Tag Archives: climate science

In the center ring: scientists debate the process of climate science

Summary:  Here’s one of the best conversations I’ve seen about the state and process of climate science (not the technical details for professionals). If he were alive, Thomas Kuhn would smile at this evidence that his theory so well describes the workings of science — on which we rely for prosperity and perhaps survival.  The public policy debate would become clearer if people paid more attention to these debates, rather than listening to the more entertaining but useless posturing of activists.  {2nd of 2 posts today}

Truth in science

Graphic designed by IdeaTree Company.

Eminent climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr published “NASA’s Dr. Gavin Schmidt goes into hiding from seven very inconvenient climate questions” at Watts Up With That. The discussion shifted over to the blog And Then There’s Physics (run by an anonymous scientist), where Chris Colose took a leading role (PhD student in an Atmospheric Science program at the U of Albany; bio at his website).

This twitter conversation among us nicely illustrates the state of climate science today: the debate about basic physics, the time-wasting personal invective, the confidence of those in the mainstream and their contempt for scientists on the fringes, and the blurred boundaries between scientists and amateurs and mountebanks.

All of these are common in the history of science, and well-described by Thomas Kuhn in his great classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Paradigms are “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.” They define for a community of scientists the important questions for investigation and how to conduct science. Paradigms cannot be disproven; they can only be replaced (they’re necessary). Normal science becomes a paradigm crisis when a new paradigm begins to emerge.

I’ve combined and lightly edited these tweets for clarity.


RogerAPielkeSr: Unfortunately, very true. They just want to play “gotcha” rather than work together to expand perspectives and approaches. “admitting an error is a poor strategy.” Says a lot about state of climate science. Admitting errors is how we learn.  “I also don’t think that the term forcing in climate science is quite equivalent to a force in physics.” Wow.

Fabius Maximus (Ed.): It was excellent discussion, IMO. Disagreement about basic physics gives a clear demo of the weak fundamentals of climate science. My background is in history of science. These debates are characteristic of science on the frontiers, not settled science.

Roger A. Pielke Sr: Except they are trying to force it as “settled science”.

Fabius Maximus (Ed.): That’s standard operating procedure for science debates. Paradigms define settled science; crisis destroys consensus, hence their ferocity. See relativity, continental drift. A discussion that finds disagreement of such basic physics is IMO a success. is there any mechanism for follow-up? That’s a weakness of blogs.

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Worry again about a huge El Niño (droughts, floods, etc)! Or listen to the pros.

Summary: The fear barrages about climate change reveal so much about America today, such as the common tactics of Left and Right and their disinterest in science except when operationally useful. It also shows why the Right wins and the Left becomes marginal, as we see in this repeat of last year’s warnings of a “huge” El Niño coming with horrific effects.   {2nd of 2 posts today.}

The El Nino Monster

“The El Nino Monster” By Steve McAlister, Getty Images.

Today’s alarmism

The Left has put most of its chips on climate change as the means to reorganize America’s political and economic system. Unfortunately, during the past decade neither the climate science community (e.g., the IPCC), the weather, or the American public have cooperated, frustrating their increasingly dire forecasts. Their response shows why they have become such a marginal force in American politics: they don’t do alarmist as well as the Right.

For example let’s look at a typical piece of climate alarmism, from Slate — a launch pad for so much climate propaganda:  “Huge El Niño Becoming More Likely in 2015” by Eric Holthaus (writer about climate, undergrad BS in meteorology, bio here), 14 May 2015. Let’s look at what he says and forgets to say. He opens strongly, but doesn’t say what caused his confident but quite mistaken forecast, or what he’s learned.

Last year at this time, I was harping about the “monster” El Niño that seemed to be brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It didn’t pan out. But from the looks of the latest data, I was just one year too early.

Then he repeats the mistakes of last year’s hysterical coverage. Good science but devoid of important context.

For the first time since 1998 — the year of the strongest El Niño on record, which played havoc with the world’s weather patterns and was blamed for 23,000 deaths worldwide — ocean temperatures in all five El Niño zones have risen above 1°C warmer than normal at the same time. That’s the criteria for a moderately strong event, and the latest forecast models are unanimous that it’s going to keep strengthening for the rest of the year.

… Autumn outlooks made this time of year normally have an error of plus-or-minus 0.6°, meaning the current forecast of a 2.2°C warming of the tropical Pacific by December essentially locks in a strong event. At the low end, we can expect the biggest El Niño since the last one in 2009-2010, a moderately strong event. At the top end, this El Niño could be the strongest in recorded history.

Now, for the rest of the story…

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Appeals to fear gain little support for the Left on climate change. What next?

Summary: Fear has worked wonders for the Right but despite massive investments it has failed to produce much for the Left, hence their diminished state in US politics. As their major campaign clanks on with little public policy effect, some on the Left ask questions about this tactic — and scientists’ studies give answers. Today’s post reviews the action, on which so much depends.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Few activists,Left or Right, believe John. They find FEAR a more reliable tool.John 8-32

After 25 years of fear barrages, one of the greatest efforts of the Left in recent history, public concern about climate change in the US remains low vs. other environmental risks (see this post and a 2015 Gallup poll). Now they’re beginning to ask questions about their tactics. Why has fear worked wonders for the Right but done so little for them?

It’s a pivotal moment for the Left in America. Climate change has been their key issue, one that ties together much of their work and in which they have invested massive resources. So far it has failed due to a combination of an uncooperative climate, opposition from the Right, and an unusually fear-resistant public. How they react might determine the role in US history for another generation — or longer.

For an excellent long-form look at these complex issues, see Andy West’s article at Climate Etc about “Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain“. He sets the stage…

Along with a great deal of subconscious or unconsidered emotive communication advocating CAGW {catastrophic anthropogenic global warming}, deliberately emotive communication campaigns have been a feature of the Consensus (in its widest sense, i.e. including government agencies, NGOs, much of academia etc.) for many years. There doesn’t seem to have been any systemic effort to hide this approach.

Quite the contrary; articles and papers discussing the various merits or otherwise of specific emotive crafting are easy to find, often with recommendations for improved efforts along the same lines. And this literature is clearly phrased in the context that such campaigns are, as self-perceived, a norm. Perhaps even more than just a norm; a gratifying achievement with an aspiration for more. Yet the relative lack of success of these campaigns (as assessed via surveys) has caused more reflection and analysis in recent years.

Diagnosis of failure

West cites many powerful articles about this. Here are excerpts from several of them. First, “The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition“, Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz, Risk Analysis, May 2014. What makes people concerned about climate change? Appealing to which emotion gains the most support?

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Key facts about the drought that’s reshaping Texas

Summary: The farmers and ranchers of Texas exhaust its groundwater as they suffer from a severe drought, which activists blame our burning of fossil fuels. What do scientists say? How severe is the drought? What are its causes? How will this reshape Texas? It’s another test case of our ability to see and adapt to our changing world. {1st of 2 posts today.}

“Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”.
— John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962).

US Drought Monitor: March 2015

Click to expand.

Texas Seal


  1. More hysteria from the Left.
  2. Status report from Texas.
  3. Learning from the past in Texas.
  4. Let’s try science!
  5. Look to the future.
  6. For More Information.
  7. The Hydro-Illogical Cycle.

(1)  More hysteria from the Left

The media overflows with debates asking do you believe in climate change? As with evolution, much of America remains in denial. Some on the Right deny that it’s happening now; some on the Left deny that it’s omnipresent in history. Both use science as magicians use their wands: to confuse us. But we have reliable sources to guide us. How to find them is the subject of many posts on the FM website.

Today we look at the Texas drought. The New Republic gives us a well-written example of how not to do it: “Fear in a Handful Of Dust” by Ted Genoways — Excerpt:

Climate change is making the Texas panhandle, birthplace of the state’s iconic Longhorn, too hot and dry to raise beef. What happens to the range when the water runs out? … Soon, environmental activists and reporters {ed: not scientists} began to ask whether “drought” — a temporary weather pattern — was really the right term for what was happening in the state, or whether “desertification” was more appropriate.

… In fact, hydrologists estimate that even with improved rainfall, it could take thousands of years to replenish the groundwater already drawn from the South Plains.

… “If climate change is the real deal,” {Linden Morris} said, “then the human race as we know it is over. And I don’t believe that.”

Climate change is the “real deal”, but someone should tell Morris that few scientists believe we are “over”. Genoways’ confusing article mixes together several trends, most seriously conflating three important but largely unrelated trends: groundwater depletion, the current drought, and climate change.

Farmers and ranchers have been draining the Ogallala Aquifer (a finite store of water, part of a system underlying about 80% of the High Plains) at an ever-faster rate since the 1940s. In Texas they accelerated their pumping during the current drought. As scientists have warned for generations, at some point we will exhaust this great aquifer network and the Midwest economy will irrevocably change. It’s a phase in our history, like the California and Alaskan gold rushes. (For more information see this by the USGS; also seen the graph showing depletion levels here.)

But despite his apocalyptic language, Genoways doesn’t show that many climate scientists (let alone a consensus) believe that climate change, natural or anthropogenic, is largely responsible for the Texas drought. Let’s see review the evidence, and listen to what they actually say.

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Climate activists’ last play: attempting to start an “availability cascade.”

Summary: Both sides of the public debate about climate change long ago abandoned the physical sciences. So we turn to the social scientists to understand what’s happening. This article by climate scientist Judith Curry examines how the two fields intersect in the climate wars.  (1st of 2 posts today.)

The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. … To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.
— Bertrand Russell’s “Philosophy for Laymen” (1946).

A climate change availability cascade

Judith Curry, posted at Climate Etc, 9 April 2015.
Reposted under her Creative Commons License.


Everybody wants to save humanity:


  1. The availability cascade.
  2. Availability entrepreneurs.
  3. About climate change & health?
  4. Conclusions.
  5. About the Author.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  The availability cascade

Climate change may exacerbate environmental problems that are caused by overpopulation, poorly planned land-use and over-exploitation of natural resources. However, for the most part it is very difficult to separate out the impacts of human caused climate change from natural climate change and from other societal impacts.

Nevertheless, climate change has become a grand narrative in which human-caused climate change has become a dominant cause of societal problems. Everything that goes wrong then reinforces the conviction that that there is only one thing we can do prevent societal problems – stop burning fossil fuels. This grand narrative misleads us to think that if we solve the problem of climate change, then these other problems would also be solved.

Politicians, activists and journalists have stimulated an ‘availability cascade’ to support alarm about human-caused climate change: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and greater alarm. From the original paper by Kuran and Sunstein:

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Key facts about the drought that’s reshaping California.

Summary:  California’s drought might be to us what the dust bowl of the prairies was to the 1930s (irony: California was the big beneficiary of that drought). This post answers most of your questions about the drought, cutting through the media chaff of misinformation (but does not discuss its effects). This is an update of a November post

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earth; bio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

California drought


  1. The California drought: it’s bad.
  2. Climate Science gives us worse news.
  3. About our water stocks.
  4. Causes of these droughts.
  5. California’s mad water use.
  6. Useful Sources of Information.
  7. For More Information.
  8. The Hydro-Illogical Cycle.

(1)  The California drought: it’s bad.

It’s bad, with no end in sight. We get most of our water from the winter rain, which has been below- average so far (85% of average; rank 57 of the past 120 years; the past 12 months numbers are similar). Not what we need to refill the reservoirs. See the story in pictures below; click all images to expand.

Precipitation this winter in California

From the California Climate Tracker website. Click to expand.

How bad is it? Let’s look at the past year (the California “water year” runs from October to September). The average is 23″; 1924 was the driest year at 9″; 6 of past 8 years were dry. The previous “water year” (ended Oct 2014) was 12″ (3rd driest in the past 119). Jan and Feb were especially bad this year.

It can get much worse.  The 1917 – 1934 drought ran 17 years with only one year of above-average rainfall (including the record low year of 1924)!

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A key to understanding the news: the unexpected rules in our age of wonders.

Summary: We’re in an age of wonders where the news overflows with unexpected events, things not predicted by even our greatest experts. Today we discuss two common responses to this, both ineffective: blindly accepting experts’ explanations that it’s all understood, and throwing away their advice as imperfect. There is a third and better way.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“History doesn’t always repeat itself. Sometimes it just screams, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?’ and lets fly with a big stick.”
— John W. Campbell Jr., Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine (1965).

"Machinery of the Stars" by alexiuss

“Machinery of the Stars” by alexiuss seen at DeviantArt. Posted with the artist’s generous permission.

Learning from the past — the lessons of history — boosts our odds of success in the present. But it’s equally important to see breaks with the past. Instead of flagging these, experts tend to bury them in explanations that conceal their role as valuable markers on the road to a different future. It’s the equivalent of asking about that Detour sign on the road and getting a lecture about the Vienna Convention about Road Signs.

Instead here we attempt to isolate such anomalies, examining them as clues to possible discontinuities in the normal trends of society. It’s an unpopular message. People want explanations, however bogus, to banish fears of uncertainty. It’s one of the primary services experts sell. Unfortunately, our world cannot be understood without understanding its strangeness, especially now — since we have so much of it.

Perhaps the most obvious oddity of our time is in economics. The developed nations appear locked into a slow-growth mode since the 2008 crash (US real GDP growth of ~2.4%), despite massive monetary stimulus on a scale never before seen. Central bank assets in the EU and USA have growth to ~25% of GDP — 64% of GDP in Japan — while interest rates have fallen to zero (below zero in Europe, something considered an absurdity until it happened) and inflation rates declined below central banks’ “floor” targets (despite widespread confident predictions that they would rise).

For a rare admission of uncertainty see “It seems nobody knows what’s going on with the economy,” Andrew McAfee (PhD business, Prof at MIT School of Management), The Financial Times, 26 February 2015. This would be extraordinary if by an economist.

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