: based on the fallacies of the preceding assertions, Show me the data before I believe your final conclusion. Skeptical is science.

  12. Papers in Nature have a very high threshold and intensive peer review. They are not garbage just because they conflict with your preconceived notions. If you want a one sentence paraphrase it is something like ‘the models that best predicted the past are those that forecast more warming in the future’. There is a good layman’s discussion with the author here: https://patricktbrown.org/2017/11/29/greater-future-global-warming-inferred-from-earths-recent-energy-budget/

  13. Also note that the authors’ mean estimate of Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity is 3.7°C which is on the high side of previous estimates.

  14. Off-topic but fascinating, the same issue of Nature also contains a paper about a black hole that was 800x bigger than the sun only 690 million years after the Big Bang. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature25180

  15. Simon,

    Climate models? HAHAHAHAHA!

    How have those climate models been working out for you there Simon. Shall we take a look?:

    https://www.ipcc.ch/report/graphics/images/Assessment%20Reports/AR5%20-%20WG1/Technical%20Summary/FigTS-14.jpg

    Those pesky empirical temperatures must be wrong & the models right, or maybe you could get really desperate and try to use an El Nino as evidence of AGW again in lieu of any genuine warming. Climate models – good luck with that, try consulting the horoscope oracles & see if that helps as well.

  16. Maybe one of you would like to comment on why 2017 will likely be the third warmest year in recorded history behind 2016 and 2015 despite being La Niña conditions. The ten warmest years in order will be (NOAA data) 2016,2015,2017*,2014,2010,2013,2005,2009,1998,2012. Note that the massive 1998 El Niño event ranks only in 9th place.

  17. Richard Treadgold on December 8, 2017 at 11:48 am said:

    Simon,

    Why? Easy: it would have been warmer than the other years. But you cannot seriously aver that 2017 was one long La Nina, and you leave out the fact that 2016 was an El Nino. Doesn’t that matter? But we wait on the observations, don’t we? Can you say how much warmer 2016 was than 2015, 2015 than 2017 (clearly impossible yet), 2017 than 2014 (clearly impossible yet), 2014 than 2010, etc.? Magnitude matters, friend. When temperatures are only a few hundredths of a degree Celsius apart, they are effectively identical, which also occurs at the top of a curve, so they might be about to come down.

  18. ‘why 2017 will likely be the third warmest year in recorded history behind 2016 and 2015’

    2015 – beginning of an El Nino
    2016 – full El Nino conditions
    2017 – after effect of the El Nino as temperatures return to pre El Nino conditions.

    None of the high temperatures in those 3 years are attributable to AGW, they are a result of a well known natural weather phenomena. The giant 1998 El Nino cooled faster when it finished as it was followed closely by a strong La Nina.

    The current weak La Nina conditions were only officially met last month & have yet to have any impact.

    It should also be noted once again that El Nino are cooling events as the ocean purges heat to space via the atmosphere.

  19. Richard Treadgold on December 8, 2017 at 12:43 pm said:

    Thanks, Magoo, well said. I’m working on something else but I meant to say exactly that. Heh.

  20. Ian Cooper on December 8, 2017 at 12:45 pm said:

    Richard, if you go to the BoM ENSO page, http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/enso/indices.shtml and then select the Nino 3.4 graph you will see that for most of 2017 things have been neutral with a little flirtation with El Nino mid year, before making steady progress through the -0.5 barrier into true La Nina territory. New Zealand is atypical when it comes to what we might expect during a La Nina event. We have our hottest summers over all and west coast drought conditions are more than probable at this time, which is what we are seeing now.

    I find it very disappointing that the likes of NIWA are missing the boat looking for reasons to blame humankind for what is obviously a natural phenomena. Just by looking at what has happened in my part of the country via local data spanning nearly 90 years and comparing that with the status of the ENSO I predicted our last two severe droughts in 2012-13 & 2013-14, six weeks before NIWA finally came out and called them! I alerted people to the strong possibility of drought here at the start of October when it was still sopping wet everywhere!. We have just had our driest Nov on record (just beat out 2012 by 1mm!). The patterns of Anticyclones to the south & south-east of New Zealand are classic La Nina patterns. NIWA would have more success following this line of enquiry, and be of more use to New Zealanders now.

    Although rare, hot Decembers are not unprecedented, but may people under 40 years of age would not have experienced one in our area. So far the usual sources haven’t claimed this as being as a result of CAGW that I have noticed, but they must be tempted.

  21. Richard Treadgold on December 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm said:

    Informative comments, Ian. Thanks for your insight.

  22. Mike Jowsey on December 8, 2017 at 5:30 pm said:

    Simon,
    I was not attributing garbage to Nature , rather to climate models. It’s unverified models all the way down, just like the turtles holding up the planet.

    Thanks for the ‘layman’s link’. I quote the article:

    Different models project different amounts of warming primarily because there is not a consensus on how to best model many key aspects of the climate system.

    That statement epitomises the blindness of your faith.

  23. Mike Jowsey on December 8, 2017 at 5:47 pm said:

    Climate models versus climate reality
    https://curryja.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/christy_dec8.jpg

  24. In the leaked MfE guidance on coastal hazards, linked here

    they claim that sea level rates have doubled over the 20th Century (page 83 Table 7)

    I’m not sure how they got this given that peer reviewed literature claims zero acceleration for NZ SLR

  25. This new paper on sea levels shows that sea levels at Yemen, Mumbai have been fairly stable over the last 100 years.

    PMSML adjust the data so it appears to be rising rapidly
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41748-017-0020-z

  26. The NZ government are releasing the new rules on sea level rise and property, this Friday
    https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2017/12/12/67719/why-sea-level-rules-were-held-back

    The recommended limit for new development (new subdivisions etc) is to plan for 1.9m of SLR over the next 100 years

  27. Richard Treadgold on December 13, 2017 at 12:04 pm said:

    It’s true, then. The inmates are running the asylum.

  28. Alexander k on December 13, 2017 at 4:33 pm said:

    Richard, the inmates have always run this particular asylum. During my teenage years, our city council in Palmerston north built a system of levees out on the plains to contain future flooding then promptly sold sections to create a new housing suburb within the levee. Of course, in the fullness of time the area experienced massive rainfall. To protect farmland from flooding (the original purpose of the levees) a councillor authorised the blasting of the levees with gelignite which earned him the unfortunate nickname ‘jgelignite jack’ used by furious owners of suddenly flooded houses. It seems that the set of civil servants has always and will always be a subset of highly educated idiots.

  29. Richard Treadgold on December 13, 2017 at 7:13 pm said:

    An outrageous tale, but thanks.

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