The BEST idea reconsidered

  • 01 Mar 2011, 11:30
  • Luke

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project has undertaken the largest analysis of the world's temperature records in history. The project will announce its initial findings in the coming weeks.

The team behind BEST aim to deliver an independent analysis of historical global warming which the researchers claim will be more credible because of its apparent neutrality.

However, the expertise and neutrality of the BEST team have been questioned and the "independent, non-political, non-partisan" status of the study is in some doubt.

The project's list of funders includes the Charles G Koch Charitable Foundation, set up and funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers. Koch's interest in the project may be legitimate but the foundation's donation has provoked suspicion.

The initiative comes in the wake of  "Climategate" and the claims by climate sceptics that emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia indicate that the "hockey stick" may have been a fake. The graph shows a dramatic rise in average global temperature in the 20th Century.

The BEST project will use more data than any other temperature study ever has, aggregating 10 different global temperature datasets. It will also publish the raw figures online so that anyone may scrutinise them. Chair Richard Muller hopes the study's results will crystallize a broader consensus on exactly how much the planet has warmed since records began.

Muller told the Guardian newspaper: "We are bringing the spirit of science back to a subject that has become too argumentative and too contentious". In a discussion of Mann's "hockey stick" he also issued "a plea to let science proceed unmolested".

But there are already doubts about the independence of the project. The Koch brothers, owners of Koch Industries, have funded various think tanks and movements in America who have expressed strong scepticism over climate change. This caused Greenpeace to accuse them of "secretly funding the climate denial machine".

Muller also stated in the run-up to Copenhagen that "another option is that we could learn to live with global warming", adding: "Chilly Berkeley might be nicer with a few degrees warming."

The argument that we should aim to adapt to climate change rather than reduce emissions has also been used by climate sceptics, including Exxon Mobil funded thinktanks and the Koch brothers themselves.

The only climatologist named as taking part in the study is Judith Curry and she has stated that her role in far from central.  She said on her blog: "I'm not exactly sure what my originally intended role in this was…. As they have begun analyzing the data, I have completely refrained from commenting on the process or preliminary results".

Judith Curry is a controversial figure, known best for testifying to US congress as a Republican witness on climate science.  Curry holds the view that doubt and natural variability make it hard to anticipate whether CO2 is responsible for climate change, an opinion also shared by the oil industry.

During an argument, this disposition led NASA scientist and Real Climate blogger Gavin Schmidt to declare, "I will simply assume you are a conduit for untrue statements rather than their originator".

Given the team's ambition and the reams of data they will be working with, it's surprising that not one qualified climate scientist has been employed to oversee the analysis closely.

Anthony Watts, retired TV weatherman, climate sceptic and owner of Watts Up With That? has been invited to take part in the research. His blog was among the sceptic sites to push the "Climategate" story attacking published climate scientists.

Watts reports that he was in regular correspondence with Muller before the project's launch and that he "spent the day with the BEST team yesterday at Lawrence Livermore Berkeley Laboratories". However, he is not named on the BEST website and he has not yet revealed his exact role.

It is unclear whether the research will be published in a peer review journal.

The idea behind the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project is a noble one, but it is unlikely to overturn any scientific conclusions on temperature. Despite valid statistical criticism, the principal results of Mann's "hockey stick" graph have been independently confirmed by the US National Research Council and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

[Updated 15th March - Although correct, this last line is not relevant; the BEST project is not concerned with assessing reconstructions of past temperature from paleo records.]

Global temperature records are also already kept by several institutions that use peer-reviewed methodologies. Some of these records date back to 1880 and their respective long-term trends agree very well with each other.

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