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Five Climate Questions for Richard Muller (Temperature findings begin, not end, the real debate)

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism, California Berkeley physicist Richard A. Muller describes the results from a recent re-examination of climate records and declares the debate is finally, really, truly over.

Skepticism, Muller explains, may have been warranted before (how generous of him!), but now that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project folks have worked over the temperature data again, there’s no more cause for skepticism about whether or not the globe has warmed.

Warming Red Herring–and Five Real Questions

Muller is right about the globe warming, but his framing of the debate is a red herring: arguments over climate change are not about whether one accepts or “denies” that the climate has warmed in recent years.

In fact, as I’ve been explaining to some colleagues and friends today, the proponents of urgent action on climate change like to conflate five separate questions into one question in order to tag their opponents as being “unscientific,” “deniers,” “flat-earthers,” etc.

Here are the five key questions that Muller and any critic of so-called climate skepticism must confront:

Q1: How has the global average temperature changed in recent history?

Q2: How much of that change is attributable to human activities, and how much to a given activity?

Q3: What can we expect to happen to the climate in the future?

Q4: How will those predicted changes affect people in the future?

Q5: What should we do today in response to Q1–Q4?

Question 1: A Warmer World?

Muller and others have addressed Q1, which is the stuff of hard data, adjusting it for various discrepancies, and plotting it out. That’s real hard-science, and I agree, that’s about as real as we can hope to get with scientific thinking.

Still, expect debate over a number of points of the analysis from different quarters, including Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit. After all, the magnitude of actual/factual warming is a theory-driver about the sensitivity of greenhouse-gas forcing on climate.

For questions 2 through 5, however, you depart the realm of hard science for the Assumption Zone.

Question 2: Anthropogenic Warming

So, for question 2, you have to start making assumptions about how the climate works, and what is “natural,” and by comparing that to observations, estimate how much change you can attribute to human activity. You then need more assumptions and estimates to tell you which human activity contributes to the observed change, and how strongly.

These are not simple questions, as the drivers of the climate are many, and some of those are non-linear. Skepticism on attribution of change is reasonable.

Question 3: Future Climate Change

Question 3 is even tougher than question 2, as making projections of the future requires highly advanced computer modeling. Current computer models have very little skill at predicting future states of the climate even in the big picture, much less at regional levels and over discrete actionable time periods of say, a decade at a time.

And, as you’re trying to predict future greenhouse gas emissions, you have to start throwing economic assumptions into the models on top of the physical assumptions you threw in for question 2. I’d say skepticism at this level is obligatory if anyone has paid attention to the limitations of computer models in recent years.

Question 4: Good or Bad Consequences?

Question 4, not surprisingly, entails yet more assumptions about how humans will react to future changes in the climate at both global and regional levels. It also entails assumptions about human technological development, economic activity, the population level, advances in medicine, agriculture, transportation, and so on.

I’d say a lack of skepticism at this level is actually a sign of irrational belief in the ability to predict what can’t be predicted.

Question 5: Policy Choices

And with question 5, you inject a bunch of values on top of your assumptions, since the question of “what do do” has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with values: how much do I save for retirement, versus putting toward my car loan today? How much do I put aside for my kid’s college education versus buying them a new baseball glove today?

These are not science questions at all.

Conclusion

Climate activists would like to conflate five questions that are partly hard science, partly soft-science, and entirely non-scientific and suggest that they all point to one answer: the immediate reordering of civilization based on carbon controls. This may let them defame anyone who disagrees with them as a “denier” of scientific reasoning, but it is an inaccurate characterization of the arguments over climate change.

Questions 2, 3, 4, and 5 anyone?

19 comments

1 Orson { 10.24.11 at 4:43 am }

Muller has had a window of good will from AGW skeptics, and now appears to have squandered it. From my reading of blog reactions, the only influential one not to have been alienated (yet) is Steve McIntyre.

McIntyre – to those unaware – is the dogged statistician in the mining industry who exposed the Hockey Stick temperature graph as fraud.

McIntyre finds it interesting that Muller’s BEST project has very early 19th century temperature data. These results show the climate recovering from even deeper cold than claimed from instruments than ever before. The successful adaptation of humanity during the rebound of the 20th century surely demonstrates the large adaptability of humanity, coming as the world’s population more than tripled.

Furthermore, McIntyre endorses the novel “Kriging” techniques used by the latest BEST reports. But other statistical experts among skeptic find it problematic.

As I see it, thee others like Douglas Keenan and William Briggs see danger in reducing uncertainties to unrealistic levels. This is what I think is the main complaint.

One paper by BEST attempts to answer the LUC/UHI issue – are deforestation, farming and building cities confounding any warming signal. The consensus is that this is handled ineptly and therefore failing to address the valid questions even fence sitters like Prof. Roger Pielke, Sr. have raised on this.

With so much failure by Muller’s BEST group, is there any recent good news? Fortunately, the amateur scientist Frank Lansner based in Denmark provides some genuine food for thought.

Posting at Joanne Nova’s site, Lansner has compiled his own world-wide RAW data temperature set. http://joannenova.com.au/2011/10/messages-from-the-global-raw-rural-data-warnings-gotchas-and-tree-ring-divergence-explained/
The data show that coastal temperature stations almost always show warming (fairly matching SSTs), while inland stations show much more variation – both up and down.

Furthermore, Lansner claims these results help explain why proxy method like tree-rings find no late 20th Century warming: because they are typically inland, there isn’t much warming for them to show.

Finally, I believe Lansner’s data cast empirical doubts on the validity of Kriging to homogenize data sets – unless done very carefully. and thus, amatuer science once more – just as with McIntyre Hockey Stick Breaking – has trumped the Ivory Tower “experts.”

In other words, I think McIntyre’s friendliness toward Muller is misplaced and he has something important to learn from his fellow amateur about climate statistics. Once he does, a more empirically useful critical edge ought to emerge from his (now occasional) blog postings.

2 Orson { 10.24.11 at 5:43 am }

Frank Lansner has helpfully summarized the differences between the latest BEST reports and his own Raw Unadjusted Temperature Index (RUTI), here
http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/24/unadjusted-data-of-long-period-stations-in-giss-show-a-virtually-flat-century-scale-trend/#comment-776127

In particular, observe this BEST versus RUTI temperature chart:
http://hidethedecline.eu/media/ARUTI/GlobalTrends/Est1Global/fig1c.jpg

Lansner comments “The ONLY difference between the 2 datasets happens in the years 1950-78 [ie, and inland period of cooking] (just before satellite data starts) :?BEST adds 0.55 K to the warm trend 1950-78 compared to RUTI”

The importance of Lansner’s findings is that attributing any AGW signal based on homogenising temps from coastal locations is probably wrong. Since these data reflect the enormous latent heat energy of the oceans much more than inland temps do, such attributions are based on a false signal – one far more likely to be natural than anything “anthropogenic.”

Instead, inland temperatures do. But any 20th century warming here seems to be much less.

3 Eric Anderson { 10.24.11 at 10:59 am }

Great post. I think these questions could be framed in different ways, and perhaps with a different number of questions, but the way you have laid out these 5 is certainly a reasonable approach and highlights the move from initial data, to questionable data, to questionable projections, to policy/values. It is critical to make it clear which are one is talking about.

That was one of the things that disappointed me about how BEST handled the press. Oh, sure, buried down there in the articles and in Muller’s interview is apparently an acknowledgement that they haven’t even addressed question 2 (attribution), much less the subsequent questions. Then why allow and even encourage over-the-top pronouncements about the end of skepticism and the triumph of the consensus. This broad brush press release campaign has unfortunately tarnished BEST’s credibility.

4 Roger Caiazza { 10.24.11 at 11:01 am }

I thought your conclusion was very well put: “Climate activists would like to conflate five questions that are partly hard science, partly soft-science, and entirely non-scientific and suggest that they all point to one answer: the immediate reordering of civilization based on carbon controls.”

In addition with respect to Question 5 policy choices, activists believe that we “have the technologies to reduce carbon, the costs are low, and the problem is not technological but rather a matter of political will”. If the science is settled on those beliefs, then it would completely reject the notion that cost-effective technologies are available today that could significantly reduce carbon.

5 Ray { 10.24.11 at 2:48 pm }

There is a critique of and lively discussion on the BEST paper at Dr. Briggs website.
http://wmbriggs.com/

6 Dan { 10.24.11 at 10:56 pm }

Usually these posts are respectably researched, but this one is for the most part quite weak.

Q2: skepticism is warranted, but the best science we have (I’m skeptical of all scientific “truths” as well, but at this point, we should go with what we have observed to be correlated) says that CO2 causes overall climate warming. We know that co2 and other gases force the retention of longwave IR.

Q3: yep, the models are not that good, so skepticism is warranted there, too. But to project anything but increased GHG emissions is ridiculous, at least for the near future. Again, the best we can do is use the general trajectory that we have observed, which is ever-increasing GHG, and especially CO2 emissions. Even some magic carbon-free bullet were to be discovered/created, population and affluence increase will likely overtake it. It is ridiculous to operate under any other assuption.

Q4: Again, an asinine argument. He frames this under the assumption that IF GCC occurs, it might not be a bad thing. Under this assumption, is it really wise to roll the dice on something as essential to life (and death) as the global freaking climate? Are you serious?! This is not something to mess around with. Plus, there are numerous side benefits to addressing the problem as we know it (or believe it to be, if you must). Cleaner air, less environmental destruction, more democratic energy sources, less money to dictators, etc.

I know I’m not on friendly turf here, but I couldn’t resist. This is a truly weak article. I expect better from Master Resource.

7 News & Views – October 25, 2011 | JunkScience.com { 10.25.11 at 12:11 am }

[...] Five Climate Questions for Richard Muller (Temperature findings begin, not end, the real debate) – In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism, California Berkeley physicist Richard A. Muller describes the results from a recent re-examination of climate records and declares the debate is finally, really, truly over. (Kenneth P. Green, MasterResource) [...]

8 Orson { 10.25.11 at 5:37 am }

It would seem that Muller’s WSJ piece is aimed at “unscientific” skeptic arguments like this one by Chemist at the University of Waterloo, Canada, one Michael Palmer:

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/24/unadjusted-data-of-long-period-stations-in-giss-show-a-virtually-flat-century-scale-trend/

Palmer finds that the longest continual temperature 20th century data in the GISS data set, which results in a flat temp signal:
http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/palmer_figure3.png

Pesky damn doubters!

9 David Appell { 10.27.11 at 11:11 am }

Are we supposed to pretend that scientists and economists haven’t tried (and continue to try) to answer Q1-Q4 to the best of their ability? Or just that any answer they give won’t be endlessly criticized and questioned until the last penny of profit is rung out of fossil fuels? It’s hard to keep up anymore….

10 rbradley { 10.28.11 at 8:47 am }

David:

I hope that Ken responds to this himself, but there are a lot of tricks that intellectuals and academics can use to push a conclusion that is not truthful. The half-truth is one way where you just state your case as would a lawyer.

Economists use false assumptions such as perfect information to derive conclusions that can be wrong for the real world. Some economists have done this to push for a carbon tax, for example. Assume the problem, assume the solution, and assume perfect implementation of the solution (no political friction or ‘government failure).

Scientists are human too–just like other private sector folks and politicians. They have agendas and personal failings that come out in their work, even if it is just the choice of what they study and not study.

11 Ken Green { 10.28.11 at 9:22 am }

Greetings –

Sorry I couldn’t respond before, but I just got back from a speaking trip (3 presentations, 4 days in California), and I had limited opportunity to respond to comments in depth. I’ll get to them today/Monday.

12 Ken Green { 10.28.11 at 1:19 pm }

My thanks to those who offered positive comments.

I’m not going to bother much with Dan’s comment, as he seems a bit confused, and the uncivil tone of his remarks suggests that engaging him is unlikely to be fruitful.

I will respond to David though, as he is a well-known science journalist:

David – First, I just reviewed my post, and I don’t see where I suggested that questions 1-4 have not been addressed by scientists or economists. Can you show me where I said or implied that? My conclusion was (partly) “Climate activists would like to conflate five questions that are partly hard science, partly soft-science, and entirely non-scientific and suggest that they all point to one answer: the immediate reordering of civilization based on carbon controls.” I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t indicting either scientists or economists in that post.

I’m also not sure where the whole “until the last penny is wrung out of fossil fuels” thing comes from. Are you sure your comment was attached to the right post here at MR? I’ve looked back at my post again, and I don’t see anything in there about fossil fuel consumption. My post was a response to the fact that the Muller study is being spun by environmental journalists and the mainstream media as some kind of trump card that settles all climate questions, and should bring about the complete end of skepticism and resistance to greenhouse gas controls. Could you show me where, in my post, I mentioned fossil fuel consumption?

I’m sorry that you’re “having trouble keeping up” on the arguments over climate change these days – I tried to be helpful by enumerating my points, and making a fairly linear argument, but I’ll work harder at clarity in the future.

13 The Anti Global Warming Facts Keep on Growing. | Australian TEA Party { 10.28.11 at 6:55 pm }

[...] Five Climate Questions for Muller <<http://www.masterresource.org/2011/10/five-climate-questions-muller/>&gt;.  And “What the BEST data actually says [...]

14 DontCopIt:- The Anti Global Warming Facts Keep on Growing. | Dont Cop It { 10.31.11 at 6:28 am }

[...] Five Climate Questions for Muller <<http://www.masterresource.org/2011/10/five-climate-questions-muller/>&gt;.  And “What the BEST data actually says [...]

15 David Appell { 11.04.11 at 7:47 pm }

rbradley wrote:
…but there are a lot of tricks that intellectuals and academics can use to push a conclusion that is not truthful.

And what about members of “think tanks?”

16 David Appell { 11.04.11 at 8:02 pm }

Ken Green wrote:
I don’t see where I suggested that questions 1-4 have not been addressed by scientists or economists. Can you show me where I said or implied that?

Sure. You wrote, “Here are the five key questions that Muller and any critic of so-called climate skepticism must confront.” The word “confront” means ‘to meet face-to-face.’ Your sentence implies that scientists and proponents of action haven’t yet done that and haven’t been trying to plowing through and solve these problems for decades, to the best of their ability.

Then, in the elaborations of Q’s 1-5, only in the first do you write “Muller and others have addressed Q1….” Someone who read only your post and knew nothing at all about this subject would conclude no one had ever grappled with Q’s 2-5. That conclusion would, of course, be completely false, as lots and lots of people have thought a great, great deal about these questions. You seem to ignore all that work and act like it has never happened and that proponents of action on manmade climate change are ignorant or somehow uniformed. They’re not, and it is dishonest to imply that all of these issues, and many more, aren’t being grappled with, and haven’t been grappled with for about two decades now.

17 rbradley { 11.04.11 at 11:12 pm }

David:

Anyone can present fallacious arguments, certainly, using a variety of methods. May the best scholarship win! I believe the intellectual case against climate alarmism and certainly government as central climate/energy planner is strong, very strong.

18 Ken Green { 11.05.11 at 2:31 pm }

David -

I have to say, I’m somewhat shocked at the…well, fundamental unseriousness of your most recent comments. Digging into the dictionary to try to twist my words into something they didn’t mean is really a rather desperate act. Given that no one, other than yourself, has floated this rather bizarre interpretation of my post, I’d have to suggest that you have lost your perspective a bit. A deep breath might be in order.

I suppose, however, that you have one point. If some alien were to beam down to Earth having never read anything else in its entire time on Earth other than my one little MR post, that alien might, through tortuous alien logic, conclude that I was suggesting that no one had spent any effort to answer questions 2-5.

So, to that alien, I offer a correction: I did not mean to suggest that no one had considered questions 2-5. Indeed, many scientists and economists have. My point was that climate activists like to gloss over those genuinely debatable, more important questions so that, by focusing on the excruciatingly tiny handful of people who reject that the climate has warmed, they can paint all of their opponents as irrational anti-scientists.

19 David Appell { 11.10.11 at 12:00 am }

Ken Green wrote:
My point was that climate activists like to gloss over those genuinely debatable, more important questions so that, by focusing on the excruciatingly tiny handful of people who reject that the climate has warmed, they can paint all of their opponents as irrational anti-scientists.

I can’t speak for any or all activists. But the “genuine debate” has been going on for decades, and no answers ever advance it for authors here on this blog — new doubts are raised about any new analysis, or (and this is how your post read to me) the same old questions are rephrased as if they’d never even been considered. It gets silly after awhile, because we all know the game you’re playing — continuously raising doubts is a strategy to continually delay action — and why you’re playing it.

Whatever else you think of him, Hugo Chavez was right when he said at Copenhagen, “if climate was a bank, the US would have saved it.”

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