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Tell us we're all doomed, MPs beg climate scientists

Is a climate scientist a real scientist?

By Andrew Orlowski, 31 Jan 2014

+Sketch MPs begged scientists to tell them what to do at Westminster this week.

"I like the idea science tells us something, and we have to agree," said John Robertson (Lab, Glasgow North West) - surely a candidate for Quote of the Year in any year. As we shall discover, the MPs of Parliament's Energy and Climate Change Committee were clearly pleading to be released from the job of doing politics. Or were they just begging to be saved from themselves?

Robertson was speaking at the select committee's enquiry into the into the IPCC's latest climate report. This saw MPs quizzing the British representatives on the IPCC process - for which you ultimately pick up the bill - as well as leading scientific critics.

If we outline the context, you will begin to see the problem with Robertson's plea.

Even when the science is as "certain" as it can possibly be, a range of policy choices are available. These must be presented to us, and decided democratically.

For example, imagine it was discovered that a large meteorite would strike Earth this year on the 1 September. Scientists could predict the precise moment of impact, and models would make a reasonable prediction of the consequences. In this hypothetical situation, the science is as certain as it can be. But politicians would still need to present us with choices: move to higher ground? Take the rest of the year off? Build underground bunkers for the elite?

Politicians have to be creative and accountable, no matter how "certain" they think the science may be.

In climate change, however, the political class has deferred the choices to the scientists to make - and this means taking the choice away from us. Politicians want a strong, simple story of "certainty". As one British civil servant wrote to a leading climate scientist in 2009:

I can’t overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell their story. They want the story to be a very strong one and don’t want to be made to look foolish.

In other words, scientists were being asked to perform a propaganda function, while the politicians retained the luxury of passing the buck. Some scientists eagerly stepped up to the propaganda role - yet the task made other scientists queasy. One climate boffin, Peter Thorne, privately fretted the same year:

“The science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run."

Yet another climate scientist another admitted the "evidence" the politicians were demanding simply wasn't up to snuff, writing: "It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.”

That was written five years ago. Today, it's a different picture. The international treaty process collapsed in Copenhagen in 2009, because China, India, the BRICs and African nations need cheap fossil fuels to raise their billions out of agrarian poverty.

After 17 years of plateauing temperatures (the "hiatus") the climate models look as if they may substantially overestimate the impact of atmospheric CO2. The public's interest in climate change has diminished, outside a tiny section of the middle class – the fretters and worrywarts whose livelihoods depend on The Cause. The cost-of-living impact of climate mitigation policies, imposed to subsidise extremely expensive energy from renewables, is already beginning to be felt, and will cost ordinary households thousands of pounds in the next decade - for very small reductions in carbon emissions.

The majority aren't angry climate sceptics. They are "So What?"-ers. "So what if humans cause the climate to change?"; "It isn't it likely to be catastrophic here, we're likely to cope, so what?" and "So what if it gets a degree or two warmer - I prefer a warmer climate."

These are reasonable things to say.

MPs therefore had the perfect opportunity to reassess their junkie-like dependence on their hand-picked IPCC scientists. But they decided to hold onto Nurse for now - for fear of something worse. The establishment scientists, less surprisingly, appeared keen to maintain their influence on the policy being made. The unwritten pact between the scientific elite and the political elite which appoints them will go on for a little longer.

Here's how an enthralling session unfolded.

The Uncertainty Elephant

The session assembled three figures from the British climate establishment and three with a less apocalyptic view of global warming. Batting for the establishment were Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University, Dr Peter Stott of the Met Office and Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London - one of two facilities created by grants from billionaire Malthusian Jeremy Grantham. They were followed by atmospheric physicist Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT, independent scientist Nic Lewis, and Donna Lamframboise, a journalist and critic of the IPCC.

MPs heard how closely the bureaucratic establishment and scientists are yoked. The IPCC is an intergovermental process, with governments having the final say on the report, and politicians and bureaucrats are able to rewrite the final draft of "the science" to their taste. Since it's all very laborious and time consuming (and unpaid work for the scientists) it's governments who hand-pick the scientists and pick up their expenses.

Lindzen, who made key contributions to modern climate theory, was a lead author for the third assessment report in 2001 but later dropped out.

"Climate science is virtually a government monopoly," Lindzen told the MPs.

The elephant in the room was "natural variability" - how much the climate changes on its own. Both Lewis and Lindzen attribute a portion of climate change to human factors, but it's a lower number than the establishment science range. Lindzen tried to explain that the temperature hiatus really ought cause some soul-searching amongst the establishment's climate modellers.

"The longer this goes on the harder it will be to support a high climate sensitivity. It wasn't predicted," said Lindzen.

Lewis' own work concludes that CO2 has an impact on the climate - just one that's lower than the scientific establishment's most likely impact. It takes more accurate recent observational estimates of aerosols into account. He told MPs that the IPCC's estimate of greenhouse gas climate sensitivity - the climate system's response to an increase in (mainly) CO2 - is about three times higher than it should be.

"This indicates the models are not to be relied on."

As he explains in his lucid written evidence for the enquiry (written for a layman with a basic grasp of maths) and reminded MPs, Lewis uses a different application of Bayesian maths.

"Most of the studies, but not all of them, use a Subjective Bayesian approach. Some use an Objective Bayesian approach, and some use non-Bayesian statistics. The Objective and non-Bayesian studies give very much the same answer. The Subjectives produces results depending on what you put in, as the Uniform Prior you choose bumps up the higher end," said Lewis.

Some use an Expert Prior using older observational data, "and that has dominated their results."

"Their studies are not statistically sound,” he added. “I don't think there is the statistical expertise in Bayesian theory in climate science that there ought to be."

How come the IPCC hadn't based its conclusions on the most recent data, asked Peter Lilley MP (Con, Hitchin & Harpenden).

"By the time they realised the observations and models disagreed - so much of the report is built around model simulations - they couldn't really write conclusions that say the models were wrong," said Lewis.

Lindzen argued that the models failed to model accurately.

"No models at present do an acceptable job on decadal oscillations, or multidecadal oscillations, and there may be longer periods we don't know about."

MPs asked if it was possible to believe the models if ECS (equilibrium climate sensitivity) was closer to Lewis' estimate than to the IPCC estimates.

"Is it possible to play it down and still be worried by anthropogenic global warming?" asked one MP.

”Not really,” said Lewis.

Models are evidence?

Earlier on Stott, Hoskins and Allen gave a "steady as she goes" summary of climate models.

"We have a greater wealth of evidence now, and better observations," said Stott - so their own confidence in themselves had increased.

Nonetheless, Hoskins and Allen allowed themselves a little more wiggle room.

"Climate uncertainty should wobble", said Allen.

"The system has become more complex [since when?], so uncertainty could increase," warned Hoskins.

Allen said we shouldn't pay any attention to ECS because TCR (or "Transient Climate Response"), the estimate derived from the ECQ estimate, was actually more significant.

But what about the pause?

“We are first and foremost scientists – our decisions are based on the science, not politics," said Stott.

But Allen made clear what the politicians in the room should be doing. Uncertainty shouldn't cause too much reflection or change policy, he stressed.

"There's general agreement on the science now," he insisted, "there's disagreement on the actions … The IPCC gives a range, if we can accept that and move forward - it's just about agreed, we don't know all the details, let's move on the next stage to what do about it."

To support the "Full Steam Ahead" position, Allen cited a paper co-authored by his favourite climate scientist - himself. At the low end of the IPCC range we have to reduce CO2 by 1.4 per cent a year - at the high end by 2.2 per cent a year.

"In both cases we have to reduce by a challenging amount. The remaining uncertainty has little effect on policy design," he said. Allen was telling MPs there was only policy - CO2 emission reduction.

Lindzen demurred. The UK's carbon dioxide emissions are so small as a proportion of global carbon dioxide emissions, that even stabbing itself repeatedly would have almost no effect on the climate – but a large effect on the person being stabbed.

"I think there would be no disagreement here that whatever the UK is deciding to do vis a vis climate, will have no impact on climate. But it will have a profound impact on your economy. You're taking a decision on something which might not be a problem, taking actions you know will have consequences - so you can feel you've done the right thing."

"That's negative," huffed Robertson, MP for some of the poorest voters in the UK (Glasgow NW) - those most affected by renewable energy policies and higher household bills. Perhaps he imagines China and India will follow suit - and his constituents will rise up as one and thank him? It would be nice to put this to test.

Stott, of the Met Office, said the models made projections over many decades - and so couldn't be expected to predict a "hiatus".

Are models evidence, in the empirical, scientific sense of the word? Hoskins made them sound oracular. The climate models were producing "a body of knowledge" and "many people all around the world are interrogating that data".

Hoskins said something interesting. MP Graham Stringer (Lab) asked why, if the Earth had survived periods of higher atmospheric levels of CO2 before, did the scientists think the climate was now unstable?

"We weren't around with our socio-economic activity in those times," Hoskins replied. "Yes, the Earth has been through those but we weren't there."

Stringer looked puzzled - perhaps because Hoskins implied that the wealthier we were, and the greater our capacity to withstand environmental extremes ... the more vulnerable we were to those extremes.

"The number of extremes have [sic] exposed our vulnerability to our environment. Our society is hoping the environment will keep within these bounds. Any movement outside those bounds is something that would put huge stresses our society," said Hoskins.

Yeo lets rip

The sparks really flew when the committee chairman Tim Yeo, visibly peeved by the sceptical three, tore into Professor Lindzen. First, Yeo could not compute the possibility that if the last decade was "the warmest on record", then there could have been any pause, plateau or hiatus in global warming. Lindzen must therefore be a liar. Three times Yeo pressed Lindzen on this and three times Lindzen attempted to explain.

"If you take a 16-year average (then) global warming is continuing. In the past 16 years in their own right, it isn't continuing. If you say that we're at the peak and temperature has levelled off, that level is still at the level of the highest temperature. It's perfectly clear what each of these statements means."

Yeo responded:

"It seems to me the evidence that we've had the hottest decade on record is evidence of global warming - not that global warming has stopped."

"Nobody is saying that!" Lindzen protested.

Nor could Yeo allow the possibility that humans might cause some global warming, but not catastrophic global warming. It had to be apocalyptic.

"You're saying we have a higher concentration of CO2 but it has no effect on the climate?" Yeo asked.

"Theoretically, it has, and I think it should," Lindzen replied. "But that's not the same as a saying it's the major factor. It's not the same as saying there's catastrophe round the corner."

Lindzen tried to point out that doing nothing might actually be the correct course of action.

"When [economist] Nordhaus estimates the cost/benefit analysis of various policies, there's not one policy that beats doing nothing for fifty years."

Why?

"Because the other policies wouldn't have done much to avoid it. That's easy to show."

Other than Stringer and Lilley though, there wasn't a politician on the Energy Committee who would dare to be seen to be "doing nothing".

While the public says "So What?", the show rolls on. ®

Bootnote

Lindzen made a fascinating aside that may distress some readers.

"When you were at university were the people studying meteorology or oceanography the brightest?" he asked. Maths and physics seemed to attract the most intellectually able, Lindzen observed.

Yeo saw an opportunity and leaped into the attack again. Was Lindzen suggesting, he fumed, that people involved in climate science with backgrounds in (say) oceanography were somehow intellectually inferior?

"Oh yeah," responded Lindzen. "The brightest went into physics and maths. Now that has ceased. The brightest might go into business … Your statement although it makes people a little queasy - 'my field is not as strong as your field' - is obviously true."

His point was that there aren't enough experts in the world to feed the voracious IPCC machine.

"What I'm getting at is, when you're dealing with the IPCC, is it's manpower intensive. You heard someone mention that 58 per cent of participants are new participants. I know from my group that lots who have participated once have decided not to participate again. That's not a bad thing per se, but in a small field where you have to keep finding people when there aren't any … The world just doesn't have that many 'leading climate scientists'. So we're inventing something."

["Climate scientists" come from many academic backgrounds. Some were originally trained as biologists, some were zoologists, some studied geography. There are plenty of actual physicists who know hard sums active in the field, however. - Ed]

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