Tag Archives: climate science

Thomas Kuhn & Twitter tell us what we need to know about climate science

Summary: The history of science provides a vital perspective for anyone watching our time’s high stakes climate science debate. Look at Twitter and you will see the theories of the great Thomas Kuhn at work, helping us better understand the public policy debate.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Speech by union leader Nicholas Klein (1918). This applies just as well to paradigm challenges in science.



  1. The nature of science.
  2. The structure of real science.
  3. The structure of scientific revolutions.
  4. The state of climate science.
  5. What happens next?
  6. For More Information.

(1)  The nature of science

Much of the debate among laypeople about climate science (the only rational foundation for public policy debates about climate change) revolves around misunderstandings of how science works. There is the concept of “consensus” in science, politically useful but implies that the majority view indicates truth (as if vox populi, vox dei applies to science). There are more useful perspectives.

As scientists studying science have long known, it’s a social activity like any other. Our “wetware” evolved on the African plains and included nothing to produce intellectuals in the selfless pursuit of knowledge. Like war, western society has evolved it into a ferociously efficient mechanism that’s often not as pretty as shown in 1930’s films about heroic scientists challenging orthodoxy.

Science is a field with barriers to entry, training mechanisms to produce people who (usually) behave according to its canons, rules for their competition, and a hierarchy to control its workings and allocate its rewards. The winners climb to the top, basking in their community’s prestige (often unknown to the wider society), preferentially reward and advance their allies and protégés, withhold resources from their rivals, and bake their beliefs into the community’s thinking.

It’s the way of the world.

The study of science as a social activity tended to focus on its normative processes (i.e., how they should be). For example, Karl Popper said that scientists validate theories through attempts at falsification. A compelling theory, but study of actual scientists disproved it.

Continue reading

Do models accurately predict climate change?

Summary: Climate models are important for several reasons. Large flows of tax dollars go to their construction and operation. Their predictions dominate the public policy debate about climate change (to the exclusion of other tools, such as predictability studies). In this post eminent climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr. explains that long-term model forecasts have shown little skill at forecasting. Post your questions in the comments; he’ll answer as time permits.  {1st of 2 posts today).

“I offer a toast to the future, the undiscovered country.”
— Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek IV.

The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? …And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.  {Hamlet}

Temperature change in NOAA's GFDL CM2.1 model.

Projected change in annual mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century (1971-2000 average) to the middle 21st century (2051-2060 average). This is based on a “middle of the road” estimate of future emissions ( IPCC SRES A1B). These results are from the GFDL CM2.1 model, but are consistent with a broad consensus of modeling results. From NOAA.

How accurately do the global climate models simulate the real climate?

Guest post by Roger A. Pielke Sr.

The climate models are useful as sensitivity experiments but using them to claim an ability to skillfully project climate, even on the global scale, in the coming decades has not been shown.

The new seminal Stephens et al paper provides a clear documentation of the level of model skill: “The albedo of Earth” in Reviews of Geophysics, March 2015. There is also a power point talk on this: “Is the Earth’s climatesystem constrained?” Among their conclusions is that …

“Climate models fail to reproduce the observed annual cycle in all components of the albedo with any realism, although they broadly capture the correct proportions of surface and atmospheric contributions to the TOA {top of atmosphere} albedo. A high model bias of albedo has also persisted since the time of CMIP3, mostly during the boreal summer season. Perhaps more importantly, models fail to produce the same degree of interannual constraint on the albedo variability nor do they reproduce the same degree of hemispheric symmetry.”

The technical term albedo “is the fraction of solar energy (shortwave radiation) reflected from the Earth back into space. It is a measure of the reflectivity of the earth’s surface. Ice, especially with snow on top of it, has a high albedo: most sunlight hitting the surface bounces back towards space” (From the Earth & Space Research website). CMIP3 is phase 3 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). They collect the output of global climate models (i.e., coupled atmosphere-ocean general circulation models).

Stephens et al further bolsters the conclusions we summarized in the preface to Climate Vulnerability: Understanding and Addressing Threats to Essential Resources (5 volumes, 2013)…

Continue reading

About the imminent spike in global warming

Summary: Our dysfunctional politics result largely from polarized views of Americans, both sides shaped by skillful and expensive propaganda. To break free we’ll need to learn their methods and develop far deeper skepticism. This is another in a series of posts looking at examples of our minds being molded by pros. It discusses the work of climate activists, but it’s vital to understand that both sides do this — because it works.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Global Warming

Yesterday’s post discussed the largely erroneous framing in an article about climate change by investment expert Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg. How do intelligent, educated people become so convinced by the propaganda of climate activists, dismissing any who disagree with them as “deniers”?

We might find an answer by looking at the work of activists, such as Joe Romm (note that most climate activists are paid employees, unlike most of those on the Right). This post follows his chain of evidence in a typical article, showing how his bold conclusions rest on misrepresentations of the literature, and exaggerating the scope and certainty of specific papers.

The work by activists have large effects because liberals often read only activists, giving them a misunderstanding of climate science — exacerbated because activists seldom cite the work of institutions like the IPCC (designed to make the work of scientists understandable to laypeople).

Today’s example: “NOAA Study Confirms Global Warming Speed-Up Is Imminent” at ThinkProgress, 5 June 201 — Opening …

A major new study from NOAA finds more evidence that we may be witnessing the start of the long-awaited jump in global temperatures. As I reported in April, many recent studies have found that we are about to enter an era of even more rapid global warming. … The new study in Science from a team of NOAA scientists, “finds that the rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than that seen during the latter half of the 20th Century,” as NOAA explains.

… What happens when these various temporary factors stop? Karl explained: “Once these factors play out, and they may have already, global temperatures could rise more rapidly than what we have seen so far.” In other words, the long-awaited jump is global temperatures is likely imminent.

The cracks appear right at the start of this. Note the jump between Karl’s careful “may have already … could rise” and Romm’s “likely imminent”. Romm also omits the cautious language Karl gives in the NOAA’s well-written (as always) press releases (first one, second one) …

Continue reading

Touring the frontiers of climate science, the exciting parts of science

Summary: Every field of science has frontiers. Journalists and activists prefer to show us answers (sometimes guesses), and hide the questions which drive science (and produce much of its excitement). Some are generated by the reigning paradigm, which focuses scientists’ work on key issues. Scientists challenging the paradigm ask different questions, ones often considered irrelevant, unimportant, or unsolvable by the mainstream defenders of the paradigm. In today’s post an eminent climate scientist, a challenger of the paradigm, describes the frontiers as she sees them.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“The science behind climate change is settled, and human activity is responsible for global warming. That conclusion is not a partisan one.”
— EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, February 2010 (New York Times). The IPCC says she’s exaggerating, a lot.

Frontiers of science

What are the most controversial points in climate science?
How might these controversies be resolved?

Judith Curry, posted at Climate Etc, 4 May 2015.
Reposted under her Creative Commons License.

A journalist asked me the questions paraphrased below.  It is good to see a journalist asking such questions, when the prevailing view is reflected by this recent Guardian article: “Kofi Annan: We must challenge climate-change skeptics who deny the facts“. If the IPCC were doing its job in the way that I think it should be done, reporters wouldn’t need to ask these questions. In fact the IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR) in 1990 did this well.

Here is my first quick cut at responding to these questions; for reference, I also include the relevant FAR statements.

What are the most controversial points in climate science related to AGW?

There are two overarching issues. Whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes? How much the planet will warm in the 21st century? More specific, technical issues that need to be resolved in support of addressing these overarching issues…

  • Causes of the 1900-1940 warming; the cooling from 1940-1976; and the recent hiatus in warming since 1998.  How are these explained in context of AGW being the dominant influence since 1950?
  • Solar impacts on climate (including indirect effects).  What are the magnitudes and nature of the range of physical mechanisms?
  • Nature and mechanisms of multi-decadal and century scale natural internal variability.  How do these modes of internal variability interact with external forcing, and to what extent are these modes separable from externally forced climate change?
  • Deep ocean heat content variations and mechanisms of vertical heat transfer between the surface and deep ocean.
  • Sensitivity of the climate system to external forcing, including fast thermodynamic feedbacks (water vapor, clouds, lapse rate).
  • Climate dynamics of clouds: Could changes in cloud distribution or optical properties contribute to the global surface temperature hiatus? How do cloud patterns (and top of atmosphere and surface radiative fluxes) change with shifts in in atmospheric circulation and teleconnection regimes (e.g. AO, NAO, PDO)? How do feedbacks between clouds, surface temperature, and atmospheric thermodynamics/circulations interact with global warming and the atmospheric circulation and teleconnection regimes?

The key areas of scientific uncertainty from the FAR are…

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading