Friday, October 21st 2011, 6:56 PM EDT
The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project has released its preliminary findings though not in a research journal but to the scientific community and the general public. Their trumpeted finding is not surprising - the world has gotten warmer in recent decades - or at least the land has. This is consistent with the other global temperature datasets.
A press release issued by the project said, “Global Warming is real,” adding that it can find no evidence of a heat island effect, and that even weather stations considered to be of doubtful quality still show relative warming over the 1950 - 2010 period in question.
Whilst the results are not that surprising, the findings of the research have been used by some to talk about the nature of climate skepticism bearing in mind that the impetus for the Berkeley initiative came from self-avowed skeptical scientists. But the results, and how they have been portrayed, also says something about the nature of today’s environmental reporting. In particular it reveals a narrow focus on trouncing sceptics at the expense of putting the science into its proper context.
The Guardian is notable not for what it says but for what it doesn’t say. The article has far too narrow an outlook, providing no overall context. It does not even mention that the Berkeley researchers themselves say they cannot determine why the world has warmed. It makes no mention that those sceptics who doubt that the earth is warming are few in number, and that there is a widespread and respectable group of scientists who, in peer reviewed journals, debate the relative mix of influencing factors concerning that warming.
The Guardian also allows Jim Hansen to misrepresent scepticism and go unchallenged. He says, “as I have discussed in the past, the deniers, or contrarians, if you will, do not act as scientists, but rather as lawyers….as soon as they see evidence against their client (the fossil fuel industry and those people making money off business-as-usual), they trash that evidence and bring forth whatever tidbits they can find to confuse the judge and jury.” The number of sceptics included in the article is zero.
The Economist (not in my opinion noted for its deep thinking on climate science) article was clearly written by someone unfamiliar with the subject. Like the Guardian it failed to put this research into its proper perspective. Its sceptic count was also zero.
The report in Nature was much better, in my opinion because it actually included comments from the sceptics in that Steve McIntyre said he has found some problems with the Berkeley research. Given Steve’s track record this is something worth noting. The Berkeley team is posting their raw data on the web and no doubt many statistically adroit bloggers will get to work (for me one of the main things to come out of “Climategate” was that professors of climate science were not in the same league as some on the web when it came to statistical analysis.) Nature’s sceptic count is one.
New Scientist did a good job in that they did provide perspective for the research emphasising just how irrelevant was the Berkeley finding to many sceptical questions today. New Scientist sceptic count, three.
But, for me, the worst treatment came from Forbes. This spiteful article says that the scientific community been saying for decades that the earth is warming up? I don’t think so. It goes on;
“Indeed, even most remaining climate change skeptics and deniers have moved away from saying there is no warming. Now, their major talking points are that it isn’t caused by humans, or only a little bit, or it won’t be bad, or we can’t afford to fix it, or… Denial is a moving target.”
This prejudiced, intolerant and inaccurate, article completely misrepresents sceptical views, and is a good example of the problem facing the debate about climate science within and without of the scientific community. We must surely rise above such sour and divisive comments that have no place in scientific discourse. The author is in an old sterile paradigm that is inherently anti-science, and is more of the problem facing progress than some at the extreme end of climate scepticism.
There are very few people who do not believe the world has warmed, in various episodes, since the instrumental record began about 150 years ago. We are today warmer than the Little Ice Age, warmer than the Victorian Era, indeed warmer than the 1970s. The proper question is, of course, why? The Berkeley team have no conclusions about this.
So all the headlines that basically say sceptics have been trounced because the world really is warming are trivial. The Berkeley team confirm what has been found in three other datasets and what “both sides” of the debate already agree on. I could say “so what,” and “is it news?” Well, news is what reporters print.
There are significant questions about the research however. Anthony Watts and Steve McIntyre say they have found some serious issues that will no doubt come out in due course.
The 39,000 or so weather stations cover 29% of the planet and a third of them showed no warming over the 60-year period under consideration, indeed they showed cooling. How does the distribution of these two sub-sets of data compare? One would not expect global warming to be even across the globe (indeed most of it seems to take place in the Arctic) but if the cooling stations were well mixed in with the warming stations geographically then that would be interesting. The Berkeley researchers interpolate temperatures between stations and I wonder if the cooling stations fit into this interpolation? Indeed, perhaps one way to look at the data would be that only a third of weather stations (the difference between the warmers and the coolers) contribute to the final conclusion. To my mind that’s a very different stance from saying that two-thirds of temperature stations show warming.
Other things that emerge from the data is that it confirms that the Nasa Giss dataset is anomalously high with respect to the other datasets especially in the past decade. Thus we should be careful, as I have said previously, about claiming temperature records based on Nasa Giss data alone.
The data also confirm the post-2000 standstill, Nigel Calder has noted this. Looking at the data I do not agree with the study’s lead author that the recent standstill is not present in the data.
The British government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, stressed that the study needed to be peer-reviewed before being factored in to the debate, but that if it was found to be correct, it would conform with US work at NASA and NOAA and that of Phil Jones and his colleagues at the UK Hadley Center-UEA Climatic Research Unit. "This work adds to the evidence about how climate change is happening," he said.
Actually the researchers say they cannot say how global warming is happening just that it is, though one could be charitable and say that Sir John’s comments about how global warming is happening might refer to geospatial data, but refer to my previous comments about that.
Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, director at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, said he hoped that if and when the study was peer reviewed and published, the focus could shift to "the implications for the future of this warming rather than wrangling over whether the warming is really there.”
I hope not. The implications for the future must be framed in the context of our understanding of what is actually going on. That should be the next focus.
But there is something really important in one of the four papers issued by the Berkeley team, and a considerable irony that it has been missed by all reporters and commentators.
If you do something that most of the reporters haven’t done, and usually never do, study the research paper itself (why bother when there is a press release) you will find something remarkable.
"Human Component Overstated"
The findings of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project are important because they emphasise the growing realisation that science has underplayed the unknowns and uncertainties in the attribution of the causes of recent climate change. Without doubt, the data compiled, and the analysis undertaken, by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project is unambiguous evidence that the root causes of global warming are poorly understood.
The researchers find a strong correlation between North Atlantic temperature cycles lasting decades, and the global land surface temperature. They admit that the influence in recent decades of oceanic temperature cycles has been unappreciated and may explain most, if not all, of the global warming that has taken place, stating the possibility that the “human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.”
There is the headline missed by all: Scientists say human component of global warming may be overstated.
Why isn’t it there? It’s just as valid as the headlines used, scientifically more interesting and journalistically light-years better than what has been reported.
The BBC did mention the North Atlantic decadal oscillation aspect of the story saying, “The Berkeley group says it has also found evidence that changing sea temperatures in the north Atlantic may be a major reason why the Earth's average temperature varies globally from year to year.” But it then fails to explain what this means and gets itself into a twist and doesn’t mention the conclusion reached by the Berkeley researchers.
Now, here’s the irony, the Berkeley team are actually sceptics about the matter where the real debate lies - the question of the mix of human and natural contributions to the recent warming. Now why didn’t any of these “reporters” pick up on that?
Why was this nugget missed or ignored? It is because environmental reporters are too obsessed with bashing sceptics, and reading press releases, than in reporting science.
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