Global warming's most dangerous apostate speaks out about the state of climate change science
Barack Obama conceded over the weekend that no successor to the Kyoto Protocol would be signed in Copenhagen next month. With that out of the way, it may be too much to hope that the climate change movement take a moment to reflect on the state of the science that is supposedly driving us toward a carbon-neutral future.
But should a moment for self-reflection arise, campaigners against climate change could do worse than take a look at the work of Stephen McIntyre, who has emerged as one of the climate change gang's Most Dangerous Apostates. The reason for this distinction? He checked the facts.
The retired Canadian businessman, whose self-described "auditing" a few years ago prompted a Congressional review of climate science, has once again thrown EnviroLand into a tailspin. In September, he revealed that a famous graph using tree rings to show unprecedented 20th century warming relies on thin data. Since its publication in 2000, University of East Anglia professor Keith Briffa's much-celebrated image has made star appearances everywhere from U.N. policy papers to activists' posters. Like other so-called "hockey stick" temperature graphs, it's an easy sell—one look and it seems Gadzooks! We're burning ourselves up!
"It was the belle of the ball," Mr. McIntyre told me on a recent phone call from Ontario. "Its dance card was full."
At least until Mr. McIntyre reported that the modern portion of that graph, which shows temperatures appearing to skyrocket in the last 100 years, relies on just 12 tree cores in Russia's Yamal region. When Mr. McIntyre presented a second graph, adding data from 34 tree cores from a nearby site, the temperature spike disappears.
Mr. Briffa denounces Mr. McIntyre's work as "demonstrably biased" because it uses "a narrower area and range of sample sites." He says he and his colleagues have now built a new chronology using still more data. Here, as in similar graphs by other researchers, the spike soars once again. Mr. McIntyre's "work has little implication for our published work or any other work that uses it," Mr. Briffa concludes.
He and his colleagues may well ignore Mr. McIntyre, but the rest of us shouldn't. While Mr. McIntyre's image may use data from fewer sites, it still has nearly three times as many tree cores representing the modern era as Mr. Briffa's original.
Yet Mr. McIntyre is first to admit his work is no bullet aimed at the heart of the theory of man-made climate change. Rather, his work—chronicled in papers co-written with environmental economist Ross McKitrick and more than 7,000 posts on his Climateaudit.org Weblog—does something much more important: It illustrates the uncertainty of a science presented as so infallible as to justify huge new taxes on rich countries along with bribes to poor ones in order to halt their fossil-fueled climbs to prosperity. Mr. McIntyre offers what many in the field do not: rigor.
It all started in 2002 when—as many might given the time and Mr. McIntyre's mathematics background—he decided to verify for himself the case for action on climate change.
"It was like a big crossword puzzle," he told me. "Business was a bit slow at the time, so I started reading up."
Prior to the Briffa graph revelation, he had also caught a statistical error that undercut another exalted "hockey stick" graph prominently featured by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, this one by Michael Mann, head of Pennsylvania State University's Earth System Science Center. Alerts about review boards' seemingly lax standards litter his blog, highlighting in particular the IPCC, which has used both the Mann and Briffa graphs in its reports. In 2007, Mr. McIntyre found a technical gaffe that forced NASA to correct itself and admit that 1934, not 1998, was the warmest year recorded in the continental U.S.
"At the beginning I innocently assumed there would be due diligence for all this stuff. … So often my mouth would drop, when I realized no one had really looked into it."
Even more innocently, he assumed the billion-dollar climate change industry would welcome his untrained but painstaking work. Instead, Mr. McIntyre is subjected to every kind of venom—that he must be funded by Big Oil, by Big Business, by Some Texan Somewhere. For the record, the 62-year-old declares himself "past my best-by date, operating on my own nickel."
James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute, has dismissed him as a "court jester." Mr. Mann replied to an emailed query about Mr. McIntyre by decrying "every specious contrarian claim and innuendo against me, my colleagues, and the science of climate change itself."
Others are more thick-skinned: "You mention his name in my community, people just smile. It's a one-liner to get a laugh out of a group of climate scientists," affirms Stanford University's Stephen Schneider.
One wonders what is so funny, when it is not only the Canadian hobbyist fueling skepticism, but also figures from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center that now show thickening Arctic ice; from the U.K. Met (Meteorological) Office showing falling temperatures that contradict modeling predictions; and other studies that suggest natural factors in climate change are being dramatically underestimated.
Climatologists say they will only take Mr. McIntyre seriously if he creates his own temperature reconstructions and submits them for peer review. But the best science should stand up even to outside scrutiny. And if Mr. McIntyre has a credibility problem with climatologists, climatologists' predictions are increasingly viewed skeptically by the public.
A Pew report last month revealed that the number of Americans who believe humans are causing climate change has dropped 11 percentage points in the last 18 months to 36%; that the number who feel there is solid evidence that the earth is warming has fallen by 14 points to 57%; and that those who think the issue is "very serious" has sunk nine points to 35%.
Mr. McIntyre declares no interest in debunking The Theory in toto, nor in discouraging efficient energy use. His blog will disappoint those seeking anything more political than technical analyses.
In fairness, researchers are far from the loudest voices telling "skeptics" like Mr. McIntyre to sit down, shut up and surrender their lightbulbs without further question—that megaphone belongs to the politicians and activists pushing centrally-planned economies in the name of saving the Earth. Here, we see that contempt for laymen is not universal: Al Gore's ignorance is happily overlooked given his power to push billions in research funding. The same goes for Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio, and everyone else declaring "the debate is over."
I asked 10 climatologists what they thought was the most reliable method of predicting climate, and got nearly as many answers. People in the field compare climate studies to health studies—another complex mechanism with uncontrollable factors, where best practices will always be debated.
Climate researchers know their prescriptions don't carry the certainty laymen assume from that which is labeled "science," yet most shy from a straightforward account of this uncertainty.
"Methods certainly need to be continually refined and improved. I doubt that anyone in the paleoclimate community would disagree with that," says Rob Wilson of the University of St. Andrews's School of Geography and Geosciences. "However, can the nuances of methodological developments be communicated to the laymen—and would they want to know? I do not think this would help."
Maybe not, but letting people feel duped by hyperbole is proving even more harmful to the warmers' cause.
"I never said I was proving or disproving anything…. I just don't think we should be thanking the people who make it harder to find out what's true," Mr. McIntyre says.
The climate establishment will probably never thank Mr. McIntyre, much less follow his example. The rest of us should do both.
Miss Jolis is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.