Archive for category science and nature

La Niña silliness

In the Canberra Times of 9 January 2012, this letter appeared:

You have to love all those climate-change alarmists.

Only an eye-blink ago they were proclaiming a scorched-earth apocalypse for this wide brown land.

As La Nina wove her enigmatic magic in 2011, with our third-wettest year in memory, the alarmists remain in denial about the overwhelming influence of atmospheric and solar influences that mock, as always, the puny effect of mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The hot air emissions of the climate-change alarmists do more to raise the global temperature than the burning of that old bogeyman, carbon.

As 2012 dawns, the solar gods are truly laughing.

John Bell, Lyneham

I replied with this:

If John Bell (Letters, 9 January) really believes that one La Niña
year represents some kind of disproof of mainstream climate science, I
can only conclude that he’s been reading too many climate denial
blogs. A single wet, cool, hot or dry year is just a blip on the
graph; what matters is the long term trend. Nowhere will you find
mainstream climate science predicting that every single year will be
hotter, or drier, or anything at all; it’s all about the subtle
changes underlying the usual year-to-year roller coaster of El Niño,
La Niña, volcanoes, etc. Globally, the ten warmest years on record
have all occurred since 1998.

Since 1970 the world’s average surface temperature has steadily gone
up at a rate of 0.17 degrees per decade, which is entirely in line
with the projections of climate science. During that time, the sun’s
impact on climate, and other non-greenhouse factors, have actually had
a slightly cooling effect. There is currently no plausible cause for
this warming other than the effect of increased greenhouse gases, and
there is a truly vast body of evidence supporting that conclusion.

Matt Andrews

Also interesting is that 2011 was the hottest La Niña year on record, and that La Niña years show a distinct warming trend.

Overlooking acidification

In “Time to tinker with the climate?”, a feature piece (sadly, but predictably, not online) on p19 of The Canberra Times print edition of 31 December 2011, Michael Richardson outlines the arguments for geo-engineering approaches to the climate problem.

Unfortunately, the piece covered some of the issues with the notion of injecting particles into the upper atmosphere to artificially cool the climate, but neglected to mention arguably the worst problem with this idea: ocean acidification.

Our carbon emissions have already caused the oceans to become 30% more acidic than they were before industrialisation, and without meaningful cuts in emissions, oceans could be more than 300% more acidic by 2100. This is a little publicised but desperately serious problem that threatens many forms of ocean life – potentially, the entire marine food chain.

Spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere does nothing to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, and so does not address ocean acidification at all. It is not a sustainable solution, and apart from the operational risks – which are huge – it has the potential to lull us into a completely false sense of security.

Climate denial: statistical ignorance

Another round of silliness in The Canberra Times. This letter appeared in the Firday 29 April 2011 edition:

The latest satellite temperature records show that the cooling trend of the last 13 years is not continuing. It is gathering pace. The warmists have not been correct in any prediction over the last 25 years and they have been spectacularly wrong in predicting temperature. Will the warmists tell us which of their predictions have come true? Or should we just accept they are right and never ask inconvenient questions?

Brian Hatch

I responded with this:

Brian Hatch (Letters, 29 April) repeats the standard climate deniers’
claim that there has been a cooling trend in global temperatures since
1998, and that it is accelerating.

All I can say is that this reveals an embarrassing ignorance of
statistics. You don’t credibly measure the underlying trend in time
series data by picking the peak of a huge, brief upward spike in
temperature (the 1998 El Nino event, the strongest in a century) as
the starting point, and the base of a large, brief downward spike (the
current La Nina event) as the end point. The underlying trend is
revealed by looking at long term averages, and how they change over
time. Whether you look at satellite data, land and ocean surface
measurements, or any number of other lines of evidence, the underlying
trend shows very clear warming taking place since the 1970s.

Brian also claims that none of the predictions made by “warmists”
(presumably he means climate scientists) over the last 25 years have
been right. A brave assertion, given that climate scientists have
correctly projected that the global surface temperature would rise at
a rate of between 0.15 and 0.2 degrees per decade; that warming would
be significantly greater in the Arctic than in the tropics; that as
the lower atmosphere warmed, the stratosphere would cool; that global
sea levels would rise as greenhouse gases increased; that the Arctic
would lose ice as CO2 rose; that warming would be relatively greater
at night than in the day; that the land would warm faster than the
ocean; that the tropical band of weather systems would expand; that we
would see more frequent extreme weather events… and the list goes

It’s amazing that these kinds of ill-informed memes have been taken
seriously by senior politicians.

Matt Andrews

A nice example of the refusal of deniers to acknowledge evidence that doesn’t fit their fixed beliefs. Brian Hatch pushed the same “no predictions have been correct” line just a few months ago, and I responded in very similar terms. Round and round we go…

It’s 1998 all over again

This letter appeared in the Canberra Times of 5 October:

The Bureau of Meteorology (“Rains proof of warming, bureau says”, October 2, p11) attributes our wet September to global warming.

Last year they blamed global warming for our drought.

Isn’t this becoming a bit silly?

Isn’t is even sillier considering that our planet hasn’t warmed for more than 10 years?

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to revisit the science?

Aert Driessen, McKellar

My response appeared in the 7 October edition:

Aert Driessen (Letters, 5 October) claims that the planet “hasn’t warmed for more than 10 years”. No doubt the source of Aert’s bold claim is the usual ludicrous piece of cherry-picking: if you select 1998 – the very top of the biggest El Nino temperature spike in a century – as the starting point, and you ignore the highest quality temperature index compiled by NASA, you can get away with saying that no average annual temperature has been as high since.

But climate is all about long term trends, not short term spikes. Generally you need more than 15 years – preferably 20 or 30 – to identify a clear trend against the background noise of El Nino and La Nina events, big volcanic eruptions, etc.

Every major index of global temperature – the UAH and RSS satellite indexes, the NASA GISS and Hadley/CRU surface temperature indexes, and measurements of the heat stored in the ocean – shows that the underlying warming trend has continued throughout the last decade, and indeed since the 1970s.

Matt Andrews

In defence of climate models

In the local newspaper The Canberra Times (which is pretty good in its print edition but hopelessly inadequate in its online version) this letter appeared in the 30 September edition:

It’s interesting that the only part of the climate change policy not up for inspection is whether such nonsense exists (“Pleas for no more delay on carbon“, September 29, p1).

For 20 years, climate warmists have used their computer models to tell us that doom will strike if we do not do something. Perhaps the warmists could tell us which of their predictions over the past 20 years have been proven true. The one enjoy is that within 15 years the Pacific Island nations will disappear underwater. I was told that, based on a computer model, in 1992. Eighteen years later all the islands are still there, and I am still told that they will disappear in 15 years. Senator Bob Brown is becoming the emperor with no clothes, but that will not stop his party doing its best to destroy our economy to prove a point.

Brian Hatch, Red Hill

(For anyone from outside Australia, Senator Bob Brown is the parliamentary leader of the Australian Greens party.)

In response, I wrote this, which appeared in the 4 October edition:

Brian Hatch (Letters, September 30) unwittingly answers his own
question: the reason why climate deniers are ignored in serious
climate policy discussion is because they have abandoned any rational,
evidence-based perspective of the evidence. Brian mentions a single
unnamed projection from 1992 in vague terms and immediately leaps to
the desired conclusion: that the entire science of climate modelling
is suspect. In reality, climate models – computer programs that
simulate global climate – have proven extraordinarily successful.

Climate models have for some time now projected a long term warming
trend at a rate of roughly 0.2 degrees per decade; this has been
comprehensively confirmed in real world observations, with the trend
since the 1970s clocking in at around 0.18 degrees per decade.

Models predicted that warming would be greatest in the Arctic region,
would be larger over land areas than the sea surface, would be larger
at night than in the day, and that as the troposphere (the bottom
layer of the atmosphere) warmed, the stratosphere would cool. All of
these have been confirmed through painstaking and rigorous

And all the major climate models have been tested on the past: using
known physics and known variations such as volcanic eruptions and
changes in the sun’s output, not to mention increases in greenhouse
gases and other factors, models have been able to reproduce the
recorded changes in global climate over the last century with
remarkable accuracy.

The evidence for global warming is strongly based on direct
observations of the world, not simply on computer projections; but the
only chance we have of predicting future climate is with computer
models. It’s necessarily an inexact science, and is continually
developing, but it has so far proven highly effective at its task.

Overall a reasonable response, I think, though I regret the rather clumsy “evidence-based perspective of the evidence” … must pay more attention to proofreading these letters before sending them 🙂

More Crikey climate debate

Another round of climate letters in Crikey. In response to a piece by Bernard Keane, one of Crikey’s staff writers, this letter from Tamas Calderwood (a vocal climate denier) appeared on 29 September 2010:

Bernard Keane equates “people who believe in man-made climate change and support a carbon price” with being “rational and economically-literate”, implying sceptics are irrational and economic dunces.

Well, thanks Bernard. In any case, applying my irrational and economically-illiterate super-powers to the problem, I started with the IPCC’s worst-case AR4-A1F1 warming scenario of 4C by 2100 (anyone seen any sign of that lately, by the way?… but I digress). I also assumed Australia to be a world leader in reducing emissions from 1.5% of humanity’s share of CO2 to 1% over that time and that this would have a linear impact on temperatures (even though CO2 has a logarithmic decay in energy absorption).

Let’s say this planet-saving tax works its magic by raising only ten billion dollars a year and assume zero inflation. So for just 900 billion bucks Australian taxpayers will reduce global temperatures in 2100 by?—?wait for it?—?0.02C.

Put another way, that’s just $45 trillion per degree Celsius of cooling. What a bargain.

In reply, I sent this, which appeared in the 1 October edition:

Tamas Calderwood (Wednesday, comments) takes exception to the idea that “sceptics are irrational and economic dunces”, but then dives straight in to a truly dire piece of numerical mangling that even he should be ashamed of.

Casting aside all the actual economic modelling of the effects of a carbon price, Tamas pulls from some orifice or other the idea that a carbon price worth $10b per year would not result in any actual reduction in Australian emissions, but that they would triple. He does this by using the sleight-of-hand that Australia’s share of global emissions might drop by the end of the century — but in the context of the IPCC’s worst case scenario, which is that emissions grow by roughly 400%. In this la-la-land scenario, every other country on the planet completely fails to get off the worst-case-scenario path of quadrupling emissions … and so, duh, there’s not a whole lot of cooling going on.

Tamas then distorts things even further by presenting a price on carbon as if it were purely and simply a cost to the economy, like, say, income tax is to the family budget. In reality, it’s a transfer from high-carbon sectors to low-carbon sectors: some parts of the economy benefit directly, some parts of the economy need to change how they operate, and indeed most economic analysis of this has underlined that early action is much more efficient and economically beneficial than significantly delayed action.

So-called climate “sceptics” (usually the utterly credulous) are fond of saying that reducing Australia’s emissions without the rest of the world is pointless — and, in terms of absolute global emissions, that’s obvious. Equally obvious is that if every country waits for every other country to act first, it just produces a tragedy-of-the-commons result. All (or most) nations will end up having to work together on this, no doubt about it; and a crucial component of building this kind of agreement is that rich, highly polluting societies like Australia take visible strong action on emissions: taking responsibility for cleaning up our act.

Another fruitloop denier peddles his wares

This letter appeared in The Canberra Times of Monday 5 July 2010, in response to this article:

Martin Parkinson (“Accept climate science, economists told”, June 29, p3) makes a false parallel between unilateral tariff reductions and carbon pricing. Unilateral tariff reductions have helped Australia by allowing cheaper imports and freeing up resources for internationally competitive industry.

A unilateral emissions trading scheme would reduce world carbon by about one-millionth, a few months’ by China alone, and would simply export carbon-using industry to countries with less environmental protection. Parkinson seems to say not trust science but trust the scientists – unwise when the International Panel on Climate Change seems unable to get basic research regarding Amazon rainforests, Himalayan glaciers and even the area of Holland below sea level right!

What Climategate, the leaking of emails from the University of East Anglia, has shown is that scientific peer review can mean nothing, with reviewers not asking for data or computer programs.

I recently attended a Deliberation on Climate Change. I asked whether he could rebut claims that the Canberra region has got colder in the last century. He didn’t answer but claimed global warming was evident because parrots had got lighter in eastern Australia. Breaking news is that the consensus of 2500 scientists is a fabrication.

John Coochey, Chisholm

Here’s my response:

Bravo, John Coochey (Letters, 5 July), for pure chutzpah. Clearly it doesn’t matter that the poorly-dubbed “Amazongate” claims – that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had misrepresented research on warming impacts on the Amazon rainforest – turned out to be completely baseless, that the IPCC was entirely correct, and that the story was subsequently withdrawn with an apology by the UK Sunday Times; in the world of the climate denier, it lives on as if it were all true.

Who cares that all the deniers’ bluster over the area of the Netherlands below sea level turned out to be not the IPCC’s fault at all, but an easily corrected error in data provided by the Dutch government? Don’t mention that the much-trumpeted error in Himalayan glacier projections was actually a mere two sentences buried deep in a regional section of the latest IPCC report, whereas the main section on glaciers, all 45 pages of it, was solidly based and did not contain the error at all; when you’re a climate denier, if a story in any way supports the mantra that climate science is an enormous global conspiracy, then it must be true.

If the purpose of the ugly and criminal exercise dubbed “ClimateGate” – the theft of emails from the University of East Anglia – was to show some sort of unethical manipulation of data or fraudulent treatment of results, then it was a complete failure. A non-Gate. In fact, the stolen emails revealed the opposite: the absence of any such wrongdoing showed quite clearly that the scientific process, and the honesty and integrity of the scientists involved, is sound.

It’s a remarkable variety of single-mindedness that allows one to completely ignore the vast body of evidence out there showing that human activities are warming the planet, instead to focus on a handful of misleading or simply false soundbites that give the impression of doubt. As the tobacco lobbyists (several of whom are still advising the climate denial campaigns) said last century, “doubt is our product”.

What’s sad is that various senior figures, including the Leader of the Opposition, buy in to this transparently deceptive rubbish. A would-be leader of the country ought to pay more attention to the evidence, and have the common sense to understand just how serious the consequences of these greedy backpedal-and-delay political games are.

Matt Andrews.

Fee-and-dividend seems the best approach

There is an alternative to Labor’s ETS and the Coalition’s shambolic carbon scheme which seems superior to both: a fee-and-dividend system.

It’s a simple idea: the major emitters pay a fee per tonne of CO2 emitted. This is not a “great big tax”; the revenue raised is distributed straight back into the economy, either directly as a dividend paid out per person, or indirectly via a reduction in other taxes. Given Australia’s recent emissions of around 25 tonnes per capita, and an initial fee of $20 per tonne, an annual dividend of around $500 could be paid out to each person in the country.

The idea is that this dividend does two jobs at once: it offsets price increases in carbon-intensive goods and services (like coal-based electricity), and it encourages consumers shift to low-carbon alternatives.

In economic theory, the “fee-and-dividend” approach is a little less efficient than an ETS, but in practice it would be far more effective.

A fee-and-dividend system is likely to be harder to manipulate and weaken through the lobbying efforts of Big Carbon. We’ve seen the Government’s ETS proposal watered down with free permits and handouts to the extent that the effective initial carbon price is almost zero, rendering the ETS almost entirely pointless.

Fee-and-dividend also has the advantage of a relatively stable carbon price. The fee would be steadily raised over time, but would be far more predictable than under an ETS. This is crucial in securing investment in low carbon solutions.

All in all, a fee-and-dividend approach looks like a good bet if we want to bring about a low carbon future.

(This appeared as a Letter to the Editor in The Canberra Times of Wednesday 17 Feb 2010.)

CRU stolen emails

Part of another thread of letters to The Canberra Times (posted here partly just as a record, because the CT’s site is so hopeless that most letters don’t even appear online), starting with this on 2 December:

Alan Barron and John Coochey (Letters, 30 November) appear to have been taken in by the misinformation that has been circulating around climate denial blogs: that the emails recently stolen from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia represent some kind of damaging blow to mainstream climate science.

Despite innumerable claims to the contrary, the emails contain no evidence whatsoever of scientific malpractice, nor of a corruption of the peer review process, nor of some cabal of malevolent individuals trying to manipulate results. And there is nothing that represents a credible scientific argument against the consensus picture of anthropogenic global warming.

The emails paint a picture of working scientists engaged in their discipline: battling disinformation, discussing interpretations of results, and in fact demanding scientific rigour. The worst charge that can be constructed from this collection of over a thousand emails (carefully selected and presented out of context to paint as damning a picture as possible) is that some ill-advised comments were made about an FOI request. If that’s the worst that the deniers can find in a decade of emails among a large number of scientists, that speaks volumes for their integrity and professionalism.

The emails do illustrate a culture which to some extent resisted openness with scientific information, and there is room in some circles for more openness on scientific data and methods, and discussion of the full range of opinion. Suggestions that contemporary climate science is based on secret data are deeply misinformed; for instance, the data and models used in NASA’s work are fully available.

Those who deny the evidence on climate change are seemingly so lacking in credible scientific evidence for their cause, and so unwilling to accept that they could be wrong, that there is now only one option left: conspiracy theories. They seem to be operating on the principle that, if you say it loud enough and often enough, enough people will believe it.

Matt Andrews

A reply appeared on 4 December:

If Matt Andrews (Letters, December 2) removes his head for a moment from his “cone of silence” he will see and acknowledge that there are many scientists who question the science of man-made climate change.

He would also know that the University of East Anglia, home of the Climatic Research Unit (the driver of man-made climate change and the IPCC) has announced the director of the unit will relinquish his position pending an investigation into allegations that he overstated the case for man-made climate change.

The reasons for the university’s action can be found in the released emails and documents that on any reading clearly show a course of extremely questionable scientific conduct by the unit.

The results of this conduct, when “cited”, has permeated through countless other scientific papers, resulted in Copenhagen and now forms the basis of the PM’s and Labor’s policy on climate change, ie ETS.

The debate on the science of man-made climate change, on what response if any is necessary or appropriate, is not over, it is just beginning.

Bob Edwards, Kambah

I then replied with this, published on 8 December:

Bob Edwards (Letters, 4 December) illustrates just how comprehensively many have been taken for a ride by the propaganda and disinformation surrounding the release of emails stolen from the Climate Research Unit in the UK.

Much of the controversy has surrounded this sentence in one email from Phil Jones, director of the the CRU: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series […] to hide the decline”. Looks dodgy at first glance, right? But let’s look a bit deeper. This is part of a discussion of tree ring data, used to construct a long term temperature record over many centuries. There’s a well-known aspect of tree growth in high latitudes called the “divergence problem”: trees have grown more slowly than expected since around 1960, given the rising temperatures that we’ve observed. The slowdown seems to be due to air pollution and other regional factors. Consequently the tree ring data since around 1960 is of little statistical value in this context, and it is entirely correct practice that the recent portion (the “decline”) be removed (“hidden”) from the long term temperature reconstruction, since we have more reliable ways of measuring temperature in recent decades anyway.

The fact remains that there is overwhelmingly strong support among climate scientists for the basic observations that the world is warming and that human activity is primarily responsible. In fact, there is not a single credible and substantial line of evidence against those conclusions; the arguments usually promoted on denial blogs have been debunked over and over again.

Matt Andrews

Update, 9 December: this reply appeared in today’s edition:

Matt Andrews’ letter (December 8 ) refers to the “divergence problem” in tree ring data from 1960 onwards.

Trees grow faster when the climate is more favourable (ie, warmer and wetter), and form coarser rings than when they do when it is cold and dry. Usually, the finer rings are a product of winter, and the coarser rings, of summer. How can he or anybody else ignore observational data showing colder and dryer conditions at high latitudes, in order to make the data conform to the theoretical global warming concept?

This attitude of twisting or ignoring facts to suit a theory is why the leaked emails show such deplorable and unscientific treatment of the data, and make one wonder where the people who did this have any ethical sense at all. The first principle of science is that if the data don’t support your clever idea, then you think again and find an idea that fits the data – not the other way around.

Dr Marjorie Curtis, Kaleen

To which I replied:

Dr Marjorie Curtis (Letters, December 9) claims that the exclusion of high-latitude tree ring record since 1960 from long term temperature proxies constitutes a deliberate and unethical manipulation of the data to fit a theory, and that the recent narrow tree rings must indicate colder and dryer conditions in recent decades. It would serve Dr Curtis well to learn something about what the “divergence problem” really means.

We know that Arctic tree rings can reflect the temperature well, going back many centuries, as the tree ring data correlates strongly with a range of other indicators of temperature. Over the last century the tree ring record matches changes in temperature that we’ve directly measured via thermometers, ice area and many other indicators. The exception is that, since around 1960, tree rings in some Arctic regions have been unusually narrow relative to the dramatic warming that we’ve confirmed with satellites, thermometers and so on. We don’t know exactly why this divergence has happened in each region – in some cases it seems to be caused by increased air pollution. But the divergence is real, and very strongly established by the evidence. It would be statistically invalid to include this data since 1960 as part of a long term temperature reconstruction, and indeed such an error would almost certainly be criticised and corrected in peer review.

Accusing scientists of unethical behaviour seems to be par for the course for climate deniers these days. It’s a pity that these bold accusations are based on such profound scientific ignorance.

Matt Andrews

Hot air over temperatures… again

Another round of tedious correction of contrarian disinformation in The Canberra Times. In response to an earlier letter, I wrote this piece which appeared in the print edition of 7 October:

Anthony Moore (Letters, 3 October) claims that satellite and land-based thermometer data show no warming over the past decade. In terms of climate temperature trends, this is not just incorrect; it ignores much more important parts of the picture.

To over-simplify, the word “climate” means the long-term average of the weather, typically over periods of 30 years or more. Annual averages in temperature are dominated by large short-term variations including cycles like El Niño. So-called “sceptics” (who seem to demonstrate a remarkable lack of genuine scepticism) like to talk about “the last decade” because they can start with a huge spike in the annual average (the 1998 El Niño) and end at a low point (the recent La Niña). This says nothing about the underlying climate trend; for that you need to look at long term averages. Look at a graph showing the 30-year average temperature: it’s been steadily increasing – in fact, accelerating – since the 1970s.

The big picture is very clear. The planet has been in energy imbalance since the 1970s: the amount of energy leaving the Earth is less than the incoming energy from the Sun. The planet as a whole is heating up, due mainly to the increase in CO2 and methane, and the energy imbalance is growing. Almost all of this heating has been in the oceans; land and atmosphere heating has been a tiny part of the picture so far.

Matt Andrews

This then attracted a response on 9 October from one of the regular peddlers of the usual ill-informed soundbites:

Matt Andrews’ response (Letters, October 7) to Anthony Moore (Letters, October 3) beggars belief.

The graph on which alarmists have consistently made their case for warming is the Global Temperature Land-Ocean Index which shows Annual Means and 5-Year Means from 1880 to 2000. And now Matt wants to move to 30-year averages to capture the bigger picture – from 1970.

That should give him just one data point!

Then he accuses sceptics of using the 1998 El Nino spike to demonstrate cooling.

Rubbish! Serious sceptics cull that spike from their data and demonstrate cooling from 2001 to the present.

And, like Barrie Smillie some time back, Matt completely misses the point.

This is not about the planet having warmed, which it has since coming out of the Little Ice Age in the mid-19th century, but whether that warming is driven by CO2.

And a planet that has had two prolonged cooling periods (1940-60 and 2001-09 and continuing) while CO2 has been rising, would suggest that CO2 is not the cause. Matt is doing the fast strokes.

Aert Driessen, McKellar

I then responded with this:

Aert Driessen (Letters, 9 October) is having trouble with 30-year moving averages of global temperature, so let me clarify: using the highest quality index, NASA’s GISS, if we use the average of the 30 years of temperatures that ended in 1975 as a starting point, we can see that for each and every year since, the 30-year average that ends at that year is a little bit warmer.

It shows a steady inexorable increase – the long-term trend we call “global warming”. The same pattern is clear in the 30-year averages of the other main index, from Hadley Climate Centre in the UK.

Taking a step back, satellite measurements show that the amount of energy received by the Earth is greater than the amount of energy that is leaving: the planet is in energy imbalance, and thus is heating up. It’s been in that state since the 1970s, and the imbalance is growing.

Matt Andrews