Saturday, March 3, 2012

How Climate Fears Became Exaggerated

Thanks to Michael Kelly. Michael Kelly, a professor of engineering at Cambridge specializing in electronics, has fairly recently joined the debates about global climate. As a trained scientist, coming to literature specifically on climate for the first time, he has been in a good position to say what makes sense and what does not. He first came to public notice in connection with climate almost two years ago, and then he appeared as the author of an opinion piece within the last few weeks. Kelly was a member of the “Oxburgh panel,” appointed in March 2010 “to examine important elements of the published science of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia” (quoting from the UEA news release). When this panel concluded its work (only a month later), Andrew Montford, who blogs as “Bishop Hill,” submitted a Freedom of Information request for e-mails from some of the participants, and received some material in response in June. One attachment to an e-mail from the UEA to panel members Professors Hand and Graumlich was a paper by Kelly.(For all the released documents, putting Kelly’s paper in context, see here. Kelly made it clear that he had read through some of the famous “hockey stick” publications by Keith Briffa and Phil Jones more than once, and had more and more questions as he proceeded. (For those who don’t know, the “hockey stick” purports to show that there was no significant warming for hundreds if not thousands of years before the twentieth century; that warming became significant only recently, in a way that coincided with the increase in man-made CO2; and that computer models showed an even more significant increase—indeed a potentially catastrophic one—in the near future). On his first reading of Briffa’s papers, Kelly approved of the overall approach, although there may already have been the beginnings of a niggling question:
There is no evidence, as far as I am concerned, of anything other than a straightforward scientific exercise within the confines described above [i.e. “very noisy and patchy data when several confounding factors may be at play in varying ways throughout the data”]. The papers are full of suitable qualifications about the limitations of the data and the strength of the inferences to be drawn from them. I find no evidence of blatant mal-practice. That is not to say that, working within the current paradigm, choices of data and analysis approach might be made in order to strain to get more out of the data than a dispassionate analysis might permit.
On the Jones papers, a similar “clean bill of health” was delivered, but again not exactly a ringing one:
In neither of these papers is there any overt malpractice, but one can’t eliminate the possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in the choices of data. I just do wonder if a different hypothesis was being tested whether the same approach could give a very different answer.
Kelly was very concerned at the suggestion in the Briffa papers that data must fit the model, rather than the other way around.
I take real exception to having simulation runs described as experiments (without at least the qualification of 'computer' experiments). It does a disservice to centuries of real experimentation and allows simulations output to be considered as real data. This last is a very serious matter, as it can lead to the idea that real 'real data' might be wrong simply because it disagrees with the models! That is turning centuries of science on its head.
This was a sign of more trouble to come. There are plenty of indications that the more Kelly read, the more uneasy he became. On his second reading of Briffa: “The line between positive conclusions and the null hypothesis is very fine in my book.” This suggests that the authors, for all their efforts, may not have enough data, or may not have applied the appropriate methods, to prove anything at all. On the attempted correlation between tree growth and temperature: “Some features do correlate - others don't so where is the rigorous test of the significance of correlation or lack of it?” In the section of his paper called “Subsequent thoughts,” Kelly showed even more reservations:
An elegant theory which does not fit good experimental data is a bad theory. Here the starting data is patchy and noisy, and the choices made are in part aesthetic, or designed to help a conclusion rather than neutral. This all colours my attitude to the limited value of complex simulations that cannot by [sic] exhaustively tested against 'real' data from independent experiments that control all but one of the variables.
Whatever the faults of particular papers, Kelly is prepared to exonerate the scientists involved because the climate issue has become politically “febrile,” as he puts it. He comments on the way fairly sober scientific work, with lots of uncertainties and qualifications, has become transformed into generalizations, supposedly certain and based on a “consensus,” that must drive public policy.
Up to and throughout this exercise, I have remained puzzled how the real humility of the scientists in this area, as evident in their papers, including all these here, and the talks I have heard them give, is morphed into statements of confidence at the 95% level for public consumption through the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] process. This does not happen in other subjects of equal importance to humanity, e.g. energy futures or environmental degradation or resource depletion. I can only think it is the 'authority' appropriated by the IPCC itself that is the root cause.
This brings us to Kelly’s more recent contribution to the climate debate. He wrote a letter to the Times of London which appeared on February 28, 2012. He first explains that there is a good reason to be a “skeptic” (although not a “denier”) when it comes to the orthodox belief that warming is a significant problem, and specific remedies are required:
The interpretation of the observational science has been consistently over-egged to produce alarm. All real-world data over the past 20 years has shown the climate models to be exaggerating the likely impacts — if the models cannot account for the near term, why should I trust them in the long term?
He also expresses concern about the investment in wind turbines as a putative solution to the climate “problem”:
I am most worried by the billions of pounds being misinvested and lost as a consequence. Look out to sea at the end of 2015 and see how many windmills are not turning and you will get my point: there are already 14,000 abandoned windmills onshore in the US. Premature technology deployment is thoroughly bad engineering, and my taxes are subsidising it against my will and professional judgment.
High prices are paid for electricity from “alternative” sources, which continue to produce very little electricity, as and when it is needed, despite the high cost. This may be a poorly thought-out solution to a slight or non-existent problem. There is very widespread agreement, as Kelly said in a portion of his letter that was not printed, that “the climate has always been changing”—so only a fool would be a “denier” of that fact. There is similar agreement that there has been some warming over the past 150 years—perhaps one degree Celsius. This in itself is nothing to lose a night’s sleep over. The warming “orthodoxy” claims that we will see much more dramatic warming in the near future, and it is best to take drastic action immediately. As it has become clear that the warming trend has actually levelled off (even if the past decade is still a relatively warm one), the rhetoric has shifted to “climate change” and predictions of extreme weather events. Fortunately (or unfortunately for those wedded to a theory), there is even less evidence of any increase in extreme events (an increase in unpredictability? Was weather somehow more predictable in the past? Was anyone even trying to predict it until recently?) than there is of a significant temperature increase. Note: when I blogged about the Kelly paper earlier, I got the facts a bit wrong.

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