Saturday, November 06, 2010

A positive feedback loop in climate alarmism, if not in the climate itself

by Judith Curry, a climatologist who is now much more skeptical about Warmism than she once was

I’m at Purdue University, preparing for a panel discussion with Andy Revkin and Roger Pielke Jr. on “Beyond Climategate.” The following three questions have been posed:

* Have scientists become ‘too political’ in their advocacy of particular climate change mitigation and adaptation policies? Do the benefits of engaging in political advocacy outweigh the risks of losing their credibility as scientists?

* What role has the media, including the blogosphere and the Internet, played in this growing contradiction? How has the media shaped the way that climate science is debated, disputed, and created? Is there a ‘better’ way for climate scientists to work with the media?

* Moving forward, is there a better role for climate scientists in political and policy debates, and if so, what would it look like?

Well, in the wake of Climategate, I have been trying to understand the crazy dynamics of climate science and policy and politics, and how things went so terribly wrong. I don’t think this is easily explained by any of the following explanations that are commonly put forth:

* either too little or too much PR and activism/advocacy by climate scientists

* the merchants of doubt and deniers won because of better PR and activism

* the scientists are corrupt and politically (or financially) motivated

The positive feedback loop

I think the dynamics are much more complicated, and can only be understood by considering the ever vexatious feedback loop. There has been a particularly toxic positive feedback loop between climate science and policy and politics, whose direction has arguably been reversed as result of Climategate.

The scientists provided the initial impulse for this feedback loop back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The enviro advocacy groups quickly saw the possibilities and ran with it, with the scientists’ blessing. The enviro advocacy groups saw the climate change issue as an opportunity to enlist scientific support for their preferred energy policy solution. Libertarian think tanks, the traditional foes of the enviro advocacy groups, began countering with doubts about the science. International efforts to deal with the climate change problem were launched in 1992 with the UNFCCC treaty.

Wait a minute, what climate change problem? In 1992, we had just completed the first IPCC assessment report, here was their conclusion: “The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. . . The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.”

Nevertheless, the policy cart was put before the scientific horse, justified by the precautionary principle. Once the UNFCCC treaty was a done deal, the IPCC and its scientific conclusions were set on a track to become a self fulfilling prophecy. The entire framing of the IPCC was designed around identifying sufficient evidence so that the human-induced greenhouse warming could be declared unequivocal, and so providing the rationale for developing the political will to implement and enforce carbon stabilization targets. National and international science programs were funded to support the IPCC objectives. What should have been a political debate about energy policy, environmental quality, and reducing vulnerability to weather and climate disasters, became a debate about the nuances of climate science, with climate scientists as the pawns and whipping boys.

So were the scientists innocent victims and pawns in all this? Were they just hardworking scientists doing their best to address the impossible expectations of the policy makers? Well, many of them were. However, at the heart of the IPCC is a cadre of scientists whose careers have been made by the IPCC. These scientists have used the IPCC to jump the normal meritocracy process by which scientists achieve influence over the politics of science and policy. Not only has this brought some relatively unknown, inexperienced and possibly dubious people into positions of influence, but these people become vested in protecting the IPCC, which has become central to their own career and legitimizes playing power politics with their expertise.

The advantages of dogma

When I refer to the IPCC dogma, it is the religious importance that the IPCC holds for this cadre of scientists; they will tolerate no dissent, and seek to trample and discredit anyone who challenges the IPCC. Who are these priests of the IPCC? Some are mid to late career middle ranking scientists who have done ok in terms of the academic meritocracy. Others were still graduate students when they were appointed as lead authors for the IPCC. These scientists have used to IPCC to gain a seat at the “big tables” where they can play power politics with the collective expertise of the IPCC, to obtain personal publicity, and to advance their careers. This advancement of their careers is done with the complicity of the professional societies and the institutions that fund science. Eager for the publicity, high impact journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS frequently publish sensational but dubious papers that support the climate alarm narrative.

Especially in the renascent subfields such as econology and public health, these publications and the media attention help steer money in the direction of these scientists, which buys them loyalty from their institutions, who appreciate the publicity and the dollars.

Further, the institutions that support science use the publicity to argue for more funding to support climate research and its impacts. And the broader scientific community inadvertently becomes complicit in all this. While the IPCC priests loudly cry out against the heretical skeptical scientists and the dark influences of big oil and right wing ideology that are anti-science, we all join in bemoaning these dark forces that are fighting a war against science, and support the IPCC against its critics. The media also bought into this, by eliminating balance in favor of the IPCC dogma.

So do I think these priests of the IPCC are policy advocates? They are mainly concerned with preserving the importance of the IPCC, which has become central to their professional success, funding, and influence. Supporting the emissions and stabilization policies that they think logically follows from the science is part and parcel of this. Most don’t understand the policy process or the policy specifics; they view the policy as part an parcel of the IPCC dogma that must be protected and preserved at all cost, else their success, funding and influence will be in jeopardy.

Reversing the direction of the feedback

So this positive feedback continued to reinforce itself, entraining more and more of the broader scientific community who deplored the political war on science. Now the interesting thing about a positive feedback is that this doesn’t say anything about the trajectory of the actual chain of events. A year ago, on November 19, this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut received a major impulse in the opposite direction with the unauthorized release of the emails from the University of East Anglia. A year later, there has been some rather spectacular unraveling of the climate change juggernaut, although the high priests of the IPCC don’t quite realize it yet: the positive feedback at work, but in the opposite direction.

I along with much of the rest of the world viewed the IPCC as a group of highly meritorious scientists, working hard and digging deep to assess the science, all the while fighting against the dark forces of politics and big oil. The biggest shock from reading the emails was that the IPCC assessment process had a substantial element of schoolyard bullies, trying to insulate their shoddy science from outside scrutiny and attacks by skeptics, over concern with their press and media attention, discrediting skeptics, etc. Now the argument is rightly made that behavior of scientists is not relevant to the truth of science. However, when the assessment of the science rests largely on expert judgment, the behavior and credibility of the experts becomes a very important issue.

At this point, the whole thing would have been salvageable if scientists and the institutions that support science would have spoken up for the integrity of climate science, demanding greater transparency, etc. Instead, silence. A few statements were made by individuals and professional societies saying that the science remained sound, the emails don’t change the science.

I started speaking up about integrity and transparency, and I was told that this wasn’t helping, and was advised to stay off the blogs. And why was this? Central to protecting the IPCC dogma is the UNFCCC process, and we mustn’t allow this illegal hack to derail the policy activity in Copenhagen. Well, its hard to tell to what extent Climategate contributed to the failure of Copenhagen; it seems that raw politics was much more in play than the politics of science.

Then we saw errors in the IPCC reports, with the nature of the response by the IPCC further damaging their credibility. Investigations of scientists at East Anglia and Penn State were widely regarded to be whitewashes; in the U.K. the investigations themselves are now being investigated. Then we saw the collapse of 7 years of work in the U.S. senate for a carbon cap and trade bill. And allegations of conflicts of interest for the IPCC’s leader, Rachendra Pachauri.

The structure that has provide the basis for the IPCC priesthood to play power politics with their expertise in the arena of energy policy has all but collapsed. If this was just about science, this shouldn’t matter to the scientists. That the power is now in the hands of economists was bemoaned by Kevin Trenberth last week.

The blogosphere

The other hit to IPCC’s influence in power politics has come from the “radical implications of the blogosphere” in changing the dynamics of expertise. The blogosphere has provided a technological base for people such as Steve McIntyre, who is either the villain or hero of Climategate, depending on your perspective.

I’ve had my pulse on the blogosphere since 2005, and have experimented with it as a way of communicating climate science and engaging with skeptics. When I first saw the emails on the internet, I knew immediately that this was going to go viral at least in the blogosphere, and I saw the IPCC as being in major jeopardy because of this. To try to calm things down, I posted two essays in the blogosphere on issues related to the integrity of climate science. I was hoping to keep a dialogue open with the skeptics so this whole thing didn’t explode.

Well, I was pretty much the only voice out there amongst the scientists that were supporters of the IPCC. I became deafened by the silence of my colleagues, and more important from the institutions that support science. Pachauri’s defense of the IPCC, and his apparent conflicts of interest, added fuel to the fire. I began asking whether the IPCC could survive this, and even whether it should survive this. I began trying to provide some constructive suggestions for the community to rebuild trust through greater transparency and greater attention to uncertainties. Not only did I receive virtually no support from my colleagues, but they started to view me as part of the problem.

At some point, I decided that I could no longer in good faith support the IPCC and its assessments. At the moment, it seems that many regard me as the main problem. Many of my colleagues wonder why I am being so “mavericky.” Here are some of the explanations that have been put forward over the last two weeks to explain my apparently inexplicable behavior:

* I been duped by big oil and/or right wing think tanks

* I have opened my mind so wide to skeptics that my brains have fallen out

* I’m in the pay of big oil or right wing think tanks

* I’m being blackmailed

* I have become either physically or mentally disabled

So what am I doing and why? I’m trying to get the public perception of climate science back on track so that our field can regain some respect. That respect will not be regained by better PR; rather it is essential to increase transparency, engage with skeptics, and pay more attention to uncertainty. I’m trying to put the blogosphere to work to reduce the polarization on this topic. My new blog is Climate Etc. at

On the role of scientists in public debates

So in closing, I would like to address the last question, regarding the role of scientists in public and policy debates. Well, first we have to remind ourselves that we are scientists, and that integrity is of particular importance in public and policy debates. Feynman describes scientific integrity in his Cargo Cult Science talk:

“[A]lthough you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. . . The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”

Much of what I have been saying over the past year is about uncertainty, and what I view is an inadequate job of characterizing uncertainty by the IPCC. When I start using the words uncertainty and doubt, people immediately assume that I am a merchant of doubt in the pay of big oil, since doubt is used to diminish the political will to act. Well, get over it, “everything is uncertain except death and taxes,” as the saying goes.

Robust decision making incorporates information about uncertainty into the decision making process. And characterizing uncertainty for policy makers is what we should be doing as scientists. Exploring the uncertainty, help understand the risks, and help assess the impacts and efficacy of various policy options. The role of scientists should not be to develop political will to act by hiding or simplifying the uncertainties.


More on the feedback loop between scientists and politics

by Judith Curry

I can’t predict in advance when a thread will generate a lot of activity; I’m learning that anything with “climategate” in it is likely to have a lot of traffic. Since the first thread has almost 500 comments, I would like to address some of the questions and issues raised, and redirect the discussion.

The previous post was written for the Purdue event, I had 10-15 minutes to make a statement. I put forth an argument (the feedback loop) with premises. To many, the premises I put forth seem self evident. Others are demanding “proof” and “evidence” of my premises. My argument, and the premises that it is based on, are offered up for discussion on this blog.

Are any of you tired of the endless debate over who is hero and who is villain in the scenario unfolded in the CRU emails? Even if we were to get rid of all of the “objectionable” characters on both sides of this, would climate science be fixed? Would we have sensible energy policies? No and no. And we can’t frame/narrate/communicate our way out of this either. The problems and the issues are much bigger: geopolitics, economics, clashes of values. An extremely wicked problem for which science does not provide a solution.

I’m surprised that people thought I was attacking climate scientists in my original post. Climate scientists have been pawns in all this; some have been victims and others have benefitted. If anyone can be labeled as a “villain” in all this, it would arguably be the UNEP/UNFCCC; but in a way that begs the question of how all this started and who started it.

The point of my previous essay is that there was a complex set of mutual reinforcing motives and policies that snowballed without any checks and balances. The “system” was running out of control.

So on this thread, I would like to talk about big picture issues related to the institutions and the larger forces at play in all this. And speculate on how we can fix this situation, or at least get some checks and balances in the system.

Once the UNFCCC treaty was in place, there was pressure on the IPCC to back this up with science. Hence the “discernible” in the SAR. Ben Santer has taken huge heat for that, but look at where the pressure was coming from. The whole UNFCCC treaty wouldn’t make sense unless there was at least “discernible” evidence that this was actually happening.

Once the Kyoto Protocol was in place, the emphasis of WGIII was clearly on mitigation and stabilization targets (the FAR WGIII was on mitigation and adaptation, and the SAR WGIII was on robust policies, the TAR and AR4 are on mitigation). Building political will for the Kyoto Protocol was a high priority for the TAR. The hockey stick icon fit the bill, with Michael Mann plucked from graduate school to serve as a lead author.

With political will not solidifying around the Kyoto Protocol, there was pressure on the AR4. We are now seeing the words “unequivocal” and very likely, although there wasn’t really much evidence beyond that provided in the TAR. In the AR4, political pressure actually acted to moderate the conclusions.

The “discernible” and the hockey stick should never have made it into the summary for policy makers. Do we blame Mann and Santer for this? Heck no (well they were complicit, but not to blame). These were decisions made by people that were higher up and with pressure from policy makers. At the time of publication of the TAR in 2001, Mann was 3 years post Ph.D. Santer is a few years younger than I am, which was pretty young (early 40’s) in the early 1990′s when the SAR was being prepared. Whatever their scientific talents or contributions, they were put into a highly political situation that required a lot of judgment and experience to navigate these things.

In spite of being “burned” as part of the IPCC process, both Mann and Santer remained very loyal to the IPCC and defensive of it, and have been rewarded professionally. I argue that they have also been victimized by the IPCC (they can hardly enjoy the threats, etc.) Some prominent climate scientists left the field because it was too political, notably Starley Thompson.

So, do we spend time beating up or defending scientists like Mann and Santer, or do we try to understand the nature of the system that both victimize and rewarded scientists like Mann and Santer? I for one am trying to get at the issues with the system and to understand how this all went so wrong.


Alarmist spammer unleashes Twitterbot to stifle climate debate

Nigel Leck, an Australian software developer, grew tired of debating climate realists on Twitter so he created a spambot to "wear down" his opponents. The bot, @AI_AGW, scans Twitter every five minutes looking for key phrases commonly used by those who challenge the global warming orthodoxy. It then posts one of hundreds of canned responses hoping to frustrate skeptics. CFACT's Twitter account @CFACT (follow us!) often receives many of these unsolicited messages each day. Since the bot became active on May 26, 2010, it has sent out over 40,000 tweets, or an average of more than 240 updates per day!

Technology Review gushed that Leck's bot "answers Twitter users who aren't even aware of their own ignorance." Leck claims that his little bit of trollware is commonly mistaken as a genuine Twitter user leading the unsuspecting to sometimes debate it for days. Eventually it wears people down.

Leck's bot is an innovative, yet appalling new tactic in the ongoing campaign by global warming proponents to stifle debate and end discussion of climate science and policy. Spamming Twitter users is a tactic that is likely to backfire, as have so many of the ploys alarmists have tried in the past. There is nothing internet users find so annoying as trolls using spam to shut down online discussions.

Over the last year we have witnessed the large-scale collapse of public trust in global warming science and policy. The warmist's Climategate emails, relentless propagandizing, refusals to debate, carbon profiteering and lecturing by celebrities who lead lavish lifestyles while preaching austerity for the rest of us, have offended people's intelligence and sense of fair play. Using a spambot to harass climate realists will do nothing to ingratiate the warming argument with anyone with an open mind.

Should climate realists put up a bot of their own? Should we let the two bots debate each other and leave it to the machines? CFACT knows better. When you interact with our @CFACT account on Twitter, you are talking with a live human being. Science demands an open, honest give and take. So does public policy making in a free republic. Harassment and spam is not the answer. Mr. Leck, tear down this bot!


Why being Green means never having to say you're sorry

One of the stories from the Bible I’ve never quite understood is the parable of the Prodigal Son. So this utterly useless git prematurely grabs his share of his inheritance, goes out into the world, blows it on being stupid, loses everything, then comes back to his father with his tail between his legs and what happens? Why his father, sap that he is, decides to reward him for being wrong and stupid and useless by greeting him, well, like a prodigal son and killing the fatted calf. No wonder the Other Son – the sensible, intelligent one who was right all along – feels so mightily peeved. If people don’t get their just deserts in life, what’s the point even bothering to do the right thing in the first place?

Anyway, watching Channel 4’s "What The Green Movement Got Wrong" last night I felt very much like the Other Son. The documentary was a celebration of the fact that two notable green campaigners – Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand (creator of the Whole Earth Catalog) had finally come round to appreciating that some of the key tenets of their Green religion were flawed and had in fact done more harm than good.

GM crops such as “golden rice” and vitamin-enhanced millet, they cheerily conceded, were not evil “Frankenfoods” after all but a vital way of averting malnutrition in the Third World.

Nuclear power, they agreed, was way more efficient at producing clean energy than the coal alternative. Furthermore, the fuss about Chernobyl had been horribly overdone.

The near global ban on DDT – inspired by Rachel Carson’s junk science bestseller Silent Spring – had caused millions to die of malaria. And so on.

Well bully for Lynas and Brand. But why, pray, do they deserve any credit for reaching conclusions that those of us who aren’t blinkered eco-zealots reached years ago?

What about the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of starving Zambians who died in the 2002 famine when, thanks to the misinformed campaigning of green activists like Lynas, the Zambian government refused to distribute US foreign aid packages of GM food?

What about all the honest, decent scientists and agricultural engineers and nuclear workers whose career path was stymied as a result of green hysteria?

What about the brown-outs and power shortages and energy insecurity this country is going to suffer as a direct result of the Greenie anti-nuclear hysteria which prevented us replacing our old nuclear power stations?

What ABOUT those millions and millions that Rachel Carson inadvertently massacred with her entirely unfounded claims about the effects of DDT on birdlife?

Green campaigners like Brand and Lynas have not only caused massive damage to the global economy – the biotech and nuclear industry, especially – but they have also almost certainly contributed to numerous deaths in the Third World. And we’re – what? – supposed to cosy up to them now and go: “Well done, lads! You’ve seen the light! Here’s a bung and a nice promo video from your mates at Channel 4?”

What sticks in my craw still further is that neither Brand nor Lynas actually HAS seen the light. As the programme went on to demonstrate, both men remain wedded to the equally wrong-headed theory of Man Made Climate Change. The final part of the programme, both could be heard fantasising at the kind of Geo Engineering that might be necessary – a recreation of the dust clouds of the Mt Pinatubo volcanic eruption which caused world temperatures to drop by around 3 degrees C, say – in order to avert “Global Warming.” Come back Dr Strangelove, all is forgiven.

Had these Greenies been capable of a scrap of insight or self-analysis, they would have understood that the current (now fading) hysteria about AGW comes from exactly the same school of junk science and muddled thinking that gave us Atomkraft Nein Danke and know-nothing idiots in masks and white jumpsuits (Lynas among them) destroying fields of GM crops.

But obviously it wouldn’t be in Lynas’s interest because that might jeopardise the rather cushy number he’s landed these last few years from the Maldives Government, advising it on how best to squeeze yet more guilt-money out of the global taxpayer (it was Lynas who dreamed up that photo of the Maldives government holding a cabinet meeting underwater) in the name of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

And the readers over at Komment Macht Frei would seem to agree with me. Definitely worth a trip to see the comments below the Moonbat’s blog on the same subject. The Moonbat, of course, being cross for reasons entirely different to mine.

"Environmentalism is not just about replacing one set of technologies with another. Technological change is important, but it will protect the biosphere only if we also tackle issues such as economic growth, consumerism and corporate power. These are the challenges the green movement asks us to address. These are the issues the film ignores."

And there you have it: the true voice of the Green movement – red in tooth and ideology. It’s not about easy fixes. It’s not about making things better. It’s about advancing the Marxist war on capitalism by other means. Thanks George, for reminding us where you stand.


Australia’s High Quality temperature Data: 12-year-sites used for “long term” trends

What would you say if you knew our high quality temperature record included sites with 100 year long “records” which were based on just 12 years of data and some undisclosed method was used to construct 90% of the graph?

Wow? I mean, Wow?! Why are these sites with such little actual data being included in a series called “high quality”?

Presumably the “adjusted” trends were recreated (in a sense) by homogenizing data from nearby stations, but why not use just the stations with long records in the first place? Out in the vast outback there are long distances between stations, and while a “splice” might overlap for ten years, who knows whether the dramatic PDO oscillations don’t shift weather patterns during their 30 year cycle and mean that any ten year period is not indicative of the longer time frame.

BOM compensate for the Urban Heat Island effect by making adjustments that essentially result in almost no change in the trend. They remove the “urban” stations, but UHI affects even small populations, and Andrew Barnham speculates that the largest changes in the UHI effect may occur in these smaller rural locations that are still included.

Andrew Barnham has done an independent assessment of the BOM trends, using a slightly different methodology to Ken Stewart, but like Ken, this raises grave doubts that our high quality records are done in a rigorous manner. We need both the BOM and CSIRO audited, independently.

Much more HERE (See the original for links, graphics etc.)


For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here


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