Spot the Outlier

Thanks to reader MM for pointing out John Nielsen-Gammon’s latest posting at the Houston Chronicle site. It is very much worth a read if you are interested in climate or in Texas. (It happens that I am obsessed with both, as readers probably know.)

I’ll steal just one of the stunning graphics as a teaser:

Climate change is now, folks, and this is what it looks like.

Will Texas revert to its normal, already quite variable, range? Well, yeah, probably. Will it ever be too wet again? I wouldn’t be surprised. (Remind me to talk about why I believe that year over year climate variability is going to increase almost everywhere. I really don’t think most people are thinking about this right. Take note of 2004 and 2007 over on the right side of the figure, for instance.)

But will there be another year like this next year? That’s up to the tropical Pacific of all places. Another La Nina year (as some ENSO models predict) might just do us a lot of damage if it pans out the way this one did. Two years in a row like this one would cause permanent environmental damage to Texas. It’s hard to imagine many unwatered trees left alive anywhere from El Paso to Texarkana if that happens.

And it’s far from clear that the infrastructure would hold up either.

The Truth About the Truth About Greenhouse Gases


I’ve been asked to comment on William Happer’s “The Truth about Greenhouse Gases“, and finding no competent discussion of it anywhere on the first three pages of hits have agreed to take it on.

To give you an idea of the tenor of the document, it starts off modestly, like this:

“The object of the Author in the following pages has been to collect the

most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been

excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to

show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and

gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes,” wrote Charles

Mackay in the preface to the first edition of his Extraordinary Popular

Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I want to discuss a contemporary

moral epidemic: the notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations

of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous

consequences for mankind and for the planet. This contemporary

“climate crusade” has much in common with the medieval crusades

Mackay describes, with true believers, opportunists, cynics, money-hungry

governments, manipulators of various types, and even children’s


Yes, Happer, who holds a named chair in physics at Princeton, is of the paranoiac school of skepticism, the one that would rather believe in a grand conspiracy than to consider for a minute the possible need for collective action on this matter.

After this blistering start, he takes some time to get warmed up. A few pages go on about how plants like CO2 and CO2 is necessary for life, so we shouldn’t call it a pollutant until we start suffocating. This, before taking on the climate question, is plainly putting the cart before the horse, but it takes up a few pages. And by now we are convinced that the reason the fellow is not getting around to making a point is that he hasn’t got one.

That is to say, William/Belette/Stoat’s point is basically the right approach:

So the question is, how can Happer not be aware of this? He is not obliged to agree with the IPCC report, but he cannot but realise that it is the authoritative voice of the position he disagrees with; he is obliged to at least know what it says and (if he is being honest) he is obliged to report (and then, if he can, refute) its arguments. It is dishonest of him to substitute strawmen.

I summarize the case at greater length than William does:

  • Most of the constituent gases of the atmosphere are transparent at the frequencies of the earth’s thermal radiation.
  • Most of the opacity in the infrared (“greenhouse effect”) is due to carbon dioxide and water vapor, and clouds (liquid and solid water emulsions) which of course are also opaque to incoming radiation
  • Human activity directly increases carbon dioxide, mostly due to fossil fuel consumption, but also through deforestation and chemical processes related to manufacture of cement. Human activity also affects the radiative properties of the atmosphere via a few other trace greenhouse gases, and via increases in aerosol dust.
  • Finally, human interference in surface processes over land can have large regional effects.
  • As these perturbations increase in rough proportion to economic activity, the carbon dioxide comes to dominate over time because of its long residency in atmosphere-upper-ocean-land system. Though exchanges among these reservoirs is large, that does not reduce the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere. To a first approximation, carbon is removed on the time scale of the deep overturning of the ocean, on the order of a thousand years.
  • While of course the sun is by far the dominant energy source for the system, its variability is small (measured in energy) compared to the disruptions due to greenhouse gases and aerosols. Climate forcing is dominated by anthropogenic effects, of which warming is expected to increasingly dominate.
  • Water vapor feedbacks are well characterized and are known to approximately double the temperature sensitivity of the system. Cloud feedbacks, which potentially might be ameliorating or exacerbating, remain poorly characterized.
  • Various forms of evidence are in rough agreement that sensitivity is on the order of 2.5 degrees per doubling, but the uncertainty has proven stubborn. Probably this is correct within a multiplicative factor of 2, i.e., almost certainly between 1.25 C and 5 C per doubling.
  • Simulation of the atmosphere (using GCMs) is a useful tool within science, but its results should not at present be considered as reliable projections of the future, even given emission scenarios. Simulations are tuned to the present day, be expected to understate risks and fail to represent unprecedented configurations of the climate system.
  • Very little is known about the potential geochemical feedbacks which clearly exacerbated the glacial cycle in the geologically recent past. These could potentially greatly amplify the dangers without actually affecting the sensitivity as usually measured. It is expected and hoped that these feedbacks would take a long time on human scales to appear, but we may be committing future generations to deal with them.

I think all the above is uncontroversial. Happer addresses none of it. What does he come up with instead?

At the bottom of page four we come to the first mention of climate, and we are well into the fifth page before the famous physicist manages to construct the following argument:

The argument starts something like this. CO2 levels have increased from

about 270 ppm to 390 ppm over the past 150 years or so, and the earth

has warmed by about 0.8 C during that time. Therefore the warming is

due to CO2. But correlation is not causation. The local rooster crows every

morning at sunrise, but that does not mean the rooster caused the sun to

rise. The sun will still rise on Monday if you decide to have the rooster for

Sunday dinner.

There have been many warmings and coolings in the past when the CO2

levels did not change.

Yes, after five pages he leads with a version of the “dinosaurs had no SUVs, QED” argument!

What’s more , he defends it with the “wine exported from Greenland” meme. I myself am responsible for tracking this one down to an archaeologust who showed that wine was imported into Greenland. A horse of a different color, you’ll admit.

So by the time we reach page five we have four pages of waffling, a stunningly weak fallacy, and an incorrect anecdote raised in support of it. Hardly an auspicious start.

Bah. My bad. It was wine “exported from England”. I jumped to a conclusion because the whole Greenlandic wine incident tickles me so. I have found lots of evidence, by the way, that wine was produced in the south of England in the middle ages for local consumption, but so far no evidence of any export. But that’s a quibble.

But it’s all in service of a ludicrous claim. Nobody has ever said that CO2 is the ONLY influence on global climate. This is a childish bit of misdirection, not befitting a scientist.

En passant, it’s worth noticing, Happer manages this howler:

Yet there are strident calls for immediately stopping further increases in

CO2 levels and reducing the current level (with 1990 levels the arbitrary


There are no such strident calls. Everybody knows that CO2 will continue to rise for some considerable time. It is emission levels that form the arbitrary benchmark. Again, the whole reason that CO2 is the key to anthropogenic forcing is that concentrations are approximately cumulative, that the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere/upper-ocean/land-surface system is very long.


another rationale for reducing CO2 is now promoted: to

stop the hypothetical increase of extreme climate events like hurricanes

or tornados. But dispassionate data show that the frequency of extreme

events has hardly changed and in some cases has decreased in the 150

years that it has taken CO2 levels to increase from 270 ppm to 390 ppm.

Hurricanes and tornados have very noisy statistics with components at interannual time scales. There is also contention about the theoretical expectations, particularly regarind hurricanes. It will be some considerable time before we have much confidence in what the trend is.

But do we have theoretical and modeling reasons to expect increased floods and increased droughts in the greenhouse-enhanced world, and here the record is strongly supportive of those expectations. Happer carefully tiptoes around this evidence.

But these records show that changes

in temperature preceded changes in CO2 levels, so that CO2 levels were

an effect of temperature changes. Much of this was probably due to

outgassing of CO2 from the warming oceans or the reverse on cooling.

That the effect goes one way does not preclude it from going the other way. That, in fact, is what “feedback” means. There remains much for the scientific community to learn about the glacial cycles of the geologically recent past. But we are certain that it cannot be explained without the greenhouse effect. The energetics do not add up otherwise. Accounting for the CO2 brings temperatures back into balanace.

During the “Younger Dryas” some 12,000 years ago,

the earth very dramatically cooled and warmed — as much 10 C in fifty

years — with no apparent change in CO2 levels, and with life — including

our human ancestors — surviving the rapid change in temperature just


Um. No. The 10C in fifty years was the temperature shift in Greenland. Most life was not affected by it.

Our present global

warming is not at all unusual by the standards of geological history,

No, though it is unusual in human history. But this is not the point. The anticipated rate of CO2 increases, especially in the absence of a globally supported mitigation policy, are unprecedented in geological history (with the possible exception of the disastrous K-T PETM transition which nearly wiped out all ocean life, probably in a burst of ocean acidification). And the rate and duration of the incipient CO2 spike lead to a strong expectation of a very large shift in temperature to be anticipated over the coming century.

The organization charged with producing scientific support for

the climate crusade, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

(IPCC), finally found a solution. They rewrote the climate history of the

past 1000 years with the celebrated “hockey stick” temperature record

This is tendentious nonsense. Research advanced. The graph in the 1990 report was a rough schematic.

[M & M] showed that the hockey stick was not supported by observational data.

They nitpicked. The millenial preindustrial data remains unexciting. The evidence for a global Medieval Warm Period remains marginal and roughly irrelevant. And its removal has negligible impact on any serious estimation of the prospects. It’s really not in any way significant whether or not these events occurred. It would merely be incorrect to claim that they are in the global record, though to be sure regional changes did occur on this time scale.

One of the most consistent themes of the e-mails is the need to hide raw data from anyone outside the team. Why the obsession on withholding data? Because the hockey stick lost credibility when it was possible to see the raw, unmanipulated data on which it was based.

This, I am sorry to say, is not just vicious but quite wrong. The reticence is based on a distaste for cooperating with people who had shown themselves to be rude and malicious. There is a long story here with raw feelings on both sides, but one side of it starts with a desire to avoid what was perceived as unpleasant people and time-wasting interactions. But the general outlines of the hockey stick remain. Numerous independent procedural investigations have concluded that no data was altered or misrepresented, and numerous scientific investigations have confirmed the general outline of the result, albeit some with a bumpier “shaft” to the hockey stick, a perfectly ordinary point of research contention.

But finally we come to the central myth of post “Climateg*te” bunk:

Peer review in climate science means that the ”team” recommends publication of each other’s work, and tries to keep any off-message paper from being accepted for publication. Why this obsession with cleansing the “scientific” literature of any opposing views? Because it allows climate extremists to claim that they represent all of science and anyone who questions their message is at war with all of science, except for a few “flat-earthers”, “deniers,” or others scorned with carefully researched epithets, designed to discredit dissenting scientific opinion

This is simply begging the question. If there is in fact legitimate scientific argument that the consensus position is wrong, then it is wrong for people to keep these positions out of the literature. But if the so-called skeptic papers are garbage, scientific flat-earthism, it is the legitimate function of editors to keep them out of the literature and out of the literature review.

This can only be addressed by actually looking at the science, which Happer refuses to do. He simply repeats the usual political talking points, trying to justify doing so by his position and his reputation. But his reputation is as a physicist, not as a politician. He does himself and us no favors by repeating shabby talking points from the political press.

It goes on. Shabby attacks on the models:

John von Neumann once said, “With four

parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle

his trunk.” Climate models have dozens of parameters, not unlike the

epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy.

Yes, but with dozens of parameters, climate models simulate systems with millions of degrees of freedom at the implementation level, and at least thousands at the physical level. This can only be possible with an actual underlying physical model. It cannot be a coincidence.

No model predicted the lack of net warming of the

earth’s temperature that we have experienced over the past ten years

Well, we don’t have a date on this publication, or I didn;t find one at least. For a brief moment in 2008-9 one could actually make this case without being blatantly dishonest, but of course even so it is just cherry-picking. In other words, it is at best a truth of a mendacious sort. As has been explained many times, there is unforced interannual variability which can mask the trend over relatively short time intervals. If Happer had any genuine interest in the material, he would know this. And indeed, a later paragraph shows that he does understand how this works, yet he repeats the flawed argument in the very next breath.

All of the proposed controls that would

have such a significant impact on the world’s economic future are based

on computer models that are so complex and chaotic that many runs

are needed before we can get an “average” answer. Yet the models

have failed the simple scientific test of prediction.

etc. etc.

The last several pages are reduced to conspiracy-mongering of the worst kind and make no pretense to engaging the science at all. As with Dyson, the points of actual substance are few, incoherent, and ill-informed. But at least Dyson manages an air of decency and humility. Happer is blazing with anger and contempt, without showing any signs of having listened to the people he is criticizing.

It’s true that the intellectual style of earth science is different from that of pure physics. But it’s not as if Happer were remotely as intellectually lazy as this empty attack would indicate. Politics seems able to override reason. This is a pile of political talking points, not any sort of engagement with the evidence. It’s a shame.

Climate science could well do with competent criticism. It increasingly appears that serious concerns about the science must be impossible, because all the critiques are so spectacularly non-serious.

pic: William Happer from his lab’s website

Stray Thoughts as Montreal Loses Power to Irene

My sub-Arctic hometown took some damage from my wife’s tropical storm namesake. Sort of odd from my point of view but probably not worth your attention. However, I did think a conversation from the comments to that report was worth noting:

What sickens me is how every time there is a storm thousands (in the U.S. MILLIONS) go without power because stupid utility companies hang wires on poles. Hello people…wires on poles are NOT weatherproof, haven’t you noticed by now?

B.C. is full of trees, as is Québec and every storm brings tree branches (or ice) taking power lines out. Canadians are suckers to put up with this nonsense in a climate like ours, yet they just string up more wires and down they come again next storm.

For your information, Europeans put their utility power lines underground, and have been doing so since electrical power became available in Victorian times, but Canada continues to copy the U.S. and other third world Latin American countries in trying to “make do” with wires on poles.

When are we going to say “enough is enough” and force these power companies to start burying wires? How many deaths and blacked out neighbourhoods are acceptable to power companies before they start doing something? How come Europe can do it and we can’t?”


You’re right.

We just had our roads torn up for a whole summer in my neighbourhood and they wouldn’t bury the lines. Lines, I might add, that have shredded insulation covers that are rotting and falling onto the sidewalks because they are very OLD.

Why? Because Bell and Hydro didn’t want to pay for it. Yet they come twice a year with a crew of at least two guys to trim the trees all along the street. Every year. I wonder how much that costs.

And we were an area hit hard by the ice storm years back.

Par for the course for corporations as well as governments.

It’s not only stupid and dangerous, it’s ugly and demoralizing. Why do we do this?

I think it’s because of the constant barrage of propaganda in North America that the collective will is powerless to change anything. (Anything set up by the collective will in the past is treated as if it were mysteriously handed down from heaven as if on stone tablets.)

Of course, this idea is spreading in Europe as well. It seems to be leaving them in something of a quandary. If worse comes to worst and economic havoc ensues, in America Obama will be blamed for it, of course.

Austin Plugged by a 44.

Austin got plugged by a 44 today. Celsius that is. Hottest damn day of my life. And tied for the hottest ever in Austin. But apparently they didn’t cancel the hot sauce festival in Waterloo Park.

Here are a couple of tastes of Texas shotgun lyrics for Steve Bloom, who picked up on the Texas resonances of the number.

And though it looks like hell warmed over around here these days, there’s this:

A concern

Quoth NOAA:



OK, that’s bad enough because power goes as the square of velocity (and damage as the cube, or something like that).

But as I ponder it this seems even scarier than that. If the storm is still symmetrical when it hits Manhattan, I could imagine that there could be enough tall structures to set up turbulence that could mix momentum back downward. Is this crazy? Suppose a sustained 60 mph wind over Manhattan heading north to south. It hits midtown hurricane force winds at 30 stories start mixing up with all the artificial canyons and crevasses and mix down?

What are the maximum sustained winds independent of altitude? How high up are they?

Will the streets of Manhattan be covered in glass tomorrow? Are highrise buildings unsafe under these conditions?

I hope not. I love New York. But I’m not sure this situation has any precedent.

Thanks to Joe Romm

Thanks to Joe Romm for displaying my schematic of the distribution of informed opinion from the podium at the Schneider symposium during his excellent (scary) talk.

I can’t repay the favor in any comparable proportion but let me at least display my favorite slide from his talk.

We need to talk about what the infamous “deficit model” means. Does it mean there’s not enough science for people to act? If it does, I agree with the critics. We don’t need more journal publications, more text, more explanations, per se.

Does the “deficit model” mean that people don’t understand the science well enough to make decisions? If it does, then hell yes. I support the deficit model that says, obviously people don’t get it.

So we need to talk about the science. Not about peak oil. Not about solar power. About climate. About ocean acidification. About how uncertainty is not your friend.

Let’s talk about science to the people who need to hear it. And if and when they don’t hear us, (and many of them won’t) let’s do it again.

Anything less amounts to holding the world and its future in contempt. Science is about the best evidence about the truth. Politics and journalism are about winning and losing. Alliances and rivalries make sense. But about the emergence of truth there should be no rivalry. Science can hold us together and move us forward. Contention is necessary, but contention is only useful when it is based on a shared respect for truth among the contenders.

Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty

It’s peculiar that Judith Curry is criticizing the IPCC and climate community for understressing uncertainty. It’s something one can imagine from the Wattses and McIntyres with their narrow focus on data, but it’s incomprehensible from a member of the community.

It’s hard to avoid this thought popping up as I watch the Schneider Symposium; probably over half the speakers have talked at length about uncertainty, and how to treat it in interfacing with the public and the policy sector. This includes a few high level IPCC muckety-muck types.
An interesting aspect that several have agreed upon is that the word “uncertainty” carries unfortunate semiotics; the public perceives “uncertainty” as meaning “confusion”. A comment from the audience, after much talk about how to communicate the range of plausible outcomes, noted that the new draft AMS statement on climate change eschews the word “uncertainty” entirely, even though the prior statement used it many times. I was astonished to hear this greeted by general applause and enthusiasm!
I heard one speaker suggest turning it upside-down and talking about “certainty” as a quantitative measure, which makes little sense. The right word to use is “confidence“, which in fact means exactly the same thing as “uncertainty” technically, despite appearing as its exact opposite in informal speech!
But the idea that this isn’t something the community struggles with is nonsensical.
Turning the word upside-down to call the “uncertainty range” the “confidence interval” may not help the basic battle against agnotology. The forces of confusion keep insisting that action is counterindicated because uncertainty is broad. As I’ve always said, this is complete nonsense. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the need for a vigorous response. It’s palpable but unstated in most of the sessions. People look at the uncertainties and are mostly concerned about cataclysms, not about false negatives. Schneider was quoted explicitly making the case that a false negative is far more dangerous than a false positive in this matter.
But it’s a matter which is easy to distort. And so, those inclined to inaction stress uncertainty. This is odd enough. But then they criticize a community that is plainly obsessed with uncertainty of ignoring it!
We can use the actuarial concept of risk very nicely. Risk is cost-weighted probability. The risk spectrum in the climate matter is dominated by worst cases, not by best cases. And that is why uncertainty is not your friend. And if you advocate inaction, it is not your ally.


There is a heat wave in Europe, and in particular, Florence has reported its highest temperature ever.
Austin has surpassed its maximum number of 100 degree days and is still counting.
The highest dewpoint in the history of Minnesota has been reported.
And there’s this: