Do scientists play dumb on climate change?

Summary: Both Right and Left in America show a FAILure to learn from experience. Has it become part of our national character, perhaps our greatest weakness? Today we look an example of the Left’s attempts to mobilize us to fight climate change. So far failing to gain substantial public support, frustrated by failure of their amateur predictions of extreme climate, they double down. Perhaps they believe the Green Lantern Theory works in political activism — sufficient willpower can overcome any obstacle.

This follows up on my post predicting (guessing) that in 2015 the now-deadlocked climate wars will tilt decisively to one side. Either dramatic weather will spark a change in public opinion (albeit not necessarily changing the opinion of climate scientists) or the public will tire of the alarmists’ confident predictions of future doom which doesn’t happen. Either way the tide will turn on climate change: the political debate.

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Cover of "Turning the Tide On Climate Change" by Robert Kandel
“Turning the Tide On Climate Change” by Robert Kandel (2009). Wikipedia Commons.

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Do scientists play dumb on climate change?

I recommend reading “Playing Dumb on Climate Change“, an op-ed by Naomi Oreskes (Prof history of science at Harvard, co-author of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future), New York Times, 3 January 2015.  It’s standard alarmist fare, of the sort fed to us during the past 25 years. The characteristics of this rhetoric reveal much about public policy debate in our 21st century New America, and points to a likely near-term future of the public policy debate about climate change (Earth’s climate will write the ending).

Excerpt, from the opening and closing:

Scientists have often been accused of exaggerating the threat of climate change, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they ought to be more emphatic about the risk. The year just concluded is about to be declared the hottest one on record, and across the globe climate change is happening faster than scientists predicted.

… Years ago, climate scientists offered an increase of 2°Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as the “safe” limit or ceiling for the long-term warming of the planet. We are now seeing dangerous effects worldwide, even as we approach a rise of only 1°Celsius. The evidence is mounting that scientists have underpredicted the threat.

She doesn’t list the kinds of climate change “happening faster than scientists predicted”.  A wise decision, since most of the predicted forms of client change are not happening (such claims have less force when made only as forecasts). See the details here; also see this by Prof Botkin (Prof Ecology, UC Santa Barbara) and this recent book. The “hottest year on record” label is exciting, but less so with the vital details (lay climate alarmists tend to avoid numbers) — with the atmosphere only a few hundredths of a degree above the previous high, and only in some datasets (not the 2 more accurate satellite datasets).

Are scientists incompetent or irresponsible?

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No exaggeration here! From Scientific America. AZRainman/Flickr
No exaggeration here! From Scientific America. AZRainman/Flickr

Professor Oreskes opens with the explosive charge that scientists underestimate the threat of climate change. She doesn’t elaborate if they do so in their peer-reviewed research, when communicating with the public, or both. The former asserts their incompetence, the latter their irresponsibility.

She draws on a peer-reviewed paper she co-authored: “Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama?” in the February 2013 Global Environmental Change. Even these activists (the one climate scientist among the authors was Chief Scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund) find only a few underestimates of climate change in the IPCC’s vast array of projections (2,744 in AR4).

The evidence they present does not support the title’s conclusion, but rather a more reassuring one.

2.7. Previous analysis:

In 2008, climatologist James Risbey conducted an analysis of qualitative terms used in recent climate change literature, examining the use of potentially alarmist words such as ‘‘catastrophic’’, ‘‘urgent’’, ‘‘irreversible’’, and ‘‘rapid’’ {GEC 2008}. When compared to the scientific claims and observations those terms were used to characterize, he found that their use appeared to be both reasonable and consistent with the current science. Thus, in accordance with the other sources discussed here, Risbey found that current climate change discourse is not unjustifiably alarmist, but rather, where alarmed, it was for good cause.

2.8. Summary: systematic conservativism in climate predictions

The studies we have examined here find no evidence that the IPCC has made exaggerated claims in its climate change predictions; indeed, in many cases IPCC predictions seem to have underestimated actual outcomes.

Still, it is striking that, from the available cases where scientists have done post hoc analyses of prior IPCC projections, a pattern emerges: one of under- rather than over- prediction. Obviously, there are several conceivable explanations for this pattern and probably several different contributing factors in each case; here we propose one that we believe is plausible and may apply more or less broadly, consistent with the results we have discussed, and consistent with what we know about the culture of science, more generally.

It’s quite an odd paper. Roger Pielke Jr (Prof Environmental Studies, U CO-Boulder) reviews the specifics here, confirming that their own analysis shows no exaggeration in the IPCC’s projections AND no bias to conservatism. Perhaps the most important projection by the IPCC is atmospheric warming, which has come in at or below the lower end of the models used by the IPCC. No exaggeration. The authors point to a favorite doomster scenario:

One potentially large, positive feedback involves permafrost melting, which could release increasing amounts of greenhouse gases. … Yet this feedback ‘‘has not been accounted for in any of the IPCC projections’’. This omission introduces a potentially profound bias in the climate projections — not toward overestimation of climate change, but toward its underestimation.

The IPCC’s reports explicitly consider and reject this as a likely scenario; recent data confirms the accuracy of this decision (see details here). No exaggeration.

About the 2° red line for warming

The science literature clearly explains the political nature of this target, a convergence of scientists and politicians working to produce useful public policy guidance. Debate continues about its scientific basis and political utility. Oreskes makes confident assertions, but gives no evidence that we should change this target, let alone about the need for scientists to change their practices with climate change.

Here are examples of the literature showing the origins of the 2° warming target:

  1. The Meaning of the G-8′s ’2 Degrees’ Goal; Adequate? Realistic? Too Vague? A Distraction Maybe?“, John Wihbey, Yale Climate Connections, 4 August 2009
  2. Climate Catastrophe: The Invention of the Two-Degree Target“, Der Spiegel, 1 April 2010
  3. Three views of two degrees“, Carlo C. Jaeger and Julia Jaeger, Regional Environmental Change, March 2011

Should climate scientists lower the standards of statistical significance?

Update: Oreskes advocates weakening the confidence tests used in statistical analysis of climate trends (I believe that’s what she’s doing; her recommendations are unclear). It’s an absurdly complex and technical argument to make in a NYT op-ed except by citing experts, which she does not do.

She also seriously misstates the use of tests for statistical significance. I’ll post other critiques as they appear, but this provides a brief rebuttal: “Playing Dumb on Statistical Significance” by Noah Schachtman, an attorney with long experience on the front lines of this issue as a litigator in the health care field (where the problems with current peer-reviewed research practices first became obvious).

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For More Information

(a)  Reference pages with a wealth of information:

  1. The keys to global warming
  2. Studies & reports, by subject
  3. My posts

(b)  Posts about the pause in surface temperature warming:

  1. Still good news: global temperatures remain stable, at least for now., 14 October 2012 — Scientists analyze the pause
  2. Scientists explore causes of the pause in warming, perhaps the most important research of the decade, 17 January 2014
  3. One of the most important questions we face: when will the pause in global warming end?, 25 August 2013
  4. Possible political effects of the pause in global warming, 26 August 2013

(c)  About extreme weather:

  1. Ignorance and propaganda about extreme climate change, 10 July 2012
  2. A look behind the curtain at the news of extreme climate events in the US, 22 August 2012
  3. Hurricane Sandy asks when did weather become exceptional? (plus important info about US hurricanes), 28 October 2012
  4. Has global warming increased the frequency & virulence of extreme weather events?, 10 February 2013
  5. The Oklahoma tornadoes can teach us about our climate, and ourselves, 22 May 2013
  6. The IPCC gives us straight talk about Extreme Weather, 4 October 2013
  7. The IPCC rebukes the climate doomsters. Will we listen?, 15 October 2013
  8. A summary of the state of climate change and extreme weather, 12 December 2013
  9. Worst case scenarios versus fat tails: a discussion about climate change, 23 April 2014
  10. Everything you wanted to know about California’s drought (except when it will end), 25 November 2014
  11. “Disasters & Climate Change”, an important new book illuminating the debate, 22 November 2014.

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3 thoughts on “Do scientists play dumb on climate change?

    1. Climate Bob,

      “Only in America is climate change a political subject. The rest of the world”

      That’s quite false, on two levels. It’s long been a hot political issue in nations other than the USA — such as Australia, where it was a key issue in this year’s election (see The Economist for details).

      On another level, most of the emerging nations dissent from your opinion on the need to act. They (e.g., China) are willing to sign treaties to control emissions, so long as there are no consequences for failure to act.

      Like

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