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Climate change: statistics, spin and self-importance at Wattsupwiththat

July 30, 2010

A funny thing happened to me on the way to my blog…

I was writing up an article on the State of the Climate 2009 report and thought I’d take a look at the reaction to it on the notorious denialist site WattsUpWithThat. I found nothing on the report – it’s early days so Anthony Watts may yet discuss the findings – but another item caught my attention. It’s a piece by Mike Lorrey, a WUWT moderator, called ‘Step Changes in Science Blog Climate’, describing changes in website traffic patterns of various environmental sites over the last year.

The way Lorrey went about it is instructive. He used a tool available on alexa.com with which you can compare the web stats for several sites. For his comparison, Lorrey chose to compare the performance of WUWT with realclimate.org, climateprogress.org and climateaudit.org. These choices beg the obvious question: who are these sites and are the comparisons valid, or is this a case of mixed apples and oranges?

Wattsupwiththat.com is arguably the principle climate change denialist blog on the web. Run by ex-TV weatherman Anthony Watts, the blog features many prominent sceptics but is often accused of presenting poor science, thinly-disguised ideological arguments or personal attacks (an accusation that, in fairness, is levelled equally at the other sites used in this comparison). In 2008, his blog won the internet voting-based “Best Science Blog” Weblog Award.

Realclimate.org is the unofficial home of many prominent climate scientists, including Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, Caspar Ammann, Ray Bradley, Stefan Rahmstorf and Eric Steig. James Hansen and other leading figures in the climate change debate contribute regularly.

Climateprogress.org is a blog run by physicist and climate expert Dr. Joe Romm, considered one of the best, and most influential, commentators on climate change, the science and its relationship to (mainly) US politics. In 2009, Time magazine called him “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger”.

Climateaudit.org is a blog run by Steve McIntyre, the statistician who seems determined largely to prove Michael Mann wrong. Along the way, he has become a staunch critic of all things climate change. His site is often arcane, technical and highly detailed. It is not for the faint-hearted and its inclusion seems odd.

The Bell Rings: Round 1

The spin starts early, and we must draw our own conclusions as to why it is necessary to ‘colour’ material in this way. Referring to the lower traffic going to Realclimate, the author states confidently that “realclimate.org was always the least popular, indicating the general public got that this was an astroturfing site by climate alarmists who tolerated no dissent”. If that seems like a reasonable analysis instead of bilious back-stabbing, stop reading now – you’re in the wrong place.

Here is the graph that WUWT presents in Mike Lorrey’s story:

 

(I generated this graph myself – you can never be too careful – so the 7 day rank change has altered compared to the one posted on WUWT, but that is the only difference).

2009 was evidently a good year for WUWT in terms of traffic. We can see them getting more popular over time. It is odd however that they claim the additional attention and extra traffic generated from it “…resulted in our weblog award for 2008 as the number one science blog…”. Is it me, or does the graph for 2008 show virtually no increase except right at the end of the year? (Note:  you can only see half of 2008 – the limit is the historical extent of the Alexa data – so the peak in the WUWT blue trace is December only).

Round 2

When it comes to the big spike in November 2009, the reason all the traffic goes up is straightforward: the unauthorised publication of the UEA emails, the wrong date for Himalayan glacier disappearance in the last IPCC report, and the fiasco that was the Copenhagen Climate Change conference. WUWT feel the need to spin the material, claiming “The alexa stats clearly demonstrate who won the narrative with the public with a dramatic step change in the popularity of WUWT along with a crash of CP and RC after brief spurts”.

This claim is a matter of interpretation, not intent. There are different ways to analyse information, some more flattering than others. Let me just suggest another interpretation, without claiming it to be true or false: nobody ‘won’ the public narrative, nor was there a step change between pro- and anti- sites. All the traces go up proportionally – strikingly so, I think – but where the sceptics want to chew endlessly on the emails and other ‘scandals’, those who follow the science with a less determined objective in mind realised that the whole thing was a vast illusion, which of course every study, investigation and report has subsequently confirmed. So another way of putting it, based on the graph above, is that some people got the point faster than others, the laggards congregating at WUWT while everyone else saw through the illusion and went back to work. We’ll see something else a bit later that might illuminate this point a little more.

Round 3

I used web stats in my corporate life, so I’m used to picking out the value rather than being impressed by big numbers. For example, the number of people who go to a site may not be as important as how many pages they look at or how long they spend at the site.  Here’s an interesting comparison:

 

This shows how many pages each site’s users access while they are there.  Joe Romm’s Climateprogress.org does substantially better than everyone else – make of that what you will. And what do you make of the fact that Romm’s visitors also spend a lot longer at Climate Progress than any of the other sites, including WUWT?

 

Let’s put this information in context. WUWT has a high traffic ranking. But if another site has half the number of visitors, they look at twice as many pages and stay three times as long, who would you say has “won the narrative with the public”?

Round 4

Coming back to the apples and oranges, I was struck by how impressive the blue trace looks, up there on its own. Gosh! How successful WUWT has become, eh?

Well, a bit later in the article on WUWT, the author exclaims “As of this writing, WUWT is ranked #6 by Alexa in the world for Environmental websites, not just climate blog sites”.  I couldn’t help but note that none of the top ten sites were used in the comparison – and this might be making one site look rather more impressive than it really is. Being a helpful chap, I thought the least I could do was re-analyse the traffic patterns using some of WUWT’s companions in the ranking.

 

Looks like climate change has a long way to go before it becomes as interesting to the public as general environmental issues – it would appear the trends for Greenpeace and Treehugger (the number 1 environmental site) were barely disturbed by the email blather, the IPCC fuss or – of more concern – the Copenhagen conference. Deniers often tell us there are other things we should be worrying about – as if we were ignoring those issues – but apparently the environmental concerns of the general public are far less fickle that the hard-core climate change wonks would care to admit.

Round 5

Something unexpected also came out of my own comparison, but it does show why Joe Romm is considered so influential. Have a look at these two graphs:

 

 One thing for sure – Romm’s Climateprogress.org holds reader’s attention like no other comparable site, a sure sign of quality. I cannot help but suspect that Watts and his moderator were more interested in quantity.

Round 6

I’d like to end this bout with a decision, but it’s more of a technical knockout really. While I was drifting through some of the other Alexa.com analysis and services, I came across a table called Audience Demographics:

 

The centre line of each graph is the mean. Red bars indicate under-representation, green bars are over-representation. This is what Alexa says about the 65+ result for Age: “Relative to the general internet population, people over 65 years old are greatly over-represented at wattsupwiththat.com”.

Can I say now I’m not even slightly surprised. On the basis of my own experience, and that reported by the media and others, climate change denial has two common demographics. It is a phenomena dominated by the political right and its allies in big business, and it is argued most vehemently by retired men. Other surveys have attested to this demographic, but it had not occurred to me there would be such a clear bias in web traffic.

What does this tell us? Again, this can be spun any way you like. If you don’t think old people get cranky, feel neglected, have vast amounts of time on their hands, review the past with invented affection and the present as a constant threat, you’ll not agree with my view that reactionary right-wing curmudgeons are behind a great deal of climate change denial. It is cynical to suggest they don’t care because they’ll be dead before the worst of it hits us. Perhaps it is more that climate change is just the most willing horse to flog, the quickest way to find ‘lefties’ to duke it out with, trembling behind their pseudonyms as they post insults and slanders so venomous they have to be strapped to their keyboards for fear of falling off.

And then again, they might be American:

 

All these stats, the interpretations – it’s all bollocks really, and apart from the entertainment, my point is really this: the ice is melting even as I type this or you read it, so be careful which sites you visit, because some of them will tell you the exact opposite i.e. there’s nothing to worry about.

They are wrong: the seas are rising, silent and inexorable. We are running out of oil. We do have lots of nuclear weapons and an additional billion people to use them on every couple of decades. This is a time when we should be responsible in our use of media. I do not think Wattsupwiththat meet the common criteria of responsibility when it comes to the way they supply so much ideological and distorted information to the public. All across the internet, lies and misdirections are propagated with astonishing speed. These myths, deceits and zombie arguments about bad science all come from just a few sources. WUWT is one of them and to draw attention to how many people are being taken in is not a claim to success, but an admission of guilt.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2010 1:16 pm

    You’ve put a lot of work into this post. These stats are indeed interesting. One thing to note about older white* males, they often have quite a bit of money too, which makes them fearful for their investments in blue chip stock (which generally include significant representation of big oil and mining interests).

    *This is also well attested as a demographically significant trend amongst deniers.

  2. July 30, 2010 1:17 pm

    PS I’m not at all claiming that all deniers are in this position, just noting trends.

  3. klem permalink
    July 30, 2010 7:54 pm

    “On the basis of my own experience, and that reported by the media and others, climate change denial has two common demographics. It is a phenomena dominated by the political right and its allies in big business, and it is argued most vehemently by retired men.”

    And on the basis of my own experience, and that reported by the media and others, climate change alarmism also has two common demographics. Climate alarmism is dominated by the political left and it’s allies in big business, and it is argued most vehemently by young women.

    Um…and?.. These things are long established.S o after all of this talk, what the heck is your point?

  4. July 30, 2010 9:42 pm

    Actually, alarm about climate change is dominated by highly respected scientists at the top of their fields, and by scientific institutions of national and international standing. These are the primary spokespeople and sources for this movement.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 31, 2010 5:53 am

    Klem: “These things are long established”

    No they aren’t. What is the point of saying such things? The difference between your post and mine is this – you made all that up, while my sources are factual. By virtue of the disconnect between reality and what you wrote, I assume you are a denier?

  6. July 31, 2010 3:04 pm

    Klem is a seasoned skeptic and no doubt accurately fits the demographic. His contributions to my blog helped me decide to produce this infographic:

    http://renegadeconservatoryguy.co.uk/global-warming-the-debate/

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 1, 2010 6:33 am

    Hi Matthew,

    Nice graphic – I see John Cook at skepticalscience also liked it! A picture really does tell a thousand words, doesn’t it.

  8. August 1, 2010 9:53 pm

    Hi Graham

    Yes, I liaised with John while creating the infographic.

    Clearly the poll the stats are up for debate. For example, some polls I looked at showed public opinion about climate change completely opposite to the BBC result.

    Nevertheless, we wanted to get across a powerful message about the media’s role in forming public perception.

    I’m now considering whether to create a series of infographics to get across various messages of AGW. The challenge is to get the message to the general public rather than those currently familiar with both sides of the argument.

    Thanks

    Matthew

  9. Pascvaks permalink
    August 19, 2010 10:56 pm

    Judith Curry mentioned your site at Collide-a-scape. Had to take a look see. Audience Demographics at WUWT really is an eyeopener: No College and Grad School, hummm, wonder how he pulled that off? Also thought he had more Kangeroos and Kiwis.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 20, 2010 7:04 am

    Pascvaks – thanks for that. I’ve popped in to Collide-a-scape and responded…

  11. Steven Sullivan permalink
    August 20, 2010 5:03 pm

    To be fair, RealClimate also has a preponderance of +65 readers, according to Alexa. But also a much greater proportion of graduate school-educated readers, than Watts’ site.

  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 20, 2010 5:23 pm

    Hi Steven. Your point is quite accurate. I would only comment that Realclimate were not making self-aggrandising claims, which WUWT certainly was when it claimed to have ‘won the narrative’. If you’ll pardon my language, this isn’t a fucking contest, but it sums up how WUWT see things – an ideological battle instead of the rational evaluation of science. Perhaps this confrontational attitude is why they resort to such gross practices and apply such inconsistent, and often egregiously hypocritical, standards.

  13. David Socrates permalink
    February 18, 2011 11:37 am

    Graham says: …the seas are rising, silent and inexorable. We are running out of oil. We do have lots of nuclear weapons and an additional billion people to use them on every couple of decades.

    Er…yes. And exactly whch of these is due to man-made atmospheric CO2?

  14. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 18, 2011 11:56 am

    David – that remark is just a nuisance post (as is your comment elsewhere about spelling). If you can’t add anything constructive, don’t bother coming here again.

  15. David Socrates permalink
    February 18, 2011 8:09 pm

    Graham – Oh dear, I’m sorry you took my remark that way and I apologise for inadvertantly offending you.

    Your article was about climate change. My point was serious. Running out of oil is indeed a world-scale problem. Nuclear proliferation is an even more fundamental issue facing humanity. Correct me if I am wrong but neither of these issues has anything at all to do with anthropogenic global warming. So I just feel that there is a danger of conflating the climate change debate with other quite distinct world problems.

    Best regards
    David

  16. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 19, 2011 6:47 am

    David – fair enough, and I must apologise for my over-reaction. It’s just that I get a lot of stuff that’s designed merely to annoy, and your question seemed exactly like that kind of vague remark (and remarks about spelling are another type of post with a similar intent – can’t take issue with the argument, so resort to a bit of pedantry just to put the boot in).

    But taking your point seriously then, I did not intend to conflate peak oil with climate change – although of course sea level rise is certainly part of the AGW scenario. I did intend to make a broader point about media responsibility, in light of the number of issues we now face, and the great concern some of us have that the combination of threats will so destabilise relationships between nations – particularly if sea level rise leads to millions of refugees trying to cross national borders – that the use of nuclear weapons once more becomes all too possible. (In this respect, I keep thinking what would happen if Palin really did get her hands on the launch codes. Also, see the Pentagon/Joint Chiefs 2009 threat assessment if you think I’m just being paranoid).

    Peak oil was also mentioned for two reasons; first, we should be conserving it like mad because the cheap stuff is running out. Second, the demand to keep going will lead to disputes over the remaining oil when rich nations realise they are totally unprepared and cannot keep going. We need to change gradually, moving towards a sustainable version of consumerism that is modest, frugal and realistic. We are not doing this, and the consequences will be bad for us all. I do conflate peak oil denial and climate change denial because the two seem intimately linked by the kind of arguments Watts indulges, and in the age group I discuss – the retired, bored, angry contrarians – they just seem generally to want to deny anything they can mistakenly brand as ‘lefty’.

  17. David Socrates permalink
    February 19, 2011 1:35 pm

    Thanks very much for your constructive response.

    I do agree completely that ‘peak oil’ and ‘nuclear proliferation’ are very worrying and potentially destabilising world issues. Indeed I feel that these are where almost all our efforts should be directed politically over the next century to try to ensure world peace and prosperity for all.

    At some cost, ‘peak oil’ can in the long term definitely be solved using alternative energy sources. That is why so much experimentation has been carried out, mostly funded by governments all around the world, over the past 20 years or so.

    The nuclear proliferation issue is, of course, far more intractable and worrying and I believe there are no easy short term answers.

    Regarding the effect of man-made CO2 on temperature (and consequently on sea level rise, etc.), as a scientist and engineer I am concerned that the argument has become dangerously polarised between ‘warmists’ and ‘skeptics’ – when what I believe is required is a balanced, scientific approach to this issue based on what facts we have about the world temperature rise to date.

    The world temperature data series over the period from 1850 to 2010 (the IPCC-endorsed HadCRUT3) shows a long term linear trend of a modest 0.4degC per century. However skeptics have to accept that the rate of increase during the 30 years from 1970 to 2000 has been about 0.5degC. This is about 4 times the historical long term trend and equivalent to a much more worrying 1.6degC per century. On the face of it, therefore, and despite what many skeptics claim, this upswing does appear to be correlated with the very significant rise in man-made atmospheric CO2 that occurred increasingly from the 1960s onwards. So I think it would be extremely foolish (and unscientific) to dismiss the possibility of a causal link between the dramatic rise in CO2 and the four-fold rise in the steepness of the temperature curve over roughly the same period.

    But it would also be equally foolish for warmists to dismiss out of hand the alternative hypothesis that the 1970 to 2000 upswing could be entirely natural. Many serious and distinguished climate scientists have claimed that it may well be due to the ~67 year natural ocean temperature oscillation known as the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO). There is reasonably good evidence that, over the past few hundred years, the AMO has exhibited a variation of the same order of magnitude, namely plus and minus 0.5degC.

    I don’t claim to know which of these theories is correct (or whether, perhaps, the truth lies somewhere in between: partly a CO2-induced temperature rise and partly a natural variation).

    To compound the confusion, increasingly since 2000 there has been a lot of complete rubbish talked (on both sides) about the significance of the comparatively flat temperature trend of the last 10 years. I suppose it is understandable that both warmists and skeptics have become twitchy about which way the trend is going, but ten years is far too short a time to discern a trend: the decider will be the next 20 years or so.

    If the MDO hypothesis is correct, and the long term trend continues on at the previous un-alarming rate of 0.4degC per century, then I think the global warming issue will wither on the vine.

    If on the other hand, the curve soon continues to climb upwards at the same (perhaps even higher) rate as that which occurred between 1970 and 2000, then I think it will be game, set and match in favour of the CO2 warming theory.

    I would be interested in your response to this fairly straightforward analysis, which to me seems entirely sensible and rational and, moreover, follows normal scientific process.

  18. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 19, 2011 3:52 pm

    David:

    On the peak oil issue, I don’t doubt we have the collective ingenuity to solve the problem, but I seriously doubt we will do so before things get really bad.

    what I believe is required is a balanced, scientific approach to this issue based on what facts we have about the world temperature rise to date

    That’s exactly what we already have, but some people really don’t like the science very much. Anyway, you are missing some vital issues by restricting yourself to temperatures. The crucial factor is ocean reaction, for two reasons – the first is sea level rise, the second the changing pH due to extra CO2 being sequestered. The consequences of both are staggering if the trends continue, and there is no reason to assume they will not. The other issue I think is important in this context is the state of the cryrosphere. Everywhere you look, the news is bad – except for the counter-intuitive increase of sea ice in the Southern Antarctic ocean.

    The other thing about this ‘balance’ that is often referred to, is that there is no ‘other side’ to the science. The polarisation you mention is confined exclusively to those outside the climate science community, and largely outside of science altogether. The divide between warmists and deniers is faux-ideological, in that warmists want to respect and act on the science, while deniers want to make it disappear because they think it’s some kind of conspiracy (and for other reasons too…)

    In respect of the AMO, PDO and other cycles, there doesn’t seem to be a clear trend in any of them that correlates with temperatures, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. There must exist the possibility that there is some other forcing we haven’t identified, in order to maintain proper and appropriate scepticism, so I’m not going to argue against the AMO, but I will point out something obvious: CO2 traps and re-radiates heat, so no matter what the principle :) forcing is, we are in effect more chucking petrol on the fire while arguing over whether the petrol started the fire in the first place. And nothing at all can call into question the effects on ocean pH and the possible damage to the food chain this could cause. We know from the isotopic ratios how much of the CO2 is anthropogenic, so whether we are the primary cause of heating the planet or not, we are definitely the source of the CO2 that may seriously disrupt a key food resource at exactly the time food is becoming a problem for other reasons, like population.

    (BTW – the debate would be far less polarised if all posts displayed such rational scepticism. I admired the balance, the generosity and the logic, but I fear your example is the exception that proves the rule).

  19. February 19, 2011 4:11 pm

    At some cost, ‘peak oil’ can in the long term definitely be solved using alternative energy sources. That is why so much experimentation has been carried out, mostly funded by governments all around the world, over the past 20 years or so.
    Check out the second and third graphs here. Yes, there is still funding (and there has been an uptick since Obama entered office), but can you see why those who take this issue seriously are concerned about the level of US commitment? Now compare that to China’s funding, which has been going through the roof over the last couple of decades and now easily exceeds the US. In 2009, China spent USD$34.6 billion, the US only $18.6 billion (which includes all spending, not just government spending). I don’t have the figures for 2010, but have heard that the gap only increased.

    Many serious and distinguished climate scientists have claimed that it may well be due to the ~67 year natural ocean temperature oscillation known as the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO).
    Can you provide references to their unrebutted peer-reviewed publications on this?

    But it would also be equally foolish for warmists to dismiss out of hand the alternative hypothesis that the 1970 to 2000 upswing could be entirely natural.
    Can you provide references to where this has been done in the scientific literature? The IPCC AR4 has extensive sections considering all known forcings and their relative sizes.

  20. David Socrates permalink
    February 25, 2011 7:55 pm

    Graham:

    Apologies for the time it has taken for me to respond to your interesting comments.

    Firstly, with respect to the temperature evidence, you say that’s exactly what we already have, but some people don’t like the science very much. Well, being a scientist and engineer myself, I do like the science very much, so we are in agreement there!

    My point about the world temperature series was that, in my opinion, it is not possible on the current data to know whether the long term rise in world temperature is going to plod on at an average of 0.4degC per century (obviously not alarming) as it has done if averaged over the last 160 years of available instrumental records, or whether the 4-fold increase that occurred in the 30 years to 2000 is going to carry on climbing at that new 4-fold rate (obviously very alarming) for the next 90 years, rather than turning out to be just a relatively short term upswing in a natural climatic cycle which many skeptics (rightly or wrongly) attribute to the AMO.

    All I am suggesting, very simply, is that the next 20 years will decide the issue for certain one way or the other and that I personally doubt whether it will be resolved earlier, if only because of the entrenched positions that warmists and skeptics have now taken.

    Secondly, I am afraid that I don’t subscribe to your idea that people outside the ‘climate science community’ are unqualified to contribute to the debate. There are plenty of intelligent, balanced, scientists like me who have the necessary training to engage in the debate from a general experience of the scientific process and we are certainly able to ‘drill down’ where necessary to chasllenge the science and mathematics itself. Also, I imagine (correct me if I am wrong) that you are not a scientist. If so, that should be absolutely OK too. It is vital that climate scientists are subjected to scrutiny over such an important issue from all commentators whether they be scientists or not. It would be a huge mistake to assume that there are not commentators of good will on all sides of this debate just because there are some commentators who are clearly not – whether due to ignorance or vested interests.

    Thirdly, turning to you point that “CO2 traps and re-radiates heat, no matter what the principal forcing is…”, the serious skeptical scientific debate does not revolve around a denial that CO2 is a greenhouse gas but about the multiplier that should be applied to account for the warming effect of the additional water vapour (by far the strongest greenhouse gas) consequent upon the CO2-induced temperature rise. The IPCC agrees that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 alone would cause a warming of around 1 degC and most competent skeptics now agree with this assessment. However the water vapour multiplier is still much in dispute and that is a genuine scientific discussion that, in my opinion, should be allowed to run its course – not stifled by politics, one way or the other.

    Finally, your comment about the effect of CO2 on ocean acifification is well taken. If it turns out that this really is a problem on the scale that some warmists now claim, it would cut right across the above debate and probably render it nugatory. But I have not researched this much so I can offer no personal opinion one way or the other yet. However, I will be tracking it carefully and I assume that it will figure predominantly in the IPCC’s AR5!

  21. February 26, 2011 5:38 pm

    My point about the world temperature series was that, in my opinion, it is not possible on the current data to know whether [...]
    … or whether, as models predict, that the last thirty years are just the tip of the melting iceberg and that the likely rate is going to be not 1.6ºC/century, but more like 4-6ºC/century (on a business as usual emissions pathway).

    I am afraid that I don’t subscribe to your idea that people outside the ‘climate science community’ are unqualified to contribute to the debate.
    Where did Graham say this? He simply pointed out that those outside the climate science community frequently have a different perception of where the debate is than those inside.

    the water vapour multiplier is still much in dispute and that is a genuine scientific discussion that, in my opinion, should be allowed to run its course – not stifled by politics, one way or the other.
    This is an excellent example of what Graham is talking about. Can you provide citations to papers published from within the climate community who think that sensitivity is significantly lower than the 2-4.5ºC cited by the IPCC as most likely? Lindzen is basically the only one, and he is not questioning the scale of humidity as a feedback, but of clouds, and his claim of low sensitivity hasn’t won many supporters amongst the climate science community. He can keep publishing and is not being stifled; his arguments simply aren’t proving persuasive as others keep pointing out things he’s overlooked.

    But I have not researched this much so I can offer no personal opinion one way or the other yet.
    It is fair enough that you haven’t researched it. Where I haven’t researched something, my default position is to accept the word of the experts in the field since I don’t have time to research every question and staying sceptical of all claims until I have looked into them for myself is not pragmatically possible.

  22. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 27, 2011 12:48 pm

    David: “All I am suggesting, very simply, is that the next 20 years will decide the issue for certain one way or the other”

    Sure, but if the sceptics are wrong, and bearing in mind that they hold a minority opinion without any definitive, proven or established science to back up their scepticism, then in 20 years it will be too late to do anything about it. We’re back, as we always are in this debate, to acting prudently. Risk management, in other words. Sceptics are asking us to take a huge risk without having much to persuade us with, and neither the AMO, Cern’s cloud experiments, Lindzen’s sensitivity or Spencer’s strange claims are going to lower the probability that it’s us doing the damage, and therefore us who can do something about it. One thing I quite dislike, in a world devoid of people willing to be responsible for their actions, is the way that scepticism seeks to promote the view that there’s nothing we can do about global warming.

    I am afraid that I don’t subscribe to your idea that people outside the ‘climate science community’ are unqualified to contribute to the debate.

    It isn’t my idea, and I never said that. What I have said repeatedly is that disputing science on the basis of opinion is a waste of time. Any discussion of the science must remain a discussion of science. To dispute the properties of greenhouse gases, Boyle’s law or celestial mechanics on the basis of my opinionis simply fatuous and self-aggrandising. To dispute the science on the basis of some half-arsed conspiracy theory is beyond foolishness itself.

  23. David Socrates permalink
    March 2, 2011 5:37 pm

    Graham: Re. your response to my comment “All I am suggesting, very simply, is that the next 20 years will decide the issue for certain one way or the other.”

    Please bear in mind that I was making a prediction of how this will play out in reality. I was not personally endorsing it as the best way forward. Waiting 20 years is not a risk that I would want to take either. But it is what is going to happen unless people (such as us?) engage in a constructive dialogue over a very much shorter time span to try to scope out more accurately how serious the danger actually is. Rhetoric, particularly of a combatitive kind, won’t do that – only scientific analysis and, in particular, closer attention to real world data will do it.

    It is all very well for people to say that the ‘science is settled’, in the sense that man-made CO2 is almost definitely proven from radiative transfer theory to be warming the earth. Yes, but it’s quite another thing to say how significant the warming will be. Even amongst those who are persuaded that CO2 is a serious problem, there is a very wide range of predictions (just look to the IPCC). If governments are to make policy decisions that make any sense at all, economically or politically, the range of options needs to be narrowed down by common consent and agreement. And that means more scientific dialogue – not rhetoric and slagging off the opposition (whether from a warmist or skeptical perspective) which is what happens all too often out there in the blogosphere.

    My approach to narrowing this policy gap is to look always towards the facts. Where the facts are interpretable in different ways, I believe that the way forward is to engage in friendly scientific dialogue. I note with approval your excellent piece on Skeptical Science. That blog site is an impressive piece of work and always good value. It is a serious and challenging scientific riposte to those skeptical blogs that also take a serious scientific approach to analyzing the problem. It doesn’t mean it is right all the time but it also doesn’t mean it is wrong all the time either. It is the right kind of territory to be in if one wants to arrive at a more solid consensus – a bringing together of positions.

    For me, the climate change debate only has one central issue: is the world warming alarmingly, even dangerously, as a result of the significant man-made atmospheric CO2 increases that have occurred during the second half of the 20th century? Until we can answer that with greater precision, none of the consequent questions about what to do about it are ever going to be properly resolved in the political arena. The senseless political posturing that has occurred to date will just go on as politicians do what they always do.

    You say: Sceptics are asking us to take a huge risk without having much to persuade us with, and neither the AMO, Cern’s cloud experiments, Lindzen’s sensitivity or Spencer’s strange claims are going to lower the probability that it’s us doing the damage, and therefore us who can do something about it.

    You might be right in your assertion there. Or you might be completely wrong. But so what? Saying what you said won’t prevent people from voicing alternative hypotheses. That is the nature of science. Humans, even scientists, are emotional creatures. We all lock on to ideas, paradigms that steer us through life – it is deeply embedded in our biology to do so. But the great advances achieved by mankind in the past few hundred years have been achieved because the scientific process has ensured that individual human bias is prevented from gaining the upper hand. Only the data – that is the results of observation and experiment – rules OK. One guy, it might be Hansen or it might be Lindzen (but much more likely someone none of us has even heard of) may come up with definitive data that dramatically closes the current wide range of opinions on the seriousness, or otherwise, of global warming theory. That’s why we must always look to the data and not to being angry because other people voice alternative hypotheses to those that we espouse. Galileo didn’t just come up with a foundation-shifting hypothesis, he looked through his telescope and assembled sufficient data to prove it.

    Re. your response to my comment “I am afraid that I don’t subscribe to your idea that people outside the ‘climate science community’ are unqualified to contribute to the debate.”

    Yes, I beg your pardon there. You didn’t say that and I also agree absolutely with the general thrust of your response!

    I hope the weather in Devon is better than it is here in Oxfordshire!

  24. March 2, 2011 7:54 pm

    Even amongst those who are persuaded that CO2 is a serious problem, there is a very wide range of predictions (just look to the IPCC).
    David – Can you quantify the relative contributions of future policy directions/emissions scenarios and climate sensitivity to this range? That is – the IPCC’s projections (not predictions, BTW, which is the very issue I’m raising) are wide not just because of uncertainties in the science, but especially because of uncertainties in how we might collectively respond to the science.

    There are also quite significant uncertainties regarding non-linear system responses (tipping points), but none of these make for very reassuring unknowns.

    How certain do we need to be that anthropogenic climate change is likely to be significantly or severely disruptive before we start to take aggressive mitigation seriously?

  25. Graham Wayne permalink*
    March 3, 2011 6:57 am

    David – “Saying what you said won’t prevent people from voicing alternative hypotheses. That is the nature of science“.

    I think we’re actually discussing the nature of prudence here. I am a pragmatist – at least I hope I am – so I subscribe to notions of prudence that bind the common factors together in a way that I believe makes sense. But also, and this is most important to me, I try to distinguish between what science says, and what politial or social actions may be implied by what science says.

    There are three arguments then that I find sufficiently compelling to spur us to action now, and not wait on the outcome of either further research or further discussion.

    The first is that I don’t think the issue can ever be fully resolved scientifically. Although it is certainly possible someone will figure out a way to do it, I suspect that the causative link between anthropogenic greenhouse gases and climate change may never be proved (or simply proved too late). Climate science is inferential. The climate is non-linear. Cause and effect are not necessarily proportional or testable (we don’t have a ‘control’ Earth to play with). It’s exactly the same problem as evolution – will the ‘missing link’ ever be found, and would creationists even accept it were such a thing to be discovered?

    Second: it is the lack of credible ‘alternative hypotheses’ that gives me great cause for concern. It isn’t like we are discussing two or more credible theories, each with supporting evidence, and all embracing sufficient of the evidence, laws of physics and chemistry and so on, to be regarded as satisfying, as comprehensive. The only theory that does this well is anthropogenic climate change theory, which is consistent, credible, and improving as more data is gathered and better instruments are employed, such as the pair of Grace satellites for example. Part of my issue with the blogosphere is that many ‘alternative hypotheses’ are indeed put forward, and they are, with only a few exceptions, wholly lacking in credibility or substance (hence SkS’s list of sceptical arguments and the rebuttals of them).

    The principle issue in my view is forcing. Science is not putting forward alternative hypotheses as to what is causing the planet to warm. There is no fundamental debate about the science except at the fringes, argued by those holding erratic and contradictory opinions that seem in the main to be flawed or in error (Oreskes 2003).

    Thirdly, I return to a point you have not commented on, which is this: does it matter whether CO2 is the principle forcing or simply contributive. We are chucking petrol on the fire either way. The time for debate is long past, since our role in this matter is academic. CO2 and other, far more potent, greenhouse gases will cause additional heat to be re-radiated. We should prevent making things worse, irrespective of what the forcing is or the catalyst was.

  26. David Socrates permalink
    March 4, 2011 1:31 am

    Byron,

    You pose the question: How certain do we need to be that anthropogenic climate change is likely to be significantly or severely disruptive before we start to take aggressive mitigation seriously?

    Yes, this is indeed the nub of the problem. You can’t measure that uncertainty objectively without definitive FACTS. And, as I have tried to demonstrate, even the temperature data (which is at least relatively objective) is not yet definitive in its trend and will not be definitive, probably, for another of couple of decades or so.

    So the question isn’t how certain you are or how certain I am. It is what the general population will put up with in the way of higher taxes that matters. It’s called realpolitic.

    My simple conclusion is that it will not be possible to persuade electorates to vote for expensive mitigation measures until they see some sign of the climate actually changing. You may think that is very naive and unscientific and ignorant of them but I’m afraid that’s the way human nature is.

    The reality is that the world temperature records show an average rate of rise of temperature since 1850 of less than 0.4degC/century. This by any measure is absolutely miniscule and, rightly, wouldn’t have persuaded the man in the street (or even, surely, the academic in the ivory tower) that anything untoward was happening. But between 1965 and 2000, as I have previously stated, the rate of rise increased to four or five times and became, prima facie, decidedly alarming. To anybody trained in science this was a real cause for concern and investigation, and rightly so. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the 30 years to 2000 was a period of mounting alarm about climate change which then spread out of the scientific community into the general and political arenas. But despite that high rate of warming, because it went on for a relatively short period (30 years is short in climate change terms) the additional temperature rise that occurred over that period was only another 0.5degC. After 2000 there has been a bit of a lull in the upward rise, but I agree, one possibility is that it might in due course resume its alarming trend if the CO2 hypothesis is correct. But it may not: over the next twenty or 30 years it may swing down again by around 0.5degC if the CO2 hypothesis is wrong and the ‘AMO’ or ‘natural cyclic variation’ hypothesis is correct.

    How on earth, with a background set of FACTS like that can anyone seriously think that countries are going to do anything but prevaricate over the issue until the temperature record has developed much further and we have a more definitive trend one way or the other?

  27. David Socrates permalink
    March 4, 2011 2:30 am

    Wayne,

    Thanks for your response. Most of my thoughts on this are already recorded in the above comments to Byron but, additionally…

    (1) I believe the climate issue will in the end be solved politically by the man-in-the-street. But this will be consequent upon better science over the next couple of decades as the temperature record develops and the man-in-the-street becomes better educated about the real facts, one way or the other.

    (2) We will just have to differ on whether or not there are any credible alternatives to the CO2 hypothesis, although I agree there are a lot of wacky theories out there, some of which may be intellectually engaging, but all of which lack convincing FACTS to support them.

    I would just say that, in my view, the AMO or ‘natural climate variability’ hypothesis isn’t in the same category as the others. It is in fact the NULL HYPOTHESIS – that which is left if and when all other contending hypotheses, including the CO2 hypothesis, have been falsified by data. So by definition, there is no requirement to explain its underlying mechanism, other than to simply observe that the climate is a chaotic system that has amply demonstrated small-scale natural temperature variability over periods of hundreds of years, long before man started to put large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. The underlying causes don’t have to be understood, just observed objectively.

    (3) Does it matter whether CO2 is the principal forcing or simply contributive? Er…I am not sure how to answer that because we will discover whether or not it is a contributor, and to what extent, only if and only when the average long term temperature trend starts to climb again alarmingly. So there’s a kind of circular logic in your question that I find a bit mind numbing. I recall the same sort of feeling coming over me on the very few occasions over the years when I have tried to understand the proof of Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem…

    But maybe that’s just the lateness of the hour here in England. Good night!

  28. March 4, 2011 6:28 pm

    When there is a coherent theory that explains an observed phenomenon and another that attributes it simply to “natural causes” then the null hypothesis is the only theory that actually does any explanatory work.

    If a man is standing holding a smoking gun in front of a body lying on the ground with a large hole in its head and blood splattered behind it, the theory that the death was due to “natural causes” is not the null hypothesis.

    Significant climate anomalies of 2010.

    10 indications of climate change.

    10 indications of human fingerprints on climate change.

    There are plenty more facts than the handful you’ve mentioned.

    Do you understand the point I was making in my question? “Can you quantify the relative contributions of future policy directions/emissions scenarios and climate sensitivity to the IPCC range?” The point is that the greatest uncertainty is how human behaviour may or may not change over the next few decades. So doing little or nothing greatly reduces the uncertainty of the likely temperature rise.

    Convincing people in the street is relatively easy. Already a significant majority of many number of countries (including the major players) want governments to be doing more about climate change. It is convincing the vested fossil fuel interests who pollute the air and the airways that is the real challenge.

    We will just have to differ on whether or not there are any credible alternatives to the CO2 hypothesis
    Why will we have to differ? Are you so pessimistic about the possibility of a change of mind? Can you name a credible alternative that has support in the published literature? One has not already been considered deeply from many angles for many years and found wanting by the best trained minds in the business.

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