Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Catching up: global warming - the emails

Updated It should go without saying that the big news on the global warming front is the meeting now going on in Copenhagen, where industrialized and industrializing nations are hoping (and probably failing) to hash out an agreement on heading off at least the worst effects of global warming.

It should. But of course it doesn't. Not when there are hacked emails! to drool over, distort, disdain, and demonize.

The theft of some 1000 emails from the computers of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK has sent the nanny-nanny naysayers heads a-reeling, tongues a-clucking, and dicks a-rising. "The greatest scientific fraud of the century - or ever, even!" goes the cry. The sheer glee is unmistakable.

What is the basis for all this hoo-hah? When you come right down to it, it's that a few of the emails, taken out of their context and parsed like an evangelist father checking his daughter for hickeys, can be made to sound fishy. Kinda. As a result, Aha! You'd been found out at last! We knew it all the time, even when we didn't have anything we could even begin to call "evidence." All of climate science is bogus! Bogus, I tell you! Fraudsters! Liars! DEMONS!

Well, even before we get to looking at the emails themselves, something should be made clear: Even if every right-wing fantasy about the meaning of those emails was to be granted, even if every twisted interpretation they try to impose on them was true, it still would say nothing about the reality of global warming, nothing about the risks of global warming, nothing about the effects of any given amount of global warming.

Not a thing.

That may seem surprising, considering the effort the wackos have undertaken to portray this as some devastating blow to the entire corpus of the scientific consensus about global warming, but it's true. Even granting everything about the emails - which I hasten to add I have absolutely no intention of doing, nor is there any need - leaves the science and the threat intact.

That's because what is involved here is not the science of present global warming but the attempts to reconstruct an historical record of global temperatures going back 1000 years. It relates, that is, to the so-called "hockey stick."

The original "hockey stick" is a graph, included in this post from October (scroll down, it's the next to last), dubbed that because it indicates relatively stable temperatures from about 1000 CE until about the beginning of the 20th century and rapidly rising temperatures since then - a straight "shaft" and an angled "blade." Other, later studies have warped the "shaft" (see the last graph at the same link) but the basic conclusion of rapidly rising temperatures reaching levels unprecedented in the last millennium remained.

But the thing is, before 1852 there are no actual recorded temperatures - no thermometer readings. So anything before that is a reconstruction using proxies, which can include historical accounts (and yes, they can be useful even lacking thermometers, such as someone noting the first day certain plants appeared in the spring), ice core samples, boreholes, lake sediment, and tree rings, among others. There is, obviously, more uncertainty there than in the case of actual records and the scientists doing the reconstructions will note the uncertainties involved. (Note, for example, the size of the error bars in the original hockey stick graph.)

It's those reconstructions - not the records - that are being attacked in the present case. The nanny-nanny naysayers, having first denied any warming was happening, have fallen back on claiming that there is nothing unusual about current temps, that it's all part of "natural variations" and nothing to worry about. So the hockey stick has become a particular irritation for them - and a point of unremitting attack - because it says, again, that current temperatures are unprecedented for at least 1000 years.

The focus of the attack has been on the tree ring data, probably because it is the proxy open to the most question and the trickiest to use, since the rings can be affected by local weather conditions - such as the amount of rainfall in a given year - as well as by temperature. (Never mind that it's not the only proxy; that's not important to the naysayers. "False in one, false in all" is the idea.)

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the most quoted of the hacked emails, the one where Phil Jones of the CRU says he used a "trick" applied to "Mike's" (Michael Mann's) data to "hide the decline."

Trick? Hide?

Actually, neither. "Trick," as seems to be penetrating most people's heads by now, is used in the everyday slang sense of a clever or quick way to do something. "Here, let me show you a trick for that." "I've learned some tricks of the trade over time."

"The decline" takes a bit more explanation. This had to do with an illustration of the change in global temperatures over the past millennium. It's important to note the word "illustration." This was not part of any scientific paper, it was not part of any manuscript, it was not presented as any sort of proof of anything. It was an illustration.

Reconstructed temperature data from tree rings had tracked acceptably closely to actual recorded temperatures since not long after those actual records started in 1852 until (for one set of tree ring data) about 1960 or (for a different set of tree ring data) 1980. After that, the two started to separate, with the tree rings indicating cooling and the actual observed temperatures getting hotter. No one really understands why. This is known as the "divergence problem" and has been a subject of investigation since 1998. (Note that that link and this one are to technical articles. Be prepared to suffer.)

Scientists, of course, believed the actual observations over the reconstructions. Simply put, the tree ring data after about 1960-1980 was considered unreliable. But a plot that just stopped at that point, omitting the last 20 to 40 years of observed data, would have been misleading. So for an illustration of changing temperatures, that observed data was appended to the plot of the tree-ring data from those studies.

If that had been part of some formal research paper intending to prove anything about global warming, that would have been a very serious matter. But it wasn't; it was, again, an illustration of current knowledge about global temps over history and beyond a possible charge of sloppy labeling it was guilty of no science crime whatsoever and involved no deception.

Which in turn, however, returns me to the business of how this ultimately has noting to do with the reality, risks, or effects of global warming: Because even if all the accusations were true - which they certainly are not, but even if - what is undermined is confidence in the reconstruction of past temperatures, not about the facts of present ones. (Indeed, note I say what is undermined is "confidence," not the reconstructions themselves: Remember that tree ring data is not the only proxy.)

"Oh!" the nanny-nanny naysayers come back. "But what about the Medieval Warm Period? It was just as warm then as now, even warmer, and that was great for civilization!" Part of the implication being that the temperature reconstructions were intended to, were (that is) manipulated to, conceal the MWP because it contradicted global warming arguments about the present. (One of the CRU emails subjected to the "Aha!" treatment referred to a desire to "contain" the MWP; it turned out to mean that the author wanted clearer limits on what the term meant by setting a time frame on it, particularly as to when it started.) Even leaving aside the consideration that even if claims about the benefits of the MWP were true, it would be irrelevant since we don't live in the world and society of 700 years ago, the fact is that, as I've noted several times before here and elsewhere, the so-called MWP very likely did not exist except as a temporary, regionally-limited, reversal in a long-term cooling trend. And while there is evidence that temperatures in the affected area in the period were similar to those at the beginning of the 20th century, there is nothing to say they were as warm as those at the end of the 20th century.

Still doubtful? Look at this graph:

It displays the "temperature anomalies" for the MWP as compared to a baseline of the 1961-1990 average. (The original paper is behind a pay firewall, but the press release is here.) Note that some areas of the northern hemisphere - particularly Greenland, southern Europe, and a good hunk of what's now the continental US were even a little warmer than today. Okay, fine. Now look at this one:

That displays the temperature anomalies for the period 1999-2008 as compared to that same baseline. (Derived from NOAA data via this post at I defy anyone to look at those two graphs and tell me that the MWP was for the world at large "as warm as or warmer than" today. It's complete bull.

There's one last email that's been getting waved around that I'll deal with here. This one is from Kevin Trenberth, who directs the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. In that email, he wrote that
[t]he fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.
Contrary to what the nanny-nanny naysayers have tried to turn this into by slavering over the word "travesty" as if it revealed something about the science of global warming, what Trenberth was saying was that a variety of data from around the world, "including melting of Arctic sea ice and rising sea levels and a lot of other indicators," he said later, says warming is continuing - but the temperature readings don't appear to reflect it.
The global mean temperature in 2008 was the lowest since about 2000[, he wrote in a recent paper]. Given that there is continual heating of the planet, referred to as radiative forcing, by accelerating increases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses due to human activities, why isn’t the temperature continuing to go up? ... In particular, what are the physical processes? From an energy standpoint, there should be an explanation that accounts for where the radiative forcing has gone. ... But surely we have an adequate system to track whether this is the case or not, don’t we?

Well, it seems that the answer is no, we do not. But we should!
Natural variations are sufficient to explain the temperature variations, but the question is just what are those variations and why are they having the effects they are: for example, continuing melts without a recorded rise in surface temperatures. One possibility is simply a lag time, that heat already stored is still having an effect, which should mean that the effects would diminish over time (less melting, etc.) until the temporary reversal of warming temperatures ends. Another possibility is it's a sign of the development of a sort of positive feedback loop of the type climatologists have long predicted/feared, one where enough change has occurred that it feeds on itself or that even lower temperatures can continue to drive it.

A third is what the folks at Climate Progress proposed:
The answer to the question “where the heck is global warming?” is “precisely where you would expect.”
Citing several studies, they declare "It’s the oceans, stupid!"
[T]he surface temperature data - which is subject to the vagaries of climate variability - only represent a tiny fraction of the human-caused warming. ...

[U]pper ocean heat content, perhaps not surprisingly, is simply far more variable than deeper ocean heat content, and thus an imperfect indicator of the long-term warming trend.
In other words, the world is still warming, but most of that warming is going to heat the deeper oceans. Which reflects what Trenberth was saying, expressed more bluntly: There is, he was arguing, more warming that the temperature records indicate - the global warming is greater than we know. Which is one hell of a lot different from what the nanny-nanny naysayers - who apparently couldn't be bothered to check his paper (to which he referred in the email) - were claiming he said.

The simple fact is, in terms of revealing some sort of conspiratorial manipulation of data as part of some decades long, worldwide hoax, the emails say absolutely nada. If the conspiracy claims were true, if there was anything to them at all, you'd think there would be something substantial in all that mass, something beyond tortured interpretations of individual phrases. And there just isn't.

Like the Holocaust deniers, the Moon landing deniers, the evolution deniers, the birthers and deathers, and the rest, global warming deniers will be with us for some time, convinced with all the intensity of the True Believer that their chosen fantasy is The Truth which is being suppressed by a powerful cabal and who will embrace any shred of innuendo as irrefutable proof of the Great Conspiracy - no matter how many times they are shown to be either wrong, misinformed, or simply utterly ignorant about the subjects they presume to address. No proof will ever be strong enough to be accepted, no counter-"proof" will ever be weak enough to be rejected.

What the leaked emails show at worst is some scientists being crabby, irritable, short-tempered, frustrated at dealing with those they consider fools, intemperate in language in what was supposed to be private correspondence - in short, some scientists behaving badly on a personal level. I can understand and sympathize, having more than once gotten testy in exchanges with nanny-nanny naysayers and getting frustrated at having to deal with the same old, long-debunked claims and fantasies yet again. But for all of the stretches, all of the fill-in-the-blanks arguments citing words that aren't there, all of the wide-eyed gasps and "What about THIS????" finger-pointing from people who clearly don't understand what they're reading, that is, when you strip away the claims based on innuendo or ignorance, the evidence of those scientists actually behaving badly on a scientific, on a professional level, is sorely lacking. Talking smack, I note for the record, is not evidence.

But none of that matters to the nanny-nanny naysayers. So like mosquitoes, the nanny-nanny naysayers will always be around. And like mosquitoes, they are mostly annoying - but they can carry and transmit (in this case political) disease, which is why they must be monitored - and smacked down where necessary.

Footnote: I'll note for the record that I haven't addressed the actual theft of the emails because in this context I'm not overly concerned about that. As I said at another site,
if these had been emails hacked from, I dunno, Exxon-Mobil and laid out some plan to finance nanny-nanny naysayer research in a conscious attempt to deceive people about the reality of global warming because corporate executives were concerned about the company's bottom line if people turned away from carbon-based fuels, I wouldn't be going "Oh no! Stolen emails! Don't look! Don't look!"
So I'm not going to do it with these. It's the content and the distortion of that content with which I'm concerned.

Updated to note that the Associated Press and Popular Mechanics have now each published their own analysis of the emails. The AP one was done by AP staff; the PM one was by Peter Kelemen, a professor of geochemistry at Columbia University's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, acting as a guest analyst. Each, even after giving the most skeptic-favoring reasonable interpretation of the emails that they could, concludes that, in AP's words, "the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked." And indeed, AFP quoted a couple of Canadian experts on the topic as saying it is a "fabricated scandal" that is really about "politics in the US," where political opposition to climate change is "driven by an extremist view."

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