Sunday, August 03, 2008

Been undertaking one of my regular trawls through the climate change denial blogs.

Depressing as always, not so much because of Climate Change itself. If it's true, that's depressing, if the denialists are right, that's obviously a good thing.

No, what's depressing is the degree to which politics and special interest and pride and anger, resentment and malice seem to be involved in the debate.

It looks like it's on both sides. The denialists are big on highlighting stupid and pompous and venal prevaricating statements by climate change scientists. It's harder to guage whether that's a representative sampling or if they've goaded those scientists into intemperate outbursts which are then gleefully seized on as evidence of those same scientists' worthlessness.

Whichever is the case, the tools of the internet are being turned to the destruction of a knowledge and the sowing of confusion rather than it's creation, refinement and promulgation.

What's needed is something better than newspapers and television documentaries and blogs and graphs as a way of structuring this debate.

Update : Maybe we need things like this. Or TruthMapping which seems very close to a working Typed Threaded Discussion.


Oli said...

Hey Phil,

I finally get around to posting a comment :)

IMHO the biggest problem here is that the scientists have been pushed into significantly overstating their confidence in their results from the fledgling field of computer model based climate predictions. Now that the politicians and activists have got their "90% certain" statement from the IPCC they would like the scientists to stop debating the issue any further. It's rediculous.

The politicians should get on with reducing our dependance on fossil fuels and protecting the environment for a whole range of reasons and the scientists should keep on debating as vigorously as ever.

As you say, it would be great if Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW - Climate Change is just way to vague a term) does indeed turn out to be less of a problem than currently believed, but if it is indeed going to be a big problem then scientists need to keep debating so that we understand it more accurately. The good parts of any theory will be supported by the data time and time again and so should never be afraid of healthy debate.

I have spent far too much time over the last year or so reading up on the science and the blog debate around what our current state of knowledge means and, as far as I can make out (AFAICMO), the IPCC have significantly overstated how confident we can currently be about the computer model predictions. (Indeed AFAICMO they appear to have mixed up the reliability of their models to predict the same thing - 90% of the time - with whether or not the predictions are actually accurate!)

AFAICMO the basic story is that the physics of CO2 having a warming effect is very clearly supported. The difficult part is to understand the climate's sensitivity to this particular warming and to then predict the future consequences in light of all the myriad feedback mechanisms. This is where there is still significant genuine scientific uncertainty and reason for debate.

For example, AFAICMO, their is a valid scientific debate about whether or not clouds are a net positive or net negative feedback. These kinds of unknowns have a massive impact on long term trends and therefore seriously undermine confidence in the long term computer model predictions.

Vigorous, on-going, scientific debate should enhance our knowledge and thereby improve our predictions and our confidence levels in our predictions. But, improving our knowledge might at times include having to say that: "we now know that we can't predict the future climate as well as we thought we could".

If a better understanding of the science reduces our confidence levels from 90% down to 30% (or whatever) that should not be seen as 'sowing confusion' or 'destroying knowledge'. It's science at its best.

However, it is indeed very sad when the oestensibly scientific debate descends into ad hominem and nit picking.

I'll end by ironically nit-picking on your use of the pejorative, ad hominem label 'denier' for a scientist who has some doubts about the Nobel Prize winning consensus ;)


PS You may wish to check out further debate at:

Oli said...


As is often the way, after posting my comment, making a cup of coffee and then re-reading your initial post I realise that my comment fails to comment on your post's main issue: is the internet working effectively here as a tool for productive debate?

I would say it depends on how you engage with reading the blogs and what outcomes are considered 'productive debate'.

Most of the comments on most of the blogs are uninteresting or worse. In this way I would say that the debate directly on the blogs themselves is rarely productive.

One interesting development (over 6 months ago I think) was that Roger Pielke Sr. who runs Climate Science (CS at switched off comments and now runs the blog as a publish only channel for him and invited posters. For me this works well as the signal to noise ratio in comments is usually so bad. It makes the CS 'blog' a great place to learn about new papers and opinions without ever being tempted to wade through the comments to try to find something interesting.

Steve McIntyre's Climate Audit (CA at the blog you link to, is much more focused around a few core statistical debates. Some of the threads there are genuinely productive explorations for those deeply involved with a particular issue. For example they will occassionally post up R code and things like that.

Indeed, one of CA's big issues that they plug away at is the lack of openness from climate scientists in terms of publishing their raw data and methods. They're interested in this because they genuinely want to replicate the analysis that other scientists are doing.

For example, the CA bloggers replicated the NASA process for generating the GISS temperature record by working it out piece by piece themselves over many months - and found a genuine error that NASA later corrected. All during this process NASA refused to release their source code or publish explicit replicable methods. I think NASA have now been shamed, mostly by the CA bloggers influence, into opening up their code. During this process some threads acted more as a project's discussion forum than a wide ranging blog. So, at times particular threads on CA can be very productive.

Also, in terms of productive outcomes CA has both helped find and sometimes correct genuine errors in other people's work, but it has also been successfully pushing the climate scientists to be more open with their raw data and analysis methods.

However, CA's focus on arcane details of specific data sets is fairly obscure for a casual reader and the fact that some of the issues date back over a decade can look very odd. CA can at times therefore look quite nit-picky, but I imagine so would any group of scientists focusing on some tiny analysis detail of an obscure data set that happens to be important to the debate they are engaged in. CA is not (usually) targetted at a general audience.

Another big name in this area is Anthony Watts. His work often does feel more deliberately targetted at a wide general audience, and consequently is often easier to read casually.

His big project is a collective project to get volunteers to photograph and document the metadata for every surface weather station in the USA:

This massive piece of internet enabled collective work has revealed all sorts of problems with the positioning of some of these weather stations (e.g. measuring temperature right next to a concrete carpark) and problems with the way that the USA govt departments try to adjust the temperature record to account for such things. Again, this work (often done in conjuction with CA) has had an impact on mainstream climate science in the USA and has generally been accepted as a useful, positive contribution (especially as it was work that the USA govt ought to have been doing themselves!).

He also has a blog, which is a bit like a pop-science blog about AGW issues called Watts Up With That? ( Some of this can be very unscientific and quite clearly about the political debate around AGW, but it's quite an easy read for keeping up to date with AGW related news. However, that's how I read it, I rarely read the comments as there is virtually zero productive debate in the comments on this blog.

Real Climate ( also reads like a pop-science news blog but from the perspective of people who are convinced about the dangers of AGW. Occasionally they have more in depth scientific postings that are interesting, but again the comments are rarely worth reading and there is little by way of productive debate.

So, overall I would say that the on-going publishing of information on these blogs is definitely contributing productively to a wider debate about AGW, but rarely do the blogs themselves host interesting debate in their comments sections. Unfortunately I suspect that this is partly because the comment sections are too open and therefore the quality of comments can vary so widely that it stifles effective debate.

It would indeed be sad if being 'too open' is part of the problem. I wonder who is studying such things?


Composing said...


thanks ... these are great comments. Need some time to digest and read more.

Quick questions though, as you've obviously immersed yourself in this stuff ...

1) You say the physics of CO2 warming is sound, but given the complexity of the environment and different feedback loops, it's hard to be sure that humans *are* causing global warming.

What about the actual warming itself ... how controversial is it that it's actually happening?

2) I'm also a bit intrigued by you saying that "The politicians should get on with reducing our dependance on fossil fuels" ... surely the sceptic (if I can't use "denialist") can object that there's no need for politicians to do anything of the sort if AGW doesn't exist.

(Apart from for peak-oil etc. which has its own sceptical literature.)

I mean, no one would be too upset by the sceptics if they didn't have any effect on what we were doing about climate-change (both government policy and public behaviour, eg. I have colleagues who effectively quote sceptic arguments to me as a justification for not changing their consumption or driving patterns)

If you're not persuaded by AGW, on what grounds do you call for governments to act?

3) Some objections I've read to the sceptics are that they are actually misleading or misrepresenting the evidence. (Choosing time-periods selectively etc.)

Is that a fair accusation?

Or do you find when you read through all the different arguments and positions that both sides are generally selecting their data in a principled way (ie. on what they believe to be relevant, rather than to get a particular result.)

I presume this sort of accusation flies both ways, but do you get any sense that one side is better or worse than the other in this respect?

(Great point about the opening up of data though ... I'm 100% behind the CA etc. people there.)

Oli said...

OK, good questions and I'll try to answer each in turn, but even while trying to be succinct I'm afraid this reply is going to be very long :( However, I will factor out a general AFAICMO that covers all of this and also I'll just say once that my comments will obviously fail to capture all of the sub-sub-controversies that nest within each detail of such a complex subject.

1) (a) Are humans causing some level of global warming? Almost certainly.

CO2 emmissions from humans are increasing the warming from the green house effect, but also at a local level, land use changes such as cutting down forrests and irrigation can lead to significant effects on the local climate, some of which will lead to a warmer local climate. Similarly building cities causes urban heat island effects at a local level.

Each of these effects (and others) is real, and each may have global long term consequences, but the scale of each effect is currently not known with any high degree of confidence. Some scientists argue that land use changes are a much more serious 'threat' to the future climate than CO2 emmissions.

(b) Is the world warming? Yes and no and this is probably the wrong question to be asking.

*) Yes: If you look at the satellite measured temperature record for the last 30 years then the average in the first 10 years was a lower temperature than the average for the last 10 years. It has been getting warmer.

*) No (well it's not unusually warm): As it's recently got warmer and glaciers retreat some of them (e.g. in Alps and Greenland) have revealed buried plant life that has been dated to a couple of thousand years ago. This (alone) is pretty compelling evidence that there have been times in the recent past that were at least as warm as now. There is other evidence that corroborates the strong possibility that the current warming is not particularly unusual and may have more to do with natural variations as we continue to come out of the recent 'little ice age' of the 17th C.

Unfortunately we dont have accurate records for a usefully long timescale to confidently judge which of the competing theories best explains the current warming. Indeed, we only really have good global records from the start of the satellite era in the 1970s.

*) It's the wrong question anyway: In the long term it's the heat energy balance that will drive major changes in the climate, and so we should be measuring the changing heat energy content of the climate (most especially of the oceans) rather than the average temperature. In coupled systems the average temperature can go down but the overall heat energy go up (and visa versa). Worrying about temperature is therefore dangerously misleading to the real energy balance in the climate.

It's therefore a major concern that we are still so ignorant about the details of the ocean's influence in all of this as the oceans hold the biggest store of heat energy. Relatively recent scientific work is starting to address this major gap by systematically measuring the heat content of the oceans - but it's still early days for this work.

Needless to say, the modelling work has to lag behind the latest field work.

2) (a) Why should the politicians get on with reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and improving energy efficiency?
There are a number of reasons that have nothing to do with AGW at all:

*) Reducing the typical per capita consumption of any finite resource to an equitable level is IMHO a minimum requirement on any serious attempt to strive for global justice and equality. So striving for more efficient use of all resources is a morally important goal for any society.

*) I'm fairly convinced that some version of peak oil will be a serious risk to western economies over the next 20 to 50 years or so. We therefore have to move our economy off oil where we can and to use oil efficiently where we have to use it.

*) Oil and natural gas are behind some of the major geopolitical tensions in the world today. This isn't just a repeat of the 'peak oil' concern, as peak oil concerns would still be there even if Canada, New Zealand and Australia happened to have all known oil and gas reserves. Unfortunately our thirst for these resources is also enriching the governments of a bunch of unstable and illiberal countries, and was certainly a major contributing factor in the choice to go to war in Iraq. Such geopolitical concerns should again drive any sensible country to try to rapidly remove itself from this particularly troublesome 'addiction'.

Finally two answers to this question that do relate to AGW:

*) Procedurally I think that the politicians should be following the advice of the IPCC scientists as the IPCC was tasked with giving the politicians the best current advice available. If the scientists in a particular country subsequently give their politicians different advice then those politicians should follow their local advice. In the mean time it would be out of place for a politician to simply say "I think the IPCC got the science wrong".

*) We regularly take some proportionate mitigating activity for unlikely but serious potential threats. There is a possibility that AGW does indeed represent a major threat to our children's children. We should continue to take this potential threat seriously until there are good reasons NOT to take it seriously. However, it should take its due place in the list of serious issues that we ought to be addressing. The Copenhagen Consensus is an interesting group looking into how such prioritisations should be made (

2) (b) But what about 'emissions reductions'?

At the rate we're going emissions reductions are a fantasy, and I kind of suspect that any sensible, well informed politician must know this. Why do I say this? Well, for me the basic maths of this just doesn't add up.

We're asking oil and gas companies to pump out of the ground more and more of the raw material year on year. So when it's all added up how could we possibly reduce the overall emissions? Sure we might reduce the per capita emissions, but the number of people using fossil fuels is clearly rising sufficiently fast to outpace any such efficiency gains.

If politicians were really serious about reducing global emissions they'd be trying to turn down the supply tap!

All indications are that global demand for fossil fuels is rising and will continue to rise as China, India, Brazil etc become more prosperous. If we really did turn down the supply tap while demand continues to rise then prices would go through the roof as we pre-empt peak oil in order to save the planet.

This just isn't happening, and it isn't going to happen. I have never heard a politician talk about the need to reduce how much we dig out of the ground, rather everyone is running around asking the Saudi's to pump the stuff faster.

Also, see for how the UK is effectively fiddling it emissions 'success'.

So, why are politicians being so blatently duplicitous on this major issue?

I think there's a serious possibility that western leaders fear that peak oil is going to be a major problem in the next 20 to 50 years and they're using the AGW bandwagon as a means to convince the population to move off oil as fast as is politically possible. AGW has the advantage of being a long term possible threat that rich countries could probably buy their way out of. On the other hand peak oil is an imminent possible threat that could seriously undermine western economic dominance, could lead to major wars and for which we dont yet have the technological solutions to avoid the risks.

Why scare the public with peak oil when concerns over AGW might achieve similar results without the panic.

But, maybe that's giving our politicians way too much credit! It's usually cockup rather than conspiracy.

3) Which side of the debate has more honest proponents?

It's important to recognise that there are earnest scientists on both 'sides' of the debate who genuinely believe they understand the issues slightly better than their collegues with whom they disagree. Also, it's well known that humans are prone to finding evidence that supports the theory that they already believe in. So, it's little surprise that both sides accuse the other of 'cheating' in the way that they collect, analyse or present their data.

Eventually the scientists will agree methods that both 'sides' sign up to and the evidence will land where it lands. But in many ways it is still a fledgling science that's closer in methodology to ALife than particle physics.

There are also activists and lobbyist on both sides and each has put out plenty of blatent propoganda in support of their viewpoint (An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle are the two highest profile examples).

I guess as observers of any debate we just have to try to see through as much of the noise as possible to discern some signal of where the current science lies. Fortunately we have the internet as this great resource to dig deeper on such subjects. Unfortunately such digging can take up a huge amount of time.

Talking of which - I should be asleep in bed by now!