Mail struggling to find room for doubt on warming data

  • 31 Oct 2011, 14:00
  • Robin Webster

Over the last couple of weeks the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project has caused something of a media storm. BEST - headed by Professor Richard Muller, a climate skeptic physicist, and part-funded by the Koch brothers - aimed to reassess global temperature data in the light of criticisms by climate skeptics following 'Climategate'.

The study's results (not yet peer reviewed) are identical to those of all the main groups who have looked at this issue - in other words they found that the world is warming, and that the criticisms from climate skeptics that the study addressed had no impact on the data. Specifically, the project found that the earth has warmed by about 1 °C since the middle of the last century.

Climate skeptic blogs variously reacted to this news by arguing that they had never disputed warming; that the study didn't attribute warming to humans (it didn't try to), or that there were errors in the methodology of the project.

Now the Mail on Sunday has printed a two page spread by climate skeptic journalist David Rose (whose misrepresentations we have previously addressed here). The article claims that the BEST data in fact shows that "global warming has stopped"; and that a leading member of Prof Muller's team has accused him of misleading the public by trying to hide that fact.

The scientist quoted in the article is Professor Judith Curry. Curry authors the skeptic-friendly blog Climate Etc. She was the only climatologist involved in the BEST project.

The old "global warming has stopped" claim

The Mail hangs its article on a quote from Curry:

'There is no scientific basis for saying that warming hasn't stopped"

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Monte Carlo versus blocking formations: why attributing heatwaves to climate change is still a gamble

  • 27 Oct 2011, 16:26
  • Ros Donald

Tens of thousands died in Russia last year in a 60-day heatwave, prompting inquiries into whether it could happen again and whether it is possible to predict this kind of event. But the growing body of climate attribution science appears divided over whether climate change caused the heatwave, making it tricky for policymakers to decide on future action based on the findings. We take a look at the different conclusions and the routes scientists have taken to get there.

Climate attribution is a relatively new area of climate science in which scientists attempt to work out if changes in the climate system can be attributed to "natural or anthropogenic causes, or both", according to the Met Office.

The approach has gained momentum in recent years, spurring a group of researchers from different organisations to join forces in 2009 to form the Attribution of Climate-related Events (ACE). ACE prepared a report on climate attribution for a meeting of the World Climate Research Programme in Denver, which is going on right now.

Climate change wasn't the culprit

In a  report released in March this year, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say they weren't able to attribute "the intensity of this particular heat wave to climate change". Rather, they think natural climate variability caused the Russian heatwave - a conclusion  reported with glee by skeptics.

The study concludes that the heatwave was down to a ridge of high pressure that blocked normal cooling phenomena such as storms from reaching the country from the West and allowed warm air to flow in, something we've looked at in relation to the UK and Russia.

The group searched through Russian temperature records over the last century and temperatures simulations from a suite of climate models for trends that could help explain the 2010 heat wave. They also ran model simulations based on actual 2010 observations for factors such as sea surface temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. This allowed the scientists to determine which of these factors might have contributed to the heat wave. 

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Will green measures increase fuel poverty?

  • 27 Oct 2011, 09:00
  • Robin Webster

Last Thursday the Mail announced in a somewhat arresting headline that

"Thousands [are] dying because they can't afford heating bills... and green taxes are adding to the burden"

along with a sub-heading:

"Grim toll as green taxes push fuel costs even higher".

The article followed the publication of a major report on fuel poverty. Commissioned by the Government, the interim version of the Hills Fuel Poverty Review concluded that even if only ten percent of 'excess winter deaths' are due to fuel poverty, 2,700 people are dying every year because they can't afford to heat their homes.

To what extent, however, did the report ascribe those deaths to 'green taxes'? The truth, as with previous articles published on this topic, turns out to be both a lot more nuanced, and a lot more interesting, than the Mail editorial line suggests.

The Mail article stated that

"The spiralling cost of gas and electricity combined with the impact of green taxes is putting health and lives at risk, researchers found. The study concluded that green taxes on household power bills are 'regressive' and have a disproportionate impact on poorer households.

"…Green taxes designed to meet a £200billion bill to switch to wind, wave, solar and nuclear power currently add around £100 to annual bills. However, this figure is set to rise sharply in the next few years and will hit the poor, particularly pensioners on fixed incomes, harder than most."

This £100 figure cited by the Mail refers to Ofgem's estimate that "environmental and social supplier obligations" currently add about £100 to the average dual fuel bill. It should be noted, however, that the entirety of the £100 is not devoted to renewable energy subsidies. Ofgem no longer releases detailed breakdowns of their analysis, but they informed us earlier this year their figures indicated that approximately £48 of the cost is being spent on the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) and about £3 on Community Energy Savings Programme (CESP). Both CERT and CESP focused on encouraging energy efficiency measures like home insulation - and thus on reducing bills and tackling fuel poverty.

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IEA: fossil fuel subsidies must be cut

  • 25 Oct 2011, 18:00
  • Tim Holmes & Robin Webster

In recent months, a great deal of attention has focused on the costs of subsidies for renewable energy - so much so that the media campaign against 'green energy taxes' on consumer bills has been held responsible for the government rowing back on some of its green agenda. This is in spite of the fact that, as we have detailed, many of the claims made do not appear to have anything to substantiate them - and what evidence there is undermines or refutes them.

It is therefore sobering to realise just how substantial subsidies toward fossil fuel energy are on the global level. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported this month that fossil fuel subsidies currently amount to nearly half a trillion dollars. On Monday, the chief economist of the IEA urged the world to slash fossil fuel subsidies in non-OECD countries. He told the online magazine Euractiv that

"Today $409 billion equivalent of fossil fuel subsidies are in place which encourage developing countries - where the bulk of the energy demand and CO2 emissions come from - [towards a] wasteful use of energy"

This figure was also almost double the United Nations Environment Program's figure for total investment in renewable energy - from any source - in 2010.

The IEA's "World Energy Outlook 2011", due to be published on November 9, will include a special focus on energy subsidies. A summary of the report released at the beginning of October gave some of its results. The IEA calculate that by 2020 fossil fuel consumption studies could reach $660 billion - or 0.7% of global GDP - if they are not curbed. To give a comparison, 0.7% of GDP is equivalent to the established rich world target for foreign aid giving.

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Skeptics say "global warming is happening"

  • 24 Oct 2011, 15:00
  • Verity Payne

Last week the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study released four reports  that gained a huge amount of media coverage (for a scientific study) - particularly for work that has not yet been peer reviewed. Media reports focused on the project's finding that the average global temperature on land has increased by around 1°C since the middle of the 20th century.

Michael Hanlon, science editor for the Daily Mail, and self confessed ex-climate skeptic, suggests that the BEST study is likely to do a lot to answer some of the criticisms of climate skeptics, saying:

"In the end, the sceptics - the genuine sceptics (ie not those with say a financial stake in climate change denial) - will come round. But it will take time and more extraordinary evidence like that produced by this latest analysis."

This was certainly the intention of the BEST study team, whose executive director Elizabeth Muller hoped their work would "cool the debate over global warming".

So has the BEST study persuaded any climate skeptics to change their minds and cool the debate? We take a look at the response from climate skeptic commentators:

We've never disputed warming

Some skeptic commentators seem to be swiftly backtracking from previously held opinions over global warming and the 'corruption' amongst climate scientists. Take for example James Delingpole, who wrote in response to the BEST study:

"Global warming is real...Professor Muller [of the BEST team] sets up his straw ascribing to "skeptics" views that they don't actually hold. Their case, he pretends for the sake of his wafer-thin argument, rests on the idea that the last century's land-based temperature data sets are so hopelessly corrupt that they have created the illusion of global warming where none actually exists.

"It has been a truth long acknowledged by climate sceptics, deniers and realists of every conceivable hue that since the mid-19th century, the planet has been on a warming trend..."

This is in contrast to a post Delingpole wrote on his website entitled " Global warming: is it even happening?" in January 2010, where he argued that:

"the surface temperature records are such a mess that they simply can't be trusted"

Or a 2009  blogpost from the Telegraph immediately after the leaking of the UEA emails:

"As  Andrew Bolt puts it, this scandal could well be "the greatest in modern science". These alleged emails - supposedly exchanged by some of the most prominent scientists pushing AGW theory - suggest: 'Conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data'...

"The world is currently cooling."

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Climate change to force people into high-risk areas

  • 21 Oct 2011, 17:00
  • Ros Donald

The effects of extreme weather will amplify trends affecting the movement of global populations, according to a report released yesterday by the UK government's Foresight committee.

The report brings together the results of more than 70 papers and other scientific reviews from a range of disciplines.

The results run counter to previous predictions of populations' behaviour in the face of climate change, according to Geoffrey Dabelko, head of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Dabelko told the New York Times that the study departs from "very fuzzy aggregate global figures," that predicted in the past that "everyone who's flooded moves." He adds that the inaccuracy of these earlier predictions was made obvious in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where only the "empowered" left New Orleans.

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US Senator excoriates US climate change political deadlock

  • 21 Oct 2011, 14:30
  • Ros Donald

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse last week delivered a speech condemning the US Senate's lack of action on climate change. He lambasted industrial interests' influence on politics, delivered a run-down of the benefits derived from existing environmental regulation, and gave a roundup of the long-standing scientific consensus on climate change.

Here are excerpts from the transcript published this week on Climate Progress:

"Mr. President, I am here to speak about what is currently an unpopular topic in this town. It has become no longer politically correct in certain circles in Washington to speak about climate change or carbon pollution or how carbon pollution is causing our climate to change."

Whitehouse argued that Washington is a "peculiar place" where "polluters rule in certain circles". Despite deep concern in other parts of the government, civil society and in the scientific community, the conclusions of the majority of climate scientist are getting "very little traction"

"This is a peculiar condition of Washington. If you go out into, say, our military and intelligence communities, they understand and are planning for the effects of carbon pollution on climate change. They see it as a national security risk. If you go out into our nonpolluting business and financial communities, they see this as a real and important problem. And, of course, it goes without saying our scientific community is all over this concern."

Why is this? The short answer's money.

"Here in Washington we feel the dark hand of the polluters tapping so many shoulders. And where there is power and money behind that dark hand, therefore, a lot of attention is paid to that little tap on the shoulder."

But Whitehouse warned that climate change won't go away if we ignore it.

"What we overlook is that nature - God's Earth - is also tapping us all on the shoulder, with messages we ignore at our peril."



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Global Temperature Records - Old and New

  • 21 Oct 2011, 10:50
  • Verity Payne

Earlier this week a Journal of Geophysical Research paper detailed the latest updates to the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN). The network is a source of temperature measurements from around the globe that is used to work out the average global temperature trend.

The release of the paper has coincided with the findings of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study, made public yesterday. So it seems the ideal time for a quick recap on how average global temperature records are produced, and how the BEST study differs:

How do scientists measure temperature at the Earth's surface?

Systematic measurements in inhabited regions of the world began in the  19th century, and have been complied into the GHCN. These days, thermometer readings at meteorological stations, polar research stations and on ships and buoys provide direct measurements of surface temperature on land and at sea. Monthly updates are now provided through the World Meteorological Organisation's  CLIMAT reporting system.

The temperature of the lower atmosphere can be determined from satellite observations. These are not direct measurements - the satellites monitor microwave radiation, from which they can infer temperature.

Who produces global temperature trends?

Three main research groups produce records of average global temperature using direct measurements at the earth's surface.

Two of the groups are based in the USA: the NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). The third, HadCRUT, is produced by a collaboration between the UK Met Office Hadley Centre and the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

The Japanese Meteorological Agency ( JMA) also provides a global temperature record.

Two satellite records of lower atmospheric temperature come from the University of Alabama in Hunstville (UAH) and Remote Sensing Systems (RSS). The two groups use the same satellite data with different methods to determine temperature.


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BEST reconfirm: warming is happening

  • 21 Oct 2011, 09:00
  • Robin Webster

The controversial Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, originally inspired by skeptic claims about  'dodgy data', promised to produce a definitive statement on the Earth's surface temperature record. Now the BEST team has released their analysis on their website, and they agree with previous groups of researchers in identifying a warming trend. The project has found that  the earth is warming by about 1 °C since the middle of the last century - and that the the Urban Heat Island's effect on global temperatures is "nearly negligible" or "spurious".

It is an important caveat that this work has not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal - unusually, the BEST team are releasing their paper for a form of 'wiki review' before submitting it. But it shouldn't come as a great shock that the results confirm what scientists had already told us about how the Earth's surface temperature is changing.

The 'urban heat island effect' (UHI) - first documented in London in the early 1900s - describes how temperatures in a city are often higher than in rural surroundings. Allegations that scientists are therefore over-estimating global warming has achieved iconic status amongst climate skeptics, and has even been used to level accusations of " scientific fraud" against researchers.

In the USA, the author of prominent skeptic website Watts Up With That (total hits since launch: more than 37 million) Anthony Watts, who sells weather measurement equipment himself, has long argued that the use of data from poorly cited weather stations had skewed the global temperature record - and has accused climate scientists of ignoring results that are inconvenient to their data.

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project took these concerns seriously. Set up with the the explicit intention of addressing criticisms of the existing temperature records and constructing a new record of global average temperatures, the project was launched and chaired by Professor Richard Muller.

The project raised some red flags - the only climate scientist involved in the project was Professor Judith Curry (author of the skeptic-friendly blog Climate Etc); Muller was known to question the seriousness of global warming; and worst of all for some the project was part-funded by the Koch Brothers. Anthony Watts was involved in the project and expressed strong support for it.

So what did the project do differently to the scientific bodies who are already monitoring the planet's temperature, and what have they found?

To study the effects of UHI BEST used a statistical methodology specifically designed to address the differences between urban and rural stations. They split the 39,028 weather monitoring stations (from 10 publicly available sources) into "very rural" and "not very rural" using satellite data that can classify land use as urban or not. They then worked out linear temperature trends for each station and compared the results for all of the data with just the "very rural" dataset. 16,132 of the sites were classified as "very rural".

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Now for the science bit...

  • 20 Oct 2011, 18:00
  • Ros Donald

In an earlier post, we looked at some of the reasons why it's so tough to communicate climate science. Here, we examine some of the ways scientists can improve their rapport with the public, highlighted in a new article in Physics Today by Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol.

It's an important topic. The climate science community's failure to successfully communicate climate change has led to a significant gap between the public's perception of the causes of climate change and the consensus among scientists, and the views of most climate scientists.

'Climategate' provides a case in point: in the time it took the climate science community to respond to the leak, Somerville and Hassol say sceptics were able to use the episode to "repeatedly denounce the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)] and climate scientists." Meanwhile "neither the panel nor the scientists were very effective in refuting the attacks."

Here are some of their suggestions:

Turn the pyramid upside-down

Scientists tend to communicate with each other by starting with the background to their findings, gathering supporting details and then coming to results and conclusions. To communicate with the public, however, scientists need to "invert the pyramid", starting as a news story would with the headline and then moving on to why people should care - the "so what" question.

Keeping it simple

Once scientists have arrived at a simple clear message, they should repeat it often, avoiding putting in too much detail or using too much 'science speak' that can just end up washing over the public. By using terms the public is used to such as feet in the US rather than metres, scientists can put their message over more clearly.

It's also imperative that scientists don't forget about the basics:

"Scientists often fail to put new findings into context. They tend to focus on cutting-edge research. But it's also important to to repeat what is scientifically well understood to a public for whom the well-established older findings may still be mysterious."

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