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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The study's results (not yet peer reviewed) are identical to those of all the main groups who have looked at this issue - in other words they found that the world is warming, and that the criticisms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"

This point is illustrated using the following graphs (which have two different x-axes):

Screen Shot 2011-10-31 At 13.52.47

The graphs are sourced to a blog - post written by the 'science advisor' to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Dr David Whitehouse.

Echoing his previous claim that "global warming has stopped" over the last decade, Whitehouse argued in this blog that the BEST data "confirms the global temperature standstill of the last decade" and the graph shows a "… statistically perfect straight line of zero gradient".

This argument is one frequently made in the climate skeptic blogosphere. But the big problem with this kind of claim is that a decade of data simply isn't enough to reach the kind of conclusion that Whitehouse is making. As we have discussed in a previous post, scientists do not assess temperature trends on such short timescales, as temperature varies as a result of natural variability on decadal timescales and so scientists do not anticipate an unvarying, relentless rise in global temperature. A slow-down in global warming does not mean that global warming has stopped.

The approach that Whitehouse is taking has been described by one independent statistician as a "technique that is particularly suspect" and by prominent skeptic Dr Pat Michaels as an argument that skeptics should not use as it is one that "you can get killed on".

Judith Curry misrepresented

Curry has also questioned the way she has been represented in the Mail piece. She wrote on her blog yesterday that although she stood by her direct quotes in the piece, "some of the other sentiments attributed to me are not quite right".

Curry says that she agrees with BEST's statement that 

"This exercise simply shows that the decadal fluctuations are too large to allow us to make decisive conclusions about long term trends based on close examination of periods as short as 13 to 15 years."

Despite this, the Mail continues to claim, in an article printed today, that Curry believes that the BEST project "underplayed the fact there has been no global warming for 13 years." This seems contradictory - and it seems that the Mail may be mixing up Curry's criticisms of the BEST projects' PR, with the GWPF's claim that "global warming has stopped".

Furthermore Curry says that the article's headline was "definitely misleading", that she did not, as stated in the piece "...say that "the affair had to be compared to the notorious Climategate scandal two years ago" and that the comparison to "hide the decline" was "teased...out of me".

The Mail describes Curry as a "leading member of the Prof Muller's team" and the "second named co-author of the BEST project's four research papers". In fact Curry has written that she was not centrally involved but " participated loosely" in the BEST project; the fact that she is the second named person on the BEST papers "is attributable to my last name starting with the letter 'C'".

Re-hashing the 'hide the decline' claim

Rose's article also references another oft-repeated, oft-debunked myth, saying

"Like the scientists exposed then by leaked emails from East Anglia University's Climatic Research Unit...the BEST project seem to be trying to 'hide the decline' in rates of global warming."

The phrase "hide the decline", which was contained in an email that Professor Phil Jones sent to a colleague in 1999, and which was subsequently hacked from the UEA severs, has become an iconic part of the 'Climategate' lexicon. The interpretation that scientists wanted to "hide the decline" in global temperatures has been repeatedly offered despite the email being sent in 1999 - before the slow-down in warming over the last ten years. As detailed in the Russell Report "the decline" in fact referred to the fact that a set of proxy temperature data from tree rings had diverged from temperature measurements - the proxy temperatures had declined while real temperatures continued to increase.

Mail supporting misrepresentation

Rose's piece was accompanied by a supportive editorial in the Mail on Sunday entitled "still room for doubt" - which stated that

"A great deal of government policy is based on the certainty that global warming is the biggest threat to our future thanks to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"That is why the country is overrun with wind farms and energy costs are skyrocketing, with green stealth taxes adding 15 to 20 per cent to the average domestic power bill. And this is all done on the authority of scientists who, we are repeatedly told, must have got the arguments right.

"….isn't it time for the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, and other ministers, to at least open their minds about climate change?"

Leaving aside the fact that this editorial ( again) repeated a GWPF-sourced figure which the Mail has already had to correct once following a PCC complaint, it shows that the Mail is willing to repeat and promote not just flawed and inaccurate arguments about energy policy, but significant misrepresentations of climate science.

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